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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 His disciples as they 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. At the time, 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).
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 Cor. 15:45), and when he sinned, his soul became dead, or mortal (Ezekiel 18:4). This “death” (mortality) was passed down to all men (Rom. 5:12), weakening them and making it impossible for their souls to be without sin. Hence, “all have sinned” (Rom. 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 (Rom. 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 (Rom. 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 Cor. 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 resurrecting the old man (soul) but by transferring our identity to a new creature that is raised up as a new creation.
Life, in this context, refers to immortal life, as seen often in Scripture. (Example: 2 Cor. 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 Matt. 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” (Rev. 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 (Rev. 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 non-overcoming believers will receive immortality after “The Age” has been completed. The unbelievers will be raised for judgment at the same time. John calls this judgment “the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:14, 15), because it is the result of the “river of fire” that proceeds from under the Great White Throne (Dan. 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” (Deut. 33:2, KJV). The fire is a metaphor for whatever judgment the law of God metes out, including beatings (Luke 12:47-49). 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 a divine verdict which launches the Age of Judgment. The usual New Testament term is “aionian judgment,” mentioned, for example, in Matt. 25:46.
The Age of Judgment is not “everlasting,” as many translations render it. It is limited by the law of Jubilee, which cancels all debt by grace alone, allowing every man to return to his lost inheritance.
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. The love and mercy of God is manifested by limiting all judgment. For the same reason, beatings are limited to forty lashes (Deut. 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) resulted in aonian life (John 3:16), or life in The Age. Those who rejected His words remain under judgment, for the judgment upon Adam rested upon them from birth (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.
John 3:25, 26 says,
25 There arose therefore a discussion on the part of John’s disciples with a Jew about purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, He who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you have borne witness, behold, He is baptizing, and all are coming to Him.”
It appears that “a Jew” thought that it was inappropriate for Jesus to baptize people separately from John. It seemed to compete with John and diminish his role in calling the people to the baptism of repentance. He had obviously discussed this already with others who agreed that this was a problem. So “they” came with their question.
The underlying question was this: Was Jesus taking advantage of the situation after John had borne witness of Jesus? Did John feel as if he had been “used”? It is not unlike some situations today, where ministers compete for disciples (supporters). A minister may train someone to work with him, only to discover that the trainee was building his own ministry. Such conflict is often caused by the two ministers competing for a limited number of dollars.
So “they came to John” to inform him of the reason fewer people seemed to be coming to hear John’s preaching. It seems that John had competition from a Minister that he had recently blessed and recommended.
The baptism of John was seen as a purification ceremony, as it was based on the purification laws set forth by Moses. The priests purified themselves at the laver by washing their hands and feet before entering the sanctuary.
This purification question is connected also to the wedding in Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine. Recall that the water was in large jars used for purification (John 2:6). This suggests that Jesus’ miracle pictured the transformation of believers after purifying them. Hence, this discussion about purification helps to construct the sequence of events in John’s gospel that explains the first day of Tabernacles. When that day is fulfilled historically, the overcomers’ purification will be complete and their nature will be changed.
But such prophecy remains in the background. The surface issue was about competition between ministers, which is common and, frankly, is rooted in carnal impurity in need of purification.
John’s answer shows his humility and perhaps shows us why John, who performed no miracles, was not at all inferior to the best prophets before him (Luke 7:28). We read John’s answer in John 3:27-30,
27 John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but ‘I have been sent before Him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. And so this joy of mine has been made full. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”
John was building Christ’s ministry, not his own, just as Jesus would build His Father’s kingdom. This ought to be the attitude of all ministers. It is often hard to discern the difference between building the church and building one’s own church, and it is easy to slip back into building one’s own kingdom in the name of Jesus. In fact, this is the key problem of denominations themselves. Denominations often begin with an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but when the Holy Spirit departs, they try to give the movement immortality by turning it into a perpetual denomination, an organization ruled by men.
Few people understand the underlying problem of this, because they do not know how the story of King Saul is prophetic of church history. Saul started out well enough but began to show signs of carnality just two years into his reign (1 Sam. 13:1, KJV). Each year of Saul’s reign portrays a Jubilee cycle in church history. Hence, the early church began to show signs of carnality in the second Jubilee cycle (49 x 2 years), when leaders began to assert that believers had to be in submission to a church bishop in order to be a genuine believer.
This was how the spirit of denominationalism crept into the church unawares. Men who were supposed to represent Christ began to usurp the position of Christ. At first, the change seemed reasonable. Indeed, if those leaders themselves had remained as humble as John the Baptist, seeing themselves as stewards, the church would not have degenerated into its later corrupt condition. Unfortunately, as the centuries passed, more and more church leaders began to seek power over others.
