Misguided Belief

23 Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. 24 But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people 25 and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.

1 Now 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 ESV

As someone who seems obsessed with providing evidence for the identity of Jesus, John can be maddeningly stingy when it comes to the details. Even when describing Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, John cuts to the chase, providing the basic facts about what happened but leaving a great deal up to the reader’s imagination. He does the same thing in verse 23, where he makes an almost cursory allusion to the signs Jesus performed in Jerusalem.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. – John 2:23 ESV

It’s difficult to read that verse without wanting to ask, “What signs?” But John appears to have no interest in explaining the nature of miracles Jesus performed. It’s not that the signs were unimportant to John because they will become the basis for what he describes in chapter three. It’s almost as if he assumes his audience is already familiar with the topic and he has more important matters to discuss.

The miracles performed by Jesus were an essential facet of His ministry, and, as John alludes to, they produced a certain measure of belief in Jesus. And that seems to be the primary point John wants to make. For John, the details concerning the signs Jesus did were irrelevant, but the belief they produced was not. It is likely that Jesus healed the lame, gave sight to the blind, and cast out demons. And when He did, the people marveled at His indisputable supernatural powers. Not only that, they believed in His name. But what does that mean? What was the nature of their belief and why does John state that their belief was in “the name” of Jesus?

To understand what’s going on, you have to go back to verse 20 of chapter one. The priests and Levites had sent a delegation to make inquiries about John the Baptist. His activities in the Judean wilderness had stirred up a lot of attention and resulted in much speculation as to his identity. And one of the first assumptions people made was that John the Baptist must be the long-awaited Messiah. This seems quite clear because when the delegation asked John the Baptist who he was, he declared, “I am not the Christ.” He knew what the people were saying about him. His call to repentance and his declaration that the kingdom of heaven was at hand had caused people to speculate that the Messiah had finally arrived.

Messiah-fever had begun to spread. And so had the news of Jesus’ miracle at Cana. So, when He had shown up in Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and started performing miracles, the people believed in His name: Jesus Christ – Jesus the Messiah. Remember what Andrew told his brother Simon.

“We have found the Messiah” (which means “Christ”). – John 1:41 ESV

Philip had told Nathanael:

“We have found the very person Moses and the prophets wrote about! His name is Jesus, the son of Joseph from Nazareth.” – John 1:45 ESV

And upon meeting Jesus, Nathanael had confessed:

“Rabbi, you are the Son of God—the King of Israel!” – John 1:49 ESV

This news had spread. Word had gotten out that the Messiah had come. So, when Jesus performed signs and wonders, the people took it as evidence that He truly was the Messiah.

But John’s primary concern is in the object of their faith or belief. The people were believing Jesus to be the Messiah, but their understanding of what that meant would prove to be inaccurate. They were expecting the Messiah to be a conquering king and a mighty military leader like King David had been. They were looking for a deliverer, a political savior of sorts, who would lead them against the Roman occupying forces and set them free from the centuries-long misery of subjugation and suffering they had experienced since the Babylonian invasion.

And John points out that Jesus was aware of their misguided and misunderstood belief in Him.

But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. – John 2:24 ESV

Jesus was not fooled by their expressions of faith. He knew their belief in Him was solely based on their deeply held desire that He deliver them from Roman rule. If they had their way, they would take Jesus by force and attempt to thrust Him into their preconceived idea of a super-savior. You see this same fanatical fervor in John’s account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!”

Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself. – John 6:14-15 ESV

Jesus had not come to be their earthly king. He would lead no armies against the Romans. There would be no battles waged, rebellions launched, or earthly kingdom established – at least, not yet. And that is the point John is attempting to make.

Chapter three opens with an encounter between Jesus and a member of the Pharisees. This highly revered religious leader schedules a somewhat clandestine meeting with Jesus, choosing to meet with Him under the cover of darkness. Due to his prestigious role as a Pharisee and his standing within the community, he wants his meeting to remain a secret.

John is going to use this Pharisee to illustrate the stark difference between what the people believed about Jesus and what Jesus would reveal to be the true nature of His incarnation. Nicodemus, as a Pharisee, would have been well-educated and a student of the Hebrew scriptures, and would have been highly familiar with the many Messianic prophecies they contained. So, when he meets Jesus, he states his own belief that Jesus is a God-ordained messenger from God.

“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 3:2 ESV

His use of the terms “rabbi” and “teacher” indicate his respect and professional admiration for Jesus. He admired Jesus for His obvious divine anointing. He was intrigued by Jesus’ works and words. But he also knew that any association with Jesus could prove detrimental to his role as a Pharisee. Even at this early stage in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees and other Jewish religious leaders were beginning to see Jesus as a potential threat. These men were members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious council, that was comprised of the high priest and 70 members who represented the various sects within Judaism, including the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Zealots.

They held sway over the people of Israel, functioning as a kind of supreme court or religious council. Their authority was second only to that of the Roman government. And they took exception to anyone who might attempt to disrupt or displace their sovereign rule over the people. Even the thought of a Messiah would have been threatening to their authority. Someone claiming to be the “chosen one” of God could cause all kinds of trouble, promoting political unrest, stirring up the common people, and, ultimately, angering the Roman government. And, if that happened, the Romans would step in, putting a swift end to any rebellion and holding the Sanhedrin responsible for allowing it to happen.

So, Nicodemus shows up at night, but his presence and his words indicate that he believes Jesus just might be the one for whom they have been waiting. Even he, as a member of the Pharisees, longs to see the Messiah. He greatly desires to see the kingdom of God reestablished on earth in the form of a revitalized Jewish state. But he is about to get a personal lesson from the Messiah Himself that will reveal just how misguided and misinformed he really was about God’s plans for Israel’s future.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson