Skip to main content

Sermon Notes – John 3:22-36

By April 28, 2024Sermon Notes

George Eldon Ladd was a very influential theologian in the 20th Century, particularly within evangelicalism. He was a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary where he taught for 30 years.

Many of you, perhaps, may never have heard of his name, but you’re familiar with his theology.

At River, we’ve often talked about the “already not yet” aspect of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is here in part, but not yet here in fullness.

This idea was really developed and articulated by Ladd, and its formal name is “inaugurated eschatology.”

I’m grateful for his work in that area; it’s sound theology and extremely helpful. However, there are aspects of Ladd’s life and legacy that serve as a cautionary tale. You can read about his life in a biography called A Place at the Table.

There’s a dark side to this story. It doesn’t involve sexual impropriety, but it involves something no less destructive: pride… or, an older word: vainglory.

Ladd desperately wanted to achieve academic respectability. He wanted to demonstrate that evangelical scholarship could play in the big leagues. It appears he had a personal pursuit to get inside what C.S. Lewis calls “the inner ring.”

From the moment he joined Fuller seminary, he had dreams of producing a magnum opus that would be very influential in the scholarly world. And finally, his dreams came true. His book he’d been working on for years, Jesus and the Kingdom was published by a non-evangelical publishing house in 1964.

As the story has it, there was a liberal professor at the University of Chicago who wrote a scathing review in which he said Ladd displayed shoddy scholarship.

When Ladd received the review, he was with friends, and they said he was utterly devastated. He began to pace the room, and repeatedly said to himself that he was an academic failure.

And then, 10 years later, according to John Piper, who was a student at Fuller Seminary, Ladd published a book that was a major success New Testament Theology. Ladd as an old man ran through the hallways at Fuller waving his $9000 royalty check, saying “I dit it! I did it!”

It’s utterly pathetic. Hard to imagine.

Turn with me to John 3:22–36. We’re going to read about John the Baptist as somebody whose heart was on fire for God’s glory.

It’s a striking contrast from Ladd. Contrast these two images. Ladd running the hallways at Fuller, waving a check in the air, shouting “I did it! I did it!” John the Baptist’s joyful proclamation about Jesus: “He must increase. I must decrease.” John the Baptist’s life ends with his head on a platter. That loss was his gain. Imagine those two statements as banners over your life: which one do you want to be true of you?

Let me read John 3:22–36.

22 After this, Jesus and his disciples went to the Judean countryside, where he spent time with them and baptized.

23 John also was baptizing in Aenon near Salim, because there was plenty of water there. People were coming and being baptized, 24 since John had not yet been thrown into prison.

25 Then a dispute arose between John’s disciples and a Jew[a] about purification. 26 So they came to John and told him, “Rabbi, the one you testified about, and who was with you across the Jordan, is baptizing—and everyone is going to him.”

27 John responded, “No one can receive anything unless it has been given to him from heaven. 28 You yourselves can testify that I said, ‘I am not the Messiah, but I’ve been sent ahead of him.’ 29 He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend, who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly[b] at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.”

31 The one who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth is earthly and speaks in earthly terms.[c] The one who comes from heaven is above all. 32 He testifies to what he has seen and heard, and yet no one accepts his testimony. 33 The one who has accepted his testimony has affirmed that God is true. 34 For the one whom God sent speaks God’s words, since he[d] gives the Spirit without measure. 35 The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hands. 36 The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who rejects the Son[e] will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.

I have two big ideas that I draw from this text.

First, the apex of John’s joy was in making much of Christ. (vv 22–30) His great joy was found in glorifying God.

Second, John’s joy in making much of Christ was grounded in a proper view Jesus, namely God the eternal Son incarnate. (vv 31–36)

Joy in Making Much of Christ

Vs 22: Jesus is traveling through the Judean countryside with his disciples and is baptizing. Now, the text says, “where he spent time with them and baptized.” But this doesn’t mean Jesus was doing the baptizing.

In fact, we know that Jesus did not baptize. In the next chapter, John 4:2, John tells us explicitly, “though Jesus himself was not baptizing, but his disciples were.”

