7. He Must Increase (John 3:22-4:3)

Audio (26:47)

Matthias Grunewald, detail of the John the Baptist panel in the Isenheim Altarpiece (15121516). Oil on panel. Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, Alsace.
Matthias Grunewald, detail of the John the Baptist panel in the Isenheim Altarpiece (1512--1516). Oil on panel. Unterlinden Museum, Colmar, Alsace.
John's narrative now moves from Jerusalem at Passover to the countryside where both Jesus and John the Baptist are ministering in different areas.

Spending Time with Disciples (3:22)

"After this, Jesus and his disciples went out into the Judean countryside[137], where he spent some time with them, and baptized." (3:22)

Two things were on Jesus' agenda:

  1. Spending time with his disciples, and
  2. Baptizing.

We'll come to baptizing in a moment, but I don't want you to miss the vital importance Jesus saw in just spending time with[138]or "hanging out" with his disciples.

How do you disciple a man or woman? Can you structure it into a weekly class for one hour? Jesus didn't.

Jesus' typical call was, "Follow me!" Come with me. Listen to my teaching 20 or 30 times as I repeat it in village after village. Get to know me intimately. Live alongside me. Watch how I engage needy people. Observe how I pray for them, how I touch them, how I heal them. See my love in action so it becomes your highest value also. Learn my way of looking at all sorts of situations.

And assist me. Be an active apprentice in ministry. Help the crowd get seated comfortably and keep some order as thousands of people gather to hear me. And let me rebuke and correct you when you are overzealous in preventing little children to come near me.

Later, Jesus will increase their responsibilities. He sends them on missionary trips two by two, and then debriefs them carefully so they learn the important things from their encounters.

Effective discipling requires a great deal of time between the discipler and the disciple. Jesus knew this, so he set aside time to do just that. To us who always have to be doing something, we'll misunderstand. Quiet time with Jesus is vital to learning to be a disciple!

Jesus also baptized during this time -- which means that lots of people were coming to him out in the country, believing his message, repenting from their sins, and were being baptized for the forgiveness of sins (Mark 1:15). We'll come to that later in this lesson.

Q1. (John 3:22) What is the importance of Jesus spending time with his disciples? What is his strategy? How does Jesus make disciples today? Where is our time with the Discipler? How important is your time as a discipler, "hanging out" with people God puts on your heart to disciple?

John the Baptist Ministers West of the Jordan (3:23-24)

While Jesus begins to baptize, his mentor John the Baptist continues his ministry. Their ministries overlap.

"23  Now John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water, and people were constantly coming to be baptized. 24  (This was before John was put in prison.)" (3:23-24)

Location of Salim and Aenon
Location of Salim and Aenon (larger map)

The Gospel of John tells us that John had moved his ministry from "beyond Jordan," that is, on the east side of the Jordan River (1:28; 3:26; 10:40), to "Aenon near Salim," on the west side of Jordan.  Aenon means "springs" in Aramaic, and was a place where there was a lot of water for baptizing (a verse that Baptists love to quote).

Various locations have been proposed for Aenon, but perhaps the best possibility is the springs at Tel Salim (identified as such by Eusebius and Jerome), about seven miles south of Beth Shan).[139]

Just as people had streamed to John the Baptist in his earlier ministry in Judea, the flow of people continues[140]in this new location.

John's note, "This was before John was put in prison," is quite interesting. Nowhere in John's Gospel is the story of John's imprisonment and subsequent execution given. John assumes that his readers are familiar with the story, however, no doubt from the accounts in the Synoptic Gospels, which, by the time John wrote, were circulating widely in the churches. John's purpose is not to tell the same story in the same way, but to reflect on various aspects of the story that point out Jesus as the Son of God and build faith in his readers (20:31).

He Must Become Greater (3:25-30)

John introduces baptism to tell a story that has John the Baptist pointing to Jesus once again.

