Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 31: Matthew, Mark and Luke, Part I, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
MATTHEW 3:11-12; MARK 1:7-8; LUKE 3:15-18
11. I indeed baptize you with water to repentance: but he who cometh after me is stronger than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to carry: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. 12. Whose winnowing-fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly cleanse his thrashing-floor, and will collect the wheat into his barn: but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
7. And he preached, saying, One cometh after me, that latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. 8. I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
15. And while the people were waiting, and while all were thinking in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ: 16. John answered to all, saying, I indeed baptize you with water, but there cometh one stronger than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to loose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire. 17. Whose winnowing-fan is in his hand, and he will cleanse his thrashing-floor, and will collect the wheat into his barn: but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. 18. And exhorting also as to many other things, he preached the Gospel 281 to the people.
The three Evangelists relate the Baptist’s discourse in the same words. In one respect, Luke’s account is more full: for he opens it by explaining the occasion on which this discourse was delivered. It arose from the people being in danger of being led, by a false opinion, to convey to him the honor which was due to Christ. To remove, as soon as possible, every occasion of such a mistake, he expressly declares, that he is not the Christ, and draws such a distinction between Christ and himself as to maintain Christ’s prerogative. He would have done this of his own accord, by handing them over, to use a common expression, as disciples to Christ: but he takes up the matter at an earlier stage, lest, by remaining silent any longer, he should confirm the people in an error.
He who cometh after me is stronger than I Christ is thus declared to be so far superior in power and rank, that, with respect to him, John must occupy a private station. 282 He uses ordinary forms of speech to magnify the glory of Christ, in comparison of whom he declares that he himself is nothing. The chief part of his statement is, that he represents Christ as the author of spiritual baptism, and himself as only the minister of outward baptism. He appears to anticipate an objection, which might be brought forward. What was the design of the Baptism which he had taken upon himself? For it was no light matter to introduce any innovation whatever into the Church of God, and particularly to bring forward a new way of introducing persons into the Church, which was more perfect than the law of God. He replies, that he did not proceed to do this without authority; but that his office, as minister of an outward symbol, takes nothing away from the power and glory of Christ.
Hence we infer, that his intention was not at all to distinguish between his own baptism, and that which Christ taught his disciples, and which he intended should remain in perpetual obligation in his Church. He does not contrast one visible sign with another visible sign, but compares the characters of master and servant with each other, and shows what is due to the master, and what is due to the servant. It ought not to have any weight with us, that an opinion has long and extensively prevailed, that John’s baptism differs from ours. We must learn to form our judgment from the matter as it stands, and not from the mistaken opinions of men. And certainly the comparison, which they imagine to have been made, would involve great absurdities. It would follow from it, that the Holy Spirit is given, in the present day, by ministers. Again, it would follow that John’s baptism was a dead sign, and had no efficacy whatever. Thirdly, it would follow, that we have not the same baptism with Christ: for it is sufficiently evident, that the fellowship, which he condescends to maintain with us, was ratified by this pledge, 283 when he consecrated baptism in his own body.
We must therefore hold by what I have already said, that John merely distinguishes, in this passage, between himself and the other ministers of baptism, on the one hand, and the power of Christ, on the other, and maintains the superiority of the master over the servants. And hence we deduce the general doctrine, as to what is done in baptism by men, and what is accomplished in it by the Son of God. To men has been committed nothing more than the administration of an outward and visible sign: the reality dwells with Christ alone. 284
Scripture does sometimes, though not in a literal sense, 285 ascribe to men what John here declares not to belong to men, but claims exclusively for Christ. In such cases, however, the design is not to inquire, what man has separately and by himself, but merely to show, what is the effect and advantage of signs, and in what manner God makes use of them, as instruments, by his Spirit. Here also is laid down a distinction between Christ and his ministers, that the world may not fall into the mistake, of giving to them what is justly due to him alone: for there is nothing to which they are more prone, than to adorn creatures with what has been taken from God by robbery. A careful attention to this observation will rid us of many difficulties. We know what disputes have arisen, in our own age, about the advantage and efficacy of signs, all of which may be disposed of in a single word. The ordinance of our Lord, viewed as a whole, includes himself as its Author, and the power of the Spirit, together with the figure and the minister: but where a comparison is made between our Lord and the minister, the former must have all the honor, and the latter must be reduced to nothing.
