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Calvin's Commentaries 
On the Gospel of John (Volume XVII)
John 1:19-23 
19. And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent Priests and Levites to Jerusalem, to ask him, Who art thou?  
20. And he confessed, and denied not; he confessed, I say, I am not the Christ.  
21. They then asked him, What art thou then? Art thou Elijah? And he said, I am not. Art thou a Prophet? And he answered, No.  
22. They said therefore to him, Who art thou, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?  
23. He saith, I am the voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. 

19. And this is the testimony. Hitherto the Evangelist has related the preaching of John about Christ; he now comes down to a more illustrious testimony, which was delivered to the ambassadors of the Priests, that they might convey it to Jerusalem. He says, therefore, that John openly confessed for what purpose he was sent by God. The first inquiry here is, for what purpose the Priests put questions to him. It is generally believed that, out of hatred to Christ, they gave to John an honor which did not belong to him; but this could not be the reason, for Christ was not yet known to them. Others say that they were better pleased with John, because he was of the lineage and order of the priesthood; but neither do I think that this is probable; for since they expected from Christ all prosperity, why did they voluntarily contrive a false Christ? I think, therefore, that there was another reason that induced them. It was now a long time since they had the Prophets; John came suddenly and contrary to expectation; and the minds of all were aroused to expect the Messiah. Besides, all entertained the belief that the coining of the Messiah was at hand. 

That they may not appear to be careless about their duty, if they neglect or disguise a matter of so great importance, they ask John, Who art thou? At first, therefore, they did not act from malice, but, on the contrary, actuated by the desire of redemption, they wish to know if John be the Christ, because he begins to change the order which had been customary in the Church. And yet I do not deny that ambition, and a wish to retain their authority, had some influence over them; but nothing certainly was farther from their intention than to transfer the honor of Christ to another. Nor is their conduct in this matter inconsistent with the office which they sustain; for since they held the government of the Church of God, it was their duty to take care that no one rashly obtruded himself, that no founder of a new sect should arise, that the unity of faith should not be broken in the Church, and that none should introduce new and foreign ceremonies. It is evident, therefore, that a report about John was widely spread and aroused the minds of all; and this was arranged by the wonderful Providence of God, that this testimony might be more strikingly complete. 

20. And he confessed, and denied not. That is, he confessed openly, and without any ambiguity or hypocrisy. The word confess, in the first instance, means generally, that he stated the fact as it really was. In the second instance, it is repeated in order to express the form of the confession. He replied expressly, that he was not the Christ. 

21. Art thou Elijah? Why do they name Elijah rather than Moses? It was because they learned from the prediction of Malachi 4:2, 5, that when the Messiah, the Sun of Righteousness, should arise, Elijah would be the morning star to announce his approach. But the question is founded on a false opinion which they had long held; for, holding the opinion that the soul of a man departs out of one body into another, when the Prophet Malachi announced that Elijah would be sent, they imagined that the same Elijah, who lived under the reign of king Ahab, (1 Kings 17:1,) was to come. It is therefore a just and true reply which John makes, that he is not Elijah; for he speaks according to the opinion which they attached to the words; but Christ, giving the true interpretation of the Prophet, affirms that John is Elijah, (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:13.) 

Art thou a Prophet? Erasmus gives an inaccurate explanation of these words by limiting them to Christ; for the addition of the article (oJ profh>thv, the prophet) carries no emphasis in this passage; and the messengers afterwards declare plainly enough, that they meant a different prophet from Christ; for they sum up the whole: by saying, (verse 25,) if thou art neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a Prophet. Thus we see that they intended to point out different persons. Others think that they inquired if he was one of the ancient prophets; but neither do I approve of that exposition. Rather do they by this term point out the office of John, and ask if God had appointed him to be a prophet. When he replies, I am not, he does not for the sake of modesty tell a lie, but honestly and sincerely detaches himself from the company of the prophets. And yet this reply is not inconsistent with the honorable attestation which Christ gives him. Christ bestows on John the designation of prophet, and even adds that he is more than a prophet, (Matthew 11:9;) but by these words he does nothing more than demand credit and authority for his doctrine, and at the same time describes, in lofty terms, the excellence of the office which had been conferred on him. But in this passage John has a different object in view, which is, to show that he has no special message, as was usually the case with the prophets, but that he was merely appointed to be the herald of Christ. 

