John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) 2000
Earlier in the Gospel we saw how some of John the Baptist's disciples became disciples of Jesus (1:35-42). We also noted that both John the forerunner and Jesus the Messiah used baptism as the sign of enrolling disciples before teaching them (4:1, see Matthew 28:19-20). The writer of John's Gospel indicates (without mentioning his own name, as in 13:23, 19:26, 21:2, 20:24) that he himself had first been a disciples of John.
John the writer of the Gospel therefore knew first hand how very different Jesus' lifestyle was from the severely ascetic habits of his previous teacher. Turning water to wine at a wedding (2:1-10) would have been unthinkable to John the Baptist, even if he had the power to do it.
Inevitably the two groups of disciples were puzzled by the very different behavior of the other group (denomination). The synopic Gospels record a difference of opinion about the practice of fasting (Matthew 9:14-17, Mark 2:18, Luke 5:33-38). Our Gospel mentions a discussion about purification (see comments on 3:25).
But John the Baptist graciously reminded his disciples that, in spite of these major differences, he is not the Messiah, but only one who prepares the ground (3:28-29). "He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:30). The first two verses of chapter 4 will be the last look back at John the Baptist, and this Gospel will not even mention John's arrest and beheading as recorded in the other three Gospels.
Most of Jesus' ministry was near the Sea of Galilee around his home in Capernaum (Matthew 4:12-13, 18, 8:5). Some of his close disciples would travel with and work with him, and others would come to him for teaching in various places such as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1). Jesus also taught in the weekly sabbath synagogue gatherings (Matthew 4:23). A modern equivalent would be people both attending a local church and going to join in gatherings for worship and teaching in other places. On this occasion he was teaching disciples several days' journey to the south in the Judean countryside (3:22).
3:23 It seems that John the Baptist did not move far from a location called Bethany (distinguished from Bethany just two miles from Jerusalem, see 11:1,18). This Bethany was across the Jordan just north of the Dead Sea (1:28) where he baptized and taught disciples who came to him from far distances (Matthew 3:5-6). Jesus had himself made the week's journey down from Galilee to be baptized by John (1:28, 3:26, Matthew 3:13). Those who practice baptism by total immersion explain the location near the Jordan because "water was abundant there" Another explanation is that the abundance of water enabled people to come and camp nearby (including cooking, washing clothes, and bathing) to enjoy several days of instruction as in a camp meeting or week-end conference (Luke 3:7-18).
3:25 The discussion about purification probably related to ritual washing before meals (Matthew 15:1,2). Jesus was concerned about heart change (Matthew 15:8-20) and cared little about Jewish traditions and ceremonial niceties (Mark 7:1-8).
3:26 John's disciples remember the momentous occasion when Jesus came from Galilee to meet their teacher, and the events at his baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). Now their own numbers are decreasing and people are flocking to be baptized and taught by Jesus.
3:27 But John the Baptist knows that what Jesus is doing "has been given from heaven."
3:28 And he had already stated that he was not the Messiah (1:20). His own ministry was just by way of preparation (1:22-23, Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:2, Luke 3:16).
3:29 At a wedding the friend of the groom (best man) is happy for the bridegroom to be honored and take his wife to his home. So John the Baptist declares that his "joy has been fulfilled" as Jesus baptizes more and more disciples, and he himself fades away into the background.
3:31 Before leaving his last reference to John the Baptist (in 4:1-2) the writer distinguishes Jesus' teaching "from above" from the prophet whose teaching can only relate to "earthly things." Jesus said that "among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he" (Matthew 11:11). No teacher or prophet (or any priest, pastor, or preacher in our day) can impart the eternal life that only the Messiah can give (3:16, 36, 6:27,51).
3:32-34 The Messiah, having come "from above" (1:1,14, see 8:2) can speak about what he has seen and heard from the Father. But no one can accept even what the Messiah says except by the Spirit (see 3:8,34,7:39). As we will see in the last supper conversation, in addition to teaching about heaven, Jesus told the twelve apostles that the Holy Spirit would have much more to give "without measure (14:17, 26, 15:26, 16:12-13).
3:35 The eternal relationship between the Father and the Son was introduced in the prologue (1:1, 14). And John will keep coming back to the many-sided implications of this relationship (5:17-24, 36-40, 6:37, 40, 45-46, 8:16-19).
3:36 Eternal life through faith in the Son of God was explained in the nutshell gospel (3:16). Here the opposite of eternal life is changed from "perish' to "must endure God's wrath" (NRSV). But this translation misses the force of the Greek present tense: "the wrath of God keeps remaining upon him."
In the Old Testament wrath never means eternal damnation. Wrath is always bad consequences here on earth for the wrong behavior of nations and individuals. As in the case of loving parents, anger is not directed at the child, but at behavior that damages the child's ultimate freedom and joy. Similarly the Messiah's wrath is designed to help humans into the love of God. And as long as we reject the Messiah's purpose for us, his bad consequences will keep dogging our footsteps. Alcoholics and those ruled by other addictions, the sexually promiscuous, the gamblers and covetous, the unkind and the malicious, those who worry, cannot forgive, and fail to pray, are not not all eternally lost but they certainly suffer terrible wrath consequences.
Wrath is therefore distinguished from a deliberate preference for destruction in the outer darkness (3:19-21). It is not that God's wrath sends us there, but in spite of all the Messiah's loving wrath interventions we choose final death away from the love of God. As set out in C.S.Lewis' Great Divorce, nobody will end up in outer darkness who could by any means be brought to enjoy the light of the city of God.
This means that many people in all nations and all religions will finally discover that they have been tricked into behavior that ends in wrath here on earth, but deep down their heart prefers the light of heaven. We cannot imagine that many will deliberately choose the darkness away from the love of God. But in this life they often choose the broad way that leads to bad wrath consequences (Matthew 7:14-15). The wrath consequences do not pile up against their account till they are sent to burn in hell. The purpose of the bad consequences in this life are to help us turn back to the love of God.
4:1-3 With these verses the writer ends his look back at his own previous teacher, John the Baptist. The Messiah had been baptizing numerous disciples in the Judean countryside (3:22), and when it came to the ears of the Pharisee leaders in Jerusalem Jesus decided to move far away from where John the Baptist was preaching, and concentrate his own teaching in Galilee.
As we have seen both John the Baptist and Jesus used baptism to enrol disciples, and the baptism was followed by intensive teaching whenever the disciples could gather for further instruction. After baptizing the first few disciples Jesus chose some of these to do the subsequent baptisms, and give them the first lessons in how to go on (4:2). Jesus did not want people to think that being baptized by him personally was important. Paul similarly reminded the Corinthians that he had only baptized a very few of them "so that no one can say you were baptized in my name" (1 Corinthians 1:13-15). It is not how or where or by whom we are baptized that is important. It is continuing to be taught by the Holy Spirit that changes our lives.
We can assume that among Jesus' disciples women were baptized on the same basis as men. Unless he had begun doing this there is no way women would have been baptized by Peter and the other apostles immediately after the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:41-42, 47, 5:14, see 8:3, 12, 9:2, 16:15).
This is the last reference to the baptism of disciples in this Gospel, but we can assume that from now on those who came to faith in Samaria and other places were also baptized (4:36, see Acts 8:5, 12).
Later in this chapter we will see a royal official coming to faith "with his whole household" (4:53). The use of the same words as in the household baptisms of Lydia and the jailor in Philippi (Acts 16:15, 33-34) suggests that a whole household with people of all ages could be baptized "without delay" (Acts 16:31) to be taught as a family unit.
4:4-42 Samaritan Woman