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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 14

Tractate 14 (John 3:29-36)

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1. This lesson from the holy Gospel shows us the excellency of our Lord Jesus Christ's divinity, and the humility of the man who earned the title of the Bridegroom's friend; that we may distinguish between the man who is man, and the Man who is God. For the Man who is God is our Lord Jesus Christ, God before all ages, Man in the age of our world: God of the Father, man of the Virgin, yet one and the same Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, Son of God, God and man. But John, a man of distinguished grace, was sent before Him, a man enlightened by Him who is the Light. For of John it is said, He was not the Light, but that he should bear witness of the Light. He may himself be called a light indeed, and rightly so; but an enlightened, not an enlightening light. The light that enlightens, and that which is enlightened, are different things: for even our eyes are called lights (lumina), and yet when we open them in the dark, they do not see. But the light that enlightens is a light both from itself and for itself, and does not need another light for its shining; but all the rest need it, that they may shine.

2. Accordingly John confessed Him: as you have heard that when Jesus was making many disciples, and they reported to John as if to excite him to jealousy, — for they told the matter as if moved by envy, Lo, he is making more disciples than you,— John confessed what he was, and thereby merited to belong to Him, because he dared not affirm himself to be that which Jesus is. Now this is what John said: A man cannot receive anything, unless it be given him from heaven. Therefore Christ gives, man receives. You yourselves bear me witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him. He that has the bride is the Bridegroom; but the friend of the Bridegroom, who stands and hears Him, rejoices greatly because of the Bridegroom's voice. Not of himself did he give himself joy. He that will have joy of himself shall be sad; but he that will have his joy of God will ever rejoice, because God is everlasting. Do you desire to have everlasting joy? Cleave to Him who is everlasting. Such an one John declared himself to be. Because of the Bridegroom's voice, the friend of the Bridegroom rejoices, not because of his own voice, and stands and hears. Therefore, if he falls, he hears Him not: for of a certain one who fell it is said, And he stood not in the truth; John 8:44 this is said of the devil. It behooves the Bridegroom's friend, then, to stand and to hear. What is it to stand? It is to abide in His grace, which he received. And he hears a voice at which he rejoices. Such was John: he knew whereof he rejoiced; he did not arrogate to himself to be what he was not; he knew himself as one enlightened, not the enlightener. But that was the true Light, says the evangelist, that lightens every man coming into this world. If every man, then also John himself; for he too is of men. Moreover, although none has arisen among them that are born of women greater than John, yet he was himself one of those that are born of women. Is he to be compared with Him who, because He willed it, was born by a singular and extraordinary birth? For both generations of the Lord are unexampled, both the divine and the human: by the divine He has no mother; by the human, no father. Therefore John was but one of the rest: of greater grace, however, so that of those born of women none arose greater than he; so great a testimony he gave to our Lord Jesus Christ as to call Him the Bridegroom, and himself the Bridegroom's friend, not worthy however to loose the latchet of the Bridegroom's shoe. You have already heard much on this point, beloved: let us look to what follows; for it is somewhat hard to understand. But as John himself says, that no man can receive anything, unless it be given him from heaven, whatever we shall not have understood, let us ask Him who gives from heaven: for we are men, and cannot receive anything, except He, who is not man, give it us.

3. Now this is what follows: and John says, This my joy therefore is fulfilled. What is his joy? To rejoice at the Bridegroom's voice. It is fulfilled in me, I have my grace; more I do not assume to myself, lest also I lose what I have received. What is this joy? With joy rejoices for the Bridegroom's voice. A man may understand, then, that he ought not to rejoice of his own wisdom, but of the wisdom which he has received from God. Let him ask nothing more, and he loses not what he found. For many, in that they affirmed themselves to be wise, became fools. The apostle convicts them, and says of them, Because that which is known of God is manifest to them; for God has showed it unto them. Hear ye what he says of certain unthankful, ungodly men: For the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are seen, being understood by the things that are made, His eternal power likewise, and Godhead; so that they are without excuse. Why without excuse? Because, knowing God (he said not, because they knew Him not), they glorified Him not as God, nor were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened: professing themselves to be wise, they became fools. Romans 1:19-22 If they had known God, they had known at the same time that God, and none other, had made them wise; and they would not then attribute to themselves that which they did not have from themselves, but to Him from whom they had received it. But by their unthankfulness they became fools. Therefore, what God gave freely, He took from the unthankful. John would not be this; he would be thankful: he confessed to have received, and declared that he rejoiced for the Bridegroom's voice, saying, Therefore this my joy is fulfilled.

