Spurious or Secret Saints?
by Bob Wilkin
23Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover, during the feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did. 24But Jesus did not commit Himself to them, because He knew all men, 25and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.
These three verses are seemingly simple and straightforward: Some people in Jerusalem believed in Jesus, yet He didn't commit Himself to them. The verses are simple and straightforward for those who understand the purpose of John's Gospel and a theme he uses throughout the book: the secret believer motif. These verses become extremely difficult to those who fail to take these into account.
The Verdict of Most Commentators: Spurious Saints
Commentators almost all take the view that the believers mentioned in John didn't truly believe in Jesus. This, of course, is a bit puzzling. How can a person believe in Jesus and yet not believe in Jesus? It would seem that if a person didn't believe in Jesus, then he shouldn't be called a believer. Certainly John shouldn't tell us that they "believed in His name" if they didn't.
Here are some representative explanations by commentators about those who "believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did":
Many trusted in his name; i.e., because of the manner in which his power was displayed they accepted him as a great prophet and perhaps even as the Messiah. This, however, is not the same as saying that they surrendered their hearts to him. Not all faith is saving faith (William Hendriksen, John, p. 127, italics his).
believed in His name. This expression in 1:12 describes a faith that is adequate; here seemingly it is not (Raymond E. Brown, John, p. 126, italics his).
Sadly, their faith was spurious, and Jesus knew it (D. A. Carson, John, p. 184).
Compare 1:12 and 8:30, note. In this place the phrase seems to imply the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, but such a Messiah as Him for whom they looked, without any deeper trust (for the most part) in His Person (v. 24)" (B. F. Westcott, John, p. 45).
Problems with the Spurious Saints View
These statements are remarkable! Westcott contends, and Hendriksen thinks it conceivable, that those in question believed in Jesus as the Messiah, yet they don't think these people believed so as to have eternal life. This flies in the face of the purpose statement of John's Gospel: "But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name" (John 20:31).
Brown recognizes the inconsistency between his understanding of this phrase in 1:12 and here. However, he gives no explanation for the inconsistency. How could John write in 1:12 that "those who believe in His name" are "children of God" and yet here speak of people who "believed in His name" and yet did not become children of God?
Carson says that their faith was spurious; yet he gives no evidence to sustain his view. However, in an interesting way, he does deal with the problem of the use of the same phrase in 1:12. Perhaps seeing this problem coming, Carson indicated in his discussion of 1:12 that there was no blanket promise there:
The entire expression does not guarantee that those who exercise such faith are genuine believers (see comments on 2:23-25); but at its best, such faith yields allegiance to the Word, trusts him completely, acknowledges his claims and confesses him with gratitude. That is what it means to 'receive' him" (John, pp. 125-26).
Where in John do we find faith defined as "allegiance," "acknowledg[ing] his claims," and "confess[ing] him with gratitude"? Nicodemus heard none of this. Nor did the woman at the well or the other Samaritans from Sychar. Nor did the man born blind, or Martha, or anyone else in John's Gospel.
Dr. Carson has reversed the analogy of faith! Rather than going to a clear passage like 1:12 and understanding other parallel passages in light of it, he goes to a more difficult passage and allows his understanding of it to determine his understanding of 1:12.
The Secret Saints View
There are two reasons why such commentators adopt this believing-unbeliever interpretation. Both are better explained under the secret saints view, which I will explain in a moment. First, the Greek word translated commit in v. 24 is the same as believed in v. 23. "Many believed [episteusan] in His name…but Jesus did not commit [episteuen] Himself to them." This is thought by many commentators to suggest, if not demand, that those who believed in His name didn't really believe in His name. They reason that if they had really believed in His name, then Jesus would have committed Himself to them.
Second, the text indicates that they believed "when they saw the signs which He did." This is viewed as being less than saving faith. Support is often drawn from our Lord's remark to Thomas in 20:29 where He pronounces a blessing on those "who have not seen and yet have believed."
A failure to understand the secret believer motif results in a failure to understand the Gospel itself. The Gospel of John is not merely about how one can be saved. The one who believes in Jesus receives the life of God, a life which is full of potential. In order to grow and mature in this life, one must walk in fellowship with Christ and become one of His "friends": "You are My friends if you do whatever I command you" (15:14).
Jesus only commits (or entrusts) Himself to those who obey Him (John 14:21). Openly confessing one's faith in Christ is a central aspect of obedience. The Gospel of John tells of people who believe in Jesus and yet who are afraid of the Jewish leaders and who keep their faith in Him secret. Compare 12:42-43 and 19:38.
There was a great deal of pressure, especially in Jerusalem, to keep secret one's belief that Jesus was the Christ. This pressure was so great that when Jesus restored the sight of a man in Jerusalem who had been blind since birth, his parents were unwilling even to mention that Jesus had been the One who did it "because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had agreed that if anyone confessed that He was the Christ, he would be put out of the synagogue" (9:22).
John doesn't come out directly and indicate what it was about these new believers that led Jesus not to commit Himself to them. However, he does make the problem clear. Jesus "knew what was in man" (2:25). The word man forms an unmistakable bridge between 2:23-25 and 3:1ff, "Now there was a man…" (3:1).
Nicodemus illustrates the problem these men had. Nicodemus is the ultimate example of the secret believer in John. That he first came to Jesus "by night" is mentioned not once, but three times in the Fourth Gospel (3:2; 7:50; 19:39). Precisely when Nicodemus comes to faith in Christ is not made clear in John. Most likely it happened the very night he came to Jesus and the Lord told him that he would be "born again" if he believed in Him for eternal life (see 3:1-21).
Facing the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus slightly cracks the door on his faith in Christ (John 7:45-52). While he doesn't openly confess his belief, he does challenge his fellow rulers regarding their judgment of Jesus, and receives a stinging rebuke for his efforts (8:52). After the crucifixion, Nicodemus is there with Joseph of Arimathea, openly claiming Jesus' body for burial (19:38-42). John clearly indicates that Joseph was "a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews." The fact that Nicodemus and Joseph are linked together in the text indicates that Nicodemus himself had also been a secret disciple of Jesus.
Even before these new believers of v. 23 had done anything, Jesus knew what was in them. He knew they were or would be afraid to confess Him for fear of the Jews. He knew that they weren't ready to be His friends. They weren't worthy to learn more about the Father and about following Jesus. Therefore, Jesus "didn't commit Himself to them." This has nothing to do with eternal life. Nowhere in John or in the entire NT is there any suggestion that only those whom Jesus commits Himself to have eternal life. In fact, this verse clearly shows the opposite, that Jesus doesn't commit Himself to all believers.
The objection that this faith was a result of the miraculous signs Jesus did during Passover in no way puts down their faith. The reason John included signs in His book was to lead people to faith in Christ (20:31). While there is a special blessing on those who believe without seeing attendant signs (20:29), this in no way invalidates the faith that results from signs (see Hodges, "Untrustworthy Believers," Bibliotheca Sacra (April-June 1978), pp. 141-43). If that were the case, then John certainly would not have included any signs in his book!
Application: Don't Be a Secret Saint
Rather, John is encouraging his readers to confess their faith in Christ openly so that our Lord will commit Himself to them. While all believers have life, fullness of life is only possible as we obey Christ. And, confessing our faith in Christ is an essential element in obedience. Only trustworthy believers enjoy intimate friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ.