Monday, May 12, 2014

Man's Plans and God's Purposes (John 11:46-53)


As we read the text before us today, there is a great temptation to see the events which are unfolding here, and those that will unfold in the subsequent pages of John’s Gospel, as a great tragedy that could have, and should have, been prevented. We can begin to view Jesus as a helpless victim to the wickedness of humanity’s worst representatives. While we do not want to minimize the moral culpability of those who determined to put Jesus to death, we must remember that God has a sovereign plan that far surpasses those of human beings. As the wise King Solomon writes in Proverbs 19:21, “Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand.” And that is as true for the events here in this text as it was for Solomon, or for you and me. What we have in this text is an example of men doing their best to plan, to plot, and to predict, but none of them have the power to bring those things to pass. God’s sovereign purpose and plan surpasses and overrides them all. Remember Joseph, in the book of Genesis, whose brothers plotted and schemed to destroy him. Joseph was able to say in retrospect, “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Gen 50:20). So the Lord Jesus, and all who know Him by faith, can view the events that surround Him on these final days of His earthly life and say, “Though others plotted evil against Him, God used all these things for good” – good for Jesus, good for us, good for the world. We can rejoice that the plans that arise in the hearts of men can never thwart the ultimate purpose of our sovereign God.

I. Men address their problems, but the Lord’s purposes prevail. (vv46-48)
The religious leaders of Israel had a big problem: His name was Jesus. He was saying and doing things that threatened their power and prestige in the nation. People were beginning to turn to Him and trust in Him, and to turn away from the empty religion of the Temple and its leaders. After all, no one else had ever demonstrated the kind of divine power and authority that Jesus did. Remember what just happened in the immediately preceding text. Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead! And after He had done this, verse 45 says that “many of the Jews who came to Mary, and saw what He had done, believed in Him.” Many believed, but all did not. Some instead decided to turn state’s evidence against Jesus. They are set in contrast with those in verse 45 who had come to believe in Him. In their hardened unbelief, they “went to the Pharisees and told them the things which Jesus had done” (v46).

The Pharisees already knew that Jesus was becoming a growing problem for them. On other occasions they had conspired and even attempted to put Him to death. They had tried their best to marginalize and discredit Jesus and to divert people’s attention away from Him. But it wasn’t working! Therefore, there had to be a meeting. Verse 47 says that the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a council. The word council in our English Bibles translates a Greek word which, if translated literally, would be Sanhedrin.

The Sanhedrin was the highest Jewish council in the first century. It consisted of 71 members, mostly from the Sadducees and Pharisees. Now, the Pharisees and Sadducees had very little in common. They had major difference in theology and in politics. But this one thing they had in common: Jesus was a threat to them both. And a common enemy has a way of uniting strange bedfellows, as it does here and elsewhere in the Gospels.

The Sanhedrin operated under the watchful eye of the Roman governor. One false move by the Sanhedrin, and the full force of the Roman government would crush them. That’s why they have convened this particular council meeting. Their prior efforts to divert attention away from Jesus are not working. They say, “What are we doing?” It could be translated as, “What are we accomplishing?” or “What are we going to do?” The problem is that this Jesus, “is performing many signs.” On other occasions, they had tried to explain away the miracles that He had performed, but here they tip their hand. We can see that they really could not write off His divine power that was being displayed through His miracles. Neither could they dismiss the profound effect His works were having on the multitudes. They said, “If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him.” It was bad enough that so many, like those in verse 45, already had! How many more would if He continued doing these things?

Herein is their problem: the more people follow Jesus, the fewer of them there will be who hold the religious leaders of Israel in high esteem. And if their power and prestige is challenged by the people, then civil unrest will likely ensue. Passover is coming, and Jerusalem will be filled with a million or more traveling worshipers (v55). Unrest at such an occasion could be devastating. If an uprising ensues, they conclude, “the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation” (v48).

