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Why did Jesus say “we” in John 3:11? Did Nicodemus understand what “we” meant?

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. (John 3:11, ESV)

ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω σοι ὅτι ὃ οἴδαμεν λαλοῦμεν καὶ ὃ ἑωράκαμεν μαρτυροῦμεν, καὶ τὴν μαρτυρίαν ἡμῶν οὐ λαμβάνετε. (John 3:11, NA27)

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    This is a GREAT QUESTION! I don't know who downvoted this, but shame on that decision. "Who is the 'we'?" is a very, very important question in hermeneutics. Anyone who knows what hermeneutics are about—and the results, implications, and meaning that follow hermeneutics—would know how significant this question is all by itself, just as it is written. Mar 16 '19 at 6:33
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    While it might be difficult to come up with a conclusive answer that isn't opinion based, one can come up with the possible options without being opinion based.
    – Perry Webb
    Mar 16 '19 at 17:06
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I have seen a very large number of suggestions about who this "we" might be in numerous commentaries. Unfortunately, not one of these suggestions come with the slightest justification on which to base any assertions. So all remain just educated guesses. I do not intend to add to the long list of such guesses, educated or otherwise because I believe it can be deduced from the text itself.

Let us observe the following points:

  1. There are four plural verbs: οἴδαμεν (= we know), λαλοῦμεν (= we speak), ἑωράκαμεν (= we have seen), μαρτυροῦμεν (= we bear witness)
  2. Jesus makes a clear distinction between the "we" of these four verbs vs the "you (plural)" who do not receive the witness.
  3. In the Gospel of John, the "Jews" are almost always Jesus' antagonists throughout (eg, John 2:18, 20, 3:1, 25, 5:10, 12, 16, 18, 6:41, 7:1, 11, 13, 35, 8:25, 41, 52, 59, 9:22, 19:21, etc); therefore, the "you" here is almost certainly the "Jews", that is, the Jewish leadership that Nicodemus represented (John 3:1).

Now I believe it is a simple matter to find the "we" by simply asking, Who did not receive something that Jesus speaks about as have been known, spoken of, seen and witnessed about?

First note the very similar set of verbs in 1 John 1:1-5 which summarises the Gospel message of the apostles and the prophets. Further, what did the Jews not receive? There are copious verses about "not receiving" in the NT and almost all refer to the Gospel of Christ often referred to as the Kingdom of God and various other titles, eg, John 1:11, John 5:43, Mark 6:11, 9:37, 10:15, Luke 9:5, 18:17, Gal 1;12, 2 John 10.

Therefore, I think Jesus' "we" in John 3:11 refers to those that preached the Gospel, or the Kingdom of God, which the Jews refused to receive, despite the abundant testimony of first hand witnesses including all the earlier prophets (Matt 23:35). Jesus later lamented this greatly when He wept over Jerusalem (Matt 23:37).

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    I stand by my own answer, but this answer is also very helpful! (Wanted to go on record.) Mar 16 '19 at 12:18
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His disciples, who were a known group

"We" also could have also included Jesus' cousin, John the Baptist because they were somewhat similar in their messages and related in their public ministries.

The hermeneutic here would relate to a presumed context. The meaning of "we" is assumed rather than explained. So, whatever group of people that "we" meant, Nicodemus already knew about them enough that they needed no introduction.

Jesus was already starting to be somewhat of a "thing" at that point, which was why Nicodemus both wanted to meet with him and to hold the meeting [semi-secretly] at night.

What we learn from this

What we take away is the point of hermeneutics.

"We" may stand out to us as a non-involved audience trying to understand the context by reading a story set within that context. But, "we" was not the main focus of Nicodemus or Jesus because, as already mentioned, the "who" behind the "we" was already presumed.

This message that "we" testified about was a message from what they had seen and known intimately. "They" had a message about personal experience, but Nicodemus—at that early point—only had theoretical knowledge. We could compare this to Job's words at the end of his story...

Job 42:5 (NASB)

“I have heard of You by the hearing of the ear;

But now my eye sees You;

On some level, Jesus is making an allusion to Job because both Nicodemus and Jesus would have been quite familiar with Job having first "heard about God", but later had actually "seen God". Consider Jesus' word for "know" (οἶδα/oida as opposed to γινώσκω/ginóskó), the way Jesus knows the Father. This commentator explains its usage elsewhere, including the Gospel of John...

