Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
4 September 2016 / Ordinary Time
May the grace and truth of Jesus Christ be with you all.
In a well-known tweet that has been retweeted countless times, Tim Keller says: “It’s impossible to have met the real Jesus and be indifferent. You either bow down in wonder OR go away offended.”
That is what happened after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead at Bethany.
Many who saw the sign believed Jesus is the resurrection and the life; but some who saw the sign disbelieved and devised a way to kill him because they thought he was a revolutionary leader.
Our sermon text is John 11:45-54. If you are willing and able, I invite you to stand and listen to God’s Holy Word.
 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he 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 like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “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.”  He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation,  and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.  So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.  Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.
The word of the Lord.
May God add his blessings to the reading, preaching, and hearing of his word. All the church says: Amen. You may be seated.
As you know, Bo and I attended (and graduated from) Redeemer Seminary a few years ago. It was one of the better experiences of my life, yet it was one of the most challenging as well. There were all these new people from different Christian traditions learning the same truths, reading the same fat books, drinking the same stale coffee, debating the same old things, and taking the same Greek and Hebrew quizzes.
Intellectually, the languages were one of the most difficult parts of seminary. Bo and I still laugh about the time he read a translation of a Greek text as “me go before you.” And I still cringe when I think about all the red ink smeared across my Hebrew quizzes.
All of us struggled with the languages in our own way, except for one or two students who seemed to have what can only be described as the spiritual gift of parsing. Their minds absorbed the vocabulary, conjugations, syntax, jots and tittles; my mind juggled them around for a few minutes and dropped them to the ground.
All that to say, faced with the gloomy reality of our relative weakness in the biblical languages, there were times in Hebrew when we would “jokingly” (yet prayerfully) request what seminarians like to call a champion exam.
The idea for a champion exam came from Ancient Near Eastern stories of warfare which we were learning about in the readings for Old Testament our courses.
It goes like this: When two opposing armies lined up for battle, each side often sent its champion out to fight as a representative of the whole army. If the champion lived, he won for the whole army. If a champion died, he lost for the whole army.
Applied to Hebrew, it meant that we wanted the best student from our class to take the Hebrew exam on behalf of the whole class. Whatever grade she earned for herself, she earned for us all. (By the way, her name was Pauline Buisch; she went on to teach Hebrew at the seminary before pursuing her PhD in semitic languages Notre Dame.) In her, we found our champion!
But the good Dr Gropp never even entertained our humble request. It is likely that (regarding our class) he agreed with Caiaphas the High Priest that “You know nothing at all.” Except he obviously did not share Caiaphas’ view that “it is better for you that one should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” So it was every man for himself.
And that brings us back into the story of John 11.
I want to draw your attention to the phrase “it is better for you that one man should die for the people” but first I want to develop the back story.
The Jewish leaders were at their wits’ end with Jesus. Over the past few weeks we have seen how they were going to arrest him, but didn’t; how they were going to stone him, but didn’t; how they were going to kill him, but didn’t.
Up to this point they have been all bark and no bite.
And Jesus has grown more and more popular with the masses. He has healed the lame, fed the hungry, opened the eyes of the blind, raised the dead, and confronted the religious establishment, all in public.
Still, public opinion about Jesus was mixed. Some people thought he was a prophet; some believed he was the Christ; some thought he was a mad-man.
The Jewish leaders were fully aware that the Romans had a zero tolerance policy towards revolutionaries; that any spark of revolt would be snuffed out with extreme prejudice. They had dealt with their fair share of revolutionaries in the past. Lots of guys had come out of left field, claimed to be the Messiah, gathered a following, and then flamed out in conflict with the Roman Military Industrial Complex.
So the Jewish leaders were trying to come up with a plan to keep the Romans out of their business and off their backs. That plan involved getting rid of Jesus one way or another.
I feel the need to insert a pastoral concern here:
The Jewish leaders were not the only ones who ever wanted to get rid of Jesus. Lots of people want to get rid of him, from their consciousness, their heart, their life, their congregation. They don’t want Jesus messing with their life, and shaking things up. They don’t like Jesus teaching them what to do or showing them how to live. Why? They don’t want to lose their place, or lose their prerogatives.
