IT IS BETTER THAT ONE MAN DIE FOR THE PEOPLE
Dear Christian friends,
During the Vietnam War, Associate Press writer Peter Arnett wrote about a city in South Viet Nam called Ben Tre. It was located in South Viet Nam in the Mekong Delta. He reported that an army press officer was supposed to have said, “'It became necessary to destroy the town to save it', a United States major said today. He was talking about the decision by allied commanders to bomb and shell the town regardless of civilian casualties, to rout the Vietcong.” Eventually the statement was made even more specific through news stories that simply stated, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” The city had to die to live.
The concept is not new. Shepherds broke the legs of straying lambs and sheep so they wouldn’t go off and get lost and get killed. When our daughter Courtney was in the car accident on 2003 the doctors told us that they had good and bad news. The good news was she was healthy and young and bright. The bad news was that she was healthy, young and bright. She had a traumatic brain injury and wasn’t thinking correctly. She would need constant supervision because they knew she would try to get out of the hospital and come home. One doctor said it would have been better to have a broken leg so she knew she had to stay here.
This year during Lent, we’re talking about irony— a combination of circumstances or a result that is the opposite of what . . . might be expected.” Tonight, I want to focus on unintentional irony. Caiaphas, the high priest, makes one of the clearest statements of gospel you’ll ever find—but he never even realized it. “It is Better that One Man Die for the People.”
Lenten sermons are usually about events that occurred during Holy Week or more likely even on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. Caiaphas actually said these words several weeks earlier, but what he said has so much relevance to what happened to Jesus – his kangaroo trial and crucifixion, his unjust death.
John begins, “Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.”
John tells us that many of the Jews visited Mary and Martha and believed in Jesus because they saw what he did. You know what he did. He had just raised Lazarus from the dead.
It was one of those things you wish you could’ve seen. Jesus came late to the funeral, on purpose. He went to the gravesite. A lot of people retraced the steps they had made four days earlier. Among them were Mary and Martha, the sisters of the dead man Lazarus. As faithful as they were to Jesus, even they had difficulty thinking that anything could be reversed by Jesus four days after their brother died.
At the gravesite Jesus wept. Why? Look what sin does? Look at the corruption it brings into the world. Look what it does to the human body. There wasn’t a chance to change Lazarus’ state. The soul that sins is the soul that will die.
Even some of Jesus’ most devoted followers were throwing in the towel. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, were throwing in the towel. Four days after his burial, the King James Version of the Bible translates that they exclaimed, “Lord, by this time it stinketh.” Stinketh? Translated way too politely. He’s rotten and giving off an awful stench. That’s what happens when the body and soul separate. That’s what happens when people die. And all will.
Jesus told the bystanders to roll the stone away and then shouted, “Lazarus, come out!” A man four days dead in the grave came – alive and well. Many people saw him. Many people saw that Jesus has the power to free man in bondage from death. Many believed in Jesus.
This reminds me of the story about the friend of the French statesman Talleyrand. He told Talleyrand that he was going to start his own religion. When his friend didn’t get anyone to follow him, he complained to Talleyrand and asked what he could do to get people to follow. Rise from the dead on the third day and you will have all the followers you want. I would add to that, “Raise the dead, and you will have followers.” Jesus raised the dead and had followers.
But not everybody. “But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” Kind of like what happened this past week when Chief Justice Scalia died. From both sides of the aisle there was no time to think about Scalia’s family and give them time to mourn. Immediately the politics started. You’d think that all the people here would have been moved to rejoice that a dead man was alive again and that he was with his bereaved family again. Such was not the case.
“Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.” The chief priests and the Pharisees were a lot like the present day Democrats and Republicans. They didn’t agree on much of anything. The chief priests were Sadducees, the religiously liberal and skeptical; the Pharisees were the legal eagles concerned about every detail when it came to the following the Law. They usually disagreed about everything. But not now they spoke with one voice: “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”
There is a history that we need to understand. Rome conquered Israel in the year 63 BC. Ever since that day there was more than one Israelite who wanted a rebellion to succeed and get Rome gone once and for all. But over the decades there was a coziness that settled in. Rome was okay to let the Jews semi-rule themselves. They could practice their worship in the temple. The big wigs in Jewish society, the Sanhedrin, were living comfortably and had their say and influence and power. So they semi got along.
Many of the Sanhedrin thought there was danger. If that miracle man from Galilee were to continue, there was big trouble brewing. All these people following him would brand him and them as rebels. Rome would have an excuse to use the sledge hammer and crush Israel once and for all. Jesus was ruining everything.
But let’s be totally truthful here. It wasn’t just about saving Israel from Rome’s destruction. The Sanhedrin wanted to save themselves. They were terrified that Jesus was going to convert the whole nation of Israel to his gospel! That would be a tragedy for them. Their influence and power would no longer count if their subjects were following Jesus. Getting Jesus out of the mix would keep them in power.
It is amazing and sad at the same time to see how pride and arrogance can overwhelm people in the church. The Sanhedrin was playing politics. I don’t mean pushing people to vote democrat or republican (although that can be a problem too). What I am talking about is the turf wars that can take place far too often where people within the church have their little corners of influence and defend them when the work of the Lord is the work of the Lord and preaching Jesus and administering his Word and sacrament. It is sad when the church becomes more a personal fiefdom instead of God’s kingdom. No one can serve like I can serve. No one can make a decision like I can make. No one can do the work like I can do the work. Forgive us Lord when the church becomes about me when it is about you!
“Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” With the presidential race going hard and strong, we hear about presidents in the past…sometimes for the good and sometimes for the bad. When Jimmy Carter was president, there was a hostage crisis in Iran where Iran kept members of our embassy in Iran hostage for 444 days. They were released the day that President Reagan became president to embarrass Jimmy Carter. Those of you who were living remember that there was a plan to rescue them. It failed. The strategy included the following: There would be a loss of lives during the raid, but that was to be expected. Some would die so others might live.
Caiaphas’ plan was to kill Jesus and stop any possible rebellion that he would lead and save the rest of Israel. Have one die so the nation would be saved. Think about this: Caiaphas was supposed to be a religious leader. This is the kind of stuff devised in the bowels of the Defense Department or in the offices of the CIA but NOT in the temple.
The apostle says, “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life.” Caiaphas was the high priest the year that Jesus was put to death. God often used the high priest as the channel through whom he spoke and revealed his will. As much as Caiaphas was a scoundrel, God used him to be his mouthpiece for a most important prophecy. One man must die for the people. Unknowingly he was speaking the great truth that everyone needs to believe and understand. One man did indeed need to die for all people.
The sinful pride that affects our hearts is a universal human condition. All have it. That pride condemns all to death and hell. But God did not want that to happen. Jesus died for all the people.
When Caiaphas said that one man needed to die for all the people, the people he was referring to was the nation of Israel only. He didn’t care about the Persians or Romans or Egyptians, but God did. Jesus died for all the people.
Do your sins ever bother you? Pinch yourself and see that you are flesh. See that you are a sinner. You are a member of all people. Jesus died for you, because you are a member of all people.
Think of all the people who ever lived. Think of the billions upon billions who are living. We don’t know how much longer the Lord will allow the world to go one and more people to live, but one thing we know for sure – Jesus died for all the people.
Caiaphas by God’s power had it right, didn’t he? But the irony is that he didn’t believe the very words that he said. So when he died, he went to hell in one last, because he didn’t really believe that one man, Jesus Christ, died for all the people. It is not only ironic, it is so sad and tragic.
There is no reason whatsoever for that to happen to us. Because Jesus died for all the people, that includes you and me.