Matthew 3:11. He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire It is asked, why did not John equally say, that it is Christ alone who washes souls with his blood? The reason is, that this very washing is performed by the power of the Spirit, and John reckoned it enough to express the whole effect of baptism by the single word Spirit The meaning is clear, that Christ alone bestows all the grace which is figuratively represented by outward baptism, because it is he who “sprinkles the conscience” with his blood. It is he also who mortifies the old man, and bestows the Spirit of regeneration. The word fire is added as an epithet, and is applied to the Spirit, because he takes away our pollutions, as fire purifies gold. In the same manner, he is metaphorically called water in another passage, (Joh 3:5.)
12. Whose winnowing-fan is in his hand In the former verse, John preached concerning the grace of Christ, that the Jews might yield themselves to him to be renewed: now he discourses of judgment, that he may strike despisers with terror. As there are always many hypocrites who proudly reject the grace of Christ offered to them, it is also necessary to denounce the judgment that awaits them. For this reason John here describes Christ as a severe judge against unbelievers. And this is an order which must be observed by us in teaching, that hypocrites may know, that their rejection of Christ will not go unpunished. They will thus be roused from their lethargy, and begin to dread him as an avenger, whom they despised as the author of salvation.
I have no doubt, that John intended also to show, what Christ accomplishes by means of his Gospel. The preaching of the Gospel, then, is the winnowing-fan Before the Lord sifts us, the whole world is involved in confusion, every one flatters himself, and the good are mixed with the bad in short, it is only necessary that the chaff be blown. But when Christ comes forward with his Gospels, — when he reproves the consciences and summons them to the tribunal of God, the chaff is sifted out, 286 which formerly occupied a great part of the thrashing-floor It is true that, in the case of individuals, the Gospel effects a separation from the chaff: but in this passage, John compares the reprobate to chaff, and believers to wheat The thrashing floor accordingly denotes — not the world, (as some people imagine,) but the Church: for we must attend to the class of persons whom John addresses. The mere title filled the Jews with pride, 287 but John tells them that it is foolish in them to be proud of it, because they hold but a temporary place in the Church of God, from which they are soon to be thrown out, like chaff from the thrashing-floor. In this way, he gives a rapid glance at the corrupt state in which the Church then was: for it was covered with husks, and straws, and other rubbish, but would soon be cleansed by the strong breeze of the Gospel. But how is Christ said to separate the chaff from the wheat, when he can find nothing in men but mere chaff? The answer is easy. The elect are formed into wheat, 288 and are then separated from the chaff, and collected into the granary
He will thoroughly cleanse his thrashing-floor This work was begun by Christ, and is daily going forward: but the full accomplishment of it will not be seen till the last day. This is the reason why John draws our attention to the subject. But let us remember, that believers even now enter, by hope, into the granary of God, in which they will actually have their everlasting abode; while the reprobate experience, in their convictions of guilt, the heat of that fire, the actual burning of which they will feel at the last day.
Many persons, I am aware, have entered into ingenious debates about the eternal fire, by which the wicked will be tormented after the judgment. But we may conclude from many passages of Scripture, that it is a metaphorical expression. For, if we must believe that it is real, or what they call material fire, we must also believe that the brimstone and the fan are material, both of them being mentioned by Isaiah.
“For Tophet is ordained of old; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it,” (Isa 30:33.)
We must explain the fire in the same manner as the worm, (Mark 9:44, 46, 48.) and if it is universally agreed that the worm is a metaphorical term, we must form the same opinion as to the fire. Let us lay aside the speculations, by which foolish men weary themselves to no purpose, and satisfy ourselves with believing, that these forms of speech denote, in a manner suited to our feeble capacity, a dreadful torment, which no man can now comprehend, and no language can express.
“In ordinem cogendus sit.” — “Il faut qu'il baissc la teste.” — “He must bow the head.”
“A este confirme et ratifie par ce signe;” — “was confirmed and ratified by this sign.”
“La verite du Baptesme vient et procede du Christ seul.” — “The truth of Baptism comes and proceeds from Christ alone.”
“Les pailles s'en vont avec le vent;” — “the chaff goes away with the wind.”
“Les Juifs s'arrestoyent a ce beau titre de Peuple de Dieu, et d'En-fans d'Abraham, et s'en enfioyent.” — “The Jews dwelt upon this fine title of People of God, and Children of Abraham, and were proud of it.”
“Les esleus, qui de leur nature ne sont que paille, deviennent froment par la grace de Dieu.” — “The elect, who by their nature are only chaff; become wheat by the grace of God.”