19. And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent Priests
and Levites to Jerusalem, to ask him, Who art thou?
20. And he confessed, and denied not; he confessed, I say, I am
not the Christ.
21. They then asked him, What art thou then? Art thou Elijah? And
he said, I am not. Art thou a Prophet? And he answered, No.
22. They said therefore to him, Who art thou, that we may give an
answer to those who sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?
23. He saith, I am the voice of him who crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah.
19. And this is the testimony. Hitherto the Evangelist has related
the preaching of John about Christ; he now comes down to a more illustrious
testimony, which was delivered to the ambassadors of the Priests, that
they might convey it to Jerusalem. He says, therefore, that John openly
confessed for what purpose he was sent by God. The first inquiry here is,
for what purpose the Priests put questions to him. It is generally believed
that, out of hatred to Christ, they gave to John an honor which did not
belong to him; but this could not be the reason, for Christ was not yet
known to them. Others say that they were better pleased with John, because
he was of the lineage and order of the priesthood; but neither do I think
that this is probable; for since they expected from Christ all prosperity,
why did they voluntarily contrive a false Christ? I think, therefore, that
there was another reason that induced them. It was now a long time since
they had the Prophets; John came suddenly and contrary to expectation;
and the minds of all were aroused to expect the Messiah. Besides, all entertained
the belief that the coining of the Messiah was at hand.
That they may not appear to be careless about their duty, if they neglect
or disguise a matter of so great importance, they ask John, Who art thou?
At first, therefore, they did not act from malice, but, on the contrary,
actuated by the desire of redemption, they wish to know if John be the
Christ, because he begins to change the order which had been customary
in the Church. And yet I do not deny that ambition, and a wish to retain
their authority, had some influence over them; but nothing certainly was
farther from their intention than to transfer the honor of Christ to another.
Nor is their conduct in this matter inconsistent with the office which
they sustain; for since they held the government of the Church of God,
it was their duty to take care that no one rashly obtruded himself, that
no founder of a new sect should arise, that the unity of faith should not
be broken in the Church, and that none should introduce new and foreign
ceremonies. It is evident, therefore, that a report about John was widely
spread and aroused the minds of all; and this was arranged by the wonderful
Providence of God, that this testimony might be more strikingly complete.
20. And he confessed, and denied not. That is, he confessed openly,
and without any ambiguity or hypocrisy. The word confess, in the first
instance, means generally, that he stated the fact as it really was. In
the second instance, it is repeated in order to express the form of the
confession. He replied expressly, that he was not the Christ.
21. Art thou Elijah? Why do they name Elijah rather than Moses?
It was because they learned from the prediction of Malachi 4:2, 5, that
when the Messiah, the Sun of Righteousness, should arise, Elijah would
be the morning star to announce his approach. But the question is founded
on a false opinion which they had long held; for, holding the opinion that
the soul of a man departs out of one body into another, when the Prophet
Malachi announced that Elijah would be sent, they imagined that the same
Elijah, who lived under the reign of king Ahab, (1 Kings 17:1,) was to
come. It is therefore a just and true reply which John makes, that he is
not Elijah; for he speaks according to the opinion which they attached
to the words; but Christ, giving the true interpretation of the Prophet,
affirms that John is Elijah, (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:13.)
Art thou a Prophet? Erasmus gives an inaccurate explanation of
these words by limiting them to Christ; for the addition of the article
(oJ profh>thv, the prophet) carries no emphasis in this passage; and the
messengers afterwards declare plainly enough, that they meant a different
prophet from Christ; for they sum up the whole: by saying, (verse 25,)
if thou art neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a Prophet. Thus we see
that they intended to point out different persons. Others think that they
inquired if he was one of the ancient prophets; but neither do I approve
of that exposition. Rather do they by this term point out the office of
John, and ask if God had appointed him to be a prophet. When he replies,
I am not, he does not for the sake of modesty tell a lie, but honestly
and sincerely detaches himself from the company of the prophets. And yet
this reply is not inconsistent with the honorable attestation which Christ
gives him. Christ bestows on John the designation of prophet, and even
adds that he is more than a prophet, (Matthew 11:9;) but by these words
he does nothing more than demand credit and authority for his doctrine,
and at the same time describes, in lofty terms, the excellence of the office
which had been conferred on him. But in this passage John has a different
object in view, which is, to show that he has no special message, as was
usually the case with the prophets, but that he was merely appointed to
be the herald of Christ.