"An argument developed between some of John's disciples and a certain Jew over the matter of ceremonial washing[141]." (3:25)

Strict Jews were quite adamant about a ceremonial rinsing of their hands before a meal -- not for hygiene, nor from a direct commandment of Scripture, but to fulfill the "oral law," the tradition of the rabbis. You'll recall the stone water jars at the wedding at Cana that contained water for this purpose (2:6). And you may remember a dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees about hand-rinsing (Matthew 15:2).

When you think about it, baptism itself is a Jewish rite of purification. Converts to Judaism were required to be circumcised, offer a sacrifice, and be baptized (undergo ritual ablution).[142]So the controversy between a Jew and John's disciples about purification was to be expected. However, this Jew apparently brought reports of Jesus' success at baptizing. So these disciples came to John the Baptist with the report.

"They came to John and said to him, 'Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan -- the one you testified about -- well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him.'" (3:26)

You can sense resentment in John's disciples. After all, baptism was what John himself was known for. Now this upstart is upstaging him and "everyone is going to him." No doubt this was an exaggeration; people were still coming to John the Baptist. But clearly, more were now coming to Jesus to be baptized. John 4:2 explains that Jesus wasn't baptizing people himself; he had delegated this ministry to his disciples.

Those that bring this news to John sound like reporters framing a question in a such a way that they might elicit a candid response. John the Baptist's reply surprises them. They expect anger and hurt. But John the Baptist doesn't respond with anger and hurt. He makes four points:

  1. God directs our lives, not ambition.
  2. I am not the Christ.
  3. I find fulfillment in the bridegroom's joy.
  4. He must increase, I must decrease.

John the Baptist's reply is remarkable. Edersheim says of it,

"The answer which the Baptist made may be said to mark the high point of his life and witness. Never before was he so tender, almost sad; never before more humble and self-denying, more earnest and faithful."[143]

1. God directs our lives, not our ambitions (3:27)

It's so easy to define ourselves in terms of success, and feel hurt when others succeed while we fail. John the Baptist's comment is insightful:

"A man can receive only what is given him from heaven." (3:27)

The Jews often used words such as "heaven" to avoid using the divine name. John the Baptist's point is that our lives are in God's hands. We don't call the shots. God directs our affairs. We must be obedient, of course, and make the most of what we are given -- that is our responsibility. But when we judge ourselves on human standards we err.

Q2. (John 3:26) Have you ever resented "larger churches" that attracted people from "your" church? What is wrong with this kind of possessiveness? Is it self-pity or something else?

2. I am not the Christ (3:28)

John's second point is that he had already told his disciples that he isn't the Messiah, but a forerunner (1:20-27).

"You yourselves can testify that I said, 'I am not the Christ but am sent ahead[144]of him.'" (3:28)

3. I find fulfillment in the bridegroom's joy (3:29)

John's third point carries this further. I am the bridegroom's friend, not the bridegroom himself.

"The bride belongs to the bridegroom. The friend who attends the bridegroom waits and listens for him, and is full of joy when he hears the bridegroom's voice. That joy is mine, and it is now complete." (3:29)

The allusion is to a wedding. The "friend of the bridegroom" -- we would say, the "best man," the traditional Jewish shoshebin -- acts as an agent for the groom and takes care of arranging for the wedding. He works behind the scenes to prepare for the celebration, but he isn't the focus of the day. The focus, of course, is on the bridegroom and his bride. The best man receives his joy when he hears the groom conversing with the bride. "It's not about me," John insists. "It is about the Messiah."

Of course, using such a wedding analogy carries with it the overtones from the Old Testament of Israel as the bride of God (Isaiah 62:4-5; Jeremiah 2:2; 3:20; Ezekiel 16:8; 23:4; Hosea 2:19-20), which the New Testament carries forward to the Church as the bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2; Ephesians 5:25-32; Revelation 19:7-8; 21:2; 22:17).

Q3. (John 3:29) How does John the Baptist find joy in Jesus' success? Do you find joy in the success of others who could be seen as competing with your ministry -- in your church or in your community or in your denomination? Why do you think some pastors seem to compete with each other?

