Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

25. Increase and Decrease (John 3: 22-36)*

After the discussion with Nicodemus, Jesus left Jerusalem for what must have been a sustained campaign of preaching in the country districts of Judaea (Jn. 3: 22). The fact that he chose at this time to leave Jerusalem was a clear answer to the section of the Pharisees who were proposing a working alliance with him. More important to Jesus were the humble country folk who esteemed his message for its own sake.

At first the response was enthusiastic. Drawn by the reports of miracles in Jerusalem (2: 23; 3: 2) and the cleansing of the temple (2: 15), people came in large numbers, and, held by the grace and freshness of his message, they stayed, and sealed their discipleship with baptism. “All men come to him”, John’s followers reported in some amazement, and not without a touch of envy.

Baptism - its Meaning then and now

The baptism which Jesus administered through the practical help of his first disciples was similar in character and meaning to the baptism which John’s converts received. It was, in essence, the Christian baptism which believers receive today. The only difference was this — whereas today baptism looks back to the death of Christ and receives all its meaning from his sacrifice, the baptism which converts of John and Jesus received in those early days looked forward to an acceptable sacrifice for sin whom God would provide. It is hardly likely that at that time the recipients of baptism understood quite clearly how and through whom their sins would be put away, but this lack would be rectified in due time. And in spite of these deficiencies it was, without doubt, a valid baptism.

Today, those who are beset from time to time with doubts as to the adequacy of their own knowledge or appreciation of the Truth at the time of their baptism can take comfort from considerations of this kind. The grace of God is not so meagre that it cannot take into account such human limitations.

Meantime John was equally assiduous in the work of God. The fact that Messiah had now launched his own personal appeal to the nation did not mean that there was nothing left for him to do.

Geography and Symbolism

The precise locality where John was now at work is not identifiable with any certainty. Aenon and Salim occur together in Joshua 15: 32 in a context which suggests the locality of Ziklag in the south-east of Judah. The mention of “much water there” probably identifies the “springs of water” given by Caleb to his daughter Achsah as part of her marriage dowry, thus increasing the joy of her bridegroom Othniel (Jud. 1: 15). It was now high summer, and places in the Negeb where there was water sufficient for baptisms would be remarkably few. Commentators, using Genesis 33: 18 as a pointer, favour a place in the vicinity of Shechem (Nablus), even though this was in Samaritan territory. In any case the place would hardly be identifiable by the majority of the gospel’s first century readers.

What symbolic meaning, then, did the writer of this fourth gospel see in “Aenon (fountains of water) near to Salim (peace) “where there were “many waters”? Isaiah 48:21, 22 includes these ideas in an eloquent passage about the blessing and providence of God for His redeemed: “He caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out. There is no peace, saith the Lord, unto the wicked.” The context of this passage is wonderfully descriptive of the appeal of Christ: “From the beginning I have not spoken in secret... the Lord God, and his Spirit, hath sent me... O that thou wouldest hearken to my commandments! then should thy peace be as a river, and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea “ (v. 16,18).

But the name Aenon (= Hebrew: ayin) also means “eye”. This suggests another prophecy in Isaiah: “How beautiful upon the mountains (of Judaea) are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings (the gospel), that publisheth peace (Salim)... that saith unto Zion, the King of thy God!... they shall see eye to eye (Aenon), in the return of the Lord of Zion” (52: 7,8). It is hardly possible to be certain about these shadowy allusions, but those who have spent long hours on John’s gospel will know that this book is shot through with Old Testament ideas of this sort. The repeated confession of chapter 2: 22: “his disciples remembered that it was written of him”, is more than a hint of how this gospel should be read and studied.

The Pharisees at work again

If the sending of Nicodemus was intended as an unofficial deputation which might lead to a “take-over bid” for the movement Jesus had initiated, it was evident from the start that no success could be expected in that direction.

A similar attempt, with somewhat different emphasis, was now made to wreck the work of John. There arose a discussion between a leading Jew and some of John’s disciples. No head-on encounter was sought with John himself. The leaders had already had experience of this, and were still licking their wounds (Mt. 3: 7-12). These tactics of seeking to take over the movement from within gave better promise of success. Ultimately they were to prove so successful (see Study 36) that the same strategy was later attempted more than once with the followers of Jesus.

It looks as though the argument, about “purifying”, took this shape: ‘What good is this baptismal cleansing which you have received from your leader when not far away is another like him who is also teaching and baptizing?’ It is exactly the kind of superior quibble which Romans Catholics are fond of making about the wide diversification of various Protestant sects.

