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Home > Fathers of the Church > Sermons on the New Testament (Augustine) > Sermon 16

Sermon 16 on the New Testament

[LXVI. Ben.]

On the words of the Gospel, Matthew 11:2 , Now when John heard in the prison the works of the Christ, he sent by his disciples, and said unto him, are you He that comes, or look we for another? etc.

1. The lesson of the Holy Gospel has set before us a question touching John the Baptist. May the Lord assist me to resolve it to you, as He has resolved it to us. John was commended, as you have heard, by the testimony of Christ, and in such terms commended, as that there had not risen a greater among those who were born of women. But a greater than he had been born of a Virgin. How much greater? Let the herald himself declare, how great the difference is between himself and his Judge, whose herald he is. For John went before Christ both in his birth and preaching; but it was in obedience that he went before Him; not in preferring himself before Him. For so the whole train of attendants walks before the judge; yet they who walk before, are really after him. How signal a testimony then did John give to Christ? Even to saying that he was not worthy to loose the latchet of His shoes. And what more? Of His fullness, says he, have all we received. He confessed that he was but a lamp lighted at His Light, and so he took refuge at His feet, lest venturing on high, he should be extinguished by the wind of pride. So great indeed was he, that he was taken for Christ; and if he had not himself testified that he was not He, the mistake would have continued, and he would have been reputed to be the Christ. What striking humility! Honour was proffered him by the people, and he himself refused it. Men were at fault in his greatness, and he humbled himself. He had no wish to increase by the words of men, seeing he had comprehended the Word of God.

2. This then did John say concerning Christ. And what said Christ of John? We have just now heard. He began to say to the multitudes concerning John, What went ye out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken with the wind? Surely not; for John was not blown about by every wind of doctrine. But what went ye out for to see? A man clothed in soft raiment? No, for John was clothed in rough apparel; he had his raiment of camel's hair, not of down. But what went ye out for to see? A Prophet? Yea, and more than a Prophet. Why more than a Prophet? The Prophets foretold that the Lord would come, whom they desired to see, and saw not; but to him was vouchsafed what they sought. John saw the Lord; he saw Him, pointed his finger toward Him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world; behold, here He is. Now had He come and was not acknowledged; and so a mistake was made also as to John himself. Behold then here is He whom the Patriarchs desired to see, whom the Prophets foretold, whom the Law prefigured. Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. And he gave a goodly testimony to the Lord, and the Lord to him. Among them that are born of women, says the Lord, there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding, he that is less in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he; less in time, but greater in majesty. This He said, meaning Himself to be understood. Now exceedingly great among men is John the Baptist, than whom among men Christ alone is greater. It may also be thus stated and explained, Among them that are born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding, he that is the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. Not in the sense that I have before explained it. Notwithstanding, he that is the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he; the kingdom of heaven he meant where the Angels are; he then that is the least among the Angels, is greater than John. Thus He set forth to us the excellence of that kingdom which we should long for; set before us a city, of which we should desire to be citizens. What sort of citizens are there? How great are they! Whoso is the least there, is greater than John. Than what John? Than whom there has not risen a greater among them that are born of women.

3. Thus have we heard the true and good record both of John concerning Christ, and of Christ concerning John. What then is the meaning of this; that John sent his disciples to Him when He was shut up in prison, on the eve of being put to death, and said to them, Go, say to Him, Are You He that should come, or do we look for another? Is this then all that praise? That praise is it turned to doubting? What do you say, John? To Whom are you speaking? What do you say? You speak to your Judge, yourself the herald. You stretched out the finger, and pointed Him out; you said, Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Thou said, Of His fullness have we all received. Thou said, I am not worthy to unloose the latchet of His shoes. And do you now say, Are You He that should come, or do we look for another? Is not this the same Christ? And who are you? Are you not His forerunner? Are you not he of whom it was foretold, Behold, I send my messenger before Your face, who shall prepare Your way before you? How do you prepare the way, and you are yourself straying from the way? So then the disciples of John came; and the Lord said to them, Go, tell John, the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the poor have the Gospel preached to them; and blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me. Do not suspect that John was offended in Christ. And yet his words do sound so; Are You He that should come? Ask my works; The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have the Gospel preached to them; and do you ask whether I am He? My works, says He, are My words. Go, show him again. And as they departed. Lest haply any one should say, John was good at first, and the Spirit of God forsook him; therefore after their departure, he spoke these words; after their departure whom John had sent, Christ commended John.

4. What is the meaning then of this obscure question? May that Sun shine upon us, from which that lamp derived its flame. And so the resolution of it is altogether plain. John had separate disciples of his own; not as in separation from Christ, but prepared as a witness to him. For meet it was that such an one should give his testimony to Christ, who was himself also gathering disciples, and who might have been envious of Him, for that he could not see Him. Therefore because John's disciples highly esteemed their master, they heard from John his record concerning Christ, and marvelled; and as he was about to die, it was his wish that they should be confirmed by him. For no doubt they were saying among themselves; Such great things does he say of Him, but none such of himself. Go then, ask Him; not because I doubt, but that you may be instructed. Go, ask Him, hear from Himself what I am in the habit of telling you; you have heard the herald, be confirmed by the Judge. Go, ask Him, Are You He that should come, or do we look for another? They went accordingly and asked; not for John's sake, but for their own. And for their sakes did Christ say, The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised, the poor have the Gospel preached to them. You see Me, acknowledge Me then; ye see the works, acknowledge the Doer. And blessed is he whosoever shall not be offended in Me. But it is of you I speak, not of John. For that we might know that He spoke not this of John, as they departed, He began to speak to the multitudes concerning John; the True, the Truth Himself, proclaimed his true praises.

5. I think this question has been sufficiently explained. Let it suffice then to have prolonged my address thus far. Now keep the poor in mind. Give, you who have not given hitherto; believe me, you will not lose it. Yes, truly, that only it seems ye lose, which you do not carry to the circus. Now must we render unto the poor the offerings of such of you as have offered anything, and the amount which we have is much less than your usual offerings. Shake off this sloth. I have become a beggar for beggars; what is that to me? I would be a beggar for beggars, that you may be reckoned among the number of children.

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Source. Translated by R.G. MacMullen. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 6. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/160316.htm>.

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