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3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
The Proclamation of John the Baptist
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’ ”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
The Baptism of Jesus
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
Matthew 3:1 Now in those days Luke 3:1. And in the fifteenth year It could not be gathered from Matthew and Mark in what year of his age John began to preach: but Luke shows sufficiently, that he was about thirty years of age. The ancient writers of the Church are almost unanimously agreed, that he was born fifteen years before the death of Augustus. His successor Tiberius had held the government of the Roman Empire for fifteen years, when the same John began to preach. In this way are made up the thirty years which I have mentioned. Hence it follows, that he did not long discharge the office of teacher, but, in a short time, gave way to Christ; for we shall soon find, that Christ also was baptized in the thirtieth year of his age, when he was immediately installed into the discharge of his public office. Now as John, the morning-star, or dawn, was immediately followed by Christ, “the Sun of Righteousness,” (Malachi 4:2,) there is no reason to wonder, that John disappeared, in order that Christ might shine alone in greater brightness.
Matthew 3:2. Repent ye Matthew differs from the other two Evangelists in this respect, that he relates the substance of John’s doctrine, as uttered by John himself, while they relate it in their own words; though Mark has one word more than Luke: for he says, he came Baptizing, and preaching the baptism of repentance But in substance there is the most perfect agreement: for they all connect repentance with the forgiveness of sins. The kingdom of God among men is nothing else than a restoration to a happy life; or, in other words, it is true and everlasting happiness. When John says, that the kingdom of God is at hand, his meaning is, that men, who were alienated from the righteousness of God, and banished from the kingdom of heaven, must be again gathered to God, and live under his guidance. This is accomplished by a free adoption and the forgiveness of sins, by which he reconciles to himself those who were unworthy. In a word, the kingdom of heaven is nothing else than “newness of life,” (Romans 6:4,) by which God restores us to the hope of a blessed immortality. Having rescued us from the bondage of sin and death, he claims us as his own; that, even while our pilgrimage on earth continues, we may enjoy the heavenly life by faith: for he
“hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ,”
Though we are like dead men, yet we know that our life is secure; for it “is hid with Christ in God,” (Colossians 3:3.)
From this doctrine, as its source, is drawn the exhortation to repentance. For John does not say, “Repent ye, and in this way the kingdom of heaven will afterwards be at hand;” but first brings forward the grace of God, and then exhorts men to repent Hence it is evident, that the foundation of repentance is the mercy of God, by which he restores the lost. In no other sense is it stated by Mark and Luke, that he preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins Repentance is not placed first, as some ignorantly suppose, as if it were the ground of the forgiveness of sins, or as if it induced God to begin to be gracious to us; but men are commanded to repent, that they may receive the reconciliation which is offered to them. Now, as the undeserved love of God — by which he receives into his favor wretched men, “not imputing their trespasses unto them,” (2 Corinthians 5:19) — is first in order; so it must be observed, that pardon of sins is bestowed upon us in Christ, not that God may treat them with indulgence, but that he may heal us from our sins. And, indeed, without hatred of sin and remorse for transgressions, no man will taste the grace of God. But a definition of repentance and faith may explain more fully the manner in which both are connected; which leads me to handle this doctrine more sparingly.
With regard to the meaning of the present passage, it is proper to observe, that the whole Gospel consists of two parts, — forgiveness of sins, and repentance Now, as Matthew denominates the first of these the kingdom of heaven, we may conclude, that men are in a state of deadly enmity with God, and altogether shut out from the heavenly kingdom, till God receives them into favor. Though John, when he introduces the mention of the grace of God, exhorts men to repentance, yet it must not be forgotten that repentance, not less than the inheritance of the heavenly kingdom, is the gift of God. As he freely pardons our sins, and delivers us, by his mercy, from the condemnation of eternal death, so also does he form us anew to his image, that we may live unto righteousness. As he freely adopts us for his sons, so he regenerates us by his Spirit, that our life may testify, that we do not falsely,245245 “Ce n'est pas a fausses enseignes ni par feintise.” — “It is not with false colors, nor by hypocrisy.” address him as our Father. In like manner, Christ washes away our sins by his blood, and reconciles our Heavenly Father to us by the sacrifice of his death; but, at the same time, in consequence of
“our old man being crucified with him, and the body of sin destroyed,”
he makes us “alive” unto righteousness. The sum of the Gospel is, that God, through his Son, takes away our sins, and admits us to fellowship with him, that we, “denying ourselves” and our own nature, may “live soberly, righteously, and godly,” and thus may exercise ourselves on earth in meditating on the heavenly life.
