Sunday, June 24, 2012

Johann Gerhard on John the Baptist

In honor of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, here's a selection from the latest volume of Johann Gerhard's classic work of theology, Theological Commonplaces: On the Ministry, Part One (St. Louis: Concordia, 2011). Gerhard has an interesting section about how the Jews at the time of Jesus believed in the transmigration of souls. This explains a number of NT passages, and it is plausible that the Jews came to this wrong understanding by misunderstanding verses like Mal. 4:5.
§ 20. In this place the question arises: (I) In what sense and respect is John the Baptist called “more than a prophet” (Matt. 11:9; Luke 7:26)? We respond. The reason is given in the same places: because “he went before the face of the Lord, preparing the way before Him” [Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:27]. That is, the prophets of the Old Testament prophesied about the Messiah, who would finally come after many centuries. For instance, Balaam says, “I shall see Him, but not now; I shall behold Him, but not near” (Num. 24:17). Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, prophesied 466 years before Christ was born. But John pointed his finger at Christ, who was present; he began the ministry of the New Testament; by divine authority he instituted the new sacrament of Baptism. This did not happen to any prophet of the Old Testament. Irenaeus, bk. 3, ch. 11, p. 185: “All the other prophets announced the coming of the Father’s Light. But they deeply wished to be worthy to see Him whom they were preaching. John, however, prophesied similarly to others but saw His coming, showed Him, and persuaded many to believe in Him, such that he himself held the position of both prophet and apostle.”

(II) [The question arises:] In what sense does this same [John the] Baptist deny that he is a prophet (John 1:21), even though he was considered as and honored with the title “prophet,” not only by his father Zechariah (Luke 1:76) but also by all the people of Israel (Matt. 14:5; Mark 11:32)? We respond. Some people take the question of the messengers from Jerusalem as referring to the outstanding prophet promised in Deut. 18:18. However, because they had already asked John if he was the Christ, the question of whether he was that great prophet would have been repeated uselessly. You see, it could be said only about the Messiah that He was that outstanding prophet who had been promised through Moses, unless we wanted to say that those messengers and the Sanhedrin of Jerusalem had completely erred from the true meaning of this prophecy, something that anyone who notices their stupidity and blindness would easily believe. Some respond by saying that John denied that he was a prophet because Christ said he was greater and more excellent than the prophets. Some claim that when John denies that he is a prophet, he was regarding the fact that he is not one of prophets of the Old Testament, about whom it was said in Matt. 11:13: “For all the prophets prophesied until John.” Some claim that the messengers asked and John replied about Elisha, who himself had ordered Naaman to be dipped in the waters. Some think that John denied that he was a prophet because of his humility, even though he truly was a prophet. Some people suspect that John refused to accept the honor of prophet because he was not undertaking a duty of the political office, which the prophets in the Old Testament used.

But it is more simple to respond that John adjusted his response to the question of the messengers. They were asking him if he was a prophet, that is, if he was one of those ancient prophets, long dead already, who had been recalled to life through a Pythagorean transmigration of souls. You see, Elias Levita testifies in Thisbi that the Jewish leaders at that time had embraced the idea of the transmigration of souls, something we also conclude from the words of Herod (Matt. 14:1; Mark 6:14), where he makes this judgment about Christ: “John the Baptist has risen from the dead. That is why these powers are at work in Him.” However, the sense of the question is revealed especially from what comes before it. They are asking whether he is a prophet in the same sense as they ask whether he is Elijah. But they are asking if he is Elijah in this sense: Is he that Elijah, the Tishbite, who was carried into heaven by a fiery chariot and whose return in his own person they were awaiting, according to the misunderstood prophecy in Mal. 4:5? Therefore they are also asking him if he is a prophet in this sense: Is he one of the ancient prophets recalled to life by a divine miracle? This we conclude very clearly from the words of Luke 9:7–8: “Now Herod the tetrarch heard all that Christ was doing, and he was perplexed because it was said by some that John had been raised from the dead, by some that Elijah had appeared, and by the others that one of the ancient prophets had risen.” Therefore John had first denied that he was Elijah in that sense in which the messengers had asked if he was Elijah in his own person, even though the angel (Luke 1:17) and Christ Himself (Matt. 11:14) call him “Elijah” in a different sense: because he went ahead of the Messiah in the spirit and power of Elijah. In the same way, he denies that he is a prophet in that sense in which the messengers had asked him if he was a prophet, that is, one of the ancient prophets brought back to life, even though in a different sense he truly was a prophet: a herald of repentance and righteousness, the forerunner of the Messiah, a minister of the New Testament, etc.

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