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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 38

Tractate 38 (John 8:21-25)

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1. The lesson of the holy Gospel which preceded today's had concluded thus: that the Lord spoke, teaching in the treasury, what it pleased Him, and what you have heard; and no one laid hands on Him, for His hour was not yet come. Accordingly, on the Lord's day we made our subject of discourse what He Himself thought fit to give us. We indicated to your Charity why it was said, His hour was not yet come, lest any in their impiety should have the effrontery to suspect Christ as laid under some fatal necessity. For the hour was not yet come when by His own appointment, in accordance with what was predicted regarding Him, He should not be forced to die unwillingly, but be ready to be slain.

2. But of His own passion itself, which lay not in any necessity He was under, but in His own power, all that He said in His discourse to the Jews was, I go away. For to Christ the Lord's death was His proceeding to the place whence He had come, and from which He had never departed. I go away, said He, and you shall seek me, not from any longing for me, but in hatred. For after His removal from human sight, He was sought for both by those who hated Him and those who loved Him; by the former in a spirit of persecution, by the latter with the desire of having Him. In the Psalms the Lord Himself says by the prophet, A place of refuge has failed me, and there is none that seeks after my life; and again He says in another place in the Psalms, Let them be confounded and ashamed who seek after my life. He blamed the former for not seeking, He condemned the latter because they did. For it is wrong not to seek the life of Christ, that is, in the way the disciples sought it; and it is wrong to seek the life of Christ, that is, in the way the Jews sought it: for the former sought to possess it, these latter to destroy it. Accordingly, because these men sought it thus in a wrong way, with a perverted heart, what next did He add? You shall seek me, and— not to let you suppose that you will seek me for good — you shall die in your sin. This comes of seeking Christ wrongly, to die in one's sin; this of hating Him, through whom alone salvation could be found. For, while men whose hope is in God ought not to render evil even for evil, these men were rendering evil for good. The Lord therefore announced to them beforehand, and in His foreknowledge uttered the sentence, that they should die in their sin. And then He adds, Whither I go, you cannot come. He said the same to the disciples also in another place; and yet He said not to them, You shall die in your sin. But what did He say? The same as to these men: Whither I go, you cannot come. He did not take away hope, but foretold delay. For at the time when the Lord spoke this to the disciples, they were not able to come whither He was going, yet were they to come afterwards; but these men never, to whom in His foreknowledge He said, You shall die in your sin.

3. But on hearing these words, as is usual with those whose thoughts are carnal, who judge after the flesh, and hear and apprehend everything in a carnal way, they said, Will he kill himself because he said, Whither I go you cannot come. Foolish words, and overflowing with stupidity! For why could they not go whither He would have proceeded had He killed Himself? Were not they themselves to die? What, then, means, Will he kill himself because he said, Whither I go you cannot come? If He spoke of man's death, what man is there that does not die? Therefore, by whither I go He meant, not the going to death, but whither He was going Himself after death. Such, then, was their answer, because they did not understand.

4. And what said the Lord to those who savored of the earth? And He said to them, You are from beneath. For this cause you savor of the earth, because you lick dust like serpents. You eat earth! What does it mean? You feed on earthly things, you delight in earthly things, you gape after earthly things, you have no heart for what is above. You are from beneath: I am from above. You are of this world: I am not of this world. For how could He be of the world, by whom the world was made? All that are of the world come after the world, because the world preceded; and so man is of the world. But Christ was first, and then the world; and since Christ was before the world, before Christ there was nothing: because In the beginning was the Word; all things were made by Him. He, therefore, was of that which is above. But of what that is above? Of the air? Perish the thought! There the birds wing their flight. Of the sky that we see? Again I say, Perish the thought! It is there that the stars and sun and moon revolve. Of the angels? Neither is this to be understood: by Him who made all things were the angels also made. Of what, then, above is Christ? Of the Father Himself. Nothing is above that God who begot the Word equal with Himself, co-eternal with Himself, only-begotten, timeless, that by Him time's own foundations should be laid. Understand, then, Christ as from above, so as in your thought to get beyond everything that is made — the whole creation together, every material body, every created spirit, everything in any way subject to change: rise above all, as John rose, in order to reach this: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

