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Jesus' ministry was launched from the ministry of John the Baptist (1:19-37). Now that Jesus has begun his ministry the Baptist returns to the stage to bear witness, setting his seal to what has been revealed. But he does so after it is made clear that there are in fact differences between the Baptist and Jesus himself. That which is new in Jesus, going beyond the Baptist's own message, is accepted and affirmed by John the Baptist on the basis of his recognition of who Jesus is, the one who comes from heaven.
Just as Jesus' first disciples came from among the ranks of the Baptist's disciples, so the first real offense taken with Jesus is on the part of the Baptist's own disciples (3:25-26). They argue with a certain Jew over ceremonial washing, literally, "purification" (katharismos, v. 25). This certain Jew seems to be simply a figure representing those who came out to the wilderness seeking purification in baptism. Since this argument causes them to go to the Baptist and complain about Jesus (v. 26), it is evident that these disciples perceive differences between their master and Jesus. They are also upset because Jesus is becoming more popular that the Baptist. This certain Jew would be one of those more attracted to Jesus, and the differences between Jesus and the Baptist must have to do with purification. One of the most obvious things about Jesus that a Jew would notice is his rejection of the various purificatory practices of the Pharisees and his nonascetical ways compared with those of the Baptist (cf. Mt 11:18-19; Lk 7:33-35). So we see the Baptist's disciples rejecting Jesus' teaching, but it is made clear that they are also rejecting their own master's instruction as well. They themselves state that he has borne witness to Jesus, but they do not accept his testimony. Like Nicodemus (3:2), the Baptist's disciples use the term "rabbi" without really meaning it. They call the Baptist their teacher but do not receive his teaching.
But we should not be too harsh with them. Perhaps they were not only envious but also confused about the differences between Jesus and their master, wondering whether Jesus was the one after all. If so, the Baptist's further witness that he now gives should set them straight. It seems strange to us that all the disciples who heard John testify to Jesus did not flock to him. But the Baptist's testimony must not have been as clear as we imagine from the Evangelist's account. A more complicated picture is also suggested by John's doubts while in prison (Mt 11:2; Lk 7:19). The Baptist continued to have a following and, indeed, it is probably part of John the Evangelist's purpose to set straight followers of the Baptist in his own day.
Jesus' success, which the Baptist's disciples complain about, is accepted by John the Baptist as evidence for his earlier testimony to Jesus (3:27-28). His statement a man can receive only what is given him from heaven (v. 27) could be a misleading criterion of truth for it seems to say all success is from God. This is true if one is taking the long view, since any success evil may appear to have is temporary. However, given the fact that evil can appear to succeed, this saying does not provide a general criterion of truth. Furthermore, the fact that evil can prevail for an extended period of time (according to our standards), the similar principle stated by Gamaliel (Acts 5:38-39) is of limited help in discern-ing truth from error. Gamaliel's principle does, however, include useful advice: In the face of confusion one should sit tight and see how God shakes things down. This thought might be implied also in the Baptist's statement of divine sovereignty, in which case his disciples erred in that they leapt to conclusions, despite what their master had said.
John's disciples had, in addition to Jesus' success, the Baptist's own testimony (3:28), a combined witness that points to God's presence with Jesus. This success is linked to heaven, as was his testimony (1:32-34). The earlier testimony expressed clearly the sovereign initiative. Now the Baptist's statement about the gift from heaven (3:27) is also a powerful expression of divine sovereignty, a theme of great importance in this Gospel and in this chapter in particular (3:3-8, 16-18). All of life is gift, all is of grace. This key Johannine theme is here echoed by the Baptist as he testifies to Jesus once again, now in the light of Jesus' ministry.
Unlike his disciples the Baptist is filled with joy, the joy of a best man at a wedding. The friend of the bridegroom was to wait outside the bridal chamber for the groom's indication that the marriage had been consummated in sexual intercourse. "The Talmud evidences an indelicate, but probably ancient, custom whereby the bridegroom would signify a successful attempt at intercourse by pronouncing the Shema (`Hear, O Israel . . . !')" (Derrett 1970:230; cf. Jeremias 1967b:1101). This image fits the present context, for as the shout of the bridegroom signifies the new family is off and running, so Jesus' activity indicates his ministry has begun successfully.
At a wedding attention is obviously focused on the bride and the groom. Thus, we again see John as a model of humility. As we saw earlier (1:19-34) he is completely self-emptied, being defined solely in terms of Jesus. His example of humility is expressed most memorably here: He must become greater; I must become less (3:30). This word must (dei) signifies the outworking of God's plan (cf. comment on 3:14). John's joy is in fulfilling God's will for his life—a model of Christian discipleship. He raises the question for all who would be disciples of Jesus, Where do we find our joy? It is easy to get distracted by the pleasurable blessings of this life. We should be thankful and receive gratefully God's blessings, but our joy's deepest foundation is God in himself. That he is as Jesus revealed him to be is our joy, as is the fulfilling of his purposes for our own lives (cf. 15:10-11), and we see this joy here in the Baptist.
