Jesus Died to Gather the Children of God
John 11:45–57 —
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, 46 but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 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.” 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.” 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. 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.
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.
Let me start by telling you five applications of this text that I am going to make to your life, God willing:
- One has to do with the unstoppable purpose of God not just to turn bad circumstances for your good, but to be in them sovereignly from the start for your good.
- A second has to do with the heart of Christianity as substitution—that God took the life of his own Son, so that he would not have to take yours.
- A third has to do with the existence and the future of the Jewish people as sign in the 21st century of God’s existence and his covenant keeping faithfulness.
- A fourth has to do with the blood-bought diversity of the global church and our gladness in the greatness of God’s heart.
- And a fifth has to do with the particular design of God inside the universal offer of the salvation to unfailingly save the children of God, scattered throughout the world.
The Issue Here Is Huge
Lazarus has been raised from the dead by the omnipotent word of Jesus in John 11:44. Many people are witnesses of this and some believe in Jesus according to verse 45. Some run to tell the Pharisees what he had done (verse 46).
What happens next shows the fear that finally brought Jesus to his execution. Verses 47–48:
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.”
The “Council” is the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Jewish nation. So the issue here is huge. This is no longer the mob violence we saw in John 10:31 where they were about to stone Jesus. This is a high-level federal consultation. What’s at stake, we notice, is not the truth. The goal of this council is not to find truth. The goal of this council is survival.
Jesus—A Threat to the Nation?
If more and more people believe in Jesus, then the Roman Empire, which really rules the Jewish nation, will come crashing down on the little bit of freedom and autonomy that Israel has, and destroy the temple and the nation. Why? Because there is a growing sense that Jesus could be the long-awaited King of Israel (John 6:15). And if the number of people swell, there will be a Zionist frenzy that claims sovereignty for the state of Israel over against Rome, and Rome will crush it. That’s what the Pharisees and chief priests say to the Council.
So Jesus is now not just a minor blasphemer who needs to be stoned (John 10:33, 36); he is a threat to the existence of the very nation of Israel itself—that’s how they see it. The one who came to save is feared as a destroyer.
The Proposal: Substitution
In response to this threat Caiaphas, the high priest, has a word. And what we are going to hear in a moment is that this word is not ultimately his word, but God’s word. Here’s what Caiaphas proposes. Verses 49–50:
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.”
In other words, he rebukes them and then says, Here’s the solution: kill him. Better that one die so the nation won’t. We kill him so that the Romans won’t kill us. Substitute Jesus for us.
The Growing Instability
Verses 51– 52 are the central and most important verses in the text—John’s interpretation of Caiaphas’s words. But skip those for a moment, and just see how the story plays out to the end of the chapter.
Jesus knows things are volatile. But his time has not yet come. So he goes into hiding in an obscure town near the wilderness. Verse 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.
The great feast of Passover was coming (verse 55). Crowds were swelling in Jerusalem, making things all the more unstable. On top of that, the name of Jesus was in the air. People were looking for him and asking about him (verse 56). This was like dry kindling waiting for the match of messianic fever to land. And the outcome of the Council’s decision was in place (verse 57): “If anyone knew where he is, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”
The Huge Effect of Five Truths
Now back to the main verses, 51–52. What about Caiaphas’s words in verse 50, “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish”? John, the writer of this Gospel, says: There is more meaning here than what was intended by Caiaphas. Here’s his understanding. Verses 51–52:
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.
There are at least five truths in these words that can have a huge effect on your life:
- for your strength in hard times, and
- for your comfort in the face of your own sin, and
- for your confidence that God keeps his promises, and
- for your large-heartedness when you are tempted to be narrow and self-centered, and
- for your joy in the very personal and particular love that God has for you in Jesus.
FIVE TRUTHS IN THE TEXT
So let’s see the five truths and then make those five applications.
1. God did not just turn this national crisis for Israel’s good and our good, he was in it from the start planning it for good.
Notice carefully what John says about Caiaphas’s words. Caiaphas says in verse 50 : “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” And then John says something amazing in verse 51: “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied.”
