John the Baptist who came to prepare the way of the Lord was very clear about his role. Even before Jesus taught on servant leadership, John practised it. John’s disciples got upset that Jesus, who received baptism from John, was baptising people and also garnering a following. Jesus was gaining more popularity than John. Instead of people coming to John, they were going to Jesus. This was intolerable for them, and so they brought it to John’s attention. However, John taught them that things were as they should be: Jesus should increase, and he should decrease. Thus, John is a superb model of humility and submission to authority.
(John 3:22) After this, Jesus went into the territory of Judea with his disciples. He stayed there with them and baptized. (23) John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim where water was plentiful; people came to him and were baptized. (24) (This happened before John was put in prison.) (25) Now a dispute arose between John’s disciples and a Jew about ceremonial cleansing, (26) so they came to John and said, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, and to whom you bore witness, is now baptizing and all are going to him.” (27) John answered, “No one can take on anything if it has not been given him from heaven. (28) You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ (29) The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens to him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete. (30) He must increase, and I must decrease.” (31) He who comes from above is above all; he who comes from the earth belongs to the earth and his words, too, are earthly.
(Jn 3:22) After this, Jesus went into the territory of Judea with his disciples. He stayed there with them and baptized.
According to John the Evangelist’s chronology, after attending the wedding at Cana in Galilee (Jn 2:1-12), Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover where he cleansed the Temple and disputed with the Jews (2:13-25). Then Jesus had a long discourse at night with Nicodemus (Jn 3:1-21). After that, Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea, to baptize the people.
Jesus and his disciples went into the region of Judea
Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus might have been somewhere in Jerusalem because the conversation happened after the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem. Nicodemus, being a member of the Sanhedrin, might have been living in the city. After meeting with Nicodemus, Jesus and his disciples moved out of Jerusalem.
He spent some time with them baptizing
One theme of Jesus’ preaching was like that of John proclaiming: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). So, the repentant sinners might have been requesting Jesus to baptizing them just as John was doing. Jesus, along with his disciples, went to River Jordan. John documents that “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples than John” (Jn 4:1). John later clarified that it was not Jesus but his disciples who were baptizing (Jn 4:2) under Jesus’ supervision. This baptism was only a preparatory one, with cleansing in water. The baptism in the Holy Spirit took place only after the Spirit came upon the apostles on the day of Pentecost.
Jesus might have asked the disciples to help those who approached him with the baptism of repentance so they could later join his church. The evangelist does not give the duration of Jesus’ baptism ministry. However, scholars estimate it as eight months. After that, Jesus returned to his Galilean ministry.
(23) John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim where water was plentiful; people came to him and were baptized
John was also baptizing in Aenon near Salim
The gospel does not specify where Jesus and his disciples baptized the people. However, it gives the location where John was baptizing. That was in Aenon near Salim. Salim might have been a well-known place, though it is unknown now. Aenon in Aramaic means springs. So, it could be a common name for springs flowing to River Jordan. That must be the reason for referring to a spring (Aenon) near Salim. Because John the Evangelist specifies Judea as the place Jesus selected for baptism, scholars believe it to be a valley six miles north-east of Jerusalem.
There was an abundance of water there
John the Evangelist gives the reason for John selecting Aenon near Salim. Plentiful water was necessary for the immersion of converts as part of baptism. So John selected that place for baptism.
People came to be baptized
People were going to River Jordan to receive baptism from John. Unlike Jesus, John, who had the Nazirite vow, was not going out to meet the people. However, his words were so strong and attractive that people even from faraway places came to listen to him.
(24) (This happened before John was put in prison)
The chronology of John’s gospel differs from that of the Synoptic gospels. John added this verse to clarify that the event happened before King Herod Antipas arrested John the Baptist. John could not preach or baptize after his imprisonment.
(25) Now a dispute arose between John’s disciples and a Jew about ceremonial cleansing
The Israelites had many types of ceremonial washings, including water immersion. Some resembled John’s baptism. Before the ordination to the priesthood, Moses washed Aaron and his sons with water as per God’s directive (Lev 8:6). On the Day of Atonement, Aaron had to bathe his body in water before he robed his vestments to enter the Holy of Holies (Lev 16:4). Those who had touched a human corpse were unclean for seven days and had to purify themselves with water on the third and seventh day as part of their ritual purification (Num 19:11-12). The new converts to Judaism had to undergo immersion in water known as Mikveh, symbolic of the transition from his or her old identity to a new one as a Jew.
The evangelist does not specify on which ceremonial washing they were disputing and who was the Jew challenging John’s disciples. However, it must be on the baptism of John and Jesus. Some Biblical scholars speculate whether the dispute was between Nicodemus and John’s disciples.
Nicodemus had a lengthy discussion with Jesus on baptism. Jesus told him: “Truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (Jn 3:5). So Nicodemus or a Jew who might have learned about the baptism in water and the Spirit, either from Jesus or from John, was arguing with the disciples of John that it was time for John to stop baptizing. Everyone must get the baptism from Jesus or his disciples, who already started baptizing. John the Baptist himself had said: “I saw the Spirit come down on him like a dove from heaven and rest on him. I myself did not know him but the one who sent me to baptize told me: ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and rest is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ Yes, I have seen, and I declare that this is the Son of God” (Jn 1:32-34). These and the verses that follow, where John acknowledged the superiority of the ministry of Jesus, justify this view.