John is simply communicating that Jesus is with his disciples and baptism is taking place. And it’s a good thing Jesus didn’t baptize anyone. You can imagine the disputes if somebody were to say, “Jesus baptized me.” “I don’t know about your baptism, but mine is legit.”

Jesus and his crew are baptizing. Vs 23 tells us that John is also in the same region baptizing with his crew.

Now, why does John tell us in vs 24, that John the Baptist had not yet been thrown into prison?

Here’s what I think this is. This functions basically like a footnote. Biblical manuscripts don’t have footnotes (small number with commentary on the bottom of the page)… so it’s in the main body of the text. Nerd alert–– I love footnotes. I have a mug that says, “footnotes change lives.” I even have a book on the history of footnotes.

Here’s the frustrating thing about footnotes. They’re a necessary evil. And sometimes you have to insert a footnote as a preemptive measure to swat away potential criticisms or objections. You insert a footnote and acknowledge a scholarly debate or topic. You’re not going into detail about it. You’re just acknowledging it and you’re letting your readers know that you’re aware of something.  You’re letting them know that you’re not stupid.

So, that’s what John is doing with this detail. What is John potentially responding to? Well, in the other gospels (synoptics: Matthew 4:12; Mark 1:14), they record Jesus’ ministry as beginning after the arrest of John the Baptist. Here, in John’s gospel, there is a period of overlap. This is not a contradiction. John the author is letting his readers know he’s aware of the other gospels order of events. But when you look closely, there’s nothing in those gospels that would prevent this period of overlap in Jesus and John’s ministry.

Sometimes people try to discredit the Bible or discredit your confidence in the Bible by saying that it’s full of contradictions. It’s not a contradiction. Sometimes people say “Oh, the disciples were making all this up. Fabrication.” If that were the case, then why add this wrinkle? If the disciples were making all this up, why not harmonize things quite smoothly and avoid this potential problem? John does the opposite. He’s not hiding anything.

We should have confidence in the Bible as God’s inspired, inerrant Word. It is truth without any mixture of error. John’s purpose in writing (20:31), is to bolster our confidence: that we might believe Jesus is the Messiah.

Jesus and John’s disciples are both baptizing, and a dispute arises between John’s disciples and a Jew about purification. We’re not given any information regarding the details of the debate. Maybe it was about the effectiveness/legitimacy of John’s or Jesus’ baptism. We don’t know.

What we do know, is that John’s disciples leave this dispute upset––at a minimum, concerned with what they see taking place with Jesus. In vs 26, they go to John the Baptist and tell him, “look–– the one you testified about (Jesus), is baptizing people, and everyone is going to him!”

They’re upset about this. He has a growing ministry! People are flocking to him. What about us?

Here’s John’s response. John’s response is to joyfully make much of Christ.

He responds first by saying, vs 27, “No one can receive anything unless it is given to him from heaven.”

John is acknowledging that what they’re observing is the provision of God. God is orchestrating this. Jesus will later say in John 6:37, “Everyone the Father gives me will come to me.” Jesus couldn’t receive these people unless they were given to him from heaven.

Jesus receives these people, flocking to him, in accordance with God’s plan.

John the Baptist is telling his disciples, “You’re not seeing this rightly. You’re thinking in fleshly/earthly-minded ways.” This is not competition. This is God’s providence at work; God’s ordering and directing all things to their appointed end

John’s disciples are too earthly minded here. This rebuke reminds me somewhat of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter, when Jesus predicts his death, burial, and resurrection and Peter says, “This will never happen to you!” Jesus responds, Matthew 16:23 “Get behind me Satan! You are a hindrance to me because you’re not thinking about God’s concerns but human concerns.”

In God’s providence, Jesus must go to the cross to bear our sin and make atonement for sin and rise from the grave conquering sin and death. Peter didn’t realize what he was opposing. He wasn’t thinking the things of God, he was too concerned with human concerns.

I think something similar is going on with John’s disciples here. They’re consumed by human concerns.

Then John tells them in vs 28, “I’ve been telling you from the very beginning that I’m not the Messiah!” I go as one ahead of him, to prepare the way for him.

