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.”
JOHN 3: 25-26 ESV
25 Ἐγένετο οὖν ζήτησις ἐκ τῶν μαθητῶν Ἰωάννου μετὰ Ἰουδαίου περὶ καθαρισμοῦ. 26 καὶ ἦλθον πρὸς τὸν Ἰωάννην καὶ εἶπαν αὐτῷ· Ῥαββί, ὃς ἦν μετὰ σοῦ πέραν τοῦ Ἰορδάνου, ᾧ σὺ μεμαρτύρηκας, ἴδε οὗτος βαπτίζει καὶ πάντες ἔρχονται πρὸς αὐτόν.
JOHN 3: 25-26 SBLGNT
Now follows the episode which occasioned the Baptist’s final testimony. Now a discussion arose between some of John’s disciples and a Jew over purification. With οὗν, “now” John indicates that this dispute arose out of the situation sketched in verses. 22–23,
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.
Hence was not about purifying in general, i.e., the old Jewish ways and regulations, but about the Baptism of Jesus as compared with that of the Baptist. What the actual question of the dispute was, the evangelist does not say since his concern is something more important. All we can gather from the complaint of the Baptist’s disciples in v. 26 is that the Jew maintained the superiority of Jesus’ Baptism over that of the Baptist, which the disciples of the latter refused to admit as it would also involve that men should leave the Baptist and go to Jesus. The dispute started with the disciples, and by calling him a Jew, the evangelist classes him with the opponents of Jesus, whom he steadily calls “the Jews.” The man’s interest in the dispute would thus be to cause perplexity and discord.
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.
These are the disciples alone, and they go to their master, who is near at hand. They lay before him not the question of dispute but the situation from which it arose, which in the form of an aggrieved complaint. Hence they even avoid naming Jesus; they only describe him, but in a way that brings out first, their thought that Jesus is under great obligation to the Baptist and, secondly, that Jesus is showing himself ungrateful to the Baptist. In their complaint lies the question, “Is this right?” They refer to what is recorded in 1:29–34.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.”
By saying that this occurred “beyond the Jordan”, they specify what testimony they refer to and at the same time indicate that they were now on the western side of the river. They speak as though the Baptist had done much for Jesus by testifying of him as he did. However, behold, οὗτος, “this man,” is now competing with their beloved master, competing with him after having received so much from him! By adding the exaggeration that “all men” are running after Jesus these disciples betray their state of mind. In the perfect Greek, μεμαρτύρηκας witness, we note the effect of the testimony as continuing in the present.
Whatever may have been involved in this dispute for John’s disciples prompted their need to speak to their master. Furthermore, what played a no less important role was that the number of people who went to Jesus began to overshadow the number of those who came to John.
One is struck by the impersonal way John’s disciples refer to Jesus: “he who was with you beyond the Jordan, the one to whom you bore witness.” They had been present on occasion or at least heard of it. It had not prompted them to join others in following Jesus. On the contrary, they witnessed with displeasure how Jesus’ influence grew, and that of their master declined, and now they express their feelings in a way (“all”) that betrays their envy and unhappiness. It is hard to say with certainty whether there is an allusion here to a continuing controversy between the disciples of John and the later Christian church — especially because there is a lack of clear data on that controversy. In any case, one gets a very one-sided picture here if one tries to interpret this pericope totally or primarily from the vantage point of a polemic against the “Baptist sect” of the time of the Evangelists in which John is supposedly brought in as the main witness against his later followers. Rather, this final testimony of John shows positively the extent to which he — as a model to all other witnesses of Jesus — fulfilled to the end, and in keeping with its nature, the mission mandated to him by God.
R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961)