This will be made still more clear by a comparison. All ambassadors
ó even those who are not sent on matters of great importance ó obtain the
name and authority of ambassadors, because they hold special commissions.
Such were all the Prophets who, having been enjoined to deliver certain
predictions, discharged the prophetic office. But if some weighty matter
come to be transacted, and if two ambassadors are sent, one of whom announces
the speedy arrival of another who possesses full power to transact the
whole matter, and if this latter has received injunctions to bring it to
a conclusion, will not the former embassy be reckoned a part and appendage
of the latter, which is the principal? Such was the case with John the
Baptist, to whom God had given no other injunction than to prepare the
Jews for listening to Christ, and becoming his disciples. That this is
the meaning, will still more fully appear from the context; for we must
investigate the opposite clause, which immediately follows. I am not a
prophet, says he, but a voice crying in the wilderness. The distinction
lies in this, that the voice crying, that a way may be prepared for the
Lord, is not a prophet, but merely a subordinate minister, so to speak;
and his doctrine is only a sort of preparation for listening to another
Teacher. In this way John, though he is more excellent than all the prophets,
still is not a prophet.
23. The voice of him who crieth. As he would have been chargeable
with rashness in undertaking the office of teaching, if he had not received
a commission, he shows what was the duty which he had to perform, and proves
it by a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah 60:3. Hence it follows that he
does nothing but what God commanded him to do. Isaiah does not, indeed,
speak there of John alone, but, promising the restoration of the Church,
he predicts that there will yet be heard joyful voices, commanding to prepare
the way for the Lord. Though he points out the coming of God, when he brought
back the people from their captivity in Babylon, yet the true accomplishment
was the manifestation of Christ in flesh. Among the heralds who announced
that the Lord was at hand, John held the chief place.
To enter into ingenious inquiries, as some have done, into the meaning
of the word Voice, would be frivolous. John is called a Voice, because
he was enjoined to cry. It is in a figurative sense, undoubtedly, that
Isaiah gives the name wilderness to the miserable desolation of the Church,
which seemed to preclude the return of the people; as if he had said, that
a passage would indeed be opened up for the captive people, but that the
Lord would find a road through regions in which there was no road. But
that visible wilderness, in which John preached, was a figure or image
of the awful desolation which took away all hope of deliverance. If this
comparison be considered, it will be easily seen that no torture has been
given to the words of the prophet in this application of them; for God
arranged everything in such a manner, as to place before the eyes of his
people, who were overwhelmed with their calamities, a mirror of this prediction.
24. Now those who were sent were of the Pharisees.
25. Therefore they asked him, and said to him, Why then dost thou
baptize, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a Prophet?
26. John answered them, saying, I baptize with water; but one standeth
in the midst of you, whom you know not.
27. It is he who, coming after me, is preferred to me; whose shoe-latchet
I am not worthy to loose.
28. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John
24. Were of the Pharisees. He says that they were Pharisees,
who at that time held the highest rank in the Church; and he says so in
order to inform us, that they were not some contemptible persons of the
order of the Levites, but men clothed with authority. This is the reason
why they raise a question about his baptism. Ordinary ministers would have
been satisfied with any kind of answer; but those men, because they cannot
draw from John what they desired, accuse him of rashness for venturing
to introduce a new religious observance.
25. Why then dost thou baptize? By laying down those three degrees,
they appear to form a very conclusive argument: if thou art not the Christ,
nor Elijah, nor a prophet; for it does not belong to every man to institute
the practice of baptism. The Messiah was to be one who possessed all authority.
Of Elijah who was to come, they had formed this opinion, that he would
commence the restoration both of the royal authority and of the Church.
The prophets of God, they readily grant, have a right to discharge the
office committed to them. They conclude, therefore, that for John to baptize
is an unlawful novelty, since he has received from God no public station.