Ginosko and Oida | A Day of Small Things (emphasis added)

The difference between the two words is illustrated in John 8.55, ‘Ye know [γινώσκω/ ginóskó/Strong 1097] Him not, but I know[οἶδα/oida/Strong 1492]Him.’ Again, in John 13.7, ‘What I do thou dost not know [οἶδα/oida/Strong 1492]now, but thou shalt know [γινώσκω/ ginóskó/Strong 1097] hereafter.’ And finally in Heb 8.11, ‘They shall not teach . . . saying, Know [γινώσκω/ ginóskó/Strong 1097]) the Lord; because all shall know [οἶδα/oida/Strong 1492]me.’ The word [οἶδα/oida/Strong 1492]is used of Christ as knowing the Father, and as knowing the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees, of Paul’s knowledge of ‘a man in Christ,’ (2 Cor 2:12) and of the Christian’s knowledge that he has eternal life.

Conclusion

Jesus and the "we" he mentions had a deep, personal knowledge from real experience. This knowledge affected who they were, what they did, and it made them so well-known for the impact it had on their character that it drew the attention of Pharisees like Nicodemus who wanted to know more because their knowledge of the same was only theoretical.


Works consulted

biblehub.com

biblestudytools.com

studylight.org

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"We" are the prophets or people who speak what God has told them to speak... aka prophets. Nicodemus was a learned man. He would have known who "we" are. After the conversation with Jesus, Nicodemus went public with his faith in Jesus all the way to helping to bury Jesus.

So many Jews would not believe what the prophets said, no matter how many times their prophecies came true or what miracles they saw. And there was no exception with Christ. They had stiff necks and hardened hearts. The Holy Spirit is the one doing the telling, and the Holy Spirit was the one uniting thread in all prophets and Jesus.

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There are two halves to Jesus’ statement.

("We" stands for humans, whereas "Our" stands for the Trinity)

Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen,
but you do not receive our testimony. (John 3:11, ESV)

When Jesus says “we”, he’s talking with Nicomedus, well-educated, but a human on earth. Jesus can therefore include himself.

However, with the second half of Jesus' statement, he turns to exclude only humans and says "but 'you' do not receive ‘our’ testimony.” (i.e. that of Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit). Jesus has just been explaining to Nicodemus that he needs faith to understand what he is being told regarding heaven.

Then Jesus continues with the next two verses:

"If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? 13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.(John 3:12-13, ESV)

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  • I think you should include additional supporting texts like John 8:18, John 15:26, John 5:37 Jul 21 '19 at 15:29
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    Your interpretation depends on English word order for the exclusion. This is not reflected in the Greek ~ what we know, we speak, and what we have seen, we testify to, but our testimony, you-people do not receive.
    – 習約塔
    Jul 22 '19 at 20:23
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The first "we" in the story is not from Jesus' lips but from Nicodemus':

[Jhn 3:1-2 ASV] (1) Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews: (2) the same came unto him by night, and said to him, Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that thou doest, except God be with him.

When Nicodemus said "we" he meant "we Pharisees". The Pharisees were a passionate Jewish sect of 2nd temple Judaism (the Roman period) that were passionate about orthopraxy. Paul was a Pharisee. The Pharisees ran schools to make Jerusalem more devoted to religion.

However, some suspect that since he came at night, he was only saying "we" as a cover. He was pretending to "talk shop" but in fact he was there on personal business. If so, then when Jesus responds "we" in verse 11 it could be taken as a gentle mockery.

However, I wonder if perhaps he might have been there to discuss joining forces? While in Jerusalem for Passover Jesus made a big impression on many Jews. Nicodemus appears to be among them:

[Jhn 2:23-25 ASV] (23) Now when he was in Jerusalem at the passover, during the feast, many believed on his name, beholding his signs which he did. (24) But Jesus did not trust himself unto them, for that he knew all men, (25) and because he needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man; for he himself knew what was in man.

So might Nicodemus been trying to get Jesus to join the Pharisees? If so, then Jesus' "we" would be a response on behalf of himself and his disciples to the Pharisees. "You must be part of the spiritual resurrection of the lost sheep of the house of Israel (the northern kingdom - Ezekiel 37).


To clarify what is going on I would like to make a few observations.

  • Nicodemus is a "leader of the Judeans"
  • Jesus was constantly clashing with and blasting the Judeans
  • Jesus was of Judean tribal affiliation
  • however Jesus was a Nazarene which was in northern Israel and his base was in Capernaum which was also in northern Israel
  • Jesus said he was only sent to "fish out" the **lost sheep of the northern tribe**
  • whereas the southern kingdom was divinely hardened ala Pharaoh, God said he would spiritually resurrect an elect number of men of the northern tribes, heal their backsliding etc. through a new covenant. IE: Rebirth. See Eze 37.

So when Jesus says "You are the teacher of Israel and you don't understand these things" he is saying that Nicodemus positions himself (and the other Pharisees) as teachers of the people of the northern tribes ["Israel"] but says Nicodemus doesn't understand or believe because they have not been reborn ala Ezekiel 37.

Contrast all of this to Nicodemus who is "an Israelite in whom is no guile". He was resurrected/reborn.

So Jesus' "we" in this scenario refers to new covenant believers. The remnant. The elect.

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