Quinquagesima Sunday February 14, 1999
39, 354, 409, 401
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death. These are the Words.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, Whose death at the hands of the Jews was deemed “expedient”, Dear Fellow Redeemed,
Sometime around the turn of the eighth century BC, somewhere on the Mediterranean Sea, a ship found itself in trouble. A terrible storm had arisen, threatening to swamp the boat. Among those onboard was a man named Jonah. It was discovered that the reason for the tempest was the fact that Jonah was disobeying God’s orders. He was traveling in the opposite direction from the way the Lord wanted him to go. The sailors were alarmed. Because of Jonah’s foolishness, all their lives were in jeopardy. Then a handy solution presented itself: they would kill Jonah. To their credit, they really didn’t want to. But it seemed the only expedient left open that would preserve the lives of the rest of them. Wherefore they cried unto the LORD, and said, We beseech thee, O LORD, we beseech thee, let us not perish for this man’s life, and lay not upon us innocent blood: for thou, O LORD, hast done as it pleased thee. So they took up Jonah, and cast him forth into the sea: and the sea ceased from her raging. Jonah 1:14-15.
You know the rest of the story. As it turns out, Jonah did not die. In fact, God used this episode to teach Jonah a lesson, and to accomplish His will of leading the city of Nineveh to repentance. Well, our text for today presents an account that, in some ways, is remarkably similar. Once again, the Lord would use the plans of unbelievers to accomplish His holy will. Once again, the death of one Man would be considered a handy expedient for saving the lives of many others. But there’s a difference—Jonah was guilty, and his shipmates were innocent. In the case before us today, the Man to be sacrificed was innocent, and the ones for whom He was to give His life were all guilty. The Jewish council thought they had the perfect answer to the “Jesus problem.” It would turn out to be a very handy solution indeed—not only for their sinful purposes, but also for the eternal purposes of God! Join me this morning in considering the theme:
The Jewish council in Jerusalem—also called the Sanhedrin—had had just about enough of Jesus of Nazareth. In recent months He’d been gathering a large following among the Jewish people. The religious leaders had tried to trap Him into making politically damaging statements, but that hadn’t worked. They’d done their best to ignore His many miracles—healing the sick, cleansing lepers, restoring sight to the blind. But in recent days Jesus had performed a miracle that not even they could ignore: He had raised a man from the dead. Denying that miracle was going to be a little awkward for them in view of the fact that the raised man—Lazarus of Bethany—was walking around telling people about it!
Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. “This Jesus character is getting stronger every day. And we’re doing nothing! What if He starts His own kingdom? What if the Romans come and crush us all?” The council fretted and fumed. Not for a moment did it enter their heads that Jesus’ claims might be genuine—that He might really be the Son of God, the promised Messiah. All they could think about was their own comfortable position as the leaders of Israel. This Man was a threat to their power—and to their paycheck. He must be dealt with. But how?
Well, if the rest of them were afflicted with weakness and indecision, there was one man who wasn’t: Caiaphas, the High Priest and leader of the Sanhedrin. Son-in-law of Annas and a member of the Sadducee party, Caiaphas was the most cunning and deceitful of them all. And Caiaphas had a plan. Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. Caiaphas is a crafty one. He uses the old trick of presenting two extremes—the death of Jesus or the destruction of Israel—and pretending that those are the only two options available. You notice he doesn’t even mention the indelicate matter of how Jesus would be killed. Just that He would die. It is expedient, says Caiaphas. Advantageous. It will be better for everybody if it happens this way. Indeed, from Caiaphas’ point of view, IT WAS HANDY FOR JESUS TO DIE.
Caiaphas was rationalizing, of course. He was pretending it was a handy way to save the nation, when what it really was was a handy way for selfish men to be rid of Christ.
Three days from now, we enter the season of Lent. It’s a time of year that confronts each of us with the same question that confronted the Sanhedrin (and Pontius Pilate): “What then shall I do with Jesus?” It’s a question you have to answer for yourself. Will you receive Him as the Lord of your life, or will you reject Him, as the Jewish Council did? Will you follow after Him, or will you run away from Him, as the disciples did in the Garden of Gethsemane? Will you confess Him to the people you know, or will you deny Him like Peter did in the courtyard of the High Priest?
For the Sanhedrin, the decision was easy. For them it was handier by far just to rid themselves of Jesus. What about you? How would you have voted if you had been a member of that council?—Don’t be too quick to answer. Do you ever find yourself taking the easy expedient of denying Christ? Is it handier for you to sleep in on Sunday morning than to make the trip over here for worship? Do you read your family Bible faithfully every day, or do you find it handier to leave it gather dust on the shelf? When someone at work takes the Lord’s name in vain, do you find it handier simply to ignore it, or do you say, “Listen, that’s my Savior you’re talking about”? When someone asks you about your religion, do you let your light shine, or do you find it handier to hide it under a bushel? Is it handier simply to let Jesus die in your life?