But they are wrong in not acknowledging him to be that Elijah who is mentioned
by Malachi 4:5; though he denies that he is that Elijah of whom they foolishly
26. I baptize with water. This ought to have been abundantly
sufficient for the correction of their mistake, but a reproof otherwise
clear is of no advantage to the deaf; for, when he sends them to Christ,
and declares that Christ is present, this is a clear proof not only that
he was divinely appointed to be a minister of Christ, but that he is the
true Elijah, who is sent to testify that the time is come for the renovation
of the Church. There is a contrast here which is not fully stated; for
the spiritual baptism of Christ is not expressly contrasted with the external
baptism of John, but that latter clause about the baptism of the Spirit
might easily be supplied, and shortly afterwards both are set down by the
This answer may be reduced to two heads: first, that John claims nothing
for himself but what he has a right to claim, because he has Christ for
the Author of his baptism, in which consists the truth of the sign; and,
secondly, that he has nothing but the administration of the outward sign,
while the whole power and efficacy is in the hands of Christ alone. Thus
he defends his baptism so far as its truth depends on anything else; but,
at the same time, by declaring that he has not the power of the Spirit,
he exalts the dignity of Christ, that the eyes of men may be fixed on him
alone. This is the highest and best regulated moderation, when a minister
borrows from Christ whatever authority he claims for himself, in such a
manner as to trace it to him, ascribing to him alone all that he possesses.
It is a foolish mistake, however, into which some people have been led,
of supposing that Johnís baptism was different from ours; for John does
not argue here about the advantage and usefulness of his baptism, but merely
compares his own person with the person of Christ. In like manner, if we
were inquiring, at the present day, what part belongs to us, and what belongs
to Christ, in baptism, we must acknowledge that Christ alone performs what
baptism figuratively represents, and that we have nothing beyond the bare
administration of the sign. There is a twofold way of speaking in Scripture
about the sacraments; for sometimes it tells us that they are the laver
of regeneration, (Titus 3:5;) that by them our sins are washed away, (1
Peter 3:21;) that we
are in-grafted into the body of Christ, that our old man is crucified,
and that we rise again to newness of life, (Romans 6:4, 5, 6;)
and, in those cases, Scripture joins the power of Christ with the ministry
of man; as, indeed, man is nothing else than the hand of Christ. Such modes
of expression show, not what man can of himself accomplish, but what Christ
performs by man, and by the sign, as his instruments. But as there is a
strong tendency to fall into superstition, and as men, through the pride
which is natural to them, take from God the honor due to him, and basely
appropriate it to themselves; so Scripture, in order to restrain this blasphemous
arrogance, sometimes distinguishes ministers from Christ, as in this passage,
that we may learn that ministers are nothing and can do nothing.
One standeth in the midst of you. He indirectly charges them with stupidity,
in not knowing Christ, to whom their minds ought to have been earnestly
directed; and he always insists earnestly on this point, that nothing can
be known about his ministry, until men have come to him who is the Author
of it. When he says that Christ standeth in the midst of, them, it is that
he may excite their desire and their exertion to know him. The amount of
what he says is, that he wishes to place himself as low as possible, lest
any degree of honor improperly bestowed on him might obscure the excellence
of Christ. It is probable that he had these sentences frequently in his
mouth, when he saw himself immoderately extolled by the perverse opinions
27. Who coming after me. Here he says two things; first, that
Christ was behind him in the order of time; but, secondly, that he was
far before him in rank and dignity, because the rather preferred him to
all. Soon after he will add a third statement, that Christ was preferred
to all others, because he is in reality more exalted than all others.
28. These things were done in Bethabara. The place is mentioned,
not only to authenticate the narrative, but also to inform us that this
answer was given amidst a numerous assembly of people; for there were many
who flocked to Johnís baptism, and this was his ordinary place for baptizing.
It is likewise supposed by some to be a passage across Jordan, and, from
this circumstance, they derive the name, for they interpret it the house
of passage; unless, perhaps, some may prefer the opinion of those who refer
to the memorable passage of the people, (Joshua 3:13,) when God opened
up a way for them in the midst of the waters, under the direction of Joshua.
Others say that it ought rather to be read Betharaba. Instead of Bethabara,
some have inserted here the name Bethany, but this is a mistake; for we
shall afterwards see how near Bethany was to Jerusalem. The situation of
Bethabara, as laid down by those who have described the country, agrees
best with the words of the Evangelist; though I have no wish to dispute
about the pronunciation of the word.
29. The next day, John seeth Jesus coming to him, and saith, Behold
the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!
29. The next day. There can be no doubt that John had already
spoken about the manifestation of the Messiah; but when Christ began to
appear, he wished that his announcement of him should quickly become known,
and the time was now at hand when Christ would put an end to Johnís ministry,
as, when the sun is risen, the dawn suddenly disappears. After having testified
to the priests who were sent to him, that he from whom they ought to seek
the truth and power of baptism was already present, and was conversing
in the midst of the people, the next day he pointed him out to the view
of all. For these two acts, following each other in close succession, must
have powerfully affected their minds. This too is the reason why Christ
appeared in the presence of John.
