After these things came Jesus and his disciples into the land of Judaea; and there he tarried with them, and baptized. And John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there: and they came, and were baptized. For John was not yet cast into prison. Then there arose a question between some of Johns disciples and the Jews about purifying. And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him. John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bear me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him. He that hath the bride is the bridegroom: but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice: this my joy therefore is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth: he that cometh from heaven is above all. And what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony. He that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true. For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him. The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into his hand. He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.
After these things”—that is, after our Lord’s ministry in the city of Jerusalem and His interview with Nicodemus, which we have considered already— “Jesus came, and His disciples, into the land of Judea.” He went out of the city of Jerusalem into the surrounding country preaching and teaching. “There He tarried with them and baptized.” Actually, we know from the fourth chapter, that it was not the Lord himself who ministered the rite of baptism; but as He preached and the people believed His message, His disciples baptized them at His bidding.
Now, strikingly enough, not very far away, the forerunner of the Lord Jesus Christ was still continuing his ministry. We read that “John also was baptizing in Aenon near to Salim, because there was much water there, and they came, and were baptized” (3:23). Aenon is in the Jordan Valley about twenty miles north of where the Lord Jesus was at this time, and many people flocked there to hear John as he gave his great message of repentance with the view to the forgiveness of sin. He had already pointed out the Lord Jesus as the “Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (1:29). The Savior had gone away into the wilderness for forty days of fasting. There He had been tempted. He had returned to Jerusalem and begun His public testimony there, rejected by most, but Nicodemus was one honest soul who was interested in His message. And now the Lord’s own ministry was widening, broadening out. But John continued preaching at the same time, for he “was not yet cast into prison” (3:24).
Very shortly after this his arrest took place. You remember the occasion of it. Herod had been very much interested in John, sent for him on a number of occasions, and was glad to hear him preach. But Herod was guilty of a very grave offense, both against the laws of God and man: he was living in an adulterous relationship with his own brother Philip’s wife, Herodias. Because of his place of power, very few dared to criticize him, but John the Baptist stood before him and fearlessly declared, “It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14:4). As long as he preached repentance in a general way, as long as he preached forgiveness of sins in a manner that would apply to everybody, Herod listened to him. But when John made it as personal as that, and pointed out his own sin and expressed the divine disapproval of his iniquity, then Herod’s indignation was stirred and the Baptist was placed under arrest. And you know that later on, in order to satisfy the hatred of Herodias, a woman scorned, John was put to death. But this had not yet taken place, and he was preaching to multitudes and baptizing those who gave evidence of repentance.
The two ministries were going on at the same time, and evidently the Jews were surprised at this, for “there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying” (v. 25). They saw in baptism a symbol of purification. Baptism does not actually cleanse the soul, but it is a symbol of the washing away of sin. And so “they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him” (v. 26). As much as to say, “John, your star is sinking; His star is now in the ascendant. It will not be long until all will be going to Him and no one will be gathering to hear you.”
How beautiful John’s answer was! Not a bit of pride in this man, not a bit of self-assertiveness! He was not concerned about gathering disciples about himself “John answered and said, A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven. Ye yourselves bare me witness, that I said, I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before him” (vv. 27-28). We might paraphrase it like this: “I did not come to draw your attention to me. I only came as the forerunner of the promised anointed One. When you questioned me, Art thou that prophet that shall come into the world, of whom Moses spoke?’ I told you I am not. When you inquired, ‘Who art thou then and why do you baptize?’ I told you plainly. I said, ‘I am simply the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his path straight.’ It is honor enough for me to herald the coming of God’s Deliverer, the One who is to bring redemption to Israel and to the world.”
And then he uses a very beautiful figure in verse 29. He said, “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom, but the friend of the bridegroom, which standeth and heareth him, rejoiceth greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice; this my joy therefore is fulfilled.” In other words, John refers to something they were all familiar with. At a wedding, the bride is the one interested in her bridegroom, and the bridegroom’s joy is found in his bride. But they had then, as we have today, the “best man,” as we call him, the friend of the bridegroom. And the friend of the bridegroom found his delight in the bridegroom’s joy. And so John says, “I am just like that. I am the bridegroom’s friend. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the bridegroom. The bride belongs to Him, not to me. I rejoice in His gladness. I do not feel slighted. I do not feel set to one side because I cannot claim the love and allegiance of the bride.”
