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)

  • 4
    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.
    – Jesse
    Mar 16, 2019 at 6:33
  • 2
    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, 2019 at 17:06

9 Answers 9


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).

  • 2
    I stand by my own answer, but this answer is also very helpful! (Wanted to go on record.)
    – Jesse
    Mar 16, 2019 at 12:18

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.


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





"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.


The spiritual truths Jesus is teachings are not unique to himself or anyone else (like John the Baptizer). The We simply refer to those following the word of God; it is simply for contrasting of groups (we as opposed to you). So, despite Nicodemus being a Jew himself, has become an outsider, a rival due to his corrupt camp of ignorance, an Us VS. Them group. There's a clear distinction in the groups and sects within the Jews. Compare the Essenes sect, which was particular devoted to holiness, but the mainstream sect was dominated by the Pharisees sect.

  • John 4:22: “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.”

  • Romans 3:2: “Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.”

  • Psalm 147:19-20: “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules. Praise the LORD!”


I would like to add to the hermeneutics thought. First, John 3:11 is not a stand alone verse, no verse is. This text belongs in context of the subject at hand; the paragraph, the chapter, the chapters that come before and those that come after and in harmony with the Gospels and the entire Bible.

In summary, in John chapter 1, John the Baptist had started preaching in the desert as a witness to the "light" (Jesus). The scriptures in Mark record it this way about John the Baptist, "John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin" (Mark 1:4). The Mosaic Law prophesied of John the Baptist coming and the One (Jesus) who would follow him. (Isaiah 40:3, Mal.3:1). John was preaching and baptizing folks for confessing their sins. It's important to noticed that John rebuked the Pharisees & Sadducees because of their disbelief which is our concerned verse. John 3:11 is an extension and continuation of these men's thinking. More important is next, we see John baptizing Jesus. Jesus set the example.

In Matthew 4, Matthew recorded John the Baptist being put into prison and Jesus traveling to Galilee, Capernaum specifically, to fulfill other prophecy about Himself. While there, Jesus starts choosing His original 12 disciples (Apostles). In 4:17 the scriptures record that "from that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent for the kingdom of Heaven has come near".

In John chapter 2, we read of the story of Jesus turning water to wine in the presence of His mother, disciples, and others. So we know Jesus already had some of His disciples. Here, His first miracle (John 2:11) was performed which set some things in motion that God did not want reversed. This miracle exposed who Jesus is and glorified God. So, the setting in John 3:11 is that the Messiah (Jesus) had arrived on earth and began His ministry to the lost, which included the nation of Israel, who were already struggling with Jesus being the Messiah found in their Laws.

From this knowledge we could easily jump to conclude that the "we" that Jesus is speaking about in John 3:11 is John the Baptist and Jesus Himself. After all, John was preaching about Jesus and Jesus was preaching too. Possibly we could include some of his apostles, but seemingly that is a stretch since Jesus had recently chosen them and had just began His teaching them and preaching to the lost. Since we don't know how long it had been from the time He chose His disciples, up to meeting Nicodemus' coming to Him that night, this is certainly speculation. We do know Jesus' ministry was only about 3 years long and He had just begun.

In John 3:13 Jesus changes to first person singular, "I", from third person "we" in verse 11. He states that, "the only one who has ever gone into Heaven is the One who came from Heaven". This is significant because here we know He has shifted from talking about more than one to talking only about Himself.

In John 3:3 Jesus brings up the topic of being born again to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, an Isrealite, a counsel man. Nicodemus is a very educated man in the Mosaic Law (Tora). He is a very public figure. A little reading in scripture and about Roman government set-up sheds quite a light on Nicodemus position. All that Jesus said to Nicodemus is logical to him and is founded in his Mosaic scriptural knowledge. (Joel 2:28,29, Zach. 12:10, Isaiah 32:14,15, Isaiah 44:3, Isaiah 4:4). The confusion in Nicodemus' thinking must be understood from his perspective, his era.

