One would have expected a unanimous, enthusiastic response to the raising of Lazarus – all doubts removed, irrefutable evidence given that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. As is turned out, it did solidify people’s belief. If there was any ambiguity in where people stood, the raising of Lazarus settled it.
As Lazarus stood alive at the entrance of the tomb and Jesus said, “Take off his grave clothes and let him go,” the lines of disagreement formed: Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. (John 11:45-46)
There are those who had been standing on the fence, but now this sways the undecided. Many who doubted now believe and put their faith in him. But those who opposed Jesus were now convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was too dangerous to be allowed to live and they ran the two miles back to Jerusalem to report to the Pharisees.
Early on in our study of the Gospel of John, we noted that John always calls the miracles “signs” because they point toward something bigger than themselves. They are signs because, if you are looking, those miracles point you toward God. Like a sign out on the highway, if you are looking for the turnoff to Glenwood Springs, they tell you to turn here. If your destination is somewhere different, you might drive by those signs and never notice them.
At the end of his Gospel, John will write, Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20:30-31)
And there isn’t any better demonstration of this than the raising of Lazarus. Those who are seeking God see the miraculous sign and immediately recognize that Jesus is the one they are seeking. Those who have no interest in God see something different and their hearts are hardened against him.
It’s hard for me to imagine how one could see what Jesus did, see Lazarus, who had been dead for four days, now standing alive in front of everybody and come to any other conclusion than that Jesus is God. But when someone is dead set against believing, they will find a way of discounting even the strongest evidence.
When they hear the news, the Pharisees (who are a religious body) join with the chief priests (who are a political body). Together they call a meeting of the Sanhedrin.
Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life. (John 11:47-53)
Up to this point in John’s Gospel, we have only heard the chief priests mentioned once in passing. While Jesus’ ministry proceeded, the Pharisees were interested in the religious implications. The chief priests seemed unconcerned. Now that it takes on political consequences, the chief priests jump in the middle of it while the Pharisees power fades.
What were the fears of the chief priests? They ask, “What are we accomplishing? Here is this man performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
Do you hear their concerns? Not religious but political. Judea had remained a pretty quiet place for the last 200 years. Out of sight, out of mind. Yes, they had been invaded and occupied, but life had been allowed to continue on relatively unaffected. The priests kept their places of power and prestige and were allowed to rule without excessive interference. Now, Jesus’ activities are stirring up trouble and their grip on the nation is threatened. Their unbelief has nothing to do with whether Jesus is who he claims to be, it is pragmatic. They didn’t see the signs, they saw the effects – people were following Jesus and their fear is that “everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” He is too dangerous to be allowed to live.
This is also the first time we’re introduced to Caiaphas, the high priest. In a few chapters, he will be the one who presides over Jesus’ trial.
Caiaphas is a Sadducee, and the Sadducees, as opposed to the Pharisees had no particular love for the Scriptures or for the Jewish beliefs. They had no use for resurrection, eternal life or the spirit world. They were the aristocracy whose main goal was to maintain their positions of wealth and power by assimilating with whatever people were in control at the time.
Caiaphas was also the son-in-law of the former high priest Annas. History tells us that Caiaphas was merely a puppet for Annas who held the real strings of power. Caiaphas asserted his power over the priesthood, but it was Annas who called the shots. And that makes Caiaphas an even greater danger, because he was always trying to show himself to be a real force to be reckoned with, and so he acted recklessly and ruthlessly in his assertion of power.
We see it immediately as Caiaphas takes over the proceedings: “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
His statement is pure pragmatism. Law and justice and truth are irrelevant. The situation demands that Jesus die so that this movement doesn’t explode and bring the Romans down on them. The word John uses isn’t just the idea of “better” it is “expedient” that Jesus die so that the whole nation doesn’t perish.
Justice takes a back seat to prudence. Caiaphas is not a religious man, but an unprincipled politician covering his backside.
What John tells us is that what Caiaphas said in fact was actually a prophetic utterance. Not that he knew it or understood it, or would have ever intended it. But this statement is actually the bedrock of our theology of the cross. Jesus died so that we could live.
Paul echoes his words in 2 Corinthians 5:15, And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. In Romans 5:8 he says, But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Jesus took our place upon the cross. We deserved to die, and he died in our place, taking our sin, our guilt, our shame upon himself, so that we could be made holy and righteous. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul writes, God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
If expediency is your chosen course of action, you will never see the truth, because it is irrelevant to achieving your goal. And so Caiaphas had no intention of seeking the truth about Jesus. It didn’t matter to him at all whether he was the Messiah.
Later in the book of Acts, Gamaliel will caution his fellow members of the Sanhedrin not to find themselves fighting against God in their attempt to silence the disciples of Jesus. But Caiaphas would not have cared whether he was fighting against God, he was only concerned with protecting his political power. If God were to get in his way, he would gladly sacrifice him.
It is always interesting to me how God uses ungodly and immoral people to play a significant role in bringing about the fulfillment of his plans.
John writes in verse 53, So from that day on they plotted to take his life. The fact is, that plot had its beginnings back in chapter 5 when Jesus healed the lame man on the Sabbath: For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. And there will be another half dozen occasions when the Jews will decide he must die. But here in John 11, it becomes an official edict, and the wheels are now in motion as the Passover draws near.
The chapter concludes, Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the Jews. Instead he withdrew to a region near the desert, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples. When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple area they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the Feast at all?” But the chief priests and Pharisees had given orders that if anyone found out where Jesus was, he should report it so that they might arrest him. (Jn 11:54-57)
Jesus withdraws to Ephraim, about fifteen miles from Jerusalem, not because he is afraid, but because it is not his time – yet. But his time is almost here, and then Jesus will willingly and intentionally allow them to arrest him. But not one minute sooner than God’s timetable.
This after-story of Jesus raising Lazarus really challenges us this morning. We saw how that event demanded a decision. When Jesus revealed the fullness of his power, there was no doubt left whether Jesus was who he said he was.
And though you would think that would tip the scale in everybody’s mind and that faith would be inevitable, it didn’t. There were still those, in spite of what they saw, who chose to reject him.
I would like to think that as we listen to the story of Jesus and the power of the Gospel to change people’s lives that everyone of us would make the decision to follow Jesus.
But all of us won’t. Some of us are like the Sadducees, are pragmatists. It just doesn’t make sense to follow Jesus. It clashes with our comfortable, worldly lives and we aren’t going to let anything get in the way of living how we want to live.
If following Jesus means we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him, no thanks. If making Jesus the Lord of my life means I might have to make some sacrifices and give up control, forget it.
Like the Sadducees of old, I’ll keep the trappings of religion – I’ll go to church, I’ll sing the songs and pray the prayers and listen to the sermons, but I won’t let it change me. Because I’m the center of my life and I won’t give that up.
I hope, though, that you’re like those who watched Lazarus walk out of the tomb alive and after they picked their jaws up off the ground said, “I’m all in.”
Posted on Sun, April 2, 2017
by John Roberts