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“One Man to Die for the People”

John 11:45-53
Bob DeGray
April 2, 2017

Key Sentence

People want to put their own interests first, but Jesus the one man to die for the people.


I. Man’s way: putting our place and our nation first (John 11:45-48)
II. God’s way: one man to die for the people. (John 11:49-53)


It’s one of the most remarkable stories in the Gospels, a miracle which provoked deep awe and belief in some, but hardened the unbelief and enmity of others. Jesus had been confronting the Pharisees and the leaders of the Jewish people, and they had finally resolved to arrest him. So he left Judea and went across the Jordan and ministered there. But one of his friends, Lazarus from the village of Bethany, became ill. He was the brother of Mary and Martha. Naturally, they sent a message to Jesus, who had healed so many, so often.

But Jesus lingered where he was two more days before announcing to his disciples that it was time to go to Judea. They had apparently felt Jesus was scared to go back. They were. But Jesus explained that Lazarus had “fallen asleep” and that he would go, as the Father willed, to wake him. When they didn’t grasp this metaphor, he told them plainly that Lazarus had died, “and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

By the time they got to Bethany Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. It was clearly too late. When Lazarus’ sister Martha heard that Jesus was near, she ran out to him and said “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And then she made a remarkable statement “But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Her confidence in Jesus was so great that it even set aside, for a moment, the reality of her brother’s death.

Jesus gives her no reason not to be confident. He promises her brother will rise. But Martha, I think, wants to give Jesus some wiggle room. She doesn’t want to force him into an impossible situation. She says “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus says “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She does. “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who comes into the world.”

When Mary comes to him, Jesus sees her tears, and the tears of the others who had come, and he is, the text says deeply moved. Deeply moved. He wept before the tomb, a cave with a stone set in its mouth. Then he said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the pragmatist said, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” Or in the immortal words of the King James Version “But Lord, he stinketh.” Yet they rolled away the stone, and Jesus prayed aloud so that all would know the source of the miracle. “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.” He cried in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”

And the dead man came out, still wrapped in linen strips and cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.” It’s one of the most remarkable stories in the Gospels, a miracle which provoked deep awe and belief in some, but hardened the unbelief of others. It is to those others, the hardened, that we must turn today to find the words of God’s Big Story. We’ll see that people want to put their interests first, but Jesus is the one man to die for the people.

Let’s look first at how people react to this great miracle. John 11, verses 45 to 48: Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48If 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.”

People look out for their own interests. And sometimes that’s a good thing. The resurrection of Lazarus made a huge impact on those who were wavering in their response to Jesus. For many who had come to comfort Mary and Martha, this was what pushed them over the line to faith. They saw God’s glory revealed in this miraculous sign, and seeing it, they could no longer deny who Jesus was. They may even have heard, from the lips of Martha, Jesus’ challenge to believe that he himself was the resurrection and the life. They may have embraced his offer to embrace faith and receive eternal life. They probably didn’t understand, yet, that this eternal life was to be gained through his death and resurrection, though he had already told them. He said the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. But the true link between Jesus as Messiah and Jesus as suffering servant was not yet clear. They believed because of the signs, which at one point in John he had said was okay.

There are clearly many other things we might have liked to know: what Lazarus experienced in the grave, the nature of his subsequent death, what he said to his neighbors, and more. John reports none of it. Everything is sacrificed to the sign itself, and the reaction to it. Some believed. But not everyone. Jesus always brings division: there are always some who are not and will not be his sheep. In the eyes of these people, raising Lazarus from death made Jesus a greater threat, more popular, more acclaimed, and therefore more a candidate to be the focus of a popular uprising, even though he denied that intention.

So some of the crowd who had witnessed these events went and reported it to his opponents, specifically to the Pharisees. That the Pharisees are approached, rather than any other group reflects the fact that they were the ones among his opponents who were most in touch with the common people.

The Pharisees themselves could not take decisive judicial action. The highest judicial body in the land was the Sanhedrin, which under Roman authority controlled all Jewish internal affairs. It was simultaneously a judiciary, a legislature, and, through the chief priest, an executive branch. In Jesus' day the seventy members of the Sanhedrin were dominated by the chief priests, that is, priests drawn from the extended family of the high priest, who also presided over the council. Almost all the priests were Sadducees, who differed theologically from the Pharisees and the scribes, especially about the resurrection. The rest of the members were elders, landed aristocrats of mixed theological views.

At this time, chief priest was a hereditary appointment. You had to be from a certain set of families: you also had to be in with the Romans. In fact, the one thing that bound all these people together was the knowledge that their council existed only at the whim of the Romans, who had all the power that really counted. So everyone had a vested interest in keeping peace, because that’s how they kept their position and their power. The knew Rome would put down any popular revolt with blood and destruction, and with ‘regime change’ for those who had allowed it to happen. So it was natural that perceived ‘problem’ of Jesus would become a pressing concern for the Sanhedrin.

