“It is better for one man to die for the people least the whole nation be destroyed.” John 11:50
An English churchman of the nineteenth century once argued that the evangelical gospel, that Jesus died to pay for the sins of his people, is the evil doctrine of Caiaphas. This English churchman preferred to believe that Jesus’s death was simply the result of an innocent person living in a bad world – like a child factory-worker who was caught up by the machinery and died as a result. I think this churchman was greatly mistaken.
Caiaphas was high priest in the year that Jesus was crucified. John, in his gospel, tells us that for this reason, Caiaphas foretold that Jesus would die in the place of God’s people. The irony is, that Caiaphas meant something very different from what God intended by the death of Jesus.
Caiaphas, as a priest, was probably of the sect of the Saduccees. The Sadducees famously denied the resurrection from the dead. In the week before Jesus died, the Sadducees asked Jesus as strange question. At the resurrection, who would be the husband of a particularly unhappy woman. Apparently she had married seven brothers in succession. Each brother had married the woman and then died without fathering a child. You see, for the Sadducee, the point of the brother marrying a deceased brother’s wife was to ‘raise up seed’ – to produce an heir for his dead brother in order to continue his line. This ‘raised up’ heir was the only ‘resurrection’ that the Sadducees expected. Children were their only hope of ‘life-after-death’. They would ‘live on’ in their children. Jesus told them that they were greatly mistaken. They didn’t know (understand) the scriptures or the power of God.
I suspect that the Sadducees read the pattern of the Old Testament something like this:
Adam’s sin either introduced death to the world, or just made Adam’s formerly limited but happy life shorter and miserable. Sin was the problem that cursed human lives, but how was it to be remedied?
The Sadducees probably read the promise to Eve, that her ‘seed’ would put things right, as suggesting children had something to do with the solution to the sin problem.
They saw that a line led from Seth to Abraham, and noted God’s promise that Abraham’s seed would make the world happy. The children of Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) were particularly associated with this coming happiness.
Then the Sadducees probably thought that the law of Moses was the means of blessing. Obedience brings blessing; disobedience brings a curse. Again, the sacrificial system appeared to them as a means of minimising the troubles that sin bring to this life – the only life the Sadducees acknowledged.
If this approximates the thinking of the Sadducees, it helps us understand Caiaphas and his attitude to Jesus. As a priest and a Sadducee, he saw himself as one who would save the nation. He wanted to protect it from extinction. He thought that if Jesus went on stirring up the people, the Romans would come wipe them out. Caiaphas believed that the nation of Israel was God’s way of making the world a happy place. Israel would overcome evil by doing good and gathering the nations to itself by making proselytes.
But John said that Caiaphas, in spite of his misunderstanding, had prophesied. He had correctly foretold that Jesus would die for God’s people. But to get this, you have to read the pattern of the Old Testament in a way different from that of the Sadducee:
Adam’s sin brought death to himself and his children. That would have been it, if God hadn’t acted in mercy. The only reason Adam and Eve were not immediately killed was God’s intention to show mercy.
The promise to Eve was that her seed (Jesus) would deal with Satan, Sin and Death.
The promise about Abraham’s seed was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus. The Lord Jesus himself said that Abraham foresaw Jesus and was glad.
The law of Moses speaks of blessing for obedience, the obedience which Jesus alone supplies by his living a good life to replace the bad lives of his people. It also speaks of a curse for disobedience, the curse which Jesus took for his people as he died in their place. The sacrificial system also points to Jesus.
The soul who sins shall die, says the law. But the law also told sinners to bring an innocent animal to a priest. The sinner was to place his or her hand on the animal and confess their sins. This act symbolised the transfer of sin from the sinner to the animal. The animal was killing in the place of the sinner, who could go home alive. Jesus was identified as ‘The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’
How could Jesus die for God’s people? Ezekiel and Psalm 49 both tell us that a mere human being cannot take responsibility for the sins of another. This is why Jesus had to be both God and man.
Jesus had to be a man so he could die, and he had to be God so his death could be of benefit to others. He had to be a sinless man, or he would have had to die for his own sins, and he had to be God so his sinlessness could be donated to others.
As a sinless man, Jesus could only die if he were taking responsibility for the sins of other people. After Jesus died for these sins, he was raised from the dead to show that he is really good (not the bad person Caiaphas thought he was) and that the sins for which he died no longer condemn. His people, those who come to trust him, have had their sins paid for in full. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If it were not so, Jesus would never have risen from the dead.
So Jesus was not, as the English churchman believed, just a poor innocent slain by a bad world. He is the Lord from heaven who deliberately became a man for our salvation. He came to do and die and rise to save his people from their sin. He is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.