24. Now those who were sent were of the Pharisees.25. Therefore they asked him, and said to him, Why then dost thou baptize, if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a Prophet? 26. John answered them, saying, I baptize with water; but one standeth in the midst of you, whom you know not.27. It is he who, coming after me, is preferred to me; whose shoe-latchet I am not worthy to loose.28. These things were done in Bethabara beyond Jordan, where John was baptizing.
24. Were of the Pharisees. He says that they were Pharisees, who at that time held the highest rank in the Church; and he says so in order to inform us, that they were not some contemptible persons of the order of the Levites, but men clothed with authority. This is the reason why they raise a question about his baptism. Ordinary ministers would have been satisfied with any kind of answer; but those men, because they cannot draw from John what they desired, accuse him of rashness for venturing to introduce a new religious observance.
25. Why then dost thou baptize? By laying down those three degrees, they appear to form a very conclusive argument: if thou art not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor a prophet; for it does not belong to every man to institute the practice of baptism. The Messiah was to be one who possessed all authority. Of Elijah who was to come, they had formed this opinion, that he would commence the restoration both of the royal authority and of the Church. The prophets of God, they readily grant, have a right to discharge the office committed to them. They conclude, therefore, that for John to baptize is an unlawful novelty, since he has received from God no public station. But they are wrong in not acknowledging him to be that Elijah who is mentioned by Malachi 4:5; though he denies that he is that Elijah of whom they foolishly dreamed.
26. I baptize with water. This ought to have been abundantly sufficient for the correction of their mistake, but a reproof otherwise clear is of no advantage to the deaf; for, when he sends them to Christ, and declares that Christ is present, this is a clear proof not only that he was divinely appointed to be a minister of Christ, but that he is the true Elijah, who is sent to testify that the time is come for the renovation of the Church. There is a contrast here which is not fully stated; for the spiritual baptism of Christ is not expressly contrasted with the external baptism of John, but that latter clause about the baptism of the Spirit might easily be supplied, and shortly afterwards both are set down by the Evangelist.
This answer may be reduced to two heads: first, that John claims nothing for himself but what he has a right to claim, because he has Christ for the Author of his baptism, in which consists the truth of the sign; and, secondly, that he has nothing but the administration of the outward sign, while the whole power and efficacy is in the hands of Christ alone. Thus he defends his baptism so far as its truth depends on anything else; but, at the same time, by declaring that he has not the power of the Spirit, he exalts the dignity of Christ, that the eyes of men may be fixed on him alone. This is the highest and best regulated moderation, when a minister borrows from Christ whatever authority he claims for himself, in such a manner as to trace it to him, ascribing to him alone all that he possesses.
It is a foolish mistake, however, into which some people have been led, of supposing that John's baptism was different from ours; for John does not argue here about the advantage and usefulness of his baptism, but merely compares his own person with the person of Christ. In like manner, if we were inquiring, at the present day, what part belongs to us, and what belongs to Christ, in baptism, we must acknowledge that Christ alone performs what baptism figuratively represents, and that we have nothing beyond the bare administration of the sign. There is a twofold way of speaking in Scripture about the sacraments; for sometimes it tells us that they are the laver of regeneration, (Titus 3:5;) that by them our sins are washed away, (1 Peter 3:21;) that we
are in-grafted into the body of Christ, that our old man is crucified, and that we rise again to newness of life, (Romans 6:4, 5, 6;)
and, in those cases, Scripture joins the power of Christ with the ministry of man; as, indeed, man is nothing else than the hand of Christ. Such modes of expression show, not what man can of himself accomplish, but what Christ performs by man, and by the sign, as his instruments. But as there is a strong tendency to fall into superstition, and as men, through the pride which is natural to them, take from God the honor due to him, and basely appropriate it to themselves; so Scripture, in order to restrain this blasphemous arrogance, sometimes distinguishes ministers from Christ, as in this passage, that we may learn that ministers are nothing and can do nothing.
One standeth in the midst of you. He indirectly charges them with stupidity, in not knowing Christ, to whom their minds ought to have been earnestly directed; and he always insists earnestly on this point, that nothing can be known about his ministry, until men have come to him who is the Author of it. When he says that Christ standeth in the midst of, them, it is that he may excite their desire and their exertion to know him. The amount of what he says is, that he wishes to place himself as low as possible, lest any degree of honor improperly bestowed on him might obscure the excellence of Christ. It is probable that he had these sentences frequently in his mouth, when he saw himself immoderately extolled by the perverse opinions of men.
27. Who coming after me. Here he says two things; first, that Christ was behind him in the order of time; but, secondly, that he was far before him in rank and dignity, because the rather preferred him to all. Soon after he will add a third statement, that Christ was preferred to all others, because he is in reality more exalted than all others.
28. These things were done in Bethabara. The place is mentioned, not only to authenticate the narrative, but also to inform us that this answer was given amidst a numerous assembly of people; for there were many who flocked to John's baptism, and this was his ordinary place for baptizing. It is likewise supposed by some to be a passage across Jordan, and, from this circumstance, they derive the name, for they interpret it the house of passage; unless, perhaps, some may prefer the opinion of those who refer to the memorable passage of the people, (Joshua 3:13,) when God opened up a way for them in the midst of the waters, under the direction of Joshua. Others say that it ought rather to be read Betharaba. Instead of Bethabara, some have inserted here the name Bethany, but this is a mistake; for we shall afterwards see how near Bethany was to Jerusalem. The situation of Bethabara, as laid down by those who have described the country, agrees best with the words of the Evangelist; though I have no wish to dispute about the pronunciation of the word.