All of this is reflected in their words: “we’re accomplishing nothing; the man is performing many miraculous signs; if this goes on everybody will believe in him,” which would set off a popular revolt. The whole dialog reflects the total failure of their attempts to discredit Jesus by argument. He was not an easy person to argue with. Furthermore, they can’t dispute that Jesus is performing many miraculous signs, especially after the embarrassment in chapter 9 where they tried to convince a man born blind that he hadn’t been healed. The public raising of Lazarus is further proof of Jesus’ incomparable works.

But it does not prompt them to re-assess their stance toward Jesus. Rather, they continue in fear that popular hopes will reach fever pitch, and, with or without Jesus' sanction, set off an uprising that would bring the full weight of Rome upon their heads, leading to the destruction of 'our place,' almost certainly a reference to the temple, and ‘our nation,’ in its precarious, semi-autonomous existence. But the way this is worded shows they are prompted less by concern for the well-being of the nation than for their own positions of power and prestige. Their fear is that the Romans will take these things away from them.

This is where they are like us, or we are like them. In some sense the Sanhedrin at this point is acting as an ‘everyman,’ giving an archetypal response to the coming climax of God’s big story. They are clinging, as we do, to their own self-interest, looking out for number one.

Don’t you feel this urge within you, the unworded impulse toward “What’s in it for me? How does this threaten me? How can I keep from losing my peace, my safety, my influence, my stuff, my life. Jesus had the answer, if they would just listen: “Everyone who wants to hang on to their life will lose it, but everyone who loses their life for my sake will find it.” But we don’t want Jesus to threaten our comfort zone. We don’t want Jesus to threaten our budget. We don’t want him to threaten our self-care. We don’t want him to threaten our family, our lifestyle, our hobbies, our interests, our hidden sins or our public ones. We’d like a Jesus who would (a) save us from hell, (b) pour out blessings and (c) not ask us to do anything hard or unpopular or dangerous or counter-cultural. And I’m guilty of this. I have this horrible, self serving impulse not to rock the boat. If I’d been a Pharisee I’d have been the one saying ‘hey that’s great stuff, cool miracles, but don’t rock the boat.”

I keep thinking of C. S. Lewis’ famous illustration where he compared us to children who refuse a trip to see the ocean because we’re content to play with the mud in the street. And so powerful is this tendancy to cling to our little kingdoms that we will sacrifice the good and the true for the familiar and the safe. This is what the Sanhedrin tried to do, but God had a bigger purpose. Verses 49 to 53: But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” 51He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. 53So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

Presiding over the Sanhedrin was Caiaphas, the high priest at the time. He had been appointed high priest in 18 AD by the Romans. His father-in-law was Annas, who was himself high priest during the years 6-15 AD, and whose influence prevailed long after his term of office, right up to the time of the crucifixion. But it’s Caiaphas who breaks into the Sanhedrin’s lament over the perceived tragedy of Jesus to say “You know nothing at all!”: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Caiaphas may have kow-towed to the Romans, but as the leader of this group he was far from mild mannered. In fact the historian Josephus, who was a Pharisee, says that the Sadducees were barbarous and wild even toward those of their own party. Caiaphas does sound a bit wild.

His conclusion is that “it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” His reasoning is simple: “What’s best for ourselves and best for the nation both add up at this point to killing Jesus and getting him off the scene.”

The only thing left out of that equation is the spiritual component. Politics trumps any kind of spiritual interest these priests and teachers ought to have had. Justice is sacrificed to expediency. This despite the fact that when Caiaphas argues that Jesus must die for the people he’s using sacrificial language, the same kind Jesus used when he said “I lay down my life for my sheep.” Caiaphas almost certainly didn’t mean it redemptively. He simply put the language of to political use. Jesus was to be 'devoted' to death, sacrificed as a scapegoat, in order to spare the nation and its leaders. Readers living after the cross saw more. Caiaphas spoke of a nation and as a people, and the apostles would speak of themselves as a new nation and a new people, the church.

John amplifies this larger meaning for his readers. He spells out his understanding of Caiaphas's words as prophecy. Verse 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, 52and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” Caiaphas didn’t say this on his own. This doesn’t mean God used Caiaphas like a puppet, a creature like Balaam's donkey, a mere mouthpiece. Caiaphas spoke his considered if calloused opinion. But when Caiaphas spoke, God was also speaking, even if they were not saying the same things. So Caiaphas, in a proper if unintentional use of his role as high priest, did speak prophetically.

What he prophesied was that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation. Once again, 'to die for the nation' is sacrificial language, a ransom, as we saw last week. Both Caiaphas and John see Jesus' death as substitutionary: either Jesus dies, or the nation dies. But while Caiaphas is thinking at the purely political level, John invites his readers to think in terms of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John sees that Caiaphas spoke truth, that Jesus was the one who would die for the many, that it was better for us that this happen.

