One For All

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 11:49-53

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.

John 11:49-53 rsv

I received a letter this week which was probably the most hostile and condemning message I’ve had in over 20 years. The words fairly sizzled on this five-page, hand-written tirade. The man calls me blind, deaf, and stonehearted. In his eyes, I’m the father of all kinds of monstrosities, father of sin, father of lies, father of shame, father of ungodliness, father of stupidity. I’m a fool in his eyes, an evil snake, a carnal slave of the devil. And to top it off, on his view, I would have been better off never to have lived, so great and unending is God’s hatred toward me.

I read the letter carefully more than once, trying to understand what might have released this flood of hostility. Apparently it was my preaching that all who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved. What seemed most outrageous to this listener was the message that God loves sinners. For this, our listener says, I am destined to be hacked to pieces and tortured in the lake of fire. In his eyes, it’s the most vicious of evils to tell sinful people that they can have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ.

Now I tell you all that because I’m thinking today about a passage of Scripture which speaks of an opposition to the Word of God far more deadly. It’s from the Gospel according to John, chapter 11, beginning at verse 45. These words follow immediately the account of Jesus raising Lazarus, a man four days dead, to life again. Listen:

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he [Jesus] did, believed in him; but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all; you do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.

CALLING GOOD EVIL

Here’s the most amazing instance I’ve ever encountered of people calling good “evil.” There may well be elements of truth in my listener’s charges against me, but here Jesus is being criticized and condemned for something magnificently good.

Many Jerusalem dwellers had come to Bethany to comfort Mary and Martha at the death of their brother. They saw the startling events that happened at the tomb of Lazarus. They probably talked with this man brought back from death. Many of them, quite understandably, believed in Jesus, the one who called Himself the resurrection and the life.

Others, however, did not believe. They were alarmed. They went to the Pharisees, known to be opposed to Jesus, and told them what had happened. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered a group of the Sanhedrin leaders for a conference. “What are we to do?” they asked. Or, literally, “What are we doing? For this man performs many signs.”

Notice, they readily acknowledge that Jesus has been doing amazing things, giving sight to people born blind, cleansing lepers with a touch, putting hopeless cripples on their feet, and now, even raising a dead man to life. But for these men, such things are cause not for celebration but for concern. To them, it’s not a call to praise God; it’s a problem. What are we doing? How are we handling this? What’s happening to us?

Here’s what they’re afraid of: “If we let Him go on thus, everyone will believe in Him.” They recognize the magnetism of Jesus’ ministry, how what He does is awakening faith in many. They see a popular movement on foot that promises to carry everything before it. Why, the whole populace may come to believe in this man!

But why, we wonder, would that be such a calamity? Here’s their further fear: when that happens, when all the people are stirred to fever pitch with messianic expectation, it will bring about a political tragedy. “The Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

The reasoning here seems to be that belief in Jesus as the Messiah, when it becomes widespread, when it captures the minds of the crowd, will be perceived as a threat to imperial Rome. The authorities will move swiftly to suppress this new movement. They’ll destroy the holy place, the temple, the center of Israel’s life, and destroy the nation. I suppose that means its political structure, its last remaining vestiges of self-government. They’re saying, in effect, “We’ll lose everything. We’ll lose our place of worship, our position, and our power.”

Now remember, these are reactions to an astonishing work of love, to the raising of a man from the dead. Yet in the eyes of these authorities, it has somehow taken on a criminal character. They fear that if this kind of thing keeps happening, tragedy will result. Was ever willful blindness and perverse resistance to God’s working carried to such an extreme?

JESUS OR THE NATION

After others have made their suggestions about how to deal with this troublesome situation, Caiaphas, the high priest, breaks in, “You know nothing at all,” he says to the rest. With undisguised contempt, he tells them that they are stupid if they can’t figure out what ought to be done. Caiaphas has no doubt about the course to be followed. He’s surprised that they are so dense as to miss it. “You do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation should not perish.”