Then, in vs 29, he gives an analogy of a wedding. “He who has the bride is the groom. But the groom’s friend who stands by and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the groom’s voice. So this joy of mine is complete.”

Not much has changed in this regard; he’s talking essentially about a best man. Jesus is the groom. John is the groom’s friend.

What’s the best man’s job? To REJOICE that the groom finally has his bride! You don’t want a best man who is standing there sulking. This is a day celebrating the bride and groom!

John says this joy of mine is complete or fulfilled. This is the apex of John’s joy. He’s standing there observing all this taking place and his response is joy! This was his purpose all along—to prepare the way for the groom and now he is here!

Vs 29–30, “So this joy of mine is complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

There are layers to John’s statement there. First, there’s the personal humility. And that’s the big point of application. That’s the right conclusion. We want to imitate that.

But there’s also another dimension to this statement beyond the personal humility of John. This statement is a hinge in salvation history. This is God’s providence at work. We’re seeing the baton being passed. We’re seeing the hinge swing.

John the Baptist’s ministry must decrease–– it’s God-ordained purpose has reached its end. He was called to prepare the way, and now the Messiah is here—so Jesus must increase.

Notice the word must. Not, “it would be nice if…” or “I ought to decrease, he ought to increase.” No. It’s He must increase. It is a divine must. This is God’s providence in redemptive history.

John takes delight in God’s providence. My joy is complete, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

That’s the first big idea. John’s joy in making much of Christ.

The second big idea is that this joy is rooted in a proper view of who Jesus is: vv 31–36.

John could take joy in making much of Christ, because he had an accurate view of who Jesus is. The eternal divine Son.

So, vv 31–36 give us a little theological epilogue to this narrative. It’s a theological epilogue that teaches us about who Jesus is. In fact, it teaches us about who God is as triune.

In some translations, like the NASB or NKJV, John’s quotation continues from vs 30 “he must increase…” through vs 36. In other translations, like the CSB, ESV, etc end JtB’s dialogue at verse 30, leaving vv 31–36 as John the author’s words.

Why is this so? Well, just like biblical manuscripts don’t have footnotes, they also don’t have quotation marks. That’s a modern convention. So, quotation marks are a translators’ decision. Is this the continuation of John’s comments or is this John the author’s? We don’t really know.

Here’s what matters–– whether these are the words of JtB or John the author’s paraphrase/summary of JtB, or John the author’s own theological reflection about Jesus, what we have is God’s word written. These are the words, inspired by the Holy Spirit, that God wanted us to have. And why did God want us to have these verses? Well, these verses reveal who God is.

In these verses we get a glimpse of who God is in all of his perfection and glory. We get a glimpse of the Trinity: God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Stephen Wellum says, “the Trinity is indispensable mystery at the heart of all theology.”[1] The mystery is this: there are three persons in the one true and living God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. They are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.

This is the famous “Trinity shield.” We don’t know when this diagram exactly originated, but it’s helpful. It’s a summary of what’s known as the Athanasian Creed. It emphasizes the unity of the divine nature and personal distinction.

So, the Father is God, the Son is God, the Holy Spirit is God. The persons share the same one divine nature, but there is relational distinction: the Father is not the Son; the father is not the Spirit, etc.

Here’s the point of application as we think about the Trinity: worship. Contemplation. We need to be okay with that. I admire our insistence on making things practical. What do I do with this? But the primary purpose of the doctrine of the Trinity is to worship God for who he is: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Vv 31–36 reveals a glimpse of the Trinity.

Vs 31 begins “the one who comes from above is above all. The one who is from the earth is earthy and speaks in earthly terms. The one who comes from heaven is above all.”

The main idea is to highlight the surpassing worth of Christ. Christ is exalted above all things. Why? He is sent from God. He is the Son sent from the Father.

Some commentators note that “from above” could have been a Jewish stand-in for using the name of God. In other words, this verse is saying, “the one who comes (from God) is above all.” Jesus is God from God.

