Calvin's Commentary on the Bible
1.In the beginning was the Speech. In this introduction he asserts the eternal Divinity of Christ, in order to inform us that he is the eternal God, who was manifested in the flesh, (1 Timothy 3:16.) The design is, to show it to have been necessary that the restoration of mankind should be accomplished by the Son of God, since by his power all things were created, since he alone breathes into all the creatures life and energy, so that they remain in their condition; and since in man himself he has given a remarkable display both of his power and of his grace, and even subsequently to the fall of man has not ceased to show liberality and kindness towards his posterity. And this doctrine is highly necessary to be known; for since apart from God we ought not at all to seek life and salvation, how could our faith rest on Christ, if we did not know with certainty what is here taught? By these words, therefore, the Evangelist assures us that we do not withdraw from the only and eternal God, when we believe in Christ, and likewise that life is now restored to the dead through the kindness of him who was the source and cause of life, when the nature of man was still uncorrupted.
As to the Evangelist calling the Son of God the Speech, the simple reason appears to me to be, first, because he is the eternal Wisdom and Will of God; and, secondly, because he is the lively image of His purpose; for, as Speech is said to be among men the image of the mind, so it is not inappropriate to apply this to God, and to say that He reveals himself to us by his Speech. The other significations of the Greek word λόγος (Logos) do not apply so well. It means, no doubt, definition, and reasoning, and calculation; but I am unwilling to carry the abstruseness of philosophy beyond the measure of my faith. And we perceive that the Spirit of God is so far from approving of such subtleties that, in prattling with us, by his very silence he cries aloud with what sobriety we ought to handle such lofty mysteries.
Now as God, in creating the world, revealed himself by that Speech, so he formerly had him concealed with himself, so that there is a twofold relation; the former to God, and the latter to men. Servetus, a haughty scoundrel belonging to the Spanish nation, invents the statement, that this eternal Speech began to exist at that time when he was displayed in the creation of the world, as if he did not exist before his power was made known by external operation. Very differently does the Evangelist teach in this passage; for he does not ascribe to the Speech a beginning of time, but says that he was from the beginning, and thus rises beyond all ages. I am fully aware how this dog barks against us, and what cavils were formerly raised by the Arians, namely, that
in the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,
which nevertheless are not eternal, because the word beginning refers to order, instead of denoting eternity. But the Evangelist meets this calumny when he says,
And the Speech was with God. If the Speech began to be at some time, they must find out some succession of time in God; and undoubtedly by this clause John intended to distinguish him from all created things. For many questions might arise, Where was this Speech ? How did he exert his power? What was his nature? How might he be known? The Evangelist, therefore, declares that we must not confine our views to the world and to created things; for he was always united to God, before the world existed. Now when men date the beginning from the origin of heaven and earth, do they not reduce Christ to the common order of the world, from which he is excluded in express terms by this passage? By this proceeding they offer an egregious insult not only to the Son of God, but to his eternal Father, whom they deprive of his wisdom. If we are not at liberty to conceive of God without his wisdom, it must be acknowledged that we ought not to seek the origin of the Speech any where else than in the Eternal Wisdom of God.
Servetus objects that the Speech cannot be admitted to have existed any earlier than when Moses introduces God as speaking. As if he did not subsist in God, because he was not publicly made known: that is, as if he did not exist within, until he began to appear without. But every pretense for outrageously absurd fancies of this description is cut off by the Evangelist, when he affirms without reservation, that the Speech was with God; for he expressly withdraws us from every moment of time.
Those who infer from the imperfect tense of the verb (9) which is here used, that it denotes continued existence, have little strength of argument to support them. Was, they say, is a word more fitted to express the idea of uninterrupted succession, than if John had said, Has been. But on matters so weighty we ought to employ more solid arguments; and, indeed, the argument which I have brought forward ought to be reckoned by us sufficient; namely, that the Evangelist sends us to the eternal secrets of God, that we may there learn that the Speech was, as it were hidden, before he revealed himself in the external structure of the world. Justly, therefore, does Augustine remark, that this beginning, which is now mentioned, has no beginning; for though, in the order of nature, the Father came before his Wisdom, yet those who conceive of any point of time when he went before his Wisdom, deprive Him of his glory. And this is the eternal generation, which, during a period of infinite extent before the foundation of the world, lay hid in God, so to speak — which, for a long succession of years, was obscurely shadowed out to the Fathers under the Law, and at length was more fully manifested in flesh.
I wonder what induced the Latins to render ὁ λόγος by Verbum, (the Word;) for that would rather have been the translation of τὸ ῥη̑μα. But granting that they had some plausible reason, still it cannot be denied that Sermo (the Speech) would have been far more appropriate. Hence it is evident, what barbarous tyranny was exercised by the theologians of the Sorbonne, (10) who teased and stormed at Erasmus in such a manner, because he had changed a single word for the better.
And the Speech was with God. We have already said that the Son of God is thus placed above the world and above all the creatures, and is declared to have existed before all ages. But at the same time this mode of expression attributes to him a distinct personality from the Father; for it would have been absurd in the Evangelist to say that the Speech was always with God, if he had not some kind of subsistence peculiar to himself in God. This passage serves, therefore, to refute the error of Sabellius; for it shows that the Son is distinct from the Father. I have already remarked that we ought to be sober in thinking, and modest in speaking, about such high mysteries. And yet the ancient writers of the Church were excusable, when, finding that they could not in any other way maintain sound and pure doctrine in opposition to the perplexed and ambiguous phraseology of the heretics, they were compelled to invent some words, which after all had no other meaning than what is taught in the Scriptures. They said that there are three Hypostases, or Subsistences, or Persons, in the one and simple essence of God. The word; ὑπόστασις (Hypostasis) occurs in this sense in Hebrews 1:3, to which corresponds the Latin word Substaatia, (substance) as it is employed by Hilary. The Persons ( τὰ πρόσωπα) were called by them distinct properties in God, which present themselves to the view of our minds; as Gregory Nazianzen says, “I cannot think of the One (God) without having the Three (Persons) shining around me. (11)
And the Speech was God. That there may be no remaining doubt as to Christ’s divine essence, the Evangelist distinctly asserts that he is God. Now since there is but one God, it follows that Christ is of the same essence with the Father, and yet that, in some respect, he is distinct from the Father. But of the second clause we have already spoken. As to the unity of the divine essence, Arius showed prodigious wickedness, when, to avoid being compelled to acknowledge the eternal Divinity of Christ, he prattled about I know not what imaginary Deity; (12) but for our part, when we are informed that the Speech was God, what right have we any longer to call in question his eternal essence?
2.He was in the beginning. In order to impress more deeply on our minds what had been already said, the Evangelist condenses the two preceding clauses into a brief summary, that the Speech always was, and that he was with God; so that it may be understood that the beginning was before all time.
3.All things were made by him. Having affirmed that the Speech is God, and having asserted his eternal essence, he now proves his Divinity from his works. And this is the practical knowledge, to which we ought to be chiefly accustomed; for the mere name of God attributed to Christ will affect us little, if our faith do not feel it to be such by experience. In reference to the Son of God, he makes an assertion which strictly and properly applies to his person. Sometimes, indeed, Paul simply declares that all things are by God, (Romans 11:36) but whenever the Son is compared with the Father, he is usually distinguished by this mark. Accordingly, the ordinary mode of expression is here employed, that the Father made all things by the Son, and that all things are by God through the Son. Now the design of the Evangelist is, as I have already said, to show that no sooner was the world created than the Speech of God came forth into external operation; for having formerly been incomprehensible in his essence, he then became publicly known by the effect of his power. There are some, indeed, even among philosophers, who make God to be the Master-builder of the world in such a manner as to ascribe to him intelligence in framing this work. So far they are in the right, for they agree with Scripture; but as they immediately fly off into frivolous speculations, there is no reason why we should eagerly desire to have their testimonies; but, on the contrary, we ought to be satisfied with this inspired declaration, well knowing that it conveys far more than our mind is able to comprehend.
And without him was not any thing made that was made. Though there is a variety of readings in this passage, yet for my own part, I have no hesitation in taking it continuously thus: not any thing was made that was made; and in this almost all the Greek manuscripts, or at least those of them which are most approved, are found to agree; besides, the sense requires it. Those who separate the words, which was made, from the preceding clause, so as to connect them with the following one, bring out a forced sense: what was made was in him life; that is, lived, or was sustained in life. (13) But they will never show that this mode of expression is, in any instance, applied to creatures. Augustine, who is excessively addicted to the philosophy of Plato, is carried along, according to custom, to the doctrine of ideas; that before God made the world, he had the form of the whole building conceived in his mind; and so the life of those things which did not yet exist was in Christ, because the creation of the world was appointed in him. But how widely different this is From the intention of the Evangelist we shall immediately see.
I now return to the former clause. This is not a faulty redundancy, ( περιττολογία) as it appears to be; for as Satan endeavors, by every possible method, to take any thing from Christ, the Evangelist intended to declare expressly, that of those things which have been made there is no exception whatever.