5. Therefore said He, I am from above. You are of this world: I am not of this world. I said therefore unto you, that you shall die in your sins. He has explained to us, brethren, what He wished to be understood by you are of this world. He said therefore in fact, You are of this world, because they were sinners, because they were unrighteous, because they were unbelieving, because they savored of the earthly. For what is your opinion as regards the holy apostles? What difference was there between the Jews and the apostles? As great as between darkness and light, as between faith and unbelief, as between piety and impiety, as between hope and despair, as between love and avarice: surely the difference was great. What then, because there was such a difference, were the apostles not of the world? If your thoughts turn to the manner of their birth, and whence they came, inasmuch as all of them had come from Adam, they were of this world. But what said the Lord Himself to them? I have chosen you out of the world. Those, then, who were of the world, became not of the world, and began to belong to Him by whom the world was made. But these men continued to be of the world, to whom it was said, You shall die in your sins.

6. Let none then, brethren, say, I am not of this world. Whoever you are as a man, you are of this world; but He who made the world came to you, and delivered you from this world. If the world delights you, you wish always to be unclean (immundus); but if this world no longer delight you, you are already clean (mundus). And yet, if through some infirmity the world still delight you, let Him who cleanses (mundat) dwell in you, and thou too shall be clean. But if you are once clean, you will not continue in the world; neither will you hear what was heard by the Jews, You shall die in your sins. For we are all born with sin; we have all in living added to that wherein we were born, and have since become more of the world than when we were born of our parents. And where should we be, had He not come, who was wholly free from sin, to expiate all sin? And so, because in Him the Jews believed not, they deservedly heard [the sentence], You shall die in your sins; for in no way could you, who were born with sin, be without sin; and yet, said He, if you believe in me, although it is still true that you were born with sin, yet in your sin you shall not die. The whole misery, then, of the Jews was just this, not to have sin, but to die in their sins. From this it is that every Christian ought to seek to escape; because of this we have recourse to baptism; on this account do those whose lives are in danger from sickness or any other cause become anxious for help; for this also is the sucking child carried by his mother with pious hands to the church, that he may not go out into the world without baptism, and die in the sin wherein he was born. Most wretched surely the condition and miserable the lot of these men, who heard from those truth-speaking lips, You shall die in your sins!

7. But He explains whence this should befall them: For if you believe not that I am [He], you shall die in your sins. I believe, brethren, that among the multitude who listened to the Lord, there were those also who should yet believe. But against all, as it were, had that most severe sentence gone forth, You shall die in your sin; and thereby even from those who should yet believe had hope been withdrawn: the others were roused to fury, they to fear; yea, to more than fear, they were brought now to despair. But He revived their hope; for He added, If you believe not that I am, you shall die in your sins. Therefore if you do believe that I am, you shall not die in your sins. Hope was restored to the desponding, the sleeping were aroused, their hearts got a fresh awakening; and thereafter very many believed, as the Gospel itself attests in the sequel. For members of Christ were there, who had not yet become attached to the body of Christ; and among that people by whom He was crucified, by whom He was hanged on a tree, by whom when hanging He was mocked, by whom He was wounded with the spear, by whom gall and vinegar were given Him to drink, were the members of Christ, for whose sake He said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. And what will a convert not be forgiven, if the shedding of Christ's blood is forgiven? What murderer need despair, if he was restored to hope by whom even Christ was slain? After this many believed; they were presented with Christ's blood as a gift, that they might drink it for their salvation, rather than be held guilty of shedding it. Who can despair? And if the thief was saved on the cross — a murderer shortly before, a little afterwards accused, convicted, condemned, hanged, delivered — wonder not. The place of his conviction was that of his condemnation; while that of his conversion was the place also of his deliverance. Luke 18:34-43 Among this people, then, to whom the Lord was speaking, were those who should yet die in their sin: there were those also who should yet believe in Him who spoke, and find deliverance from all their sin.

