Why Did Jesus Die? | John 11: 45-54
Brian Hedges | February 16, 2020
Turn in your Bibles this morning to John 11. I think six or seven times now I’ve had the opportunity to go to Africa on mission trips, and several of those times (I’ve lost count now) I’ve been to Kruger National Park, which is a huge—hundreds of thousands of square miles of territory in South Africa which is a great habitat for wildlife in Africa. We go there on these trips and are able to see some of the big five—you know, the elephants, and the lions, the leopards, and other animals as well—in their natural habitats. We would spend the entire day just driving around in a bus or a "kombi," as they call it, just writing down every animal that we could see.
It really is a thrilling experience, to get to see some of these animals right in their own environment. I’ll never forget, one time we went when a leopard ran across the road just maybe 50 feet or so behind the kombi in which we were; we got that on camera, and it was really cool.
I was thinking that there is a difference, isn’t there, between seeing animals in a zoo, behind a cage, and seeing animals in their natural habitat. Both are helpful. Both are great. When you see an animal in a zoo you actually see a lot more detail, you see them up close and personal. It’s really neat. But there’s a thrill of authenticity that comes when you see them in their natural environment.
I’ve thought that that’s kind of an illustration of the difference between topical preaching—that is, preaching on topics of the Bible, where you take a topic and you look at it, you examine it, you’re trying to look at it in detail—and then preaching through books of the Bible, what we call expositional preaching, where you’re looking at the same truths, but you’re looking at them, as it were, in their natural habitat. You’re looking at these truths as they unfold in the narrative, in the stories of Scripture.
We need both of them. I’m not denigrating topical preaching, we do that here; but most of the time our regular diet as a church is to preach through books of the Bible. We’re currently going through the Gospel of John, really a section of the Gospel of John. We’re in John 11 and 12, and as I’ve said in recent weeks, these two chapters are the hinge in the Gospel of John. They kind of divide the Gospel of John into half. You have the book of signs in John 1-11, and then everything changes because of what happens in the resurrection of Lazarus, the seventh sign that we looked at last week, and the aftermath of that, which is what we’re going to study this morning in John 11.
As we look at this passage this morning, we’re really looking at the death of Jesus Christ, because this is where the plot begins to be formed for putting Jesus to death. So we’re going to ask some questions about the death of Jesus Christ. We’re looking at the center point of the Christian faith, aren’t we, the cross, the death of Jesus Christ; but we’re looking at it this morning in its historical narrative context. We’re asking some questions about, “Why did this happen?” and, “What did the Lord achieve through this event?”
Let’s begin by looking at the text, John 11:45-54. I’d like to read the text, and then we’re going to ask three questions. Let’s read the text, John 11:45. This is right after Lazarus has been raised from the dead by Jesus.
“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.’ 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 of the children of God who are scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death. Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went out from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.”
This is God’s word.
Now, three questions I want to ask this morning. This is going to be a very simple approach to this message: Why did Jesus die? What did his death achieve? and How should we respond?
I. Why did Jesus die?
Of course, there are all kinds of answers to that question that are good answers, good biblical answers. We could say Jesus died because “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life,” John 3:16, and that’s right. That’s a right, biblical answer.
But I want you to see a couple of perspectives that emerge from this text that help us understand what’s happening in the narrative, what’s happening in the story. So I want to give you a historical reason as well as a theological reason for why Jesus was killed, why he was put to death, why he died.
(1) Here’s the historical reason: it was, very simply, political expediency. You see it in verses 45-50; I won’t read all of that again, but I do want you to look at verses 48-50.
The council has gathered. This is the Jewish Sanhedrin. It was the ruling council, something like the Supreme Court for the Jewish people. They handled the internal affairs for the nation of Israel. It was made up mostly of chief priests, who were all Sadducees (the priests were all Sadducees), with a minority of Pharisees. Pharisees and Sadducees were usually on opposite sides of issues. Sadducees were more liberal, Pharisees were more conservative; but when it came to Jesus they band together and conspire for his death.
So the council has gathered, and this is what they’re saying (verse 48), “If we let him [that is, Jesus] go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the romans will come and take away both our place our nation.”
Now, it’s interesting, this is the only time in the Gospel of John (indeed, in any of the four Gospels) where the word “Roman” shows up. But the imperial shadow of Rome was cast over this entire time period.
This is where we have to understand history. It had been less than 100 years since Pompey the Great, a Roman general, in 63 B.C. had invaded Jerusalem, the siege of Jerusalem; and from that time on, the nation of Israel was a conquered nation. They were under Roman rule. Pontius Pilate is the governor over them now. This is in recent memory.