4.In him was life. Hitherto he has taught us, that by the Speech of God all things were created. He now attributes to him, in the same manner, the preservation of those things which had been created, as if he had said, that in the creation of the world there was not merely displayed a sudden exercise of his power, which soon passed away, but that it is manifested in the steady and regular order of nature, as he is said to uphold all things by the word or will of his power, (Hebrews 1:3). This life may be extended either to inanimate creatures, (which live after their own manner, though they are devoid of feeling,) or may be explained in reference to living creatures alone. It is of little consequence which you choose; for the simple meaning is, that the Speech of God was not only the source of life to all the creatures, so that those which were not began to be, but that his life -giving power causes them to remain in their condition; for were it not that his continued inspiration gives vigor to the world, every thing that lives would immediately decay, or be reduced to nothing. In a word, what Paul ascribes to God, that in him we are, and move, and live, (Acts 17:28,) John declares to be accomplished by the gracious agency ofthe Speech; so that it is God who gives us life, but it is by the eternal Speech
The life was the light of men. The other interpretations, which do not accord with the meaning of the Evangelist, I intentionally pass by. He speaks here, in my opinion, of that part of life in which men excel other animals; and informs us that the life which was bestowed on men was not of an ordinary description, but was united to the light of understanding. He separates man from the rank of other creatures; because we perceive more readily the power of God by feeling it in us than by beholding it at a distance. Thus Paul charges us not to seek God at a distance, because he makes himself to be felt within us, (Acts 17:27.) After having presented a general exhibition of the kindness of Christ, in order to induce men to take a nearer view of it, he points out what has been bestowed peculiarly on themselves; namely, that they were not created like the beasts, but having been endued with reason, they had obtained a higher rank. As it is not in vain that God imparts his light to their minds, it follows that the purpose for which they were created was, that they might acknowledge Him who is the Author of so excellent a blessing. And since this light, of which the Speech was the source, has been conveyed from him to us, it ought to serve as a mirror, in which we may clearly behold the divine power ofthe Speech
5.And the light shineth in darkness. It might be objected, that the passages of Scripture in which men are called blind are so numerous and that the blindness for which they are condemned is but too well known. For in all their reasoning faculties they miserably fail. How comes it that there are so many labyrinths of errors in the world, but because men, by their own guidance, are led only to vanity and lies? But if no light appears in men, that testimony of the divinity of Christ, which the Evangelist lately mentioned, is destroyed; for that is the third step, as I have said, that in the life of men there is something more excellent than motion and breathing. The Evangelist anticipates this question, and first of all lays down this caution, that the light which was originally bestowed on men must not be estimated by their present condition; because in this corrupted and degenerate nature light has been turned into darkness. And yet he affirms that the light of understanding is not wholly extinguished; for, amidst the thick darkness of the human mind, some remaining sparks of the brightness still shine.
My readers now understand that this sentence contains two clauses; for he says that men are now widely distant from that perfectly holy nature with which they were originally endued; because their understanding, which ought to have shed light in every direction, has been plunged in darkness, and is wretchedly blinded; and that thus the glory of Christ may be said to be darkened amidst this corruption of nature. But, on the other hand, the Evangelist maintains that, in the midst of the darkness: , there are still some remains of light, which show in some degree the divine power of Christ. The Evangelist admits, therefore, that the mind of man is blinded; so that it may justly be pronounced to be covered with darkness. For he might have used a milder term, and might have said that the light is dark or cloudy; but he chose to state more distinctly how wretched our condition has become since the fall of the first man. The statement that the light shineth in darkness is not at all intended for the commendation of depraved nature, but rather for taking away every excuse for ignorance.
And the darkness did not comprehend it. Although by that small measure of light which still remains in us, the Son of God has always invited men to himself, yet the Evangelist says that this was attended by no advantage, because seeing, they did not see, (Matthew 13:13.) For since man lost the favor of God, his mind is so completely overwhelmed by the thralldom of ignorance, that any portion of light which remains in it is quenched and useless. This is daily proved by experience; for all who are not regenerated by the Spirit of God possess some reason, and this is an undeniable proof that man was made not only to breathe, but to have understanding. But by that guidance of their reason they do not come to God, and do not even approach to him; so that all their understanding is nothing else than mere vanity. Hence it follows that there is no hope of the salvation of men, unless God grant new aid; for though the Son of God sheds his light upon them, they are so dull that they do not comprehend whence that light proceeds, but are carried away by foolish and wicked imaginations to absolute madness.
The light which still dwells in corrupt nature consists chiefly of two parts; for, first, all men naturally possess some seed of religion; and, secondly, the distinction between good and evil is engraven on their consciences. But what are the fruits that ultimately spring from it, except that religion degenerates into a thousand monsters of superstition, and conscience perverts every decision, so as to confound vice with virtue? In short, natural reason never will direct men to Christ; and as to their being endued with prudence for regulating their lives, or born to cultivate the liberal arts and sciences, all this passes away without yielding any advantage.
It ought to be understood that the Evangelist speaks of natural gifts only, and does not as yet say any thing about the grace of regeneration. For there are two distinct powers which belong to the Son of God: the first, which is manifested in the structure of the world and the order of nature; and the second, by which he renews and restores fallen nature. As he is the eternal Speech of God, by him the world was made; by his power all things continue to possess the life which they once received; man especially was endued with an extraordinary gift of understanding; and though by his revolt he lost the light of understanding, yet he still sees and understands, so that what he naturally possesses from the grace of the Son of God is not entirely destroyed. But since by his stupidity and perverseness he darkens the light which still dwells in him, it remains that a new office be undertaken by the Son of God, the office of Mediator, to renew, by the Spirit of regeneration, man who had been ruined. Those persons, therefore, reason absurdly and inconclusively, who refer this light, which the Evangelist mentions, to the gospel and the doctrine of salvation.
6.There was a man. The Evangelist now begins to discourse about the manner in which the Son of God was manifested in flesh; and that none may doubt that Christ is the eternal Son of God, he relates that Christ was announced by John the Baptist, as his herald. For not only did Christ exhibit himself to be seen by men, but he chose also to be made known by the testimony and doctrine of John; or rather, God the Father sent this witness before his Christ, that they might more willingly receive the salvation offered by him.
But it might at first sight appear ridiculous that Christ should receive testimony from another, as if he needed it; while, on the contrary, he declares that he does not seek testimony from man, (John 5:34.) The answer is easy and obvious, that this witness was appointed, not for the sake of Christ, but for our sake. If it be objected that the testimony of man is too weak to prove that Christ is the Son of God, it is likewise easy to reply, that the Baptist is not adduced as a private witness, but as one who, having received authority from God, sustained the character rather of an angel than of a man. Accordingly, he receives commendation not for his own virtues, but for this single circumstance, that he was the ambassador of God. Nor is this at variance with the fact, that the preaching of the gospel was committed to Christ, that he might be a witness to himself; for the design contemplated by the preaching of John was, that men might attend to the doctrine and miracles of Christ.
Sent by God. He does not say so for the purpose of confirming the baptism of John, but only mentions it in passing. This circumstance is not sufficient to produce certainty, since many run of their own accord, and boast that God has sent them; but the Evangelist, intending afterwards to speak more fully about this witness, reckoned it enough, for the present, to say in a single word, that John did not come but by the command of God. We shall afterwards see how he himself affirms that God is the Author of his ministry. We must now recollect — what I formerly noticed — that what is asserted about John is required in all the teachers of the Church, that they be called by God; so that the authority of teaching may not be founded on any other than on God alone.
Whose name was John. He states the name, not only for the purpose of pointing out the man, but because it was given to him in accordance with what he really was. There is no room to doubt that the Lord had reference to the office to which he appointed John, when he commanded by the angel that he should be so called, that by means of it all might acknowledge him to be the herald of divine grace. (16) For though the name יהוחנן (17) (Jehohannan) may be taken in a passive signification, and may thus be referred to the person, as denoting that John was acceptable to God; yet for my own part, I willingly extend it to the benefit which others ought to derive from him. (18)
7. He came for a testimony. The end of his calling is briefly noticed; which was, that he might prepare a Church for Christ, as, by inviting all to Christ, he shows plainly enough that he did not come on his own account.
8. He was not that light. So far was John from needing commendation, that the Evangelist gives this warning, lest his excessive brightness might obscure the glory of Christ. For there were some who gazed so eagerly upon him that they neglected Christ; just as if a person, enraptured with beholding the dawning of the day, would not deign to turn his eyes towards the sun. In what sense the Evangelist employs the word light we shall immediately see. All the godly, indeed, are light in the Lord, (Ephesians 5:8,) because, in consequence of their being enlightened by his Spirit, they not only see for themselves, but likewise direct others by their example to the way of salvation. The apostles likewise are peculiarly called light, (Matthew 5:14,) because they go before, holding out the torch of the Gospel, to dispel the darkness of the world. But here the Evangelist speaks of him who is the only and eternal source of illumination, as he immediately shows more clearly.