They might acknowledge that Jesus has done some amazing things for many people, but they are afraid that they might actually come to believe in him if they let him go on doing his things in their life. They are afraid that if that happens, if Jesus actually takes root in their heart, then some powerful secular Americans will come and take away their pride and put them to shame and embarrass them.
So, like the Jewish leaders, they secretly plot and scheme and devise ways in the darkness to get rid of him, to drive him out of sight and delete him from their memory, even if it means killing him with the help of wicked people.
All they need is some well-respected “expert” to authenticate their thoughts, or some well-known celebrity to legitimize their feelings, then they feel justified in getting rid of Jesus once for all.
That’s what happened in this story.
PRIEST AS POLITICIAN AND PROPHET?!
The Jewish leaders expressed their political concerns to Caiaphas the High Priest. In response, he rebuked them and revealed his thoughts on the matter:
“You know nothing at all. Don’t you understand that is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish?!”
On the surface, Caiaphas the High Priest was just offering a pragmatic solution to fix a dicey political situation.
But that was not the role of the High Priest.
According to God’s Law, the high priest was supposed to teach the people the Law of God. (Lev 10:11) And he was supposed to give wise counsel and godly advice to those who consulted him. (Deut 17:9)
He was also appointed to act on behalf of men in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. And he was supposed to be able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is beset with weakness. (Hebrews 5:1-3)
In other words, he was supposed to lead the people to worship and serve God according to the Holy Scriptures.
Sadly, Caiaphas was a better politician than priest. He was a good mediator between Romans and Jews, but a bad mediator between God and sinners.
So, even though he offered counsel to those who asked, it was wicked counsel.
And although he was supposed to deal gently with those he deemed ignorant and the wayward, you see how he dealt harshly with Jesus.
Not that Jesus was ignorant or wayward.
In fact, it was Jesus who walked with God in peace and uprightness, and turned many from iniquity. But Caiaphas had turned aside from the way and caused many to stumble by his instruction…He did not keep God’s ways but showed partiality in his teaching. (Malachi 2:5-9)
Here is another important fact about Caiaphas that you need to know.
He was a Sadducee, which means he was a politically motivated secular humanist. Sadducees were functional atheists. They believed in man, but they did not believe in God, angels, spirits, demons, or anything non-material or extra-sensory. If they couldn’t perceive it with the senses or prove it with science it didn’t happen or exist.
That is ironic because, according to John, who was guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit, Caiaphas prophesied about the person and work of Jesus.
Ridderbos says, “One may call it a tragic irony that Caiaphas here, against his knowledge and intention, appears as a prophet. What concerns the Evangelist, above all, however, is that Israel’s highest official, with all the authority associated with his office, spoke of Jesus’s death as the only way in which the people could be saved. Israel had to hear this from the lips of its own high priest.” (410)
Whether he knew it or not, Caiaphas prophesied two massive truths:
One, Jesus would die for the nation. That little word for means, on behalf of, in place of, the nation.
Two, Jesus would gather into one the children of God who were scattered abroad.
This prophetic word uttered by wicked priest is a perfect example of God drawing straight lines with a crooked stick. It’s just another reminded that if God can speak truth through the mouth of an ass, he can speak truth through anyone.
Caiaphas’ double-edged prophecy echoed the prophecies made by the prophets in the Old Testament.
Isaiah prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation when he said:
As many were astonished at you— his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—so shall he sprinkle many nations. Kings shall shut their mouths because of him, for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand. (52:14-15)
And, Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors. (53:11-12)
Jeremiah prophesied that Jesus would gather God’s people and save the nation when he said:
Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, Behold, I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply…and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the LORD. Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness.’ (23:2-6)
Ezekiel prophesied that Jesus would gather into one the children of God who were scattered abroad when he said:
For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. (34:11-13)
Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms. (37:19-22)
Even John the Baptist prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation when he said:
“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
Caiaphas’ double-edged prophecy also echoed the prophecies made by Jesus Christ throughout his public ministry.
