Last week, we looked at John 3:1-21 in the context of the prior chapter 2 (especially 2:13-25). Today, we will be looking ahead to the next section, 3:22-36. I do not intend to provide a similarly detailed comparison with 3:1-21, only to note the general correspondence. There is indeed a similarity between the discourse involving John the Baptist (vv. 25ff) and the earlier one between Jesus and Nicodemus. In particular, the language and thought of vv. 31-36 has much in common with Jesus’ exposition in vv. 11-21. According to the context of the narrative, John the Baptist is the one speaking in vv. 31ff (there is no certain indication of a change in speaker), and the similarity of expression between Jesus and the Baptist is very much part of the overall theme of the Gospel. This was established in chapter 1, going back to the Prologue (vv. 1-18). John the Baptist is one sent from God to bear witness to Jesus. As 1:7-8 describes, John is not the light, but gives witness to it—so well indeed, that he and Jesus use much the same language. They are essentially witnessing to the same thing—Jesus’ own person and identity. Only, after chapter 3, John the Baptist disappears from the scene, and from that point on in the Gospel, it is Jesus’ words and works alone which bear witness.
The discourse in 3:22-36 reflects the narrative in chapter 1 even more closely. This is part of the Johannine blending of details and elements from the beginning and end of Jesus’ ministry, as we saw in the case of 1:51 and the episodes of chapter 2. The main dialogue in vv. 25-30 is parallel to 1:19-34. The clearest reference is found in verse 28, where the Baptist says to those with him:
“You (your)selves (can) witness for me, that I said [that] ‘I am not the Anointed One, but that I am (one) having been se(n)t forth in front of that (one)’.”
If we look back at chapter 1, there are several statements which, if taken together, are similar to the saying here in v. 28b:
- “I am not the Anointed One [i.e. Messiah]” (1:20b)
- “the (One) sending me…” (v. 33; see also verse 6)
- “the (one) coming behind me…” (v. 27, compare with the Synoptic saying in Mark 1:7 par)
- the saying in verse 15 and 30 (discussed below)
The idea that Jesus is the Anointed One (on this title, see my earlier series “Yeshua the Anointed“), and that he comes after (or behind) John the Baptist, is a basic historical tradition found in all four Gospels (and the book of Acts). Yet it is clear from Jn 3:27-30ff that there is a deeper theological significance to the statement in v. 28. This comes out most vividly when we examine the saying of the Baptist in 1:15 and 30. Let us look at the form in verse 30, given in a literal translation:
“Behind me comes a man who has come to be in front of me, (in) that he was the first of [i.e. for, before] me”
The significance of this saying, as recorded in the Gospel of John is rather obscured by most translations; consider the NIV rendering as typical:
“A man who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me”
The basic idea of Jesus’ superior rank and (divine) pre-existence comes through well enough, but the powerful sequence of verbs (marked by italics above), and the profound theological (and Christological) statement contained within it, is impossible to capture in conventional English. Here is an instance where something truly is lost if one does not (or is not able to) study carefully the actual Greek words that are used. The saying is made up of three phrases, each of which contains a key verb:
- “A man comes [erchetai] in back of [i.e. behind] me”
- “who has come to be [gegonen] in front of me”
- “he was [¢n] first of [i.e. for, before] me”
These three phrases (and verbs) essentially refer to an aspect of Jesus’ identity, which can best be understood by consulting the Prologue (vv. 1-18). Indeed, this same saying appeared earlier in the Prologue (v. 15), in a slightly different form, stated more succinctly:
“the one coming [erchomenos] in back of me has come to be [gegonen] in front of me (in) that he was [¢n] first of [i.e. for, before] me”
Let us see how each of these verbs is used in the Prologue:
1. comes/coming (vv. 7, 9, 11)—the verb erchomai (e&rxomai), which refers to human beings (and Jesus as a human being) coming into the world. This covers a person’s birth, but also extends to the place in which he lives, his community, his work and career, etc. It is frequently used in the Gospel of John in the context of Jesus coming into the world, to those who will believe in him (his disciples, believers)—a comprehensive idea spanning his human life, ministry, witness, and sacrificial death. His baptism, where he appears on the scene after (behind) John the Baptist, marks the beginning of his ministry, and the moment in which he first comes into public view.
2. has come to be (vv. 3, 6, 10, 12, 14, 17)—this is the verb ginomai (gi/nomai), an existential verb meaning “come to be, become”. It occurs frequently in the New Testament, usually in a common, ordinary sense; but, in the Gospel of John, it often has special theological significance, due to its overlapping meaning with the related verb gennaœ (genna/w). This latter verb regularly means “come to be born“, and ginomai can carry this meaning as well. It is used several different ways in the Prologue: (1) for creatures (and the world) coming into existence (vv. 3 [three times], 10), (2) for a human being coming to be born (v. 6), and similarly (3) of believers coming to be born (spiritually) (v. 12), and finally (4) of Jesus (the Word/Light) coming to be born as a human being (v. 14). It is this latter sense that is in view in verse 15—the incarnation, Jesus’ birth and his coming into the world as a human being. There is also a reference to the incarnation in verse 18, but with the added connotation of the revelation of God the Father in the person of Jesus (the Son). We should understand the phrase in verse 15/30 in this light. This second phrase works backward from the first: from Jesus coming into the world (into his life and ministry, etc) to his coming to be born as a human being. It is this—the incarnation itself —which, paradoxically, puts Jesus “in front of” John the Baptist. The perfect form of the verb (gegonen, “has come to be”) often indicates a past action, condition, event, etc, which continues into the present.
3. was (vv. 1-2, 4, 8-10)—this is the primary verb of being (eimi, ei)mi), in the third person imperfect form ¢n (h@n, “he was”). As such it occurs 10 times in the Prologue, including three times in verse 1. In this context, it refers to Divine Being—that is the being of God, and expresses something of the manner in which Jesus (the Word/Light/Son) shares in it. It reflects more than pre-existence—rather, eternal, divine existence which the Son (Jesus) shares with the Father. This informs the climactic third phrase of the saying in verse 15/30, taking yet another step back: from the incarnation (the birth of the Son as a human being) to the eternal life and being shared between the Father and the Son. In this light, we may better understand the somewhat ambiguous wording of the phrase “he was first of me”. The word prœtos (“first”) here is something more than a comparative (i.e. “superior to me”), but ought to be understood in a fundamental sense—Jesus is first of all things (including John the Baptist), sharing with God the Father both the eternal Life and the work of Creation. In a sense, prœtos is synonymous with the words that begin the Gospel—en arch¢ (“in the beginning”).
Returning to 3:28, and with this study of 1:15, 30 in mind, I would encourage you to read verses 22-36 of chapter 3 most carefully. Even if you do not read Greek, or do not have access to the Greek text, you can probably notice some important words, ideas, and themes which have occurred throughout the first three chapters of the Gospel. If you read Greek, or are using Greek study tools (such as those available in PC Study Bible), try to pay attention to any recurring words and phrases. In the Gospel of John, these often have special significance. How do verses 27-30 relate to what follows in vv. 31-36? Look especially at the words translated “eternal life” in verse 36, and consider how they relate to this discourse (and chapter 3 as a whole). We will be discussing the Johannine theme of “eternal life” in several upcoming studies, so it will be good for you to be thinking and meditating upon its meaning in the Gospel.
Continue in your reading and study of the Scripture…and I will see you next Saturday.