Until Jesus' death on the cross, the "mystery" of God's new kingdom was just that, a mystery to those living before the cross. Prior to Jesus' death, God had chosen a specific people to be His people. No one knew what the new kingdom would look like nor when God would establish it. They only knew it was going to happen... someday. Why would God, the creator of everything, use an impoverished family and human to establish a kingdom? And why on earth would He invite some poor dude living in the desert to introduce His King of His Kingdom? So, they had extremely little concept of a God who would allow just anyone into His kingdom.

The church that we are accustomed to, the one that Jesus established through the apostles was not imaginable. It's why the apostle Paul spoke of the "mystery of Christ" so much in his letter to the church in Ephesus (Eph.3). The gentile people were now invited to be a participant as an elite, an heir, an equal to Israel. The Israelites struggled with understanding that there was no longer to be only one nation in the Kingdom, but a kingdom made up of all nations. God now adds anyone to His church, who is washed in baptism. It is why Nicodemus went to Jesus at night. Jesus was teaching things contrary to how a man is purified from sin under the Old Law, but teaching what the prophets predicted how a man would be purified in the new kingdom. Jesus taught the new kingdom was near, as well as John the Baptist. He had indeed come.

This is the subject in the entire scriptural context of 3:11. In verse 5, Jesus mentions both water and Spirit. Nicodemus knew the Law. He knew exactly what Jesus had just pointed out. Jesus mentions the Spirit again in verses 5,6, & 8. He knew that the Law taught that a man needed a witness to validate who He was. He also knew the Law said the Spirit would testify for the Son of Man. Here Jesus is teaching Nicodemus, witnessing the truth about Himself, and having the Spirit as validity of Him being God in flesh. And that prompts Nicodemus to ask his question, "How can this be?". Nicodemus himself is privileged to lay his eyes on his Lord! How would we respond if Jesus walked up and said, "Hi, I'm Jesus!"? "If you don't believe me, ask the Spirit!" We might quiver and say, "How can this be"? "I wasn't expecting you".

So the "we" in John 3:11 is Jesus,the Spirit, the Law, God, and yes even men like John the Baptist. There are many who witness for God. In this isolated, very private, one-on-one between Jesus and Nicodemus, Jesus needed no one except Himself. But in an effort to help Nicodemus' understanding, Jesus called on the Spirit, and the Law as witness. Why? Because Jesus came to seek and save the lost... all of us, even those in denial.

John WROTE in 3:19, "This is the verdict, light has come into the world, but people loved the darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil." John was referring to the Pharisees, teachers of the law, Sadducees, and even the gentiles who refused Jesus as the Christ and had Him crucified on the cross.

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  • This is a very fulsome answer. Hoping you don't mind, but I will lay it out with a few more paragraphs to make it easier to read. Also, there are two particular parts that actually answer the question, but the rest is really the back-story, relevant though all of that is to grasping the context. I will lay it out to highlight the key parts. You can roll all of that back if you don't like it. But a very full and interesting answer!
    – Anne
    Jul 12, 2022 at 16:34

There are multiple ways the change from singular to plural would be understood.

There is the initial narrative, the immediate understanding when first read or heard. After John the Baptist's second identification of Jesus as the Lamb of God (1:36), two disciples of John follow Jesus. From that point on, the narrative proceeds to imply Jesus is always in the company of His first disciples. In this case, even though there is no mention, "we" indicates Jesus was not alone when Nicodemus came.

There is the initial reflective narrative which considers what has happened so far and contemplates if others might be present. Jesus traveled from Capernaum with His mother, brothers, and disciples to observe the Passover in Jerusalem. Passover is observed with family; therefore, it is possible His mother and brothers might also be present.

However, even though it is likely Jesus was not alone, the discussion is presented as if only Nicodemus and Jesus are present. This purposeful omission of the physical presence of others, also leads one to understand "we" includes John the Baptist.

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)

The reader knows the Jerusalem delegation, who were identified as being sent from the Pharisees (1:24), heard the Baptist's witness. In this case "we" only includes John the Baptist with Jesus: you, Nicodemus, do not receive our testimony, what I and John the Baptist have said. This is the preferred initial meaning since up to this point, only John and Jesus have given testimony.