I asked those questions of myself. I didn’t like the answers. Well, now is the perfect time to turn that around. Right now is the perfect time to bring our sins of faithlessness to our God, to beg His forgiveness, and to ask for the strength to truly follow Christ in our lives. He will not refuse our request. The Bible says, If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself. 2 Tim 2:13.
And that brings us to the second part of our text. For God in His faithfulness would not allow the sinful plans of man to prevail. He had his own plans. For Caiaphas, the death of Jesus may have seemed a handy way to get rid of an irritating troublemaker. But for our gracious God, it was a handy way to redeem the world.
Caiaphas said, It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people. As this fiery man stood in the council chambers and uttered these words, he little realized the underlying truth of what he said. Far less did he realize the startling fact that it was God Himself who caused him to speak them!
A week ago, Madeline Albright toured the Arab states of the Gulf region, trying to drum up support for the American stance against Iraq. In her official position as Secretary of State, Mrs. Albright represents our nation, and speaks on the authority of the President. You know, Caiaphas had an official position, too—he was the High Priest. As such, he represented the nation of Israel. And whether he knew it or not, his words to the Sanhedrin that day came on direct authority of Almighty God. Our text says, This spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation.
What a marvel we have in these words of Caiaphas: It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people. With these words, Caiaphas was saying just what he wanted to say, and giving voice to his own sinister purpose. But in reality, it was God who was speaking through him that day. If the death of Jesus seemed handy to the Jewish council, it was also handy to the purposes of God. God was using His High Priest to say just what he wanted to say, and to give voice to His gracious plan to save mankind. How appropriate that it was Israel’s High Priest who should hail the coming death of Christ, the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” Caiaphas couldn’t have uttered one syllable differently if he had tried with all his might!
There’s an old saying in theology: “Man proposes, but God disposes.” This is a very great comfort, if you think about it. In secret, behind closed doors, Caiaphas uttered these words as part of a nefarious plot. He definitely intended evil. But God took the words of the Jews and the actions of the Jews, and turned them around. He made them work out to the eternal benefit of His elect. My Christian friend, doesn’t this happen every day in your life as a believer? Events swirl around you. Painful and distressing things happen to you—a sickness, an accident, a financial reversal, or the loss of a loved one. Sometimes it’s difficult to see what good could possibly come of these things. But arching over it all is the gracious good will of your Heavenly Father. He can and does take even the painful things in your life, and makes them work out for your eternal good (whether you can see the logic to it or not). And isn’t that just what our Lord promises in Romans 8:28, And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.
Yes, Jesus’ death was handy—for God’s purpose, as well as for Caiaphas’. But is it true, as the text says, that Jesus gave His life for the nation of Israel? Would the Son of God give His life even for stubborn and stiff-necked people like Caiaphas and his cronies? Yes. And while the vast majority of Jews would reject Christ as the Savior, the Lord would make good on His promise to preserve a remnant of Israel for salvation. As he said through His prophet Isaiah, The remnant shall return, even the remnant of Jacob, unto the mighty God. For though thy people Israel be as the sand of the sea, yet a remnant of them shall return. Isa 10:21-22.
And what about us? If the Word of God ended there, then non-Jews like you and me would be left out in the cold. But God’s promise doesn’t end there; our Lord has not left us out in the cold. The text says, He prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; And not for that nation only, but that also he should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad.
Yes, this prophesy is for us, too! Truly, it was expedient for us that this one Man should die for the people. For when Jesus perished on the cross, the sins of the entire world were atoned for. No sinner is too wretched to be washed clean in Jesus’ blood. Not even you. No sinner has sins too great, or too many, or has continued in sin too long to be pardoned by Christ the crucified—not even you! The prophesy of Caiaphas—and the promise of the cross—is for every human being, including you and me.
John 3:16 says, God so loved THE WORLD that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. The Lutheran writer R.C.H. Lenski once said that this passage is the most comforting in all Scripture, because it includes everybody. “For even if it had said, ‘God so loved R.C.H. Lenski…’, I could not be certain that it was not some other R.C.H. Lenski who was meant. But it doesn’t. It says, ‘God so loved the WORLD,’ and I know that that includes me.”
It is said that, in those last days before His death, even Jesus’ enemies confessed Him despite themselves. And it’s true: hear the words of Pilate’s wife: “Have thou nothing to do with that just Man.” And of Judas : “I have sinned, in that I have betrayed innocent blood.” The chief priests: “He saved others; Himself He cannot save.” And the centurion: “Surely this was the Son of God.” But today, as we prepare to step into the season of Lent, we have heard perhaps the most eloquent of the sermons preached by Jesus’ enemies. Caiaphas confessed, It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people. May each of us join in that good confession, not as Jesus’ enemies indeed, but rather as His beloved disciples, and co-heirs with Him of eternal life. God grant it, for Jesus’ sake, AMEN.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the King James Version.