John 11:45-57, To Gather into One the Children of God

[October 23, 2011] This week we conclude the story of the raising of Lazarus with Jesus’ departure from Bethany, which prepares us for His return to Bethany the Friday before His death. In chapter 9 Jesus healed the man who was born blind, a man who on account of Jesus was cast out of the synagogue. The recovery of his sight is a sign of receiving spiritual sight. He now recognized Jesus. In chapter 10 Jesus speaks of how He casts the sheep out of the fold—the ones who recognize His voice—to form them into His flock. In chapter 11 He raises Lazarus who recognizes the Shepherd’s voice even in the grave. This is a sign of the spiritual life that Jesus imparts. At the opening of chapter 12, Jesus gathers with His flock, those who recognizing His voice have been raised to life in Him. The gathering in Bethany in chapter 12 is a picture of church-life, the life of the local gathering of the believers, pictured by a meal of enjoyment and the outpouring of our selves in love for Him.

Thus ends the series of stories that began with another woman, the woman at the well in Sychar. From the nuptial imagery there (recall the significance of Jacob’s well in Genesis) we end with similarly evocative nuptial imagery in Bethany. These form the extreme ends of the horizontal beam of the gospel; but both before and after, similarly placed on the vertical beam, we have other nuptial imagery: the wedding at Cana and the scene at the tomb in the garden (recalling Eden).

These markers, encompass the journey between. After the Samaritans believe (thus uniting the separated), Jesus heals the king’s man’s son (recalling the judgment on Pharaoh in Exodus, and reversing it). Then Jesus heals the paralytic by the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath, recalling the judgment that laid on the generation that came out of Egypt, and reversing that. This was followed by the feeding of the five thousand around the time of Passover. The blessing of the bread evokes the blessings of God in the Book of Deuteronomy associated with the fulfillment of the promises with respect to the Good Land. Jesus reveals Himself as “I AM” during the crossing of the sea in the darkness, recalling not only the Exodus and the crossing over to the Promised Land, but even the beginning of the story of creation. This story is at the heart of this series. Then Jesus speaks of Himself as the Bread of Life, exceeding the manna that fed Israel in the days of its wanderings; perhaps He is the bread of the Promised Land. At the Feast of Succoth, that recalls the wilderness journey (and exile) and longs for the Promised Land where the presence of God can “abide,” Jesus declares that He gives the living water of the promised Holy Spirit, He forgives sins, He is the Shekinah Presence, and He gives the gift of sight to the blind. As in the Book of Numbers, the promise is to the select few who believe—those whom He will lead into the “Promised Land” as His flock. Among those, He performs another sign: He raises Lazarus from the dead, signifying the only basis for this new community—the basis of life: the resurrection life, which is another name for eternal life, the life of God. The gathering in Bethany that follows pictures this community and its enjoyment of Christ.

Before we get to the end of this sequence, we need to pay attention to the consequences of the raising of Lazarus.   

Many of Those in Judea Believe (John 11:45-46)

I wonder why Mary’s name alone and not Martha’s is mentioned in this verse. John shows his familiarity with this family. He is also close to the leading priestly circles in Jerusalem (18:16). He is a disciple of Jesus, but one outside the circle of the Twelve. While they were drawn mostly from Galilee, John seems to be from Jerusalem or its environs (perhaps Bethany). This accounts for the different perspective that his gospel demonstrates. Now it seems that those who came to Bethany to mourn for Lazarus came on account of Mary. In verse 31 we are told that they were in the house with her consoling her, and followed her when she arose to meet Jesus. It seemed then that Martha was excluded simply because she was physically not present (she had gone to meet Jesus). Verse 45 puts verse 31 in another light. Mary apparently was better known in Jerusalem than Martha was. I wonder why this was.

In any case, many of the Jews who beheld the things that Jesus did believed into Him. Again, the word “Jew” has a more narrow meaning than we are used to. We use it in an ethnic and religious sense. Here (as often) it refers literally to Judeans as opposed to Galileans, and in this case this probably means the people from Jerusalem in particular. Sometimes it has another sense and seems to refer to particular parties, especially the zealous exclusivists whom Paul sometimes calls Judaizers (probably reflecting the attitude of the Shammai school of the Pharisees). The other gospels focus on the masses of people from Galilee who followed Jesus. John speaks here of how an increasing number of people in Jerusalem and its environs are believing in Jesus.

Jesus had raised the dead before. He raised Jairus’ daughter, but she had just died. He raised the son of the widow at Nain, but he was on his way to burial. The raising of Lazarus took place when Lazarus was already subject to the decay of death. It went beyond the others. Moreover, people wanted to see Lazarus himself and speak to him as living proof of the miracle. They came out to Bethany to see for themselves (12:9). While the other gospels report that the crowds of pilgrims from Galilee paraded Jesus into the City on Palm Sunday, John tells us that the people of Jerusalem came out to meet Him “because they heard that He had done this sign” of calling Lazarus out of the tomb and raising him from the dead. The people who believed upon seeing the miracle had testified them (12:17-18).

