Can you imagine the scene? Jesus has just raised Lazarus, another miraculous sign that points toward who he is. He is the resurrection and the life and so he is able to bring Lazarus back to life. This is the last miracle Jesus performs before he is crucified, crowning his ministry by healing Adam’s disease – death itself!
But the response of the Jewish leaders is to want to destroy him. Seems strange that Jesus had just restored life and in response people wished to take his away.
But let us focus on the words of Caiaphas. John tells us clearly that Caiaphas said something that was prophetic in nature. What does that mean? What does prophecy entail? Is it simply telling what is about to happen? It cannot be in this context. We know that though Jesus did die, the Jewish nation was dispersed and ceased to exist just a few decades later. Caiaphas could not have gotten that wrong and still have been prophesying.
So what was Caiaphas prophesying? John tells us, “He prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the Jewish nation. Caiaphas certainly does not have this consciously on his mind. No! For him “it is better to have one man die than for the whole nation to perish.” He has in mind a diversion of attention. The other leaders had said that Jesus’ popularity would invite Roman wrath and that the nation would be destroyed. But Caiaphas sees a sinister solution. He sees the truth that humans will forget their real problems if they can find a small minority – in this case a single person – who can be blamed for the problems. Wherever you see minorities persecuted, Caiaphas is speaking on his own account. He is the master exponent of targeting a scapegoat so as to sweep the real problem under the carpet. He sees that, if only Roman wrath could be directed at Jesus for a while, the catharsis that resulted would buy the Jewish people some more time. With this wannabe messiah dead the zeal of the Jews would subside and Rome would rule them longer without having to disperse them throughout the empire. Caiaphas knows that Roman wrath and Jewish zeal could be dealt with if one charismatic troublemaker could be made into a scapegoat. That is what he has in mind. One man, Jesus, would die and the Jewish people would be spared from Roman wrath.
But that is not what makes his words a prophecy. No! Prophecy in the Old Testament did not consist mainly in foretelling the future. Rather, the main thrust of prophecy in the Old Testament was on revealing the true nature of things from God’s perspective.
And so when Caiaphas says, “it is better to have one man die for the people” through him God was speaking another truth. Jesus’ death is not about one man dying and others not dying. It is not about one man tasting death so that others may be snatched from death’s jaws. It is not about Jesus dying in place of others. It is not about Jesus dying instead of others.
Rather, it is that Jesus’ death positively benefits others. It is better that one man dies for the benefit of others, in order to work something positive in their lives, for the express purpose of improving their condition. Through Caiaphas, God was revealing his inscrutable purposes. This death will not be like that of the wannabe messiahs who preceded Jesus. Their deaths only accomplished the short term diversion that Caiaphas had in mind – targeting of a scapegoat. But Jesus’ death would work to positively benefit all of God’s children. Caiaphas had in mind a human solution that had to be repeated every time the people were stirred up. God had in mind a divine solution that would happen once but be effective through time and space. In the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth we are told that in Jesus God is with us. But here through Caiaphas God tells us that the only reason God can be with us in Jesus is that God is for us, on our side and that in Jesus he has put that divine ‘for-ness’, that divine favor, into action.