4. He must increase, but I must decrease. What is this? He must be exalted, but I must be humbled. How is Jesus to increase? How is God to increase? The perfect does not increase. God neither increases nor decreases. For if He increases, He is not perfect; if He decreases, he is not God. And how can Jesus increase, being God? If to man's estate, since He deigned to be man and was a child; and, though the Word of God, lay an infant in a manger; and, though His mother's Creator, yet sucked the milk of infancy of her: then Jesus having grown in age of the flesh, that perhaps is the reason why it is said, He must increase, but I must decrease. But why in this? As regards the flesh, John and Jesus were of the same age, there being six months between them: they had grown up together; and if our Lord Jesus Christ had willed to be here longer before His death, and that John should be here with Him, then, as they had grown up together, so would they have grown old together: in what way, then, He must increase but I must decrease? Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ being now thirty years old, does a man who is already thirty years old still grow? From that same age, men begin to go downward, and to decline to graver age, thence to old age. Again, even had they both been lads, he would not have said, He must increase, but, We must increase together. But now each is thirty years of age. The interval of six months makes no difference in age; the difference is discovered by reading rather than by the look of the persons.

5. What means, then, He must increase, but I must decrease? This is a great mystery! Before the Lord Jesus came, men were glorying of themselves; He came a man, to lessen man's glory, and to increase the glory of God. Now He came without sin, and found all men in sin. If thus He came to put away sin, God may freely give, man may confess. For man's confession is man's lowliness: God's pity is God's loftiness. Therefore, since He came to forgive man his sins, let man acknowledge his own lowliness and let God show His pity. He must increase, but I must decrease: that is, He must give, but I must receive; He must be glorified, but I must confess. Let man know his own condition, and confess to God; and hear the apostle as he says to a proud, elated man, bent on extolling himself: What have you that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you glory as if you did not receive it? 1 Corinthians 4:7 Then let man understand that he has received; and when he would call that his own which is not his, let him decrease: for it is good for him that God be glorified in him. Let him decrease in himself, that he may be increased in God. These testimonies and this truth, Christ and John signified by their deaths. For John was lessened by the Head: Christ was exalted on the cross; so that even there it appeared what this is, He must increase, but I must decrease. Again, Christ was born when the days were just beginning to lengthen; John was born when they began to shorten. Thus their very creation and deaths testify to the words of John, when he says, He must increase, but I must decrease. May the glory of God then increase in us, and our own glory decrease, that even ours may increase in God! For this is what the apostle says, this is what Holy Scripture says: He that glories, let him glory in the Lord. 1 Corinthians 1:31 Will you glory in yourself? You will grow; but grow worse in your evil. For whoever grows worse is justly decreased. Let God, then, who is ever perfect, grow, and grow in you. For the more you understand God, and apprehendest Him, He seems to be growing in you; but in Himself He grows not, being ever perfect. You understood a little yesterday; you understand more today, will understand much more tomorrow: the very light of God increases in you: as if thus God increases, who remains ever perfect. It is as if one's eyes were being cured of former blindness, and he began to see a little glimmer of light, and the next day he saw more, and the third day still more: to him the light would seem to grow; yet the light is perfect, whether he see it or not. Thus it is also with the inner man: he makes progress indeed in God, and God seems to be increasing in him; yet man himself is decreasing, that he may fall from his own glory, and rise into the glory of God.

