Jefferson Vann reveals the significance of the author’s commentary in John 3:36.
“The one who believes in the Son has eternal life, but the one who rejects the Son will not see life; instead, the wrath of God remains on him.”1
We have been surveying the use of the Greek word ζωή (life) in John’s Gospel. We first looked at an author’s commentary in John 1:4, and saw that already in scripture, the idea existed of a coming light in the form of a person: a son, a gift from God who will bring life to his dying people, and deliver them from darkness and death.2
Next, we visited Jesus by night, along with Nicodemus, and learned that this gift would be God’s own Son, who would be lifted up like the desert snake,3 so that the ones believing in him might have permanent life.4 But those who do not believe will be condemned. Jesus did not go into detail with Nicodemus about the nature of that condemnation, but Nicodemus knew the fate of those Israelites who did not look in faith at the desert snake. They rejected the remedy. They died. They never made it to the promised land.
Now, we have left the narrative behind. The words of John 3:31-36 are not those of John the Baptist,5 nor those of Jesus.6 They are of John the Evangelist, the author of this Gospel. His comments explain in further detail what had already been revealed by the narrative. Jesus is described as “the one who comes from above,” “the one whom God sent” and “the Son.” John the Baptist is described as “the one who is from the earth” who has accepted the testimony and words of Jesus.
So, the Evangelist steers his readers to the words of John the Baptist as an example of one of this new group – people who believe in the Son, and so have ζωή αἱώνιος. It is as if John the Baptist is the new Moses, calling on all people to look to the Son as the reality of which the desert snake was the predictive shadow. The story only allows for two kinds of people: believers and rejectors.
The believers (ὁ πιστεύων) are the ones who take the remedy seriously. They put their confidence in that remedy. This word implies a confidence that something will be granted in the future that is not presently realised. What is that something? “In him was life!” Christ is the object of our faith, permanent life is the purpose of that faith. All those who put their faith in Christ have life as a promise.
The rejectors (ὁ ἀπειθῶν) are the ones who (in the words of Danker’s lexicon) “disobey, be rebellious” and “resist.” They do not have life as a promise. They merely remain in the destiny which they have brought upon themselves because of sin. That destiny that they await is wrath.
Now, this short study is a reminder of the logic of conditionalism. It is a logic which is missing from many attempts to explain the gospel, especially because of the neglect of the phrase “the one who rejects the Son will not see life.”
Barnes says that those who suffer God’s wrath “must go to eternity ‘as they are,’ and bear alone and unpitied all that God may choose to inflict as the expression of ‘his’ sense of sin.”7 That is true, but it misses the fact that after bearing that punishment, they “will not see life.”
Gill says that the condemnation the unbelievers have “hangs over their heads, and lights upon them, and they will be filled with a dreadful sense of it to all eternity.”8 No, they cannot dread something for eternity if they do not have life for eternity.
Benson says that the wrath the unbeliever will experience is “that abiding wrath which torments and does not kill, and being once inflicted never comes to an end.”9 No, the wrath is abiding now, but when it comes, it will destroy. If the wrath never destroyed the unbelievers, it would not be true what John says about them, that they will not see life.
There will be a day of wrath to come.10 It will not last for eternity. It will not be perpetual. It will bring permanent death. Some unfortunate unbelievers died in the desert, refusing to believe in the symbol Moses presented to them. They are the examples who warn us today to trust in Christ. Only he is the way to eternal life. There is no permanent life without him.
1John 3:36 CSB
4 ζωή αἱώνιος
6John 3:3,5-8, 10-21.
7Albert Barnes, and Robert Frew. Notes on the New Testament Explanatory and Practical : Luke and John. Enl. type ed. /. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1949).
8Gill, John. An Exposition of the Gospel According to John. The Newport Commentary Series. (Springfield, Mo.: Particular Baptist Press, 2003).
9Benson, Joseph. The Holy Bible : Containing the Old and New Testaments (According to the Present Authorized Version) with Critical, Explanatory, and Practical Notes. (New York: G. Lane & C.B. Tippett,1846).
10Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7; Romans 2:5; 9:22; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:10; Revelation 11:18.