The Gospel of John, Jesus' seventh sign, part 5
Jan 02, 2020
The seventh sign in John’s gospel is the manifestation of resurrection life and the climax insofar as it represents the seventh day of Tabernacles. The eighth sign is the result and the outworking of the first seven signs, as eight is the biblical number of new beginnings. Moving from seven to eight is like turning the page with a fresh start that essentially provides a practical look at the meaning and purpose of the seven.
Raising Lazarus from the dead is the seventh sign as such, but as we have already seen with many of the previous signs, there is more than one story illustrating it. In this case, the story of Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection is the ultimate demonstration of the power of resurrection. It overshadows Lazarus’ resurrection and provides a climactic break between the first seven signs and the single post-resurrection sign in John 21.
Convening a Council
The Pharisees and other religious leaders had already rejected Jesus as the Messiah, so they found fault with everything that He did in hopes of influencing the people to adopt their view. There were times when they would have stoned Him or thrown Him off a cliff, but these were just spontaneous bursts of outrage that He was able to escape.
The raising of Lazarus was different, first because the Pharisees began to formulate a serious plot to kill both Lazarus and Jesus, and secondly, the time of Passover was approaching wherein Jesus was destined to fulfill His calling on the cross. Hence, we read in John 11:47, 48,
47 Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs [semeion]. 48 If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
To convene a council meant that they called the Sanhedrin together. This was something that they had not done before. It was like a Supreme Court session that was convened to discuss a pressing matter of national importance. They could not deny the signs themselves, which proved Him to be the Messiah. But most of them agreed that Jesus could not be the Messiah, probably because He did not submit to their authority, nor was He their agent. He was the agent of His heavenly Father alone, and therefore He was “out of control.”
The problem was clear: “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him.” Why? Because the signs that He performed were compelling, and the people believed that when the Messiah would come, He would perform many such miraculous signs. Jesus’ signs were thus breaking down the walls of resistance. Raising Lazarus—or anyone—from the dead made it very difficult for the religious leaders to argue that Jesus was an imposter-messiah.
The hardness of their hearts caused them to devise a plot to kill Lazarus, so as to prevent the people from seeing the evidence of Jesus’ seventh sign. In the end, they were unable to kill Lazarus, because a week later Jesus Himself came into Jerusalem and became a greater threat. Hence, their alarm shifted from Lazarus to Jesus Himself.
Annas and Caiaphas
The Sanhedrin’s second concern was that “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” The Romans had the raw power to depose and appoint high priests. In fact, Caiaphas himself owed his position to the Roman government.
Annas had been appointed by Quirinius, governor of Syria, in 6 A.D. and replaced in 14 or 15 A.D. by Valerius Gratus, the Roman Procurator. Quirinius, of course, was the same governor of Syria (and Judea) at the time Jesus was born (Luke 2:2). Quirinius was the great expert in Census taking and in February of 2 B.C. was assigned the task of getting everyone in the Empire to sign the Roman Senate’s decree that declared Augustus to be the Pater Patriae, “Father of the Country.” This decree had been passed on his silver jubilee in 2 B.C.
The governor of Syria at the time was actually Saturninus, who wanted to be in Rome for the festivities, and since Quirinius enjoyed a high rank in the Roman government, Saturninus made Quirinius the Acting Governor of Syria during most of the year 2 B.C. Quirinius was thus the “Governor” during the time Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to sign the Senate decree. But Quirinius did not become a full governor of Syria until 6 A.D. when he was sent to conduct a regular census.
That regular census triggered a revolt under Judas of Galilee and brought about the formation of the Zealots whose objective was to overthrow Roman rule. Judas was killed, but the Zealot party continued to exist into Jesus’ ministry. One of Jesus’ disciples was Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), who had to learn how to submit to Roman rule.
Quirinius also changed the high priest, replacing Joazar with Annas, who in turn was replaced in 14 or 15 A.D. He had five sons who each served as a high priest in later years. Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, and he was appointed high priest from 27-37 A.D. during the ministry of Christ. Nonetheless, Annas remained influential and was revered by many as the true high priest in Jerusalem. Hence, Luke 3:2 speaks of “the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” as if both were high priests at the same time.
