John 2

The Noncommittal Christ (John 2.23-25)

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. (John 2:23-25)

“But Jesus did not commit himself to them.” It’s a bit vague—what does John mean? Other translations read similarly:

“Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all people.” (NIV)
“But Jesus, on His part, was not entrusting Himself to them, for He knew all men.” (NASB)
“But Jesus did not believe in them because he knew them all.” (NCV)

Literal translations don’t really help; the passage remains just as vague. But the common paraphrases I’ve encountered usually sound—dissatisfactory in my mind—something like this:

“During the time he was in Jerusalem, those days of the Passover Feast, many people noticed the signs he was displaying and, seeing they pointed straight to God, entrusted their lives to him. But Jesus didn't entrust his life to them. He knew them inside and out, knew how untrustworthy they were. He didn't need any help in seeing right through them.” (The Message)

Paraphrases like this really drop the force of the thought, treating the unspoken details as central to the narrative, enhancing the wonder-working that is barely alluded to, and suggesting that Jesus holds himself back because he knows the corruption of the general population. I think a somewhat different reading emerges when we consider the context of John’s analysis—it takes place in Jerusalem, at Passover, and at the (metaphorical) temple; the entire passage alludes to the pending crucifixion of Jesus, and establishes Jesus’ awareness of his execution. Further, John has consciously reversed the synoptic recounting of the temple incident, placing it and Jesus’ concurrent vocal condemnation of the temple at the beginning, rather than at the end, of the narrative—while we may find numerous explanations for this chronological reordering, the variant Johannine account is so blatant in its reversal that it seems concretely intentional.

Because the order has been deliberately changed, the following events—the subsequent signs and discourses—take on a new meaning. Whereas Jesus’ condemnation of the temple gradually increases in the synoptics and climaxes in Mark 13 and its parallels, John places this condemnation at the beginning; in the metaphors to follow, the temple and all the orthodoxy associated with it stand in the background, the implicit subject of examination. Jesus identifies his resurrected person as the rebuilt temple, and his conversations with the Samaritan women about the temple, with the scribes and Pharisees about the law, with Nicodemus about God’s kingdom, and with the Jews regarding the Sabbath are all discussion of fulfillment and replacement, establishing a shift between what we might call the Old and New Testaments, between the Mosaic covenant and the Christological covenant.

All this has yet to unfold, and in John’s gospel it happens at a steady pace over the course of three years, as Jesus’ teaches about the coming Christian era established by, in, and through his name. Over and over again we approach the cross from a new angle, seeing it as the mechanism whereby this change is affected, the means by which this graduation is accomplished. The crucified Son of Man is the highest point of Johannine revelation, and while Jesus here alludes to this doctrine at the onset of his ministry, he does not publically develop it; he does not deliver to the people the full extent of his knowledge or teaching.

But the most crucial way to make sense of the conclusion of chapter 2 is to re-divide the passage altogether. Verses 2.23-25 should not come at the END of chapter 2; they should come at the BEGINNING of chapter 3, as the preamble to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, who approaches Jesus discreetly at night, to extract in private the teachings Jesus has carefully hidden from the masses:

Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.

There was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” (John 2.23-3.2)

This conversation takes on a different meaning, when we approach it as a discussion of Jesus’ secret doctrine, and of the reasons for which Jesus has chosen to keep it secret. Like the general public, Nicodemus recognizes the signs as proof that Jesus is from God. He asks for more information, and he is granted his request given his elite social status—given his high level of exposure to scripture and his open mind, Jesus tells him what he wants to know. But Nicodemus is nevertheless baffled by Jesus’ strange “born again” doctrine, and Jesus says (my paraphrase), “This is exactly why I haven’t revealed things to the general public—no one is ready for it.” We are more familiar with this declaration as “Truly, truly, I say to you, We speak that which we know, and testify of what we have seen; and you do not receive our witness. If I have told you of earthly things, and you believe not, how will you believe, if I tell you of heavenly things?” (John 3:11-12). This is the reason Jesus keeps his doctrine quiet—not simply because the crowd is sinful and corrupt, but because they are not able to apprehend the depths of his teaching. Or rather, it is because humankind is basely inclined that it cannot so apprehend. The fault of the crowd is not dishonesty, craftiness, or hypocrisy—it is ignorance, blindness, shortsightedness. They cannot truly see, and so Jesus does not show them.