Now John, of course, spoke from a Jewish standpoint. According to the Old Testament, Israel was the bride, Jehovah was the bridegroom. Jehovah had become incarnate in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. John said, “I am simply here to announce His coming, and the bride belongs to Him.” But God had other thoughts in mind that were not then made clear. Later on He showed that because of Israel’s attitude toward His blessed Son they would be set to one side during a long period to be known as the “times of the Gentiles” (Luke 21:24). During this period God, by the Holy Spirit, is taking out a people for His name, for the name of the Lord Jesus, and this people He designates as the bride of the Lamb.
We have a heavenly bride in the fifth chapter of the epistle to the Ephesians, where the apostle sets forth the responsibilities of husband and wife in the marriage relationship. He directs our attention to that which took place at the very beginning, when God gave our first parents each to the other, and says, “He that made them in the beginning said, ‘For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh’“ (Eph. 5:31). And immediately he adds, “This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (v. 32). He shows us that the marriage relationship is designed of God to picture the mystical union of Christ and the church.
The church, therefore, is “the bride, the Lamb’s wife” (Rev. 21:9). We see her in the nineteenth chapter of the book of Revelation at the marriage supper of the Lamb. There we read, “His [bride] hath made herself ready” (v. 7). You remember in that chapter we have two different groups at the marriage supper. We have the bridal company, and then we have the friends of the Bridegroom, just as John expressed himself here. We read, “Blessed are they which are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (v. 9). The bride is not called to the marriage supper of the Lamb! How often we have a wedding and perhaps after the wedding a reception. Well, the friends who attend the reception are invited there. They receive invitations to be present. They are intimate friends of the bridegroom and the bride. But the bride does not receive an invitation. She is there by virtue of her character as bride. It is her wedding and her reception. She does not need to be called to the marriage supper. And so as we look at that wonderful picture in Revelation, we see the bride herself (that is, the church of the firstborn) united in that day to the Bridegroom, our Lord Jesus Christ. And then we see all the Old Testament saints of the Great Tribulation who have been murdered under the Beast and the Antichrist but are raised at the close of that time of trouble.
They are all there, wedding guests, to rejoice in the joy of the Bridegroom and the bride. And that is why our Lord Jesus said of those that are born of women, “There hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist: notwithstanding he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matt. 11:11). John was the porter at the door of the kingdom, but he did not live to enter in himself. He did not become a member of the church of the living God, though he heralded the coming of the One who is now the head of that church. You say, “Do you mean to say that John was not a Christian?” Let us be careful to remember what the word Christian means. The word is not synonymous with “child of God.” Old Testament saints were all saved, they were all God’s children, but they were not Christians. The disciples were first called Christians in the new dispensation. A Christian is one united now to Christ in glory, and such are the ones who form the bride of the Lamb.
So John took a subordinate place and rejoiced because of the Bridegroom’s joy. Again he declared, as on a previous occasion, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (v. 30). The apostle Paul expressed exactly the same thing when, in the first chapter of the epistle to the Philippians, he said that his great joy was that “Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:20-21). I wonder if we, as children of God, today can enter into this? Are we content to serve without personal recognition, or are we ambitious to be counted somebody or something in a world that has rejected our Lord Jesus Christ? Are we seeking places of power and authority, or recognition even in the church of God itself? That is to deny the spirit that was seen in John the Baptist and in the apostle Paul. Their one earnest desire was to make much of Christ, and they themselves were willing to be lost sight of. That comes out so beautifully in the second chapter of the epistle to the Philippians where Saint Paul, writing to these dear saints in that church, says, “Yea, and if I be offered upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all” (Phil. 2:17).
That word translated “offered” is really “poured out” in the Greek. “Yea, if I be poured out upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I joy, and rejoice with you all.” He is referring to the burnt offering. In Old Testament times whenever they presented a burnt offering before the Lord all the parts of the victim were washed and then placed upon the fire, and they were all burnt as a sacrifice and went up before God, typifying the offering up of His own blessed Son. But just before the priest completed his part of the service, he took a flagon of wine (that was called a “drink offering”) and poured the wine all over the burnt offering. Now that drink offering pictured our Lord Jesus pouring out His soul unto death on our behalf. But, you see, if the worshippers were gathered about, they could see the burnt offering on the altar, but if the wine had been poured out over it, they could not see that drink offering. The wine was immediately lost sight of and only the burnt offering remained. And Paul said, “I am willing,” as he writes to these Philippians, “that your sacrifice and service should have, as it were, the place of the burnt offering and that I, just like the drink offering, should be poured out over the offering that you make.” In other words, “I am willing to do my work to serve the Lord Christ in my day and generation, and then be lost sight of. I am willing that others shall get the glory, if there is any, for the work that is done.” What a wonderful spirit that is! How we need to pray that we may learn more of the meekness and gentleness of Christ, the spirit that says, “Never mind me. If Christ is glorified, that is all I am concerned about. I do not want them to think of me. I do not want them to make anything of me.”
