I have a question about Caiaphas. I understand he spoke the truth of what was to come, that Jesus was to die for His people, so that the whole nation should not perish. However, I don’t understand why would God speak this through this high priest. The Pharisees already wanted to kill Jesus, now more than ever, and were already evil and hated and rejected the truth, so why would God try and do what seems like a last minute chance to reach out to them? Or what is the purpose of this prophecy?
“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.” 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.” (John 11:49-52 ESV)
Thank you for the interesting question. As you went into the second half of John’s Gospel, following the seventh and last, the greatest of Jesus’ miracles – bringing Lazarus back to life – that is where things start to all converge to the one thing – the cross. While for apostles or the world crucifixion was a defeat, the same event, after Jesus’ resurrection, was evaluated as the greatest victory in the Universe. That was Jesus’ mission and that was John’s focus when writing the Gospel, to show that Jesus died to fulfill the plan of salvation, according to the Father’s will, by glorifying His name.
Some decades after crucifixion, John wrote his Gospel retrospectively reporting, evaluating and interpreting the events. We can talk about hindsight.
If one can view it in two panels, what Caiaphas said was one thing, an event, historically, said there and then. What John complements in the picture with his comment is another thing, an interpretation of an event, theologically, understood here and now.
Evidently John got his perspective only after the event, as one can see in other instances in his Gospel. For example, in the beginning, Jesus spoke about the destruction of the Temple, but meant His body (John 2:22). Later, Jesus shouted about the living water, but meant the overflowing of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39). After the resurrection, speaking with Peter, Jesus showed the manner of his death (John 21:19), of which John was convinced at the time of his fellow worker’s death. These and other instances may remind us that John wrote (1) facts as they were, (2) then he added value to those facts, as history brought more meaning or confirmation, (3) and finally enriched them with theological interpretation of those events as seen in the light of the plan of salvation.
Just as an exercise, challenging enough and making my point: who said the words in John 3:16? You think you know, but would you check again? It is Jesus talking to Nicodemus on that night, or it is John’s reflection, tens of years later, writing on what Jesus had said to Nicodemus, in the verse just above (15)?
Coming back to Caiaphas’ words. Indeed, he said that “it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish”. A very pragmatic way of solving tense situations, surely not to be blindly applied… For that moment it was politically used, seemed convenient, absolutely logical. However, knowing their shrewdness, you will agree with me that it was more to kill the man than to save the people, but so be it for the historical saying.
Now, when John writes and reflects on the things written, he can skip this saying. Most probably there were many other words of Jesus’ accusers and false witnesses that he skips. But, inspired by God, he chooses to select it. He even comes again to it, as a matter of fact, proving that it was not a mistake (John 18:14).
John wants to make use of it and to prove that Jesus’ death was not a politically devised plan only. More than that, God allowed it, and even gave ample indicators that the human plan, as evil as it could have been, was taken into consideration to happen according to human wills and yet to fulfill a greater plan of heaven.
No wonder then that God speaks through Caiaphas, or, in better wording, while killing the one who is the Truth, Caiaphas spoke one truth. The stress of John’s mentioning it that the truth he uttered was greater than himself.
What he said, and what on the first reading seems like a deal, an exchange, one soul for the salvation of a nation, was in fact much more. It was the deal of the universe. Read with me John’s reflection over Jesus’ death for that nation: “and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” You can see it, if Caiaphas had said “it is good to do so”, John would stress now that indeed, it was good. Even more, nothing else would have been that good. This was the Good.
Illustrating it, it’s like a husband to be, making his vows to the beautiful bride at the altar, and saying all the good things, including “till death do us part”. After some decades, it may be that a fight for survival, like battling a cancer, or the gloomy perspective of a divorce, or losing a child or other tragedies may look like “deaths” they have conquered, while still being alive, while still being together. So, in hindsight they may reflect: when we said “death” we simply meant losing life (sometime after the retirement age), now we see it differently, projected on a full life scale. And yes, we have stayed together… Love is greater than death!
Closing my take on this “prophecy”, I would not say that God tried a last minute chance to reach out to them. The purpose of this prophetic utterance was to show the disciples, the future believers, the world, you and me some two thousands years later, that God was not taken by surprise, that the accusers’ acts were not a whim, that Jesus was not a victim of some random judgement, but was all planned by two intelligences. One was Satanic, to justify the necessity of sentencing Jesus to the ordeal of the cross. The other was Heavenly, to turn the evil into good. I do not think this “prophecy” of the high priest was a last minute chance for their repentance. Indeed, it was a proof that Jesus’ accusers will be condemned by their own words. While for us will be the amazing proof that the sentence given to him was the solution for our salvation (“the chastisement that brought us peace; Isaiah 53:5). Nothing more, nothing less.
On a smaller scale, to finally illustrate it, you can read the same experience in the story of Joseph. Hated by his brothers, sold to death to pagans, lost to his father… in the end he stood at the right hand of Pharaoh, ruling all the empire, providing for his own family and the whole nation. The parallels with Jesus are many (go for it!).
Again, with the panel framework in mind, that was just the series of events. But what is the interpretation Joseph gives as he reflects to all things later? Let me highlight a few things in the dialogue Joseph has with his brothers:
“So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4-8 ESV)
Inevitably, later in life Joseph, had a final interpretation and reflection. Without the authoritative figure of their father, the brothers are now at the mercy of their brother. What would it be like now?… Joseph utterance is both a judgement and a resolution:
“But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” (Genesis 50:19-21 ESV)