Not only that, there had been something of a rebellion in the year 4 B.C. So, this is taking place now 30 A.D.; so 34 years before, okay? Calculate 34 years in our recent memory, you know. Just go back into the (what would that be?) ’80s? Not very long. In 4 B.C. there had been a rebellion of Jewish people, and the Roman general Varus had crucified 2,000 Jewish young men. That’s still on their memory. They’re still remembering that.
Now this person, Jesus of Nazareth, comes on the scene. Jesus is doing miracles. It’s already instigated opposition against him; in fact, you see it. We could trace it through the Gospel of John. There’s been opposition. Even in John 5, some time before, there’s opposition. Certainly by John 10, when Jesus claims, “I and my Father are one,” they’re ready to kill him.
But now Jesus has raised someone from the dead, and now they’re concerned that it’s going to get the attention of the Romans. If here’s a person who’s a Messianic figure, the people are wanting to crown as the Messiah and as the King, and if word gets out that he’s able to raise people from the dead, they fear the Romans are going to come in, they’re going to lose whatever freedom they have, they’re going to take away the temple, they’re going to tighten their grip.
So Caiaphas, the high priest, in answer to the concerns of the council, says, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people rather than that the whole nation should perish.” In other words, “Let’s make Jesus a scapegoat. Let’s put Jesus to death so that we can quiet whatever potential Messianic movement this may be, so that the Romans don’t come in.” This is a political conspiracy to put Jesus to death.
Now, there are other motives and there are other reasons that show up in the other Gospels, and I won’t go into them now, but if you wonder how those harmonize, that’s the kind of thing that you could ask in a Q&A. What’s going on right here in the Gospel of John is for political expediency. The chief priests, the Pharisees band together the council, and they decide, “Let’s put Jesus to death,” so they hatch this plot to murder Jesus.
(2) Now, the very interesting thing is that the apostle John, who is recording this—he probably knows about this, by the way, because one of the Pharisees, a man named Nicodemus, became a Christian, so Nicodemus might have been in that council meeting; he’s reporting this to John—then John, with amazing insight, gives us an interpretation of what Caiaphas says. You see this in verses 51-53, and it gives us a theological reason for Jesus’ death. It’s prophecy; it’s divine prophecy.
Verse 51 says, “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. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
Amazing. Here you see the wicked and evil will of man conspiring for the death of Jesus, and in it and through it you see the sovereign will of God working out his good and gracious purposes.
This is exactly how the early church understood the death of Jesus. We know that because of the book of Acts. Here’s one passage from the book of Acts, Acts 4. The Christians are beginning to be persecuted, they gather for a prayer meeting, and as they’re praying they’re praying through Psalm 2, and they say these words in verses 27-28: “For truly, in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
You see what’s going on there? There are these four groups of co-conspirators in the death of Jesus, and they were doing what God predestined would take place. Amazing.
Now, I think if we just look here at what’s going on in the narrative, reasons for the death of Jesus, there are three lessons for us, three applications for us to make immediately.
(a) Here’s the first one. Don’t think that miracles can produce saving faith. I don’t know if you caught this, but if you just back up to verses 45-46, this is what is says. It says, “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did—” that is, they saw Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead; many of them “believed in him, but some of them,” some of the Jews who saw what he did, “went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” They didn’t believe. They went and they’re stirring up trouble.
They’d seen the miracle. They had seen Jesus raise a man from the dead; and they still didn’t believe. There are some people today who say, “You know, if I could just see for myself, if I could just see Jesus do a miracle, I’d believe.” No, you wouldn’t. No, you wouldn’t! That’s not what you need! You don’t need a miracle; what you need is the work of the Holy Spirit to open your eyes.
Listen to what the 19th century bishop J.C. Ryle said in his wonderful devotional commentary, Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of John. He said, “Let us beware of supposing that miracles alone have any power to convert men’s souls and to make them Christians. The idea is a complete delusion, to fancy, as some do, that if they saw something wonderful done before their eyes in confirmation of the gospel they would at once cast off all delay and indecisions, is a mere idle dream. It is the grace of the Spirit in our hearts, and not miracles, that our souls require.”
(b) Lesson number two: Beware of the dangers of political expediency. Here are people who sacrificed justice on the altar of peace. They were afraid of what would happen if Jesus kept going, so they unjustly put him to death in order to maintain the status quo, in order to maintain peace in their land.
It’s always a temptation, isn’t it? When we start thinking about political matters, there’s always the temptation to let the end justify the means, to choose the lesser of two evils. Listen, I know this is a complex issue. We’re in perhaps one of the most divided political environments of recent history. I’m a preacher of the gospel, not a political commentator, so I will not presume to tell anyone how to vote; but I will say this. I just want to sound the warning: Don’t align yourself too closely with any particular candidate or any particular party. Be a good citizen, but remember that your true citizenship is in heaven, and don’t sacrifice truth or justice or principles or love on the altar of political expediency.