He prophesied. In other words, God brought these words to his mind. God put them there. And God has a meaning. At one level, these are Caiaphas’s words with his meaning. And at another level, these are God’s words with his meaning. And the point I am making here is that these are the words that sealed Jesus’ death. These words are Jesus’ death warrant. Caiaphas wanted Jesus dead, and out of the way, and so he spoke these words. God wanted Jesus dead and risen and reigning forever, and so he spoke these words.
This Is What God Said
Caiaphas prophesied, that is, he spoke God’s words, and God said: “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” God said that. “Better that Jesus die.” Better. “Better than any other plan in the universe.” This is what God said.
Therefore, the death of Jesus was not mainly a tragic set of events which God turned for our good. It was a loving set of events which God planned for our good. God himself served the death warrant on his own Son. He did not just predict it. He unleashed it. This word of prophecy tracked Jesus down into Gethsemane and put him under arrest. There was no escape. This was the word of God. “It is better that he die.”
2. Substitution is at the heart of the Christian faith.
Verse 50: “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Verse 51 : “He prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation.”
In the mind of Caiaphas, the substitution was this: We kill Jesus so the Romans won’t kill us. We substitute Jesus for ourselves. In the mind of God, the substitution was this: I will kill my Son so I don’t have to kill you. God substitutes Jesus for his enemies.
God Killed Jesus?
I know it sounds harsh to speak of God killing Jesus. Killing so easily connotes sinning and callous cruelty. God never sins. And he is never callous. The reason I say that God killed his own Son is because Isaiah 53 uses this kind of language. Verse 4: “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God.” God smote him. Verse 6: “The Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Verse 10: “It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” God smote him. God crushed him.
This is the very center of our Christian faith: God substituted Jesus for us.
3. There is a future for the people of Israel as a redeemed ethnic nation and as part of the single, blood-bought body of Christ.
This is very controversial, and I won’t take time to give a long defense. I argued for it at some length when dealing with Romans 11. I mention it here so that you know where I stand and what I think this text means. And what great implications it has.
In v erse 51 , John says that Caiaphas “prophesied,” that is, God spoke, saying “that Jesus would die for the nation.” The “nation,” the “ethnos,” not just individual Jews only, but eventually the nation as a whole. The death of Jesus will someday result in a collective turning of the Jewish people to himself, so that the world will know that Israel as a people—as a nation—have been turned to Christ, her Messiah, and become part of the Christian church.
More Provocative Words
Last week I said the provocative words: No one can be saved unless they become a Jew—meaning: every one must believe on Jesus the Messiah and so be united to him, the offspring of Abraham in order to inherit the promises made to the world through Abraham. Today I will add these provocative words: The Jewish nation cannot be saved unless it becomes part of the Christian church—meaning: only in Jesus Christ is there salvation, and those who are in him are one body, the church (Ephesians 5:23; Colossians 1:18).
As I read the Old Testament and the book of Romans, I can’t escape the truth that God’s covenant with ethnic Israel is irrevocable and will not be satisfied in its fullness until some future generation of ethnic Israel as a whole is saved through Jesus Christ. “Have they [ethnic Israel] stumbled in order that they might fall? By no means!” (Romans 11:11). Their stumbling brings salvation to the Gentiles, and the salvation of the Gentiles will eventually bring Israel to Messiah.
4. The blood of Jesus purchases a racially and ethnically diverse church.
Verses 51–52: “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.” The meaning here is that Christ died to gather gentiles scattered around the world whom God has chosen to be his children. I say this for several reasons.
One is the parallel in John 10:16: “I have other sheep that are not of this fold [that is, this Jewish fold]. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock.” So there he says Christ lays down his life to gather other sheep that are not of the Jewish fold. The aim is the same in both texts: there the aim is to gather them into one flock; here the aim is to gather them “into one” (verse 52).
All Nations, One People
Another reason to see verse 52 as the gathering of diverse Gentiles is that John unpacks the effect of Jesus’ death in Revelation 5:9–10 with just this kind of Gentile ethnic diversity: “By your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom.” These are the children of God ransomed by the blood of Christ. They have been gathered from the all the races and ethnicities into one kingdom.
