I became a Christian on my first day of college. Soon after, I was meeting with other students every Wednesday night for group Bible study. We would always begin with singing. Someone with a guitar would lead us in a round of praise choruses. One of the most popular was “Pass It On”: It only takes a spark to get a fire going / And soon all those around can warm up to its glowing…
So 70s. But it was a good metaphor for how the love of God spreads.
It can also be a metaphor, however, for the way trouble spreads outward from a single momentous event. The raising of Lazarus was such an event, the tipping point in the gospel of John.
As we’ve seen, the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem are on edge. They’ve heard the news about the miracle, and are worried — reasonably so! — that Rome might overreact and make a show of force. Their conversation is fraught with anxiety about the future. And then their leader speaks:
One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, told them, “You don’t know anything! You don’t see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed.” He didn’t say this on his own. As high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus would soon die for the nation— and not only for the nation. Jesus would also die so that God’s children scattered everywhere would be gathered together as one. From that day on they plotted to kill him. (John 11:49-53, CEB)
His tone is superior, demeaning. What a bunch of idiots. The answer is obvious. Do the math. What’s one life against the lives of the entire nation?
There’s no theological discussion of the meaning of the sign. They’re worried about what would happen if word got to Rome that there was a new Messiah in town, but no wrestling over what it would mean for Jesus to actually be the Messiah. There’s nothing but cold, hard political calculation. Jesus is just one man, and he’s the source of the trouble. He has to die, period.
John heaps irony upon irony. Caiaphas speaks with disdain because he believes his compatriots are incapable of seeing the big picture. But Caiaphas himself is guilty of his own blindness to God’s purposes. He utters a prophetic word without knowing that he is doing so. Yes, Mr. High Priest, John editorializes. It’s true that one man must die for the nation. But not the way you think. And not for the nation of Israel only, for all God’s children.
You have to wonder what Caiaphas would have said if he knew he was part of a process by which Gentiles would be become children of God, gathered together with his own people.
From that day on, John says, the leaders plotted to kill Jesus. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they hadn’t tried before. But it does mean that they now see the death of Jesus with new urgency. It’s him or them.
And by God, it won’t be them.