John 3:22–36: John the Baptist Exalts Christ
In this passage Jesus and his disciples go out to the countryside, and his disciples start baptizing people, while John the Baptist is also still baptizing people. Then, in verse 25, there is mention of an argument between the Jews and John’s disciples over purification; that is, the Jews have all of these purification rites, and now John is baptizing people and his disciples are claiming his baptism is superior. So… if that’s true, what about Jesus’ baptism—where does that fit in? They go to John and mention that Jesus is now baptizing, and people are going to him instead of to John.
To John, however, this isn’t a problem, it’s the way it was always supposed to work:
You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (verses 28–30)
And then either John or John continues. (The ESV footnote indicates that it’s unclear whether the following words are a continuation of the quotation from John the Baptist or whether they’re not; if not, John the author of this Gospel is uttering them.)
He who comes from above is above all. He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all. He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony. Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, for he gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand. Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (verses 31–36)
This passage presented me with an opportunity to learn something new, as well as to delve deeply into yet another densely packed version from John.
I had never understood verse 25 before, and couldn’t figure out how it fit into the rest of the passage. While writing this post I found some helpful stuff in Matthew Henry’s Commentary, which mentioned the following points:
- He notes that Jesus’ message is already bringing not peace upon the earth, but division. That’s not related to the particular point I’m thinking about right now, but it’s an interesting sidenote.
- There is mention that it seems to be John’s disciples who are the “aggressors” in this conversation, saying, “and it is a sign that they were novices, who had more zeal than discretion. The truths of God have often suffered by the rashness of those that have undertaken to defend them before they were able to do it.”
- The conversation is about purification (that is, ritual washing), and it seems to be that the conversation started because John’s disciples were saying that his baptism was “superior to all others,” definitely meaning superior to purifications of the Jews, but then that would cause confusion once Jesus started baptizing.
This point about purification (and/or baptism) makes sense to me, in the context of the larger passage. John, however, correctly recognizes that he was never here to be the important one, he was only here to announce the important one—the Christ, Jesus.
Heavenly vs. Earthly
Whether it comes from John or from John1, the last part of this passage calls out some important points about John’s ministry vs. Jesus’ ministry—or between the earthly and the heavenly in general.
|He who comes from above is above all.||Maybe it’s stating the obvious, maybe it’s not, but John is from the world, and Jesus is from heaven. So of course Jesus would be above John—not to mention everyone else, too.|
|He who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks in an earthly way. He who comes from heaven is above all.||We see this coming out in the Gospels from time to time: We speak of what we know; the One who is from above—Jesus, who is God—has the ability to speak about things that those of us who are earthly couldn’t possibly understand, unless they’re explained to us.|
|He bears witness to what he has seen and heard, yet no one receives his testimony.||One of the side effects of the point above is that a lot of people don’t receive Jesus’ message. (“No one,” in this case, being hyperbolic, given the next point.)|
|Whoever receives his testimony sets his seal to this, that God is true.||Many, many people won’t receive Jesus—but some will. And the ones who do don’t just see Jesus as a good teacher; we see God as being true to His Word. We see God acting on things that were only hinted at in the Old Testament; we see God making it possible to have a relationship with Him, despite our sins.|
|For he whom God has sent utters the words of God, …||The One God sent (Jesus) speaks on behalf of God, in a way that nobody (not even John the Baptist) has ever been able to do.|
|… for he gives the Spirit without measure.||Jesus hyperbolically said that “no one” receives his testimony, meaning that few people do. So what’s special about the ones who do receive his testimony? The Spirit. Personally, I received His testimony because the Spirit was acting in me; that’s also true of every other Christian who’s ever lived. The Spirit enables us to receive His testimony.|
|The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand.||I always feel like I’m out of my depth when talking about the Trinity, but “all things” are in Jesus’ hand. He’s called the “Son” of God, and we’re used to thinking of sons as being lesser than their fathers, but we shouldn’t view God the Son as being less than God the Father. As the ESV Study Bible notes put it, “The Father … has given all things into his hand indicates supreme authority for the Father in the counsels of the Trinity, and a delegated authority over the whole created universe for the Son…”|
|Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.||This point is worth calling out on its own, which I’ll do so below…|
Whoever Believes in the Son
John is a master of packing a lot of theology into one verse. We already looked at 3:16 in the last passage, and now we have another densely packed verse before us:
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him. (verse 36)
There’s a lot of theology packed into those twenty-six words!
- Christianity will not support the position that there are “many ways to God,” or that you can believe in Christianity and other religions, or any other position that doesn’t make Christianity the be-all and end-all of all belief. Frankly, Christianity sets itself up against all other belief systems: believe in Jesus and have eternal life; don’t believe in Him, and don’t have eternal life. Period. One or the other.
- Jesus is not just a teacher; not just a philosopher. The verse doesn’t say that we need to “believe the Son,” it says we need to “believe in the Son.” You can agree to everything Jesus ever said, you can nod your head to all of His teachings, but if you don’t have faith in Him, to take away your sins and make you right with God, the wrath of God remains on you.
- Of course, if you think you agree to everything Jesus ever said but don’t accept Him as Lord, you don’t actually believe everything he said, you just think you do. Though if you were in that state, you probably wouldn’t agree with me on that point…
- I purposely misquoted the verse above when I said, “believe in Jesus and have eternal life; don’t believe in Him, and don’t have eternal life,” to make my point, but the verse doesn’t make it a decision between believing in Jesus and not believing in Jesus, it makes it a decision between believing in Jesus and not obeying Jesus. Which… doesn’t make sense, on the face of it! Those are two different things! Logically, John should either have said, “it’s a matter of believing in Jesus or not believing in Jesus,” or he should have said, “it’s a matter of obeying Jesus or not obeying Jesus.” But again, John is packing a couple of points together in the same verse, because if you truly believe in Jesus, you will obey him. There’s no such thing as a Christian who believes in Jesus but doesn’t obey him. So John is actually saying a couple of things together: You either believe in and obey the Son, or you don’t and you’re still under the wrath of God.
- It should be pointed out that I’m not saying every Christian obeys Jesus perfectly. Most of us would say we don’t even obey Him very well. But there’s a willingness and a desire to submit ourselves to His will, and when we don’t do it properly there’s a brokenness and heartfelt repentance for our failures.
- It’s been pointed out in previous passages, but Jesus indicates that being under the wrath of God is our default state. If we don’t believe in (and obey) the Son, the wrath of God remains on us. Our natural state is that we’re under the wrath of God. Belief in the Son removes us from that.
I continue to enjoy calling this out because I was feeling silly when I wrote this post, but the theology of what’s being discussed doesn’t change if it was John the Baptist speaking or John the Gospel’s author speaking. ↩︎