(26) So they came to John and said, “Rabbi, the one who was with you across the Jordan, and to whom you bore witness, is now baptizing and all are going to him”
John’s disciples got upset that Jesus, whom John baptized, was now doing the same ministry of John at a nearby place and he was taking over John’s fame and clients. John’s disciples did not specify Jesus’ name, though they knew that John had testified to him. Their concern was that a parallel baptism would diminish the flow of people to John for baptism because “all are going to him.” They were curious to hear the response of John. They might have been expecting that John would prevent Jesus from performing the baptism. That was a temptation the devil brought up through the disciples to test John. However, he did not become envious of Jesus.
(27) John answered, “No one can take on anything if it has not been given him from heaven”
Though John was making a general theological statement, it was about Jesus and him. John had witnessed the Holy Spirit’s descent upon Jesus and heard the voice of acknowledgement from heaven at the baptism of Jesus (Mt 3:16-17). So Jesus got the power from above. Heaven also authorized John, but only as a witness to Jesus, the Son of God (Jn 1:33-34). So, John’s message to his disciples was that Jesus was right in what he was doing.
(28) You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him’
Since John had been baptising, many thought that John was the Messiah. The Jewish leaders had associated baptism with the coming of the Messiah. For that reason, they sent priests and Levites to John asking him whether he was the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet (Jn 1:19-28). Only these three could baptize. When John replied in the negative, they questioned him on his baptism. John answered basing on Isaiah 40:3. “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” Jesus later identified John with the second coming of Prophet Elijah (Mt 17:12-13) as Malachi prophesied in 4:5-6. So, John reiterated to his disciples that he was not the Messiah, but the one sent before the Messiah to prepare his way.
(29) The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens to him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom, the best man
John explained to his disciples the relationship between Jesus and himself, using the example of a wedding ceremony. Jesus is the bridegroom who is the centre of attraction in the wedding ceremony along with his bride, the church.
John presented himself in the position of ‘best man’ or ‘the friend of the groom.’ According to the Jewish custom, the best man was the event manager for the wedding. The friend of the groom’s goal was the prominence and joy of the groom. Any envy on part of the best man or competition between him and the groom was improbable.
Jesus used the term bridegroom for him when he answered to the disciples of John, who asked Jesus: “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus replied: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt 9:14-15).
So, like the best man of a Jewish wedding, John rejoiced that his mission has accomplished. People realized the true bridegroom and approached him.
(30) “He must increase, and I must decrease”
Once the best man’s role was over, he had to retreat from the scene and let the bridegroom take over. John was happy that he accomplished his mission. It was time for him to go behind the curtain. Thus, John did not want to highlight himself but wanted to lead all to Jesus.
John’s approach contrasts with an Old Testament event in the transition stage of King Saul to his successor, David. When David, the anointed second King of Israel, became popular, King Saul got jealous and was chasing to kill him (1 Sam 18:6-
9). All his attempts were in vain because the Spirit of the Lord was upon David. King Saul had warned his elder son Jonathan: “For as long as the son of Jesse lives upon the earth, you cannot make good your claim to the kingship! Now send for him, and bring him to me, for he must die” (1 Sam 20:31).
However, Jonathan kept friendship with David and shielded him from his father’s assassination attempts. Jonathan said to David: “Have no fear, my father Saul shall not lay a hand to you. You shall be king of Israel, and I shall be second to you. Even my father Saul knows this” (1 Sam 23:17). Though King Saul wanted his son Jonathan to be his successor, Jonathan was behaving like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the enthronement of David and considered himself as second to him (1 Sam chapters 19-24).
(31) He who comes from above is above all; he who comes from the earth belongs to the earth and his words, too, are earthly
There is no clarity on whether this verse and the following verses in this chapter are from John the Baptist or John the Evangelist. Regardless of whose words they are, they are consistent with the theme presented so far and later by Jesus himself.
John contrasts here between the words that came from Jesus and what came from the humans. Jesus has no human father, and he is the God incarnate. So, he is above all, including John the Baptist. The humans can only think and speak from an earthly perspective out of their limited knowledge, whereas Jesus possessed divine truth that transcended human preaching. This reminded John’s disciples that they should honour Jesus and that John cannot compete with Jesus, the Son of God.
1. After baptizing Jesus, John continued his mission. When he came to realize that Jesus also started baptizing with his disciples, John was not jealous of him. He was only happy that more people were going to Jesus. Jealousy is the enemy of spirituality, and humility is the road to success and honour.
2. Though John’s disciples were jealous of Jesus and his disciples who were preaching and baptizing, John corrected his disciples and directed them to Jesus. John was sure that it was time for him to wind up. A confrontation or competition would have caused damage to John’s reputation. We also should be vigilant in handling conflicts in the family, in the church, and the community like John did.
3. John’s disciples and the people in Judea and Jerusalem had doubted whether John was the Messiah. He did not want any undue claim for himself. However, Jesus gave an excellent testimony regarding John, saying: “Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Jn 11:11). Mutual respect and honour were displayed by both Jesus and John.
4. When John heard about Jesus conducting baptisms, he said: “this joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:29-30). Everyone should promote the growth of others and find joy in it.
5. John desired nothing for himself but wished for the glory of Jesus. As we serve in the family, church, and the world, let us lead others to the glory of Jesus who is the way, the truth, and the life so that all may reach heaven through Jesus.
6. We should transfer authority whether in the family, church, or secular world with a spirit that John showed us in handing over his mission to Jesus. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI on 28 February, 2013 is an excellent example for this. The role we have in this world is temporary. We must have an excellent succession plan and a smooth transition of authority following John’s model.