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The seventh sign in John’s gospel is the manifestation of resurrection life and the climax insofar as it represents the seventh day of Tabernacles. The eighth sign that follows is the result and the outworking of the first seven signs, as eight is the biblical number of new beginnings. Moving from seven to eight is like turning the page with a fresh start and essentially provides a practical look at the meaning and purpose of the first seven.
Raising Lazarus from the dead is the seventh sign as such, but as we have already seen with many of the previous signs, there is more than one story illustrating it. In this case, the story of Christ’s crucifixion and subsequent resurrection is the ultimate demonstration of the power of resurrection. It overshadows Lazarus’ resurrection and provides a climactic break between the first seven signs and the single post-resurrection sign in John 21.
The Pharisees and other religious leaders had already rejected Jesus as the Messiah, so they found fault with everything that He did, hoping to influence the people to adopt their view. There were times when they would have stoned Him or thrown Him off a cliff, but these were just spontaneous bursts of outrage that He was able to escape.
The raising of Lazarus was different, first because the Pharisees began to formulate a serious plot to kill both Lazarus and Jesus, and secondly, the time of Passover was approaching wherein Jesus was destined to fulfill His calling on the cross. Hence, we read in John 11:47, 48,
47 Therefore the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council, and were saying, “What are we doing? For this man is performing many signs [semeion]. 48 If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”
To convene a council meant that they called the Sanhedrin together. This was something that they had not done before in dealing with their Jesus problem. It was like a Supreme Court session that was convened to discuss a pressing matter of national importance. They could not deny the signs themselves, which proved Him to be the Messiah. But most of them agreed that Jesus could not be the Messiah, probably because He did not submit to their authority, nor was He their agent. He was the agent of His heavenly Father alone, and therefore He was “out of control.”
The problem was clear: “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him.” Why? Because the signs that He performed were compelling, and the people believed that when the Messiah would come, He would perform many such miraculous signs. Jesus’ signs were thus breaking down the walls of resistance. Raising Lazarus—or anyone—from the dead made it very difficult for the religious leaders to argue that Jesus was an imposter-messiah.
The hardness of their hearts caused them to devise a plot to kill Lazarus, so as to prevent the people from seeing the evidence of Jesus’ seventh sign. In the end, they were unable to kill Lazarus, and a week later Jesus Himself became a greater threat when He came into Jerusalem. Hence, their alarm shifted from Lazarus to Jesus Himself.
John Lightfoot suggests that when the chief priests said in John 11:48, “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come,” they were afraid that the Romans themselves would believe in Him. As rulers, the Romans had the power to decree that Jesus was the god of Judea and thus “take away both our place and our nation.”
Would Tiberius Caesar actually do this? In 200 A.D. a well-known Roman Christian lawyer named Tertullian wrote in his Apology, V,
“Tiberius accordingly, in whose days the Christian name made its entry into the world, having himself received intelligence from Palestine of events which had clearly shown the truth of Christ’s divinity, brought the matter before the senate, with his own decision in favour of Christ. The senate, because it had not given the approval itself, rejected his proposal. Caesar held to his opinions, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians.”
As a lawyer, Tertullian had access to the legal and political records of the Roman Senate. He would have known about this in his own research. He tells us that Tiberius Caesar not only had heard of Jesus but was sufficiently impressed by the miraculous signs that He was performing to propose making Him one of the gods of the empire. Likewise, the emperor’s informants would have told him that Jesus was friendly toward Romans and was nothing like the ultranationalists of Nazareth. Neither was He one of the Zealots trying to overthrow Rome.
It takes no stretch of imagination to see that Tiberius may have believed that Jesus could solve his political problems in Judea. The Judeans were the most rebellious of all his subjects, and their messianic expectations were at the core of this. By recognizing Jesus as a god and as a messiah, Tiberius could have appeased the Jews with a friendly messiah without giving up Judea as a province.