Matthew 3:3. The yoke of one crying in the wilderness Though this passage of the prophet Isaiah (40:3) ought not to be limited exclusively to John, yet he is one of the number of those to whom it certainly refers. After having spoken of the destruction of the city, and of the awful calamities that would befall the people, he promises a restoration that would follow. His words are,
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God,”
When the temple had been thrown down, and sacrifices abolished, and the people led away into captivity, their affairs seemed to be desperate. And as their ears had been deaf to the uninterrupted voice of the prophets, the Lord kept silence for a time.247247 “Et pource qu'ils avoyent auparavant ferme leurs aureilles a la voix des prophetes, qui journellement et sans cesse, parloyent a eux, le Seigneur se teut, et laissa de parler a eux pour un temps.” — “And because they had formerly shut their ears to the voice of the prophets, who daily and unceasingly spoke to them, the Lord was silent, and ceased to speak to them for a time.” That pious minds may not be cast down during this melancholy silence, the prophet announces, that other preachers of grace will yet arise, to awaken in the people a hope of salvation. Such were Zechariah, Haggai, Malachi, and the like.248248 “Malachie, Esdras, et autres semblables personnages.” — “Malachi, Ezra, and other similar characters.” But as the restoration promised is perpetual, and not for a time only, and as Isaiah refers chiefly to the redemption, which was to be expressed at the coming of Christ, John the Baptist is justly considered the chief minister of consolation.
Next follows in the words of the prophet, The voice of one crying That voice is contrasted with the temporary silence,249249 “Anquel il n'y avoit personne qui parlast au nom de Dieu;” — “in which there was nobody who spoke in the name of God.” which I have just mentioned: for the Jews were to be deprived, for a time, of the instruction, which they had wickedly despised. The word wilderness is here used metaphorically for desolation, or the frightful ruin of the nation, such as existed in the time of the captivity. It was so dismally shattered, that it might well be compared to a wilderness The prophet magnifies the grace of God. “Though the people,” says he, “have been driven far from their country, and even excluded from the society of men, yet the voice of God will yet be heard in the wilderness, to revive the dead with joyful consolation.” When John began to preach, Jerusalem was in this sense a wilderness: for all had been reduced to wild and frightful confusion. But the very sight of a visible wilderness must have had a powerful effect on stupid and hardened men, leading them to perceive that they were in a state of death, and to accept the promise of salvation, which had been held out to them. We now see, that this prediction actually relates to John, and is most properly applied to him.
Prepare the way of the Lord The prophet undoubtedly addresses Cyrus and the Persians, whose agency the Lord employed in this matter. The meaning is: by his wonderful power, God will open a way to his people through impassable forests, through broken rocks, through a sandy desert; for he will have at hand the ministers of his grace, to remove all hindrances out of the way. But that was a shadowy anticipation of redemption. When the spiritual truth is about to appear, John is sent to remove obstacles. And even now the same voice sounds in our ears, that we may prepare the way of the Lord: that is, that we may take out of the way those sins which obstruct the kingdom of Christ, and thus may give access to his grace. To the same purpose are the following words of the prophet: the crooked shall be made straight, (Isaiah 40:4.) All that they mean is: there are intricate and crooked windings in the world, but through such appalling difficulties the Lord makes a way for himself, and breaks through, by incredible means, to accomplish our salvation.