6. What we have just heard, appears now distinctly and clearly. He that comes from above, is above all. See what he says of Christ. What of himself? He that is of the earth, is of earth, and speaks of the earth. He that comes from above is above all — this is Christ; and he that is of the earth, is of earth, and speaks of the earth — this is John. And is this the whole: John is of the earth, and speaks of the earth? Is the whole testimony that he bears of Christ a speaking of the earth? Are they not voices of God that are heard from John, when he bears witness of Christ? Then how does he speak of the earth? He said this of man. So far as relates to man in himself, he is of earth, and speaks of the earth; and when he speaks some divine things, he is enlightened by God. For, were he not enlightened, he would be earth speaking of earth. God's grace is apart by itself, the nature of man apart by itself. Do but examine the nature of man: man is born and grows, he learns the customs of men. What does he know but earth, of earth? He speaks the things of men, knows the things of men, minds the things of men; carnal, he judges carnally, conjectures carnally: lo! It is man all over. Let the grace of God come, and enlighten his darkness, as it says, You will lighten my candle, O Lord; my God, enlighten my darkness; let it take the mind of man, and turn it to its own light; immediately he begins to say, as the apostle says, Yet not I, but the grace of God that is with me; 1 Corinthians 15:10 and, Now I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me. Galatians 2:20 That is to say, He must increase, but I must decrease. Thus John: as regards John, he is of the earth, and speaks of the earth; whatever that is divine you have heard from John, is of Him that enlightens, not of him that receives.

7. He that comes from heaven is above all; and what He has seen and heard, that He testifies: and no man receives His testimony. Comes from heaven, is above all, our Lord Jesus Christ; of whom it was said above, No man has ascended into heaven, but He that came down from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven. And He is above all; and what He has seen and heard, that He speaks. Moreover, He has a Father, being Himself the Son of God; He has a Father, and He also hears of the Father. And what is that which He hears of the Father? Who can unfold this? When can my tongue, when can my heart be sufficient, either the heart to understand, or the tongue to utter, what that is which the Son has heard from the Father? May it be the Son has heard the Word of the Father? Nay, the Son is the Word of the Father. You see how all human effort is here wearied out; you see how all guessing of our heart, all straining of our darkened mind, here fails. I hear the Scripture saying that the Son speaks that which He hears from the Father; and again, I hear the Scripture saying that the Son is Himself the Word of the Father: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The words that we speak are fleeting and transient: as soon as your word has sounded from your mouth, it passes away; it makes its noise, and passes away into silence. Can you follow your sound, and hold it to make it stand? Your thought, however, remains, and of that thought that remains you utter many words that pass away. What say we, brethren? When God spoke, did He give out a voice, or sounds, or syllables? If He did, in what tongue spoke He? In Hebrew, or in Greek, or in Latin? Tongues are necessary where there is a distinction of nations. But there none can say that God spoke in this tongue, or in that. Observe your own heart. When you conceive a word which you may utter — For I will say, if I can, what we may note in ourselves, not whereby we may comprehend that — well, when you conceive a word to utter, you mean to utter a thing, and the very conception of the thing is already a word in your heart: it has not yet come forth, but it is already born in the heart, and is waiting to come forth. But you consider the person to whom it is to come forth, with whom you are to speak: if he is a Latin, you seek a Latin expression; if a Greek, you think of Greek words; if a Punic, you consider whether you know the Punic language: for the diversity of hearers you have recourse to various tongues to utter the word conceived; but the conception itself was bound by no tongue in particular. Whilst therefore God, when speaking, required not a language, nor took up any kind of speech, how was He heard by the Son, seeing that God's speaking is the Son Himself? As, in fact, you have in your heart the word that you speak, and as it is with you, and is none other than the spiritual conception itself (for just as your soul is spirit, so also the word which you have conceived is spirit; for it has not yet received sound to be divided by syllables, but remains in the conception of your heart, and in the mirror of the mind); so God gave out His Word, that is, begot the Son. And you, indeed, begettest the word even in your heart according to time; God without time begot the Son by whom He created all times. Whilst, therefore, the Son is the Word of God, and the Son spoke to us not His own word, but the word of the Father, He willed to speak Himself to us when He was speaking the word of the Father. This it is that John said, as was fit and necessary; and we have expounded according to our ability. He whose heart has not yet attained to a proper perception of so great a matter, has whither to turn himself, has where to knock, has from whom to ask, from whom to seek, of whom to receive.