We serve a higher King and a higher Kingdom, and he will have his way in the kingdoms of men, and eventually he will reign visibly and demonstrably. In the meantime, we are always going to be dealing with fallen systems and with a constant temptation to compromise the principles of Christianity for political reasons. Let’s not do that.
(c) Lesson number three: Let us trust the God who turns human evil to the good of his people. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the most abhorrent, wicked, and evil action ever done by human beings. This is the greatest sin that’s ever been committed. It’s the most insidious evil ever developed in the minds of men or demons. And God used it. More than that, God predestined it. He purposed it for the redemption of the world.
When bad things happen in our lives, the cross stands as a monument and as a testament that God can take the evil of this world and he can exploit it to do good for his people. Now, that doesn’t mean that we do evil that good may come. God forbid that we say that or think that way, Paul says.
But it does give us confidence that when we are surrounded by evil and by sin and by wickedness and by injustice, and we are suffering, and these things are coming at us and we can’t control them, that there is a God who reigns! He’s in control. The God who took even the death of his own Son and through it brought redemption to us, that God can take all of your trials, all of your suffering, all of your hardship, all the bad things that ever happened to you, and he can use them for your good.
II. What did his death achieve?
Question number two: What did Jesus achieve through his death? We looked, first of all, at why Jesus died, and we saw that it was, from a human perspective, political expediency; from the divine perspective it was God’s divine purpose, it was his plan. This was the fulfillment of prophecy.
So what, then, is God doing through the death of Jesus? What did Jesus achieve through his death? What did his death achieve? I want to give you just three answers. John Piper one time wrote a book called Fifty Reasons Jesus Came To Die, so there are at least 50—there are probably more! I’m just going to give you three, and they’re three that I think connect pretty closely to the text.
(1) Number one, in his death Jesus took our place. He took our place. Substitution. Look at verses 51-53 again, and just notice the language. “He did not say this of his own accord,” speaking about Caiaphas now, “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 were scattered abroad.”
He died for the nation. That is, he died on behalf of them, he died in their place, he died in the place of others. That is the basic formula of substitutionary atonement as you see it in Scripture. Christ died for us! Christ died for our sins!
In fact, this has been a thread running straight through the Gospel of John. I read a book a number of years ago by a great New Testament scholar, Craig Blomberg, called The Cross from a Distance, and it was all about atonement in the Gospel of Mark. [Editor's Note: The author of this book is actually Peter Bolt. Brian apologizes for the mistaken reference.] He was showing how, from the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark, you have this thread of atonement, the cross drawing nearer and nearer. But I’ve thought that could actually be a title for every one of the Gospels. You could write a book, The Cross from a Distance: Atonement in the Gospel of John, because it’s right here.
So, for example, in John 1:29 John the Baptist points to Jesus and says, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!”
In John 2:19, Jesus cleanses the temple, and then he says, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” He’s talking about his own body.
In John 3:14-15 we read, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
In John 6:51 Jesus says, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The cross is already in view.
John 10:11, “I am the good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Him for us. Jesus for the nation. His flesh for the life of the world. The Shepherd for the sheep.
This is the heart of the gospel, that Christ died for us. John Calvin, the Reformer, said, “Every good thing we could think or desire is to be found in Jesus Christ alone, for he was sold to buy us back, captive to deliver us, condemned to absolve us. He was made a curse for our blessing, a sin offering for our righteousness, marred that we might be made fair.”
“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought—
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, oh my soul!”
The heart of the gospel. What did Jesus achieve? He took our place. Substitution.
(2) Not only that, he also defeated death. He defeated death. He triumphed over death.
I love just the title of one of the old Puritan volumes, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, John Owen’s great book on the atonement. You see it in the narrative. Jesus is the resurrection and the life; we’ve seen that, right, in John 11. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, and if anyone believes in him they will not die! That’s what Jesus says. But in order for him to give them eternal life (he says, “Though they die, yet they will live”), what must happen? He must die, because it is through his death that he defeats the power of death.
Hebrews 2:14-15 says, “Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” The death of death in the death of Christ. He defeated death by dying for us.
Let me give you one more quote. This is from New Testament scholar Andrew T. Lincoln in his commentary on John. He says, “As a result of the initial overcoming of death for Lazarus, the one who is the resurrection and the life is himself put under the sentence of death. Only in his own death and resurrection to life will the decisive defeat of the great enemy, death, take place. Lazarus’s resurrection, then, is a sign that points ahead to the final resurrection, precipitates the death of Jesus (life for Lazarus means death for Jesus), but also anticipate the vindication of that death in Jesus’s own resurrection.”
(3) He took our place, he defeated death, and number three, he gathers his people. This is John’s way of describing salvation, here in John 11:54. “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.”
