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Commentary On The Gospel According To Saint John Volumes 1&2

A critical enquiry why the blessed Baptist is called by Christ not only the lamp, but burning and shining.

HAVING but now with toil stayed our pen on the second book, and swum through the deep and wide sea of Divine contemplations, thinking so to reach the end, as a harbour, and all but mooring our skiff on the mainland, we see the commencement of another ocean, to wit, our course on the sequel. Which that we should accomplish with all diligence, both the nature of the thing shames us into, and that said by some one persuades us no less unto, For glorious is the fruit of good labours. Come then, let us mounting up unto a courageous purpose of mind, commit our affairs to the guidance of the good and loving God: let us, spreading forth like a sail, the expanse of our understanding and embracing the grace of the Spirit as the sound of a fair wind from the stern, run out into deep insearch. For it is Christ Which maketh a way in the sea and a path in the water. Our second book then ended with, But I receive not testimony from man; but these things I say, that YE might be saved. Let us begin the third, joining in order what follows concerning the holy Baptist, of whom Christ says;

35 He was the lamp burning and shining; and YE were willing for a season to rejoice in his light.

He likens the holy Baptist to a lamp, in that as far as appertains to the measure of man, he shone forth before His Coming, yet not with his own light: for not its own is the light in the lamp, but from without and bestowed and added: thus will you see in the saints also the illumination that is from Christ in the Spirit. Wherefore they both thinking and acting most wisely do themselves confess out of their own mouth, Of His fulness have all WE received. For the Only-Begotten is by Nature Light, in that from Light too He beamed forth, I mean, from the Essence of the Father: but the creation partakes of it, and whatever is endowed with power of reasoning and thinking, is as a vessel most excellently fashioned by God the Most Excellent Artificer of all things, with capacity for being filled with Divine Light.

The blessed Baptist then is a lamp according to the above-given explanation. The Saviour saying this economically calls the foolish Pharisees to remembrance of the Voice of God the Father, saying of Him, I prepared a lamp for My Christ. Very profitably and of necessity does Christ now subjoin these things to those already aforesaid. For since, cutting off all occasion of unbelief from the Jews, and from all sides compelling them to the duty of believing on Him, He thought good to agree with them in not receiving his testimony, saying, I receive not testimony from man, that they might not suppose that the Lord was really and truly so minded respecting His forerunner, as the form of the words gives,—profitably to His present purpose, does He introduce him, not as Himself saying anything of him, but as proclaimed by the Voice of the Father. For He thought that from reverence certainly to God the Father, the gainsayer must either be ashamed, or shew himself now more nakedly fighting against God, as unrestrainedly going against the very words of God the Father.

He then (saith He) was the lamp, and YE were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. For it behoved Him not only to shew that the Pharisees easily went astray from what is right, and had by the great impiety of their ways thrust from them the will to believe, but also to convict them of being fickle, and by no means accustomed to cleave to the desire of good things, but after having barely tasted, and approved in words only those whom they thought to be holy, they were not ashamed quickly to go over to the contrary habit. For this I think is the meaning of their being willing for a season to rejoice in his light. For at the commencement they admired the holy Baptist, as an ascetic, as a lover of God, as an example of all piety, but they who honour the miracle again insult it, not enduring to hear, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. For this they are clearly found doing through unbelief.