8. He that comes from heaven is above all; and what He has seen and heard, that testifies He; and His testimony no man receives. If no man, to what purpose came He? He means, no man of a certain class. There are some people prepared for the wrath of God, to be damned with the devil; of these, none receives the testimony of Christ. For if none at all, not any man, received, what could these words mean, But he that received His testimony has set to his seal that God is true? Not certainly, then, no man, if you say yourself, He that received His testimony has set to his seal that God is true. Perhaps John, on being questioned, would answer and say, I know what I have said, in saying no man. There are, in fact, people born to God's wrath, and thereunto foreknown. For God knows who they are that will and that will not believe; He knows who they are that shall persevere in that in which they have believed, and who that shall fall away; and all that shall be for eternal life are numbered by God; and He knows already the people set apart. And if He knows this, and has given to the prophets by His Spirit to know it, He gave this also to John. Now John was observing, not with his eye — for as regards himself he is earth, and speaks of earth — but with that grace of the Spirit which he received of God, he saw a certain people, ungodly, unbelieving. Contemplating that people in its unbelief, he says, His testimony, who came from heaven, no man receives. No man of whom? Of them who shall be on the left hand, of them to whom it shall be said, Go into the everlasting fire, which is prepared for the devil and his angels. Who are they that do receive it? They who shall be at the right hand, they to whom it shall be said, Come, you blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom which is prepared for you from the beginning of the world. He observes, then, in the Spirit a dividing, but in the human race a mingling together; and that which is not yet separated locally, he separated in the understanding, in the view of the heart; and he saw two peoples, one of believers, one of unbelievers. Fixing his thought on the unbelievers, he says, He that comes from heaven is above all; and what He has seen and heard, that He testifies and no man receives His testimony. He then turned his thought from the left hand, and looked at the right, and proceeded to say, He that received His testimony has set to his seal that God is true. What means has set to his seal that God is true, if it be not that man is a liar, and God is true? For no human being can speak any truth, unless he be enlightened by Him who cannot lie. God, then, is true; but Christ is God. Would you prove this? Receive His testimony and you find it. For he that has received His testimony has set to his seal that God is true. Who is true? The same who came from heaven, and is above all, is God, and true. But if you do not yet understand Him to be God, you have not yet received His testimony: receive it, and you put your seal to it; confidently you understand, definitely you acknowledge, that God is true.

9. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God. Himself is the true God, and God sent Him: God sent God. Join both, one God, true God sent by God. Ask concerning them singly, He is God; ask concerning them both, they are God. Not individually God, and both Gods; but each individual God, and both God. For so great is the charity of the Holy Spirit there, so great the peace of unity, that when you question about them individually, the answer to you is, God; when you ask concerning the Trinity, you get for answer, God. For if the spirit of man, when it cleaves to God, is one spirit, as the apostle openly declares, He that is joined to the Lord is one spirit; 1 Corinthians 6:17 how much more is the equal Son, joined to the Father, together with Him one God! Hear another testimony. You know how many believed, when they sold all they had and laid it at the apostles' feet, that it might be distributed to each according to his need; and what says the Scripture of that gathering of the saints? They had one soul and one heart in the Lord. Acts 4:32 If charity made one soul of so many souls, and one heart of so many hearts, how great must be the charity between the Father and the Son! Surely it must be greater than that between those men who had one heart. If, then, the heart of many brethren was one by charity, if the soul of many brethren was one by charity, would you say that God the Father and God the Son are two? If they are two Gods, there is not the highest charity between them. For if charity is here so great as to make your soul and your friend's soul one soul, how can it be then that the Father and the Son is not one God? Far be unfeigned faith from this thought. In short, how excellent that charity is, understand hence: the souls of many men are many, and if they love one another, it is one soul; still, in the case of men, they may be called many souls, because the union is not so strong. But there it is right for you to say one God; two or three Gods it is not right for you to say. From this, the supreme and surpassing excellency of charity is shown you to be such, that a greater cannot be.

10. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God. This, of course, he said of Christ, to distinguish himself from Christ. What then? Did not God send John himself? Did he not say himself, I am sent before Him? And, He that sent me to baptize with water? And is it not of John that it is said, Behold, I send my messenger before You, and he shall prepare Your way? Malachi 3:1 Does he not himself speak the words of God, he of whom it is said that he is more than a prophet? Then, if God sent him too, and he speaks the words of God, how do we understand him to have distinctly said of Christ, He whom God has sent speaks the words of God? But see what he adds: For God gives not the Spirit by measure. What is this, For God gives not the Spirit by measure? We find that God does give the Spirit by measure. Hear the apostle when he says, According to the measure of the gift of Christ. Ephesians 4:7 To men He gives by measure, to the only Son He gives not by measure. How does He give to men by measure? To one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of wisdom according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another kinds of tongues; to another the gift of healing. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Are all workers of miracles? Have all the gift of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? 1 Corinthians 12:8-30 This man has one gift, that man another; and what that man has, this has not: there is a measure, a certain division of gifts. To men, therefore, it is given by measure, and concord among them makes one body. As the hand receives one kind of gift to work, the eye another to see, the ear another to hear, the foot another to walk; nevertheless the soul that does all is one, in the hand to work, in the foot to walk, in the ear to hear, in the eye to see; so are also the gifts of believers diverse, distributed to them as to members, to each according to his proper measure. But Christ, who gives, receives not by measure.

