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“The Road to Death”

John 11:45 - 12:11
Bob DeGray
April 6, 2003

Key Sentence

The Anointed One must die for his people.


I. It is better for you that one man die (John 11:45-53)
(Anticipation in Jerusalem) (John 11:54-57)
II. Anointed for burial (John 12:1-8)
(Anxiety about Lazarus) (John 12:9-11)


        What musical theme most implies impending doom to you? I know we’re all different, but for those attending movies in the 1970's one particular musical theme has to be a pretty good candidate for the sense of imminent peril:

        Many of you can identify that as the theme from Jaws, one of the classic movies of the 70's and one that evoked considerable fear. In the movie, for those who haven’t seen it, every time someone is about to get eaten, this music builds up, and as the music reaches its climax, the shark attacks.

        The music behind the Gospel of John has grown in intensity for many chapters. Opposition to Jesus began early, but it wasn’t until chapter 5 we first heard that his opponents were out to kill him. In chapters 7, 8 and 10 that intention grew more evident. Now the music is reaching a climax, and in John 11:45 to 12:11 it’s basically all we can hear. This gospel is moving toward a death, and Jesus is the one who is going to die. Why? On one level it’s the result of opposition to his ministry and message. On another it’s because he’s the anointed one who must die for the sins of his people.

I. It is better for you that one man die (John 11:45-53)

        In John 11:45-53 those who oppose him convince themselves that Jesus must die in order to save the nation, or at least their positions. John 11:45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. 46But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47Then 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. 48If 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." 49Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! 50You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." 51He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

        The resurrection of Lazarus made a huge impact on those who were wavering in their response to Jesus. Healing a blind man is one thing, but raising the dead is much more. 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. So they believed in him as Messiah, though they didn’t understand that he would be the sacrifice offered for their sins. They didn’t understand, “I lay down my life for my sheep.”

        And not everybody was moved to faith. 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, one that had to be reported to his opponents. So the witnesses told the Pharisees and the Pharisees told the chief priests and they called a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing council.

        The Sanhedrin was a political maze. The Pharisees were an important minority, but the dominant group was the Sadducees, mostly priests rather than lawyers and teachers. Among these control of the council tended to be in the hands of a few families related to the chief priests. 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 by right of conquest. 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.

        All of this is reflected in their spoken concerns: ‘we’re accomplishing nothing’; the man is performing many miraculous signs’; ‘if this goes on everybody will believe in him, which will set off a popular revolt’; which means ‘the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ By ‘their place’ they mean the temple, and by ‘their nation’ they mean the limited self-rule they do have. Their fear is that the Romans will take these things away from them. They’re motivated not by concern for the well-being of Israel, but for their own position and power.

        Caiaphas sees all this more clearly than most. He’s the high priest by appointment of the Romans, and has been for about twelve years by the time this fateful year comes. In Old Testament times the high priest served for life, but in those days the appointment was purely political, given as a plum by the Romans to those in the chief priestly family who had won their favor, and taken from those who lost it.

        Caiaphas says “You know nothing at all!”: ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about’. Caiaphas probably kow-towed to the Romans, but as the leader of this group he was dictatorial. He pushes the conclusion 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. 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’. But Caiaphas didn’t mean it spiritually. He meant a political sacrifice, the killing of a political scape goat.

        John recognizes the larger meaning. Verse 51 “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” Both Caiaphas and John see Jesus’ death as a substitution: either Jesus dies or the nation dies. But John draw readers toward the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world: not just one nation, but all the scattered children of God. In a Jewish sense these would be the Jews of the dispersion, scattered across the world. But John knows that God’s real children are those who receive Jesus and believe in his name. Though dispersed in the world as part of every Gentile nation, they will be gathered together into one church, the community of the Messiah. Jesus has already said he has sheep in other sheep folds that will be gathered into one flock under one shepherd.

        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. Many prophets prior to Caiaphas had already pointed in this direction. The greatest Old Testament example is Isaiah 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. 7He was oppressed and afflicted . . . by oppression and judgment he was taken away.” It’s often been said that Jesus was born to die. His enemies killed him, but it was God’s plan that he lay down his life, on the cross, for my sins, and for yours.

(Anticipation in Jerusalem) (John 11:54-57)

        Jesus is on the road to death. The parenthetical comment in verses 54 to 57 takes us a little further down that road. 54Therefore 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. 55When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. 56They 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?" 57But 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.

        John doesn’t say whether Jesus got word of the council’s action or knew it supernaturally, but at this point he leaves Jerusalem and goes to a village called Ephraim. Ephraim is close, only about twelve miles from Jerusalem, close enough that Jesus could easily return to the city when the time was right.

