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John 3:22-24 says,
22 After these things Jesus and His disciples came into the land of Judea, and there He was spending time with them and baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was much water there, and they were coming and were being baptized. 24 For John had not yet been thrown into prison.
“After these things” refers primarily to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus. The apostle does not tell us where that conversation took place, but most likely it was in or near Jerusalem, since, as a member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus lived there. Hence, it probably took place shortly after Jesus cleansed the temple.
Jesus must have then returned to Galilee before returning to Judea, where Jesus supervised as His disciples baptized many disciples. John 4:1, 2 says that “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John (although Jesus Himself was not baptizing, but His disciples were.” This presupposes that Jesus was preaching and teaching as well, for He was not just baptizing people but disciples. Those who believed His words were baptized, just as those who responded to John’s call to repentance were also baptized as his disciples.
Again, we are not told where Jesus was baptizing, but it was most likely the very spot where He Himself had been baptized at the Jordan. He was careful not to baptize in the same location that John was baptizing, so as not to compete for disciples.
John was “in Aenon, near Salim.” Aenon is the Greek word that is actually derived from the Hebrew ayin, which is a letter of the Hebrew alphabet that literally means “eye” or “spring.” The word picture is of tears springing from one’s eyes, which seems to point to the people’s weeping at hearing John’s call to repentance. The reason for its name is “because there was much water there,” or better, “many springs.” Springs of water showered down from the face of the cliff.
Hence, in the early days where both John and Jesus were ministering, each had a message and each were baptizing disciples. No doubt, however, there was a difference in their messages. John’s call to repentance was preparatory for the coming of the Messiah; Jesus’ message gave light to the repentant ones, teaching them about attaining “eternal life” (John 3:16).
Eternal Life and Immortality
Immortality is the highest quality of life, as distinct from mortal life that has dominated the world since Adam sinned. Adam was made a living soul (1 Corinthians 15:45), and when he sinned, his soul became mortal (Ezekiel 18:4). This “death” (mortality) was passed down to all men (Romans 5:12), weakening them and making it impossible for their souls to be without sin. Hence, “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23).
Jesus’ teaching gives us the antidote to the death that reigns in the soul. He did not die to make our souls immortal. By identifying with Christ (by law), we “die” in Him. The law is spiritual (Romans 7:14), and so this legal death is spiritual as opposed to being literal. Paul tells us that being baptized into Christ is a ceremony asserting our identification with Him, both in His death and in His resurrection to newness of life (Romans 6:4).
This does not raise the soul from the dead, as if the soul is being made immortal. If that were the case, all baptized believers in Christ would still be living (as “souls”) today. But we know that even the best of such believers grow old, die, and are buried.
The soul is what we received from our earthly fathers tracing back to Adam himself. It dies. We are offered an escape by transferring our identity from the soul to the spirit, so that when the soul dies, it is not really “us” that die. The purpose of baptism is to change our identity from an Adamic soul to a life-generating spirit that is qualitatively like Christ. Christ was made “a life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45).
Thus, immortality resides in one’s spirit, not in one’s soul, for we are not destined to live forever as “souls” but as “spirits.” The sentence of death upon all souls cannot be reversed, for it is the judgment of God for sin. Nonetheless, God has provided another way for us to be saved. It is not by perfecting the soul but by transferring our identity to a new creature, the New Creation Man.
What is Eternal Life?
Life, in this context, refers to immortal life, as seen often in Scripture. (Example: 2 Corinthians 5:4). It needs no qualifier to denote endlessness. The word aionian (“eternal”) adds a specific time factor that the word “life” lacks in itself.
The word aionian is derived from aion, “eon, age.” This is one of the most hotly contested Greek words in the New Testament, for it is the key to one of the main disagreements among church scholars. The word aion appears in Matthew 13:39 (NASB), where Jesus says, “the harvest is the end of the age.” The KJV incorrectly reads, “the harvest is the end of the world.”