This will be made still more clear by a comparison. All ambassadors ó even those who are not sent on matters of great importance ó obtain the name and authority of ambassadors, because they hold special commissions. Such were all the Prophets who, having been enjoined to deliver certain predictions, discharged the prophetic office. But if some weighty matter come to be transacted, and if two ambassadors are sent, one of whom announces the speedy arrival of another who possesses full power to transact the whole matter, and if this latter has received injunctions to bring it to a conclusion, will not the former embassy be reckoned a part and appendage of the latter, which is the principal? Such was the case with John the Baptist, to whom God had given no other injunction than to prepare the Jews for listening to Christ, and becoming his disciples. That this is the meaning, will still more fully appear from the context; for we must investigate the opposite clause, which immediately follows. I am not a prophet, says he, but a voice crying in the wilderness. The distinction lies in this, that the voice crying, that a way may be prepared for the Lord, is not a prophet, but merely a subordinate minister, so to speak; and his doctrine is only a sort of preparation for listening to another Teacher. In this way John, though he is more excellent than all the prophets, still is not a prophet. 

23. The voice of him who crieth. As he would have been chargeable with rashness in undertaking the office of teaching, if he had not received a commission, he shows what was the duty which he had to perform, and proves it by a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah 60:3. Hence it follows that he does nothing but what God commanded him to do. Isaiah does not, indeed, speak there of John alone, but, promising the restoration of the Church, he predicts that there will yet be heard joyful voices, commanding to prepare the way for the Lord. Though he points out the coming of God, when he brought back the people from their captivity in Babylon, yet the true accomplishment was the manifestation of Christ in flesh. Among the heralds who announced that the Lord was at hand, John held the chief place. 

To enter into ingenious inquiries, as some have done, into the meaning of the word Voice, would be frivolous. John is called a Voice, because he was enjoined to cry. It is in a figurative sense, undoubtedly, that Isaiah gives the name wilderness to the miserable desolation of the Church, which seemed to preclude the return of the people; as if he had said, that a passage would indeed be opened up for the captive people, but that the Lord would find a road through regions in which there was no road. But that visible wilderness, in which John preached, was a figure or image of the awful desolation which took away all hope of deliverance. If this comparison be considered, it will be easily seen that no torture has been given to the words of the prophet in this application of them; for God arranged everything in such a manner, as to place before the eyes of his people, who were overwhelmed with their calamities, a mirror of this prediction. 

John 1:24-28 
24. Now those who were sent were of the Pharisees.  
25. Therefore they asked him, and said to him, Why then dost thou baptize, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a Prophet?  
26. John answered them, saying, I baptize with water; but one standeth in the midst of you, whom you know not.  
27. It is he who, coming after me, is preferred to me; whose shoe-latchet I am not worthy to loose.  
28. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. 

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 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 Johnís baptism was different from ours; for John does not argue here about the advantage and usefulness of his baptism, but merely compares his own person with the person of Christ. In like manner, if we were inquiring, at the present day, what part belongs to us, and what belongs to Christ, in baptism, we must acknowledge that Christ alone performs what baptism figuratively represents, and that we have nothing beyond the bare administration of the sign. There is a twofold way of speaking in Scripture about the sacraments; for sometimes it tells us that they are the laver of regeneration, (Titus 3:5;) that by them our sins are washed away, (1 Peter 3:21;) that we 

are in-grafted into the body of Christ, that our old man is crucified, and that we rise again to newness of life, (Romans 6:4, 5, 6;) 

and, in those cases, Scripture joins the power of Christ with the ministry of man; as, indeed, man is nothing else than the hand of Christ. Such modes of expression show, not what man can of himself accomplish, but what Christ performs by man, and by the sign, as his instruments. But as there is a strong tendency to fall into superstition, and as men, through the pride which is natural to them, take from God the honor due to him, and basely appropriate it to themselves; so Scripture, in order to restrain this blasphemous arrogance, sometimes distinguishes ministers from Christ, as in this passage, that we may learn that ministers are nothing and can do nothing. 

One standeth in the midst of you. He indirectly charges them with stupidity, in not knowing Christ, to whom their minds ought to have been earnestly directed; and he always insists earnestly on this point, that nothing can be known about his ministry, until men have come to him who is the Author of it. When he says that Christ standeth in the midst of, them, it is that he may excite their desire and their exertion to know him. The amount of what he says is, that he wishes to place himself as low as possible, lest any degree of honor improperly bestowed on him might obscure the excellence of Christ. It is probable that he had these sentences frequently in his mouth, when he saw himself immoderately extolled by the perverse opinions 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 Johnís baptism, and this was his ordinary place for baptizing. It is likewise supposed by some to be a passage across Jordan, and, from this circumstance, they derive the name, for they interpret it the house of passage; unless, perhaps, some may prefer the opinion of those who refer to the memorable passage of the people, (Joshua 3:13,) when God opened up a way for them in the midst of the waters, under the direction of Joshua. Others say that it ought rather to be read Betharaba. Instead of Bethabara, some have inserted here the name Bethany, but this is a mistake; for we shall afterwards see how near Bethany was to Jerusalem. The situation of Bethabara, as laid down by those who have described the country, agrees best with the words of the Evangelist; though I have no wish to dispute about the pronunciation of the word. 
 