Jesus himself prophesied that he would die for the nation and gather the scattered children of God when he said:
This is how God loved the world: he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
I give my flesh for the life of the world. (John 6:51)
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep…I know my own and my own know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep.
And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. (John 10:11-16)
Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” (John 11:25-26)
All these prophetic words have one thing in common: they all agree that it is better for one man to die on behalf of the many, for one to die in place of all, for the righteous one to die for the unrighteous many.
ONE FOR ALL
To help us understand the notion of one dying for the many, I’d like to use an example from pop culture.
Most of you are probably familiar with the Hunger Games Trilogy. In the world of that story there is something called a reaping. That is an annual event that takes place in every district of Panem before each Hunger Games, where the tributes of the upcoming Games are randomly chosen. Tributes are two young people from each district, a male and a female, who represent each district in the games. (Source: http://thehungergames.wikia.com/wiki/The_Reaping)
If someone so chooses, they may volunteer to take the place of a tribute who is selected. In the story, Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute to protect her sister Prim. Later on, Peeta Mellark volunteered as tribute to protect Katniss. The point is that they deliberately and intentionally volunteered to participate in the games on behalf of another, to lay down their lives for people they loved in District 12; one for the many.
As I mentioned earlier, the notion of one representing all is as old as mankind. We see it in the Ancient Near East, even in Israel.
In the story of David and Goliath, two opposing armies lined up for battle on the ridge of a valley. Each army sent its champion out to fight as a representative of the whole army. David represented Israel. When the shepherd-boy became a giant-killer, the whole army of Israel became giant-killers. Why? Because the representative of the army conquered the enemy.
Caiaphas prophesied that “it is better for one man to die on behalf of the many, for one to die in place of all. What he meant politically, God meant theologically.
The Jewish leaders agreed with Caiaphas. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. Therefore Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.
EXODUS AND EXILE
Now, we know that man lives by every word that comes from God’s mouth, so even these words about Jesus’ travel itinerary matter. They mean something and, therefore, must not be passed over lightly.
There are at least two symbolic reasons why Jesus went to Ephraim:
- Like the Hebrews, Jesus went on an exodus from the barren center of Egypt (Jerusalem) to the fruitful ( = Ephraim) margins of the desert.
- Like Judah, he went into exile with his disciples, thus the glory of the Lord departed from the temple once for all.
[Side-Note: Three more reasons here.]
As the God-man, Jesus’s Story was a dramatization of both Israel’s story and Yahweh’s story combined.
Now, since we are disciples of Christ, we must be willing to go where he goes and stay where he stays wherever that is, even he leads out of the popular center to the unpopular margins.
PERSONAL QUESTION: AGREE OR DISAGREE?
Now, as we come to the end, I want to pose a personal question to you: Do you agree or disagree that it is better for you that one man should die for the people?
The way you answer that question will go a long way towards telling whether you are truly a Christian or not, whether you understand grace or not.
If you disagree [that it is better for you that one man should die for the people] then consider the alternative. You must affirm that is better for you that you should die for yourself and that everyone else should die for himself or herself.
If you disagree [that it is better for you that one man should die for the people] then consider the alternative. You must agree that it is better for all the people of the whole nation/race to perish in their sins without a savior, without a tribute, without a champion; that it is better for you that no one should die in your place, on your behalf, not for you or anyone else. You and you alone will die for you and your sins.
If you agree that it is better for you that one man should die for the people then you must be willing to confess with your mouth, and be able to believe in your heart that it was better for Jesus to die for you, than for you to die for yourself, or even for you to die for Jesus. Otherwise, you will die in your sins and perish.
(Note: Whenever anyone believes the gospel from the heart they are (in effect) confessing, “Jesus, I believe it was better for you to die for me and my sins than for me to die for myself and my sins.”)
The Law says, the soul that sins must die; every man must die for his own sins.
The Gospel says, the One must die for all, that all may live for the One.
Which one do you believe from your heart?
God draws straight lines with crooked sticks.
As we will see, what Caiaphas intended for evil, God intended for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive as they are to this day.