We have here the testimony of John, which he delivered to the messengers who were sent from Jerusalem to examine him. Observe here,
I. Who they were that sent to him, and who they were that were sent. 1. They that sent to him were the Jews at Jerusalem, the great sanhedrim or high-commission court, which sat at Jerusalem, and was the representative of the Jewish church, who took cognizance of all matters relating to religion. One would think that they who were the fountains of learning, and the guides of the church, should have, by books, understood the times so well as to know that the Messiah was at hand, and therefore should presently have known him that was his forerunner, and readily embraced him; but, instead of this, they sent messengers to cross questions with him. Secular learning, honour, and power, seldom dispose men’s minds to the reception of divine light. 2. They that were sent were, (1.) Priests and Levites, probably members of the council, men of learning, gravity, and authority. John Baptist was himself a priest of the seed of Aaron, and therefore it was not fit that he should be examined by any but priests. It was prophesied concerning John’s ministry that it should purify the Sons of Levi (Mal. 3:3), and therefore they were jealous of him and his reformation. (2.) They were of the Pharisees, proud, self-justiciaries, that thought they needed no repentance, and therefore could not bear one that made it his business to preach repentance.
II. On what errand they were sent; it was to enquire concerning John and his baptism. They did not send for John to them, probably because they feared the people, lest the people where John was should be provoked to rise, or lest the people where they were should be brought acquainted with him; they thought it was good to keep him at a distance. They enquire concerning him, 1. To satisfy their curiosity; as the Athenians enquired concerning Paul’s doctrine, for the novelty of it, Acts 17:19, 20. Such a proud conceit they had of themselves that the doctrine of repentance was to them strange doctrine. 2. It was to show their authority. They thought they looked great when they called him to account whom all men counted as a prophet, and arraigned him at their bar. 3. It was with a design to suppress him and silence him if they could find any colour for it; for they were jealous of his growing interest, and his ministry agreed neither with the Mosaic dispensation which they had been long under, nor with the notions they had formed of the Messiah’s kingdom.
III. What was the answer he gave them, and his account, both concerning himself and concerning his baptism, in both which he witnessed to Christ.
1. Concerning himself, and what he professed himself to be. They asked him, Sy tis ei—Thou, who art thou? John’s appearing in the world was surprising. He was in the wilderness till the day of his showing unto Israel. His spirit, his converse, he doctrine, had something in them which commanded and gained respect; but he did not, as seducers do, give out himself to be some great one. He was more industrious to do good than to appear great; and therefore waived saying any thing of himself till he was legally interrogated. Those speak best for Christ that say least of themselves, whose own works praise them, not their own lips. He answers their interrogatory,
(1.) Negatively. He was not that great one whom some took him to be. God’s faithful witnesses stand more upon their guard against undue respect than against unjust contempt. Paul writes as warmly against those that overvalued him, and said, I am of Paul, as against those that undervalued him, and said that his bodily presence was weak; and he rent his clothes when he was called a god. [1.] John disowns himself to be the Christ (John 1:20): He said, I am not the Christ, who was now expected and waited for. Note, The ministers of Christ must remember that they are not Christ, and therefore must not usurp his powers and prerogatives, nor assume the praises due to him only. They are not Christ, and therefore must not lord it over God’s heritage, nor pretend to a dominion over the faith of Christians. They cannot created grace and peace; they cannot enlighten, convert, quicken, comfort; for they are not Christ. Observe how emphatically this is here expressed concerning John: He confessed, and denied not, but confessed; it denotes his vehemence and constancy in making this protestation. Note, Temptations to pride, and assuming that honour to ourselves which does not belong to us, ought to be resisted with a great deal of vigour and earnestness. When John was taken to be the Messiah, he did not connive at it with a Si populus vult decipi, decipiatur—If the people will be deceived, let them; but openly and solemnly, without any ambiguities, confessed, I am not the Christ; hoti ouk eimi ego ho Christos—I am not the Christ, not I; another is at hand, who is he, but I am not. His disowning himself to be the Christ is called his confessing and not denying Christ. Note, Those that humble and abase themselves thereby confess Christ, and give honour to him; but those that will not deny themselves do in effect deny Christ, [2.] He disowns himself to be Elias, John 1:21. The Jews expected the person of Elias to return from heaven, and to live among them, and promised themselves great things from it. Hearing of John’s character, doctrine, and baptism, and observing that he appeared as one dropped from heaven, in