Matthew 3:4. And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair The Evangelist does not desire us to reckon it as one of John’s chief excellencies, that he followed a rough and austere way of living, or even that he avoided a moderate and ordinary degree of elegance: but, having already stated that he was an inhabitant of the mountains, he now adds, that his food and clothing were adapted to his residence. And he mentions this, not only to inform us, that John was satisfied with the food and dress of the peasants, and partook of no delicacies; but that, under a mean and contemptible garb, he was held in high estimation by men of rank and splendor. Superstitious persons look upon righteousness as consisting almost entirely of outward appearances, and have commonly thought, that abstinence of this kind was the perfection of holiness. Nearly akin to this is the error, of supposing him to be a man who lived in solitude, and who disdained the ordinary way of living; as the only superiority of hermits and monks is, that they differ from other people. Nay, gross ignorance has gone so far that, out of camel’s hair they have made an entire skin.
Now, there can be no doubt, that the Evangelist here describes a man of the mountains,252252 “Montanum hominem;” — “un homme suivant les montagnes.” widely distant from all the refinement and delicacies of towns,—not only satisfied with such food as could be procured, but eating only what was fit to be used in its natural state, such as wild honey, which is supplied by that region in great abundance, and locusts, with which it also abounds. Or he may have intended to point out that, when a man of mean aspect, and without any polite accomplishments, appeared in public life, it was attended by this advantage, that the majesty of God shone alone in him, and yet struck all with admiration. For we must observe what is added, that there was a great concourse of people from all directions; from which we infer, that his fame was very widely spread.253253 “Qu il a ete merveilleusement grand bruit de luy par tout le pays.” — “That there was an astonishingly great noise about him through all the country.” Or the Evangelist may have signified the design of God, to present, in the person of John, a singular instance of frugality, and, in this manner, to fill the Jews with reverence for his doctrine, or at least to convince them of ingratitude, according to that saying of our Lord, John the Baptist came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, (Luke 7:33.)
Matthew 3:6; Mark 1:5. And were baptized, confessing their sins This confession was a testimony of repentance: for, as the Lord, in the sacraments, brings himself under obligation to us, as if he had given his own hand-writing, so it is our duty, on the other hand, to reply to him. In Baptism, he declares that our sins are forgiven, and calls us to repentance. That men may come forward, in a right manner, to be baptized, confession of sins is demanded from them: otherwise the whole performance would be nothing but an idle mockery254254 “Autrement, tout ce sainct mystere seroit tournee en mines et bas-tellerie.” — “Otherwise, all this holy mystery would be turned into grimaces and buffoonery.” Let it be observed, that we are here speaking of adults, who ought not, we. are aware, to be admitted indiscriminately into the Church, or introduced by Baptism into the body of Christ,255255 “En la communion de Christ;” — “into communion or fellowship with Christ.” till an examination has been previously made.256256 “Devant qu'ils n'ayent este examinez et interroguez de leur foy;” —”before they have been examined and interrogated as to their faith.”
Hence it is obvious, how absurdly this passage has been tortured by the Papists, to support auricular confession. There were no priests at hand, in whose ears each individual might privately mutter257257 “Il n'y avoit point 1a de prestres, devant lequel un chacun eust peu s'a genouiller l'un apres l'autre, pourbarboter ses pechez en leurs aureilles.” — “There were no priests there, before whom each individual might kneel down, one after another, to mutter his sins in their ears.” his sins; nor is it said that they enumerated all their sins; nor are we told that John left in charge to his disciples an ordinary rule for confession. Even granting to Papists all that they ask, confession will belong to Catechumens alone,258258 “Ceste confession n'appartient droit qu'a ceux qui de nouveau se convertissent a la foy.” — “That confession would only belong to those who are recently converted to the faith.” and will have no place after Baptism. At all events, the law which they lay down for confession after Baptism, derives no countenance from John’s example.259259 “Pour le moins, quand ils commandent par leur loy de se confesser depuis le Baptesme, ils ne peuvent pas dire qu’ils ensuivent Jean, ny l’alleguer pour autheur.” — “At least, when they enjoin, by their law, to make confession after Baptism, they cannot say that they follow John, nor produce him as their author.”
