There are many passages in the Scripture that are difficult to understand. And some of these, even though they seem clear, just don’t “fit.” Even after following all the rules of biblical interpretation – taking into account context, definitions, grammar, etc. – they just don’t fit into our understanding – our theology.
One such passage is John 2:23-25: “Now when He (Jesus) was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name, because they were observing the signs that He was doing. But Jesus Himself was not entrusting Himself to them because He knew all, and because He did not have need that anyone should testify concerning a person, for He Himself knew what was in a person.”
The Greek word translated both as "believed" and "entrusting” is pisteuo and is used 99 times in John’s Gospel. Every translation I know of translates this word consistently as “believe” except for the one time in this passage where it is used of Jesus “trusting” or “entrusting” Himself.
Who are these people who “believed in His name” and yet could not be trusted by Jesus? The commentaries that I have read are unanimous that these are not really true believers. Some comments: “They were superficially impressed”; “There are two levels of believing”; “Not all faith is saving faith”; “Belief without trust”; “The faith which was born of wonder would be likely to cease when the wonder ceased”; “To these believers the miracles were not signs indicative of the true nature of Jesus”; and, blah, blah, blah.
The problem is that none of the commentators presents even one shred of evidence for their dogmatic statements. In chapter 1, verses 12 and 13 of this same Gospel, John the author equates “those who believe in His name” with those “who were born … of God” and with “as many as received Him.”
“But to as many as received Him, He gave the right to become children of God – to those who believe in His name, who were born not from bloods, nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of a man, but of God.”
The same expression is used in 3:18, where it is used to separate those who are “not judged” from those who are “already judged.” In John’s First Epistle, he tells his readers: “I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life!”
Another protest is that these people merely believed because they “saw the signs that He was doing.” (“Signs” is John’s word for miracles.) This is supposed to tell us that they had some lesser type of faith. But again, neither Jesus nor John makes any distinction. In fact, John tells us in 20:30, 31 that he recorded these signs so that people would believe!
“Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples which have not been written in this book. But these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God so that by believing you may have life in His name.”
There is no other qualifier or disqualifier here. Reading the above definition into 2:23-25 tells us that these were “saved people” – “born again” – “they have eternal life.”
So if these are genuine “born again believers,” the next question is, what does it mean that Jesus wasn’t “trusting Himself to them”? And why didn’t He? There doesn’t seem to be an immediate answer, but there is, I believe, a specific example.
The chapter divisions in our Bible are not part of the inspired text, but were added later. And sometimes they break up the thought in a confused fashion. The division between chapters 2 and 3 of John’s Gospel is one such incident. If we ignore the chapter division here, we have (2:25b-3:1a): “… He did not have need that anyone should testify concerning a person, for He Himself knew what was in a person. Now there was a person …” (The word translated “person” is anthropos; though it is usually translated “man,” it has the meaning of “human being” – “man” as a class or race, as distinct from animals.) So this person named Nicodemus is John’s illustration of a truster who couldn’t be trusted. The dialog in John 3:1ff seems to bring this out.
Nicodemus, we are told was “of the Pharisees” and a “ruler of the Jews” (3:1), which undoubtedly means that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the official Jewish council on religious and governmental matters. Later Jesus refers to him as “the teacher of the Jews” (The definite article is used in the Greek text) and chides him for his ignorance of certain matters (3:10).
He comes to Jesus by night (3:2), which may simply be because it is the only convenient time he had, or more likely it suggests that this was a clandestine meeting. John’s other uses of the word “night” seem to suggest something a bit sinister (9:4; 11:10; 13:30; 19:39; even 21:3). Jesus carries on what appears a rather cryptic conversation regarding the New Birth and faith in Himself (3:3-21, although it’s not quite clear where Jesus’ words end and those of John, the author begin).
The story has no nice clear resolution. We are left wondering what happened to Nicodemus. Did he come to faith in Christ? Was he “born again”? Yes. Though there is no neat ending, we can conclude from 2:23 that he was one of the many who “believed in His name.” And I believe that his later actions show why Jesus didn’t trust Himself to him.
The next time we meet Nicodemus is in chapter 7. The council has determined to arrest Jesus and sent officers to arrest Him, but the officers return empty handed. They have been totally disarmed by Jesus’ teaching (7:32, 45, 46). While the council members are raging (verses 47-49), Nicodemus (cautiously?) speaks up.
“Nicodemus (the one who came to Him before, being one of them) says to them, ‘Our Law doesn’t judge a person unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?’” (Verses 50 and 51) bringing down a rebuke from the others (verse 52). Again we are left to wonder, was that all he said? Did he clam up out of fear and let the council go on with their scheming? I know this is an argument from silence, but it would seem so.
The last thing we read about Nicodemus is in chapter 19:38-42. Jesus has been crucified and a man named Joseph of Arimathea asks Pilate for Jesus’ body, takes it, wraps it in linen with spices and buries it. Joseph is mentioned in all four Gospels (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:43-36; Luke 23:50-53). The other Gospels tell us that Joseph was a member of the council. John tells us that he was “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because of fear of the Jews” (verse 38). John also tells us that Nicodemus also was there contributing the spices and that “they took the body of Jesus,” wrapped it and buried it (verses 39-42).
So we may conclude that Nicodemus was, like his friend Joseph, a secret disciple (as were many others. 12:42, 43). As a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, he could attempt to add a voice of reason, but to openly confess his faith in Christ would have cost him his position and probably much more. He didn’t openly betray or deny Christ, but like many today, he kept his faith to himself. But when the chips were down, when all but one of the original 12 had fled-- one had betrayed Christ-- one had denied Him--, Nicodemus’ faith came out clearly into the open.
Are there believers today like those in John 2:23-25, like Nicodemus, like Joseph? People who have genuinely believed in Christ, but are fearful of confessing Him publicly? People whom Jesus cannot trust Himself to? Yes, I believe there are. I’ve been one myself at times.
There are two questions we need to ask ourselves. The first is, am I a genuine believer in Jesus Christ as my Savior? If the answer to the first is yes, then the second question is, am I a person who can be trusted by my Savior, or am I a “secret disciple” to most of my friends and neighbors?