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While the other main Christian festival of Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth, at Easter, Christians celebrate Jesus’ death. Yet, crucially, all the gospel accounts tell us from slightly different perspectives that Jesus did not remain dead. Instead, He rose from the dead, appeared to many of those who had followed Him, and then ascended into heaven, where, currently, in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “he is seated at the right hand of the Father”.
Nevertheless, Easter concerns Jesus’ death, although His death is cause for celebration.
A logical place, therefore, to start an Easter devotion is at the beginning of his road to death (and glory). Jesus’ primary mission in coming to earth was to die for us to bring us back to God. This unique mission, in which he claimed to be the Messiah and the Son of God, produced divided reactions from those living at time, and quickly landed him in trouble with the religious authorities, who considered him a blasphemer. In the Gospel of John, Jesus is first presented as being encountered with opponents who wanted to kill him in John 5:16-18, following his healing of a man on the Sabbath. From there, the opposition grows, and it is often mentioned that the authorities were looking for a way to kill Jesus (7:1, 7:25, 8:31). Nothing strictly intentional, however, is devised until today’s passage, John 11:45-57.
These are verses which are often skipped over; I do not recall ever hearing a sermon on them; but they are important. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-44), which is the climactic miracle in the Gospel of John. In John, Jesus makes several declarations about his identity as the Son of God, all beginning: “I am” (Greek: ego eimi). He makes a particularly significant declaration before healing Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25). He then backs this up by bringing Lazarus back to life. Very often, we pass onto Jesus’ anointment with oil by Mary at Bethany (John 12:1-8; see tomorrow), without thinking about these intervening verses, 45-57, but they set in motion the devious plan to have Jesus arrested and crucified.
Many Jews saw what happened when Jesus raised Lazarus and believed in him (v.45). The news was then reported to one Jewish sect, the Pharisees, who had been particularly hostile towards Jesus (v.46). This leads to a crisis meeting involving the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin (v.47), regarding what should be done, since they feared that Jesus’ actions could lead to everyone believing in him, and as a result, the Romans will come and take away their place of worship, the temple, the defining feature of the nation Israel (v.48).
These religious leaders are confused and fearful, which makes them catastrophise. John employs heavy irony: in the confusion, Caiaphas, the high-priest ironically and unwittingly hits upon the truth. As Basil Fawlty tells Manuel, Caiaphas tells the council that they know nothing (v.49). Caiaphas reasons that if one man (in this case, the perceived criminal and troublesome blasphemer, Jesus) dies for the people, then the whole nation (Israel and especially its heart, Jerusalem) will not be destroyed, but saved (v.50). Caiaphas uses this logic to support putting Jesus to death: to save Jerusalem from destruction at the hands of the Romans; but, ironically, he hits upon the theological truth that Jesus is the substitute for the people to save them (including us!) from sin.
Caiaphas does not realise the theological truth in his utterance, and John draws attention to the irony: Caiaphas was not prophesying (he was merely judging!) (v.51) – the prophetic element came from God. Moreover, John explains that Jesus was not only going to die for Israel but for everyone, including Gentiles: so that they might be gathered together (Greek sunago; hence English synagogue) into one (v.52). By justifying the need to kill in Jesus this way, Caiaphas ironically expresses the precise intention of Jesus’ death. He is simultaneously miles from the truth and close to the truth; in his infatuation with details, he is clueless about the bigger picture. No doubt there are times where we need to be reminded of God’s big picture, when we are either painfully close to it or painfully distant from it.
Following John’s explanation, verse 53 is filled with pathos: despite such proximity to the truth, the Sanhedrin tragically decide to go ahead with having Jesus killed – unjustly, as a blaspheming criminal. It is a harsh and sad ending to the scene: the Sanhedrin is so close yet so far. It grieves God when we press on with our human plans without consideration for what He might be calling us to do. Yet, he is a merciful God who always offers a second chance and works evil for good.
A final word about Jesus’ reaction to all of this. While the authorities are plotting to have him arrested at Passover (vv.55-57), Jesus tactfully withdraws. He doesn’t simply hand himself over to the authorities; this would not fulfil God’s will at this time. There is danger and, like the take-off of Ross Kemp on The Impressions Show, “he gets out of there” to spend time with the disciples – for now, at least. Sometimes we are called to be courageous and run towards challenges, yet it is often prudent to remove ourselves from danger – and even more so to remove ourselves from harmful environments or ways of living which will lead us away from God. Jesus withdraws for reasons of personal safety but uses it to develop intimacy.
 God’s name in Hebrew, the four letters (tetragram) YHVH, which no Jew would ever utter (when the Old Testament is read aloud in the original Hebrew, God’s name, YHVH, is pronounced “Adonai” meaning “Lord”) are similar to the Hebrew for I am/ I will be (ehyeh); cf. Exodus 3:14.