John 11:45 - 12:11

May 6, 2001
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church

In these two scenes the plot of Jesus’ story not so much thickens, as thins. His enemies on the one side and his friends on the other, and there’s a clear distinction. 11:53 pretty well sums up the tack of the enemies, “from that day on they plotted to take his life.” And, on the other side, 12:10, “many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.”
Last week, after the evening service in which Ken Bailey spoke, I asked him if he believed the Jewish leaders understood the implications of what Jesus taught; for Dr. Bailey described how Jesus’ parables had parallels to Old Testament stories and through the retelling of those stories Jesus taught that he was God. “And did the Jews understand what he was saying,” I asked?
“If they did,” Dr. Bailey responded, “they would react in one of two ways. Either they would believe in him, or they would kill him.” And that’s exactly what we see in these two passages. Some believe, the others take steps to kill him.
The hostility is long lasting. In 5:16, at an early time in Jesus’ public life, the Jewish religious leaders persecuted him because they are offended by the way he acted on the Sabbath. When in chapter 6 Jesus taught about having eternal life on the grounds of eating his flesh and drinking his blood, many even of his followers turned against him. In 7:12, some of the people thought he was deceiving them. In 7:20 they conclude he is demon-possessed. And then in 7:25 we read that many knew the religious leaders were already trying to kill Jesus.
In chapter 8 these same religious leaders try to trap Jesus by putting difficult questions to him, and they pick up stones to stone him when he claims to be God. In 10:20 they claim he is demon-possessed and raving mad.
It was John Stott in our generation who outlined the choices about Jesus. A man who says the things Jesus says is either 1) a madman or 2) self-deceived, a man who is on the level of someone who believes he is a poached egg, or 3) who he says he is. All three opinions surface in the ongoing conflict in John’s Gospel.
The Jewish religious leaders held one of the first two views. He was wither a madman or deceived. The word in vs 53 that is translated “plotted” - “they (the Sanhedrin) plotted to take his life” - means something more deliberate. It means “they reached a decision about the course of action they were going to take.” The word has the same meaning in 12:10, where the chief priests reached a decision to kill Lazarus as well. They decide to kill Jesus, and within a few weeks they will do just that. It is deliberate, planned out ahead of time, and yet finally Jesus’ death is accomplished in Jesus’ own timing, not theirs. Jesus controls the time. The way he does that is he leaves Jerusalem and goes to a town about 12 miles away, to Ephraim where the immediate danger is gone. It is only when in ch 12 he begins his return to Jerusalem and the center of the opposition to him, that he will die. It will be during Passover, and Jesus death at Passover will forever change the meaning of that old Jewish feast of redemption.
What, we might ask, are the religious leaders so afraid of about Jesus?
When we sort back through the various incidents in Jesus’ life where hostility to him was at its highest, we can see that what stirred the opposition to Jesus was 1) the way Jesus interpreted the law of Moses which seemed open-ended compared to the way the Pharisees interpreted it; 2) what Jesus said about himself-- that he was indeed the Messiah, and even the startlingly direct, “I and the Father are One” of 8:58; and 3) the implications of the miracles he did, since what Jesus did was what only God the Father could do in the Old Testament.
But there are three other factors that influence why the Phrisees fear Jesus. The Pharisees were able to see only one side of these things, which seems incredible for religious people. Jesus must be wrong. After Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and after the Pharisees are told about it, they call a meeting of the Sanhedrin. In the discussion that follows we see power issues, we see political issues and we see public opinion issues. These three factors still move people today. They are not imaginary issues.
1) Public opinion was shifting toward Jesus. We live in a pluralistic society and we don’t feel this issue in quite the same way first century Jews would. In the first century the main interpreters of religion for Jewish people were the scribes and Pharisees. But public opinion is shifting. There are a lot of people who like what they see in Jesus.
2) In the official discussions of the Sanhedrin in vs 48 the political issue is raised. This is the same issue the Confessing Church faced in Germany during the 1930s when Hitler’s national socialism was taking over control of the churches. If you disagreed with Hitler’s view, you were imprisoned or shut down. Palestine was a country under Rome’s control. Were Rome threatened politically by forces outside the control of this first century form of national socialism, Rome would act to close down the Sanhedrin and the temple.
3) In terms of the power of the Sanhedrin, when they recognize the growing number of people believing Jesus’ point of view, they see their own power diminished. The blind man in ch 9 was not distraught by being shunned from the synagogue. He became part of the community of people around Jesus. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were Jews, but they followed Jesus. The more people there were like that, the fewer there would be like those in vs 46 who would tell the Pharisees. Why tell them? They wouldn’t be able to do anything. Power is shifting.
