The Divine Lamp

The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple…Make thy face shine upon thy servant, and teach me thy statutes

Father Cornelius a Lapide’s Commentary on John 1:6-8, 19-28

Posted by Dim Bulb on November 27, 2017

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

There was a man sent from God, &c. He was sent, as Luke says, (3:1), “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar: and the Word of God came to him in the wilderness.” “Thou, then,” says Chrysostom, “when thou understandest that he was sent from God, do not think that anything merely human is being announced, but that all is Divine. He does not declare anything of his own, but the secrets of Him who sends him. Therefore he, John, is called an angel, that is, a messenger. It is the office of a messenger to know nothing of himself.”

7 This man came for a witness, to give testimony of the light, that all men might believe through him.

The man came for a witness, &c. Namely, that he might bear witness that Jesus is the true Light of the world, and that we must look for, and ask of Him all the light of faith, and all the knowledge of salvation.

Observe that in Greek the article is prefixed to light, as it were that light meaning the spiritual and Divine light, that which shineth of itself, and is essentially light, and the source of all enlightenment, which is as it were a Divine Sun, in respect of which John the Baptist was but as the moon, or the day-star. For as the morning star goes before the sun, so did John precede Christ the Sun of righteousness. The meaning is as follows—Inasmuch as the light of the Godhead was hidden in the humanity of Christ, as in a lantern dark and shaded, so that men discerned it not, therefore did God send John, that he might uncover and make this light manifest, and testify that Jesus was the very Son of God, the Teacher and Redeemer of the world. For, as Paul saith (1 Tim. 6:16), God “inhabiteth the unapproachable light, whom no man hath seen, nor can see.” And again, the Son “is the splendour of His glory, and the form of the substance” of God the Father (Heb. 1:3, Vulg.)

And again, the same is “the brightness of eternal light, and the spotless mirror of the majesty of God, and the image of His goodness” (Wisd. 7:26).

That all men might believe through him: that is, believe in the Light, and so be justified and saved. Through him, namely, John, who as it were with his finger pointed out Christ, saying: “Behold the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sins of the world.”

8 He was not the light, but was to give testimony of the light.

He was not the Light, &c. The Jews and the Scribes thought, because of the preaching and heavenly life of John in the wilderness, that he was himself the Light, i.e., Christ. John the Evangelist by these words destroys such an idea. He was not the Light. That is, he was not the Saviour of the world, but only His witness, who received all his own light of knowledge and prophecy and grace from Christ. Wherefore in Jn 5:35, he is called “a burning and a shining lamp.” “But,” says Origen. “he did not burn by his own fire, nor shine by his own light.”

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent from Jerusalem priests and Levites to him, to ask him: Who art thou?

Ver. 19.—And this is the witness of John, &c. John the Baptist often bare witness to Jesus, that He was the Messias, or the Christ, both before and after His baptism. John the Evangelist therefore, omitting in this place the testimony which the Baptist bore to Jesus before His baptism, which had been related by the three other Evangelists, gives his testimony concerning Him after he had baptized Him. For this testimony was public, judicial, and most celebrated. It had been judicially demanded by the chief priests and magistrates, and had been received by them through the ambassadors whom they sent to John. The reason of this embassy was because the chief priests saw John leading in the desert an angelic life, preaching with great power, baptizing, and moving men to repentance, as none of the other prophets had done. The chief priests thought therefore that it was their duty to ask him who he was, especially because they knew that the sceptre had passed from Judah to Herod, and the seventy weeks of Daniel being completed, the coming of Messias must be nigh at hand. Wherefore, suspecting that John was the Messias, they ask him, Who art thou?

S. Chrysostom gives another reason—that they asked out of envy and hatred of Jesus, in order that they might show that Jesus was not the Messiah. They would have preferred to bestow the title upon John. They disliked John’s preferring Jesus to himself, and calling Him the Messias or Christ. But although there might be some envy mingled with it, the true reason was, as I have said, that it was the counsel of God so to exalt John, that the chief priests might be driven to ask him whether he were the Christ or not, that being asked he might authoritatively answer that which was the truth, namely, that not he, but Jesus, was the Messias, and that, being convicted by this testimony of John, they might be compelled either to receive Jesus as the Messias or to be without excuse.

Who art thou? The chief priests appear tacitly at least to have inquired of John, whether he were the Christ or not; for John replies, I am not the Christ.

Moreover, they were aware that John was the son of the priest Zacharias, and therefore a priest himself. When therefore they say, Who art thou? they ask virtually. What office hast thou received from God? With what object has God sent thee to preach and baptize? For God was wont to commit greater offices to priests.

