John 11:45-53 (Midweek Lent 2—Ironies of the Passion)
“It Is Better That One Man Die for the People”
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
February 17, 2016
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
The text for today/tonight is John 11:45-53:
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.
During the Vietnam War, an army press officer is supposed to have said, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” There’s some controversy about whether or not he actually said that. But if he did, do you think he was trying to contradict himself? More likely, in the heat of questioning, he failed to see the irony of his statement. This year during Lent, we’re talking about irony—about situations that are different from what you would expect. Today/tonight, I want to focus on unintentional irony. Sometimes we do and say things that are ironic without even realizing it. Today/tonight we have just such a situation before us. Caiaphas, the high priest, makes one of the clearest statements of gospel you’ll ever find—and he never even realized it. His words are tonight’s irony of the passion: It is better that one man die for the people.
Caiaphas said this several weeks before Jesus’ last trip to Jerusalem. Ordinarily during Lent we focus on events that took place during the week before Jesus died. But this incident lays the foundation for so much that was going to happen that it’s worth our attention. The death of Christ was more than just a tragedy. Its significance goes far beyond the all-too-common realities of injustice and human cruelty. Caiaphas helps us to see what God had in mind. But Caiaphas was making a very different point. It is better that one man die for the people. This shows the guilt of Jesus’ enemies.
John tells us that many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary believed in Jesus because they saw what he did. Do you know what Jesus had just done? He had just raised Lazarus from the dead! It was one of those things you wish you could’ve seen. Jesus told the bystanders to roll the stone away and then shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” A man four days dead came out of the tomb—alive! Many people saw that Jesus indeed had the power to free them from death, and so they believed in him. There’s no irony in that.
Yet John says, “some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” You’d think that they would’ve been moved by seeing a dead man now alive. But all they could do was tattle. Then the Pharisees called an emergency meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council. The council was divided between Pharisees and Sadducees, and they usually disagreed about everything. But now they spoke with one voice: “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
Jesus’ enemies recognized that he was doing miracles. They didn’t deny that Lazarus had been dead and now he was alive. They understood that Jesus had raised him for the purpose of creating faith. What was their response? “Everybody’s going to believe in him!” They were terrified that Jesus was going to convert the whole nation of Israel to His gospel! They thought that would be a tragedy. It would spell the end of their understanding of the law and of Israel’s unique place in history. They couldn’t imagine that their country would continue in those circumstances. But more than that, they feared for themselves. From the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, these religious leaders had understood that Jesus was a threat to their authority. They claimed the right to interpret
the Scriptures. But Jesus was constantly telling them they were wrong, that their hearts were hard, that their religion of works was false. If they had lost their hold on the people, the Romans would get rid of them.
However, Caiaphas had a solution to their problem. He said, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” That statement ended the discussion. From that time forward, they plotted to take Jesus’ life. It was the only solution that made sense. Of course, it wasn’t the only solution that made sense. The world is full of people who disagree with us, and many of them have much more influence on public opinion and even morals than we do. But we don’t plot to kill them. If Jesus really were a false teacher, these men could have simply entrusted themselves to God and opposed his false teaching with the truth. But these teachers of Israel felt they had to kill him.
Why did they reach that conclusion? It wasn’t politics. It was hatred. In the next chapter we learn they even plotted to kill Lazarus. That’s how much they hated Jesus and his message. Where did that hatred come from? Unbelief. The Bible tells us that the sinful mind is God’s enemy—and all unbelievers have sinful minds. Jesus Himself tells us that the world will hate us because it hated Him. This is simply the most concrete example of that truth. So in the face of Jesus’ greatest miracle, his enemies determined to kill him.
That’s pretty ironic. But it may not seem like it has a great deal to do with us. After all, we don’t hate Jesus. We believe the Son of God became man to take our sins away. That’s why we’re here today/tonight. But each of us has the seed of unbelief in our hearts. Each of us has the pride of the Pharisees inside us, just waiting for an opportunity to spring up and crowd God out of our hearts and our lives. Even though we are churchgoing people, we aren’t immune. The Pharisees were the churchgoing people of their day. They studied their Bibles regularly. They even taught in
However, behind the appearance of faith lay hearts that were dead and cold. What killed those hearts? Sinful human pride. Pride kills faith. Faith says, “I need God to do everything for me.” Pride says, “I can do it all myself.” If we constantly tell ourselves how good we are, how dedicated we are, how lucky our church is to have us, then, my friends, we’re on the road to becoming Pharisees. If pride takes control of our hearts, hatred of the gospel will ultimately take control too, although it will probably hide itself behind the image of concern for our church, our traditions, or our children.
