John 3:22-36

John Testifies Again

The testimony of John figured prominently in the opening stanzas of the Gospel [1:6, 15 and 26-34]]. He would give one final testimony before fading from the scene. His witness was prefaced by a brief narrative cameo that served to anchor his reflection.

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went into the countryside of Judea.  
He stayed on there with his disciples and baptised.

The narrative referred to a little-known phase in Jesus’ early public ministry. The baptism that Jesus administered was not yet the sacramental rite celebrated in the post-resurrection community of believes. The Spirit had not yet been given. The rite would have been similar to that dispensed initially by John – though its purpose had nowhere been clearly outlined in the narrative.

John 3:23-36     John at Aenon

23 John was baptising at Aenon near Salim,
because there was a lot of water there;
and people were coming and being baptised.
24 John had not yet been thrown into prison.

John and Jesus were both baptizing at the same period, but in different places. Jesus was in the Judean countryside; John at Aenon. The site of Aenon is still disputed. Given that John was later arrested (in fact, by Herod – though the Gospel would give no details), the location would have had to be within Herod’s jurisdiction, either in Galilee or Perea (east of the Jordan).

25 The question arose from the disciples of John and a Jew about purification.
26 So they came to John and said to him,
“Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan,
the one you testified about,
he is baptising,
and everyone is going to him.”

The text is confusing on a number of counts:

  • the identity of the unnamed Jew,
  • the precise nature of the discussion about purification (Purification was a concern of Pharisees and Essenes, more than of John.)
  • the disciples’ complaint to John had nothing to do with purification, but with the relative popularity of John and Jesus;
  • the disciples’ complaint that all were going to [Jesus] contradicted the earlier statement that people kept coming [to John] and were being baptised.

Whatever about the confusion, the interchange was included to fulfil the literary function of offering John opportunity to give testimony. It served no other purpose.

27 In reply, John said, “No one can receive anything
unless it has been given him from heaven.

Heaven is to be understood as the realm of God. John’s broad comment fitted the general thrust of the whole narrative. Everything of value is sheer gift of God: whether eternal life, the word of truth, or, simply, the numbers of disciples. The same truth would be repeated a number of times in the narrative, in relation to Jesus’ ministry [6:39; 10:27; 17:9, 24].

28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Christ’,
but that ‘I was sent before him’.

John’s public testimony about his personal identity and mission had been given to the delegations which had come from Jerusalem to question his activity [1:19-23]. The disciples had been witnesses to the witness given by John.

John accepted easily that both his identity and mission paled in comparison to the identity and mission of Jesus, whom he introduced to the world.

The Bridegroom’s Voice

29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom.  
The bridegroom’s friend, who is standing by and listening to him,
really rejoices at his cry.  
And so my joy has been made complete. 

John was not in competition with Jesus. He did not feel hurt by the success of Jesus’ mission. Rather, he rejoiced. His explanation was simple and clear. In explaining his joy, he threw light, also, on the mystery of Jesus. (This Gospel’s presentation of a joyful John differed from the image that the other Gospels painted of him.)

Nuptial Overtones of Salvation

A nuptial theme had already been introduced by the Cana incident [2:1]. It would occur again very soon in Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman [4:16-18]. John added another dimension to help disciples come to terms with the mystery of salvation. Drawing on the Hebrew Scriptures, which cast Israel as the spouse of God, he may have seen Jesus as the bridegroom of the true Israel.

Hosea had first compared Israel’s relationship to God to that between two spouses:

And I will take you for my wife forever; 
I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice,
in steadfast love, and in mercy. 
I will take you for my wife in faithfulness;
and you shall know the LORD [Hosea 1:19-20].

Jeremiah had spoken in similar terms of God’s relationship to Israel:

Thus says the LORD:
I remember the devotion of your youth,
your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness,
in a land not sown [Jeremiah 2:2-3].

Marital love provides a particularly concrete dimension to God’s intimately passionate love for the world [3.:16].

30 He must grow more; I must grow less.”

John’s comment showed a total detachment from self-interest. He accepted the determined plan of God (indicated by his use of the word, must). No one can receive anything unless it has been given him from heaven [verse 27]. Everything is gift.

John did not become a disciple of Jesus – though he may have wished to. He remained true to what he believed was his special God-given vocation.

The One Who Comes from Heaven

The Disciple probably intended the observations that follow to be seen as those of John. Whatever about the Disciple’s literary intentions, the comments are, no doubt, his own composition, written from his long experience in the post-resurrection community of believers, and enlightened by the Spirit. They serve as a summary of the points already made during the previous discourse.

31 He who comes down from above is above everybody.  
Whoever comes from the earth is from the earth
and speaks in an earthly way.

In the thought-patterns of the Gospel, Jesus was understood necessarily as the one who comes from above. It was the only way that the community could explain the impact and influence of the Jesus they experienced. This origin from above was unique to Jesus. Though great, John was not from above. Like everyone else, he belongs to the earth. As such, before the coming of the Spirit to believers, John’s witness, though clearly God-given, was restricted to earthly things.

The one who comes from heaven is above all. 
32 He bears witness to what he has seen and heard,
and no one accepts his testimony.

In contrast to John, whatever and whenever Jesus would speak, he would testify to what he had previously seen and heard in the realm of God, in heaven. Jesus personally knew what he was talking about.

The Disciple’s deep pain at the wide-spread rejection of Jesus led him to express his lament in absolutes: no one accepts his testimony – which he would then immediately qualify!

33 Whoever accepts his testimony attests that God is truthful.

Despite the Disciple’s absolutes, there were those who accepted his testimony, among them, the Disciple himself and the community of believers that surrounded him. Yet, though they certified, like Jesus, that God is true, their testimony had been received with the same scepticism which had greeted that of Jesus.

God is true. The message was simple. Indeed, it touched into the fundamental reality of God, and was the essential revelation given by Jesus: We beheld his glory, his glory as only son of his Father, full of love and truth [1:14].

34 The one whom God sent speaks God’s words,
and God does not give the Spirit by half-measure. 

Scholars dispute whether it was the intention of the author to claim that the giver of the Spirit was God or the one whom God has sent, Jesus. Both are true.

The Disciple spoke from experience of the gift of the Spirit without measure. John (the Baptist) had not had the opportunity to hear Jesus speak the words of God. Down by the Jordan, however, he had seen the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on Jesus [1:32].

35 The Father loves the Son and has given everything into his hand.

Earlier, John (the Baptist) had stated: No one can receive anything unless it has been given him from heaven. [verse 27]. For Jesus, too, everything was gift. In case the point was not obvious, the Disciple made clear that the gifting God gifted out of love. He showed a wonderful sense of the intimate love that united Father and Son.

36 Those who entrust themselves to the Son have eternal life.  
But those who disbelieve the Son will not see life;
rather God’s anger remains on them.

The theme of judgment returned, and served to add urgency to the Disciple’s reflections. Eternal life was not an abstraction. It was a present experience, but it had to be deliberately chosen.

This was the sole mention in the entire Gospel of God’s anger. The phrase may, indeed, have come from the community’s memories of the original language used by John (the Baptist). God’s anger is not to be interpreted as literally indicating the mindset of God. The expression was common in the apocalyptic literature of the time; it might have been John’s tactic to persuade a hesitant audience, or it might have revealed his still inadequate sense of the heart of God. 

The outcome of disbelieving the Son (the Greek word translated as disbelieving carries the more personalised sense of not yielding to) is to miss out on the possibility of living life richly. It involves rejecting the reality that God, the mystery behind the whole cosmos, is love; and, more importantly, holding back from the liberating empowerment of that love.

Next >> John 4:1-27