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You have very often heard, holy brethren, and you know well, that John the Baptist, in proportion as he was greater than those born of women, and was more humble in his acknowledgment of the Lord, obtained the grace of being the friend of the Bridegroom; zealous for the Bridegroom, not for himself; not seeking his own honor, but that of his Judge, whom as a herald he preceded. Therefore, to the prophets who went before, it was granted to predict concerning Christ; but to this man, to point Him out with the finger. For as Christ was unknown by those who did not believe the prophets before He came, He remained unknown to them even when present. For He had come humbly and concealed from the first; the more concealed in proportion as He was more humble: but the people, despising in their pride the humility of God, crucified their Saviour, and made Him their condemner.
2. But will not He who at first came con cealed, because humble, come again manifested, because exalted? You have just listened to the Psalm:
God shall come manifestly, and our God shall not keep silence. He was silent that He might be judged, He will not be silent when He begins to judge. It would not have been said,
He will come manifestly, unless at first He had come concealed; nor would it have been said,
He shall not keep silence, unless He had first kept silence. How was He silent? Interrogate Isaiah:
He was brought as a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before his shearer was dumb, so He opened not His mouth. Isaiah 53:7
But He shall come manifestly, and shall not keep silence. In what manner
A fire shall go before Him, and round about Him a strong tempest. That tempest has to carry away all the chaff from the floor, which is now being threshed; and the fire has to burn what the tempest carries away. But now He is silent; silent in judgment, but not silent in precept. For if Christ is silent, what is the purpose of these Gospels? What the purpose of the voices of the apostles, what of the canticles of the Psalms, what of the declarations of the prophets? In all these Christ is not silent. But now He is silent in not taking vengeance: He is not silent in not giving warning. But He will come in glory to take vengeance, and will manifest Himself even to all who do not believe in Him. But now, because when present He was concealed, it behooved that He should be despised. For unless He had been despised, He would not have been crucified; if He had not been crucified, He would not have shed His blood — the price by which He redeemed us. But that He might give a price for us, He was crucified; that He might be crucified, He was despised; that He might be despised, He appeared in humility.
3. Yet because He appeared as it were in the night, in a mortal body, He lighted for Himself a lamp by which He might be seen. That lamp was John, John 5:35 concerning whom you lately heard many things: and the present passage of the evangelist contains the words of John; in the first place, and it is the chief point, his confession that he was not the Christ. But so great was the excellence of John, that men might have believed him to be the Christ: and in this he gave a proof of his humility, that he said he was not when he might have been believed to have been the Christ; therefore,
This is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites to him from Jerusalem to ask him, Who are you? But they would not have sent unless they had been moved by the excellence of his authority who ventured to baptize.
And he confessed, and denied not. What did he confess?
And he confessed, I am not the Christ.
And they asked him, What then? Are you Elias? For they knew that Elias was to precede Christ. For to no Jew was the name of Christ unknown. They did not think that he was the Christ; but they did not think that Christ would not come at all. When they were hoping that He would come, they were offended at Him when He was present, and stumbled at Him as on a low stone. For He was as yet a small stone, already indeed cut out of the mountain without hands; as says Daniel the prophet, that he saw a stone cut out of the mountain without hands. But what follows?
And that stone, says he
grew and became a great mountain and filled the whole face of the earth. Daniel 2:34-35 Mark then, my beloved brethren, what I say: Christ, before the Jews, was already cut out from the mountain. The prophet wishes that by the mountain should be understood the Jewish kingdom. But the kingdom of the Jews had not filled the whole face of the earth. The stone was cut out from thence, because from thence was the Lord born on His advent among men. And wherefore without hands? Because without the cooperation of man did the Virgin bear Christ. Now then was that stone cut out without hands before the eyes of the Jews; but it was humble. Not without reason; because not yet had that stone increased and filled the whole earth: that He showed in His kingdom, which is the Church, with which He has filled the whole face of the earth. Because then it had not yet increased, they stumbled at Him as at a stone: and that happened in them which is written,
Whosoever shall fall upon that stone shall be broken; but on whomsoever that stone shall fall, it will grind them to powder. Luke 20:18 At first they fell upon Him lowly: as the lofty One He shall come upon them; but that He may grind them to powder when He comes in His exaltation, He first broke them in His lowliness. They stumbled at Him, and were broken; they were not ground, but broken: He will come exalted and will grind them. But the Jews were to be pardoned because they stumbled at a stone which had not yet increased. What sort of persons are those who stumble at the mountain itself? Already you know who they are of whom I speak. Those who deny the Church diffused through the whole world, do not stumble at the lowly stone, but at the mountain itself: because this the stone became as it grew. The blind Jews did not see the lowly stone: but how great blindness not to see the mountain!