9.The true light was. The Evangelist did not intend to contrast the true light with the false, but to distinguish Christ from all others, that none might imagine that what is called light belongs to him in common with angels or men. The distinction is, that whatever is luminous in heaven and in earth borrows its splendor from some other object; but Christ is the light, shining from itself and by itself, and enlightening the whole world by its radiance; so that no other source or cause of splendor is anywhere to be found. He gave the name of the true light, therefore, to that which has by nature the power of giving light
Which enlighteneth every man. The Evangelist insists chiefly on this point, in order to show, from the effect which every one of us perceives in him, that Christ is the light. He might have reasoned more ingeniously, that Christ, as the eternal light, has a splendor which is natural, and not brought from any other quarter; but instead of doing so, he sends us back to the experience which we all possess. For as Christ makes us all partakers of his brightness, it must be acknowledged that to him alone belongs strictly this honor of being called light
This passage is commonly explained in two ways. Some restrict the phrase, every man, to those who, having been renewed by the Spirit of God, become partakers of the life-giving light. Augustine employs the comparison of a schoolmaster who, if he happen to be the only person who has a school in the town, will be called the teacher of all, though there be many persons that do not go to his school. They therefore understand the phrase in a comparative sense, that all are enlightened by Christ, because no man can boast of having obtained the light of life in any other way than by his grace. But since the Evangelist employs the general phrase, every man that cometh into the world, I am more inclined to adopt the other meaning, which is, that from this light the rays are diffused over all mankind, as I have already said. For we know that men have this peculiar excellence which raises them above other animals, that they are endued with reason and intelligence, and that they carry the distinction between right and wrong engraven on their conscience. There is no man, therefore, whom some perception of the eternal light does not reach.
But as there are fanatics who rashly strain and torture this passage, so as to infer from it that the grace of illumination is equally offered to all, let us remember that the only subject here treated is the common light of nature, which is far inferior to faith; for never will any man, by all the acuteness and sagacity of his own mind, penetrate into the kingdom of God. It is the Spirit of God alone who opens the gate of heaven to the elect. Next, let us remember that the light of reason which God implanted in men has been so obscured by sin, that amidst the thick darkness, and shocking ignorance, and gulf of errors, there are hardly a few shining sparks that are not utterly extinguished.
10.He was in the world. He accuses men of ingratitude, because of their own accord, as it were, they were so blinded, that the cause of the light which they enjoyed was unknown to them. This extends to every age of the world; for before Christ was manifested in the flesh, his power was everywhere displayed; and therefore those daily effects ought to correct the stupidity of men. What can be more unreasonable than to draw water from a running stream, and never to think of the fountain from which that stream flows? It follows that no proper excuse can be found for the ignorance of the world in not knowing Christ, before he was manifested in the flesh; for it arose from the indolence and wicked stupidity of those who had opportunities of seeing Him always present by his power. The whole may be summed up by saying, that never was Christ in such a manner absent from the world, but that men, aroused by his rays, ought to have raised their eyes towards him. Hence it follows, that the blame must be imputed to themselves.
11.He came into his own. Here is displayed the absolutely desperate wickedness and malice of men; here is displayed their execrable impiety, that when the Son of God was manifested in flesh to the Jews, whom God had separated to himself from the other nations to be His own heritage, he was not acknowledged or received. This passage also has received various explanations. For some think that the Evangelist speaks of the whole world indiscriminately; and certainly there is no part of the world which the Son of God may not lawfully claim as his own property. According to them, the meaning is: “When Christ came down into the world, he did not enter into another person’s territories, for the whole human race was his own inheritance.” But I approve more highly of the opinion of those who refer it to the Jews alone; for there is an implied comparison, by which the Evangelist represents the heinous ingratitude of men. The Son of God had solicited an abode for himself in one nation; when he appeared there, he was rejected; and this shows clearly the awfully wicked blindness of men. In making this statement, the sole object of the Evangelist must have been to remove the offense which many would be apt to take in consequence of the unbelief of the Jews. For when he was despised and rejected by that nation to which he had been especially promised, who would reckon him to be the Redeemer of the whole world? We see what extraordinary pains the Apostle Paul takes in handling this subject.
Here both the Verb and the Noun are highly emphatic. He came. The Evangelist says that the Son of God came to that place where he formerly was; and by this expression he must mean a new and extraordinary kind of presence, by which the Son of God was manifested, so that men might have a nearer view of him. Into his own. By this phrase the Evangelist compares the Jews with other nations; because by an extraordinary privilege they had been adopted into the family of God. Christ therefore was first offered to them as his own household, and as belonging to his empire by a peculiar right. To the same purpose is that complaint of God by Isaiah:
The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel knoweth me not, (Isaiah 1:3;)
for though he has dominion over the whole world, yet he represents himself to be, in peculiar manner, the Lord of Israel, whom he had collected, as it were, into a sacred fold.
12.But to as many as received him. That none may be retarded by this stumbling-block, that the Jews despised and rejected Christ, the Evangelist exalts above heaven the godly who believe in him; for he says that by faith they obtain this glory of being reckoned the sons of God. The universal term, as many, contains an implied contrast; for the Jews were carried away by a blind vaunting, (19) as if they exclusively had God bound to themselves. The Evangelist declares that their condition is changed, because the Jews have been rejected, and their place, which had been left empty, is occupied by the Jews; for it is as if he transferred the right of adoption to strangers. This is what Paul says, that the destruction of one nation was the life of the whole world, (Romans 11:12;) for the Gospel, which might be said to have been banished from them, began to be spread far and wide throughout the whole world. They were thus deprived of the privilege which they enjoyed above others. But their impiety was no obstruction to Christ; for he erected elsewhere the throne of his kingdom, and called indiscriminately to the hope of salvation all nations which formerly appeared to have been rejected by God.
He gave them power. The word ἐξουσία here appears to me to mean a right, or claim; and it would be better to translate it so, in order to refute the false opinions of the Papists; for they wickedly pervert this passage by understanding it to mean, that nothing more than a choice is allowed to us, if we think fit to avail ourselves of this privilege. In this way they extract free-will from this phrase; but as well might they extract fire from water. There is some plausibility in this at first sight; for the Evangelist does not say that Christ makes them sons of God, but that he gives them power to become such. Hence they infer that it is this grace only that is offered to us, and that the liberty to enjoy or to reject it is placed at our disposal. But this frivolous attempt to catch at a single word is set aside by what immediately follows; for the Evangelist adds, that they become the sons of God, not by the will which belongs to the flesh, but when they are born of God. But if faith regenerates us, so that we are the sons of God, and if God breathes faith into us from heaven, it plainly appears that not by possibility only, but actually — as we say — is the grace of adoption offered to us by Christ. And, indeed, the Greek word, ἐξουσία is sometimes put for ἀξίωσις, (a claim,) a meaning which falls in admirably with this passage.
The circumlocution which the Evangelist has employed tends more to magnify the excellence of grace, than if he had said in a single word, that all who believe in Christ are made by him sons of God. For he speaks here of the unclean and profane, who, having been condemned to perpetual ignominy, lay in the darkness of death. Christ exhibited an astonishing instance of his grace in conferring this honor on such persons, so that they began, all at once, to be sons of God; and the greatness of this privilege is justly extolled by the Evangelist, as also by Paul, when he ascribes it to
God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love
But if any person shall prefer to take the word power in its ordinary acceptation, still the Evangelist does not mean by it any intermediate faculty, or one which does not include the full and complete effect; but, on the contrary, means that Christ gave to the unclean and the uncircumcised what appeared to be impossible; for an incredible change took place when out of stones Christ raised up children to God, (Matthew 3:9.) The power, therefore, is that fitness ( ἱκανότης) which Paul mentions, when he
gives thanks to God, who hath made us fit (or meet) to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints, (Colossians 1:12.)
Who believe in his name. He expresses briefly the manner of receiving Christ, that is, believing in him. Having been engrafted into Christ by faith, we obtain the right of adoption, so as to be the sons of God. And, indeed, as he is the only-begotten Son of God, it is only so far as we are members of him that this honor at all belongs to us. Here again the notion of the Papists about the word power is refuted. (20) The Evangelist declares that this power is given to those who already believe. Now it is certain that such persons are in reality the sons of God. They detract too much from the value of faith who say that, by believing, a man obtains nothing more than that he may become a son of God, if he chooses; for instead of present effect they put a power which is held in uncertainty and suspense.
The contradiction appears still more glaring from what immediately follows. The Evangelist says that those who believe are already born of God It is not therefore, a mere liberty of choice that is offered, since they obtain the privilege itself that is in question. Although the Hebrew word, שם (Name) is sometimes used to denote power, yet here it denotes a relation to the doctrine of the Gospel; for when Christ is preached to us, then it is that we believe in him. I speak of the ordinary method by which the Lord leads us to faith; and this ought to be carefully observed, for there are many who foolishly contrive for themselves a confused faith, without any understanding of doctrine, as nothing is more common among the Papists than the word believe, though there is not among them any knowledge of Christ from hearing the Gospel. Christ, therefore, offers himself to us by the Gospel, and we receive him by faith.
