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19. And this is the record, “ the testimony,” of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem, to ask him, Who art thou ?
20. And he confessed, and denied not, but confessed, I am not the Christ.
At this time there was a general expectation among the Jews that the Messiah's kingdom was approaching, and' that he would be preceded by one or more prophets. When John, therefore, made his appearance, the Sanhedrim sent some learned members of their body, to inquire of him, who he was, in regard to his public character ; expecting to find that he was either the Messiah or his forerunner, Elias. John readily satisfies their inquiries in regard to his not being the Messiah.
21. And they asked him,. What then, Art thou Elias ? And he saith, I am not. Art thou that prophet? And he answered, No.
A considerable difficulty has been supposed to arise from this verse. John, the forerunner of Christ, appears to be ignorant of his proper character: for when asked, Art thou Elias, he replied, No. Yet Matthew tells us, xvii. 12, 13, that our Saviour declared to his disciples, when they said, “How then say the Scribes that Elias must first come? I say unto you that Elias is come already, but they have done unto him whatever they listed; likewise shall also the son of man suffer of them.' Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.” To remove this difficulty, some have supposed that when the priests and Levites asked him, Art thou Elias? they meant to ask art thou Elias, or Elijah the Tishbite in person, and that John' might with propriety answer that he was not.
• To others such an answer, if he was really conscious that he was the Elias of Malachi, although not Elijah in person, seems to approach too near to a prevarication to be attributed to so excellent a person as John the Baptist; especially as he was not only asked whether he were Elias, but also whether he were that prophet, (that is, the prophet intended by the Elias of Malachi) and answered, No.
They have therefore supposed that the Baptist did not know that he was Elias, as Christ declared him to be, and that he was really ignorant of his being the forerunner of Christ: he knew, indeed, that he was to precede some great prophet, who was to work miracles, and be far superior to himself; but then he was not certainly informed whether he were the Messiah, or some other prophet that was to precede the Messiah. This supposition they consider necessary, in order to account for the answer which he here gives to the priests and Levites, and likewise for the message which he sent to Christ while in prison, saying, Art thou he that should come, or do we look for another? For if John had been sure that he was the Elias, and the forerunner of the Messiah, he could entertain no doubt whether Jesus were the Christ; but if he were uncertain about his own precise character, he must be uncertain, as the history shows him to be, about the precise character of Christ.
In confirmation of this supposition, they observe that John was a prophet of very limited powers, working no miracles, as most of his predecessors had done, and deriving his title to be more than an ordinary prophet, from the circumstance of his preceding the Mes. siah.
22. Then said they unto him, Who art thou ? that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?
23. And he said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make
straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias.
John was so far acquainted with his own character, as to know that he was sent to prepare the people for some great event, and was the person intended by Isajah in the passage to which he refers ; but whether that event was to be the appearance of the Messiah, or of some prophet that was to precede him, he seems not to have been informed.
24. And they which were sent were of the Pharisees;
25. And they asked him, and said unto him, Why baptizest thou then, if thou be not that Christ, nor Elias, neither that prophet ?
This language expresses the indignation of these Pharisees at John, for drawing such crowds after him, by having recourse to so unusual a method as baptizing; a method to which no one in their apprehension ought to have recourse, who was not a very eminent person, either the Messiah, Elias, or the prophet intended by Elias. There seems to be nothing in the Old Testament prophecies to justify an expec- .. tation that when the Messiah, or Elias, should appear, baptism would be used.
26. John answered them, saying, I baptize with water, but there standeth one among you, or, " there is one among you," whom ye know not.
He intimates that his baptizing with water was not an unmeaning form, but intended to prepare the Jews for the reception of a great personage, who was soon to make his appearance among them.
27. He it is, who, coming after me, is preferred before me; whose shoes'
latchet I am not worthy to unloose, 66 whose shoe-string I am not worthy to untie."
In the parallel passage in Matt. ii. 11, the phrase is, “whose shoes I am not worthy to bear,” that is, to carry away. To untie the shoes, or sandals, and carry them away, was the business of servants. By this language, therefore, John intimates that he was so far inferior to the great personage which they had among them, and who was soon to appear, that he was not worthy to be his servant.
28. These things were done in Bethabara, beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.
1. In this portion of scripture we behold a striking example of the integrity and humility of the forerunner of Christ; of his integrity, in frankly acknowledging that he was not the Messiah, nor Elias, when he apprehended he had no just claim to either of these charace ters, although he knew that the consequence of this acknowledgment would be that he must greatly sink in the estimation of the Jews; of his humility, in speaking in such lofty terms of his successor, and in such degrading language of himself. Had the Baptist possessed the disposition and character of an impostor, we should have found him acting in a very different manner; assuming that character which was likely to do hiin most honour, and which his countrymen were most inclined to acknowledge, whether he were entitled to it or not. We should have found him jealous of the reputation of a rival, and doing every thing in his power to depress him and aggrandize himself, From his pursuing a conduct which is the reverse of all this, we learn to place greater confidence in those pretensions which he really made; and the propriety of speaking the truth freely, after his example, however injurious to our interests or reputation. We learn too the propriety of the injunction given by another divine messenger, who tells us in honour to prefer one another? Happy would it have been for the world, as well as for the Christian cause, if succeeding teachers of religion had copied more exactly this example. We should not then have heard of that pride and arrogance, of those envyings and underminings, of those contentions and quarrels which have so often disgraced their characters and disturbed the peace of society. In regard to knowledge, the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than John, as Christ says; but in point of mo: ral excellence, the most enlightened have shown themselves far his inferiors.
2. Let us be thankful to God for the true grace, the invaluable favour, of the gospel. If we compare it with the light of nature, or with former dispensations of religion to mankind, it exceeds them as much in worth as the substance is better than the shadow, or as the light of day is better than the darkness of the night. If we compare this gift with the commort blessings of life, it will be found to surpass them as much in value as an eternal existence, for which it prepares us, and to the hope of which it raises us, surpasses a temporary one of a few years. Let us not reject this best gift of heaven, and, by regarding it as the offspring of fraud or enthusiasm, expose ourselves to greater injury from the fear of imposture than the greatest imposture could occasion. Above all, let us remember that it is the most important of those talents which God has committed to our trust, and for our improvement of which we shall be called to a strict account.