John 3:22–4:4; Luke 3:19–20
Jesus has been in the land of Judea since the Passover, so the term translated “land” here may indicate the countryside. Either way, Jesus is likely heading north of Jerusalem, where John the Baptist is too (3:22–23). Jesus is not doing the baptizing, though (cf. 4:2). The exact location where they were performing baptisms is disputed, but Aenon is a word meaning “many springs.” The verse tells us that water was plentiful there (3:23). The author mentions John not yet being in prison, something he assumes his audience was familiar with.
A dispute arises about purification (cf. Lev. 14:8). There are many reasons a person might be baptized or purify themselves (cf. Heb. 6:1–2; 9:10). Unique to John was that he did this in repentance in preparation for the kingdom of heaven. People were “getting right” with God through John via his baptism, so the nature of it may have led to the dispute since it differed from the usual rite.
Next, John’s disciples come to him concerned about those going to Jesus. They may have feared that the dispute was because of their varying personalities—some were going to John to be baptized while others went to Jesus. John, in answering, doesn’t feel threatened, unlike modern preachers might. He was doing God’s will and wouldn’t supersede the mission God gave him. That mission was to point others to Jesus, not to rival him.
John mentions to his audience that Jesus had the spirit without measure. The rabbis believed that God gave portions of his spirit to prophets. “Even the Holy Spirit resting on the prophets does so by weight, one prophet speaking one book of prophecy and another speaking two books” (Lev. Rab. 15:2). Jesus, however, had the fullness of the Spirit. Here in this passage are Father, Son, and Spirit, all mentioned. It’s important to note this passage’s active, present tense verbs. “He who believes” is ongoing, not a one-time thing.
As much as believing is something ongoing, so is not believing. We don’t like to talk much about God’s wrath because it can sound too harsh and dilute our picture of a loving God. The author mentioned that Jesus wasn’t sent to condemn the world (v. 17), so this conclusion eliminates any misunderstanding that judgment is nonexistent (v. 36). God’s wrath isn’t God losing his temper. John has already shown us that the father came to earth as the son, and the son endured the cross to keep us from condemnation. God would rather die than we should incur his wrath.
In the Old Testament, God is often described as “slow to anger” (Exod. 34:6). The phrase used literally translates to “long of nose.” Anytime anger is translated from Hebrew, it comes either from “nose,” “heat,” or “hot nose.” When a person becomes angry, their face often flushes, hence “hot nose.” God, however, is described as “long of the nose,” meaning it takes much longer for his face to flush. He’s more patient and longsuffering and gives many chances for change. When we read about his judgment on Pharoah, remember that he sent plagues to provoke Pharoah to change. When he refused and pursued the Israelites, God gave him over to the consequences of his actions—the man who drowned all Israelite boys in the river was himself, along with his fighting men, drowned. Some may still struggle with this, but we can’t forget that Pharoah oppressed others who God also loved. That brokenness in our world is what God sought to repair through Jesus.
Meanwhile, John the Baptist removed himself from the scene as Jesus’ disciples continued baptizing. He went to Herod and rebuked him for being married to Herodias, his niece. Herod had divorced the daughter of the Nabatean king to do this, but Herodias had divorced his half-brother, Philip. Jewish law prohibited this very thing (Lev. 18:16; 20:21). John had the boldness to rebuke a ruler and wound up in prison for it. Once Jesus learns of John the Baptist’s imprisonment, he heads to Galilee (Matt. 4:12; Mark 1:14), but he has to go through Samaria to get there (John 4:3–4).