John (Part 41): Caiaphas the Prophet (ch 11)
Imagine someone calling another person to come out of a grave when you know that other person has been in there for four days. And then that dead person actually does come out! Would you be stunned? Surprised? Shocked? Amazed? Would you excitedly tell friends the miracle you just witnessed? All that was happening with the crowd around Lazarus’s tomb. Would you be in awe and wonder at the person who did the calling? Would you believe he did a great and good deed? I suppose we would think that. And I suppose most of us would not be angrily thinking, “I need to report this do-gooder to the police!” And yet, some of those watching at Lazarus’s tomb did just that.
Why do you suppose some of that crowd marched straight to the Pharisees to turn Jesus in for his deed? All of us are to some extent influenced by others in the way we think. No doubt some in the crowd were religiously minded and had heard complaints by their religious leaders that this man was deceiving people. Some in the crowd may have been politically minded and understood the priests complaint that this man could hurt the stability of their nation by drawing Roman attention to a potential uprising. After all, many of them could probably remember the uprising that actually did occur about twenty years earlier when Quirinius conducted a census and instituted the temple tax. The Jewish revolt against that, according to Josephus, became the beginning of the Zealot party.
I think we do the same thing today. How we view a single action by a single individual is often colored by how we think religiously or politically. Although we may not have come to a position on some religious issue from our own research, we may condemn someone or some idea simply because of church tradition or because our pastor or certain Bible authorities have been on one side of the issue or another. That’s dangerous, not only for ourselves, but as we see here in John, it is dangerous for others.
Notice that it is the Pharisees who are told what Jesus did (11:46), but it resulted in the chief priests and the Pharisees convening the Sanhedrin—the religious-political ruling body of the Jews. This is a transition point for how the leaders dealt with Jesus. The Gospel of John, we decided, is in three major parts: Jesus is the Way (chs 1-10), Jesus is the Truth (chs 11-12), and Jesus is the Life (chs 13-20) (chapter 21 stands apart as an epilogue). Looking at the mention of interaction with the leaders of the Jews in each section, we get the following results:
Pharisees alone: Part 1 – 10 times; Part 2 – 2 times; Part 3 – 0 times
Pharisees and Priests/Rulers: Part 1 – 4 times; Part 2 – 3 times; Part 3 – 1 time
Priests alone: Part 1 – 0 times; Part 2 – 3 times; Part 3 – 14 times
Clearly, the emphasis shifts. In the early part of the Gospel, the conflict was religious—with the Pharisees, the religious experts. In our current section we have a shift; more priests (Sadducees) are involved. In the last section, the Pharisees virtually disappear as the conflict rages with the priests/Sadducees alone. The distinction is striking. No longer is Jesus merely spoken against for religious reasons, but instead politics takes over. The priests (most of whom were Sadducees) were the political rulers of the land. Their concern was for the political stability of the nation. They were worried about the interference of Rome. Certainly, they would have loved being autonomous, left to manage their affairs totally on their own. But they weren’t, and Rome was powerful. However, if they could keep quiet—keep under the radar—they could manage most things on their own. Pilate, the Prefect, stayed in Caesarea most of the time. Jerusalem, then, was left mostly to the Sanhedrin to govern so long as no disturbance drew the attention of the Roman governor. But clamoring was becoming increasingly louder. Crowds of Jews were beginning to see Jesus as their messiah—a Judas Maccabeus type leader.
And why wouldn’t they? It had been reported—and many saw it—that Jesus had fed thousands with a few loaves and fish. Jesus had healed people of diseases. And now reports came in that Jesus raised someone from the dead! Imagine a small, weak nation facing the Goliath of Rome. How could Israel ever hope to gain the world prominence and independence that their Scriptures said would occur? How could they defeat Rome?! It had seemed impossible. But…but now? With a leader who could make food out of nothing, heal their wounded, and even raise their dead—how now could they be stopped?! Here, it seemed, was the leader God promised! Someone to bring Israel to glory!
Of course, the Sanhedrin believed they had to quell this surge of independence-minded revolt. The Sadducees did not believe in resurrection. They would not have believed that Jesus actually raised someone from the dead. Their pragmatic attitude told them that they’d have to stop the messiah talk so as not to rouse the giant Rome against them. So the Sanhedrin meets, and Caiaphas, the high priest, speaks.
The text in verse 49 almost sounds as if the high priest were changed each year. But the emphasis on “that year” is not about Caiaphas’s reign; it is that year that redemption occurred.
Caiaphas says, “You know nothing at all! You’re not considering that it is to your advantage that one man should die for the people rather than the whole nation perish.” Immediately we are told that he is prophesying here. To prophesy is to speak the words of God. Caiaphas does not know he is speaking the words of God because his intent is a little different. But we can see the double entendre. Caiaphas says, “You know nothing,” in accusation that they think this is a problem when Caiaphas has a simple solution: have Jesus killed. Caiaphas defends this by saying that it would be advantageous to them and the people for Jesus to be killed rather than that Rome should rise up and destroy their whole nation. So he is concerned for the nation but simply in its political survival. God, however, means, of course, that not only do the rest of the council not know anything, but even Caiaphas knows nothing. And yet, it is true that the death of Jesus would rescue the people, not politically, but rather spiritually. And that rescue would extend and “unite the scattered children of God” (11:52), thus fulfilling Isaiah 49:14-25.