Matthew 3:7. And when he saw many of the Pharisees. It is here related by Matthew and Luke, that John did not merely preach repentance in a general manner, but that he also applied his discourse to individuals. And the manner of teaching will, in point of fact, be very unprofitable, if instructors do not judiciously inquire what the season demands, and what belongs to individuals. Nothing can be more unequal, in this respect, than a constant equality.261261 “Et n' y a rien plus inegal en cest endroit, que de vouloir garder tousjours une mesme egalite.” — “And nothing is more unequal, in this respect, than to wish to maintain always one uniform equality. For this reason John, we are told, addressed the Pharisees and Sadducees with greater severity: because he saw that their hypocrisy, and swelling pride, rendered them liable to be more severely censured than the common people. To comprehend more fully his design, we must understand, that none are more stupid than hypocrites, who deceive themselves and others by the outward mask of holiness. While God thunders, on all sides, against the whole world, they construct a refuge for themselves in their own deceitful fancy; for they are convinced that they have nothing to do with the judgment of God. Does any one suppose, that John acted improperly, in treating them with so much harshness at the first interview? I reply: They were not unknown to him,262262 “Je res ond uil co oissoit bien quelles gens c’estoyent.” — “I reply, that he knew well what sort of people they were.” and the knowledge he had of them was derived, not from acquaintance or experience, but, on the contrary, from a secret revelation of the Spirit. It was therefore necessary that he should not spare them, lest they might return home more inflated with pride. Is it again objected, that they ought not to have been terrified by such severity of reproof, because they made a profession, in baptism, that they would afterwards be different persons from what they had formerly been? The reply is still easy. Those whose habits of uttering falsehood to God, and of deceiving themselves, lead them to hold out hypocrisy and pretension, instead of the reality, ought to be urged, with greater sharpness than other men, to true repentance. There is an astonishing pertinacity, as I have said, in hypocrites; and, until they have been flayed by violence, they obstinately keep their skin.
Matthew 3:8; Luke 3:8. Yield therefore fruits worthy of repentance. He confirms what I have already said, that the repentance, which is attested by words, is of no value, unless it be proved by the conduct: for it is too important a matter to be estimated lightly, or at random. And so John affirms, that the solemn declaration, which they made, is not enough, but that, in process of time, their works will make it evident, whether or not they have seriously repented.266266 “Si leur repentance est vraye, et si c'est it bon escient qu'ils vienent k luy.” — “If their repentance is true, and if it is in good earnest that they come to him.” It ought to be observed, that good works (Titus 3:8) are here called fruits of repentance: for repentance is an inward matter, which has its seat in the heart and soul, but afterwards yields its fruits in a change of life.267267 “Par le changement et amendement de vie;” — “by the change and amendment of life.” But as the whole of this part of doctrine has been grievously corrupted by Popery, we must attend to this distinction, that repentance is an inward renewal of the man, which manifests itself in the outward life, as a tree produces its fruit.
Matthew 3:9. And think not to say within yourselves. Luke 3:8. And begin not to say within yourselves. As the import of both phrases is undoubtedly the same, it is easy to ascertain what John meant. Till hypocrites are hard pressed, they either sleep in their sins, or indulge in licentious mirth.268268 “Ils s'endorment toujours en leurs vices, ou s'egayent comme chevaux eschappez.” — “They sleep always in their sins, or indulge in merriment, like horses let loose.” But when they are summoned to the tribunal of God, they eagerly seek for some subterfuge or concealment, or some covering to interpose between God and them. John’s address to the Pharisees and Sadducees amounts to this: “Now that I have sharply upbraided you, do not, as persons of your stamp are wont to do endeavor to find a remedy in an empty and deceitful title.”
He thus tears from them the wicked confidence, by which they had been bewitched. The covenant, which God had made with Abraham, was employed by them as a shield to defend a bad conscience: not that they rested their salvation on the person of one man, but that God had adopted all the posterity of Abraham. Meanwhile, they did not consider, that none are entitled to be regarded as belonging to “the seed of Abraham,” (John 8:33,) but those who follow his faith, and that without faith the covenant of God has no influence whatever in procuring salvation. And even the little word, in yourselves, is not without meaning: for though they did not boast in words, that they were Abraham’s children, yet they were inwardly delighted with this title, as hypocrites are not ashamed to practice grosser impositions on God than on men.