11. Now hear further what follows: because He had said of the Son, For God gives not the Spirit by measure: the Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand, He added, has given all things into His hands, that you might know also here with what distinction it is said, The Father loves the Son. And why? Does the Father not love John? And yet He has not given all things into his hand. Does the Father not love Paul? And yet He has not given all things into his hand. The Father loves the Son: but as father loves, not as master loves a servant; as the Only Son, not as an adopted son. And so has given all things into His hand. What means all things? That the Son should be such as the Father is. To equality with Himself He begot Him in whom it was no robbery to be in the form of God, equal to God. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand. Therefore, having deigned to send us the Son, let us not imagine that it is something less than the Father that is sent to us. The Father, in sending the Son, sent His other self.

12. But the disciples, still thinking that the Father is something greater than the Son, seeing only the flesh, and not understanding His divinity, said to Him, Lord, show us the Father and it suffices us. As much as to say, We know You already, and bless You that we know You: for we thank You that You have shown Yourself to us. But as yet we know not the Father: therefore our heart is inflamed, and occupied with a certain holy longing of seeing Your Father who sent You. Show us Him, and we shall desire nothing more of You: for it suffices us when He has been shown, than whom none can be greater. A good longing, a good desire; but small intelligence. Now the Lord Jesus Himself, regarding them as small men seeking great things, and Himself great among the small, and yet small among the small, says to Philip, one of the disciples, who had said this: Am I so long time with you, and you have not known me, Philip? Here Philip might have answered, You we have known, but did we say to You, Show us Yourself? We have known You, but it is the Father we seek to know. He immediately adds, He that has seen me, has seen the Father also. John 14:8-9 If, then, One equal with the Father has been sent, let us not estimate Him from the weakness of the flesh, but think of the majesty clothed in flesh, but not weighed down by the flesh. For, remaining God with the Father, He was made man among men, that, through Him who was made man, you might become such as to receive God. For man could not receive God. Man could see man; God he could not apprehend. Why could he not apprehend God? Because he had not the eye of the heart, by which to apprehend Him. There was something within disordered, something without sound: man had the eyes of the body sound, but the eyes of the heart sick. He was made man to the eye of the body; so that, believing on Him who could be seen in bodily form, you might be healed for seeing Him whom you were not able to see spiritually. Am I so long time with you, and you know me not, Philip? He that has seen me, has seen the Father also. Why did they not see Him? Lo, they did see Him, and yet saw not the Father: they saw the flesh, but the majesty was concealed. What the disciples who loved Him saw, saw also the Jews who crucified Him. Inwardly, then, was He all; and in such manner inwardly in the flesh, that He remained with the Father when He came to the flesh.

13. Carnal thought does not apprehend what I say: let it defer understanding, and begin by faith; let it hear what follows: He that believes in the Son has everlasting life: and he that believes not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abides on him. He has not said, The wrath of God comes to him; but, The wrath of God abides on him. All that are born mortals have the wrath of God with them. What wrath of God? That wrath which Adam first received. For if the first man sinned, and heard the sentence, You shall die the death, he became mortal, and we began to be born mortal; and we have been born with the wrath of God. From this stock came the Son, not having sin, and He was clothed with flesh and mortality. If He partook with us of the wrath of God, are we slow to partake with Him the grace of God? He, then, that will not believe the Son, on the same the wrath of God abides. What wrath of God? That of which the apostle says, We also were by nature the children of wrath, even as the rest. Ephesians 2:3 All are therefore children of wrath, because coming of the curse of death. Believe on Christ, for you made mortal, that you may receive Him, the immortal; and when you shall have received His immortality, you shall no longer be mortal. He lived, you were dead; He died that you should live. He has brought us the grace of God, and has taken away the wrath of God. God has conquered death, lest death should conquer man.

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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. <>.

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