Their desire was to increase, not decrease. They forgot the example of John the Baptist. Instead of deferring to Christ, they put themselves in the place of Christ.
Herein it is helpful to see the contrast between the reigns of Saul and David. Saul usurped power and treated the kingdom as if he owned it; David remained in submission to God. Each occupied the throne of Christ, but only one did so in a godly manner. The underlying reason is that Saul had come to the throne after the people desired a man to rule them (1 Sam. 8:7). God gave them their desire in order to show them their rebellion and the outcome of their carnal desire.
This is the underlying purification question that is at the root of the Jews’ question to John. It was to have great relevance in later years.
John was honored to be the friend of the bridegroom, a position now called the “Best Man” at the wedding. In John’s day, the friend of the bridegroom was expected to promote the bridegroom, not to usurp his position as if he himself were the groom.
This wedding metaphor also links this discussion back to the wedding of Cana and to Jesus’ first miracle. At that wedding, neither the bridegroom nor the best man are identified. The apostolic silence itself turns all attention upon Jesus Himself, as if to prophesy that Jesus were the real Bridegroom responsible to provide wine for the guests.
John the Baptist continues his answer in John 3:31, saying,
31 “He who comes from above [Jesus] is above all, he who is of the earth [men in general] is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all.”
This is very similar to Paul’s teaching in 1 Cor. 15:47-49,
47 The first man is from the earth, earthy; the second man is from heaven. 48 As is the earthy, so also are those who are earthy; and as is the heavenly, so also are those who are heavenly. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly.
The name Adam literally means “earthy,” for he was named after the ground from whence he was taken. The “earthy” man was made a living soul; the “heavenly” man was a life-giving Spirit. We are born naturally as “souls,” because our identity comes from our earthy parents. It is only later, when we are begotten and born of the Spirit that our identity changes from earthy to heavenly.
In John 3:32, 33 John the Baptist continues his response, saying,
32 “What He has seen and heard, of that He bears witness; and no man receives His witness. 33 He who has received His witness has set his seal to this, that God is true.”
In other words, Jesus, the heavenly man, bore witness to the words of God, even as John the Baptist himself bore witness to Jesus as being that heavenly Man. Each bore witness to that which he had seen and heard.
On the surface it appears to be an exaggeration to say that “no man receives His witness,” for he immediately speaks of those who have indeed “received His witness.” On one level, this may indeed be an example of exaggeration to make the point that only the few are able to accept the heavenly Man’s witness. However, he probably means this in the way that Paul describes it in 1 Cor. 3:14,
14 But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised.
In other words, the “natural man,” which is actually the soul itself (psuchikos), is the old man (or old self, NASB) that is not capable of comprehending spiritual truth. Paul says that only the inner spiritual man/self has the discernment to comprehend spiritual things.
Hence, we can paraphrase and interpret John’s words as no soulish man receives His testimony. Only those who are begotten from above can be instructed by the Holy Spirit to see and apprehend such truth.
It is not so different from John 1:11, 12, where we read,
11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God….
This was the Hebrew manner of speaking that was meant to show that the people as a whole rejected Jesus, but individuals among them accepted Him. Most of the people remained soulish and fleshly sons of Adam, but there were some who were begotten from above, giving them a new heavenly identity as spiritual sons of God.
John 3:34 continues,
34 “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.”
To put it another way, showing cause and effect, the Spirit was given to Jesus “without measure,” and because of this, Jesus “speaks the words of God” fully and accurately (or faithfully). He is “the Amen, the faithful and true Witness” (Rev. 3:14). It is only when our identity is transferred to the New Creation Man, which is the spiritual man within, that one’s soul, being in submission to one’s spirit, is able to receive and submit to the revelation of the word.
John 3:35, 36 concludes John’s admonition to the group of Jews, saying,
35 “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. 36 He who believes in the Son has eternal [aionian] life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”
John understood that the true Messiah was the King of the Earth. As the apostle Paul affirms, all things have been put under His feet (1 Cor. 15:27). Jesus is the divine Agent representing the Father in every way. Therefore, all are expected to believe Jesus’ witness as if it were coming from the Father through His Mouthpiece. To reject His witness is to meet with God’s disapproval and “wrath.”
This is John’s summation of the objection that Jesus was baptizing disciples and thereby eroding John’s ministry. The apostle tells us that John the Baptist understood clearly that his role was subordinate to Christ.