As Jesus’ ministry was getting underway, we learn in John 3:23 that John the Baptist’s ministry was still going strong too.
John hadn’t stopped his ministry just because Jesus was now on the scene. How much time had passed since John baptized Jesus in John 1? If you scan through the days mentioned in John 1-3, the minimum, I think, is a couple weeks. It could easily be that more time has passed. John is not concerned about precise chronology, but we know, based on what John tells us in the next verse, that probably not a lot of time has passed since John baptized Jesus at the Jordan River.
Also, look at verse 24, which also suggests that not much time has passed because John is still in ministry. He would soon enough be thrown in prison where he would eventually be killed, which you can read about in Matthew 14. So there was a time, John is telling us here in verses 23-24, that both John and Jesus had ministries that involved baptizing, and they were ministering in different places, but at the same time. Jesus has a baptism ministry. John has a baptism ministry. Both serving the mission of the Kingdom of God.
In verse 22 we read in the previous post that Jesus and his disciples are in the Judean countryside. Not sure where precisely. In verse 23, we learn that John the Baptist was baptizing at “Aenon near Salim”. Where is that? First of all, it is not at the Jordan River. “Aenon” is a generic word that means “many springs.” It is not the proper name of a place, and it probably shouldn’t be capitalized. John was baptizing near Salim because there were many springs there and abundant water. You can visit this place still today if you want to drive around farmland north of Jerusalem. This video explains it well.
In John’s day, it was likely a fairly dry arid area. Today, farmers have been siphoning water from the abundant springs and they have turned a dry arid place into lush farmland. We know where this place is because of the name “Salim.” Salim is a tell, which is a hill, and on that hill, archaeologists have found loads of evidence of human activity going back to Roman times. Not far from the hill is an area with multiple natural springs. “Aenon,” remember, means “many springs.” So John was baptizing people at a location that was way off the beaten path. But it didn’t matter, as he was still quite popular, and people came to him.
Was John still more popular than Jesus at this point? Possibly. We don’t know. What happens next adds some controversy to the potential competition between these two ministry leaders. Look at verse 25-26.
We learned in chapter 1 that some of John’s disciples left John to start following Jesus. But not all of John’s disciples. Those disciples who remained following John get into an argument with a Jew or possibly multiple Jews. Just as we saw in chapter 2 when Jews came to confront Jesus in the temple, that word “Jews” is referring to Jewish leaders. My guess is that they were Pharisees. There were about 6000 Pharisees operating all over Israel, and they saw themselves as the gatekeepers of true religion. When an upstart no-name religious man gains a huge following, baptizing and preaching, you can bet the Pharisees were all over it. I can see them spying on him, tracking his activities, reporting back to their leaders, and building a case against him, so they could shut him down if needed. It seems something like that is happening here in John 3, verse 25.
John is famous for making baptism the main feature of his ministry. Because the Pharisees probably didn’t like it, or were at least suspicious of his ministry, they lay down a challenge. In their mind John is not doing baptism right. He is taking liberties with the Mosaic Law which specified what ritual cleansing was supposed to be. They are probably thinking, “Why can’t John just follow the Law?” So an argument about ritual cleansing or ceremonial washing erupts. It’s the Jewish religious leaders versus John’s disciples.
At some point, John’s disciples break the news to John, but notice in verse 26 that the focus in not about about ceremonial washing or even about an argument with the religious leaders. Instead, John’s disciples talk about Jesus. It seems they are jealous for their leader, John. Maybe they perceive Jesus as more of a threat to John than the religious leaders. Jesus, they say, has started his own ministry of baptism. What’s worse, people are starting to follow him.
Interestingly, they use the word “everyone.” “Everyone is going to Jesus,” they say. Classic exaggeration. How often we use absolute language, right? “Everyone, always, only, never.” We spice up our arguments with these absolute words. Usually, at least in my experience, absolute language sounds powerful, but often makes the situation worse, only pumping up the drama. And absolute language is almost never true!
Was “everyone” going to Jesus? No. John just told us in verse 23 that people were constantly coming to John the Baptist. But were at least some people coming to Jesus? Yes. Probably more and more people, especially because Jesus had a couple things going for him that John did not have. The biggie? Jesus did miracles. Jesus also had a quality about him that some described as “authority” in his teaching. No doubt John the Baptist was a bold charismatic figure who was not afraid to open his mouth and say it like he saw it. In fact, that quality is what would get John thrown in prison, when he started criticizing King Herod. Again, see Matthew 14 for that.
Here in John 3, John hasn’t yet been thrown in prison. He’s still running his ministry. John’s remaining disciples see Jesus as a threat to John’s viability and ministry. They knew that John had testified about Jesus. They heard what John said about Jesus, that Jesus is the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world. They knew some of John’s disciples had started following Jesus. We learned about that in John chapter 1. But John’s disciples mentioned in chapter 3 are loyal to John, and it seems they didn’t like what was happening. They didn’t like that maybe Jesus was stealing people and popularity away from John.
Imagine that. We’re so used to thinking about Jesus as the one, the Messiah, the Savior, and we are right. But there was a time when Jesus was the new guy, and he was perceived as a threat to the old guy. Both were good guys. But sometimes the fans of the old good guy are not too thrilled about the new good guy, especially when more and more people start following the new good guy.
John’s response to his disciples is classic, and classy. We’ll learn about it in the next post.
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash
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