Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

142. "One Man must die for the People (John 11:45-57)*

Jesus had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, and he had done it before a great crowd of witnesses, many of whom were influential Jews from Jerusalem. It was a deliberate challenge to the leaders of the nation to face the unshakeable truth that he was "the Messiah, the Son of God, the Coming One" (11 :27). It was on appeal to them to yield him the loyalty he had a right to command.

The immediate effect of the miracle was to intensify that division amongst the Pharisees which had been evident when the blind man was healed (9 :16). For some it meant conviction and a decision, taken with reluctance (12 :42), that the claims of Jesus were true. But the majority with growing hostility, were driven into alliance with their enemies the Sadducees.

Now, for the first time, the Sadducee chief priests were seriously concerned by the activities of this Nazarene—and for very good reason: the raising of Lazarus had shattered one of their chief dogmas, that there is no resurrection.

"What do we?" they kept on asking with a rather pathetic stubborn bewilderment, "for this man doeth many signs." By calling the Lord's miracles "signs" they admitted to one another what nothing would have constrained them to confess in public. The husbandmen were even now saying: "This is the heir: come, let us kill him, that the inheritance may be ours" (Lk.20:14). Or were they falling back on the Scripture (Dt.13 :l-32) which bade Jewish rulers discard the man whose "signs" seemed indisputable but whose moral teaching was palpably wrong? As though that could give them any comfort regarding Jesus! Yet the command there (v.5) to put such a miracle-worker to death evidently became the springboard for their next decision about Jesus (v.53). The irony of it!—for if that Scripture had been properly applied, what would have happened to them? (cp. also Ps.28:4,5).

Amid their puzzlement one thing was clear: action of some kind must be taken against Jesus of Nazareth: "If we let him thus alone (contrast Acts 5 :38), all men will believe on him. And the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation." The "place" they spoke of was the temple (see Notes). Both it and the people of Israel were theirs, forsooth, to minister to their self-importance and pride!

They feared that the rising fervour of the people regarding Jesus might lead to insurrection against the Romans. This in turn would bring repressive measures and the temple, the centre and focus of all their influence and power, would be destroyed.

All this was alarmist, for they knew right well that if violence did flair up it would be in spite of and not because of Jesus. And when, during the next three months the Barabbas insurrection took place (Lk. 23 :19), there was violence and bloodshed (Lk.13 :l-5?) but no holocaust.

Or these men may have contemplated the possibility of Herod and themselves being removed from power so that the Romans might use Jesus, the son of David, as a puppet king of the Jews. To give the people a king descended from David would be a very popular move. It is not unlikely that the Roman authorities, knowing the pacific character of Jesus, had considered using him in this way. But if the Jewish rulers had such fears, they were ill-founded. Is it possible to imagine Jesus co-operating in such a scheme?

The prophet Caiaphas

The Sadducee high priest, Caiaphas (Cephas), addressing himself to a Sanhedrin which was predominantly Pharisee, broke into the perplexed discussion with a rough hectoring speech: "Ye know nothing at all, nor consider (s.w. Is.53 :4) that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." (cp. Ps.140 :9; 57 :6). These words "people, nation" were specially appropriate. In LXX the former means "Israel, God's own people", and the latter means "Gentiles." Thus the prophet Caiaphas unconsciously referred to those, for whom Christ was to die, as the elect, and the Jews as a cast-off Gentile race.

"It is expedient for us"— no charge against Jesus was possible, but only this expediency, the policy of the politician in every generation. Here was Caiaphas, a shrewd, far-sighted man (humanly speaking), putting the alternatives before them with stark realism: either this Jesus dies or he will bring the whole of Jewry crashing down in indescribable disaster.

This is what he meant, but John the apostle, whose spiritual insight into the meaning of events is for ever taxing the power of his purblind readers, saw it differently: "This spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation." On this Wordsworth comments: "Jewish prophecy expires with a prophecy of Jesus on its lips".

Clearly, to John the death of Jesus "for that nation" meant something much more profound than it did to Caiaphas. John's interpretation was right, for the crucifixion of Jesus meant assurance, security, life for any of that nation who had the faith to accept him as such. And Caiaphas was wrong. For Jesus died as Caiaphas planned that he should, and as a direct consequence of that the Romans did come and take away their "place" (the temple) and their nation.

Pilate's policy of expediency worked out the same way. "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend." So he did not let this Jesus go, and as a result today the Nazarene is heir to the throne of Caesar. And it made things no better for Pilate. His term of office ended in disgrace—he was not Caesar's friend. Thus "He that sitteth in the heavens" handles human scheming, and unregenerate men never learn the lesson.

But John had learned, and—perhaps unconscious of the unerring guidance behind his pen—he wrote of the unerring guidance in the tongue of Caiaphas: "being high priest that year he prophesied!".

As God used the wilful Balaam to speak forth words of truth and soberness, so He could equally well make Caiaphas ben Machiavelli the mouthpiece of an inspired oracle.

There need be no difficulty here, for not infrequently God has used men to speak His truth without their being aware of it. Caiaphas's rending of his high-priestly robes; Pilate's notice affixed to the cross of Jesus; the words of Darius to Daniel about to be thrown to the lions: "Thy God ... He will deliver thee" (Dan. 6 :16); Rabshakeh's warning against Jewish reliance on Egypt (2 Kgs. 18 :21)— true prophecies, all of them!

High Priest that year

The difficulty still remains as to what connection this might have with Caiaphas being high-priest that year! It cannot be for nothing that John writes the fact three times.

