22 After this Jesus and his disciples went into the Judean countryside, and he remained there with them and was baptizing. 23 John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because water was plentiful there, and people were coming and being baptized 24 (for John had not yet been put in prison).
25 Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. 26 And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” 27 John answered, “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. 28 You yourselves bear me witness, that I said, ‘I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him.’ 29 The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete. 30 He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:22-30 ESV
Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus ended somewhat abruptly, with John providing no details concerning the Pharisee’s final reaction to all that he had heard. The next time John mentions Nicodemus is in chapter 7, in reference to a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, of which Nicodemus was a member. They had called a meeting in order to discuss the disturbing reactions of the people regarding Jesus.
…some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee?” – John 7:40-41 ESV
Even the high priest’s personal guard, who had heard Jesus speak, reported, “No one ever spoke like this man!” (John 7:46 ESV). But Pharisees reacted angrily, shouting, “Have you also been deceived? Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed” (John 7:47-49 ESV). These men, who prided themselves in their superior knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures believed themselves to be too astute to be fooled by this charlatan from Nazareth. But the people were fools and easily deceived. But John adds an interesting note concerning Nicodemus, “who had gone to him before, and who was one of them” (John 7:50 ESV). Nicodemus risked his reputation by speaking up on the behalf of Jesus.
“Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” –John 7:51 ESV
It seems clear that Nicodemus’ nighttime discussion with Jesus had made an impression on him. The words of Jesus had been bouncing around in his head and he was wrestling with what he believed about this man from Galilee. The next time we hear about Nicodemus is in chapter 19, in reference to the death and burial of Jesus. John records that Joseph of Arimathea, who he describes as a disciple of Jesus, had sought permission from Pilate to bury the body of Jesus. And John adds that Nicodemus, “who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight” (John 19:39 ESV). This prominent member of the Pharisees took the risk of bringing spices and oils to anoint the body of Jesus. This does not prove that Nicodemus believed Jesus to be his Messiah and Savior, but it is hard to imagine that Nicodemus did not have the following words of Jesus in mind.
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15 ESV
After his late-night encounter with Jesus, Nicodemus had returned to his life as a Pharisee, but with much to think about. But John describes Jesus as returning to the Judean wilderness, where He had been baptized by John the Baptist.
John sets up another contrast between these two men. He describes both Jesus and John the Baptist as baptizing all those who came. In the very next chapter, John points out that Jesus “was making and baptizing more disciples than John” (John 4:2 ESV), but adds the following point of clarification: “although Jesus himself did not baptize, but only his disciples” (John 4:3 ESV).
John the Baptist had appeared on the scene first and he had garnered his fair share of disciples. But with the arrival of Jesus, things began to change. The disciples who had chosen to follow John the Baptist were confused by the notoriety of Jesus and had begun to see Him as competition. And they brought their concern to John the Baptist.
“Rabbi, he who was with you across the Jordan, to whom you bore witness—look, he is baptizing, and all are going to him.” – John 3:26 ESV
With the arrival of Jesus, John the Baptist had not shut down his ministry and sought early retirement. He had continued to preach his message that the kingdom of heaven was at hand, and he baptized all those who were willing to repent and seek forgiveness for their sins. But further down the Jordan River, Jesus and His disciples were doing the same thing.
The disciples of John the Baptist have just had a discussion with a Jew concerning the exact nature of the baptisms they were performing. The Greek word John uses is katharismos, and it refers to the practice of ceremonial cleansing or washing with water. It seems likely that the debate or discussion between John the Baptist’s disciples and the unnamed Jews had centered around a question of just what kind of baptism Jesus and His disciples were performing. John the Baptist had made it clear, “I baptize you with water for repentance” (Matthew 3:11 ESV). But what was the nature of the baptism or ceremonial washing that Jesus and His disciples offered?
The real issue seems to be the practice of ritual and completely external ceremonial cleansing. Jesus had come offering something completely different. He had told Nicodemus that entrance into the kingdom of God would require birth from above. His ministry was focused on heart purification, not some form of external and temporary physical cleansing. And what Jesus was saying and doing could have been seen as contradictory to the accepted teachings of Judaism. So, this could be what motivated John the Baptist’s disciples to bring their concerns to him.
But he responded by reminding his disciples that “A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven” (John 3:27 ESV). As far as John the Baptist was concerned, Jesus was doing what He was doing by the sovereign will of God. And if God wanted to make the ministry of Jesus more impactful and successful, so be it.
John the Baptist reminded his disciples that he had never claimed to be the Messiah. He had simply been the faithful witness, preparing the way for the one “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27 ESV). He wanted his followers to know that his star was fading because the one he had been proclaiming had finally appeared. The focus was shifting away from John the Baptist and onto the ministry of Jesus, and he was perfectly at peace with that transition.
“He must increase, but I must decrease.” – John 3:30 ESV
John the Baptist was fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. Which is why he told his disciples, “It is the bridegroom who marries the bride, and the bridegroom’s friend is simply glad to stand with him and hear his vows. Therefore, I am filled with joy at his success” (John 3:29 NLT). He had never been the star of this show. He had simply been the first act, preparing the way for the principal protagonist in God’s divine play. And now that Jesus had appeared on the scene, John the Baptist was willing to fade into the background, having played his part and completed his divine task.
But it’s interesting to note that, a short time later, John the Baptist would seem to have a change of heart. His confidence in Jesus’ identity as the Messiah would be put to the test by an unexpected change in his own circumstances. He would find himself arrested and imprisoned for having accused King Herod of committing adultery with his deceased brother’s widow. Suddenly, his optimistic outlook began to fade and he sent two of his disciples with a question for Jesus that reveals his growing doubt.
“Are you the Messiah we’ve been expecting, or should we keep looking for someone else?” – Luke 7:19 NLT
His less-than-satisfactory circumstances were causing him to question whether Jesus really was the Messiah. You can sense that John the Baptist had been expecting Jesus to fulfill the commonly held view that the Messiah would restore the Davidic kingdom. Things would get better, not worse. And with his arrest, he had questions as to whether Jesus really was the one they had been expecting.
But Jesus had an interesting answer to John the Baptist’s inquiry.
“Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.” And he added, “God blesses those who do not fall away because of me.” – Luke 7:22-23 NLT
In a sense, Jesus told His imprisoned friend to take his eyes off his own circumstances and to look closely at what was happening all around him. Jesus used prophetic terminology to describe His earthly ministry. He was doing the very works that the prophets had ascribed to the coming Messiah.
“I, the Lord, have called you to demonstrate my righteousness.
I will take you by the hand and guard you,
and I will give you to my people, Israel,
as a symbol of my covenant with them.
And you will be a light to guide the nations.
You will open the eyes of the blind.
You will free the captives from prison,
releasing those who sit in dark dungeons.” – Isaiah 42:6-7 NT
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
for the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed. – Isaiah 61:1 NLT
Jesus was pointing to the evidence of His works. He was doing the very ministry that the prophets had predicted the Messiah would do. But notice that Jesus leaves something out. He does not stress that He will “free the captives from prison” or release “those who sin in dark dungeons.” He doesn’t tell John the Baptist that the “captives will be released and prisoners will be freed.” Because John the Baptist would never experience freedom from his imprisonment. He would be beheaded by Herod.
Jesus had come to bring spiritual healing to people who were spiritually blind, lame, poor, and imprisoned by sin. He had come to provide something far more significant than ceremonial cleansing from sin. His ministry was from above and His miracles were intended to point to a form of healing that would be eternal and not temporal in nature.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.