There’s a little incident in the latter half of John 11 that I find fascinating.
The situation is that the Sanhedrin are in council. They are discussing the popularity of Jesus’ teaching and its impact on their political situation.
As the Jewish native ruling council, they were in a very precarious situation. Judea was part of the Roman Empire, subject to its Emperors and its laws. Worse, they were a province known for troublemaking and rebellions, and if there was one thing the Romans would not tolerate, it was rebellion by its subject peoples. The Pax Romana was very simple and very clear: Do not fight, or we will kill you.
The Sanhedrin had the perilous task of trying to balance the interests of the nation and the reality of their Roman provincehood.
Popular feeling in the nation said that the people of God ought not to be subject to pagans; that the nation would not be right until they had set up a proper Divine monarchy in the image of King David’s. Popular feeling said that paying taxes to Caesar was morally wrong, because the Emperors were demanding worship that belonged to God, and beside, Roman coinage itself was possibly idolatrous, bearing the image of Caesar. This was why the money-changers existed; you couldn’t use pagan money in the house of God.
But they knew that if there was an uprising, they didn’t have the strength to resist Rome. The Legions were everywhere. They had time and again demonstrated their effectiveness against both barbarian invaders and rebellious provinces, and Judea simply did not have enough trained men to successfully rebel and make it stick.
If you could count on Divine aid, it would be one thing, but you’re taking a big risk with your nation. There was no attested prophet saying “Thus says the LORD”, just a loose collection of would-be Maccabees. And history showed that God didn’t seem particularly interested in fighting for His people’s political freedom right then.
So the Sanhedrin had to tread a fine line between keeping their own authority and legitimacy among the people, and not provoking the Romans. Jesus was a threat to this because He wasn’t under their control. OK, He hadn’t incited a revolt yet, but there really was no telling what He might do. And even if He didn’t incite a revolt, the fact that an unknown religious leader from a rebellious province had such a following was the sort of thing the Romans perceived as a threat.
As they said, “if this goes on, then the Romans will come and take away our place (that is, our place of worship) and our nation”.
The house built as a testimony to the nations and as the sole place to properly worship God was at stake.
And then we have Caiaphas’ statement that it is better if one man dies for the nation than that the whole nation dies, and John’s testimony that this was not something he said by himself, but was a prophetic statement.
Historically, prophets were one of the three means God used to bring correction and guidance to His people. Men like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Elijah, Habbakkuk. They had the Spirit of God resting on them. They were special.
Kings were another of these three means. God’s Spirit rested on them, at least in theory, so that they could govern the people of God.
But there hadn’t been any kings since the Exile, and no attested prophets since Malachi some 400 years earlier.
Yet there were priests. God had not abandoned His people, nor left them entirely without a witness.
As High Priest, Caiaphas would have been presumed to have the Spirit resting on him in special measure. Speaking as High Priest, he could prophesy, in a similar way to the way Roman Catholics believe the Pope may make ex cathedra pronouncements of doctrine carrying the force of Scripture.
And here, John contends that he did.
It’s remarkable, both for its occurrence and for the way that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin apparently miss the point regardless. They have a prophetic word from the Lord saying that Jesus will die for the Jewish nation. And not only that, but also for the scattered children of God in the world, to make them one.
And yet their minds are so full of their own preconceived ideas and certainty about who and what the Messiah is that they miss it.
If anything should caution us regarding prophetic words, it is this.
God may indeed have said thus-and-so. But you had better be sure that thus-and-so means what you assume it does.
Caiaphas spoke words of prophecy, and still didn’t understand who Jesus is. It’s almost unfathomable, yet there it is. We know in part, and we prophesy in part.
Jesus did die for the Jewish nation, but not in the way Caiaphas was thinking. He died to put an end to their sins. He did die for all the scattered children of God, to make them one, but where Caiaphas probably thought this meant the Jews of the Diaspora coming back to Judea, it seems clear in hindsight that it was actually referring to the Gentile church.
But even in the midst of dire missing of the point, I find it encouraging. God even gives prophetic words to those standing in judgment over His Son. He’s not willing that even these should perish.