And now (as I think) having kept the well-trodden and commonly-used method of interpretation of the passage, we have put forth the meaning of it, according to our power: but since the Word of the Saviour extendeth to deep meanings, and evidently all but necessitateth the taking hold of more subtil conceptions, not merely signifying that John was a lamp, but also burning and shining, we deem it needful to apply ourselves more keenly to the force of the words and so track out the beauty of the truth. The sentence itself shall again be brought forward. He was the Lamp, He says. It would have been sufficient by this alone to have pointed out the holy Baptist, so that the hearers should go back to the thought of the prophecy concerning Him, which runs thus, I prepared a lamp for My Christ. But since He adds to the word lamp, the burning and shining, it is thence manifest that He carries the hearer back not merely to the prophet’s voice, but also to some pre-figuring of the Law, fore-representing, as in figure and shadow, the torch-bearing of John, which he well performed by his testimony to Christ the Lord. He again convicts the Pharisees wise in their own conceits, who were conversant in the Law of Moses and that constantly, of being ignorant, and rather seeming to be wise than really having understanding of the Law. This then is the whole aim of the discourse: but I think we ought, bringing forward the Divine oracle itself, incontrovertibly to shew that the blessed Baptist is not simply a lamp, but one burning and shining.

When then God was ordaining the arrangements of the holy tabernacle, after the completion of the ten curtains, He saith to the hierophant Moses, And do thou command the children of Israel and let them bring thee olive oil refined pure beaten to burn for a light, that the lamp burn always in the tabernacle of the congregation without the vail, which is upon the testament, Aaron and his sons shall burn it from evening to morning before the LORD: a statute for ever unto your generations on the behalf of the children of Israel: and take thou unto thee Aaron thy brother and his sons with him from among the children of Israel to minister unto Me. Thus far the oracle of God, we must now proceed to the interpretation of it as far as may be. The oil without lees and pure, seems to signify the most pure and undefiled Nature of the Holy Ghost, Which penetrating us incomprehensibly like oil, nourishes and preserves and increases the illumination in the soul, as in a lamp. And thus we believe that the Divine Baptist also shed forth the light of his testimony concerning our Saviour, having received the power of being able to illuminate from no other source than through the spiritual oil, which mightily and effectually availeth to kindle within us the Divine Light, to which also the Saviour Himself darkly alluded, saying, I am come to cast fire on the earth and what will I, if it be already kindled? The blessed Baptist then was again as in type the lamp, that was ever burning and shining in the tabernacle of testimony: and its shining in the tabernacle of testimony shews full well that his illumination was received in the churches, and will not be outside the holy and Divine Tabernacle of the Saviour. But the lamp being seen without the vail, seems to shew that he will bring in a simpler introductory illumination, saying, Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven hath drawn nigh; but of the things hidden within the vail, to wit, the mysteries of our Saviour, he revealeth nothing at all. For he baptized not unto participation of the Holy Ghost, nor did his illumination introduce within the vail: for it was in the outer tabernacle, while yet standing, according to the mouth of Paul. But when it says, that Aaron and his sons shall burn it from evening to morning before the Lord: a statute for ever unto your generations, I think we ought to understand it after this sort. Aaron and his sons signify those who execute the priest’s office in the Churches in their time, that is to say, the teachers therein and ministers of the Divine Altars. These are commanded to keep the spiritual lamp, that is, John, ever bright, for this is the meaning of, They shall burn it from evening to morning. For the whole period during which the light of the lamp was to appear, is the space of night, whereby is signified the term of the present life. For by light we understand the life to come. But the lamp burns or is kept bright, by always making its illumination perceptible to those who believe in Christ, and by testifying through the mouth of the Priests then being that it is true in saying such things of Christ.

That God may teach thee, that by this He was pourtraying the fore-messenger of the Saviour, He straightway subjoins the election of the Priests. You will attain again to the whole scope of the passage by ruminating on some such idea as this, and not amiss, as seems to me. On the completion of the tabernacle the ordering of the lamp is introduced, and immediately after, the appointment and function of the priests. For at the completion of the law and the Prophets, shone forth the voice of the forerunner crying in the wilderness (as it is written) Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God; immediately after whom is the ordination and manifestation of the holy Apostles by Christ. For the Lord chose out twelve, whom also He named Apostles.