John 1:29 
29. The next day, John seeth Jesus coming to him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!  

29. The next day. There can be no doubt that John had already spoken about the manifestation of the Messiah; but when Christ began to appear, he wished that his announcement of him should quickly become known, and the time was now at hand when Christ would put an end to Johnís ministry, as, when the sun is risen, the dawn suddenly disappears. After having testified to the priests who were sent to him, that he from whom they ought to seek the truth and power of baptism was already present, and was conversing in the midst of the people, the next day he pointed him out to the view of all. For these two acts, following each other in close succession, must have powerfully affected their minds. This too is the reason why Christ appeared in the presence of John. 

Behold the Lamb of God. The principal office of Christ is briefly but clearly stated; that he takes away the sins of the world by the sacrifice of his death, and reconciles men to God. There are other favors, indeed, which Christ bestows upon us, but this is the chief favor, and the rest depend on it; that, by appeasing the wrath of God, he makes us to be reckoned holy and righteous. For from this source flow all the streams of blessings, that, by not imputing our sins, he receives us into favor. Accordingly, John, in order to conduct us to Christ, commences with the gratuitous forgiveness of sins which we obtain through him. 

By the word Lamb he alludes to the ancient sacrifices of the Law. He had to do with Jews who, having been accustomed to sacrifices, could not be instructed about atonement for sins in any other way than by holding out to them a sacrifice. As there were various kinds of them, he makes one, by a figure of speech, to stand for the whole; and it is probable that John alluded to the paschal lamb. It must be observed, in general, that John employed this mode of expression, which was better adapted to instruct the Jews, and possessed greater force; as in our own day, in consequence of baptism being generally practiced, we understand better what is meant by obtaining forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ, when we are told that we are washed and cleansed by it from our pollutions. At the same time, as the Jews commonly held superstitious notions about sacrifices, he corrects this fault in passing, by reminding them of the object to which all the sacrifices were directed. It was a very wicked abuse of the institution of sacrifice, that they had their confidence fixed on the outward signs; and therefore John, holding out Christ, testifies that he is the Lamb of God; by which he means that all the sacrifices, which the Jews were accustomed to offer under the Law, had no power whatever to atone for sins, but that they were only figures, the truth of which was manifested in Christ himself. 

Who taketh away the sin of the world. He uses the word sin in the singular number, for any kind of iniquity; as if he had said, that every kind of unrighteousness which alienates men from God is taken away by Christ. And when he says, the sin Of The World, he extends this favor indiscriminately to the whole human race; that the Jews might not think that he had been sent to them alone. But hence we infer that the whole world is involved in the same condemnation; and that as all men without exception are guilty of unrighteousness before God, they need to be reconciled to him. John the Baptist, therefore, by speaking generally of the sin of the world, intended to impress upon us the conviction of our own misery, and to exhort us to seek the remedy. Now our duty is, to embrace the benefit which is offered to all, that each of us may be convinced that there is nothing to hinder him from obtaining reconciliation in Christ, provided that he comes to him by the guidance of faith. 

Besides, he lays down but one method of taking away sins. We know that from the beginning of the world, when their own consciences held them convinced, men labored anxiously to procure forgiveness. Hence the vast number of propitiatory offerings, by which they falsely imagined that they appeased God. I own, indeed, that all the spurious rites of a propitiatory nature drew their existence from a holy origin, which was, that God had appointed the sacrifices which directed men to Christ; but yet every man contrived for himself his own method of appeasing God. But John leads us back to Christ alone, and informs us that there is no other way in which God is reconciled to us than through his agency, because he alone takes away sin. He therefore leaves no other refuge for sinners than to flee to Christ; by which he overturns all satisfactions, and purifications, and redemptions, that are invented by men; as, indeed, they are nothing else than base inventions framed by the subtlety of the devil. 

The verb ai]rein (to take away) may be explained in two ways; either that Christ took upon himself the load which weighed us down, as it is said that he carried our sins on the tree, (1 Peter 2:24;) and Isaiah says 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 ó oJ ai]rwn, who taketh away, denotes a continued act; for the satisfaction which Christ once made is always in full vigor. But he does not merely teach us that Christ takes away sin, but points out also the method, namely, that he hath reconciled the Father to us by means of his death; for this is what he means by the word Lamb. Let us therefore learn that we become reconciled to God by the grace of Christ, if we go straight to his death, and when we believe that he who was nailed to the cross is the only propitiatory sacrifice, by which all our guilt is removed.