Are we guilty of pride? Well, pinch yourself. Did it hurt? Do you have flesh and blood? Then you are guilty of pride, because pride lives in the heart of every sinner. That sinful pride should carry us all down to hell. But pride is not the point John was making. Rather, the pride of these men became the means to an end—Jesus had to die in Jerusalem. That’s why he came. God had determined to take the hate and unbelief of these men and turn it into a gospel blessing, a blessing for all people. Because Jesus let these men kill him, our sin is paid for—even the seeds of pride that lurk in our hearts—and we are forgiven. Because the Holy Spirit has come to us in Baptism, because the Spirit comes to us when we hear that good news in the Gospel, God wages war against the pride in our hearts, day by day.
Caiaphas proclaimed that very gospel of God even though all he intended to communicate was hatred and self-serving practicality. Caiaphas was not in control that day. God was. God really made this statement to us: It is better that one man die for the people. This shows the love of God.
John says, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.” About fifteen hundred years earlier, God told Moses to make his brother Aaron the first high priest. God gave Aaron the Urim and the Thummim. What those were, exactly, the Bible never tells. But it does say what they were for: to “inquire” of the Lord. In some special way, God revealed his will to the high priest through those instruments. By Jesus’ day, they were lost. But the high priest still went into the temple once a year and made intercession before God. St. Paul calls preaching the gospel a “priestly duty” (Romans 15:16). God always intended his Old Testament priests to speak for him to his people. Just as he had done when the high priests were faithful, God made this high priest speak for him one last time.
Caiaphas was unaware of what the Holy Spirit was doing. That was ironic because God had given the priesthood to point to Jesus. The high priest was like an actor who performed a play for the people. For 1,500 years he brought blood sacrifices to God to show that the Messiah-Savior would one day come and sacrifice himself to pay for our sins. One last time, God spoke through the high priest to close out the Old Covenant and bring an end to symbols and sacrifices and to replace them with their fulfillment. After this prophecy was fulfilled, the Old Testament priesthood ended. There was no more need for sacrifices. The office of prophet—that office of proclaiming what our High Priest has done—passed from the physical nation of Israel to the Christian church.
Caiaphas preached a sermon that told why Jesus had to die. It was better in God’s sight that one man die so that the whole people would not perish. That sinful pride in our hearts is a universal human condition. All sinners have it. It condemns all of us to die and go to hell. But God did not want that to happen. So he sent his Son to die and pay for our pride. Jesus came as the true High Priest that Israel was waiting for and offered the only blood that could ever pay for our sins, the only blood that could ever turn God’s anger away from us, the only blood that could ever make us friends with God again—his own blood, the blood of the God-man.
Jesus’ blood—the blood of God-Made-Flesh—is worth more than the whole universe. So it paid for so much more than just the nation of Israel, as John continues, “and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” God always planned to save us Gentiles. Caiaphas prophesied that Jesus would die for the whole Christian church, indeed, for every man, woman, and child who would ever live.
Do your sins ever bother you? In Jesus, you find peace. In Jesus, God wiped out the hell that should happen to you. He replaced it with the eternal life Jesus won. In Jesus’ blood, God declared you—strangers and Gentiles—to be His true people. Through faith in Christ, you, who are scattered thousands of miles and 20 centuries from Jerusalem and Caiaphas, are now bought-and-paid-for children of God.
Now God has made us one in Christ. You see, the way God looks at it, there is only one, holy Christian and apostolic church. We don’t see it that way. We see Lutherans and Methodists and Roman Catholics. We see division and discord. We see people who don’t seem too serious about their Christian lives. We can’t see into the heart, so God expects us to join with people who say and do what God’s Word tells us. But God himself does look at the heart. Wherever He sees faith in Jesus, He sees a member of his one church. That’s why we call the Church on earth the Invisible Church. Only God sees faith in the heart. But in heaven, we will all be one. Nothing that separates us now will divide us from other Christians. We will enjoy God’s love together forever.
All that is ours because one man died for the people. God loved his Son above all of us, but He willingly sacrificed Him to bring us to heaven. All those who trust what Jesus has done will live forever. As far as we know, Caiaphas never understood what he said that day. But God has revealed to us the truth Caiaphas spoke. That truth means that through faith in Jesus we have eternal life. The great irony of the passion is God’s unending, undeniable love. And He declared that love even through the mouth of an unbeliever. Amen.