4. He must increase, I must decrease (3:30)

"He must become greater[145]; I must become less.[146]" (3:30, NIV)
"He must increase, but I must decrease." (KJV, NRSV)

John the Baptist models for us here humility and obedience. John recognizes that he has already reached the zenith of his arc and is on the way down, while Jesus' arc is just beginning and will greatly surpass his. John was alright with this. In fact, he sees it as a necessity; the Greek verb is dei, "to be under necessity of happening, it is necessary, one must, one has to," denoting compulsion of any kind.[147]

This is also an important concept for you and me to grasp in our relationship to Jesus. "He must increase, but I must decrease." Your goal, my goal is not self-actualization, self-fulfillment, but letting Christ make us all he has made us to be. When he is greater in your life, you live in God's full power, but when you try to do it yourself, you are limited by your own weaknesses. In the last six months or year, has Christ increased in your life? Has your control decreased? It is "necessary" that this happen in your life and in mine!

Q4. (John 3:30) In what sense, in order to be successful in your Christian life, must you decrease and Christ increase? How can you facilitate the shift necessary for this change to occur? What steps might help you do this?

Believing Jesus' Eyewitness Testimony (3:31-33)

As in Jesus' discourse with Nicodemus, it is difficult here to tell when John the Baptist's words end and where John the Apostle's reflections begin. I think that John the Apostle's words begin at verse 31 -- but there are no quotation marks in Greek to tell us.

"31  The one who comes from above is above[148]all; the one who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks as one from the earth. The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32  He testifies to what he has seen and heard, but no one accepts his testimony. 33  The man who has accepted it has certified that God is truthful." (3:31-33)

John points out that Jesus' superiority comes from the fact that he is the Heavenly Man who has come down to earth. He is not merely a human prophet as John the Baptist is. Jesus is an eyewitness to heaven! As he told Nicodemus:

"We speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony." (3:11)

The sad fact is that most people judge Jesus from their merely human perspective and thus miss out (2 Corinthians 5:16). What arrogance we humans possess! If we don't know or understand something, then we think it must not be true. As we read at the beginning of John's Gospel:

"Though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him." (1:10)

It comes down to whether or not we will accept Jesus' words as accurate and truthful. John the Apostle is pushing his readers to put their faith in Jesus:

"The one who has accepted [Jesus' testimony] has certified[149]that God is truthful." (3:33)

Verse 33 uses the analogy of placing one's unique seal on a document to verify its authenticity. If you believe Jesus, then you show that you believe God who sent him.

The Father, the Son, and the Spirit (3:34-35)

The narrator continues to spell out the implications of Jesus' testimony in a passage that puts Father, Son, and Spirit in a single verse.

"34  For the one whom God has sent speaks the words of God, for God[150]gives the Spirit without limit. 35  The Father loves the Son and has placed everything in his hands." (3:34-35)

Verse 35 seems to explain verse 34, that is, that the Father's boundless[151]giving of the Spirit to the Son is another way of saying that he places everything into his hands.[152]Thus we are to trust him completely. He speaks God's words and he wields all power.

Eternal Life vs. God's Wrath (3:36)

Because Jesus represents God fully, then to reject the Son is to reject the Father.

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (3:36)

This verse is a key one in John that discusses a major theme -- eternal life to those who believe. We see this several times in the early chapters of John:

"Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." (1:12)

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." (3:16)

"I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life." (5:24)

"My Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." (6:40)

"I tell you the truth, he who believes has everlasting life." (6:47)

As we discovered when we studied 1:12, this Greek word pisteuō means much more than intellectual assent. It is an active verb that means "to entrust oneself to an entity in complete confidence, believe (in), trust, with the implication of total commitment to the one who is trusted."[153]Those who believe in Jesus enough to follow him, to commit their lives to him, are promised eternal life. Notice that the verb here is not future tense, "will have," but present tense, "has" now! (see 5:24)

But the flip side of believing the Son is rejecting or disobeying the Son. "Rejects" (NIV), "disobeys" (NRSV), "does not obey" (ESV), "believeth not" (KJV) is apeitheō, "disobey, be disobedient."[154]John isn't teaching some kind of "works righteousness" here, that if you don't obey all the time and in every matter, that you will be condemned. We know from his first epistle that he doesn't believe that (1 John 2:1-2). What he is saying is that those who believe in Jesus will see an effect in their lives -- they'll start to follow him and to obey his teachings. As the Sunday school song goes:

"If you're saved and you know it,
Then your life will surely show it."