God is able. The Jews flattered themselves with nearly the same pretenses, as are now brought forward insolently by the Papists. “There must be some Church in the world; because it is the will of God that he be acknowledged, and his name invoked, in the world. But the Church can be nowhere else than among us, to whom God has entrusted his covenant.”269269 “D'autant que le Seigneur nous a ordonnez gardiens de son alliance.” — “Because the Lord has appointed us guardians of his covenant.” This arrogance was chiefly displayed by the high priests, and by others who had any share of government or authority. The common people were treated by them as profane and “accursed,” (John 7:49,) and they looked upon themselves as the holy first-fruits; just as, in our own day, mitred Bishops, Abbots, Canons, Monks, Sorbonnists, and every description of Priests, glorying in the proud title of Clergy, regard the Laity with contempt. This error, of relying too much on the promise of God, John exposes and refutes, by saying that, though God passes by them, he will not want a Church.
The meaning of the words, therefore, is: “God has made an everlasting covenant with Abraham and his seed. In one point you are mistaken. While you are worse than bastards,270270 “Quum sitis plus quam degeneres.” — “Combien qu' a la verite vous soyez pires que bastards.” you imagine that you are the only children of Abraham. But God will raise up elsewhere a new seed of Abraham, which does not now appear.” He says in the dative case, children To ABRAHAM, (τῶ ᾿Αβραὰμ,) to inform us, that the promise of God will not fail, and that Abraham, who relied on it, was not deceived, though his seed be not found in you. Thus from the beginning of the world the Lord has been faithful to his servants, and has never failed to fulfill the promise which he made to them, that he would extend mercy to their children, though he rejected hypocrites. Some imagine, that John spoke of the calling of the Gentiles. This appears to me to be without foundation: but as proud men did not believe it to be possible that the Church should be removed to another place, he reminds them, that God has in his power ways of preserving his Church, which they did not think of, any more than they believed that he could create children out of stones.
Matthew 3:10; Luke 3:9. And now also the axe. After having stripped hypocrites of the covering of a vain confidence, John announces the approaching judgment of God. He had formerly said that, though they were rejected, God would not want a people: and he now adds, that God is just about to drive out unworthy persons from the Church, as barren trees are wont to be cut down. His statement amounts to this, that God has already displayed his power for purifying the Church. The grace of God is never manifested for the salvation of the godly, till his judgment first appears for the destruction of the world: and for two reasons; because God then separates his own people from the reprobate, and because his wrath is kindled anew by the ingratitude of the world. So that we have no reason to wonder, if the preaching of the gospel and the coming of Christ laid the axe for cutting down barren trees, or if the same causes271271 “Ces deux choses mesme;” — “these very two things.” daily advance the wrath of God against the wicked.
The three Evangelists relate the Baptist’s discourse in the same words. In one respect, Luke’s account is more full: for he opens it by explaining the occasion on which this discourse was delivered. It arose from the people being in danger of being led, by a false opinion, to convey to him the honor which was due to Christ. To remove, as soon as possible, every occasion of such a mistake, he expressly declares, that he is not the Christ, and draws such a distinction between Christ and himself as to maintain Christ’s prerogative. He would have done this of his own accord, by handing them over, to use a common expression, as disciples to Christ: but he takes up the matter at an earlier stage, lest, by remaining silent any longer, he should confirm the people in an error.
He who cometh after me is stronger than I Christ is thus declared to be so far superior in power and rank, that, with respect to him, John must occupy a private station.282282 “In ordinem cogendus sit.” — “Il faut qu'il baissc la teste.” — “He must bow the head.” He uses ordinary forms of speech to magnify the glory of Christ, in comparison of whom he declares that he himself is nothing. The chief part of his statement is, that he represents Christ as the author of spiritual baptism, and himself as only the minister of outward baptism. He appears to anticipate an objection, which might be brought forward. What was the design of the Baptism which he had taken upon himself? For it was no light matter to introduce any innovation whatever into the Church of God, and particularly to bring forward a new way of introducing persons into the Church, which was more perfect than the law of God. He replies, that he did not proceed to do this without authority; but that his office, as minister of an outward symbol, takes nothing away from the power and glory of Christ.