When William Carey was dying, he turned to a friend and said, “When I am gone, don’t talk about William Carey; talk about William Carey’s Savior. I desire that Christ alone might be magnified.” And so with John here: “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
And then what a testimony he gives us! I often say I am afraid that many of us fail to realize how fully John the Baptist entered into the blessed Truth that came by Jesus Christ. We imagine sometimes that he had very little light, very little understanding of the person of the Lord and of the full truth of redemption. But let us not forget, it was he who exclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” It was he who said, “I saw and bare witness that this is the Son of God” (John 1:29). And here in 3:31, we have this wonderful homage paid to the blessed Lord by John. He says, “He that cometh from above is above all.” John knew that He came from above. John knew He did not begin to live when He was born of the blessed Virgin Mary, and John knew of His preexistence with the Father before ever the world was. He says, “He that cometh from above is above all: he that is of the earth is earthly, and speaketh of the earth.” When men speak in a spirit of pride and vanity and rivalry they are speaking as of the earth. That kind of thing belongs to the earth and not to heaven.
“He that cometh from above is above all:… and what he hath seen and heard, that he testifieth; and no man receiveth his testimony” (vv. 31-32). That is, the natural man, unaided by divine grace, never receives the testimony of God. That is why we are told in the third chapter of the epistle to the Romans, “There is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one” (vv. 12). If you ever find a soul seeking after God, you may know it is because the Spirit of God is working in that heart. A natural man goes his own way. He is not interested in divine things. And this, by the way, might help some who are troubled and concerned.
I have often had people come to me and say, “Oh, I do long for the assurance of my salvation. I have come to Christ. I have asked God to save me. I do believe that Jesus died for me. But I am so miserable about my sins. I have no assurance. I have no peace. I have no realization that God has accepted me.” I say to people like that, “Don’t you fear, dear friend. No natural man seeks after God. The fact that you are going through all these exercises is, in itself, a proof of your regeneration.” Take a corpse lying here and put five hundredweight of lead upon the breast of that corpse. There is not a sign of distress. Why? Because the man is dead. But if you put that five hundredweight upon a living man, what then do you have? Groans of anguish, crying for deliverance. Why? Because there is life there. That is why people are so troubled about their sins. Because there is life there, divine life. God has already begun to work. Therefore, if that is your case, thank God that His Spirit has begun to work in your soul, and be persuaded “that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Now take God at His word, believe what He has said about His blessed Son and receive the peace that is rightfully yours. No natural man receives the testimony of God, but “he that hath received his testimony hath set to his seal that God is true” (John 3:33). That is faith—nothing more nor less than believing that God means what He says.
So often we put a Scripture before troubled souls and say, “Now, can’t you believe this?” And they look up and say, “Well, I am trying to believe.” Take a passage like this: “He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But to as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:11-12). “Don’t you want to know Jesus? Are you seeking Christ? Are you ready to receive Him? Very well, what does it say—As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the [children] of God.’ Do you receive Him?” And the answer comes, “Yes, yes, I believe I do.” “Well, then, are you a child of God?” “I don’t know, I don’t think I am. I don’t feel it. I am afraid to say that.”
Don’t you see what the trouble is? They are not taking God at His word. Sometimes we say to them, “Well, don’t you see, dear friend? You must have faith. You must believe what God has said.” And they look at you with the most amazing effrontery and say, “Well, I am trying to believe.” What an insult to God! Trying to believe whom? It is God who has spoken and you say, “I am trying to believe.” Why, I am only a frail, mortal man, but if I told you something concerning some place where I have been and you never have seen, and you looked at me and said, “That is very interesting, and I am trying to believe.” I would say, “Sir, you insult me. Do you think I am lying to you? What do you mean by saying you are trying to believe? I am telling the truth, and I expect you to believe my testimony.”
God has spoken in His Word and He expects man to receive His testimony. That is all there is to faith. It is believing what God has said. “If we receive the witness of men [and we do], the witness of God is greater: for this is the witness of God which he hath testified concerning his Son” (1 John 5:9). We believe it, and believing it, we set to our seal that God is true. “For He whom God hath sent [that is, our Lord Jesus Christ] speaketh the words of God, for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him” (John 3:34). The Spirit in all His fullness dwells in Christ, and the words that He spoke were the words of God. “The Father loveth the Son and hath given all things into his hand” (v. 35). God has decreed that the Lord Jesus shall reign as Head of this universe, because, after all, He was its Creator. It was the Word Himself that brought all things into being, and they have been created both by Him and for Him.
