An Unwitting Prophet
“Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to [the Jews], ‘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’ ” (vv. 49–50).- John 11:45–53
No ordinary man can raise the dead, so many of the Jews believed in Jesus when they saw Him resurrect Lazarus (John 11:1–45). However, not all of them came to faith. Some reported to the Pharisees what had happened, and the Pharisees joined with other Jewish leaders in plotting to get rid of Jesus (vv. 46–53). Again we see that it does not matter how much evidence there is regarding Christ’s identity if someone is intent on rejecting Him as Lord and Savior. Those who are unwilling to believe will remain so unless and until God changes their hearts (see 3:1–8). John Calvin comments that “before men can profit by miracles, their hearts must be purified; for they who have no fear of God, and no reverence for him, though they saw heaven and earth mingled, will never cease to reject sound doctrine through obstinate ingratitude.”
Today’s passage helps us understand why the religious authorities were intent on getting rid of Jesus. Upon hearing of the resurrection of Lazarus, “the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council” (11:47). John refers here to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that the Romans allowed to deal with many of the Jews’ internal matters, particularly with respect to faith and practice. This council consisted mainly of Sadducees, who held the priesthood in first-century Judaism, though representatives of the Pharisee party made up an influential minority on the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin’s chief worry was that Jesus would attract so many followers that the Romans would be prompted to come and take away their “place” and “nation” (vv. 47–48). The word “place” probably refers chiefly to the temple, but it also indicates their fear of losing power. During the first century, many messianic pretenders led failed uprisings against Rome. The Sanhedrin feared that enthusiasm for Jesus would spark a rebellion among the Jews and that the Romans would come in and punish the Jews, dissolving the Sanhedrin and destroying the temple.
Consequently, the Sanhedrin wanted to preserve its position at all costs, and debate ensued regarding whether the best course of action would be to seek the execution of Jesus. Caiaphas, the high priest, said they should seek His death, for it would be better for one man to die than for all the Jews to suffer Roman reprisal (vv. 49–50). Yet, Caiaphas said more than He knew. This unwitting prophet was right that it was better for Jesus to die—not for political redemption as Caiaphas thought but to purchase eternal salvation (vv. 51–53).
The comment of Caiaphas and the meaning behind it—which was true but unknown to him—shows us how God’s intention and the intentions of people work together to bring about the events of history. Caiaphas wanted Jesus to die for the sake of his political salvation. God wanted Jesus to die to save His people from their sin. God works in and through the intentions of fallen people to bring about His good will.
Passages for Further Study