5. They saw Him then lowly, and did not know Him. He was pointed out to them by a lamp. For in the first place he, than whom no greater had arisen of those born of women, said,
I am not the Christ. It was said to him,
Are you Elias? He answered, I am not. For Christ sends Elias before Him: and he said,
I am not, and occasioned a question for us. For it is to be feared lest men, insufficiently understanding, think that John contradicted what Christ said. For in a certain place, when the Lord Jesus Christ said certain things in the Gospel regarding Himself, His disciples answered Him:
How then say the scribes, that is, those skilled in the law,
that Elias must first come? And the Lord said,
Elias is already come, and they have done unto him what they listed; and, if you wish to know, John the Baptist is he. The Lord Jesus Christ said,
Elias is already come, and John the Baptist is he; but John, being interrogated, confessed that he was not Elias, in the same manner that he confessed that he was not Christ. And as his confession that he was not Christ was true, so was his confession that he was not Elias. How then shall we compare the words of the herald with the words of the Judge? Away with the thought that the herald speaks falsehood; for that which he speaks he hears from the Judge. Wherefore then did he say,
I am not Elias; and the Lord,
He is Elias? Because the Lord Jesus Christ wished in him to prefigure His own advent, and to say that John was in the spirit of Elias. And what John was to the first advent, that will Elias be to the second advent. As there are two advents of the Judge, so are there two heralds. The Judge indeed was the same, but the heralds two, but not two judges. It was needful that in the first instance the Judge should come to be judged. He sent before Him His first herald; He called him Elias, because Elias will be in the second advent what John was in the first.
6. For mark, beloved brethren, how true it is what I say. When John was conceived, or rather when he was born, the Holy Spirit prophesied that this would be fulfilled in him:
And he shall be, he said,
the forerunner of the Highest, in the spirit and power of Elias. Luke 1:17 What signifies
in the spirit and power of Elias? In the same Holy Spirit in the room of Elias. Wherefore in room of Elias? Because what Elias will be to the second, that John was to the first advent. Rightly therefore, speaking literally, did John reply. For the Lord spoke figuratively,
Elias, the same is John: but he, as I have said, spoke literally when he said,
I am not Elias. Neither did John speak falsely, nor did the Lord speak falsely; neither was the word of the herald nor of the Judge false, if only you understand. But who shall understand? He who shall have imitated the lowliness of the herald, and shall have acknowledged the loftiness of the Judge. For nothing was more lowly than the herald. My brethren, in nothing had John greater merit than in this humility, inasmuch as when he was able to deceive men, and to be thought Christ, and to have been received in the place of Christ (for so great were his grace and his excellency), nevertheless he openly confessed and said,
I am not the Christ.
Are you Elias? If he had said I am Elias, it would have been as if Christ were already coming in His second advent to judge, not in His first to be judged. As if saying, Elias is yet to come,
I am not, said he,
Elias. But give heed to the lowly One before whom John came, that you may not feel the lofty One before whom Elias came. For thus also did the Lord complete the saying:
John the Baptist is he which is to come. He came as a figure of that in which Elias is to come in his own person. Then Elias will in his own proper person be Elias, now in similitude he was John. Now John in his own proper person is John, in similitude Elias. The two heralds gave to each other their similitudes, and kept their own proper persons; but the Judge is one Lord, whether preceded by this herald or by that.
And they asked him, What then? Are you Elias? And he said, No. And they said to him, Are you a prophet? And he answered, No! They said therefore unto him, Who are you? That we may give an answer to them that sent us. What do you say of yourself? He says, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Isaiah 40:3 That said Isaiah. This prophecy was fulfilled in John,
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Crying what?
Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. Would it not have seemed to you that a herald would have cried,
Go away, make room. Instead of the herald's cry
Go away, John says
Come. The herald makes men stand back from the judge; to the Judge John calls. Yes, indeed, John calls men to the lowly One, that they may not experience what He will be as the exalted Judge.