And now comes the greatest testimony of this section. And what a tremendous testimony it is! I am not exactly sure whether John the Baptist spoke all of these words or whether some of them, perhaps from about verse 34, are inserted in the record by inspiration through the hand of the apostle John himself. Just where the testimony of John the Baptist ends and the testimony of the writer of the gospel begins, we cannot always tell. But, at any rate, if we take verse 36 as spoken by John the Baptist, it is a marvelous testimony, or if we take it as penned directly by the apostle John under divine inspiration, still it comes to us as the very word of the living God.
We noticed that verse 18 divided all mankind who have heard the gospel into two groups. This does not take in the heathen who have never heard the gospel. They will be dealt with according to the light they have and will be judged for their own sins. Here again we have two classes. It says first, “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life” (v. 36a). That is one group. “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (v. 36b). That is the other.
Let us look at the first statement for a moment or two. Could anything be clearer? Do you want to be certain that you have eternal life? Then I challenge you thus: “Do you believe on the Son of God? Do you put your trust in the Lord Jesus Christ? Do you rest your soul upon Him and His finished work, that work accomplished on Calvary’s cross for our redemption? Then listen to what God Himself says: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” Now do not say, “Well, but I do not feel any different.” It does not say “He that feeleth,” but “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.”
A friend of mine, years ago, preached on that very text. At the close of the meeting, as preachers sometimes do in smaller places, he went down to the door to greet the friends. A lady troubled about her soul came along, and he reached out his hand and said to her, “Well, how is it with you tonight? Are you saved?” She said, “Oh, I don’t know, sir. I hope so.” He said, “Well, let me show you this verse, ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.’ Do you believe on the Son?” “Oh, I do, sir, I do believe on Him with all my heart.” “Well, then, have you everlasting life?” “I hope so. I hope I have.” “Read the verse again.” She read it—“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” “Do you believe on the Son?” “I do.” “Then have you everlasting life?” “I certainly hope so. I do hope so.” “Read it again, please.” She read it again—“He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.” “Do you believe on the Son?” “I do.” “Have you everlasting life?” “I hope so.” “Well,” he said, “I see what the trouble is.” She said, “What is the trouble?” “Why, when you were a girl, they spelled very differently than they did when I was a boy.” She said, “What do you mean? I am not so much older than you.” He said, “When you were a girl h-a-t-h spelled hope; when I was a boy, h-a-t-h spelled hath. “She exclaimed, “Hath! ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life.’ Why, of course, I have it. Yes, I see it. I believe on the Son of God, and God says I have everlasting life.” And so she entered into peace.
Again, I come back to the text, “He that hath received His testimony hath set to his seal that God is true” (v. 33). A little boy said to his schoolteacher, “Faith is believing God and asking no questions.” It is just taking God at His word.
Look at the other side of that verse. It is a very solemn side to the Truth indeed. “He that believeth not the Son.” The word rendered believeth is different here. It suggests rather obedience in the Greek. “He that obeyeth not the Son.” The Son’s command is to believe. They came to Jesus and said, “What is the work of God, that we may do it?” And He said, “The work of God is to believe in the Son that was sent.” “He that [obeyeth] not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Oh, the hopelessness of that! Oh, the horror of it! Oh, the pity of it!—that men should hear the gospel over and over again, and hear it and turn away. That men should live on rejecting and die refusing to believe on Christ, and go out into a hopeless eternity! To die without Christ!
See how this one verse cuts out by the roots the twin errors of the annihilation of the wicked and the universal salvation of all men sometime, somewhere. Take the question of universalism first. Listen to what it says: “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life.” There is no thought there of a further hope if a man dies rejecting Christ. If a man does not have Christ in this world, he will never see life. Jesus has said, “If ye believe not that I am he, ye shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). And He adds, “Whither I go, ye cannot come” (vv. 21-22; 13:33). “He that believeth not the Son shall not see life.”
But, on the other hand, there are many who think, “Even if I do live and die rejecting Christ, death will be the end to it all. I shall be utterly annihilated. There will be nothing more to me, and, therefore, I will pass out of existence and be though I had never been.” But Scripture says, “He that [obeyeth] not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.” Notice the tense, abideth on him. You cannot logically couple the thought of abiding wrath with extinction of being. And so this verse solemnly warns us that if we do not put our trust in Christ in this life, the wrath of God must abide upon us in eternity.
But in order that this might never be, Jesus has died. He has settled the sin question for all who believe. God has given the record of it in His Word. The Holy Spirit has come from heaven to bear witness to it. And if you and I believe, we may know we have everlasting life.