Tropologically, let every one often ask himself, Who art thou? Firstly, as regards our substance. Listen to thy conscience making answer to thyself—the name of God my Creator is, I Am that I Am (Exod. 3). My name therefore as a creature is “I am that am not,” because I am nothing of myself, but out of my nothingness have been brought forth by God, and made a man. Wherefore my body and soul are not my own, but God’s, who has given them, or rather lent them, to me. As S. Francis was wont to say, “Who art Thou, Lord? Who am I? Thou art an abyss of wisdom and long-suffering, and all goodness. I am an abyss of ignorance, weakness, of all evil and wretchedness. Thou art an abyss of being, I of nothingness.” So when Christ appeared to S. Catherine of Sienna, He said, “Blessed art thou if thou knowest who I am, and who thou art. I am He who is, thou art she who is not.”

Secondly, as to quality. Who? that is, of what sort art thou? Answer, As regards my body, I am weak, miserable, and wretched. As to my soul, as regards my reason, I am like unto the angels. As regards my sensual appetite, and concupiscence, I am like the brutes. Therefore I will follow my reason, and so become assimilated to the angels.

Thirdly, as regards relation. Who? that is, whose son art thou? Reply, I am the son of Adam, the first sinner, and therefore being born in sin, I am living in sin, and must die in sin, unless the grace of Christ rescue me from my sins, and sanctify and save me.

Fourthly, as regards employment. Who art thou? what trade or profession art thou? I am a carpenter, a baker, a governor, a shepherd, a lawyer. See then that thou exercise thyself in thy calling, whatsoever it be, as the law of God requires, namely, in such wise that thou live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world, looking for the blessed hope, and the coming of the glory of the great God, that thou mayest so pass through things temporal, that thou lose not, but gain the things eternal. Work, study, live for eternity. As S. Bernard was wont often to say to himself, “Bernard, tell me, wherefore art thou here?” And with this goad, as it were, he stirred himself up to zeal for all virtues.

Fifthly, as regards suffering. Who art thou? that is to say, what dost thou suffer? Reply, In the body I suffer hunger, thirst, disease, continual afflictions, so that there is scarcely the smallest space of time in which I have not many things to bear. As regards my soul, I have far greater and more bitter afflictions, griefs, and anguish, anxieties, sorrows, angers, indignation, darkness, fear, &c., so that I seem to be, as it were, a mark at which all afflictions hurl their darts, and thrust me through with their arrows. Be thou therefore a very adamant of patience, that thou mayest patiently and generously endure all things, and win the everlasting crown of patience in heaven.

Sixthly, as regards place. Who? that is, where art thou? Answer, I am on earth, placed between heaven and hell, in such wise, that if I live holily, I may pass to heaven, if wickedly, to hell. Live therefore carefully, warily, and holily, that not hell, but heaven may receive thee, when this short mortal life is over.

Seventhly, as regards time. Who art thou? When wast thou born? How long hast thou lived? When shalt thou die? Answer, Born yesterday, to-day I live, to-morrow I die. “For we are of yesterday, and know nothing; all our days upon the earth are but a shadow” (Job 8:9). Therefore despise all things temporal, which fly past as a bird doth. Love and covet heavenly things, which endure for ever with God and the angels. So shalt thou, being eternal, be happy eternally, and abide in everlasting delights. For as S. Gregory says, “That we may be eternal, and happy eternally, let us imitate eternity. And this is to us a great eternity, even the imitation of eternity.”

Lastly, as regards posture and clothing. Who art thou? that is, what posture, or clothing hast thou? Reply, I stand, I sit, I lie, I wear the habit of a Christian, a priest, a bishop, a religious. Take heed then that thou live conformably to thy habit. For it is not the habit which makes the Christian, or the monk, but purity of life, humility, charity.

20 And he confessed and did not deny: and he confessed: I am not the Christ.

And he confessed, &c. That is, publicly, plainly, and fully that he was not the Christ. For when the Hebrews wished very strongly to assert anything, they doubled the affirmative, and trebled the negative. Observe the great humility of S. John: how firmly he refused the name of Christ when it was offered to him. For he loved the truth, and Jesus, to whom this name belonged. Men of the world love to boast, and say, I am a nobleman, a governor, a canon, a bishop. But John teaches us to say, “I am nothing,” because if I am anything, I have it from God.

21 And they asked him: What then? Art thou Elias? And he said: I am not. Art thou the prophet? And he answered: No.

And they asked him, &c. When John denied that he was the Christ, the messengers asked him if he were Elias. For him God took away, that he might be the forerunner of Christ. And of him they were then in expectation, according to the words of Malachi (4:5), “Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord come,” meaning the day of judgment, when Christ shall return to be the Judge of all. But the Scribes did not understand this. They thought that there would be but one advent of Christ, and that a glorious one, the precursor of which would be Elias. Thus the Jews think even now that Christ has not yet come, but is about to come with Elias. And yet they ought to have known from the same Malachi (3:1) that there would be another precursor of Christ’s first coming in the flesh, even John the Baptist. “For I,” saith the Lord, “do send My messenger, and he shall prepare My way before My face.”

