(John 11:47-48 ESV) 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. 48 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.”
After the raising of Lazarus, the Jewish leaders are now less concerned with the penalty for blasphemy and more with the survival of their nation. After all, if Jesus were to lead a rebellion against Rome (what else would a Messiah do?), the Romans would crush them ruthlessly.
A couple of historical points. First, there had been false Messiahs before. They’d all been cruelly crushed by the Romans. No rational person would look forward to yet another failed revolution and Roman retribution. The Romans could be fairly tolerant of many things, but not about power. They would destroy anyone who contested their rule.
Second, when Rome conquered Jerusalem in 37 BC or so, Herod the Great was named “King of the Jews” by Rome. He was an Edomite but a practicing Jew, because the Maccabees had earlier forcibly converted Edom to Judaism.
His sons carried the same title. For anyone to claim to be the Messiah would be to claim to be king of the Jews. The Prophets are very clear on that point, and so the Herodians would certainly see anyone claiming to be the Messiah as a threat — and Rome would certainly support their efforts to kill any false Messiah.
Rome allowed the Jews to continue the Temple worship and relieved them from sacrificing to the Roman gods. The Romans knew their history and so knew that the Jews could not be pacified and subjugated if they were forced to worship Roman gods. The Greeks had made that mistake and lost Jerusalem because of it.
However, this was a point of tension with Rome, and Rome could easily change its mind. The Jews knew that their religious freedoms were conditioned on submission to the Emperor and his vassals.
Although Herod was a king, he was a vassal to Caesar and recognized the superior authority of Caesar. Indeed, to make certain no one could forget, the Romans stationed troops in Jerusalem — just in case.
With each sign of insurgency, the Romans would bring out their army and cruelly suppress the revolt. Rebels typically were crucified and left for days on public display so the people could see the consequences of rebelling against Rome. 2,000 Jews were crucified when they rebelled following the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC.
This was all fairly recent history at the time. The lesson learned is that you don’t rebel against Rome unless you’re certain of victory, and Jesus didn’t strike them as likely to win. And not all the Jewish leaders wanted to rebel. Many enjoyed very potent political power and privileges by collaborating with Rome.
As shown by the outcome of the Jewish revolt in 70 AD (a generation later), even a very well supported and planned revolt would ultimately fail against the superior numbers and military skills of the Romans — and the result of losing was indeed the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Jewish nation. After that revolt, there would be no high priest, no Sadducees, and no privileged class of Roman collaborators.
In short, the Jewish leaders had very real reasons to be worried — if Jesus should prove to be another Messiah intent on defeating Rome.
(John 11:49-50 ESV) 49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. 50 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.”
Here’s the musical version —
[I realize that “Jesus Christ Superstar” does not suit everyone’s taste, but how many songs have been written about Caiaphas?]
Why did the leaders never bother to ask Jesus what his intentions were? Well, he was a Galilean, a breaker of the Law, and beneath them. Besides, they imputed to him the same motivations they would have had if they’d been in his shoes. I mean, if Caiaphas had been given the power to raise the dead and heal the blind, he would used it to seek power. He could imagine no other way of thinking.
(John 11:51-52 ESV) 51 He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
This is an amazing passage. Caiaphas — hardly a sympathetic figure at all, who likely bribed his way into the high priesthood — is credited with the gift of prophecy. His decision to have Jesus killed proves to be the will of God. Indeed, Jesus would die for the nation, just not to save Israel from Rome. He died to save Israel from their own sin.
John can’t help but add that Jesus’ death would not be just for the Jews. The truth is even bigger than what Caiaphas had said — Jesus would die for all the nations, indeed, to unite the nations.
(John 11:53-54 ESV) 53 So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. 54 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.
For a while, Jesus left Jerusalem. The location of Ephraim is unknown today, but “Ephraim,” the name of one of the 12 tribes, was often used by the Prophets as a metaphor for the Northern Kingdom, which had long ago been taken into Assyrian captivity.
Therefore, there’s an image here of the true King, of the tribe of Judah, being forced out of Judea — his own countrymen, his own tribe — to live in Ephraim, the land that had rebelled against the descendants of David and appointed their own kings.
It’s poignant and it’s prophetic. Clearly, Jesus was not where he belongs. Events would surely lead him back to Jerusalem.
(John 11:55-57 ESV) 55 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
John now mentions the third and final Passover of Jesus’ ministry. The nation would be abuzz with the selection of the Passover lamb, to be sacrificed and eaten in memory of God’s salvation — bought at the cost of the lives of the oldest sons of those who were not Israelites. It’s no wonder that Jesus must spent some time as an outcast from his own people.
To celebrate Passover, a Jew had to be ritually cleaned. Jews who traveled to Jerusalem would have to be washed in a mikveh — such as the pool of Siloam. That is, the Jews knew that Jesus could not delay long and still participate in the Passover in Jerusalem, as was his custom.