A prophet is one who communicates the will of God to the people. The only prophecy that Caiaphas could make as high priest was the duty which fell to him that year, as it did each year by virtue of his office—the decision on the Day of Atonement, by casting lots, which goat should be slain as the sin offering for the people (Lev,16:8).

Thus John bids his readers see Jesus identified by God's high priest as the true sacrifice for the sins of the people, and through that sacrifice the end of the temple and also the end of Israel as a people of special privilege. But he is not content to stop there: "And not for that nation only but also that he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad."

One scrutinises the words of Caiaphas in vain for some pronouncement capable of bearing this kind of meaning to the insight of the apostle, The high priest may have added in his speech something else to this effect: 'The death of this Jesus is in the interests of both parties-Pharisees and Sadducees; and of course by it our brethren dispersed through the empire will be saved also (because it is the temple that holds them together); also there will be a smile of favour from the Romans because through our prompt action upheaval throughout the country has been avoided. In this way the whole nation will not perish (at the hands of the Romans, but instead through one man's death Jews and Romans can be friends together).' On reflection this seems to be a fairly obvious argument for Caiaphas to add in his attempt at persuading the Council to unite in decisive action against Jesus.

Such an argument would be immediately susceptible of the very different kind of interpretation which John implies in his comment: "gathering together in one both Jews and Gentiles."

But how could this link up with Caiaphas's work of prophecy as high priest that year? The answer appears to be supplied by an important detail in the Law of Moses: the Day of Atonement ritual, and in particular the fast which was its outstanding feature, was binding upon all, "whether it be one in your own country, or a stranger that sojourneth among you (Lev. 16:29).

Thus the Day of Atonement sacrifice "gathered together in one" both Jews and Gentiles, and the one sacrifice picked out by prophecy of the high-priest sufficed to cover (the sins of all.

Ephraim ministry

Very differently, evil men in Jerusalem who should have been humbling themselves before Jesus, coolly decided that to suit their self-interest he must die. It was a situation which had arisen directly from the raising of Lazarus. Thus, with beautiful symbolism, close connection is made between the death of Christ and the resurrection of his friends.

And Jesus knew of their scheming, either through the wisdom and insight that was in him, or because warning reached him from some secret sympathiser in the Sanhedrin. So he withdrew from Jerusalem to a remote place beyond the Jordan (or, as some think, 13 miles north of Jerusalem). And apparently he took Lazarus with him, for his life was now under threat also (12 :10,11—and note that v.9 implies his absence until Passover week).

In the way in which John reports this move to the country it is possible to see his symbolic mind still at work: "Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews (the withdrawing of Jewish opportunity to hear the gospel), but he went thence into the (Gentile) wilderness, into a city called Ephraim ("Fruitful"), and there he continued with his disciples." The allusion to Ephraim is specially significant as recalling the prophecy which the patriarch Jacob made concerning Joseph's younger son, foreshadowing the inclusion of Gentiles in God's chosen people: "the younger brother shall be greater, and his seed shall become the fulness of Gentiles" (Gen.48 :19; Rom. 11 -.25). Ephraim was also the beginning of the end for those who rejected David's right to be king in Jerusalem (2 Sam. 18 :6).

There is a gap of some two or three months between verses 54, 55, and then comes more of this symbolism. John paints a brief but vivid picture of the build-up of excitement in Jerusalem (11:55,56) when "the Jews' passover was nigh at hand." Moses had taught them to call it: "the Lord's passover" (Lev. 23 :2,5), but the rejection of Jesus meant the rejection of their devotions (Is. l :24).

The Passover pilgrims who were early in the holy city to ensure their ceremonial cleansing before the feast talked eagerly in the crowd about Jesus. They were quite sure in themselves (Gk. ou me) that after what had happened he would not risk coming to Jerusalem, the more so since there had been public proclamation that any man knowing of his whereabouts must lay information with the rulers. This policy may have been the chief priests' plan to scare Jesus away from the capital. On the other hand, one scholar has suggested that Jesus had been formally condemned to death in absentia and that by the time Passover came round the legal period of forty days (according to the Talmud) for making a rebuttal of the charge had expired. This interesting suggestion lacks full support, and is not easy to harmonize with the insistence on a full legal trial of Jesus when he was arrested.

The remarkable thing is that although there was now a price on the head of Jesus no one did betray him until at last his own familiar friend handed him over to his enemies.

Notes: Jn. 11:45-57

The Jews which come to Mary. Why to Mary and not Martha?
What do we? Not: What should we do? The implication is: See what amazing things he does; and we do nothing.
Thus seems to allude back to 10 :39, when they had allowed (sic!) Jesus to escape them.

All men will believe on Him. They speak as though this would be the crowning disaster.

Place. Compare the common Old Testament usage of "place" (maqom) for "sanctuary" or "altar"; e.g. Gen.22 :3,4,9,14; 28 :11-19; Dt.12 :11-21; Ps.24 :3; 26 :8; 132 :5; ls.60 :13; 66 :1 etc. Also, Acts 6 :14; 7:33,49;21 :28.
One of them. This unusual and emphatic Gk. phrase is really a Hebraism meaning: the outstanding man among them.
One man should die. Gk: mello means either (a) 'is about to', or (b) 'he is destined to', i.e. this is the will of God— another detail in this unconscious prophecy.
He prophesied. And so also did Isaiah, concerning this very situation: 28 :14-22 (some of the details are difficult).
Gather together . . . scattered. Consider here the remarkable fitness of Hos.l :11: "gathered together . . . scattered;" Is.49 :5,6; "Israel not gathered . . . Gentiles;" cp. Rom.9 :26.
Jesus therefore. This makes a definite link with v.53.

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