Hence we infer, that his intention was not at all to distinguish between his own baptism, and that which Christ taught his disciples, and which he intended should remain in perpetual obligation in his Church. He does not contrast one visible sign with another visible sign, but compares the characters of master and servant with each other, and shows what is due to the master, and what is due to the servant. It ought not to have any weight with us, that an opinion has long and extensively prevailed, that John’s baptism differs from ours. We must learn to form our judgment from the matter as it stands, and not from the mistaken opinions of men. And certainly the comparison, which they imagine to have been made, would involve great absurdities. It would follow from it, that the Holy Spirit is given, in the present day, by ministers. Again, it would follow that John’s baptism was a dead sign, and had no efficacy whatever. Thirdly, it would follow, that we have not the same baptism with Christ: for it is sufficiently evident, that the fellowship, which he condescends to maintain with us, was ratified by this pledge,283283 “A este confirme et ratifie par ce signe;” — “was confirmed and ratified by this sign.” when he consecrated baptism in his own body.
We must therefore hold by what I have already said, that John merely distinguishes, in this passage, between himself and the other ministers of baptism, on the one hand, and the power of Christ, on the other, and maintains the superiority of the master over the servants. And hence we deduce the general doctrine, as to what is done in baptism by men, and what is accomplished in it by the Son of God. To men has been committed nothing more than the administration of an outward and visible sign: the reality dwells with Christ alone.284284 “La verite du Baptesme vient et procede du Christ seul.” — “The truth of Baptism comes and proceeds from Christ alone.”
Scripture does sometimes, though not in a literal sense,285285 “Improprie.” ascribe to men what John here declares not to belong to men, but claims exclusively for Christ. In such cases, however, the design is not to inquire, what man has separately and by himself, but merely to show, what is the effect and advantage of signs, and in what manner God makes use of them, as instruments, by his Spirit. Here also is laid down a distinction between Christ and his ministers, that the world may not fall into the mistake, of giving to them what is justly due to him alone: for there is nothing to which they are more prone, than to adorn creatures with what has been taken from God by robbery. A careful attention to this observation will rid us of many difficulties. We know what disputes have arisen, in our own age, about the advantage and efficacy of signs, all of which may be disposed of in a single word. The ordinance of our Lord, viewed as a whole, includes himself as its Author, and the power of the Spirit, together with the figure and the minister: but where a comparison is made between our Lord and the minister, the former must have all the honor, and the latter must be reduced to nothing.
Matthew 3:11. He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire It is asked, why did not John equally say, that it is Christ alone who washes souls with his blood? The reason is, that this very washing is performed by the power of the Spirit, and John reckoned it enough to express the whole effect of baptism by the single word Spirit The meaning is clear, that Christ alone bestows all the grace which is figuratively represented by outward baptism, because it is he who “sprinkles the conscience” with his blood. It is he also who mortifies the old man, and bestows the Spirit of regeneration. The word fire is added as an epithet, and is applied to the Spirit, because he takes away our pollutions, as fire purifies gold. In the same manner, he is metaphorically called water in another passage, (John 3:5.)
12. Whose winnowing-fan is in his hand In the former verse, John preached concerning the grace of Christ, that the Jews might yield themselves to him to be renewed: now he discourses of judgment, that he may strike despisers with terror. As there are always many hypocrites who proudly reject the grace of Christ offered to them, it is also necessary to denounce the judgment that awaits them. For this reason John here describes Christ as a severe judge against unbelievers. And this is an order which must be observed by us in teaching, that hypocrites may know, that their rejection of Christ will not go unpunished. They will thus be roused from their lethargy, and begin to dread him as an avenger, whom they despised as the author of salvation.