The point went home. John’s disciples came to him worried by the problem: “Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan (1: 29,36), to whom thou hast borne witness, behold, the same baptizeth and all men come to him” (3:26)—as who should say: ‘You and Jesus were working together at first. Now you are in competition, and he’s making more headway than you are. He has even taken some of your best disciples away from you’.

The Bridegroom

In reply John quietly bade them regain a sense of perspective: “A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven.” In different ways this principle held good both for Jesus and for himself. The new preacher was making big progress; that was as it should be, for this was God’s declared purpose and intention with him. And from the outset John’s own role was secondary in character. ‘You have remembered how I bore witness to Jesus earlier. Remember also how I repeatedly told you and all men that I am not the Messiah, I am merely a forerunner’ (see v. 28). Then came a change of figure: ‘He is the Bridegroom. Mine is a lesser role. As friend of the Bridegroom I am happy to stand by in service and helpfulness. It gives me pleasure to hear him make his marriage vows’.

It is not impossible that here John was making allusion to the Song of Songs (2: 8,10). But another passage in Isaiah (61: 10) seems to be the more likely original: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself (in a priestly garment), and as a bride adorneth herself with jewels.” The apostle John was surely thinking of this passage, for he went on to include two priestly allusions in his commentary: “God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him” is apparently an allusion to the copious pouring of anointing oil on the head of the high priest, in contrast to the limited application for other priests (Ex. 29: 7,20). And the expression: “he hath given all things into his hands” (v. 35) is an allusion to the Hebrew idiom for consecration as a priest (Ex. 29: 9 margin).

“He must increase”

The logic of John’s witness, spoken with unsurpassed humility, was that disciples like Peter and Andrew, James and John, and the others, should break off the loyalty they felt for their first leader and attach themselves instead to Jesus. “He must increase, but I must decrease”, John’s last public utterance was as plain as instruction could be, that the time was ripe for graduation to a better teacher. It may be that already John’s outspoken denunciations of Herod’s evil life were cutting short his own days of active witness. “This my joy (Lk. 1: 44) therefore is fulfilled” suggests a task completed. Probably the prophet was already worried as to the future of these men who clung to him with such mistaken faithfulness.

The Apostle’s Commentary

At this point (v. 30) there is a palpable break in the fourth gospel. The first person pronouns in the reported speech of the Baptist cease. The style and structure of the sentences change. The paragraph that follows (v. 31-36) reads more like the apostle John’s own comment on the high status of Jesus which the Baptist had been proclaiming afresh. Certainly the words are easier to understand from this point of view.

Also, the succession of phrases — so full of Johannine abstractions (as they seem to be) – immediately begins to make much more sense when it is realised that here is another of the apostle’s extended allusions to the Old Testament, characteristically put together without any specific quotation from the particular passage he has his eye on. Here the allusions all go back, as will be seen, to the grim episode of the Golden Calf. The passage thus becomes a further exemplification of the main theme of this gospel: “The Law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ” (1: 17).

The force of the allusions is best brought out by a tabulation (much as one dislikes applying railway time-table methods to such a holy book as this!):

Exodus 32
He that cometh from above is above all... he that cometh from heaven.
Moses’ descent from Mt. Sinai with the Testimony, and with authority over Israel.

He that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth.
Aaron at the foot of the mount taking no steps against apostasy, but rather encouraging it.

Moses’ communion with angels and the Shekinah Glory.

and heard...
The Ten Words, and the Law.

and no man receiveth his testimony.
The Commandments (the Testimony) broken by the people before they were received.
He that hath received his testimony hath sealed (Gk: engravings of a signet. LXX)
The Levites responding to Moses’ call for loyalty. Contrast the “graving tool” used for the golden calf.

that God is (the) true (God)
Contrast the golden calf.
He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God.
Moses bringing the Ten Words of God’s Law.

God giveth not the Spirit by measure.
Moses’ unlimited access to divine counsel through the Angel of God’s Presence.
The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand.
God spoke to Moses “as to His friend” (33: 11). This is a common Hebrew phrase in the Law for consecration to God-used of the Levites in Ex. 32: 29.
He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.
“They shall inherit for ever” (32: 13).

He that believeth not the Son shall not see life.
The slaughter of apostate Israelites; the unfaithful dying off in the wilderness.

The wrath of God abideth on him.
“Let me alone that my wrath may wax hot against them.”