Just as aion means “an age,” so also aionian means “of an age,” or “pertaining to an age.” An age is an indefinite, unspecified, or unknown time period. The rabbis who translated the Old Testament into Greek used aionian as the equivalent of the Hebrew word olam. The New Testament writers thus defined aionian according to the Hebrew meaning of olam.
Olam literally means “hidden,” for its root (verb) is alam, “to conceal, hide.”
In other words, olam refers to an age whose time span is unknown or hidden from us. Further, the rabbis often spoke about the time of the Messiah’s reign as being “The Age.” They believed it was destined to occur at the great Sabbath Millennium, i.e., the seventh thousand year period of Adamic history.
Therefore, when we see the term “eternal life,” we should understand it as a reference to receiving and enjoying the benefits of immortality specifically during the reign of the Messiah. Hence, the apostle John speaks of “the first resurrection” at the start of “the thousand years” (Revelation 20:5, 6), during which time the overcomers will “reign with Him.” The fact that this is said to be a limited resurrection shows that it is a special reward given to those who qualify as rulers in the Kingdom. It is thus a reward that most men will not be given.
Those who are given “eternal life” are the overcomers who are raised from the dead in the first resurrection and given immortality during “The Age” of the Messiah’s reign. However, most of humanity will not be given “eternal life,” even though they might receive immortality at the general resurrection of the dead at the end of the thousand years.
The bottom line is that immortality is a quality of unending life; “eternal life” is immortality during “The Age.” Those who are given “eternal life” receive immortality first—ahead of the vast majority of humanity and even before the average believer.
As we will see later, Jesus said in John 5:28, 29,
28 Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, 29 and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
This resurrection is not “the first resurrection” at the start of the thousand years, for that is a limited resurrection. No, this resurrection includes “all who are in the tombs.” It is the general resurrection at the end of the thousand years (Revelation 20:12). These include both believers and unbelievers. The believers will then be raised “to a resurrection of life,” while the unbelievers will be raised “to a resurrection of judgment.”
In other words, these believers will receive immortality after “The Age” has been completed. The unbelievers will be raised for judgment in the next age. John calls this judgment “the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:14, 15), because it is the result of the “river of fire” that proceeds from under the Great White Throne (Daniel 7:10).
A throne is a universal symbol of the law by which a monarch rules and judges the people. God judges the world by His own “fiery law” (Deuteronomy 33:2 KJV). The fire is a metaphor for whatever judgment the law of God metes out, including beatings (Luke 12:47, 48, 49). In biblical law, all sin is reckoned as a debt, so the overall judgment of God is to enslave debtors until they are able to work off their debts.
The “resurrection of judgment” is judgment in the Age of Judgment coming after the decrees from the Great White Throne. The usual New Testament term is “aionian judgment,” mentioned, for example, in Matthew 25:46. The Age of Judgment is not “everlasting,” as many translations render it. It is limited by the law of Jubilee.
No man can work enough to pay off the debts incurred by his sins. Hence, the only hope for such debtors (sinners) is in the law of Jubilee, where all debts are cancelled by grace alone at the end of time as we know it. The mercy of God is manifested by limiting all judgment. Even beatings are limited to forty lashes (Deuteronomy 25:3).
Most important, however, is that judgment is limited in order that God might fulfill His New Covenant vow to save all mankind. If God’s law had decreed “everlasting” judgment for any sin, it would have been impossible for God to save most sinners. Hence, God built mercy into the law and limited all liability for sin by the law of Jubilee.
Jesus’ message presented truth and light to the people, and those who believed His words were baptized as His disciples. Believing in Him (i.e., His message) were promised aonian life (John 3:16), or life in The Age. Those who rejected His words remain under judgment, for the judgment upon Adam already rested upon them (John 3:18).
Whereas the message of John the Baptist merely prepared the hearts of the people to hear the words from the Messiah, Jesus actually presented the truths by which the people could receive life in The Age to come.