How do I come to that conclusion? Vv 32–33. The one sent from God bears testimony. There are two responses to Jesus’ testimony. Either they reject it or accept it. And the ones who accept Jesus’ testimony affirm that God is true. Some translations say “sets his seal” to this: that God is true.

If you accept Jesus’ testimony as true, you are certifying the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Jesus (the one who is sent). But you are also certifying the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Sender: God. “God is true.” The sent one, then, must actually represent the fullness of God’s authority for someone to certify that God is true. The sent one must be God.

If it wasn’t clear, John underscores the point with vs 34: “For the one whom God sent speaks God’s words, since he gives the Spirit without measure.”

When Jesus speaks, God speaks. For Jesus to speak and utter the words of God means that he must share the same divine nature as God, the Father. He is of the same essence.

Jesus has all the “Godness” of God. Jesus possesses all the attributes of God.

As the Nicene Creed puts it: Jesus is “Light of Light, very God of very God.” He shares the same essence as the Father.

Notice, vs 34 gives a glimpse of the personal relations within the Godhead: the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

The one whom God sent, is the Son. He is sent from God (implied the Father). The Son speaks God’s words by the Spirit because he has the Spirit without measure.

In Genesis, God creates the universe by his word and Spirit. God creates by speaking (Word) through his breath (Spirit).

This pattern is continued through the NT as John’s prologue tells us that the Word is the Son. God speaks through the Word (the Son) by his Spirit, because the Son has the Spirit without measure.

Vs 35 tells us the Father loves the Son. Eternally.

This is what Jesus says in his “High Priestly Prayer” in John 17:24. He says the Father loved him before the world’s foundation. There is an eternal love between the Father-Son.

This is the eternal blessedness of God’s life within himself. There is a fullness of life, love, and communion between the Father-Son-Spirit.

This is who God is. JtB’s could take joy in making much of Christ, because his joy was rooted in a proper view of who Jesus is. He knew Jesus to be the eternal Son sent from the Father, who would save and redeem us. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Which leads us to vs 36. Our response. “The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who rejects the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.”

Those who believe in the Son, have eternal life. Why? Because only a redeemer who was fully God and fully man can save us. Jesus represented us before God as fully human; and being fully God, he satisfied God’s own righteous demands through his perfect obedience and sacrifice.

The one who rejects the Son will not see life. Literally, this means the one who does not obey the Son. For the ancients, “belief” included behavior. Notice, it says the wrath of God remains on him.

That means, if you’ve not been born again, you already stand under God’s righteous judgement. That is a terrifying thought.

But the only way to escape God’s wrath is to be hidden with Christ as you are united to him by faith. Because, Christ has already bore God’s wrath. For those in Christ, there is therefore now no condemnation (Rom 8:1). The judgement has already been paid. Instead, there is life eternal and abundant.

Let’s bring this to a conclusion.

JtB’s banner over his life “He must increase, but I must decrease.”

Obviously, this is worthy of our imitation. But all of it can sound somewhat abstract. Yes, I want to make much of Christ. I want more of Christ and less of me. But how do I know if I’m doing this? What does this look like day in, day out?

Here’s a diagnostic question for you to think about this week. What has captured the affections of your heart? Is it the things of God? Contemplating the glory of who God is in his perfection? The gospel? Salvation? God’s providence and goodness in your life? Evangelism? What kinds of things does your heart get excited about?

Or is it twitter? Instagram? Is it culture war? News, politics. Is your heart dulled to the things of God? I’m not suggesting a two-story life as if none of those things matter.

How much of your heart is consumed by the things of God? What has captured the affections of your heart?

Let me close with an old written prayer:

Most holy and most merciful God, the strength of the weak, the rest of the weary, the comfort of the sorrowful, the savior of the sinful, and the refuge of your children in every time of need––hear us while we pray for your help in all the circumstances and experiences of our life. When our hearts are growing cold and dead, and we are losing our vision of your face, and living as life had no spiritual reality, help us O God. Amen. (John Hunter)

[1] Stephen Wellum, Systematic Theology: Vol 1, From Canon to Concept (Brentwood, TN: B&H Academic, 2024), 671.