These extended hints of Moses’ foreshadowing of the character and work of Jesus (an idea mentioned briefly by Paul also in 1 Cor. 10: 5,6) send the reader back to Exodus 32 to consider yet other aspects of this type; for instance:

  1. The weakness and futility of the priesthood of Aaron.
  2. His demands for their wealth in order to further a false religion (cp. the buying and selling and money-changing in the temple).
  3. What was an abuse was called “a feast to the Lord”.
  4. The golden calf foreshadowing the reverence of cherub figures in the temple: “these be thy Elohim, O Israel.”
  5. The smashing of the Testimony.
  6. Moses’ successful intercession for sinners, based on willingness to sacrifice himself.
  7. The washing away of sin by the stream from the Smitten Rock (Dt. 9: 21; cp. the references to baptism; v. 22,23).
It is, however, important to observe how John is careful to include here certain pointed reminders of the marked superiority of Jesus over Moses:

  1. “God giveth not the Spirit by measure” to Jesus. In one sense this was not true of Moses, for (as Exodus 34: 29,30 emphasizes) the glory in the face of Moses was a fading glory (2 Cor. 3: 13 RV).
  2. “The Father loveth the Son” uses the best word of all - agapao -whereas for Moses (and only once at that) Scripture uses the lesser word philos, friend.
  3. And whereas Moses had communion with the Angel of the Covenant, for Jesus there was an intimate fellowship with the Father Himself such as even those in Christ cannot hope to understand.
  4. “He whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God.” Thus John points out Jesus as the promised “Prophet like unto Moses” who is to supersede Moses: “I will put my words in his mouth... he shall speak in my name... unto him (and not to Moses) ye shall hearken” (Dt. 18: 18,15).
  5. Moses’ self-sacrifice was not accepted (as being inadequate), but Christ’s self-sacrifice is all-sufficient.
It is perhaps useful also to observe how a clear recognition of the shape of the apostle John’s thought in this paragraph immediately evacuates the phraseology of any possible allusion to a pre-existent Jesus coming literally from heaven.

In any case there is need here, as in a number of other places, for allowance to be made for the kind of idiom in which John wrote: “He that cometh from above is above all.” Trinitarians fasten on such phrases as these with an avid but most unbecoming literalism. Yet they say no more than v. 34: “he whom God hath sent” (which language is used also of John the Baptist; 1: 6). The idiom comes out even more clearly in another antithesis: “Ye are from beneath; I am from above” (8: 23). The second phrase here can no more be taken literally than the first. The divine origin of Jesus and his higher spiritual status are the essential ideas intended. Similarly, “he that cometh from heaven is above all” (v. 31).

The Witness and its failure

Jesus was now bearing witness of “that he hath seen and heard” (the words imply a unique intimacy with God), and — so comments John not long before the overthrow of Jerusalem — ’no man receiveth his witness.” The words obviously call for some limited application, for all through the life of the apostle John the Truth of Christ made steady progress throughout the Roman Empire. Read with reference to the nation of Israel, the words were near to being literally true. The decade which witnessed the deaths of Paul and Peter saw also the steady dwindling away of effective impact of the gospel on orthodox Jewry. Indeed by that time the tide had set the other way. The main purpose of the Epistle to the Hebrews was to stem the drift of Jewish Christians back to the synagogue. At such a time John might well write: “No man receiveth his witness.” What a dramatic irony there is now seen to be about the querulous words of John the Baptist’s disciples: “the same baptizeth, and all men come to him”!

Notes: John 3: 22-36

Tarried. In classical Gk. the word describes time-wasting, but in N .T. time-using.
Given.. The form of this word implies: “and remaining on him” 1: 33.
Bride... bridegroom. This figure of marriage runs into strange inconsistencies if it is not recognized that here (and in ch. 2 and Mt. 22: 2) the reference is to betrothal; whereas Rev. 21: 9 is the marriage itself.

The friend of the bridegroom. Edersheim (in “Jewish Social Life”) maintains that “the friend of the bridegroom” was a custom and title normal in Judaea, where John and Jesus now were, but not in Galilee. Hence the omission of the phrase in 2: 1-11.

Rejoiceth greatly. Therefore John did not teach his disciples to fast (Mt. 9: 14,15).
Giveth not the Spirit by measure, as happened with Moses’ helpers; Num.11: 17 RV. There is here also a clear reference to ls. 40: 13 RVm.
Into his hand. This idiom of consecration comes in Ex. 29: 7,29, together with much oil for anointing (the Spirit not by measure). Contrast the idiom for Christ’s authority as king: “all things under his feet” (Ps. 8: 6; 1 Cor. 15: 27; Heb. 2: 8).
The wrath of God. The only occurrence in this gospel. It was John’s message; Lk. 3: 7; cf. Jn. 1: 32.

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