With Dale Ratzlaff
After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized—for John had not yet been thrown into prison. Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.” John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (Jn. 3:31-36).
“After these things” refers to what had been going on before as recorded in the gospel of John and perhaps even some events that were chronicled in the other Gospels. The people now know that Jesus has power over nature when he changed the water into wedding wine in Cana. They know that even “the teacher in Israel” must be “born again” “from above” or he cannot even see, no less enter, into the kingdom of heaven. They have seen Jesus drive out the greedy entrepreneurs in Jerusalem and confront the Jewish leaders there. In John 3:1-20 Jesus has clearly stated the condition for receiving eternal life and the consequences of unbelief.
Now, in this section, John will show that the Baptist’s endorsement of Jesus remains.
Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing.
This may sound like an incidental comment. However, upon consideration, I think we can learn much here. We are not told why Jesus came into the land of Judea. In fact, the term “land of Judea” is found nowhere else in Scripture. In fact, it was probably somewhere in the Jordan valley. The point that I think is important and easy to pass over is that Jesus was spending time with His disciples and baptizing.
“Spending time” is in the durative tense indicating that He may have tarried there with them while He was teaching and baptizing. The early church met in homes where “one another ministry” could take place. Today, within many large churches there is often a dearth of time spent between leaders and new Christians who could become leaders with the right personal association. Here we see the value of small home groups, especially in large churches.
Sometimes Christian retreats and campouts for youth and young adults are more than just fun activities. They provide opportunity not only to develop lasting friendship but also are occasions that foster true discipleship.
During this time Jesus was continually baptizing. We should not read into this baptism what we call “Christian baptism” as there was yet no death, burial, and resurrection to symbolize. Rather, this was a baptism of repentance. We learn from John 4:2, “Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were”. Here again we see the value of “on the job training” in discipleship.
John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there; and people were coming and were being baptized—for John had not yet been thrown into prison.
We don’t know for sure what place is indicated here. Some think it was a site about seven miles south of Beisan where there were seven springs within a radius of a quarter of a mile (Morris, p. 237). The fact that John chose a site where there was “much water” indicates, as does the term “baptize”, that the mode of baptism used was immersion. The key verbs here—baptizing, coming, being baptized—are all in the durative tense. Comparing this verse to the passage before describing Jesus spending time with His disciples and baptizing shows that for some extended period of time, Jesus and the Baptist had parallel ministries leading people into baptism. While the Gospel of John does not mention “repentance”, we can assume both John and Jesus preached a gospel of repentance based upon the witness of the other gospel accounts.
Now in those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”…they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, as they confessed their sins” (Mt. 3:1,6).
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 4:17).
…for John had not yet been thrown into prison.
We might wonder why the Gospel writer inserts this note. It is to explain the incidents described here take place before the events described in Mark’s gospel. Mark 1:14 suggests that the beginning of Jesus’ ministry took place after the Baptist had been put in custody. From this we can rightly infer that the Gospel of John was written after the Gospel of Mark.
Therefore there arose a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification.
We are not told exactly the details of this discussion. The Jews of the day focused on outward acts of purification:
For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots (Mk. 7:3-4).
The context would suggest that the Jews were arguing with the Baptist, probably thinking that their concept of baptism was better than John’s. The Jewish concept of water purification came from the many Levitical laws that instructed one to “bathe in water” for a number of ritual or hygienic situations (Lk. 7:19). John’s baptism was different from the Jewish concept in that its purpose moved from an outer ritual law, to an inward repentance and confession of sin.
And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins (Mk. 1:5).
And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have testified, behold, He is baptizing and all are coming to Him.”
One can see how the disciples of John the Baptist felt. The Baptist had directed his followers to “the Lamb of God”; now it appears to them that the Baptist and Jesus are in competition with each other and Jesus is getting more followers than John. Competition in ministry is alive and well in many churches today. The true greatness of John the Baptist is seen in his humility.
John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease.
This is truly a remarkable answer. John the Baptist reinforces the truth that Jesus has a divine call from heaven. Not only is Jesus the “Lamb of God”, but He is the “Bridegroom”. In the Old Testament the Lord is pictured as taking believing Israel as His bride.