13.Who were born not of blood (21) Some think that an indirect reference is here made to the preposterous confidence of the Jews, and I willingly adopt that opinion. They had continually in their mouth the nobleness of their lineage, as if, because they were descended from a holy stock, they were naturally holy. And justly might they have gloried in their descent from Abraham, if they had been lawful sons, and not bastards; but the glowing of faith ascribes nothing whatever to carnal generation, but acknowledges its obligation to the grace of God alone for all that is good. John, therefore, says, that those among the formerly unclean Gentiles who believe in Christ are not born the sons of God from the womb, but are renewed by God, that they may begin to be his sons. The reason why he uses the word blood in the plural number appears to have been, that he might express more fully a long succession of lineage; for this was a part of the boasting among the Jews, that they could trace their descent, by an uninterrupted line, upwards to the patriarchs.
The will of the flesh and the will of man appear to me to mean the same thing; for I see no reason why flesh should be supposed to signify woman, as Augustine and many others explain it. On the contrary, the Evangelist repeats the same thing in a variety of words, in order to explain it more fully, and impress it more deeply on the minds of men. Though he refers directly to the Jews, who gloried in the flesh, yet from this passage a general doctrine may be obtained: that our being reckoned the sons of God does not belong to our nature, and does not proceed from us, but because God begat us willingly, (James 1:18,) that is, from undeserved love. Hence it follows, first, that faith does not proceed from ourselves, but is the fruit of spiritual regeneration; for the Evangelist affirms that no man can believe, unless he be begotten of God; and therefore faith is a heavenly gift. It follows, secondly, that faith is not bare or cold knowledge, since no man can believe who has not been renewed by the Spirit of God.
It may be thought that the Evangelist reverses the natural order by making regeneration to precede faith, whereas, on the contrary, it is an effect of faith, and therefore ought to be placed later. I reply, that both statements perfectly agree; because by faith we receive the incorruptible seed, (1 Peter 1:23,) by which we are born again to a new and divine life. And yet faith itself is a work of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in none but the children of God. So then, in various respects, faith is a part of our regeneration, and an entrance into the kingdom of God, that he may reckon us among his children. The illumination of our minds by the Holy Spirit belongs to our renewal, and thus faith flows from regeneration as from its source; but since it is by the same faith that we receive Christ, who sanctifies us by his Spirit, on that account it is said to be the beginning of our adoption.
Another solution, still more plain and easy, may be offered; for when the Lord breathes faith into us, he regenerates us by some method that is hidden and unknown to us; but after we have received faith, we perceive, by a lively feeling of conscience, not only the grace of adoption, but also newness of life and the other gifts of the Holy Spirit. For since faith, as we have said, receives Christ, it puts us in possession, so to speak, of all his blessings. Thus so far as respects our sense, it is only after having believed — that we begin to be the sons of God. But if the inheritance of eternal life is the fruit of adoption, we see how the Evangelist ascribes the whole of our salvation to the grace of Christ alone; and, indeed, how closely soever men examine themselves, they will find nothing that is worthy of the children of God, except what Christ has bestowed on them.
14.And the Speech was made flesh. The Evangelist shows what was that coming of Christ which he had mentioned; namely, that having been clothed with our flesh, he showed himself openly to the world. Although the Evangelist touches briefly the unutterable mystery, that the Son of God was clothed with human nature, yet this brevity is wonderfully perspicuous. Here some madmen amuse themselves with foolish and trivial subtleties of this sort: that the Speech is said to have been made flesh, because God sent his Son into the world, according to the conception which he had formed in his mind; as if the Speech were I know not what shadowy image. But we have demonstrated that that word denotes a real hypostasis, or subsistence, in the essence of God.
The word Flesh expresses the meaning of the Evangelist more forcibly than if he had said that he was made man. He intended to show to what a mean and despicable condition the Son of God, on our account, descended from the height of his heavenly glory. When Scripture speaks of man contemptuously, it calls him flesh. Now, though there be so wide a distance between the spiritual glory of the Speech of God and the abominable filth of our flesh, yet the Son of God stooped so low as to take upon himself that flesh, subject to so many miseries. The word flesh is not taken here for corrupt nature, (as it is often used by Paul,) but for mortal man; though it marks disdainfully his frail and perishing nature, as in these and similar passages, for he remembered that they were flesh, (Psalms 78:39;) all flesh is grass, (Isaiah 40:6.) We must at the same time observe, however, that this is a figure of speech in which a part is taken for the whole; for the lower part includes the whole man. (22) It was therefore highly foolish in Apollinaris to imagine that Christ was merely clothed with a human body without a soul; for it may easily be proved from innumerable passages, that he had a soul as well as a body; and when Scripture calls men flesh, it does not therefore deprive them of a soul.
The plain meaning therefore is, that the Speech begotten by God before all ages, and who always dwelt with the Father, was made man. On this article there are two things chiefly to be observed. The first is, that two natures were so united in one Person in Christ, that one and the same Christ is true God and true man. The second is, that the unity of person does not hinder the two natures from remaining distinct, so that his Divinity retains all that is peculiar to itself, and his humanity holds separately whatever belongs to it. And, therefore, as Satan has made a variety of foolish attempts to overturn sound doctrine by heretics, he has always brought forward one or another of these two errors; either that he was the Son of God and the Son of man in so confused a manner, that neither his Divinity remained entire, nor did he wear the true nature of man; or that he was clothed with flesh, so as to be as it were double, and to have two separate persons. Thus Nestorius expressly acknowledged both natures, but imagined two Christs, one who was God, and another who was man. Eutyches, on the other hand, while he acknowledged that the one Christ is the Son of God and the Son of man, left him neither of the two natures, but imagined that they were mingled together. And in the present day, Servetus and the Anabaptists invent a Christ who is confusedly compounded of two natures, as if he were a Divine man. In words, indeed, he acknowledges that Christ is God; but if you admit his raving imaginations, the Divinity is at one time changed into human nature, and at another time, the nature of man is swallowed up by the Divinity.
The Evangelist says what is well adapted to refute both of these blasphemies. When he tells us that the Speech was made flesh, we clearly infer from this the unity of his Person; for it is impossible that he who is now a man could be any other than he who was always the true God, since it is said that God was made man. On the other hand, since he distinctly gives to the man Christ the name of the Speech, it follows that Christ, when he became man, did not cease to be what he formerly was, and that no change took place in that eternal essence of God which was clothed with flesh. In short, the Son of God began to be man in such a manner that he still continues to be that eternal Speech who had no beginning of time.
And dwelt. Those who explain that the flesh served, as it were, for an abode to Christ, do not perceive the meaning of the Evangelist; for he does not ascribe to Christ a permanent residence amongst us, but says that he remained in it as a guest, for a short time. For the word which he employs ( ἐσκήνωσεν) is taken from tabernacles (23) He means nothing else than that Christ discharged on the earth the office which had been appointed to him; or, that he did not merely appear for a single moment, but that he conversed among men until he completed the course of his office.
Among us. It is doubtful whether he speaks of men in general, or only of himself and the rest of the disciples who were eye-witnesses of what he says. For my own part, I approve more highly of the second view for the Evangelist immediately adds:
And we beheld his glory. for though all men might have beheld the glory of Christ, yet it was unknown to the greater part on account of their blindness. It was only a few, whose eyes the Holy Spirit opened, that saw this manifestation of glory. In a word, Christ was known to be man in such a manner that he exhibited in his Person something far more noble and excellent. Hence it follows that the majesty of God was not annihilated, though it was surrounded by flesh; it was indeed concealed under the low condition of the flesh, but so as to cause its splendor to be seen.
As of the only-begotten of the Father. The word as does not, in this passage, denote an inappropriate comparison, but rather expresses true and hearty approbation; as when Paul says, Walk as children of light, he bids us actually demonstrate by our works that we are the children of light. The Evangelist therefore means, that in Christ was beheld a glory which was worthy of the Son of God, and which was a sure proof of his Divinity. He calls him the Only-begotten, because he is the only Son of God by nature; as if he would place him above men and angels, and would claim for him alone what belongs to no creature.
Full of grace. There were, indeed, other things in which the majesty of Christ appeared, but the Evangelist selected this instance in preference to others, in order to train us to the speculative rather than the practical knowledge of it; and this ought to be carefully observed. Certainly when Christ walked with dry feet upon the waters, (Matthew 14:26; Mark 6:48; John 6:19,) when he cast out devils, and when he displayed his power in other miracles, he might be known to be the only-begotten Son of God; but the Evangelist brings forward a part of the approbation, from which faith obtains delightful advantage, because Christ demonstrated that he actually is an inexhaustible fountain of grace and truth. Stephen, too, is said to have been full of grace, (24) but in a different sense; for the fullness of grace in Christ is the fountain from which all of us must draw, as we shall have occasion shortly afterwards to explain more fully.
Grace and truth. This might be taken, by a figure of speech, for true grace, or the latter term might be explanatory, thus: that he was full of grace, which is truth or perfection; but as we shall find that he immediately afterwards repeats the same mode of expression, I think that the meaning is the same in both passages. This grace and truth he afterwards contrasts with the Law; and therefore I interpret it as simply meaning, that the apostles acknowledged Christ to be the Son of God, because he had in himself the fulfillment of things which belong to the spiritual kingdom of God; and, in short, that in all things he showed himself to be the Redeemer and Messiah; which is the most striking mark by which he ought to be distinguished from all others.
