19. And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent Priests and Levites to Jerusalem, to ask him, Who art thou? 20. And he confessed, and denied not; he confessed, I say, I am not the Christ.21. They then asked him, What art thou then? Art thou Elijah? And he said, I am not. Art thou a Prophet? And he answered, No.22. They said therefore to him, Who art thou, that we may give an answer to those who sent us? What sayest thou of thyself? 23. He saith, I am the voice of him who crieth in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaiah.
19. And this is the testimony. Hitherto the Evangelist has related the preaching of John about Christ; he now comes down to a more illustrious testimony, which was delivered to the ambassadors of the Priests, that they might convey it to Jerusalem. He says, therefore, that John openly confessed for what purpose he was sent by God. The first inquiry here is, for what purpose the Priests put questions to him. It is generally believed that, out of hatred to Christ, they gave to John an honor which did not belong to him; but this could not be the reason, for Christ was not yet known to them. Others say that they were better pleased with John, because he was of the lineage and order of the priesthood; but neither do I think that this is probable; for since they expected from Christ all prosperity, why did they voluntarily contrive a false Christ? I think, therefore, that there was another reason that induced them. It was now a long time since they had the Prophets; John came suddenly and contrary to expectation; and the minds of all were aroused to expect the Messiah. Besides, all entertained the belief that the coining of the Messiah was at hand.
That they may not appear to be careless about their duty, if they neglect or disguise a matter of so great importance, they ask John, Who art thou? At first, therefore, they did not act from malice, but, on the contrary, actuated by the desire of redemption, they wish to know if John be the Christ, because he begins to change the order which had been customary in the Church. And yet I do not deny that ambition, and a wish to retain their authority, had some influence over them; but nothing certainly was farther from their intention than to transfer the honor of Christ to another. Nor is their conduct in this matter inconsistent with the office which they sustain; for since they held the government of the Church of God, it was their duty to take care that no one rashly obtruded himself, that no founder of a new sect should arise, that the unity of faith should not be broken in the Church, and that none should introduce new and foreign ceremonies. It is evident, therefore, that a report about John was widely spread and aroused the minds of all; and this was arranged by the wonderful Providence of God, that this testimony might be more strikingly complete.
20. And he confessed, and denied not. That is, he confessed openly, and without any ambiguity or hypocrisy. The word confess, in the first instance, means generally, that he stated the fact as it really was. In the second instance, it is repeated in order to express the form of the confession. He replied expressly, that he was not the Christ
21. Art thou Elijah? Why do they name Elijah rather than Moses? It was because they learned from the prediction of Malachi 4:2, 5, that when the Messiah, the Sun of Righteousness, should arise, Elijah would be the morning star to announce his approach. But the question is founded on a false opinion which they had long held; for, holding the opinion that the soul of a man departs out of one body into another, when the Prophet Malachi announced that Elijah would be sent, they imagined that the same Elijah, who lived under the reign of king Ahab, (1 Kings 17:1,) was to come. It is therefore a just and true reply which John makes, that he is not Elijah; for he speaks according to the opinion which they attached to the words; but Christ, giving the true interpretation of the Prophet, affirms that John is Elijah, (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:13.)
Art thou a Prophet? Erasmus gives an inaccurate explanation of these words by limiting them to Christ; for the addition of the article (ho prophetes, the prophet) carries no emphasis in this passage; and the messengers afterwards declare plainly enough, that they meant a different prophet from Christ; for they sum up the whole: by saying, (verse 25,) if thou art neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a Prophet. Thus we see that they intended to point out different persons. Others think that they inquired if he was one of the ancient prophets; but neither do I approve of that exposition. Rather do they by this term point out the office of John, and ask if God had appointed him to be a prophet. When he replies, I am not, he does not for the sake of modesty tell a lie, but honestly and sincerely detaches himself from the company of the prophets. And yet this reply is not inconsistent with the honorable attestation which Christ gives him. Christ bestows on John the designation of prophet, and even adds that he is more than a prophet, (Matthew 11:9;) but by these words he does nothing more than demand credit and authority for his doctrine, and at the same time describes, in lofty terms, the excellence of the office which had been conferred on him. But in this passage John has a different object in view, which is, to show that he has no special message, as was usually the case with the prophets, but that he was merely appointed to be the herald of Christ.
This will be made still more clear by a comparison. All ambassadors -- even those who are not sent on matters of great importance -- obtain the name and authority of ambassadors, because they hold special commissions. Such were all the Prophets who, having been enjoined to deliver certain predictions, discharged the prophetic office. But if some weighty matter come to be transacted, and if two ambassadors are sent, one of whom announces the speedy arrival of another who possesses full power to transact the whole matter, and if this latter has received injunctions to bring it to a conclusion, will not the former embassy be reckoned a part and appendage of the latter, which is the principal? Such was the case with John the Baptist, to whom God had given no other injunction than to prepare the Jews for listening to Christ, and becoming his disciples. That this is the meaning, will still more fully appear from the context; for we must investigate the opposite clause, which immediately follows. I am not a prophet, says he, but a voice crying in the wilderness. The distinction lies in this, that the voice crying, that a way may be prepared for the Lord, is not a prophet, but merely a subordinate minister, so to speak; and his doctrine is only a sort of preparation for listening to another Teacher. In this way John, though he is more excellent than all the prophets, still is not a prophet
23. The voice of him who crieth. As he would have been chargeable with rashness in undertaking the office of teaching, if he had not received a commission, he shows what was the duty which he had to perform, and proves it by a quotation from the Prophet Isaiah 60:3. Hence it follows that he does nothing but what God commanded him to do. Isaiah does not, indeed, speak there of John alone, but, promising the restoration of the Church, he predicts that there will yet be heard joyful voices, commanding to prepare the way for the Lord. Though he points out the coming of God, when he brought back the people from their captivity in Babylon, yet the true accomplishment was the manifestation of Christ in flesh. Among the heralds who announced that the Lord was at hand, John held the chief place.
To enter into ingenious inquiries, as some have done, into the meaning of the word Voice, would be frivolous. John is called a Voice, because he was enjoined to cry. It is in a figurative sense, undoubtedly, that Isaiah gives the name wilderness to the miserable desolation of the Church, which seemed to preclude the return of the people; as if he had said, that a passage would indeed be opened up for the captive people, but that the Lord would find a road through regions in which there was no road. But that visible wilderness, in which John preached, was a figure or image of the awful desolation which took away all hope of deliverance. If this comparison be considered, it will be easily seen that no torture has been given to the words of the prophet in this application of them; for God arranged everything in such a manner, as to place before the eyes of his people, who were overwhelmed with their calamities, a mirror of this prediction.