8. But look at this which is said by Christ the Lord: If you believe not that I am, you shall die in your sins. What is this, If you believe not that I am? I am what? There is nothing added; and because He added nothing, He left much to be inferred. For He was expected to say what He was, and yet He said it not. What was He expected to say? Perhaps, If you believe not that I am Christ; if you believe not that I am the Son of God; if you believe not that I am the Word of the Father; if you believe not that I am the founder of the world; if you believe not that I am the former and re-former, the creator and re-creator, the maker and re-maker of man —if you believe not that I am this, you shall die in your sins. There is much implied in His only saying I am; for so also had God said to Moses, I am who am. Who can adequately express what that am means? God by His angel sent His servant Moses to deliver His people out of Egypt (you have read and know what you now hear; but I recall it to your minds); He sent him trembling, self-excusing, but obedient. And while thus excusing himself, he said to God, whom he understood to be speaking in the person of the angel: If the people say to me, And who is the God that has sent you? What shall I say to them? And the Lord answered him, I am who am; and added, You shall say to the children of Israel, He who is has sent me to you. There also He says not, I am God; or, I am the framer of the world; or, I am the creator of all things; or, I am the multiplier of the very people to be delivered: but only this, I am who am; and, You shall say to the children of Israel, He who is. He added not, Who is your God, who is the God of your fathers; but said only this: He who is has sent me to you. Perhaps it was too much even for Moses himself, as it is too much for us also, and much more so for us, to understand the meaning of such words, I am who am; and, He who is has sent me to you. And supposing that Moses comprehended it, when would those to whom he was sent comprehend it? The Lord therefore put aside what man could not comprehend, and added what he could; for He said also besides, I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Exodus 3:13-15 This you can comprehend; for I am who am, what mind can comprehend?

9. What then of us? Shall we venture to say anything on such words, I am who am; or rather on this, that you have heard the Lord saying, If you believe not that I am, you shall die in your sins? Shall I venture with these feeble and scarcely existing powers of mine to discuss the meaning of that which Christ the Lord has said, If you believe not that I am? I shall venture to ask the Lord Himself. Listen to me as one asking rather than discussing, inquiring rather than assuming, learning rather than teaching, and fail not yourselves also to be asking with me or through me. The Lord Himself, who is everywhere, is also at hand. Let Him hear the feeling that prompts to ask, and grant the fruit of understanding. For in what words, even were it so that I comprehend something, can I convey to your hearts what I comprehend? What voice is adequate? What eloquence sufficient? What powers of intelligence? What faculty of utterance?

10. I shall speak, then, to our Lord Jesus Christ; I shall speak and may He be pleased to hear me. I believe He is present, I am fully assured of it; for He Himself has said, Lo, I am with you even to the end of the world. Matthew 28:20 O Lord our God, what is that which Thou said, If you believe not that I am? For what is there that belongs not to the things You have made? Does not heaven so belong? Does not the earth? Does not everything in earth and heaven? Does not man himself to whom You speak? Does not the angel whom You send? If all these are things made by You, what is that existence You have retained as something exclusively Your own, which You have given to none besides, that You might be such Yourself alone? For how do I hear I am who am, as if there were none besides? And how do I hear If you believe not that I am? For had they no existence who heard Him? Yea, though they were sinners, they were men. What then can I do? What that existence is, let Him tell my heart, let Him tell, let Him declare it within; let the inner man hear, the mind apprehend this true existence; for such existence is always unvarying in character. For a thing, anything whatever (I have begun as it were to dispute, and have left off inquiring. Perhaps I wish to speak what I have heard. May He grant enlargement to my hearing, and to yours, while I speak) — for anything, whatever in short be its excellence, if it is changeable, does not truly exist; for there is no true existence wherever non-existence has also a place. For whatever can be changed, so far as changed, it is not that which was: if it is no longer what it was, a kind of death has therein taken place; something that was there has been eliminated, and exists no more. Blackness has died out in the silvery locks of the patriarch, comeliness in the body of the careworn and crooked old man, strength in the body of the languishing, the [previous] standing posture in the body of one walking, walking in the body of one standing, walking and standing in the body of one reclining, speech in the tongue of the silent — whatever changes, and is what it was not, I see there a kind of life in that which is, and death in that which was. In fine, when we say of one deceased, Where is that person? We are answered, He was. O Truth, it is thou [alone] that truly art! For in all actions and movements of ours, yea, in every activity of the creature, I find two times, the past and the future. I seek for the present, nothing stands still: what I have said is no longer present; what I am going to say is not yet come: what I have done is no longer present; what I am going to do is not yet come: the life I have lived is no longer present; the life I have still to live is not yet come. Past and future I find in every creature-movement: in truth, which is abiding, past and future I find not, but the present alone, and that unchangeably, which has no place in the creature. Sift the mutations of things, you will find was and will be: think on God, you will find the is, where was and will be cannot exist. To be so then yourself, rise beyond the boundaries of time. But who can transcend the powers of his being? May He raise us there who said to the Father, I will that they also be with me where I am. And so, in making this promise, that we should not die in our sins, the Lord Jesus Christ, I think, said nothing else by these words, If you believe not that I am; yea, by these words I think He meant nothing else than this, If you believe not that I am God, you shall die in your sins. Well, God be thanked that He said, If you believe not, and did not say, If you comprehend not. For who can comprehend this? Or is it so, since I have ventured to speak and you have seemed to understand, that you have indeed comprehended somewhat of a subject so unspeakable? If then you comprehend not, faith sets you free. Therefore also the Lord said not, If you comprehend not that I am; but said what they were capable of attaining, If you believe not that I am, you shall die in your sins.