I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah. He did not say, I am John, I am Elias, I am a prophet. But what did he say? This I am called,
The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way for the Lord: I am the prophecy itself.
And they which were sent were of the Pharisees, that is, of the chief men among the Jews;
and they asked him and said to him, Why do you baptize then, if you be not the Christ, nor Elias, nor a prophet? As if it seemed to them audacity to baptize, as if they meant to inquire, in what character do you baptize? We ask whether you are the Christ; you say that you are not. We ask whether you perchance are His precursor, for we know that before the advent of Christ, Elias will come; you answer that you are not. We ask, if perchance you are some herald come long before, that is, a prophet, and hast received that power, and you say that you are not a prophet. And John was not a prophet; he was greater than a prophet. The Lord gave such testimony concerning him:
What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? Of course implying that he was not shaken by the wind; because John was not such an one as is moved by the wind; for he who is moved by the wind is blown upon by every seductive blast.
But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? For John was clothed in rough garments; that is, his tunic was of camel's hair.
Behold, they who are clothed in soft raiment are in kings' houses. You did not then go out to see a man clothed in soft raiment.
But what went ye out for to see? A prophet? Yea, I say unto you, one greater than a prophet is here; Matthew 11:7-9 for the prophets prophesied of Christ a long time before, John pointed Him out as present.
Why do you baptize then, if you be not the Christ, nor Elias, nor a prophet? John answered them, saying, I baptize with water; but there stands One among you whom you know not. For, very truly, He was not seen, being humble, and therefore was the lamp lighted. Observe how John gives place, who might have been accounted other than he was.
He it is who comes after me, who is made before me (that is, as we have already said, is
preferred before me), whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose. How greatly did he humble himself! And therefore he was greatly lifted up; for he that humbles himself shall be exalted. Luke 14:11 Hence, holy brethren, you ought to note that if John so humbled himself as to say,
I am not worthy to unloose His shoe-latchet, what need they have to be humbled who say, humble would he still have been! And if he had said he was worthy, and had spoken thus,
He came after me who is made before me, the latchet of whose shoe I am only worthy to unloose, he would have greatly humbled himself. But when he says that he is not worthy even to do this, truly was he full of the Holy Spirit, who in such fashion as a servant acknowledged his Lord, and merited to be made a friend instead of a servant.
These things were done in Bethany, beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing. The next day John saw Jesus coming unto him, and says, Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sin of the world! Let no one so arrogate to himself as to say that he takes away the sin of the world. Give heed now to the proud men at whom John pointed the finger. The heretics were not yet born, but already were they pointed out; against them he then cried from the river, against whom he now cries from the Gospel. Jesus comes, and what says he?
Behold the Lamb of God! If to be innocent is to be a lamb, then John was a lamb, for was not he innocent? But who is innocent? To what extent innocent? All come from that branch and shoot, concerning which David sings, even with groanings,
Behold, I was shapen in iniquity; and in sin did my mother conceive me. Alone, then, was He, the Lamb who came, not so. For He was not conceived in iniquity, because not conceived of mortality; nor did His mother conceive Him in sin, whom the Virgin conceived, whom the Virgin brought forth; because by faith she conceived, and by faith received Him. Therefore,
Behold the Lamb of God. He is not a branch derived from Adam: flesh only did he derive from Adam, Adam's sin He did not assume. He who took not upon Him sin from our lump, He it is who takes away our sin.
11. You know that certain men say sometimes, We take away sin from men, we who are holy; for if he be not holy who baptizes, how takes he away the sin of another, when he is a man himself full of sin? In opposition to these disputations, let us not speak our own words, let us read what John says:
Are you the Christ? He says, No. Are you Elias? He says, No. Are you a prophet? He says, No. Wherefore then do you baptize?
Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I spoke, After me comes a Man who was made before me; for He was before me.
Comes after me, because He was born later;
was made before me, because preferred before me;
He was before me, because,
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
And I knew Him not, he said;
but that He might be made manifest to Israel, therefore came I baptizing with water. And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon Him. And I knew Him not: but He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said to me, Upon whom you shall see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon Him, the same is He who baptizes with the Holy Ghost. And I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God. Give heed for a little, beloved. When did John learn Christ? For he was sent to baptize with water. They asked, Wherefore? That He might be made manifest to Israel, he said. Of what profit was the baptism of John? My brethren, if it had profited in any respect, it would have remained now, and men would have been baptized with the baptism of John, and thus have come to the baptism of Christ. But what says he?