the same part of the country from which Elijah was carried to heaven, it is no wonder that they were ready to take him for this Elijah; but he disowned this honour too. He was indeed prophesied of under the name of Elijah (Mal. 4:5), and he came in the spirit and power of Elias (Luke 1:17), and was the Elias that was to come (Matt. 11:14); but he was not the person of Elias, not that Elias that went to heaven in the fiery chariot, as he was that met Christ in his transfiguration. He was the Elias that God had promised, not the Elias that they foolishly dreamed of. Elias did come, and they knew him not (Matt. 17:12); nor did he make himself known to them as the Elias, because they had promised themselves such an Elias as God never promised them. [3.] He disowns himself to be that prophet, or the prophet. First, He was not that prophet which Moses said the Lord would raise up to them of their brethren, like unto him. If they meant this, they needed not ask that question, for that prophet was no other than the Messiah, and he had said already, I am not the Christ. Secondly, He was not such a prophet as they expected and wished for, who, like Samuel and Elijah, and some other of the prophets, would interpose in public affairs, and rescue them from under the Roman yoke. Thirdly, He was not one of the old prophets raised from the dead, as they expected one to come before Elias, as Elias before the Messiah. Fourthly, Though John was a prophet, yea, more than a prophet, yet he had his revelation, not by dreams and visions, as the Old-Testament prophets had theirs; his commission and work were of another nature, and belonged to another dispensation. If John had said that he was Elias, and was a prophet, he might have made his words good; but ministers must, upon all occasions, express themselves with the utmost caution, both that they may not confirm people in any mistakes, and particularly that they may not give occasion to any to think of them above what is meet.
(2.) Affirmatively. The committee that was sent to examine him pressed for a positive answer (John 1:22), urging the authority of those that sent them, which they expected he should pay a deference to: “Tell us, What art thou? not that we may believe thee, and be baptized by three, but that we may give an answer to those that sent us, and that it may not be said we were sent on a fool’s errand.” John was looked upon as a man of sincerity, and therefore they believed he would not give an evasive ambiguous answer; but would be fair and above-board, and give a plain answer to a plain question: What sayest thou of thyself? And he did so, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Observe,
[1.] He gives his answer in the words of scripture, to show that the scripture was fulfilled in him, and that his office was supported by a divine authority. What the scripture saith of the office of the ministry should be often thought of by those of that high calling, who must look upon themselves as that, and that only, which the word of God makes them.
[2.] He gives in his answer in very humble, modest, self-denying expressions. He chooses to apply that scripture to himself which denotes not his dignity, but his duty and dependence, which bespeaks him little: I am the voice, as if he were vox et praeterea nihil—mere voice.
[3.] He gives such an account of himself as might be profitable to them, and might excite and awaken them to hearken to him; for he was the voice (see Isa. 40:3), a voice to alarm, an articulate voice to instruct. Ministers are but the voice, the vehicle, by which God is pleased to communicate his mind. What are Paul and Apollos but messengers? Observe, First, He was a human voice. The people were prepared to receive the law by the voice of thunders, and a trumpet exceedingly loud, such as made them tremble; but they were prepared for the gospel by the voice of a man like ourselves, a still small voice, such as that in which God came to Elijah, 1 Kgs. 19:12. Secondly, He was the voice of one crying, which denotes, 1. His earnestness and importunity in calling people to repentance; he cried aloud, and did not spare. Ministers must preach as those that are in earnest, and are themselves affected with those things with which they desire to affect others. Those words are not likely to thaw the hearers’ hearts that freeze between the speaker’s lips. 2. His open publication of the doctrine he preached; he was the voice of one crying, that all manner of persons might hear and take notice. Doth not wisdom cry? Prov. 8:1. Thirdly, It was in the wilderness that this voice was crying; in a place of silence and solitude, out of the noise of the world and the hurry of its business; the more retired we are from the tumult of secular affairs the better prepared we are to hear from God. Fourthly, That which he cried was, Make straight the way of the Lord; that is, 1. He came to rectify the mistakes of people concerning the ways of God; it is certain that they are right ways, but the scribes and Pharisees, with their corrupt glosses upon the law, had made them crooked. Now John Baptist calls people to return to the original rule. 2. He came to prepare and dispose people for the reception and entertainment of Christ and his gospel. It is an allusion to the harbingers of a prince or great man, that cry, Make room. Note, When God is coming towards us, we must prepare to meet him, and let the word of the Lord have free course. See Ps. 24:7.