        Jesus leaves not from fear, but from an intimate desire to conform to his Father’s timing. The last concrete time mark John gave us was the feast of Dedication, in December. The next will be the Passover, at the end of March or in April. In between, Jesus was on the other side of the Jordan. Then he returned to raise Lazarus. Then he went to Ephraim, probably for just a few weeks. Now the council has formally decided that he must be killed, and the Passover crowd has begun to gather in Jerusalem. Passover was the greatest celebration of the Jewish year, and some pilgrims would gather early to go through a period of ceremonial cleansing. There was, of course, a great sense of expectation about what Jesus would do: would he show up? Would he declare himself the messiah? Would he lead a revolt? The authorities add to the intensity of the crowd’s anxiety by letting it be known that they want to know if Jesus does shows up, obviously so they can arrest him.

II. Anointed for burial (John 12:1-8)

        So the atmosphere is alive with expectation when Jesus returns to Bethany. John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2Here a dinner was given in Jesus' honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5"Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages." 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7"Leave her alone," Jesus replied. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."

        The last stop on the road to death, prior to Jerusalem, is Bethany, where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Jesus arrives six days before Passover, which means that the meal given in his honor was also the beginning of the Sabbath, the Friday evening before Palm Sunday. We could presume that this meal took place at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but that’s not explicitly stated, and we’ll see in a little bit that it may have taken place at the home of Simon the Leper, even though Martha served and Lazarus was there. Given the small size of a village like Bethany, several families might work together to make this celebration happen, and in any event Lazarus would be right up front with the guest of honor.

        It’s entirely in character that while Martha served, Mary worshiped. Verse 3: “Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Notice several things: First, the quantity of liquid Mary uses: it’s about twelve ounces, more than was used for anything except burial. Second, it was very valuable. Nard is extracted from the root and spike of a plant which grows in India.

        And this was pure nard, the best quality. Some have contested the translation of the word ‘pure’, used only here in the New Testament. But it comes from the same root as the word ‘faithful’ or ‘genuine’, and no other suggestion makes better sense, so we’ll stick with the idea of pure nard. It’s purity, quantity and origin account for it’s appalling cost. Judas says that it could have been sold for 300 denarii. A denarias was a days wage, so three hundred would be the equivalent of a year’s salary - no money being earned on the Sabbath or other holidays. Translate this yourself - imagine spending your yearly salary, before taxes, on a pint of something that you then pour out. It’s incredible. But Mary’s devotion is incredible: she not only anoints him, but when this excessive quantity of nard runs over, she lets down her hair, which was socially immodest, and wipes his feet. Earlier Martha had said “I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God.” This is Mary’s statement of the same faith, that he is the Christ, the anointed one.

        Each of the Gospels has an account of a woman anointing Jesus. Three of these accounts, Matthew, Mark and John, have significant similarities, while the fourth account in Luke is both similar and different. For example, Matthew, Mark and John place the incident in Bethany; Luke’s is in Galilee. The three similar incidents occur at the end of Jesus’ ministry; Luke’s occurs in the middle. In the similar accounts Jesus responds to the indignation of a disciple by saying that this anointing was for his burial. In Luke the point is the thankfulness of the woman who has been forgiven. Only Luke says she is an immoral woman. So there are four accounts, but one of them is different. Matthew, Mark and John seem to report the same incident.

        But there are differences in these three. Matthew and Mark say that the anointing occurs in Simon the Leper’s home, not in the home of Lazarus. But John never said it was, just that Lazarus was there and Martha served. Maybe Simon the Leper had also been healed by Jesus and offered his house in gratitude. Again, in Matthew and Mark, Mary anoints Jesus’ head; in John his feet. This could indicate a separate incident, or it could be that Matthew and Mark record the anointing of his head because they’re interested in having their readers see him as the anointed king. John is interested in having us recognize him as anointed for his burial. Jesus is on the road to death, and this is one of the signs on the way. Mary may have anointed his head, his hands and his feet, which would be the traditional anointment of a guest: Matthew and Mark concentrate on one thing, while John concentrates on another.

        So Jesus is anointed, and Judas’ outrage helps us see the significance of the anointing. Verse 5: “Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year's wages.” In one sense Judas has a good point: this nard is worth more than it’s weight in gold, and could be used for charity. But John is quick to point out the real motive: personal greed. Judas was the treasurer of Jesus’ group, the keeper of the money bag. He probably hoped gifts like this nard could be turned into cash, to which he could then help himself - literally he could lift it.