That He might be made manifest to Israel,— that is, to Israel itself, to the people Israel, so that Christ might be made manifest to it — therefore he came baptizing with water. John received the ministry of baptism, that by the water of repentance he might prepare the way for the Lord, not being himself the Lord; but where the Lord was known, it was superfluous to prepare for Him the way, for to those who knew Him He became Himself the way; therefore the baptism of John did not last long. But how was the Lord pointed out? Lowly, that John might so receive a baptism in which the Lord Himself should be baptized.
13. And was it needful for the Lord to be baptized? I instantly reply to any one who asks this question: Was it needful for the Lord to be born? Was it needful for the Lord to be crucified? Was it needful for the Lord to die? Was it needful for the Lord to be buried? If He undertook for us so great humiliation, might He not also receive baptism? And what profit was there that he received the baptism of a servant? That you might not disdain to receive the baptism of the Lord. Give heed, beloved brethren. Certain catechumens were to arise in the Church of higher grace. It sometimes comes to pass that you see a catechumen who practises continence, bids farewell to the world, renounces all his possessions, distributing them to the poor; and although but a catechumen, instructed in the saving doctrine better, perhaps, than many of the faithful. It is to be feared regarding such an one that he may say to himself about holy baptism, whereby sins are remitted, What more shall I receive? Behold, I am better than this faithful man, and this — having in his mind those among the faithful who are either married, or who are perhaps ignorant, or who keep possession of their property, while he has given his to the poor — and considering himself better than those who have been already baptized, he deigns not to come to baptism, saying, Am I to receive what this man has, and this thinking of persons whom he despises, and, as it were, considers it an indignity to receive that which inferiors have received, because he appears to himself to be already better than they; and, nevertheless, all his sins are upon him, and without coming to saving baptism, wherein all sins are remitted, he cannot, with all his excellence, enter into the kingdom of heaven. But the Lord, in order to invite such excellence to his baptism, that sins might be remitted, Himself came to the baptism of His servant; and although He had no sin to be remitted, nor was there anything in Him that needed to be washed, He received baptism from a servant; and by so doing, addressed Himself to the son carrying himself proudly, and exalting himself, and disdaining, perhaps, to receive along with the ignorant that from which salvation comes to him, and said to him: How do you extend yourself? How do you exalt yourself? How great is your excellence? How great is your grace? Can it be greater than mine? If I come to the servant, do you disdain to come to the Lord? If I have received the baptism of the servant, do you disdain to be baptized by the Lord?
14. But that you may know, my brethren, that not from a necessity of any chain of sin did the Lord come to this John, as the other evangelists say when the Lord came to him to be baptized, John himself said,
Comest Thou to me? I have need to be baptized by You. Matthew 3:14-15 What did He reply to him?
Suffer it to be so now: let all righteousness be fulfilled? What means this,
let all righteousness be fulfilled? I came to die for men, have I not to be baptized for men? What means
let all righteousness be fulfilled? Let all humility be fulfilled. What then? Was not He to accept baptism from a good servant who accepted suffering at the hands of evil servants? Give heed then. The Lord being baptized, if John for this end baptized, that by means of his baptism the Lord might manifest His humility, should no one else have been baptized with the baptism of John? But many were baptized with the baptism of John. When the Lord was baptized with the baptism of John, the baptism of John ceased. John was immediately cast into prison. Afterwards we do not find that any one is baptized with that baptism. If, then, John came baptizing for this end, that the humility of the Lord might be made manifest to us, in order that we might not disdain to receive from the Lord that which the Lord had received from a servant, should John have baptized the Lord alone? But if John had baptized the Lord alone, some would have thought that the baptism of John was more holy than that of Christ: as if Christ alone had been found worthy to be baptized with the baptism of John, but the human race with that of Christ. Give heed, beloved brethren. With the baptism of Christ we have been baptized, and not only we, but the whole world, and this will continue to the end. Which of us can in any respect be compared with Christ, whose shoe's latchet John declared himself unworthy to unloose? If, then, the Christ, a man of such excellence, a man who is God, had been alone baptized with the baptism of John, what were men likely to say? What a baptism was that of John! His was a great baptism, an ineffable sacrament; behold, Christ alone deserved to be baptized with the baptism of John. And thus the baptism of the servant would appear greater than the baptism of the Lord. Others were also baptized with the baptism of John, that the baptism of John might not appear better than the baptism of Christ; but baptized also was the Lord, that through the Lord receiving the baptism of the servant, other servants might not disdain to receive the baptism of the Lord: for this end, then, was John sent.