I have no doubt, that John intended also to show, what Christ accomplishes by means of his Gospel. The preaching of the Gospel, then, is the winnowing-fan Before the Lord sifts us, the whole world is involved in confusion, every one flatters himself, and the good are mixed with the bad in short, it is only necessary that the chaff be blown. But when Christ comes forward with his Gospels, — when he reproves the consciences and summons them to the tribunal of God, the chaff is sifted out,286286 “Les pailles s'en vont avec le vent;” — “the chaff goes away with the wind.” which formerly occupied a great part of the thrashing-floor It is true that, in the case of individuals, the Gospel effects a separation from the chaff: but in this passage, John compares the reprobate to chaff, and believers to wheat The thrashing floor accordingly denotes — not the world, (as some people imagine,) but the Church: for we must attend to the class of persons whom John addresses. The mere title filled the Jews with pride,287287 “Les Juifs s'arrestoyent a ce beau titre de Peuple de Dieu, et d'En-fans d'Abraham, et s'en enfioyent.” — “The Jews dwelt upon this fine title of People of God, and Children of Abraham, and were proud of it.” but John tells them that it is foolish in them to be proud of it, because they hold but a temporary place in the Church of God, from which they are soon to be thrown out, like chaff from the thrashing-floor. In this way, he gives a rapid glance at the corrupt state in which the Church then was: for it was covered with husks, and straws, and other rubbish, but would soon be cleansed by the strong breeze of the Gospel. But how is Christ said to separate the chaff from the wheat, when he can find nothing in men but mere chaff? The answer is easy. The elect are formed into wheat,288288 “Les esleus, qui de leur nature ne sont que paille, deviennent froment par la grace de Dieu.” — “The elect, who by their nature are only chaff; become wheat by the grace of God.” and are then separated from the chaff, and collected into the granary
He will thoroughly cleanse his thrashing-floor This work was begun by Christ, and is daily going forward: but the full accomplishment of it will not be seen till the last day. This is the reason why John draws our attention to the subject. But let us remember, that believers even now enter, by hope, into the granary of God, in which they will actually have their everlasting abode; while the reprobate experience, in their convictions of guilt, the heat of that fire, the actual burning of which they will feel at the last day.
Many persons, I am aware, have entered into ingenious debates about the eternal fire, by which the wicked will be tormented after the judgment. But we may conclude from many passages of Scripture, that it is a metaphorical expression. For, if we must believe that it is real, or what they call material fire, we must also believe that the brimstone and the fan are material, both of them being mentioned by Isaiah.
“For Tophet is ordained of old; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it,” (Isaiah 30:33.)
We must explain the fire in the same manner as the worm, (Mark 9:44, 46, 48.) and if it is universally agreed that the worm is a metaphorical term, we must form the same opinion as to the fire. Let us lay aside the speculations, by which foolish men weary themselves to no purpose, and satisfy ourselves with believing, that these forms of speech denote, in a manner suited to our feeble capacity, a dreadful torment, which no man can now comprehend, and no language can express.
Matthew 3:13. That he might be baptized by him. For what purpose did the Son of God wish to be baptized? This may be learned, in some measure, from his answer. We have already assigned a special reason. He received the same baptism with us, in order to assure believers, that they are ingrafted into his body, and that they are “buried with him in baptism,” that they may rise to “newness of life,” (Romans 6:4.) But the end, which he here proposes, is more extensive: for thus it became him to fulfill all righteousness, (verse 15.) The word righteousness frequently signifies, in Scripture, the observation of the law: and in that sense we may explain this passage to mean that, since Christ had voluntarily subjected himself to the law, it was necessary that he should keep it in every part. But I prefer a more simple interpretation. “Say nothing for the present,” said our Lord, “about my rank:292292 “Je laisse maintenant ma dignite a part.” — “I now lay my rank aside.” for the question before us is not, which of us deserves to be placed above the other.293293 “Lequel de nous deux est plus grand ou excellent;” — “which of usboth is greater or more excellent.” Let us rather consider what our calling demands, and what has been enjoined on us by God the Father.” The general reason why Christ received baptism was, that he might render full obedience to the Father; and the special reason was, that he might consecrate baptism in his own body, that we might have it in common with him.