Our consideration of the lamp being herein completed, let us look again at the Voice of the Saviour. He was (saith He) the burning and shining lamp, and YE were willing for a season to rejoice in his light. He blames in the Pharisees their habit of mind unlearned and hard to be brought to obedience and convicts them again of being sick with incomparable ill-instructedness and not able to understand even what they professed to know, and very far indeed from an accurate knowledge of the law, wholly ignorant of what the Lawgiver was pourtraying afore in outline through Moses. For by saying that he was the burning and shining lamp, He shames (it is like) those who did not yet understand that which was long ago too limned out in figures of the Law: by saying, and YE were willing for a season to rejoice in his light, He introduceth them again as ever preferring their own will to the Divine Decree, and accustomed to follow only whom they would. For whereas the lawgiver (says He) commanded the lamp always to shine and be burning, YE were willing for it to shine not always, but for a season only, that is for the very briefest period. For ye at first marvelling quenched (as far as you are concerned) the light of the lamp, most unreasonably accusing him that was sent from God, and not only yourselves refusing to be baptized, but also forbidding him from baptizing others. For ye sent to him, saying, Why baptizest thou then, that is, why dost thou enlighten to repentance and the knowledge of Christ? The Saviour then brought a charge alike of folly and transgression of the Law upon the senseless Scribes and Pharisees, contending with them in behalf of the words of John. This I think that the blessed Luke also understanding, most excellently declares and cries aloud against their folly, saying, And all the people that heard, that is, the words of the Saviour, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John: but the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.

36 But I have greater witness than that of John; for the works which the Father hath given Me to finish, the very works that I do, bear witness of Me that the Father hath sent Me: 37 and the Father Which sent Me HE hath borne witness of Me.

Even though he was the lamp (saith He) both depicted by the books of the law, and proclaimed afore by the voice of the holy Prophets, that he should one day appear, beaming before the true Light, and declaring among you, that ye ought to put in good order the way of your Lord and God: yet since he haply seemeth to you not trustworthy, albeit so great in virtue, by reason of your innate unruly and most absurd folly, I proceed now to what is greater, against which probably ye will say nothing, ashamed before the very beauty of truth even against your own will. For I am no longer receiving glory by the words and judgements of men, nor shall I deem it needful to collect testimonies to Myself from bare words, but I will commit My affairs to witness more credible and far greater than these, and from the very magnificence of My deeds I make manifest that I am God by Nature, and of God the Father, and I nothing wrong Mine Own laws, trans-ordering them to whatsoever I will, and trans-elementing things which were darkly spoken to those of old, from the grossness of the letter to spiritual contemplation.

But let him that loves learning consider again that the Saviour by saying that He is well witnessed to by His works as to His being by Nature God, teaches clearly, that it was not possible that God-befitting Operation and Power should be in all exactitude in any one, unless he too were by Nature God. For He is testified of by His works, in no other way (I suppose) save this. For if He is seen a Finisher of the works of His Father, and whatever things are more suited to Him Alone, these He too accomplisheth by His Own Power: how shall it not be clear to every one, that He hath obtained the Same Nature with Him, and Radiant with the Properties of the Father, as being of Him, hath Equal Power and Operation with Him?

Yet He says He hath received the Works from Him, either by reason of the garb of human nature and servant’s form speaking more lowlily that was needful, and this economically, or extolling by the title of gift the good Pleasure and Approval of the Father, in regard to all His wondrous Miracles. For thus does He affirm that He was also sent, in that He emptied Himself, as it is written, of His unalloyed God-befitting Dignity by reason of His Love for us. For He humbled Himself, and we shall find the lowliness of this His humbling Himself in no other ways than in those whereby He sometimes speaks as Man. To this agreeth that which is said by the Psalmist of Him in human wise for our sakes, I was set a King by Him upon Sion His Holy Mountain declaring the Law of the Lord. For He That is King for ever with the Father, Co-enthroned and Co-seated, as God with God who begat Him, says that He has been ordained King and Lord, saying that what as God He had, He received when He was made Man to whom reigning is not inherent by nature, but both the title and reality of lordship are wholly from without.

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