Saturday Series: John 3:31-36

John 3:31-36

Last week we looked briefly at John 3:28 (and the parallel sayings in 1:15, 30) in the context of chapter 3. A particular difficulty of interpretation involves the relationship between verses 22-30 and 31-36. Verses 22-30 comprise a specific narrative (and historical tradition) related to John the Baptist and his ministry (I noted the parallels with 1:19-34ff last week). Indeed, the Baptist is the one speaking in vv. 27-30. However, commentators are divided on who the speaker is in verses 31-36. The main reason for the uncertainty lies in the strong similarity of language, thought and expression between vv. 31-36 and the discourse of Jesus in the earlier vv. 10-21. There would seem to be three possibilities which should be considered regarding the true speaker of these verses:

    • It is John the Baptist, continuing from verse 30, as a simple reading of the narrative would indicate.
    • It is Jesus speaking, perhaps part of a discourse like that of vv. 10-21.
    • It is essentially the work of the Gospel writer, repeating the words and ideas expressed by Jesus earlier.

Let us first examine the main points of similarity between vv. 31-36 and the earlier discourse of Jesus (especially vv. 11-21):

    • The use of the word anœthen (“from above”)—v. 31 and 3, 7.
    • Reference to Jesus as “the one coming (down) out of heaven”—v. 31 and 13
    • A contrast between heavely and earthly (i.e. above/below)—v. 31 and 12.
    • The idea of giving witness (the verb martyreœ) to what one “has seen” (eœraken), along with the related idea that people (i.e. in the world at large) do not receive (vb. lambanœ) this witness—v. 32 and 11.
    • The idea/expression of Jesus (the Son) as the one whom the Father sent forth (vb. apostellœ)—v. 34 and 17.
    • The central theme/motif of the Spirit—v. 34 and 5-8.
    • The specific phrase “[every]one trusting in [the Son] has life of the age (i.e. eternal life)”, with a statement regarding the opposite—v. 36 and 15ff.
    • Emphasis on the judgment/anger of God for the one who does not trust—v. 36 and 18.
      Note: In preparing this list I have followed the order given in R. E. Brown, The Gospel According to John, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 29 (1966), pp. 159-60.

These close parallels make for a strong argument that Jesus and/or the Gospel writer is responsible for vv. 31-36. However, at the same time, there is no clear indication of a change in speaker between verses 30 and 31, and, since it would have been easy enough for the Gospel writer to include such an editorial detail, it seems likely that he is presenting John the Baptist (in the narrative) as the speaker for all of vv. 27-36. The John/Jesus parallelism in 1:19-51 (as well as in the Prologue) makes it likely that a similar parallel structure is at work in chapter 3. Consider the following outline:

    • Encounter/dialogue between Jesus and a Jewish leader (Nicodemus)—vv. 1-10
      • Exposition/Testimony by Jesus about himself—vv. 11-21
    • Encounter/dialogue between the Baptist (along with his disciples) and a Jew—vv. 22-30
      • Exposition/Testimony by the Baptist about Jesus—vv. 31-36

It is possible that this could be a clue to the curious use of the plural verb forms in v. 11—”we see…we speak…we give witness…”. This witness involves both Jesus himself and the earlier/prior testimony of John the Baptist (see 1:7-8, 15, 29-34, 35-36). Ultimately, this witnessing of Jesus (the Son) will extend to his disciples (believers), aided by the presence of the Spirit.

But how exactly does the “testimony” in vv. 31-36 relate to vv. 22-30? Here, I think it is useful to distinguish the components of the passage. I recognize these as follows:

  • Narrative introduction, setting the (historical) scene—vv. 22-24
    Here we have a clear parallel between the work of Jesus’ disciples and the disciples of the Baptist, taking place in close proximity.
  • Testimony of the Baptist: historical tradition and dialogue—vv. 25-30
  • Testimony (of the Baptist): theological exposition—vv. 31-36

John’s testimony in vv. 27-30 is rooted in the historical tradition (compare 1:19-34; Mark 1:7-8 par; Matt 3:11b-12 par), but takes on deeper theological (and Christological) significance in the context of the Fourth Gospel (see the discussion last week). The overriding theme is the superiority of Jesus as the Messiah (and Son of God), and the Johannine understanding of this superiority (and the basis for it) is Christological. Jesus is “the one who has come out of heaven”, whom God Father has sent forth. This is implicit in the Baptist’s saying in verse 27:

“A man is not able to receive anything if it has not been given to him out of heaven”

We should perhaps understand a fourfold-sense to this statement: (1) John’s testimony about Jesus was given to him from God (1:6, 33), (2) Jesus, the very Word of God, has been given (i.e. sent) to humankind, (3) Jesus was given everything he says and does from the Father (i.e. from heaven), and (4) Jesus’ disciples (believers) are given to him by the Father (out of heaven). Senses 1 and 4 are more immediately applicable to verses 22-30, while 2 and 3 apply especially to vv. 31-36. If we are to break down the verbal and thematic structure of verses 31-36, I would suggest the following outline:

  • “The one coming from above is over (and) above all (thing)s, (while) the one being out of [i.e. from] the earth (truly) is out of the earth” (v. 31a)—dualistic contrast between heavenly and earthly, above vs. below.
  • “The one coming out of heaven [(who) is over (and) above all (thing)s] gives witness to this which he has heard, and (yet) no one receives his witness. The one receiving his witness (has) sealed that God is true” (vv. 31b-33)—contrast between Jesus’ witness from heaven and the failure of those on earth to receive it; only those who belong to heaven (believers) receive it.
  • “For the (one) whom God se(n)t forth speaks the utterances [i.e. words] of God, for (it is) not out of measure (that) he gives the Spirit. The Father loves the Son had given all (thing)s in(to) his hand” (vv. 34-35)—these statements establish what God has given to Jesus (the Son) out of heaven.
  • “The one trusting in the Son holds life of the Age [i.e. eternal life]; but the one (be)ing unpersuaded by the Son will not see life, but (rather) the anger of God remains upon him” (v. 36)—the dualistic contrast has shifted to believers (those given by God), and, by contrast, those who are unable/unwilling to believe.

Next week I would like to examine verses 34-36 in more detail, focusing on several key words and phrases (in the Greek) which, I believe, are vital for a proper understanding of the remainder of the Gospel of John. I would ask that you study and meditate on these verses carefully, looking back at the immediate context of chapter 3, and also chapters 1-3 as a whole. Give thought especially to the motif of the giving of the Spirit in vv. 34-35 and the keyword life (zϢ) in v. 36, which are developed in many important ways throughout the Gospel.

And I will see you next Saturday.

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