With verse 31 there is a shift from narrative to a general comment by either the Baptist (as in the NIV), or, more likely, the Evangelist, since this section (vv. 31-36) summarizes the whole of chapter 3 by weaving together many of its major themes. In particular, the failure of the people to receive Jesus' testimony is again noted (vv. 32-33; cf. v. 11). One who receives Jesus' testimony is described as having certified that God is true, a thought that may recall verse 21. The next two verses (vv. 34-35) are particularly rich in allusions to previous themes: For the one whom God has sent (cf. 3:2, 16-17) speaks the words of God (cf. 3:11-12), for God gives the Spirit without limit (cf. 3:5-8). The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands (cf. 3:27). The final verse summarizes the theme of judgment (v. 36; cf. 3:16-21). Indeed, this last verse combines the central motifs of the two meditational passages (3:16-21, 31-35). In 3:16-21 the issue is faith in Jesus himself (vv. 16, 18), which is represented in verse 36a: Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life. In 3:31-35 the issue is receiving Jesus' testimony (cf. 3:11-12), and this is reflected in the notion of obedience in verse 36. Thus, we are told who Jesus is and what it means to accept or reject him.
John's contrast between the one who comes from above and the one who is from the earth (v. 31) in the context refers to Jesus and John the Baptist. But by putting the contrast in these terms we are brought back to the story of Nicodemus. That is, this passage begins at the same point verse 13 does, but now Jesus' identity as the one from heaven is contrasted with the Baptist, who is of the earth. He bears witness to the things of God that have been revealed to him, but they are the things God is doing on earth. In contrast, Jesus speaks of heavenly things, that is, of the God of heaven who is behind this activity on earth (cf. v. 12).
Accordingly, to accept Jesus' testimony is to say something about God, namely, that God is truthful (v. 33). In other words, because Jesus has been sent by God, speaks God's words and has received the Spirit without limit (v. 34), to hear him is to hear God. Jesus thus fulfills the role of an agent: "He speaks the words of God and no more, but he does so with full authority. Behind this is the old Jewish axiom, that a man's envoy is like himself" (Schnackenburg 1980a:386; cf. m. Berakot 5:5; see note on 5:21). But Jesus is not just an envoy; he is the Son, and as such he is able to do more than simply proclaim a message from a distant God. As Son he receives not just a message but God's Spirit and, as we hear in the next verse, God's love: The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands (v. 35). The chief characteristic of this true God, who is behind what Jesus is doing, is love. Behind God's love for the world and his giving of his Son (v. 16) is this love of the Father for the Son and the fact that he has placed (literally, "has given," dedoken) everything into his hands. In these two verses we have one of John's glimpses of the Holy Trinity—we see heaven opened, and heavenly things are revealed to us. The Son and the Spirit both come from heaven. The Father is the source, for both this Spirit and the Son's possession of all things are given by the Father. The Son has received the Spirit without limit, unlike any other envoy, and all things have been given into his hand; that is, he has supreme authority over all.
Thus, in Jesus we see the presence of God, by which he reveals the love of God and speaks with the authority of God. Given such a vision it naturally follows that believing in him brings eternal life and that rejecting him (ho apeithon, literally, "the one disobeying") means one remains under the wrath of God (v. 36; cf. 1 Jn 5:19). The divine prerogatives of life-giving and judgment are exercisd by Jesus (see comment on 5:19-30), which means he plays roles of the utmost significance in the life of each person.
We have, then, a brief but profound glimpse into Jesus' identity and the heavenly reality of the relationship between the Father and the Son. We also are confronted with the high stakes in this game. In Jesus the presence of God has come into our midst: the visitation of God expected in the last days has come bringing eschatological blessing and danger. The wrath of God is here seen as the opposite of sharing in his life. Alienation from his life is the condition of all who have not been born from above. The enormous difference between what we take to be normal life and the life God offers us in his Son could not be more graphically expressed. There will be a future judgment (5:28-30), but it is already active now (5:22-23), so the believer is beyond the judgment (5:24-27). At this point John is concerned that we understand who Jesus is as well as the eschatological realities present in his ministry. Those who have experienced the reality of what this section describes—the gift of the Father, the supremacy of the Son and the eschatological reality of passing from death to life (cf. 5:24)—have received the good news. Later John will make the point that those who enter this reality are commissioned themselves to share it (20:21-22).