        This is the only place in the Gospels where Judas is called a thief, but this materialistic weakness is also shown in his acceptance of silver for betraying Jesus. But Jesus does not address Judas’ motives, he responds to his words: “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” The Greek is hard and translates a little awkwardly into English, but the meaning is clear: that this anointing is a sign of Jesus’ impending death and burial. In other words, ‘in not many days I’m going to die, and it’s appropriate to prepare me - he even says ‘my body’ in the Matthew account - for the day of my burial.’ Mary probably didn’t know for sure that Jesus was about to die, but Jesus knows this is the road he’s on, and this anointing is the proper preparation for that event.

        But the anointing still has a larger implication. Having been anointed, Jesus is the anointed one - the Christ. Mary recognized it with her action. Martha recognized it by her words. Jesus had pointed to it at the beginning of his ministry. He said “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Peter recognized it in his famous confession “You are the Christ.” Jesus was the fulfilment of the promises made to Israel that an anointed king from David’s line would come to rescue. But he is more than that, because he does not just come to reign, he comes to die on the cross, for our sins. Both parts of his mission come together in this passage, in this anointing. He is anointed by Mary as the Christ, but in preparation for his death. He says ‘you’ll always have the poor to care for, but this is about the last chance to show care for me.’ The Anointed One must die for his people - for you and me and God’s scattered children all across the world.

(Anxiety about Lazarus) (John 12:9-11)

        Jesus has come to die. The leaders think his death is the answer to their problem - and it is. But they aren’t thinking of a sacrifice for their sins. They think his death will silence his threat, and they’d be happy to shut up Lazarus the same way. Verses 9 to 11: Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, 11for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.

        After Jesus raised Lazarus, he went almost immediately to Ephraim. His return to Bethany caused a large crowd to gather, increased by the desire to see Lazarus himself. Unfortunately this brought Lazarus to the attention of the chief priests. His very life provided a ground for faith in Jesus, so they figured he too had to be destroyed. Of course, it takes a bit of gall to think you can silence somebody by killing him when he’s already been raised from the dead. But their concern is that on account of the raising of Lazarus many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. These were self-conscious conversions, moving away from the religion practiced by the authorities and toward genuine trust in Jesus. So the authorities figure that getting rid of Lazarus will help stem the tide of Jesus’ popularity.

        But the truth is nothing would stop the Father’s plan or the role his opponents were about to play. Jesus was on the road to death, and they were the instruments of that death, consciously setting about to kill him. Yet he died voluntarily. He escaped them three times before. He didn’t have to come to Jerusalem this time. He went back purposely because the time had come to do so. He chose to walk the road the Father laid out for him though he knew it would end in death. He was offering himself as a substitute, dying so that others might live, not in the narrow political sense of the high priest’s calculation, but in the intensely personal and universal sense of Isaiah 53: He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.

        Jesus voluntarily set out on the road of death for the sake of others. We had a modern illustration of this just last week. You’ve all heard of this mysterious disease called SARS that has spread from the Far East. What you may not know is that the doctor who first raised the alarm about SARS has now died of it. Dr. Carlo Urbani, an Italian communicable_disease expert, one who received a Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work with Doctors Without Borders, died in Thailand last weekend, where he was being treated for the disease he was the first to diagnose.

        Dr. Urbani was known for his dedication to his patients. He left his home in Italy at 22 to work among communities in Africa. He went on to become a specialist in tracking communicable diseases. He was president of the Italian branch of Doctors without Borders, and, as part of the delegation accepting the Nobel prize in 1999, said: ''This prize rewards the idea that people are worthy of both health and dignity, that it is a duty to stay close to victims and guarantee their rights.'' Most recently, he was working in Vietnam, where he diagnosed the disease in a U.S. businessman who was hospitalized with the ailment that has become known worldwide as SARS.

        He first saw the businessman in Hanoi on February 28, two days after the man was admitted to hospital with what was thought to be an avian flu virus. Dr. Urbani quickly realized it was not bird flu, but a different and unknown disease. ''Carlo was the one who very quickly saw that this was something very strange,'' said Pascale Brudonof the World Health Organization. ''When people became concerned in the hospital, he was there every day: collecting samples, talking to the staff and strengthening infection_control procedures.'' He exposed himself to the disease for the sake of others. The outbreak in that hospital was contained, but when Dr. Urbani traveled to Bangkok on March 11 for a meeting, he developed a fever, and quickly had himself placed in isolation until his death on Saturday, March 29th.

        Dr. Urbani’s dedication to potential victims above his personal safety undoubtedly saved many lives, so in that sense he died for others. But Jesus consciously offered himself as a substitute - one man to bear the disease of many, so that we might live. Jesus was on the road to death: as the anointed one he laid down his life for us.