13. John I. 24, 25. Of the Baptism of John, that of Elijah, and that of Christ.
And they that were sent were of the Pharisees. And they asked him, and said unto him, 4889 “Why baptizest thou then, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” Those who sent from Jerusalem the priests and levites who asked John these questions, having learned who John was not, and who he was, preserve a decent silence, as if tacitly assenting and indicating that they acp. 362 cepted what was said, and saw that baptism was suited to a voice crying in the wilderness for the preparing of the way of the Lord. But the Pharisees being, as their name indicates, a divided and seditious set of people, show that they do not agree with the Jews of the metropolis and with the ministers of the service of God, the priests and levites. They send envoys who deal in rebukes, and so far as their power extends debar him from baptizing; their envoys ask, Why baptizest thou, then, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet? And if we were to stitch together into one statement what is written in the various Gospels, we should say that at this time they spoke as is here reported, but that at a later time, when they wished to received baptism, they heard the address of John: 4890 “Generations of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance.” This is what the Baptist says in Matthew, when he sees many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, without, it is clear, having the fruits of repentance, and pharisaically boasting in themselves that they had Abraham for their father. For this they are rebuked by John, who has the zeal of Elijah according to the communication of the Holy Spirit. For that is a rebuking word, “Think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father,” and that is the word of a teacher, when he speaks of those who for their stony hearts are called unbelieving stones, and says that by the power of God these stones may be changed into children of Abraham; for they were present to the eyes of the prophet and did not shrink from his divine glance. Hence his words: “I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” And since they came to his baptism without having done fruits meet for repentance, he says to them most appropriately, “Already is the axe laid to the root of the tree; every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down and cast into the fire.” This is as much as to say to them: Since you have come to baptism without having done fruits meet for repentance, you are a tree that does not bring forth good fruit and which has to be cut down by the most sharp and piercing axe of the Word which is living and powerful and sharper than every two-edged sword. The estimation in which the Pharisees held themselves is also set forth by Luke in the passage: 4891 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a publican. And the Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself: God, I thank Thee that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” The result of this speech is that the publican goes down to his house justified rather than the Pharisee, and the lesson is drawn, that every one who exalts himself is abased. They came, then, in the character in which the Saviours reproving words described them, as hypocrites to Johns baptism, nor does it escape the Baptists observation that they have the poison of vipers under their tongue and the poison of asps, for “the poison of asps is under their tongue.” 4892 The figure of serpents rightly indicates their temper, and it is plainly revealed in their better question: “Why baptizest thou then, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” To these I would fain reply, if it be the case that the Christ and Elijah and the prophet baptize, but that the voice crying in the wilderness has no authority to do so, “Most harshly, my friends, do you question the messenger sent before the face of Christ to prepare His way before Him. The mysteries which belong to this point are all hidden to you; for Jesus being, whether you will or not, the Christ, did not Himself baptize but His disciples, He who was Himself the prophet. And how have you come to believe that Elijah who is to come will baptize?” He did not baptize the logs upon the altar in the times of Ahab, 4893 though they needed such a bath to be burned up, what time the Lord appeared in fire. No, he commands the priests to do this for him, and that not only once; for he says, “Do it a second time,” upon which they did it a second time, and “Do it a third time,” and they did it a third time. If, then, he did not at that time himself baptize but left the work to others, how was he to baptize at the time spoken of by Malachi? Christ, then, does not baptize with water, but His disciples. He reserves for Himself to baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Now Heracleon accepts the speech of the Pharisees as distinctly implying that the office of baptizing belonged to the Christ and Elijah and to every prophet, for he uses these words, “Whose office alone it is to baptize.” He is refuted by what we have just said, and especially by the consideration that he takes the word “prophet” in a general sense; 4894 for he canp. 363 not show that any of the prophets baptized. He adds, not incorrectly, that the Pharisees put the question from malice, and not from a desire to learn.
John 1:24, 25.362:4890
Matt. 3:7, 8.362:4891
Luke 18:10, 11.362:4892
Ps. xiv. 3.362:4893
1 Kings xviii. 33 sq.362:4894
By not noticing the difference between “a prophet” and “the prophet.” Vide supra, p. 356.