John adds that this sacrificial death is not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. In a purely Jewish context, 'the scattered children of God' would be understood to refer to the Jews of the diaspora, who would be gathered together in the promised land to share in the kingdom of God. Christians were quick to draw new connections: the real children of God are those who, though dispersed as Gentiles in the world, received the incarnate Word and believed in his name. They are then gathered, not only when Jesus comes again, but now into the church, the community of the Messiah. To bring them together and make them one is the immediate effect of Jesus' death, further developed in chapters 14-17 of John. Even in John 10 Jesus said that as the Good Shepherd he must draw his sheep from many sheep pens into one flock, under one shepherd.

The ultimate 'holy nation' is the church, those who are made children of God by the death of Christ and thus united together as one. John makes it clear in the first few chapters of this Gospel people become children of God only by receiving Christ, by birth of water and Spirit, by faith. For them Jesus lays down his life. He is the one man who will die for the people, for you and me and the whole community of faith worldwide and through the centuries.

So what Caiaphas said was prophetic. He didn’t consciously point to Jesus as the sacrifice for sin: far from it. But God allowed him to speak truth. Jesus was on the road to death, not because these men said so, but because that death was the centerpiece of God’s plan of salvation, the climax of God’s Big Story. Many prophets prior to Caiaphas had already pointed in this direction. The greatest Old Testament example may be Isaiah, chapter 53: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

It’s often been said that Jesus was born to die. Verse 53 “So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.” His enemies made the plans, but it was God’s plan that he lay down his life, on the cross, for my sins, and for yours. His enemies acted in their own self-interest, to preserve their place and power and position and influence, as well as their wealth and comfort. In their math, the death of one man was preferable to the loss of those things. But in God’s math the death of this one man was worth the lives of many, the salvation of many both from the nation of Israel and from the nations of the world.

Jesus was the one man given to die for the people. I struggled a bit in the middle of the week to find a human example comparable to this, an example of someone willing to die so that others might live. I finally decided to wait until we saw this movie Thursday night, Facing Darkness. And as I expected, my yearning for an illustration was satisfied many times over in that story. It’s the true account of the ebola outbreak in Liberia. At the beginning, in April, May, June and July of 2014, Samaritan’s Purse and Doctors Without Borders were the only two organizations providing clinical care to ebola patients. The country only had fifty doctors for 4.3 million people. Other hospitals in the country, after their staff became infected, were closed down. Patients who wanted help, and not all did, were dying while waiting for care.

But the Samaritan’s Ministries staff in Liberia made the decision to keep the ELWA missionary hospital open and they geared up quickly to provide care to the sick and dying in the name of Jesus. They knew, on some level, that their isolation suits and procedures could not guarantee their safety. But they chose to face the possibility for the sake of the people they loved and served. Several people in the movie say that they were morally compelled to stay and help, and that they would do it again if such a crisis called. As Franklin Graham says in the movie, “Jesus did not run from suffering. He came from heaven to earth on rescue mission. And that’s what we do at Samaritan’s Purse. When trouble comes, we don't run away but we run to the trouble.” And they did.

So Dr. Kent Brantly and a number of other marvelous doctors and nurses who you meet in the movie put their lives on the line, working in horrible conditions in these isolation suits to care for the least of these, for the sick and dying. At the beginning of the outbreak Ebola had a fatality rate of 90 percent, but by simple caring medical help, even before treatments were found, the rate was reduced. But the staff of ELWA wore themselves out with work, worry, and loneliness. And eventually, without evidence of exposure, Kent Brantley and Nancy Whitebol came down with the disease. Samaritan’s Purse did everything in their power to save these two lives, including evacuating them to Emory Hospital in Atlanta and giving them two of only four existing doses of a treatment called Zmaap. And they lived.

But they were willing to die, one life given for the many. As Kent Brantly said “I held the hands of countless individuals as this terrible disease took their lives away from them. I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I still remember every face and name.” On feeling symptoms, Brantly immediately isolated himself. “When the [test] result was positive, I remember a deep sense of peace beyond all understanding,” he said. “God was reminding me of what He had taught me years ago, that He will give me everything I need to be faithful to Him. As I lay in my bed in Liberia for the following nine days, getting sicker and weaker each day, I prayed that God would help me to be faithful even in my illness, and I prayed that in my life or in my death, He would be glorified.”

But Brantly is a God-formed exception. Most people, most of the time, put their own interests first. We all do, at least some of the time. But Jesus was the one man to die for the people. Caiaphas was right. It was necessary that one man die for the nation. John was right. “and also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” That’s us. We are the ones, infected with a horrible disease called sin. Jesus came on a rescue mission and gave his life a ransom for many. He won for us the victory over sin and death. As we celebrate communion, as we celebrate Easter, let’s fix our eyes on the one man.