So they plan to kill him, and it was indeed for death that Jesus was born. But the timing is God’s, and so Jesus departs to the countryside, awaiting the appropriate time. And we are immediately given a hint of that time as John says in verse 55, “The Jewish Passover was near.”
Jesus and his disciples go to Bethany six days before the Passover. Passover is Nisan 14. That was a Thursday that year. So, six days earlier would be Friday of the previous week. We are told that a dinner is given for him. This would probably not be Friday night because that is the start of the Sabbath. I’m thinking the dinner was Saturday night just after the Sabbath ended at dusk. They are at the home of Simon the Leper, and yet Martha is serving. I think that Simon the Leper is one of the beneficiaries of Martha’s Bethany ministry. Simon had heard Martha speak of Jesus, and Simon apparently wanted Jesus to come to his home so he could hear him.
At the meal, Jesus, no doubt, does what Jesus always does—he teaches. He probably speaks of his death. And as Mary listens to his words, now fully understanding the lesson she learned of the resurrecting Messiah through the picture of Lazarus’s resurrection, leaves the dinner, hurries home, retrieves a jar of expensive perfume, and comes back to the dinner with the intent of anointing Jesus. This she does, breaking open the flask and pouring it over his head and then over his feet. And she wipes his feet with her hair. The whole act shows her understanding of Jesus’ coming death and, in mimicking the adulteress of Luke 7 who felt the burden of her sin, she wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair.
Judas objects. This is a waste, he says. It should be given to the poor, he says. But John lets us know that his real motive is that he wants to take the money. But although we don’t see it in John’s account, we do find that in the Synoptics, the other disciples are grumbling about this supposed waste as well. Maybe Judas’s simple statement was convincing. Maybe he said it with so much vituperative passion that the other disciples just thought, “Oh, yeah.” And yet, Mark uses strong words to express the disciples’ indignation and anger (Mark 14:4-5).
It seems odd to me that the disciples respond so passionately negative to Mary’s act. If this were some stray woman off the streets, it would make a little more sense. But Mary is one of their friends. And the disciples know that she is a prominent woman, beloved by a whole crowd that came from Jerusalem to console her. Her brother is someone whom Jesus risked his life to come save. She is, in fact, the sister of the most famous man of Bethany—the man who rose from the dead! And that man—that very brother—was right there, eating with them! So what is it that makes these men so violently opposed to her action?
I think it may have been the dinner itself. They are at the home of Simon…the leper. Was he still a leper? Was he still sick and ailing? Was he poor? The meaning of the city name—Bethany—is house of the poor. Had the disciples followed Jesus into this poor, sick man’s home that may have been below standard, maybe even squalid? And they were reclining at his table eating? Maybe they were repulsed. But, then, maybe not. Maybe they were profusely touched at his ill condition and his poor living. When Mary then pours the perfume that was worth a whole years’ wages on Jesus at the home of this guy who could hardly scrape together enough resources to have this dinner for which he needed a neighbor—Martha—to help serve, the disciples immediately see the contrast of perfume expense dripping on the floor that could have been used to help this man.
And that takes us once again back to the Luke 10 story. In that story it was Martha instead of the disciples who was upset because she decided Mary wasn’t doing ministry right. But Jesus told Martha, “One thing is of necessity” (Lk 10:42). That one thing was the proclamation of Jesus as Messiah who would die and rise to give people life. And here Jesus defends Mary again with much the same thought. He says, “Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of My burial” (12:7).
It is interesting that the same word for the agitation of spirit that leads to anger and indignation is used of Jesus at Lazarus’s tomb and used of the disciples when seeing Mary pour the oil. Jesus, faced with sin’s effect, is angered (11:33, 38) and then gives of himself. The disciples, faced with sin’s effect, are angered (Mk 14:4-5) but seek to accuse and command. Our attitudes should not be simply to scold others for not being along far enough yet on their sanctification journey but rather to show by giving of ourselves what kingdom living is about.
In this story, we see understanding and purpose in all the main characters. Jesus teaches; Lazarus reclines; Mary anoints; and Martha serves. Jesus teaches about his death. He, who is resurrection, speaks of His own death. Lazarus reclines, eating with Jesus. He, who was dead, now receives life. Mary anoints, acting in the face of death. She, who had fallen at Jesus’ feet, thinking nothing else could be done, now acts according to her new understanding. Martha serves—alone—for others’ benefit. She, who had complained, now ministers so that others may minister in other ways.
The last words we hear from this dinner are Jesus saying, “For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me” (12:8). This is a statement of priorities. Kingdom living does include interactive concern for the poor, the sick, and all the needy. But this scene and these words should again bring to mind Jesus’ statement to Martha in Luke 10:42. The primary purpose of kingdom living is to ensure recognition of the dying and rising Messiah Savior.