“But some of them” who “beheld the things that He did” “went away to the Pharisees and told them the things that Jesus did. The word “but” (de) is weak—often it is left untranslated or translated as “and” or “now.” It does not set up a strong contrast between these people and those who believe. In any case, word got to the Pharisees through some of the witnesses about what Jesus had done.

The Pharisees mentioned here are not the Pharisees “in general.” Usually the “Pharisees” in the Gospel according to John refer to the small number of wealthy aristocratic Pharisees who belonged to the ruling elite in Jerusalem. Most Pharisees were not wealthy and perhaps most of them did not have a problem with Jesus. The ruling elite had a problem with Jesus, which we will get to in a moment.

We recall that John himself was “known to the high priest,” that is, to the highest members of the ruling elite. He was familiar to them. Perhaps he was even related. John was probably also familiar with the family in Bethany, and therefore the family in Bethany itself may have had some connection to the priestly aristocracy in the City. Lazarus is a colloquial form of the name Eleazar, Aaron’s son and high priest after him. This proves nothing, for Eleazar was an extremely popular name at the time (as popular as Judah). In any case, the social circle of the people who came to Mary to mourn for her brother would probably have overlapped with the circle of wealthy aristocratic Pharisees who belonged to the ruling elite in Jerusalem. That such Pharisees were told by them about the raising of Lazarus does not imply malice on their part.

The Fear of the Ruling Class in Jerusalem (11:47-48)

“Then the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled a council.” This was not the formal council known as the Sanhedrin (though its members were probably included on the Sanhedrin). The chief priests refer to priests who were members of the aristocracy; the Pharisees were also wealthy aristocrats. These were among the leading citizens whom Josephus called the “powerful” or “distinguished men.” They were the effective Jewish government whether they acted with or without the formal council (see Richard Bauckham). John simply refers to them as “the chief priests and the Pharisees,” ignoring the other members.

“This man is doing many signs,” they say. It was not only the raising of Lazarus but the other signs that Jesus had performed, especially in Jerusalem. The raising of Lazarus, however, had focused the attention of the multitudes, especially since it was possible to see him who had so recently died now alive and well, and at an inopportune time. The Passover was fast approaching when crowd-control was a major issue.

We might be surprised that they were not more impressed by the fact that these signs were miraculous. Miracles were a dime a dozen and many a charlatan performed them to attract attention. Nor was God the only source of miracles. The devil also performed magic. The crowds might be fooled by such stunts, but the educated could not afford to be. The authenticity of the miracle was not all that mattered. Other criteria had to apply.

Jesus first brought negative attention to Himself when He cleansed the Temple in 2:13-20 a few years earlier. When He healed the paralytic in chapter 5 He clashed with the religious authorities over whether it was right to heal a man on the Sabbath. They wanted to kill Him then (5:18) and when He returned in chapter 7 during Succoth their opposition intensified. In chapter 8, during Hanukah, they even attempted to stone Him. Bauckham rightly points out that the raising of Lazarus was the last straw, for Jesus was no longer just a religious troublemaker but now posed a political threat (a threat to their position and property).

Their fear was that “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” In other words, Jesus’ popularity could lead to a popular revolt. It was one thing that Jesus attracted such huge crowds in Galilee, a hotbed for zealots anyway. It was another when He started to attract s large following in Jerusalem. It became a matter of urgency, especially since Passover was approaching and Jesus could be expected to return. Not only did He have a large following among the pilgrims that could be expected, but He was gaining a following within the City. The danger of His leading a popular revolt against them seemed realistic. The Romans would certainly step in to quash the revolt, which would put the whole nation at risk. Not only did they fear for their lives, but they feared the loss of their property and their high and powerful status.

Caiaphas’ Reaction (11:49-53)

Caiaphas upbraids them for not coming to the obvious conclusion. Jesus must die. It was simple arithmetic. One Man dies for the sake of saving the many as opposed to the many dying for the sake of the ambitions of the One. As high priest he was given a prophetic word: “That Jesus was to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but that He might also gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” It was not unheard of that a prophetic word would come to the high priest. Later in Christian councils similar prophetic words would come to bishops and others. The tragedy for Caiaphas was that he interpreted in terms of immediate political expediency what was a word about something much more momentous. The irony is that by doing so he fulfilled the deeper divine meaning of the prophecy, the meaning having to do with the working out of God’s ultimate purpose for Israel.

The shame is that everyone went along with his interpretation. We all interpret the Scriptures in terms of our own needs and expectations, and this is what they were doing. They could not see beyond to what God was doing. “From that day therefore they took counsel to kill Him.” These words prepare us for what follows. Jesus leaves because of the danger He is in (verse 54).