As a living god officially recognized by the empire, Jesus would have been given a position of authority higher than the chief priests, who would have been required to obey Him. If the emperor’s spies and informants had told him about Jesus, there is also little doubt that the chief priests’ spies would have informed them about this Senate bill.
The only reason that the bill failed to pass, says Tertullian, was because such bills were supposed to originate in the Senate and not with the emperor. Yet Tiberius himself “held to his opinions, threatening wrath against all accusers of the Christians.”
We do not know the precise date of this bill, but it is very possible that it had been introduced early enough in Jesus’ ministry to alarm the chief priests. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they felt that the Romans might hear of this and come flocking to Judea to see Jesus. It would then become impossible to stop Jesus from being recognized as the Messiah.
The Sanhedrin’s second concern was that “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” The Romans had the raw power to depose and appoint high priests. In fact, Caiaphas himself owed his position to the Roman government.
Annas had been appointed by Quirinius, governor of Syria, in 6 A.D. and replaced in 14 or 15 A.D. by Valerius Gratus, the Roman Procurator. Quirinius, of course, was the same governor of Syria (and Judea) at the time Jesus was born (Luke 2:2). Quirinius was the great expert in census taking and in February of 2 B.C. was assigned the task of getting everyone in the Empire to sign the Roman Senate’s decree that declared Augustus to be the Pater Patriae, “Father of the Country.” This decree had been passed on his silver jubilee in 2 B.C.
The governor of Syria in 2 B.C. was actually Saturninus, who wanted to be in Rome for the festivities, and since Quirinius enjoyed a high rank in the Roman government, Saturninus made Quirinius the Acting Governor of Syria during most of the year 2 B.C. Quirinius was thus the “Governor” during the time Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to sign the Senate decree. Quirinius did not become a full governor of Syria until 6 A.D. when he was sent to conduct a regular census.
That regular census triggered a revolt under Judas of Galilee and brought about the formation of the Zealots whose objective was to overthrow Roman rule. Judas, their leader, was killed, but the Zealot party continued to exist into Jesus’ ministry. One of Jesus’ disciples, in fact, was Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15), who had to learn how to submit to Roman rule.
Quirinius also changed the high priest, replacing Joazar with Annas, who in turn was replaced in 14 or 15 A.D. Annas had five sons who each served as a high priest in later years. Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, and he was appointed high priest from 27-37 A.D. which encompassed the ministry of Christ.
Though Annas has been replaced by Caiaphas, he remained influential and was revered by many as the true high priest in Jerusalem. Hence, Luke 3:2 speaks of “the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas” as if both were high priests at the same time.
Acts 4:6 says that “Annas the high priest was there, and Caiaphas and John and Alexander,” treating Caiaphas as a secondary figure.
This, then, was the political situation when the Council was convened to decide what to do about Lazarus and Jesus. Caiaphas knew the political situation by personal experience and understood that the Romans might well replace him if a messiah arose and fomented another revolt. From their point of view, thinking that the Messiah was expected to overthrow the Romans by miraculous signs, they were concerned that Judea might again be crushed.
The high priests in Jerusalem were expected to be agents of Rome. They were expected to keep the people from revolting, and if they failed, they were quickly replaced. This was the background to John 11:49-52, where we read,
49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, 50 nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” 51 Now he did not say this on his own initiative, but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but in order that He might also gather together into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.
Here we find Caiaphas prophesying, though he did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Many people prophesy unwittingly, including unbelievers, especially when they are in positions of authority, for God puts words in their mouths as easily as in the mouths of His prophets. The lesson here is that we ought to be able to discern the word of the Lord from unexpected sources, knowing that God is sovereign over all.
In this case Caiaphas prophesied the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. He was to die for the nation, though not in the same sense that Caiaphas was thinking. No doubt John later heard about this prophecy from Nicodemus, who, no doubt, was present at that Council.
John tells us in verse 52 that this prophecy was not limited to the nation of Judea but included “the children of God who are scattered abroad.” John was not speaking of Jews who had immigrated to other cities in the Empire but to the believers from other nations—those who had been begotten by God and who were thus “children of God.”