15.John testifieth. He now relates what was the preaching of John. By using the verb testifieth ( μαρτυρεῖ) in the present tense, (27) he denotes a continued act, and certainly this doctrine must be continually in force, as if the voice of John were continually resounding in the ears of men. In the same manner he afterwards uses the word cry, to intimate that the doctrine of John was in no degree obscure or ambiguous, and that he did not mutter among a few men, (28) but openly, and with a loud voice, preached Christ. The first sentence is intended to convey the statement, that he was sent for the sake of Christ, and therefore that it would have been unreasonable that he should be exalted, while Christ was lying low.
This is he of whom I spoke. By these words he means that his intention was, from the beginning, to make Christ known, and that this was the design of his public discourses; as, indeed, there was no other way in which he could discharge his office as ambassador than by calling his disciples to Christ.
Who, coming after me. Though John the Baptist was older than Christ by a few months, yet he does not now speak of age; but as he had discharged the office of prophet for a short period before Christ appeared in public, so he makes himself the predecessor with respect to time. With respect, therefore, to public manifestation, Christ came after John the Baptist. The words which follow might be literally rendered, he was made before me, for he was before me; but the meaning is, that Christ was justly preferred to John, because he was more excellent. He therefore surrenders his office to Christ and — as the proverb runs — “delivers to him the torch,” or gives way to him as his successor. But as he arose later in the order of time, John reminds his hearers that this is no reason why he should not be preferred to himself, as his rank deserved. Thus, all who are superior to others, either in the gifts of God or in any degree of honor, must remain in their own rank, so as to be placed below Christ.
16.And out of his fullness. He begins now to preach about the office of Christ, that it contains within itself an abundance of all blessings, so that no part of salvation must be sought anywhere else. True, indeed, the fountain of life, righteousness, virtue, and wisdom, is with God, but to us it is a hidden and inaccessible fountain. But an abundance of those things is exhibited to us in Christ, that we may be permitted to have recourse to him; for he is ready to flow to us, provided that we open up a channel by faith. He declares in general, that out of Christ we ought not to seek any thing good, though this sentence consists of several clauses. First, he shows that we are all utterly destitute and empty of spiritual blessings; for the abundance which exists in Christ is intended to supply our deficiency, to relieve our poverty, to satisfy our hunger and thirst. Secondly, he warns us that, as soon as we have departed from Christ, it is ill vain for us to seek a single drop of happiness, because God hath determined that whatever is good shall reside in him alone. Accordingly, we shall find angels and men to be dry, heaven to be empty, the earth to be unproductive, and, in short, all things to be of no value, if we wish to be partakers of the gifts of God in any other way than through Christ. Thirdly, he assures us that we shall have no reason to fear the want of any thing, provided that we draw from the fullness of Christ, which is in every respect; so complete, that we shall experience it to be a truly inexhaustible fountain; and John classes himself with the rest, not for the sake of modesty, but to make it more evident that no man whatever is excepted.
It is indeed uncertain whether he speaks generally of the whole human race, or means only those who, subsequently to the manifestation of Christ in the flesh, have been made more fully partakers of his blessings. All the godly, no doubt, who lived under the law, drew out of the same fullness; but as John immediately afterwards distinguishes between different periods, it is more probable that here he especially recommends that rich abundance of blessings which Christ displayed at his coming. For we know that under the Law the gifts of God were more sparingly tasted, but that when Christ was manifested in flesh, they were poured out, as it were, with a full hand, even to satiety. Not that any of us has obtained a greater abundance of the grace of the Spirit than Abraham did, but I speak of God’s ordinary dispensation, and of the way and manner of dispensing. John the Baptist, that he may the more freely invite his disciples to come to Christ, declares that in him is laid up for all an abundance of the blessings of which they are destitute. And yet if any one choose to extend the meaning farther, there will be no absurdity in doing so; or rather, it will agree well with the strain of the discourse, that all the fathers, from the beginning of the world, drew from Christ all the gifts which they possessed; for though the law was given by Moses, yet they did not obtain grace by it. But I have already stated what appears to me to be the preferable view; namely, that John here compares us with the fathers, so as to magnify, by means of that comparison, what has been given to us.
And, grace for grace. In what manner Augustine explains this passage is well known - that all the blessings which God bestows upon us from time to time, and at length life everlasting, are not granted as the reward due to our merits, but that it proceeds from pure liberality that God thus rewards former grace, and crowns his own gifts in us. This is piously and judiciously said, but has nothing to do with the present passage. The meaning would be more simple if you were to take the word for ( ἀντὶ) comparatively, as meaning, that whatever graces God bestows on us, proceed equally from the same source. It might also be taken as pointing out the final cause, that we now receive grace, that God may one day fulfill the work of our salvation, which will be the fulfillment of grace. For my own part, I agree with the opinion of those who say that we are watered with the graces which were poured out on Christ; for what we receive from Christ he does not bestow upon us as being God, but the Father communicated to him what would flow to us as through a channel. This is the anointing with which he was anointed, that he might anoint us all along with him. Hence, too, he is called Christ, (the Anointed,) and we are called Christians.
17.For the Law was given by Moses. This is an anticipation, by which he meets an objection that was likely to arise; for so highly was Moses esteemed by the Jews that they could hardly receive anything that differed from him. The Evangelist therefore shows how far inferior the ministry of Moses was to the power of Christ. At the same time, this comparison sheds no small luster on the power of Christ; for while the utmost possible deference was rendered to Moses by the Jews, the Evangelist reminds them that what he brought was exceedingly small, when compared with the grace of Christ. It would otherwise have been a great hindrance, that they expected to receive from the Law what we can only obtain through Christ.
But we must attend to the antithesis, when he contrasts the law with grace and truth; for his meaning is, that the law wanted both of them. (29) The word Truth denotes, in my opinion, a fixed and permanent state of things. By the word Grace I understand the spiritual fulfillment of those things, the bare letter of which was contained in the Law. And those two words may be supposed to refer to the same thing, by a well-known figure of speech, (hypallage;) as if he had said, that grace, in which the truth of the Law consists, was at length exhibited in Christ. But as the meaning will be in no degree affected, it is of no importance whether you view them as united or as distinguished. This at least is certain, that the Evangelist means, that in the Law there was nothing more than a shadowy image of spiritual blessings, but that they are actually found in Christ; whence it follows, that if you separate the Law from Christ, there remains nothing in it but empty figures. For this reason Paul says that
the shadows were in the law, but the body is in Christ,
And yet it must not be supposed that anything was exhibited by the Law in a manner fitted to deceive; for Christ is the soul which gives life to that which would otherwise have been dead under the law. But here a totally different question meets us, namely, what the law could do by itself and without Christ; and the Evangelist maintains that nothing permanently valuable is found in it until we come to Christ. This truth consists in our obtaining through Christ that grace which the law could not at all bestow; and therefore I take the word grace in a general sense, as denoting both the unconditional forgiveness of sins, and the renewal of the heart. For while the Evangelist points out briefly the distinction between the Old and New Testaments, (30) (which is more fully described in Jeremiah 31:31,) he includes in this word all that relates to spiritual righteousness. Now this righteousness consists of two parts; first, that God is reconciled to us by free grace, in not imputing to us our sins; and, secondly, that he has engraven his law in our hearts, and, by his Spirit, renews men within to obedience to it; from which it is evident that the Law is incorrectly and falsely expounded, if there are any whose attention it fixes on itself, or whom it hinders from coming to Christ
18.No man hath ever seen God. Most appropriately is this added to confirm the preceding statement; for the knowledge of God is the door by which we enter into the enjoyment of all blessings; and as it is by Christ alone that God makes himself known to us, hence too it follows that we ought to seek all things from Christ. This order of doctrine ought to be carefully observed. No remark appears to be more common than this, that each of us receives, according to the measure of his faith, what God offers to us; but there are few who think that we must bring the vessel of faith and of the knowledge of God with which we draw.
When he says that no man hath seen God, we must not understand him to refer to the outward perception of the bodily eye; for he means generally, that as God dwells in inaccessible light, (1 Timothy 6:16,) he cannot be known but in Christ, who is his lively image. This passage is usually explained thus that as the naked majesty of God is concealed within himself, he never could be comprehended, except so far as he revealed himself in Christ; and therefore that it was only in Christ that God was formerly known to the fathers. But I rather think that the Evangelist here abides by the comparison already stated, namely, how much better our condition is than that of the fathers, because God, who was formerly concealed in his secret glory, may now be said to have rendered himself visible; for certainly when Christ is called the lively image of God, (Hebrews 1:3,) this refers to the peculiar privilege of the New Testament. In like manner, the Evangelist describes, in this passage, something new and uncommon, when he says that the only-begotten Son, who was in the bosom of the Father, hath made known to us what was formerly concealed. He therefore magnifies the manifestation of God, which has been brought to us by the gospel, in which he distinguishes us from the fathers, and shows that we are superior to them; as also Paul explains more fully in the Third and Fourth chapters of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. For he maintains that there is now no longer any vail, such as existed under the Law, but that God is openly beheld in the face of Christ.