This may have a holy sound to it, but it’s the speech of a cynic in a place of power. He’s not speaking about right or wrong. His eye is on what is expedient, what will spare the privileged class from a perceived threat. To Caiaphas, the issue is crystal clear. It’s a matter of political realism. “This is a crisis time, men. Either the nation dies or Jesus dies. If the nation falls, obviously all of us lose, but if Jesus dies, then the nation, the regime, will stand.”

The gathered officials take Caiaphas seriously. They grasp instantly the logic behind his words. Either all will go down because of one, or one will be put out of the way for the benefit of all. And when you state the issue that way, who can dispute what ought to happen? This Jesus is too troublesome, too dangerous to have around, however many good things He may have said and done. He’s a threat to all Israel. The kind of thing He is doing makes Him Public Enemy No. 1 in their eyes.

Now the tenor of the meeting changes. They move from discussion to decision, and then to a plan of attack. We read, “So from that day on, they took counsel how to put him to death.” It was as though they had reasoned, “If this is what is best for the whole nation, if it’s in the public interest, then let’s act on it. Let’s make it happen.” And eventually, they did.

I think at one time I would have said that this seems incredibly perverse, “How could people be so cynical? So resistant to the light? So murderous in their efforts at self-protection?” But I’ve lived longer now. I’ve seen more of the world and of my own heart.

We still act like this, friends. It doesn’t matter how noble the cause is, whether it’s caring for the poor, preserving the environment, or even educating our children. When it conflicts with our self-interest, when it causes us inconvenience or touches our pocketbooks or threatens our jobs, we can find ourselves lining up against the best things in the world. After all, we say, there are no two ways about this. Either we lose or they lose. And when it comes to a decision or a vote, we don’t usually vote to lose, do we, even if God happens to line up on the other side? Suddenly, what Caiaphas and the others did begins to seem strangely contemporary. “We have met the enemy,” as we say, “and he is us!”

GOD’S HAND OVER MAN’S HAND

So far, this is pretty somber stuff, isn’t it? But hang on, there’s more to the story. Remember that cynical word of Caiaphas about one man dying so that the whole nation wouldn’t perish? The gospel writer sees a deeper meaning in that. Caiaphas did some rotten things, and wasn’t much of a man, but he was the high priest that year. What he said, unbeknownst to him, was a kind of oracle. It had an authentic message from God hidden away in it. Listen to John again, “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”

Caiaphas was right, but in a way he never had dreamed possible. Behind this cruel expediency of an official was the gracious purpose of God. For this God sent His Son into the world, that He should die on behalf of the nation, and more, on behalf of people the world over. But He didn’t die to save their buildings or their bureaucracies. He died to save them from sin and death, to redeem and bring them back to God. So what the leaders planned to do in murderous hatred, God was planning in mercy unimaginable.

This is the gospel, friends: God’s hand over man’s hand. Peter preached about that on the day of Pentecost, remember? He told the Jerusalem dwellers, “Men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God, with mighty works [like the raising of Lazarus], and with wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know – this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:22-23). You did it, Peter says, you planned His crucifixion, you delivered Him over to die. But also, it happened “according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God.” As the prophet says, “The Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53:61). It was “the will of the Lord to bruise him,” not just the will of man. The risen Jesus could have said to all of us more profoundly than Joseph ever did to his offending brothers, “You meant it to me for evil, but God meant it for good.”

So the good news of the gospel goes out to Caiaphas and the other Sanhedrin members, to Pilate and the soldiers and the mob, and to all the rest of us whose sins caused Jesus to die. All that He suffered, He suffered for you. He died for you so that you might never need to die the death your sins and mine deserve. And now He lives to forgive you, receive you and transform you. All you need do is confess your sin and rebellion, turn from it, and put your trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior, submitting your life to Him as your Lord and king. He’ll gather you with all the other scattered children into the one body of Christ, the one family of God. So in a marvelous way the smirk of the cynic becomes the gracious word of the Lord. He, Jesus, in the deepest truth, died for us all.

Prayer: Father, let every person sharing this broadcast today see Jesus Christ in just that way, as the One who came to die personally for each one. And trusting Him, may we find life. In Jesus’ name. Amen.