Caiaphas’ Prophecy Concerning Jesus

Caiaphas was given the reason why Jesus had to die. Indeed, “Jesus was to die for the nation.” His death would purify the nation and fulfill the meaning of its Yom Kippur. The promises of God with respect to the people both in the Torah and in the Prophets and the Psalms would thus be fulfilled. Moreover, the death of Jesus would not only be for the nation, but by it Jesus would also gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. Caiaphas may have understood this in terms of the Diaspora, but the words are more inclusive—they include Gentiles who would become children of God and thus fulfill the promise made to Abraham. YHWH is the Father of Israel, His “son,” but only those Israelites who believe can consider God their Father as Jesus did. That faith, when Jesus is revealed to them, is faith in Him (Jesus), and only those who believe into Him can become the children of God. This goes beyond position. Through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the believers in the Messiah become born of God, genetic children of the divine, for in them dwells the gift of eternal life. While faith and the Torah go together for the Jew (who does not rely on the Halakah for salvation, but on the One who gives it), this gift of the new birth is given to all the Gentiles who believe in Israel’s Messiah, apart from the Halakah. These are the children of God scattered abroad. These are the sheep “which are not of this fold” (10:16).

“That He might also gather into one …” The literal meaning of the words refer to what Jesus will do after His death (as opposed to what the affects of His death will be). They speaks therefore of the resurrected Jesus, of Jesus when He has accomplished His death. He will gather into one the children of God. By His rising from the dead the Holy Spirit will be given to all who believe and they will become the children of God by sharing in His eternal life, the life that He will release to them by His death. Not only will they be born anew as God’s own children, they will also become a family, a single family of brothers and sisters. The Shepherd will gather these scattered children and make them a single flock. The children are genetically related; they share a common life, a life that is in fact numerically one and indivisible into parts. As brothers and sisters they cannot not recognize the divine life in each other. If they do not come together as one, they will suffer.

We are brought to two thoughts here, both expressed in chapter 17. As the Father and the Son are one, the children of God are one. They share the oneness of the divine life. The divine life coinheres in each person of the Trinity. They dwell in each other. We dwell in Christ and Christ in us. Our unity with one another is a sharing in this unity. The Christ in me is the Christ in you, not two parts of one block, but the very same essence, and we come together in Him. The second thought is that our love for one another expresses this. It is commanded because it is natural. For us to not love one another is to fall back into the deadness of the insular soul that has been unawakened to its own spirit and createdness. To love one another is an expression of our life. “We know that we have passed out of death into life because we love the siblings” (1 John 3:14).

Jesus Withdraws (11:54)

John says He “went away from there to the region near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim [meaning, “double fruitfulness”], and there He remained [abided] with the disciples.”

In view of the danger that He is in, Jesus withdraws. As elsewhere in the Gospel according to John, we have seen that this symbolizes how Jesus has become hidden from Israel and the Gentiles after His crucifixion. This was connected, in the Feast of Tabernacles, with Israel’s wilderness wanderings when they refused to believe the Word. The wanderings of Numbers are also associated with their exile under the judgment of God.

Yet even though Jesus is hidden from Israel, He nevertheless is “near the wilderness.” He is near them even if He is no longer in the wilderness with them. The Messiah never forsakes His people the Jews in spite of the fact that they do not recognize Him.

Since the resurrection, though the Messiah is hidden from Israel and the Gentiles, but He is with His disciples in the gatherings of the flock. The word that John uses is “abide” (menō, though the Byzantine text uses another word, diatribō, “to continue”), the same word Jesus uses elsewhere when He speaks of abiding in Him and He in us. Here, as in 14:17, Jesus abides with His disciples. This is a picture of the church.

The name of the place is Ephraim, which means “Double Fruitfulness.” This describes the place of the church, made up of the called of Israel and the called of the Gentiles, and bearing much fruit (15:2-5, 16).

Looking to Arrest Jesus (11:55-57)

The wealthy aristocrats who gather around Caiaphas (the chief priests and Pharisees) start to be on the lookout for Jesus. Their position was being put at risk by the unpredictable but charismatic wonderworker from Galilee, now that people from Jerusalem were beginning to be swayed by Him. It was expected that He might come to the City to celebrate the Passover. If they could apprehend Him before He causes any trouble …

That was not to happen. For when Jesus returns to Bethany, the Friday before the Passover, it is to be secretly anointed as King by Mary. As Samuel anointed David in secret, so does Mary. Even though her act was first of all full of meaning in other ways, what she did to Him was also a secret messianic anointing, that could not have remained secret for long. Anointed on the Sabbath, on the very next day Jesus rode publicly into the City of Jerusalem, like David riding on a donkey, with the crowds hailing and welcoming Him expressly as “the King of Israel.” The intention of the anointing, once word got out, was unmistakable, and the “chief priests” could not ignore it. This was an opportunity for Annas to requisition help from the governor before things got out of hand. Whether Annas went to Pilate or Pilate came to him, I do not know. The news of it, in any case, came to the attention of the governor and he decided to make use of it to make an example of Jesus for the sake of the crowds. By making Caiaphas responsible for handing Jesus over, Pilate could drive home a lesson to the priestly establishment as well, to let them know who was in charge.

Jesus was fully aware of what He set in motion in Bethany. He did not ride into Jerusalem that Sunday unaware of what the consequences would be. What the Gospel according to John portrays is Jesus being in complete control throughout the whole process of His death. Pilate thought he was asserting His political power and Caiaphas thought he was asserting His political shrewdness, but in fact Jesus was in charge of the events that followed, to the working out of God’s purpose.

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