15. But did he know Christ, or did he not know Him? If he did not know Him, wherefore did He say, when Christ came to the river,
I have need to be baptized by You? That is to say, I know who You are. If, then, he already knew Him, assuredly he knew Him when he saw the dove descending. It is evident that the dove did not descend upon the Lord until after He went up out of the water of baptism.
The Lord having been baptized, went up out of the water, and the heavens were opened, and he saw a dove descending on Him. If, then, the dove descended after the baptism, and if, before the Lord was baptized, John said to Him,
Comest Thou to me? I have need to be baptized by You; that is to say, before he knew Him to whom he said,
Comest Thou to me? I have need to be baptized by You;— how then said he,
And I knew Him not: but He who sent me to baptize with water, the same said to me, Upon whom you see the Spirit descending as a dove, and abiding upon Him, the same is He which baptizes with the Holy Ghost? It is not an insignificant question, my brethren. If you have seen the question, you have seen not a little; it remains that the Lord give the solution of it. This, however, I say, if you have seen the question, it is no small matter. Behold, John is placed before your eyes, standing beside the river. Behold John the Baptist. Behold, the Lord comes, as yet to be baptized, not yet baptized. Hear the voice of John,
Comest Thou to me? I have need to be baptized by You. Behold, already he knew the Lord, by whom He wishes to be baptized. The Lord, having been baptized, goes up out of the water; the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends; then John knows Him. If then for the first time he knew Him, why did he say before,
I have need to be baptized by You? But if he did not then recognize Him for the first time, because he knew Him already, what is the meaning of what he said,
I knew Him not: but He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said to me, Upon whom you shall see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon Him, as a dove, the same is He which baptizes with the Holy Ghost?
16. My brethren, this question if solved today would oppress you, I do not doubt, for already have I spoken many words. But know that the question is of such a character that alone it is able to extinguish the party of Donatus. I have said thus much, my beloved, in order to gain your attention, as is my wont; and also in order that you may pray for us, that the Lord may grant to us to speak what is suitable, and that you may be found worthy to receive what is suitable. In the meantime, be pleased to defer the question for today. But in the meantime, I say this briefly, until I give a fuller solution: Inquire peacefully, without quarreling, without contention, without altercations, without enmities; both seek by yourselves, and inquire of others, and say,
This question our bishop proposed to us today, and he will resolve it at a future time, if the Lord will. But whether it be resolved or not, reckon that I have propounded what appears to me of importance; for it does seem of considerable importance. John says,
I have need to be baptized by You, as if he knew Christ. For if he did not know Him by whom he wished to be baptized, he spoke rashly when he said,
I have need to be baptized by You. Therefore he knew Him. If he knew Him, what is the meaning of the saying,
I knew Him not: but He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said to me, Upon whom you shall see the Spirit descending, and abiding upon Him, as a dove, the same is He which baptizes with the Holy Ghost? What shall we say? That we do not know when the dove came? Lest perchance they take refuge in this, let the other evangelists be read, who have spoken of this matter more plainly, and we find most evidently that the dove then descended when the Lord came up out of the water. Upon Him baptized the heavens opened, and He saw the Spirit descending. If it was when He was already baptized that John knew Him, how says he to Him, coming to baptism,
I have need to be baptized by You? Ponder this in the meantime with yourselves, confer upon it, treat of it, one with another. The Lord our God grant that before you hear it from me, the explanation may be revealed to some of you first. Nevertheless, brethren, know this, that by means of the solution of this question, the allegation of the party of Donatus, if they have any sense of shame, will be silenced, and their mouths will be shut regarding the grace of baptism, a matter about which they raise mists to confuse the uninstructed, and spread nets for flying birds.
Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/1701004.htm>.
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