11. And savoring as these men always did of the earth, and ever hearing and answering according to the flesh, what did they say to Him? Who are you? For when you said, If you believe not that I am, thou did not tell us what thou were. Who are you, that we may believe? He answered The Beginning. Here is the existence that [always] is. The beginning cannot be changed: the beginning is self-abiding and all-originating; that is, the beginning, to which it has been said, But thou Yourself art the same, and Your years shall not fail. The beginning, He said, for so I also speak to you. Believe me [to be] the beginning, that you may not die in your sins. For just as if by saying, Who are you? they had said nothing else than this, What shall we believe you to be? He replied, The beginning; that is, Believe me [to be] the beginning. For in the Greek expression we discern what we cannot in the Latin. For in Greek the word beginning (principium, ἀρχή), is of the feminine gender, just as with us law (lex) is of the feminine gender, while it is of the masculine (νόμος) with them; or as wisdom (sapientia, σοφία) is of the feminine gender with both. It is the custom of speech, therefore, in different languages to vary the gender of words, because in things themselves there is no place for the distinction of sex. For wisdom is not really female, since Christ is the Wisdom of God, 1 Corinthians 1:24 and Christ is termed of the masculine gender, wisdom of the feminine. When then the Jews said, Who are you? He, who knew that there were some there who should yet believe, and therefore had said, Who are you? That so they might come to know what they ought to believe regarding Him, replied, The beginning: not as if He said, I am the beginning; but as if He said, Believe me [to be] the beginning. Which, as I said, is quite evident in the Greek language, where beginning (ἀρχή) is of the feminine gender. Just as if He had wished to say that He was the Truth, and to their question, Who are you? had answered, Veritatem [the Truth]; when to the words, Who are you? He evidently ought to have replied, Veritas [the Truth]; that is, I am the Truth. But His answer had a deeper meaning, when He saw that they had put the question, Who are you? in such a way as to mean, Having heard from you, If you believe not that I am, what shall we believe you to be? To this He replied, The beginning: as if He said, Believe me to be the beginning. And He added for [as such] I also speak to you; that is, having humbled myself on your account, I have condescended to such words. For if the beginning as it is in itself had remained so with the Father, as not to receive the form of a servant and speak as man with men; how could they have believed in Him, since their weak hearts could not have heard the Word intelligently without some voice that would appeal to their senses? Therefore, said He, believe me to be the beginning; for, that you may believe, I not only am, but also speak to you. But on this subject I have still much to say to you; may it therefore please your Charity that we reserve what remains, and by His gracious aid deliver it tomorrow.

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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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