Art thou the prophet? Greek, ὁ προφήτης, the prophet par excellence. “Art thou a new and great prophet, such an one as we think will come with Messiah, to be His herald?” So SS. Chrysostom and Cyril. But they (the Jews) were in error. For Christ needed not a prophet, as Moses, who was not eloquent, needed Aaron. But Christ was His own prophet, herald, priest, and lawgiver. Moreover John was not a prophet in the sense that he foretold things to come. But he pointed out with his finger, as it were, Christ present. Therefore was he more than a prophet, as Christ says in the 11th of Matthew.

22 They said therefore unto him: Who art thou, that we may give an answer to them that sent us? What sayest thou of thyself?
23 He said: I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias.

I am the Voice, &c. (Isa. 40:3), where I have expounded the meaning. Listen to what the Fathers say about it. “I am a servant, and prepare paths, your hearts, for the Lord,” says Theophylact. “I come, he says, to say that He is at the doors who is expected, that you may be prepared to go whithersoever He may bid you,” says Cyril.

24 And they that were sent were of the Pharisees.

And they that were sent, &c. John adds this, to suggest the occasion why they examined John the Baptist concerning baptism. These messengers who were sent to John were Pharisees, and therefore were well versed in the Scriptures. Consequently they knew that Messiah would baptize for the remission of sins, because Ezekiel (36:25) and Zechariah (13:1) had predicted that He would do so. But concerning other prophets and saints they had not read in Scripture that they would baptize. They ask John therefore to tell them by what authority he baptized, especially since he not only asserted that he was not Christ, but not even a prophet.

25 And they asked him and said to him: Why then dost thou baptize, if thou be not Christ, nor Elias, nor the prophet?

And they asked him, &c. “These Pharisees,” says S. Cyril, “in their arrogancy insult John, as though they said, Neither Elias, nor Eliseus, nor any of the other prophets dared to take upon themselves the office of baptizing. With what face then, or boldness, dost thou, who art not a prophet, arrogate this office to thyself?”

26 John answered them, saying: I baptize with water: but there hath stood one in the midst of you, whom you know not.

John answered them, &c. As though he had said, “God hath sent me to baptize with water, that I might stir you up to repentance and tears, so as to fit you for Christ’s baptism. For He shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, for the remission of sins,” as the remaining three Evangelists declare. Therefore John is silent about this.

There hath stood one, &c. That is, Christ is living in the midst of you, and yet ye know Him not. That is, you do not recognise Him as Messiah, but look upon Him as a mere man, as vile and abject.

27 The same is he that shall come after me, who is preferred before me: the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose.

The same is he that shall come after me, &c. After me Christ shall come to baptize you, that by His baptism He may perfect mine, and may wash and justify them that are penitent. As S. Cyril paraphrases, “I in preparation wash with water those who are polluted with sins as a beginning of repentance, and by this means leading you from what is lower I prepare you for more lofty things. For He who is the giver of greater things, and of the highest perfection, is about to come after me.” Or, as S. Chrysostom says, “My baptism is only a disposition and preparation for the baptism of Christ. Mine is of water and corporeal, Christ’s is of fire and spiritual.”

The latchet of whose shoe, &c. As though he said, “I am not worthy to be reckoned amongst the last of the servants of Christ, on account of the greatness of the Deity which is in Him.”

28 These things were done in Bethania, beyond the Jordan, where John was baptizing.

These things were done in, &c. Bethany is the reading of the Latin, Syriac, Arabic versions, of many codices, including the Vatican, of Bede, Alcuin, the Gloss, &c. But instead of Bethany, Origen, S. Chrysostom, Theophylact, Euthymius, S. Epiphanius, and S. Jerome (in loc. Heb.) read Bethabara, where Gideon slew the Midianites. I observe with Toletus that Bethany and Bethabara were one and the same place, or at least that one was nigh the other, or on opposite banks of the Jordan. This was the place in which the Hebrews, when they came out of Egypt, first crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua, to enter the promised land. For Bethabara means in Hebrew a house of passage; Bethany, a house of ships. For vessels were waiting here to carry passengers over Jordan. This Bethany is derived from Beth, a house, and any, spelt with alpha, a ship. The Bethany of Martha and Lazarus was a different place, and spelt differently in Hebrew. That Bethany means the house of humility, from Beth, a house, and any, spelt with ain, humility.

John, then, chose this place wherein to baptize for several reasons, because of the abundance of water, also in memory of the ancient passage of the Israelites. S. Jerome says (loc. Hebrœis), “Even at this present time many of our brethren who believe, desiring there to be born again, are baptized in the life-giving flood.” They did this in memory of Christ, who was there baptized by John. This place is distant about four leagues from the Dead Sea.

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