Power, politics and public opinion. That’s why the Jewish religious leaders feared Jesus. And that is why they are not inclined to listen to what Jesus taught about God and faith and eternal life.
As the subsequent history will show, the murder of Jesus will not prevent Rome from destroying the temple or their nation. That happens when the Roman General Titus destroys Jerusalem and the temple in 68-69 AD. Nor did the murder of Jesus stop people from believing in him. They could not calculate that God the Father would raise Jesus from the dead, since they didn’t believe God was on Jesus’ side.
In 12:1 we see that Jesus is forcing the confrontation. He leaves the relative safety of Ephraim to come to Bethany which is a few miles from Jerusalem, just beyond the Mount of Olives. We can feel the tension rising. When we read the account of Jesus’ life in John’s Gospel, we notice that Jesus’ public ministry began at a feast in Cana in Galilee where Jesus turned water into the new wine of God’s kingdom - in symbolic form. And here in Bethany, at the end of his ministry, there is also a feast and at this feast Jesus is anointed by nard for his burial.
Just as Jesus’ disciples and his mother, and that wedding couple in Cana are caught up in the events of salvation history and don’t realize it, so Lazarus’s family and Jesus’ own disciples are here caught up in salvation history and they don’t realize it. They act for their own reasons - like we do - and yet they - and we - are part of a drama we do not fully understand, acting and speaking what is beyond our imagining.
There are several acts of giving here. Mary is the Erma Hoover of this house. Why does Mary do this extravagant and immodest thing at such a time pouring nard on Jesus feet and wiping his feet with her hair? Perhaps Judas is right that the cost of the pint of pure nard is a year’s wages. Perhaps Mary had bought the nard for her brother’s burial and when Jesus raised him from the dead, she hadn’t used it, so here she displays her gratitude toward Jesus with this nard.
It is not merely the cost, though, it is the unseemly way Mary unbinds her hair to wipe his feet with her hair. Remember Jesus and the other people at this dinner are reclining at the table, and so Mary is down at Jesus’ feet. She has long, uncut hair and has unwound her hair to dry the nard from his feet, so in her hair the perfume of the nard will linger but she will have caressed a man’s feet, though the man be Jesus. But in John’s view Mary acted with integrity of heart and beyond what she knew, to recognize his death. Jesus himself says people will do things for him and they won’t understand their significance–giving a cup of cold water, or food or clothing to someone in need. And it will be as if we were doing it for Jesus himself.
Since this is Saturday night, after the Sabbath is over, it is one week later that Jesus will be lying in a tomb, dead, but with the electricity of Easter’s resurrection humming about him. And all the political and power tension of the coming week is in this scene. We are told at 11:57, in the last sentence of ch 11, that the chief priests and Pharisees have issued an order about arresting Jesus. This is like having the FBI after someone, or the secret police of some nation you are a tourist in. In spite of that order, the last sentence of this incident at Bethany lets us know that many people were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. That’s the tension. That’s where the power struggle is going on.
And over the next century with the church that will come into existence at Pentecost, there will be a tension between the Christian church and Judaism. Many of the early Christians came from synagogues and from among Jewish people. And the Christians were shunned and persecuted and killed. Paul, you may remember, was the head of the Pharisees who were responsible to arrest and try Jews who became Christians.
The issues about Jesus are still the same today. Gary Hart’s comic strip from Good Friday and Easter stirred up antagonism among Jews in Harrisburg. Fred Miller’s letter - he is the pastor of our Cumberland Valley church -to the Patriot News was one of the sanest printed, pointing out what it means to be Christian. The Christian faith is not personally anti-Semitic. It is not part of our lives to hate Jews, though sadly that has happened in many centuries of Christianity; but the issue that Gary Hart raised was an historical question, that Christianity rose out of Jewish antagonism to Jesus.
One of the students at Columbine was asked whether she were a Christian before she was shot and killed by a class mate. Reports from world missions data sources said that 500,000 Christians were martyred throughout the world in the last year for which records were compiled, 1999. There is still power and politics and public opinion issues about Jesus, and in spite of dangers like those in the first century, many are going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him. The reason is that what Jesus is and what he taught and what he did is consistent with who God is. This man from the first century was more than he seemed. He lives today, since the murder plot against him was ultimately foiled by God who is in the business of raising people from the dead, as he will raise all who go over to Jesus and put their faith in him.
It may be that you offer your devotion to Jesus. It may be that you offer your service to Jesus. Whatever you give him, he gives you far more. Peace in your life, forgiveness of sins and eternal life.