Arguments and Explanations, 3:22—36

Nicodemus, the Pharisee and highly respected religious leader, had come to speak to Jesus in private.  He was full of questions.  He had heard some of Jesus’ teaching and seen some of His miracles, and obviously was greatly impressed.  It seems that deep in his heart of hearts, Nicodemus had been touched by Christ’s ministry and the Holy Spirit began drawing this man into a relationship with God, based not on intellectual ascent and the observance of rules and regulations, but on having personally experienced the life-changing touch of the Son of God.

We don’t know the immediate results of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, but we do know that he remained part of the Sanhedrin, and that the next time we encounter him he is seen taking part in the questioning of Jesus—

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?”  (John 7:50—51)

We also learn that eventually he became a follower of Christ’s, though perhaps secretly, and was devoted enough to Christ that he sought to honor Him even in death—

He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds.  (John 19:39)

It seemed that the death of Jesus crushed the hopes of the disciples but fired those of Nicodemus.

1.  Transitions, verses 22—24

After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside, where he spent some time with them, and baptized. Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were coming and being baptized. (This was before John was put in prison.)

These three verses mark an obvious transition of both time and persons.  After the Passover week and His discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus and the first six of His disciples left Jerusalem and journeyed into the Judean countryside.

This whole section is dedicated to an expanded explanation of the curious relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus.  This period of our Lord’s ministry is not recorded or mentioned in the synoptic Gospels.  According to verse 24, we know that it took place sometime before the arrest and imprisonment of John the Baptist; the preaching and baptizing ministry of these two overlapped for a while.  According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus began His ministry in earnest after John’s imprisonment—

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.  (Mark 1:14)

Matthew supports Mark’s account (Matthew 4:12—21) and Luke’s record is a bit ambiguous (Luke 3).  Both John the Baptist and Jesus seemed to have engaged in a parallel rural ministry at this time.  The exact location of the Baptist’s ministry, though stated in the text, cannot be pinpointed with any certainty, although the consensus among scholars is that Aenon was probably located south of Bashan where there were many springs.

2.  Jealousy, verses 26, 26

An argument developed between some of John’s disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing. 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.”

We see human nature on full display in these two verses, and we learn the simple lesson that even devoted followers of God are not immune to the “green eyed monster.”   It seems as though the followers of John the Baptist thought the baptisms of their teacher were superior to those of Jesus, and they were annoyed that more and more people were choosing to be baptized by Jesus rather than by John.   We can learn a lot about people by the way they talk, and judging by the way John’s disciples spoke to him about Jesus, they didn’t grasp anything John had said about Jesus.  We can also learn a lot about what they thought about Jesus:

  • They didn’t even mention Jesus’ name, referring to Him only as “that man.”  As far as they were concerned, John and Jesus were rivals, nothing more.
  • They were not impressed with what John had said about Jesus.
  • They exaggerated the whole incident, using an obvious hyperbole, “everyone is going to him.”  Obviously not “everyone” was going to Jesus; these were immature and childish disciples.

3.  The nobility of John the Baptist, 27—30

To this John replied, “A person can receive only what is given from heaven.   You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah but am sent ahead of him.’   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.  He must become greater; I must become less.”

John’s answer to these people was powerful and insightful and in four parts.

  • First, all people are subject to a sovereign God.  To everyone God has assigned a place in His eternal plan (verse 27).
  • Second, he made clear his relationship with Christ, reminding them of what he had said earlier, verse 28.
  • Third he used the figure of the bridegroom, bride, and friend of the bridegroom.  Because of who the Bridegroom is, his friend can rejoice and be happy for his friend.  Complete fulfillment in life and fullness of joy can only happen when a person recognizes who Jesus really is.  This analogy also reveals something about John the Baptist:  he was the last of the OT prophets and not part of the Church; notice that he is a “friend” of the Bridegroom, and not the bride (the Church), verse 29.
  • Lastly, the whole relationship between Jesus and John is summed up with verse 30.  It was John’s desire that he fade into the background and that Jesus and His ministry grow.

Verse 30 is also a summation of God’s eternal plan.  Of what use the herald after the King has arrived?  Why would crowds want to surround the forerunner when his task was finished?

4.  John’s commentary, verses 31—36

Like verses 16—21, many scholars agree that verse 31 begins John the disciple’s comments on what John the Baptist had just said.  Lightfoot has called this last handful of verses as an “appendix” to chapter 3.

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. He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. The person who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful. For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God gives the Spirit without limit.  The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.

This passage declares with no ambiguity four things:

  • Jesus came directly from Heaven and spoke with ultimate authority.  In view of His origin and high calling, whatever Jesus said must be considered the final word on any subject (verse 31).
  • Jesus spoke from what He saw, not from theory.  The testimony of Jesus was accepted by some but not by others.  Clearly even in the very early days of Christ’s ministry, some readily believed while others (like some of John the Baptist’s disciples) did not, verse 32.
  • Those who accepted the claims of Jesus had their eyes opened to the truth of Christ’s words because God revealed it to them, verse 33.
  • God sent Jesus in love and Jesus’ words originated with God the Father.  He is the Living Word (1:14) who provides a full revelation of God (1:18).  Here is marvelous truth about God the Father:
    • When God gives, He gives freely without reservation:  “God gives the Spirit without limit.”
    • God gave the Son in love,
    • The whole mission of saving mankind was made the responsibility of the Son.  No other way to be saved has been give:  “The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands.”

Something else greatly impressed John the Apostle:  If faith in Christ is the only way to be saved, then to reject Christ is to remain in God’s wrath.  This is the only time God’s wrath is mentioned.  “Wrath” does not refer to a sudden outburst of anger or an expression of temper.  Rather, it is the “settled displeasure of God against sin” (Tenney).  It is God’s reaction to evil; the reaction of righteousness to unrighteousness.

The alternative is clearly stated by the author.  Faith in Christ results in eternal life, which is the present possession of the believer.  The one who “rejects the Son” (“he that does not obey,” RSV, is more accurate) faces the inevitable “wrath of God.”  This language is stark and a little blunt after the way John has just described God’s love to man.  However, it does serve to shine the light on the gravest of all sins:  unbelief, which results in disobedience.

Thankfully, God is not easily provoked to anger and He is not out for revenge on those who are disobedient.  But His holy nature will not tolerate disobedience and He is committed to oppose and judge all disobedience.  God’s mind is made up on this matter and He can never be swayed; His will in regard to unrepentant man is unvarying and unalterable.   The rejection of His Son can only be followed by awful judgment.  At the same time, acceptance of Christ removes the believer from any possibility of judgment presently and in the future.  This is also an unchanging provision of a loving God to sinful man.

Arthur John Gossip was a poor, humble pastor and professor who lived in Scotland.  Though he never pastored a mega church and most people have never heard of him, he wrote a profound paragraph on these verses:

…Christ is never kinder than when his eyes, as he looks at us, are as a flame of fire, and he speaks to us terrible words; when he will make no compromise with us, but demands instant obedience, here and now, on pain of parting with him.  If he had not loved us enough to be severe with us, he would have lost our souls. With awe and humility we need to give God thanks no less really for his wrath than for his mercy.

(c)  2010, WitzEnd

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