John 3: 11 – Significance of First-Person Plural


Nicodemus begins the conversation with an assumption that they already knew who Jesus was. Why did Nicodemus use the first person plural (“we”)? In fact in John 3: 11, Jesus also uses “we”. Nicodemus seems to speak also for his colleagues, may be other Pharisees. The Pharisees use the plural in collective speech (Jn 9: 24; Mk 12: 14).

What is the meaning of the first person plural in John 3: 11?

Many explanations have been given in terms of majestic plural, association of Father’s witness with the Son’s, Jesus’ speaking together with his disciples, dialogue between Church and Synagogue, and so on. The First Letter of John, begins similarly with the first person plural: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have looked upon…” (1 Jn 1: 1). At the end of the introduction of the same letter, the writer says, “… And we are writing this that our joy may be complete” (1 Jn 1: 4). The writer includes other eyewitnesses of Jesus. In the same vein, the first person plural in John 3: 11 may imply the presence of the community of believers who give witness to Jesus Christ but is facing evident opposition and rejection (“… but you do not receive our testimony” Jn 3: 11). It can be majestic plural too.

From the literary point of view, however, the first person plural can be taken as a rebuttal used by Jesus to the “we” employed by Nicodemus. In John 3: 10, Jesus repeats the word “teacher” used by Nicodemus and in John 3: 11, “we” too. It hints at the arrogance of Nicodemus and so Jesus repetition of it becomes a parody.

Jesus picks up the expression “no one can” used by Nicodemus and gives the revelation. In fact, the verb “to be able” occurs six times in the section of John 3: 2-10. The understanding of Nicodemus about Jesus is theologically inadequate. He takes Jesus for a teacher approved by God. Jesus rather takes the discussion from the sensible level to the spiritual level. The context has similarity to Gospel of Luke 18: 18, where a ruler asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life because Jesus’ revelation points to the way one can enter the Kingdom of God. Only in this section of the Gospel of John, the evangelist uses the expression “Kingdom of God”. For the evangelist of the Gospel of John rather uses the word “life” or the expression “eternal life”.

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