2. Here is his testimony concerning his baptism.
(1.) The enquiry which the committee made about it: Why baptizest thou, if thou be not the Christ, nor Elias, nor that prophet? John 1:25. [1.] They readily apprehended baptism to be fitly and properly used as a sacred rite or ceremony, for the Jewish church had used it with circumcision in the admission of proselytes, to signify the cleansing of them from the pollutions of their former state. That sign was made use of in the Christian church, that it might be the more passable. Christ did not affect novelty, nor should his ministers. [2.] They expected it would be used in the days of the Messiah, because it was promised that then there should be a fountain opened (Zech. 13:1), and clean water sprinkled, Ezek. 36:25. It is taken for granted that Christ, and Elias, and that prophet, would baptize, when they came to purify a polluted world. Divine justice drowned the old world in its filth, but divine grace has provided for the cleansing of this new world from its filth. [3.] They would therefore know by what authority John baptized. His denying himself to be Elias, or that prophet, subjected him to this further question, Why baptizest thou? Note, It is no new thing for a man’s modesty to be turned against him, and improved to his prejudice; but it is better that men should take advantage of our low thoughts of ourselves, to trample upon us, than the devil take advantage of our high thoughts of ourselves, to tempt us to pride and draw us into his condemnation.
(2.) The account he gave of it, John 1:26, 27.
[1.] He owned himself to be only the minister of the outward sign: “I baptize with water, and that is all; I am no more, and do no more, than what you see; I have no other title than John the Baptist; I cannot confer the spiritual grace signified by it.” Paul was in care that none should think of him above what they saw him to be (2 Cor. 12:6); so was John Baptist. Ministers must not set up for masters.
[2.] He directed them to one who was greater than himself, and would do that for them, if they pleased, which he could not do: “I baptize with water, and that is the utmost of my commission; I have nothing to do but by this to lead you to one that comes after me, and consign you to him.” Note, The great business of Christ’s ministers is to direct all people to him; we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord. John gave the same account to this committee that he had given to the people (John 1:15): This as he of whom I spoke. John was constant and uniform in his testimony, not as a reed shaken with the wind. The sanhedrim were jealous of his interest in the people, but he is not afraid to tell them that there is one at the door that will go beyond him. First, He tells them of Christ’s presence among them now at this time: There stands one among you, at this time, whom you know not. Christ stood among the common people, and was as one of them. Note, 1. Much true worth lies hid in this world; obscurity is often the lot of real excellency. Saints are God’s hidden ones, therefore the world knows them not. 2. God himself is often nearer to us than we are aware of. The Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. They were gazing, in expectation of the messiah: Lo he is here, or he is there, when the kingdom of God was abroad and already among them, Luke 17:21. Secondly, He tells them of Christ’s preference above himself: He comes after me, and yet is preferred before me. This he had said before; he adds here, “Whose shoe-latchet I am not worthy to loose; I am not fit to be named the same day with him; it is an honour too great for me to pretend to be in the meanest office about him,” 1 Sam. 25:41. Those to whom Christ is precious reckon his service, even the most despised instances of it, an honour to them. See Ps. 84:10. If so great a man as John accounted himself unworthy of the honour of being near Christ, how unworthy then should we account ourselves! Now, one would think, these chief priests and Pharisees, upon this intimation given concerning the approach of the Messiah, should presently have asked who, and where, this excellent person was; and who more likely to tell them than he who had given them this general notice? No, they did not think this any part of their business or concern; they came to molest John, not to receive any instructions from him: so that their ignorance was wilful; they might have known Christ, and would not.
Lastly, Notice is taken of the place where all this was done: In Bethabara beyond Jordan, John 1:28. Bethabara signifies the house of passage; some think it was the very place where Israel passed over Jordan into the land of promise under the conduct of Joshua; there was opened the way into the gospel state by Jesus Christ. It was at a great distance from Jerusalem, beyond Jordan; probably because what he did there would be least offensive to the government. Amos must go prophesy in the country, not near the court; but it was sad that Jerusalem should put so far from her the things that belonged to her peace. He made this confession in the same place where he was baptizing, that all those who attended his baptism might be witnesses of it, and none might say that they knew not what to make of him.