John 3:31-36

“He who comes from above is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. “What He has seen and heard, of that He testifies; and no one receives His testimony. “He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true. “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure. “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

– John 3:31-36, NAU


During the Passover week, Jesus was in Jerusalem. While there, Nicodemus came by night to see him. After the interview with Nicodemus, Jesus and His disciples (John 3:22) left for Judea where He spent some time with them and was baptizing. As John later (4:2) clarifies, it was the disciples of Jesus who actually were doing the baptizing. Obviously, they were doing this under the authority of Jesus.

For a time, Jesus and John the Baptist were engaged in parallel baptizing ministries. As Hendriksen (p. 147) points out, the parallel ministries occurred between Christ’s temptation and the arrest of John the Baptist. In other words it was between Matthew 4:11 and 4:12 (compare Mark 1:13-14 and Luke 4:13-14). John makes this clear when he says (John 3:24) that John the Baptist had not yet been thrown into prison.

John’s disciples came to him and reported that (John 3:26) “all are coming to Him [Jesus].” The comments by the disciples imply that they were unhappy with this. John the Baptist used the occasion to exalt Christ and to once again clarify that he was not the Christ. The Baptist declared (John 2:30), “He [Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease.”

Jesus Is Above All

With regard to John 3:31-36, the question arises as to who was the speaker. As Burge (pp. 81-82) indicates, there are three possibilities: (1) Jesus, (2) John the Baptist, (3) John the Evangelist. The last two views are more common. Burge favors the third view.

Fortunately, the issue does not have to be decided. According to Keener (Gospel, p. 581), even if these are not the words of the Baptist, “the writer takes them as the logical implications to which the Baptist’s testimony must point.” Similarly, Eerdman (p. 40) states: “whether spoken by the Baptist or the evangelist the whole section embodies a striking testimony to the person and work of the Lord, and a solemn warning as to the issues of faith and unbelief.”

The thrust of this passage is that Jesus is above all others. He is the Savior of the world. As Keener (Gospel, p. 581) explains, “The passage explains why the Baptist must decrease but Jesus’ ministry increase.” Keener continues with these explanatory comments:

Jesus is the one from heaven, whose witness is essential (3:31-32) . . . Jesus is the one from above (3:13), whereas Nicodemus, a representative of inquirers from the Judean elite and the world, was from below (cf. 8:23) and could only understand and speak of earthly things (3:12). In view of 3:13 . . . Jesus is also greater than Moses, and so also greater than John. Just as the one [Jesus] who was before John chronologically precedes him in rank (1:15), so also the one from heaven has rank over all the earth, including over John the Baptist.

He Who Comes From Above

“He who comes from above” (verse 31) is an obvious reference to Jesus (compare 3:13). The phrase “he who is of the earth” could be anyone, but here the specific reference is probably to John the Baptist. Jesus, as the One “who comes from heaven,” clearly is above John the Baptist and all others. Jesus bears witness (verse 32) of what He has seen and heard.

We note that in John 3:11 Jesus includes the witness of the disciples and says that “‘you do not receive our witness.'” Here, the text says “and no one receives His testimony.” To some this stands in contradiction to the statement in verse 26 that “‘all are coming to him.'” Actually, this is a case of double and contrasting hyperbole. Neither “all” or “no man” are literally correct. The author uses hyperbole to make a point.

God is True

In verse 33, John writes: “He who has received His testimony has set his seal to this, that God is true.” Ultimately, it is God Himself (John 6:27) who puts His seal upon Christ, but the one who received Christ’s testimony also bears witness.

According to Lenski (pp. 288-290), “He who has received His testimony” refers in the full sense to John the Baptist. In a lesser sense, a few others may be included. Other writers are more inclusive. For example, Hendriksen (p. 146) says that “He who has received His testimony” refers to all who have accepted Christ’s message. John the Baptist is included, but the phrase is not limited to him. Rather, the principle applies to all believers. I concur with this view.

The believer sets his seal, or attests, that God is true. By accepting Christ’s testimony, through faith, the believers set their seal that God is true. They become witnesses of the truth of Christ’s claims. This seal is best seen in the transformed lives of the believers. This transformation demonstrates in life who Christ is and what He has done.

Just what does “that God is true” mean? Robertson (p. 37) states, “The one who accepts the witness of Jesus attests that Jesus speaks the message of God.” Similarly, Tasker (p. 73) says, “To accept His teaching is therefore to testify that God is true; on the other hand, to reject it, is in effect to make God a liar.” The point is that God’s message is true.

The Spirit

Next, verse 34 states: “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for He gives the Spirit without measure.” NAU We will examine both clauses of this verse.

First, let us consider the clause: “For He whom God has sent speaks the words of God.” Does this clause refer to John the Baptist or Christ? According to Lenski (p. 290), the one whom God has sent is John the Baptist, not Christ. The Baptist speaks the words of God. The better view, however, is that the clause refers to Christ. As Rea states (p. 129), “While John the Baptist and others were God’s messengers and prophets, Jesus was uniquely both the message of eternal life and the predicted messenger of the New Covenant (Mal. 3:1b).”