If it be thought unreasonable that the fathers are deprived of the knowledge of God, who have the prophets daily going before them and holding out the torch, I reply, that what is ascribed to us is not simply or absolutely denied to them, but that a comparison is made between the less and the greater, as we say; because they had nothing more than little sparks of the true light, the full brightness of which daily shines around us. If it be objected, that at that time also God was seen face to face, (Genesis 32:30; Deuteronomy 34:10,) I maintain that that sight is not at all to be compared with ours; but as God was accustomed at that time to exhibit himself obscurely, and, as it were, from a distance, those to whom he was more clearly revealed say that they saw him face to face. They say so with reference to their own time; but they did not see God in any other way than wrapped up in many folds of figures and ceremonies. (31) That vision which Moses obtained on the mountain was remarkable and more excellent than almost all the rest; and yet God expressly declares,
thou shalt not be able to see my face, only thou shalt see my back, (Exodus 33:23;)
by which metaphor he shows that the time for a full and clear revelation had not yet come. It must also be observed that, when the fathers wished to behold God, they always turned their eyes towards Christ. I do not only mean that they beheld God in his eternal Speech, but also that they attended, with their whole mind and with their whole heart, to the promised manifestation of Christ. For this reason we shall find that Christ afterwards said, Abraham saw my day, (John 8:56;) and that which is subordinate is not contradictory. It is therefore a fixed principle, that God, who was formerly invisible, hath now made himself visible in Christ.
When he says that the Son was in the bosom of the Father, the metaphor is borrowed from men, who are said to receive into their bosom those to whom they communicate all their secrets. The breast is the seat of counsel. He therefore shows that the Son was acquainted with the most hidden secrets of his Father, in order to inform us that we have the breast of God, as it were, laid open to us in the Gospel.
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, 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 ( ὁ προφήτης, 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 — even those who are not sent on matters of great importance — 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. (35) 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.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 dreamed.
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 (36) 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 Evangelist.
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 John’s 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;)
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 of men.
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 John’s 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. 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 John’s 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 hetakes 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 αἴρειν (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 that
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 — ὁ αἴρων, 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.
30.This is he of whom I said. He comprehends every thing in a few words, when he declares that Christ is the person who, he said, was to be preferred to him; for hence it follows that John is nothing more than a herald sent on his account; and hence again it is evident that Christ is the Messiah. Three things are here stated; for when he says that a man cometh after him, he means that he himself was before him in the order of time, to prepare the way for Christ, according to the testimony of Malachi,
Behold, I send my messenger before my face, (Malachi 3:1.)
Again, when he says that he was preferred to himself, this relates to the glory with which God adorned his Son, when he came into the world to fulfill the office of a Redeemer. At last, the reason is added, which is, that Christ is far superior in dignity to John the Baptist. That honor, therefore, which the Father bestowed upon him was not accidental, but was due to his eternal majesty. But of this expression, he was preferred to me, because he was before me, I have already Spoken. (37)
31.And I knew him not. That his testimony may not be suspected of having been given either from friendship or favor, he anticipates such a doubt, by affirming that he had no other knowledge of Christ than what he had obtained by divine inspiration. The meaning, therefore, amounts to this, that John does not speak at his own suggestion, nor for the favor of man, but by the inspiration of the Spirit and the command of God.
I came baptizing with water; that is, I was called and appointed to this office,that I might manifest him to Israel; which the Evangelist afterwards explains more fully, and confirms, when he introduces John the Baptist, testifying that he had no knowledge of Christ but what he had obtained by oracle; that is, by information or revelation from God. (38) Instead of what we find here, I came to baptize, he there states expressly (verse 33) that he was sent; for it is only the calling of God that makes lawful ministers, because every person who of his own accord, thrusts himself forward, whatever learning or eloquence he may possess, is not entitled to any authority, and the reason is, that he is not authorized by God. Now since it was necessary that John, in order that he might lawfully baptize, should be sent by God, let it be inferred from this, that it is not in the power of any man whatever to institute sacraments, but that this right belongs to God alone, as Christ, on another occasion, in order to prove the baptism of John, asks if it was from heaven, or from men, (Matthew 21:25.)
32.I saw the Spirit, descending like a dove. This is not a literal but a figurative mode of expression; for with what eyes could he see the Spirit ? But as the dove was a certain and infallible sign of the presence of the Spirit, it is called the Spirit, by a figure of speech in which one name is substituted for another; not that he is in reality the Spirit, but that he points him out, as far as human capacity can admit. And this metaphorical language is frequently employed in the sacraments; for why does Christ call the bread his body, but because the name of the thing is properly transferred to the sign? especially when the sign is, at the same time, a true and efficacious pledge, by which we are made certain that the thing itself which is signified is bestowed on us. Yet it must not be understood that the dove contained the Spirit who fills heaven and earth, (Jeremiah 23:24,) but that he was present by his power, so that John knew that such an exhibition was not presented to his eyes in vain. In like manner, we know that the body of Christ is not connected with the bread, and yet we are partakers of his body.
A question now arises, why didthe Spirit at that time appear in the form of a dove ? We must always hold that there is a correspondence between the sign and the reality. When the Spirit was given to the apostles, they saw cloven tongues of fire, (Acts 2:3,) because the preaching of the gospel was to be spread through all tongues, and was to possess the power of fire. But in this passage God intended to make a public representation of that mildness of Christ of which Isaiah speaks in lofty terms,
The smoking flax he will not quench, and the bruised reed he will not break, (Isaiah 42:3.)
It was then, for the first time, that the Spirit was seen descending on him; not that he had formerly been destitute of him, but because he might be said to be then consecrated by a solemn rite. For we know that he remained in concealment, during thirty years, like a private individual, because the time for his manifestation was not yet come; but when he intended to make himself known to the world, he began with his baptism. At that time, therefore, he received the Spirit not only for himself, but for his people; and on that account his descent was visible, that we may know that there dwells in him an abundance of all gifts of which we are empty and destitute. This may easily be inferred from the words of the Baptist; for when he says, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, it is he who baptizeth with the Spirit, his meaning is, that the reason why the Spirit was beheld in a visible form, and remained on Christ, was, that he might water all his people with his fullness. What it is to baptize with the Spirit I have already noticed in a few words; namely, that he imparts its efficacy to baptism, that it may not be vain or useless, and this he accomplishes by the power of his Spirit.
33.Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending. Here a difficult question arises; for if John did not know Christ, why does he refuse to admit him to baptism? To a person whom he did not know he would not say, I ought rather to be baptized by thee, (Matthew 3:14.) Some reply, that he knew him to such an extent as to regard him with the reverence due to a distinguished Prophet, but was not aware that he wasthe Son of God. But this is a poor solution of the difficulty, for every man ought to obey the calling of God without any respect of persons. No rank or excellence of man ought to prevent us from doing our duty, and therefore John would have shown disrespect to God and to his baptism, if he had spoken in this manner to any other person than the Son of God. it follows that he must have previously known Christ.
In the first place, it ought to be observed, that the knowledge here mentioned is that which arises from personal and long acquaintance. Although he recognizes Christ whenever he sees him, still it does not cease to be true that they were not known to each other according to the ordinary custom of men, for the commencement of his knowledge proceeded from God. But the question is not yet fully answered; for he says that the sight of the Holy Spirit was the mark by which he was pointed out to him. Now he had not yet seen the Spirit, when he had addressed Christ as the Son of God. For my own part, I willingly embrace the opinion of those who think that this sign was added for confirmation, and that it was not so much for the sake of John as for the sake of us all. John indeed saw it, but it was rather for others than for himself. Bucer appropriately quotes that saying of Moses,
This shall be a sign to you, that after three days journey, you shall sacrifice to me on the mountain, (Exodus 3:12.)
Undoubtedly, when they were going out, they already knew that God would conduct and watch over their deliverance; but this was a confirmation a posteriori, as the phrase is; that is, from the event, after it had taken place. In like manner, this came as an addition to the former revelation which had been given to John.
34.I saw and testified. He means that what he declares is not doubtful; because God was pleased to make him fully and thoroughly acquainted with those things of which he was to be the witness to the world; and it is worthy of notice, that he testified that Christ wasthe Son of God, because he who gives the Holy Spirit must be the Christ, for to no other belongs the honor and the office of reconciling men to God.
