You Do Not Receive Our Testimony (Monday with Mounce 7)
Passage: John 3:11
Keyword: second person
I have always had a bit of a soft spot in my heart for Nicodemus.
Jesus is the new kid on the block, the new radical. He is already stirring up problems for the religious establishment, and Nicodemus takes a pretty big risk. He comes at night, during his normal study time but also under the cloak of darkness, and wants to talk with Jesus face to face. (How many personal and organizational conflicts would be settled if we would follow Nicodemus’ example and actually talk with the other person rather than attack and gossip?)
What apparently drove Nicodemus was that while Jesus seemed to be radical—cleansing the temple was not an act of compliance with the status quo—Nicodemus cannot avoid the obvious fact of Jesus’ miracles and the implication that Jesus must therefore be from God. He’s pretty bold if you stop and think about it.
Jesus of course gets right to the point, and Nicodemus struggles to keep up, falling further and further behind with every verse. Eventually Jesus is monologuing and Nicodemus seems not to exist.
But there is more to the story than that, and it is seen in the alternating between singular and plural, a grammatical nicety that comes into English only with difficulty.
Nicodemus comes and says that “we” know you are from God. Nicodemus is stating not just his conclusion but that of others. Jesus responds, “I say to you (singular) that without rebirth no one (singular) can see the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus misunderstands the spiritual level of the statement and Jesus responds, “I say to you (singular), without the cleansing and regenerating work of the Spirit (my interpretation), no one (singular) can enter God’s kingdom.” So far so good.
The discussion continues in the singular until v 7 when Jesus says, “Do not marvel that I say to you (singular), it is necessary for you (plural) to be born again.” What is going on? Nicodemus came as a representative of Pharisaical Judaism, and Jesus is returning to that starting point. He is starting to expand his comments beyond the night’s discussion.
Nicodemus’ lack of understand elicits a harsher rebuke: “You are the teacher of Israel and you do not know these things?” The “the” is critical; as a Pharisee and as one who holds the keys of the kingdom for many, he should have understood the spiritual nature of the kingdom. And so should the rest of the Jewish leadership.
And finally, in v 11 Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you (singular), we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony” (TNIV). The use of “people” is their way of indicating the pronoun “you” is plural. Others do it with footnotes (e.g., ESV).
I find the interchange between singular and plural interesting, and unfortunately it is hard to bring into English. But there is something else. Critical scholarship looks at the move from dialogue to monologue, especially from v 16 on, as an indication that the monologue is a creation of John’s and never happened. Jesus never said John 3:16. For many reasons I do not accept their conclusion, and one of the reasons is the shifting between singular and plural that we have been discussing.
Nicodemus comes as a representative of the Jewish leadership. He fails to understand the nature of Jesus’ ministry (it is spiritual) and he fails to understand the nature of Jesus himself (“we know that you are a teacher”). Jesus understands the dynamics of the meeting and gets to the heart of the matter.
1. Entrance into the kingdom is a spiritual reality. Nicodemus and his buddies must be spiritually born again, from above.
2. Jesus is not merely a teacher, even a teach from God. He is the Son of Man (v 13) who is the proper object of their faith (v 15) and the source of eternal spiritual life. He is God’s only Son who came not to condemn the world but to save it. If Nicodemus and the rest of the Pharisees and scribes do not believe in Jesus, they stand condemned.
The “monologue” is not some irrelevant creation formed from decades of John’s supposedly creative thinking. It is Jesus getting to the heart of the matter. He knows what is in Nicodemus’ heart and he refuses to leave the conversation at a superficial level.
Fortunately, we know that Nicodemus did come to the light so that all could see that his deeds have been done in God (v 21). Someday all true followers of Jesus will get to ask Nicodemus if the interchange of singular and plural was one of Jesus’ hints as to the full answer of Jesus. Don’t be late for that class.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Visit www.billmounce.com for more info or read his blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.supportministry.com.
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