Second, the author states “for He gives the Spirit without measure.” The main issue in interpreting this clause is, “Who is the subject of the sentence?” The NAU text inserts the pronoun “He,” but the subject actually is unnamed. There are several interpretations that are grammatically possible.

As indicated above, Lenski believes that John the Baptist is the subject of the first clause. Consistent with this, he writes concerning the second clause (p. 291):

It is hard to decide from the Greek whether God is the subject of the sentence, as our versions take it, or whether it is “the Spirit.” The sense, fortunately, is quite the same, for the point to be explained is the Baptist’s ability to convey God’s utterances. He can do this if God gives him the Spirit in proper measure; or if the Spirit gives him the utterances in proper measure.

Our view, however, is that the first clause refers to Christ. Here, Jesus is the One whom God has sent. With this point of view understood, Morris (pp. 246-247) gives a helpful summary of three interpretations of the second clause:

(1) The Father gives the Spirit to the Son without measure. . . . There is perfect communion between them, and no limit to the gift . . . His perfect endowment with the Spirit guarantees the truth of His words. . . .
(2) The Son gives the Spirit to believers without measure. The verse is often understood in this way, but caution must be exercised. . . . In the first place no one else has the Spirit in any way comparable to Jesus. And in the second, there is an implied limitation when we are told that “unto each one of us was the grace given according to the measure of the gift of Christ”. . . .
(3) The Spirit does not give by measure, i.e. when the Spirit gives He does so liberally. This is a barely possible interpretation of the Greek.
The first of these seems preferable, thought there is probably also a hint that Jesus gives the Spirit to His followers. Elsewhere John speaks of the Spirit as given by the Father (14:26), but also by the Son (15:26).

Many commentators hold that John sometimes writes with purposeful ambiguity. Dunn, for example, states (p. 32):

For us the most important ministry for which the descent of the Spirit equipped Jesus was his messianic task of baptizing in the Spirit . . . This is most clearly brought out by John 1.33. . . It is also implied in 3.34 where the primary reference is no doubt to the Father’s gift of the Spirit to Jesus (ouk ek metro) but where by careful ambiguity John may also refer to Jesus’ administration of the Spirit (didosin, present, cf. 1.33). (Transliteration mine.)

Through purposeful ambiguity, both truths may be maintained. God gives the Spirit to Jesus. Jesus gives the Spirit to believers. However, the view that God gives the Spirit to Jesus is stronger. Three reasons support this. One is that the purpose of the passage is to exalt Christ and His witness. Two is that this view harmonizes with verse 35 where God explicitly has given all things into Christ’s hands. Three, it is in Jesus alone that the Spirit is seen in the fullest measure. Four, although John speaks about Christ being the giver of the Spirit, this comes later in the story.

Third, the writer says “without measure.” Lenski (p. 291) points out that “without measure” is a litotes for “in complete fullness.” A litotes is a way of understating a truth. This truth is expressed by stating the negative of the contrary. The Spirit is given negatively without measure but positively in complete fullness.

Two observations are important. One is that God does give the Spirit by measure. In Luke’s writings, the term “filled” and “full” are often used. These terms imply that the Spirit may be present in less than full measure as well as in fullness. In Ephesians 4:7 the “measure” of Christ’s gift is recognized. As Rea (p. 129) says, “we must remember that God has allotted to each Christ a measure of faith (Rom. 12:3).”

Two, the verb gives is in the present tense. “As the verb is in the present tense,” says Walvoord (p. 92), “it would indicate that this is characteristic and continual.” The giving of the Spirit is not a one-time event. God continues to give the Spirit without measure to the Son.

Salvation in Christ

In verses 35-36, the author writes, “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand. He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.”

These verses point to Christ as the way of salvation. Keener (Gospel, p. 583) writes: “Whereas the Spirit ‘abides upon’ Jesus (1:33) and Jesus will abide in his disciples (15:4, 7), wrath ‘abides upon’ those who disobey him through unbelief (3:36).” The dividing line between righteousness and unrighteousness is faith in Jesus.


John the Baptist was the forerunner of Christ. He was fully aware of his role and knew that Christ was greater. The supremacy of Christ is demonstrated by the fact that God gives the Spirit without measure to Him. Moreover, God has put all things into His hand. Through faith in Christ, we have eternal life.

For Further Study

Bruner, Frederick Dale. A Theology of the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970.
Burge, Gary M. The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Carter, Howard. Questions and Answers on Spiritual Gifts. Tulsa: Harrison House, 1976.
Erdman, Charles R. The Gospel of John. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1944.
Gordon, A. J. The Ministry of the Spirit. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1964.
Hendriksen, William. New Testament Comentary: Exposition of The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1961.
Keener, Craig. S. The Gospel of John, Vol. 1. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Pache, Rene. The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. Chicago: Moody Press, 1957.
Owen, John. The Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications. 1954.
Rea, John. Bible Handbook on the Holy Spirit. Orlando: Creation House, 1998.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Company, 1910.
Tasker, R. V. G. The Gospel According to John. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1960
Wescott, B. F. The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.

Copyright © 2004 By George M. Flattery

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