Behold the Lamb of God. The principal office of Christ is briefly but
clearly stated; that he takes away the sins of the world by the sacrifice
of his death, and reconciles men to God. There are other favors, indeed,
which Christ bestows upon us, but this is the chief favor, and the rest
depend on it; that, by appeasing the wrath of God, he makes us to be reckoned
holy and righteous. For from this source flow all the streams of blessings,
that, by not imputing our sins, he receives us into favor. Accordingly,
John, in order to conduct us to Christ, commences with the gratuitous forgiveness
of sins which we obtain through him.
By the word Lamb he alludes to the ancient sacrifices of the Law. He
had to do with Jews who, having been accustomed to sacrifices, could not
be instructed about atonement for sins in any other way than by holding
out to them a sacrifice. As there were various kinds of them, he makes
one, by a figure of speech, to stand for the whole; and it is probable
that John alluded to the paschal lamb. It must be observed, in general,
that John employed this mode of expression, which was better adapted to
instruct the Jews, and possessed greater force; as in our own day, in consequence
of baptism being generally practiced, we understand better what is meant
by obtaining forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, when we are
told that we are washed and cleansed by it from our pollutions. At the
same time, as the Jews commonly held superstitious notions about sacrifices,
he corrects this fault in passing, by reminding them of the object to which
all the sacrifices were directed. It was a very wicked abuse of the institution
of sacrifice, that they had their confidence fixed on the outward signs;
and therefore John, holding out Christ, testifies that he is the Lamb of
God; by which he means that all the sacrifices, which the Jews were accustomed
to offer under the Law, had no power whatever to atone for sins, but that
they were only figures, the truth of which was manifested in Christ himself.
Who taketh away the sin of the world. He uses the word sin in the singular
number, for any kind of iniquity; as if he had said, that every kind of
unrighteousness which alienates men from God is taken away by Christ. And
when he says, the sin Of The World, he extends this favor indiscriminately
to the whole human race; that the Jews might not think that he had been
sent to them alone. But hence we infer that the whole world is involved
in the same condemnation; and that as all men without exception are guilty
of unrighteousness before God, they need to be reconciled to him. John
the Baptist, therefore, by speaking generally of the sin of the world,
intended to impress upon us the conviction of our own misery, and to exhort
us to seek the remedy. Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is
offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing
to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he
comes to him by the guidance of faith.
Besides, he lays down but one method of taking away sins. We know that
from the beginning of the world, when their own consciences held them convinced,
men labored anxiously to procure forgiveness. Hence the vast number of
propitiatory offerings, by which they falsely imagined that they appeased
God. I own, indeed, that all the spurious rites of a propitiatory nature
drew their existence from a holy origin, which was, that God had appointed
the sacrifices which directed men to Christ; but yet every man contrived
for himself his own method of appeasing God. But John leads us back to
Christ alone, and informs us that there is no other way in which God is
reconciled to us than through his agency, because he alone takes away sin.
He therefore leaves no other refuge for sinners than to flee to Christ;
by which he overturns all satisfactions, and purifications, and redemptions,
that are invented by men; as, indeed, they are nothing else than base inventions
framed by the subtlety of the devil.
The verb ai]rein (to take away) may be explained in two ways; either
that Christ took upon himself the load which weighed us down, as it is
said that he carried our sins on the tree, (1 Peter 2:24;) and Isaiah says
the chastisement of our peace was laid on him, (Isaiah 53:5;)
or that he blots out sins. But as the latter statement depends on the
former, I gladly embrace both; namely, that Christ, by bearing our sins,
takes them away. Although, therefore, sin continually dwells in us, yet
there is none in the judgment of God, because when it has been annulled
by the grace of Christ, it is not imputed to us. Nor do I dislike the remark
of Chrysostom, that the verb in the present tense ó oJ ai]rwn, who taketh
away, denotes a continued act; for the satisfaction which Christ once made
is always in full vigor. But he does not merely teach us that Christ takes
away sin, but points out also the method, namely, that he hath reconciled
the Father to us by means of his death; for this is what he means by the
word Lamb. Let us therefore learn that we become reconciled to God by the
grace of Christ, if we go straight to his death, and when we believe that
he who was nailed to the cross is the only propitiatory sacrifice, by which
all our guilt is removed.