So the point here is that the death of Christ has effects far beyond the ransom of Israel, but including Israel along with all the nations. Same blood, same body. The one blood-bought people will one day include ethnic Israel and people from every race and ethnicity.
5. Inside the universal offer of salvation, God has a particular design in the death of Christ to convert the elect, the scattered children of God, and bring them to himself.
In verse 52 John says that Jesus died “to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” In other words, God has a people chosen for himself all over this world (Ephesians 1:4–5). Jesus said to Paul in a vision when he came to Corinth, “I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10). John says Jesus died to gather them.
More Than Just an Offer
When Jesus died, one of the designs of his death—one of the particular purposes—was to infallibly bring those people to himself. Don’t limit the purpose and the power of the death of Jesus to simply providing a way or all people to be saved. It is that! And it is more than that—gloriously more than that! It is also the power and purpose to overcome the rebellion of God’s elect and bring them to faith. To gather the children of God.
Christ died not only to offer the world salvation—“ God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). Yes. Amen and hallelujah for the true and universal offer of salvation to all who believe. But he did more. He also died to overcome the rebellion of the elect children of God and gather them omnipotently to himself.
FIVE TRUTHS APPLIED TO OUR LIVES
Tho se are the five truths I see in this text. Now let me close by simply applying them to you.
1. Be strong in the face of hard times and seeming defeat, because God is not simply watching and waiting to turn it all for good. He is in it from the beginning planning it for your good.
From the outside, the words of Caiaphas simply looked like a hostile human plan that would bring the Messiah to ruin. But from inside, John shows us that the very words of execution were not just the words of Caiaphas, but God’s words— and God had a totally different plan for these events that anyone could see. And so it will be in your life, again and again. You will see the outside. It will look hostile and destructive. Inside God is at work—for your good.
Don’t judge by appearances. Trust the sovereign planning of God for your good. He gets many victories through apparent defeats.
2. In the face of your own ongoing sinfulness, take comfort that the very heart of Christianity is substitution.
Caiaphas meant: We will kill Jesus so the Romans won’t kill us. God meant: I will kill my Son so I don’t have to kill you. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18).
When Satan and your own conscience condemn you, nothing will have more true power to comfort than this truth: God condemned your sin in his Son (Romans 8:3).
3. The amazing existence of the Jewish people today, and the certainty of their salvation in the future, is a sign in the 21st century that God exists and keeps his covenant.
And if he does this with Israel, will he not with you who trust his Son, the Messiah?
Anne Rice, the vampire novelist who a few years ago turned from 30 years of atheism, said in her 2005 book Christ the Lord, “I stumbled upon a mystery without a solution, a mystery so immense that I gave up trying to find an explanation because the whole mystery defied belief. The mystery was the survival of the Jews. . . . It was this mystery that drew me back to God.” (Anne Rice, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005], pp. 308– 309.)
Don’t take this lightly. There would be no Israel, if there were no God.
4. If we love the substitution that saved us, we should love what the substitution bought—a church of global diversity.
I said last week that Christians do not have a parochial mindset, but a kingdom mindset. We do not begrudge the presence of people different from us, we are glad in the greatness of God’s heart and the wideness of his mercy. We rejoice in blood-bought diversity.
5. The design of God in the death of Christ to convert and gather his scattered chosen ones should have two great effects on us.
It should give us a rock- solid confidence in the invincible success of the cross. It is not merely an offer dependent on human choice for its victory. It is a power that cannot fail in its intended purpose to gather God’s elect.
And second, this design of the death of Jesus should give you an intense and personal sense that you are loved particularly, personally, especially. If you have trusted Christ, he gathered you to himself. He chose you, he bought you, he brought you. You, in particular.
“Christ died for the nation of Israel. And not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God.” He pursued me. He found me. He gathered me to himself. And this he did by his blood.
The Door Is Open
When you say with the apostle Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20), you mean: He didn’t just offer me love. He pursued me with love. He conquered me with love. He awakened me with love. He satisfied me with love. And now I live, trembling and joyful, on the love God.
There is a wideness in God’s mercy. The door is open. If you come to Christ for your life, this is how you will speak of him. Come.