14. I have need to be baptized by thee. It is certain, that John acknowledged Christ to be not only a distinguished prophet, as many foolishly dream, but the Son of God, as he really was: for otherwise he would have dishonored God by lowering his holy calling to a mortal man. How he came to know this, the reader will learn by consulting John’s Gospel, (1:15,33.) There was, no doubt, plausibility in this ground of refusal, that Christ had no need of his baptism: but John was mistaken in not considering, that it was for the sake of others that baptism was asked.294294 “Que c'est pour le profit des autres, et non pas pour le sien, que Christ demande d'estre baptize.” — “That it is for the benefit of others, and not for his own, that Christ asks to be baptized.” And so Christ bids him consider, what was suitable to the character of a servant, (Philippians 2:7,) which he had undertaken; for a voluntary subjection takes nothing from his glory. Though the good man295295 “Quelque excellent personnage qu'il fust.” — “However excellent a person he was.” remained ignorant, for a time, of some part of his public duty, this particular error did not prevent him from discharging, in a proper and lawful manner, his office of Baptist. This example shows, that we do not act rashly, in undertaking the commission which the Lord has given us, according to the light we enjoy, though we do not immediately comprehend all that belongs to our calling, or that depends upon it. We must also observe his modesty, in giving up his opinion, and immediately obeying Christ.
16. And, lo, the heavens were opened to him. The opening of the heavens sometimes means a manifestation of heavenly glory; but here it means also a cleft, or opening, of the visible heaven, so that John could see something beyond the planets and stars. The words of Mark can have no other meaning, he saw the heavens cleft asunder296296 “Il vid les cieux mi-partir, ou se fendre.” — “He saw the heavens divided in the middle, or deft.” An exact inquiry into the way in which this opening was made, would be of no importance, nor is it necessary. It is sufficient for us to believe, that it was a symbol of the Divine presence. As the Evangelists say that John saw the Holy Spirit, it is probable that the opening of the heavens was chiefly on his account. Yet I do not hesitate to admit that Christ also, so far as he was man, received from it additional certainty as to his heavenly calling. This appears to be the tendency of the words of Luke: while Jesus was praying, the heaven was opened, (Luke 3:21:) for, though his prayers were always directed towards the benefit of others, yet as man, when he commenced a warfare of so arduous a description, he needed to be armed with a remarkable power of the Spirit.
But here two questions arise. The first is, why did the Spirit, who had formerly dwelt in Christ, descend upon him at that time? This question is answered by a passage of the prophet Isaiah, which will be handled in another place.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; because the Lord God hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,” (Isaiah 61:1.)
Though the grace of the Spirit was bestowed on Christ in a remarkable and extraordinary manner, (John 3:34,) yet he remained at home as a private person, till he should be called to public life by the Father. Now that the full time is come, for preparing to discharge the office of Redeemer, he is clothed with a new power of the Spirit, and that not so much for his own sake, as for the sake of others. It was done on purpose, that believers might learn to receive, and to contemplate with reverence, his divine power, and that the weakness of the flesh might not make him despised.
17. And, lo, a voice from heaven From that opening of the heavens, which has been already mentioned, a loud voice was heard, that its majesty might be more impressive. The public appearance of Christ, to undertake the office of Mediator, was accompanied by this announcement,300300 “Avec ce tesmoignage et recommandation;” — “with this testimony and recommendation.” in which he was offered to us by the Father, that we may rely on this pledge of our adoption, and boldly call God himself our Father. The designation of Son belongs truly and naturally to Christ alone: but yet he was declared to be the Son of God in our flesh, that the favor of Him, whom he alone has a right to call Father, may be also obtained for us. And thus when God presents Christ to us as Mediator, accompanied by the title of Son, he declares that he is the Father of us all, (Ephesians 4:6.)
Such, too, is the import of the epithet beloved: for in ourselves we are hateful to God, and his fatherly love must flow to us by Christ. The best expounder of this passage is the Apostle Paul, when he says
“who hath predestinated us into adoption by Jesus Christ in himself, according to the good pleasure of his will; to the praise of the glory of his grace, in which he hath accepted us in the Beloved,”
that is, in his beloved Son. It is still more fully expressed by these words, in whom I am well pleased They imply, that the love of God rests on Christ in such a manner, as to diffuse itself from him to us all; and not to us only, but even to the angels themselves. Not that they need reconciliation, for they never were at enmity with God: but even they become perfectly united to God, only by means of their Head, (Ephesians 1:22.) For the same reason, he is also called “the first-born of every creature,” (Colossians 1:5;) and Paul likewise states that Christ came
“to reconcile all things to himself, both those which are on earth, and those which are in heavens,” (Colossians 1:20.)