This is the final instalment in our study of the first three chapters of John’s Gospel. (I’ve written on chapters 4 and 5 previously; you can search the archives if you want to continue the tour.) It’s a longer passage, but it deals mostly with two related ideas that we’ve met back in chapter 1: a comparison between John the Baptist and Jesus, and the importance of accepting Jesus as having been sent from God.
John 3:22-24 After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. 23 Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. 24 (This was before John was put in prison.)
The author of this Gospel assumes his readers are familiar with John’s ultimate fate, which is recorded in the other three Gospels – imprisoned, then beheaded by Herod. Its mention here may be intended to remind readers of the temporary nature of John’s ministry – it, along with John himself, came to an end – compared with the ongoing ministry of the resurrected Jesus.
At any rate, the fact that John kept baptising people brought him again into proximity with Jesus. An argument that was originally about ceremonial washing somehow led John’s disciples to see Jesus as a rival:
John 3:25-26 An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 26 They came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan—the one you testified about—look, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.”
John quickly puts it into perspective, not for the first time in this Gospel explaining how he and his ministry are subordinate to Jesus:
John 3:27-28 this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’”
John never claimed to be anything more than a support act – a point directed not just at his disciples in the story, but also at anyone still following John (instead of Jesus) at the time the Gospel was written.
He describes it like being the best man at a wedding:
John 3:29 The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom’s voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete.
This probably refers to the best man’s role in announcing the arrival of the bridegroom at the wedding ceremony. (The groom would normally travel from his home village to the bride’s village, where the ceremony and feast would be held.) The only other alternative is more disturbing:
‘[This] may refer to the custom of the best man’s standing guard outside the house while the groom goes in to share the wedding bed with the bride. The “voice of the bridegroom,” then, refers to the shout of joy when the groom has successfully had marital relations with his bride on the wedding day’ (Witherington, John’s Wisdom, p.109).
Let’s just back slowly away from this verse and focus on John’s summary statement in the next one:
John 3:30 “He must become greater; I must become less.”
This is the point. John isn’t Jesus’ rival. He’s the warm-up act. The voice-over guy who introduces him. He’s The Hobbit, not the Lord of the Rings trilogy. You get the idea.
So having ridden that point as far as the poor exhausted horse would travel, the focus now shifts to why Jesus is superior. It’s the fact that Jesus comes not from this world: he’s from above, bringing revelation from God himself.
John 3:31 The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all.
John’s just a human messenger like the rest of us. Jesus is different.
John 3:32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony.
“No one” is a bit of an exaggeration, as the next verse talks about the person who does accept his testimony. But the point is: despite bringing revelation from God, Jesus faced widespread rejection.
John 3:33 Whoever has accepted it has certified that God is truthful.
By contrast, acceptance of Jesus’ message is acceptance of God himself.
John 3:34 For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.
Not only does Jesus speak the words of God, but he also brings the gift of the Spirit of God. The ability not simply to hear what God has to say, but to put it into practice. That changed heart the Jews were looking forward to. (Remember Ezekiel 36 from yesterday?)
John 3:35 The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.
Jesus doesn’t just bring a message and a gift – God has fully authorised him to deal with his clients (humanity) on his behalf. (Remember the patronage language from the Prologue?) That means a person’s response to Jesus is of the utmost importance:
John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
None of this is new material. In fact, it’s kind of a summary of the first three chapters: John is a human who testifies to the eternal Word; accept that Word as being from God, and you will receive the future favour of God – eternal life!
From this point, John the Baptist fades into the background (although he does briefly pop up as a witness for the defence in chapter 5).
It also rounds out this initial look at the response to Jesus by Jews. Most rejected the Son, and so God’s wrath remains on them. The symbolic act of judgement against the Temple in chapter 2 is upon them, too. By contrast, a few were interested (like Nicodemus) but had not yet taken that step of putting their trust in him.
The story then turns to a different group of people – the hated Samaritans – where Jesus receives a much more favourable response. But that’s for another chapter…
To think about
Spend some time thinking about – and writing down – what you have learned about Jesus from these first three chapters of John’s Gospel.