Posted by: mattcolvin | February 13, 2012

“A Dispute Concerning Purification”

Tuesday of Sexagesima Week: John 3:22-36.

John 3:25 and 26 form an apparent narratorial anacoluthon:

So there arose a dispute between some of John’s disciples and a Jew (some mss. have “the Jews”) concerning purification. And they came to John and said to him, “Rabbi, the one who was with you on the other side of the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, behold, he is baptizing and all are coming to him.”

The question in my mind is, “What was this dispute about purification? And what does it have to do with Jesus?”

Jesus has just gone to Judaea and has been baptizing there (3:22). This, presumably, is what prompts the question about purification. The Jew or Jews — properly, “Judaeans”, i.e. inhabitants of the region where Jesus has been baptizing — are ranged against John’s disciples. The dispute presumably did not concern how much water one needed to use, or who the fit objects for baptism were. Recall what we have already mentioned in an earlier post, that baptism was a ritual with huge eschatological meaning: “Why baptize if you’re not Elijah, or the prophet, or the Messiah?” In light of this, the question in contention is presumably, “Whose baptism is required for good standing in the coming kingdom of God? We thought it was yours, John. But now we see this man baptizing more than you.”

John’s response fits that background. He points to Jesus’ priority in the coming kingdom, and his own preparatory role. He affirms that Jesus is the bridegroom, while he, John, is only the friend of the bridegroom. And his immediate response, “A man cannot receive anything except what is given to him from heaven” is a clear disavowal of any messianic pretensions.

In short, the dispute about purification is a dispute about who is the Messiah. John points to Jesus as the answer to that question.

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