I received this question in a recent email from a reader:
In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus meets Andrew, et al, and they all believe Him to be Messiah. Why are we told in John 2:11 that they believed in Him after His first miracle?
The questioner essentially sees an apparent contradiction between two texts in John’s Gospel. He knows that God’s Word does not contradict itself. But he doesn’t see the solution either. So he is reaching out to me to see if I can help.
John 2:11 reads, “This beginning of signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory; and His disciples believed in Him” (emphasis added).
We know from John 3:16 that the people referred to here are born again. Anyone who believes in Him has everlasting life.
We really don’t know who “His disciples” refers to. The one asking me this question makes the assumption that it is the new believers from John 1:39-52.
I made a similar assumption in the first edition of The Grace New Testament Commentary:
Some suggest that v 11 reports the time His disciples first believed in Him. However, Nathanael, Peter, Andrew, and Philip had already come to believe in Him. Thus, while it could be said that they believed in Him at this point, it would not be accurate to say that they first believed in Him on this occasion.
John could mean that all those who were following Jesus at this beginning stage of His ministry were believers (and born again; cf. 3:16). If this view is correct, then Judas was not yet a disciple, nor were any of the unbelieving disciples who are mentioned in 6:64. More likely, not wanting to discuss the exceptions at this point, John presents the picture in general terms (pp. 370-71).
Until very near the end of his ministry, Zane Hodges said John 2:11 did not refer to when the disciples first believed, but that John was simply saying that they believed (cf. The Gospel Under Siege, p. 103; Grace in Eclipse, p. 211). He thought that the words His disciples referred to those mentioned in John 1.
However, at the time of his death in 2008, Zane was working on a commentary on John and he changed his view. We published the portion he completed, John 1-6, as Faith in His Name. In that commentary Zane suggested a different understanding of John 2:11:
2:11. This miracle constituted the beginning of signs for Jesus. It is possible that this simply means it was the first of the miracles John chooses to record. More likely it represents the very first of all the miracles that Jesus actually did. We may at least say that on the pages of the NT it is certainly the earliest in time of any miracle of which we are aware.
As mentioned above (under vv 1-4), we do not know who the disciples were who attended this occasion with Jesus. Based on 1:43 we might conjecture that Philip attended, but there is no special reason to think so. In fact, he may well have gone on to Bethsaida, his hometown (see 1:44), which was not far from Cana. Still less should we think of Andrew, Peter and the unknown disciple, since the narrative leaves them in the area where they met Jesus. Only Nathaniel was actually from Cana (see 21:2), but there is not the slightest hint that He followed Jesus north at this time.
We do know, however, that it was possible to become a disciple of Jesus without believing in Him (see 6:61-65). After all, the word disciple simply means a student or pupil. Respected rabbis in Israel might be expected to attract men who wished to learn from them. In his unsaved days Paul himself had been a pupil of the highly respected Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). As we have previously learned from this book (1:38), Jesus was already regarded as a rabbi. This in itself implies that by this time He must have had a following at least in Galilee.
What we learn in John 2:11 is this: the disciples who came to the wedding with Jesus had evidently not yet believed in Him as the Christ. No doubt they regarded Him as a rabbi of exceptional character and teaching skills. Even John the Baptist knew of Jesus’ personal righteousness before identifying Him as the Christ (see Matt 1:13-14). But as much as they must have admired Jesus as a rabbi, these particular disciples were not yet believers.
In all likelihood, therefore, the disciples who were invited with Jesus to this occasion constituted a Galilean circle composed of men known to the wedding hosts. They had not been with Jesus in Bethany beyond the Jordan (see 1:28) nor had they heard John the Baptist’s testimony about Him. But now the sign Jesus has just done leads them to believe in Him (emphasis added).
It is worth noting that this miracle was performed out of the public view, since our Lord’s “hour” for manifestation had “not yet come” (2:4). Even the master of ceremonies is unaware of what has transpired, as are the other guests at the wedding as well. But the disciples who were with Jesus at the wedding had the opportunity to hear the instructions He gave to the servants and they could observe the results. This aroused in them the belief that He was more than an outstanding Rabbi. He was also the Christ.
Obviously, the writer is telling us that this impressive first miracle had exactly the effect that he mentions in his thematic statement in John 20:30-31. Right up front, therefore, in “this beginning of signs,” we learn that Jesus’ miraculous works are indeed effective in awakening faith in His name.
I find myself wondering which view is correct. Does John 2:11 tell us when some unnamed disciples of Jesus first came to faith in Him? Or is it a general statement that His disciples believed in Him, without any intention of saying when they first believed? (John might be saying that some first believed when they saw Him turn water into wine and some who had believed in Him earlier continued to believe in Him.)
The expression His disciples is vague at the start of John’s Gospel. This is before the calling of the Twelve.
A comparison of John 2:11 and John 2:23 leads to more questions for me. John 2:11 says, “His disciples believed in Him.” John 2:23 says, “many believed in His name when they saw the signs which He did.” The former does not specifically say that His disciples believed in Him when they saw the sign He did when He turned water into wine.
Either view makes sense of John 2:11 considering the entire faith-alone message in John’s Gospel.
I’m not sure which view is correct. I will continue to meditate on this question.
But I have a reason for this blog beyond grappling with a text.
I see two lessons here.
First, when you think you see some sort of contradiction between two passages, realize that there is no contradiction even if you don’t see the solution yet. God is true. God’s Word is true. Be a Berean (Acts 17:11).
Second, keep on studying and learning. Zane Hodges was 76 when he died. He apparently changed his view on John 2:11 when he began working on this commentary at around age 75. After teaching John 2:11 one way for over fifty years, Zane changed his understanding after more detailed study. I find that both amazing and challenging. Our understanding of Scripture should not be set in stone. We should allow the Holy Spirit to keep teaching us.
Am I teachable? That is a question we should all ask ourselves. (If the answer is no, we should ask God to make us teachable!)