36.Behold the Lamb of God! Hence appears more clearly what I have already stated, that when John perceived that he was approaching the end of his course, he labored incessantly to resign his office to Christ. His firmness too gives greater credit to his testimony. But by insisting so earnestly, during many successive days, in repeating the commendation of Christ, he shows that his own course was nearly finished. Here we see also how small and low the beginning of the Church was. John, indeed, prepared disciples for Christ, but it is only now that Christ begins to collect a Church. He has no more than two men who are mean and unknown, but this even contributes to illustrate his glory, that within a short period, without human aid, and without a strong hand, he spreads his kingdom in a wonderful and incredible manner. We ought also to observe what is the chief object to which John directs the attention of men; it is, to find in Christ the forgiveness of sins. And as Christ had presented himself to the disciples for the express purpose that they might come to him, so no when they come, he gently encourages and exhorts them; for he does not wait until they first address him, but asks, What do you seek? This kind and gracious invitation, which was once made to two persons, now belongs to all. We ought not therefore to fear that Christ will withdraw from us or refuse to us easy access, provided that he sees us desirous to come to him; but, on the contrary, he will stretch out his hand to assist our endeavors. And how will not he meet those who come to him, who seeks at a distance those who are wandering and astray, that he may bring them back to the right road?
38.Rabbi. This name was commonly given to persons of high rank, or who possessed any kind of honor. But the Evangelist here points out another use of it which was made in his own age, which was, that they addressed by this name the teachers and expounders of the word of God. Although, therefore, those two disciples do not yet recognize Christ as the only Teacher of the Church, yet, moved by the commendation bestowed on him by John the Baptist, they hold him to be a Prophet and teacher, which is the first step towards receiving instruction.
Where dwellest thou? By this example we are taught that from the first, rudiments of the Church we ought to draw such a relish for Christ as will excite our desire to profit; and next, that we ought not to be satisfied with a mere passing look, but that we ought to seek his dwelling, that he may receive us as guests. For there are very many who smell the gospel at a distance only, and thus allow Christ suddenly to disappear, and all that they have learned concerning him to pass away. And though those two persons did not at that time become his ordinary disciples, yet there can be no doubt that, during that night, he instructed them more fully, so that they soon afterwards became entirely devoted to him.
39.It was about the tenth hour; that is, the evening was approaching, for it was not more than two hours till sunset. The day was at that time divided by them into twelve hours, which were longer in summer and shorter in winter. But from this circumstance we infer that those disciples were so eagerly desirous to hear Christ, and to gain a more intimate knowledge of him, that they gave themselves no concern about a night’s lodging. On the contrary, we are, for the most part, very unlike them, for we incessantly delay, because it is not convenient for us to follow Christ.
40.Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. The design of the Evangelist, down to the end of the chapter, is to inform us how gradually the disciples were brought to Christ. Here he relates about Peter, and afterwards he will mention Philip and Nathanael. The circumstance of Andrew immediately bringing his brother expresses the nature of faith, which does not conceal or quench the light, but rather spreads it in every direction. Andrew has scarcely a spark, and yet, by means of it, he enlightens his brother. Woe to our indolence, therefore, if we do not, after having been fully enlightened, endeavor to make others partakers of the same grace. We may observe in Andrew two things which Isaiah requires from the children of God; namely, that each should take his neighbor by the hand, and next, that he should say,
Come, let us go up into the mountain of the Lord,
For Andrew stretches out the hand to his brother, but at the same time he has this object in view, that he may become a fellow-disciple with him in the school of Christ. We ought also to observe the purpose of God, which determined that Peter, who was to be far more eminent, was brought to the knowledge of Christ by the agency and ministry of Andrew; that none of us, however excellent, may refuse to be taught by an inferior; for that man will be severely punished for his peevishness, or rather for his pride, who, through his contempt of a man, will not deign to come to Christ.
41.We have found the Messiah. The Evangelist has interpreted the Hebrew word Messiah (Anointed) by the Greek word Christ, in order to publish to the whole world what was secretly known to the Jews. It was the ordinary designation of kings, (39) as anointing was observed by them as a solemn rite. But still they were aware that one King would be anointed by God, under whom they might hope to obtain perfect and eternal happiness; especially when they should learn that the earthly kingdom of David would not be permanent. And as God raised their minds, when subdued and weighed down by various calamities, to the expectation of the Messiah, so he more clearly revealed to them that his coming was at hand. The prediction of Daniel is more clear and forcible than all the rest, so far as relates to the name of Christ; for he does not, like the earlier Prophets, ascribe it to kings, but appropriates it exclusively to the Redeemer, (Daniel 9:25.) Hence this mode of expression became prevalent, so that when the Messiah orChrist was mentioned, it was understood that no other than the Redeemer was meant. Thus we shall find the woman of Samaria saying, the Messiah will come, (John 4:25;) which makes it the more wonderful that he who was so eagerly desired by all, and whom they had constantly in their mouths, should be received by so small a number of persons.
42.Thou art Simon. Christ gives a name to Simon, not as men commonly do, from some past event, or from what is now perceived in them, but because he was to make him Peter, (a stone.) First, he says, Thou art Simon, the son of Jonah. He repeats the name of his father in an abridged form; which is common enough when names are translated into other languages; for it will plainly appear from the last chapter that he was the son of Johanna or John. But all this amounts to nothing more than that he will be a very different person from what he now is. For it is not For the sake of honor that he mentions his father; but as he was descended from a family which was obscure, and which was held in no estimation among men, Christ declares that this will not prevent him from making Simon a man of unshaken courage. The Evangelist, therefore, mentions this as a prediction, that Simon received a new name. I look upon it as a prediction, not only because Christ foresaw the future steadfastness of faith in Peter, but because he foretold what he would give to him. He now magnifies the grace which he determined afterwards to bestow upon him; and therefore he does not say that this is now his name, but delays it till a future time.
Thou shalt be called Cephas. All the godly, indeed, may justly be called Peters (stones,) which, having been Sounded on Christ, are fitted for building the temple of God; but he alone is so called on account of his singular excellence. Yet the Papists act a ridiculous part, when they substitute him in the place of Christ; so as to be the foundation of the Church, as if he too were not founded on Christ along with the rest of the disciples; and they are doubly ridiculous when out of a stone they make him a head. For among the rhapsodies of Gratian there is a foolish canon under the name of Anacletus, who, exchanging a Hebrew word for a Greek one, and not distinguishing the Greek word κεφαλὴ (kephale) from the Hebrew word Cephas, thinks that by this name Peter was appointed to be Head of the Church. Cephas is rather a Chaldaic than a Hebrew word; but that was the customary pronunciation of it after the Babylonish captivity. There is, then, no ambiguity in the words of Christ; for he promises what Peter had not at all expected, and thus magnifies his own grace to all ages, that his former condition may not lead us to think less highly of him, since this remarkable appellation informs us that he was made a new man.
43.Follow me. When Philip was inflamed by this single word to follow Christ, we infer from it how great is the efficacy of the word of God; but it does not appear indiscriminately in all, for God addresses many without any advantage, just as if he struck their ears with a sound which vanished into air. So then the external preaching of the word is in itself unfruitful, except that it inflicts a deadly wound on the reprobate, so as to render them inexcusable before God. But when the secret grace of God quickens it, all the senses must be affected in such a manner that men will be prepared to follow wherever God calls them. We ought, therefore, to pray to Christ that he may display in us the same power of the Gospel. In the case of Philip, there was no doubt a peculiarity about his following Christ; for he is commanded to follow, not like one of us, but as a domestic, and as a familiar companion. But still the calling of all of us is illustrated by this calling of Philip.
44.Was of Bethsaida. The name of the city appears to have been mentioned on purpose, that the goodness of God to the three Apostles may be more illustriously displayed. We know how severely, on other occasions, Christ threatens and curses that city, (Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13.) Accordingly, when God brought into favor with him some out of a nation so ungodly and wicked, we ought to view it in the same light as if they had been brought out of the lowest hell. And when Christ, after having drawn them out of that deep gulf, honors them so highly as to make them Apostles, it is a distinguished favor and worthy of being recorded.
45.Philip findeth Nathanael. Though proud men despise these feeble beginnings of the Church, yet we ought to perceive in them a brighter display of the divine glory, than if the condition of the Kingdom of Christ had been in every respect, from the outset, splendid and magnificent; for we know to how rich a harvest this small seed afterwards grew. Again, we see inPhilip the same desire of building which formerly appeared in Andrew. His modesty, too, is remarkable, in desiring and seeking nothing else than to have others to learn along with him, from Him who is a Teacher common to all.
We have found Jesus. How small was the measure of Philip’s faith appears from this circumstance, that he cannot utter a few words about Christ without mingling with them two gross errors. He calls him the son of Joseph, and says, that Nazareth was his native town, both of which statements were false; and yet, because he is sincerely desirous to do good to his brother, and to make Christ known, God approves of this instance of his diligence, and even crowns it with good success. Each of us ought, no doubt, to endeavor to keep soberly within his own limits; and, certainly, the Evangelist does not mention it as worthy of commendation in Philip, that he twice disgraces Christ, but relates that his doctrine, though faulty and involved in error, was useful, because it nevertheless had this for its object, that Christ might be truly known. He foolishly says that he was the son of Joseph, and ignorantly calls him a native of Nazareth, but yet he leads Nathanael to no other than the Son of God who was born in Bethlehem, (Matthew 2:1,) and does not contrive a false Christ, but only wishes that they should know him as he was exhibited by Moses and the Prophets. We see, then, that the chief design of doctrine is, that those who hear us should come to Christ in some way or other.
There are many who engage in abstruse inquiries about Christ, but who throw such darkness and intricacy around him by their subtleties that they can never find him. The Papists, for example, will not say that Christ is the son of Joseph, for they distinctly know what is his name; but yet they annihilate his power, so as to hold out a phantom in the room of Christ. Would it not be better to stammer ridiculously, like Philip, and to hold by the true Christ, than by eloquent and ingenious language to introduce a false Christ? On the other hand, there are many poor dunces in the present day, who, though ignorant and unskilled in the use of language, make known Christ more faithfully than all the theologians of the Pope with their lofty speculations. This passage, therefore, warns us that, if any unsuitable language has been employed concerning Christ by ignorant and unlearned men, we ought not to reject such persons with disdain, provided they direct us to Christ; but that we may not be withdrawn from Christ by the false imaginations of men, let us always have this remedy at hand, to seek the pure knowledge of him fromthe Law and the Prophets.
46.Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? At first, Nathanael refuses, the place of Christ’s nativity (as described by Philip) having given him offense. But, first of all, he is deceived by the inconsiderate discourse of Philip; for what Philip foolishly believed Nathanael receives as certain. Next, there is added a foolish judgment arising from hatred or contempt of the place. Both of these points ought to be carefully observed by us. This holy man was not far from shutting out against himself all approach to Christ. Why was this? Because he rashly believes what Philip spoke incorrectly about Christ; and next, because his mind was under the influence of a preconceived opinion that no good thing could come out of Nazareth. If then we are not carefully on our guard, we shall be liable to the same danger; and Satan labors every day, by similar obstacles, to hinder us from coming to Christ; for he has the dexterity to spread many falsehoods, the tendency of which is to excite our hatred or suspicion against the Gospel, that we may not venture to taste it. And next, he ceases not to try another method, namely, to make us look on Christ with contempt; for we see how many there are who take offense at the degradation of the cross, which appears both in Christ the head and in his members. But as we can hardly be so cautious as not to be tempted by those stratagems of Satan, let us at least remember immediately this caution:
Come and see. Nathanael allowed his twofold error to be corrected by this expression which Philip uttered. Following his example, let us first show ourselves to be submissive and obedient; and next, let us not shrink from inquiry, when Christ himself is ready to remove the doubts which harass us. Those who read these words not as a question, but as an affirmation, Some good thing may come out of Nazareth, are greatly mistaken. For, in the first place, how trivial would such an observation be? And next, we know that the city Nazareth was not at that time held in estimation; and Philip’s reply shows plainly enough that it was expressive of hesitation and distrust.
47.Behold, one truly an Israelite. It is not on Nathanael’s own account that Christ bestows on him this commendation, but under his person he holds out a general doctrine. For, since many who boast of being believers are very far from being actually believers, it is of great importance that some mark should be found for distinguishing the true and genuine from the false. We know how haughtily the Jews gloried in their father Abraham, and how presumptuously they boasted of the holiness of their descent; and yet there was scarcely one in a hundred among them who was not utterly degenerate and alienated from the faith of the Fathers. For this reason, Christ, in order to tear the mask from hypocrites, gives a short definition of a true Israelite, and, at the same time, removes the offense which would afterwards arise from the wicked obstinacy of the nation. For those who wished to be accounted the children of Abraham, and the holy people of God, were shortly afterwards to become the deadly enemies of the Gospel. That none may be discouraged or alarmed by the impiety which was generally found in almost all ranks, he gives a timely warning, that of those by whom the name of Israelites is assumed there are few who are true Israelites.
Again, as this passage contains a definition of Christianity, we must not pass by it slightly. To sum up the meaning of Christ in a few words, it ought to be observed that deceit is contrasted with uprightness and sincerity; (41) so that he calls those persons sly (42) and deceitful who are called in other parts of Scripture double in heart, (Psalms 12:2.) Nor is it only that gross hypocrisy by which those who are conscious of their wickedness pretend to be good men, but likewise another inward hypocrisy, when men are so blinded by their vices that they not only deceive others but themselves. So then it is integrity of heart before God, and uprightness before men, that makes a Christian; but Christ points out chiefly that kind of deceit which is mentioned in Psalms 32:2. In this passage ἀληθῶς (truly) means something more than certainly. The Greek word, no doubt, is often used as a simple affirmation; but as we must here supply a contrast between the fact and the mere name, he is said to be truly, who is in reality what he is supposed to be.
48.Whence knowest thou? Though Christ did not intend to flatter him, yet he wished to be heard by him, in order to draw forth a new question, by the reply to which he would prove himself to be the Son of God. Nor is it without a good reason that Nathanael asks whence Christ knew him; for to meet with a man of such uprightness as to be free from all deceit is an uncommon case, and to know such purity of heart belongs to God alone. The reply of Christ, however, appears to be inappropriate; for though he saw Nathanael under the fig-tree, it does not follow from this that he could penetrate into the deep secrets of the heart. But there is another reason; for as it belongs to God to know men when they are not seen, so also does it belong to Him to see what is not visible to the eyes. As Nathanael knew that Christ did not see him after the manner of men, but by a look truly divine, this might lead him to conclude that Christ did not now speak as a man. The proof, therefore, is taken from things which are of the same class; for not less does it belong to God to see what lies beyond our view than to judge concerning purity of heart. We ought also to gather from this passage a useful doctrine, that when we are not thinking of Christ, we are observed by him; and it is necessary that it should be so, that he may bring us back, when we have wandered from the right path.
49.Thou art the Son of God. That he acknowledges him to be the Son of God from his divine power is not wonderful; but on what ground does he call himKing of Israel ? for the two things do not appear to be necessarily connected. But Nathanael takes a loftier view. He had already heard that he is the Messiah, and to this doctrine he adds the confirmation which had been given him. He holds also another principle, that the Son of God will not come without exercising the office of King over the people of God. Justly, therefore, does he acknowledge that he who is the Son of God is also King of Israel And, indeed, faith ought not to be fixed on the essence of Christ alone, (so to speak,) but ought to attend to his power and office; for it would be of little advantage to know who Christ is, if this second point were not added, what he wishes to be towards us, and for what purpose the Father sent him. The reason why the Papists have nothing more than a shadow of Christ is, that they have been careful to look at his mere essence, but have disregarded his kingdom, which consists in the power to save.
Again, when Nathanael calls him King of Israel, though his kingdom extends to the remotest bounds of the earth, the confession is limited to the measure of faith. For he had not yet advanced so far as to know that Christ was appointed to be King over the whole world, or rather, that from every quarter would be collected the children of Abraham, so that the whole world would be the Israel of God. We to whom the wide extent of Christ’s kingdom has been revealed ought to go beyond those narrow limits. Yet following the example of Nathanael, let us exercise our faith in hearing the word, and let us strengthen it by all the means that are in our power; and let it not remain buried, but break out into confession.
50.Jesus answered. He does not reprove Nathanael as if he had been too easy of belief, but rather approving of his faith, promises to him and to others that he will confirm it by stronger arguments. Besides, it was peculiar to one man that he was seen under a fig-tree by Christ, when absent and at a distance from him; but now Christ brings forward a proof which would be common to all, and thus — as if he had broken off from what he originally intended — instead of addressing one man, he turns to address all.
51.You shall see heaven opened. They are greatly mistaken, in my opinion, who anxiously inquire into the place where, and the time when, Nathanael and others saw heaven opened; for he rather points out something perpetual which was always to exist in his kingdom. I acknowledge indeed, that the disciples sometimes saw angels, who are not seen in the present day; and I acknowledge also that the manifestation of the heavenly glory, when Christ ascended to heaven, was different from what we now behold. But if we duly consider what took place at that time, it is of perpetual duration; for the kingdom of God, which was formerly closed against us, is actually opened in Christ. A visible instance of this was shown to Stephen, (Acts 7:55,) to the three disciples on the mountain, (Matthew 17:5,) and to the other disciples at Christ’s ascension, (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9.) But all the signs by which God shows himself present with us depend on this opening of heaven, more especially when God communicates himself to us to be our life.
Ascending and descending on the Son of man. This second clause refers to angels. They are said to ascend and descend, so as to be ministers of God’s kindness towards us; and therefore this mode of expression points out the mutual intercourse which exists between God and men. Now we must acknowledge that this benefit was received through Christ, because without him the angels have rather a deadly enmity against us than a friendly care to help us. They are said to ascend and descend on the son of man, not because they minister to him, but because — in reference to him, and for his honor — they include the whole body of the Church in their kindly regard. Nor have I any doubt that he alludes to the ladder which was exhibited to the patriarch Jacob in a dream, (Genesis 28:12;) for what was prefigured by that vision is actually fulfilled in Christ. In short, this passage teaches us, that though the whole human race was banished from the kingdom of God, the gate of heaven is now opened to us, so that we are fellow-citizens of the saints, and companions of the angels, (Ephesians 2:19;) and that they, having been appointed to be guardians of our salvation, descend from the blessed rest of the heavenly glory (43) to relieve our distresses.
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A Life of Blessed Francis Xavier Seelos, Redemptorist
Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary) -eBook
Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Daily Study Bible