Unfortunately, there are many who would call themselves Christians who have no interest in obeying Christ. They aren't his followers, they just identify themselves with the Christian religion. There is no eternal life for those who don't embrace Christ with their lives. All who teach otherwise, by their doctrine make a mockery of the clear teaching of Scripture. Dear friend, do you believe in Christ? Have you embraced him with your life? Do you seek to obey him? If so, eternal life is yours, beginning now and extending to eternity!

But for those who don't believe, and who disobey Christ as a result of this lack of commitment, they have a terrible fate -- the wrath of God.

Wrath of God

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (3:36)

The word "wrath," here, is orgē, "anger," especially, "strong indignation directed at wrongdoing, with focus on retribution, wrath," referring to God's future punitive judgment.[155]

In our day, to talk about the "wrath of God" is pretty unpopular -- with unbelievers as well as believers. As a post-Christian culture, we've thoroughly rejected a preaching of hellfire and brimstone that characterized the preaching of previous eras. We have "advanced"! We believe in a God of love, not of anger. God is compassionate and forgiving, not stern and angry. Or so we think. But the Bible (contrary to our culture) makes it abundantly clear that God's wrath and punishment for sin is very real. The God of the Bible has both love for sinners who repent, and terrible judgment for those who don't repent. Consider, for example, these New Testament verses:

"The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness." (Romans 1:18)

"Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him!" (Romans 5:9)

"Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient." (Ephesians 5:6)

"Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming." (Colossians 3:5-6)

"... They always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last." (1 Thessalonians 2:16)

"[We] wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead -- Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath." (1 Thessalonians 1:10)

"They called to the mountains and the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'" (Revelation 6:16-17)

"Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath of God, who lives for ever and ever." (Revelation 15:7)

"He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS." (Revelation 19:15-16)

Anyone who discards the wrath of God as old fashioned and unbiblical is clearly misrepresenting the truth as we find it in the New Testament.

Look at our verse again:

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (3:36)

It teaches us that though God loves us and doesn't want us to perish (3:16), God's righteous wrath and judgment "remains"[156]on us if we don't believe. It continues as it was before. In other words, our natural state without Christ is devoid of eternal life -- "will not see life" -- and under judgment, subject to the wrath of God. It's the same truth as taught in John 3:16 -- that without Christ we'll "perish." God's desire is for us to believe and have eternal life, but since he is a just God, our end without Christ is judgment.

"He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9b)

Q5. (John 3:36) Is it possible to believe in God's love and God's wrath at the same time? How does God's justice allow salvation, when what we deserve is punishment for our sin and unbelief? (Hint: the "substitutionary atonement.")

Jesus Returns to Galilee (4:1-3)

This lesson concludes with the Pharisees becoming more aware of Jesus' increase in popularity.

"1  The Pharisees heard that Jesus was gaining[157]and baptizing more disciples than John,
2  although in fact it was not Jesus who baptized, but his disciples. 3  When the Lord learned of this, he left Judea and went back once more to Galilee." (4:1-3)

Apparently, Jesus felt that it was safer for now to minister in Galilee, farther away from the center of power for the Jerusalem Pharisees who were hardening their resistance to him.

Lessons for Disciples

John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.
  1. Discipline means spending time, the discipler with the disciple.
  2. God directs our lives; we are not in competition.
  3. We are to take joy in one another's successes.
  4. Our control of our lives must decrease so Jesus' control of us can increase.
  5. The wrath of God, eternal punishment, is a person's destiny without Jesus' life.

As Jesus' disciples we are absorbing and embracing a heavenly perspective on spiritual things, not the mistaken view of our culture.