Acts 4:6 says that “Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander,” treating Caiaphas as a secondary figure.
This, then, was the political situation when the Council was convened to decide what to do about Lazarus and Jesus. Caiaphas knew the political situation by personal experience and understood that the Romans might well replace him if a messiah arose and fomented another revolt. From their point of view, thinking that the Messiah was expected to overthrow the Romans by miraculous signs, they were concerned that Judea might again be crushed.
The high priests in Jerusalem were expected to be agents of Rome. They were expected to keep the people from revolting, and if they failed, they were quickly replaced. This was the background to John 11:49-52, where we read,
49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” 51 Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
Here we find Caiaphas prophesying, though he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Many people prophesy unwittingly, including unbelievers, especially when they are in positions of authority, for God puts words in their mouths as easily as in the mouths of the prophets. The lesson here is that we ought to be able to discern the word of the Lord from unexpected sources, knowing that God is sovereign over all.
In this case Caiaphas prophesied the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. He was to die for the nation, though not in the same sense that Caiaphas was thinking. No doubt John later heard about this prophecy from Nicodemus, who, no doubt, was present at that Council.
John tells us that this prophecy was not limited to the nation of Judea but included “the children of God who are scattered abroad.” John was not speaking of Jews who had immigrated to other cities in the Empire but to the believers from other nations—those who had been begotten by God and who were thus “children of God.”
Jesus Hides Himself
John 11:53, 54 says,
53 So from that day on they planned together to kill Him. 54 Therefore Jesus no longer continued to walk publicly among the Jews but went away from there to the country near the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim; and there He stayed with the disciples.
Jesus either knew intuitively or heard that the Council had convened to deal with the problem of Lazarus, so He took His disciples to the relative safety of the town of Ephraim, which was located about 16 miles northeast of Jerusalem.
Jesus did not go back to Galilee, because the feast of Passover was near, and He knew that He had to be in Jerusalem to be crucified and to be raised up the third day. Most likely, He did not take Lazarus with him, because he was required to purify himself on the third and seventh days just outside of Jerusalem with the ashes of the red heifer for touching a dead body (his own). The ashes were mixed with water and sprinkled upon the unclean. Numbers 19:11-13 says,
11 The one who touches the corpse of any person shall be unclean for seven days. 12 That one shall purify himself from the uncleanness with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and then he will be clean; but if he does not purify himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not be clean. 13 Anyone who touches a corpse, the body of a man who has died, and does not purify himself defiles the tabernacle of the Lord…
Meanwhile, people began traveling to Jerusalem early, especially those who needed to purify themselves for the feast. John 11:55 says,
55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up to Jerusalem out of the country before the Passover to purify themselves.
When the days of their purification were complete, they were required to go to the Bethphage community of priests which was located just outside the city of Jerusalem. These priests served on the Mount of Olives, where the ashes of the red heifer were stored near a cistern of water. Lazarus did not have far to walk, since Bethany was just a short distance from Jerusalem. But many others came from afar, so they arrived at least a week early in order to fulfill the requirement and be eligible to keep the Passover.
Neither Jesus nor His disciples needed such purification, so they were able to escape to the town of Ephraim for about a week. We do not know whether or not He ministered there, but if so, He certainly did it covertly rather than openly.
John 11:56, 57 concludes,
56 So they were seeking for Jesus and were 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 was to report it, so that they might seize Him.
It appears that the chief priests had issued a “public adjuration” (Leviticus 5:1) requiring everyone to report and bear witness if they knew where Jesus was. This tells us that Jesus had hidden Himself in the town of Ephraim and that no one knew where He was.
For this reason, it was public knowledge that the chief priests wanted to arrest Jesus and to try Him in court. This seems to have been the main topic of conversation among those who came early to purify themselves, and they wondered if Jesus would attend the feast.
This is part 5 of a series titled "Jesus' Seventh Sign" To view all parts, click the link below.