There’s a lot going on in that phrase. There are hints here of the Gentile mission, because John says he dies not just for the nation, that is, not just for the nation of the Jews, “but to gather into one the children of God scattered abroad.” He’s thinking more broadly here than the Jewish people, into the Gentile mission. In fact, in John 12 some Greeks will show up asking about Jesus. It’s already beginning.
In John 10, you remember what Jesus said in verse 16? He said, “Other sheep I have which are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock and one shepherd.”
John 3:16, again: “God so loved” the Jews? No. He loved them, but he didn’t love just them. “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” The Gentile mission, the hope of the nations. The hope for all God’s children scattered abroad is that Jesus would die for them in order to gather them to himself.
Why did he die? Political expediency, from a human perspective; divine prophecy, God’s divine and sovereign purpose, from the divine perspective. What did he achieve in his death? He took our place as a substitutionary sacrifice, he defeated death by triumphing over it, and he then gathers his people into one.
III. How should we respond?
How then should we respond? Final question. This is a really simple answer, because when you understand who Jesus really is and what he accomplished, there are only two possible responses, and that’s either reject him or believe in him. Those are the two responses in the passage. Some people reject him, they oppose him, they go against him, they start seeking for his death; and some people believed. Verse 45, “Many of the Jews, therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him.”
I’ll just say this, that if you are able to be indifferent to Jesus, just, “Ah, Jesus stuff, I don’t know what I think about that,” you haven’t really honestly dealt with his claims. He claims to be the Son of God, he claims to be the Lord of the world, he claims to be the King of kings and the Lord of lords, he claims that he is the only way to the Father, the only way to salvation, the only way to heaven. It’s exclusive. It’s either through Jesus or not at all.
You can’t honestly wrestle with that claim and remain indifferent! You’re either going to say, “No way. No way. Jesus can’t be the only way. He can’t really be—he was a good teacher, but he wasn’t Lord.” He doesn’t give you that option. Good teachers don’t go around claiming to be God unless they really are. He either is God, the way to the Father, or he’s not. You have to be honest with what Jesus says. Don’t conjure up a Jesus of your own imagination. Don’t try to take part of Jesus without taking all of him. You can’t take Jesus in slices. You have to take the whole Jesus or reject him altogether! You either reject him or you trust him, you believe in him.
Indeed, this is the purpose for which John wrote his gospel. John 20:30-31: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples,” far more than just the seven reported in this gospel. “He did many other signs in the presence of the disciples which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” It’s the whole reason this book is written: so that you might believe.
Let me just give you one other passage. We just read here in John 11 that one of the reasons that Jesus died was to gather into one the children of God scattered abroad. That raises a question, doesn’t it? Who are the children of God?
Not everybody’s a child of God. Did you know that? Not everybody is a child of God. Everybody is a creation of God, and God loves his entire creation with a general love. He shows mercy every day upon all people. Every person who lives on this planet is a recipient of the mercy of God. “The sun rises on the just and on the unjust.” God is good to all the creatures that he has made. But they’re not all his children in the biblical sense of the word. Who are the children of God?
John answers in John 1. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”
To become of child of God, there are two things right there: you receive him, you receive Christ, and you believe in him. Receiving him and believing in his name.
What does it mean to believe? It means to trust. It means to depend on him. It means to receive him. It means to rest upon him, trusting in Jesus and his finished work with all your hearts. That’s the right response to the gospel.
If you’ve never done that, I hope that you’ll do that this morning. Take your place with thousands upon thousands of sinners who have come to the foot of the cross and have said,
“Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
There’s nothing you can bring to God to make yourself worthy of salvation, there’s nothing that you can do to save yourself. All you can do is receive the gift he offers and trust in Jesus Christ alone. If you have not done that, I invite you to do so this morning. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Let’s pray.
Father, we thank you for the gift of your Son. We thank you for the gospel, we thank you for the truth of the cross, that Christ died for us, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures. We thank you for the hope that we have that he not only died but that he defeated death, that he was raised on the third day. Thank you that Jesus paid the price, and he paid it in full. From our hearts this morning we cling to the cross, we trust in Jesus, we rest in him, we trust in what he’s done for us.
Father, I pray right now for anyone here who does not believe. It may be a child or a teenager, it may be an older person, maybe someone who’s been in church for years but the gospel’s never been clear until this moment; maybe someone who’s here for the very first time. I pray, Lord, that if this has rung true in their hearts that right now would be the decisive moment of turning from self, turning from sin, turning to Christ, and trusting in your grace.
As we come to the Lord’s table this morning, we pray that just as we have heard the gospel that now we would see it visibly displayed before us in the broken bread and the poured-out juice, that we would see there the emblems of our Lord’s death, his body broken for us, his blood shed on our behalf. Meet with us, we pray, in these moments, with the power of your Holy Spirit. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.