For as a young man marries a virgin, So your sons will marry you; And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, So your God will rejoice over you (Isa. 62:5).
In that day I will also make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the creeping things of the ground. and I will abolish the bow, the sword and war from the land, and will make them lie down in safety. I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, In lovingkindness and in compassion, and I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the LORD (Hos. 2:18-20).
By calling Jesus “the Bridegroom”, John is communicating that Jesus is none other than Israel’s King and Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament. This recognition elicits the Baptist’s memorable statement, He must increase, but I must decrease.
At this point the Apostle John lists several reasons for the lowly position taken by the Baptist. Jesus is from “above” (ἄνωθεν) the same word Jesus used for the new birth experience. Not only is Jesus from above (heaven) he is also “above all”—above all men and all things.
What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony (Jn. 3:32).
He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true (Jn. 3:33).
For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure (Jn. 3:34).
These three verses are difficult but profound—difficult in that scholars disagree as to who is the speaker.
- The one speaking in v. 32 is John the Baptist. Those who believed the Baptist’s testimony, agree that God is true. God gave John the Baptist His spirit without measure to proclaim that Jesus is the Lamb of God, the Bridegroom, Israel’s Messiah.
- The one speaking is John the Evangelist and the one who gives the Spirit without measure is the Father who gave the Holy Spirit to Christ.
- The one speaking is the Evangelist. The one sent is Jesus who gives the Spirit without measure to believers.
It is my conclusion that No. 2 above is correct. It cannot be No. 1. If John the Baptist received the Spirit without measure he would not later have questioned if Jesus was the Messiah (Lk. 7:19). It cannot be No. 3 because other Scriptures indicate that while all believers receive the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9; Eph. 1:13), it is not yet given “without measure” (Rom. 8:23).
The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (Jn. 3:35-36).
John is often called “the Evangelist” in commentaries on John because that is his stated reason for writing this Gospel. At the end of this powerful chapter he repeats his two main themes stated differently at different times, both necessary for salvation. (1) The Father has given all things to His Son, Jesus is the Eternal Word, Jesus is the great I AM. (2) He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him (Jn. 3:35-36).
The Greek word for “obey” can mean either “disbelieve” or obey. In fact, notice how translations differ in how they render this word. The Jews asked Jesus what they had to do to “work the works of God”.
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent” (Jn. 6:29).
Once again John draws a line in the sand. We either believe and have eternal life, or if we disbelieve in the Son we will not see (eternal) life and are currently under the wrath of God. Over and over again we are brought to the point of decision. Will you believe?
- Successful discipleship requires time. Events which foster fellowship among leaders and learners are a worthwhile activity.
- A successful leader will allow apprentices to do much of the “work of ministry”. As Jesus let his disciples do the baptizing, so it would be good today if church leaders—even business leaders for that matter—allowed their interns to take leading roles. On the job training is effective and biblical.
- We should recognize that ritual laws never should be given moral weight. Often controversies arise among those who are adamant in requiring obedience to their own unique standard of behavior just as the Jews disputed with the disciples of John the Baptist about purification. We must always seek to move the controversy away from peripherals toward the heart of the matter—the gospel and the moral principles springing from it.
- The humility of John the Baptist stands out as his chief character trait. Healthy church pastors do not mind if one of their members or attendees decides that another healthy Christian church would serve them better. If the leadership of a church holds it members as if they owned them, it is a sign of an unhealthy relationship which is characteristic of cults.
- John the Baptist’s unbending adherence to the ministry to which he had been called is an example for all of us. His was a mission introducing others to the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
- Once again, the Evangelist brings us to the point of decision. Like the late Billy Graham, he is relentless in pointing out heavenly realities that require an earthly decision. It demands a personal response for all who hear. You must decide. To not decide is to stay under the wrath of God.
Father, thank you for the ministry of John the Baptist. Help me to have the same humility and single-minded focus to do what you have called me to do. Keep me humble always pointing people away from myself to Jesus. Thank you for the Apostle John who clearly marks out the way to eternal life. Lord, I believe.
In Jesus name.