Father, when I look at my own heart, how I have hurt when others succeeded, how I have so often been competitive, I thank you for your grace in forgiving me. Continue to cause my sinful pride to decrease, so Jesus' life and direction can increase in me, so He can be easily be seen in me. Please! In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"He must become greater; I must become less." (John 3:30, NIV)

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36, NIV)


[137]"Countryside" (NIV, NRSV), "land" (KJV) is , "portions or regions of the earth, region, country" (BDAG 196, 3).

[138]"Spent some time" (NIV) is diatribō, "to remain or stay in a place, spend time," usually rendered stay in sense of duration, especially when associated with place or person (BDAG 238).

[139]Another possibility for Salim is about three miles east of Shechem. We may never know the exact location (Urban C. von Wahlde, "Archaeology and John's Gospel," in Jesus & Archaeology, pp. 555-556; W. Ewing, "Aenon," ISBE 1:60).

[140]The words "coming" (paraginomai) and "baptizing" (baptizō) are in the imperfect tense, which means that an event occurs and continues to occur in the past.

[141]"Ceremonial cleansing" (NIV), "purification, purifying" (NRSV, KJV) is katharismos, "cleansing from cultic impurity, purification" (BDAG 489). We saw this word referring to the stone jars used for purification in the incident of changing the water into wine.

[142]"According to rabbinical teachings, which dominated even during the existence of the Temple (Pes. viii. 8), Baptism, next to circumcision and sacrifice, was an absolutely necessary condition to be fulfilled by a proselyte to Judaism (Talmud: Yebamoth 46b, 47b; Ker. 9a; 'Ab. Zarah 57a; Shab. 135a; Yer. Kid. iii. 14, 64d. "Baptism," Jewish Encyclopedia, 1908).

[143]Edersheim, Life and Times, 3:396.

[144]"Sent ahead of" (NIV, NRSV), "sent before" (KJV) is two words, the verb apostellō, "to send," and the adverb emprosthen, "pertaining to a position in front of an object," as marker of something that is relatively removed in distance, "in front, ahead" (BDAG 325, 1a).

[145]"Become greater" (NIV), "increase" (NRSV, KJV) is auxanō, "to become greater, grow, increase" (BDAG 151, 2b).

[146]"Become less" (NIV), "decrease" (NRSV, KJV) is elattoō, "make lower," here, "to become less important, diminish, become less" (BDAG 314, 3).

[147]Dei, BDAG 214, 1a.

[148]"Above" is epanō, a word of relative position, "above, over," but here, figuratively, "pertaining to being superior in status, above, over, something" (BDAG 359, 3).

[149]"Certified" (NIV, NRSV), "set to his seal" (KJV) is sphragizō, "to seal," here, by extension, "to certify that something is so, attest, certify, acknowledge" (as a seal does on a document) (BDAG 980, 4).

[150]The KJV uses "God gives" based on the Textus Receptus, following A C2D Θ Ψ lat etc. Newer translations follow the more ambiguous reading of "he gives" without the subject, following P55, 75Aleph B2C* L W f1, etc.

[151]"Without limit" (NIV) is a phrase of three words, ouk, "not", ek, "from", and metron, "a measure," then, "quantity, number." Though the phrase is not found elsewhere in Greek, from context it must mean, "not from a measure, without (using a) measure" (BDAG 644, 1b).

[152]It is grammatically possible to see the Son as giving the Spirit without limit to believers here, but it has two problems: (1) The context would indicate that, if verses 34 and 35 are parallel, as would be expected, then the Father is the subject of the giving. (2) "Grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift" (Ephesians 4:7) seems to indicate that the Spirit isn't given without measure to us.

[153]Pisteuō, BDAG 2aβ.

[154]Apeitheō, BDAG 99, from a-, "not" + peithō, "persuade, be convinced."

[155]Orgē, BDAG 721, 2b.

[156]"Remains" (NIV, ESV), "must endure" (NRSV), "abideth" (KJV) is menō, "remain, stay," here, in a transferred sense, of someone who does not leave a certain realm or sphere: "remain, continue, abide" (BDAG 631, 1aβ).

[157]"Gaining" (NIV), "making/made" (NRSV, KJV) is poieō, "do, make," here, "get or gain something for oneself, provide oneself with something" (BDAG 481, 5a).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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