The change from singular to plural while remaining silent about the actual presence of the disciples and His family is a literary device intended to invite immediate reflection on who Jesus includes with Himself. True, "we" can be seen as foreshadowing the future testimony of the disciples, yet in terms of what has taken place thus far, the disciples have not yet become witnesses, especially to the Pharisees.

The initial understanding to mean only John the Baptist and Jesus follows how the course of events has been described. A key aspect of the Baptist's witness is described the same way:

29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! 30 This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.’ 31 I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.” 32 And John bore witness: “I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. 33 I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God.” (John 1)

After speaking to the delegation from Jerusalem, the next day the Baptist recognizes Jesus as both the Lamb of God and the Son of God. With no mention of who was present, the reader is left to consider who was present. While it is reasonable to place the Baptist's disciples in the scene, it is equally obvious they did not follow until the following day.

After clearing the Temple, the Gospel explains how Jesus knew Nicodemus had not received John the Baptist's testimony:

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. (John 2)

This statement made in terms which apply to all also means specifically Nicodemus, a Pharisee and leader of the Jews who received the report from those sent to inquire of John the Baptist.

The Fourth Gospel often uses words and situations which have more than one meaning in which more than one understanding is not only possible but can be correct. The presentation of the Nicodemus Discourse falls into this category. The narrator has purposely omitted any details of who, besides Jesus, might have been present. When Jesus uses "we" the deliberate silence of the presence of others not only injects uncertainty into the event, it causes the reader to stop and reflect: who is we.

Since any and all possibilities are plausible and likely correct, the initial impression is one in which "we" means the same group who left Capernaum with Jesus and the narrator wants to make the point Nicodemus has heard and rejected the witness of John the Baptist.

At the heart of the Pharisees rejection of Jesus is their belief the Scriptures did not foresee the Messiah would be the unique monogenesis Son of God, the LORD Himself. They expected the Christ; they expected Elijah; they expected the Prophet. But that exhausted their understanding of who was coming:

22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.” (John 1)

The silence of who was present the next day implies the delegation had left and the silence as to the presence of John's disciples creates a singular witness from John the Baptist. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes a way the sin of the world; Jesus is the one who was before John; Jesus is the one on whom the Spirit descended and remained and will baptize with the Holy Spirit; Jesus is the one who is the Son of God. This leads to a complete understanding of "we:"

37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me (John 5)

At the time Jesus spoke, "we" would mean John the Baptist and Jesus. If what Jesus claims about Himself in the Gospel is believed, "we" means, John the Baptist, the Scripture, the Word who is Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.


In John 3:11, Jesus said, "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" (ESV). The use of "we" in this context appears to refer to Jesus and other witnesses, possibly including God the Father.

This use of "we" could emphasize the divine nature of Jesus as part of the Holy Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). Jesus may be including himself and the Father, suggesting a unified testimony about heavenly matters. However, it's important to note that the exact identity of the "we" is not explicitly specified in the verse.

As for whether Nicodemus understood what "we" meant, the text does not explicitly state Nicodemus's understanding or reaction to this specific use of "we." Nicodemus, a Pharisee and ruler of the Jews, was initially perplexed by Jesus' teachings and struggled to comprehend spiritual truths (John 3:4-9). He may not have fully grasped the depth of Jesus' statement at that moment.

To further illustrate the concept of "we" speaking from a position of knowledge, John 4:22 is referenced: "You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews" (KJV). In this verse, Jesus is speaking to a Samaritan woman at the well, highlighting the difference in understanding and worship between the Samaritans and the Jews. The "we" here refers to the Jewish people, emphasizing their knowledge and understanding of true worship and salvation. This reinforces the idea of "we" representing a group with a specific knowledge or understanding.


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.


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)

  • I think you should include additional supporting texts like John 8:18, John 15:26, John 5:37 Jul 21, 2019 at 15:29
  • 1
    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, 2019 at 20:23

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