Strictly speaking, their “place” probably refers to the Temple itself, but indirectly it also refers to their place of prominence in the society. Without the Temple, the people will have no need for the priests or the scribes, and they will have no power, no prestige, no job, and no money. The Romans, who have been content to leave Israel with a large degree of independence and autonomy (as long as they paid their taxes and kept peace), could come in and crush the entire nation. There were plenty of examples around the world to prove that Rome was swift and brutal when it came to squashing insurrections. Jesus was a big problem that they had to address, thus they convened this council meeting of the Sanhedrin. They needed to preserve their place and their nation.

“Many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand” (Prov 19:21). These guys can address their problems all they want to, but if it is not in God’s purpose to preserve the Temple, their position, or the nation, then it will not come to pass. And, in the end, in spite of attempt of the Sanhedrin to address their problem, they did not succeed and the purposes of the Lord prevailed. Some thirty-five to forty years after this council meeting, the Romans did come in and destroy the Temple and crush the city of Jerusalem. Some six decades after that (AD 132-135), the Romans came in again to crush a final rebellion, and Jerusalem was completely leveled. It became a capital offense for any Jew to live anywhere near Jerusalem.[1] But even these events occurred under the purpose of God.

With the coming of Jesus Christ into the world, that Temple and priesthood was entirely useless in the spiritual economy of God. That is why, in Mark 11, when Jesus drove the money changers and offering peddlers out of the Temple, He said immediately afterward, “Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him” (Mk 11:23). He wasn’t talking about just any mountain, as if you could dispense with Pilot Mountain or Mount Mitchell. He was talking about this mountain – the Temple mount. The temple had foreshadowed the salvation that God would accomplish in Jesus Christ. Now He had come, and the expiration date of the temple and the priesthood had passed. So, in Mark 13, when the disciples were awestruck by the magnificence of the Temple, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another which will not be torn down” (Mk 13:1). It was already determined, in the purposes of God that this place, and the prominence of these priests were destined for destruction. Jesus Christ would be the new High Priest, the new Sacrifice, and the new Temple for God’s people.    

We see it still today. People gather together to address their problems and formulate action plans to deal with their circumstances. The Bible does not tell us to not plan or to not address our problems, but we have to do so with the understanding that we can plan all we want to, and we should plan thoroughly, but ultimately it is God’s purpose and not our plans that will prevail in the end. And there are plenty of people who are addressing the problem of Jesus in our day. The exclusive claims of Christ and the radical demands of His word are inconvenient and troublesome for our fallen world that prizes inclusivism, a perverted notion of tolerance, and moral relativism. Councils are called together to determine what to do to intimidate and silence the Church on issues of morality and spirituality. Laws are passed and policies are instituted, and many Christians and many churches and denominations compromise their convictions and cower to the intimidation. But as we look at the quiet and confident resolve of the Lord Jesus in the face of hostility, we are emboldened to hold the line and know that in the end, the plans of men will fail and the purposes of God will prevail. So, the first lesson we see here in this text is that though men address their problems, it is the Lord’s purpose which ultimately prevails.

II. Men articulate their predictions, but the Lord’s prophecies prevail. (vv49-52)

I was in a very long line at Starbucks one day, waiting to place my wife’s very complicated beverage order – venti two pump solo mocha frappuccino with whip and drizzle. When it is crowded, Starbucks can be a loud place. There are lots of important people there talking about important things, you know. All of a sudden, the lady in front of me in line looked at me, rolled her eyes, and said, “Ugh! So many words! And most of them are just meaningless!” She’s right. There are a lot of people all around us using a lot of words, and saying very little. Even as we speak, on every major television network, there are shows being aired in which politicians, journalists, and pundits are making their predictions about where our nation is heading, what is going to happen on the present trajectory, and what we should do about it. But even though men should prognosticate with all eloquence as they articulate their prophecies and predictions about the future, ultimately the prophecies of God are what prevail. God is the one who says of Himself, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’” (Isa 46:9-10).

Verses 49-52 present us with a man named Caiaphas, who was the high priest. He would hold that office longer than any high priest in the first century. This was undoubtedly a tribute to his character, which has been described as, “a rude and sly manipulator, an opportunist, who did not know the meaning of fairness or justice and who was bent on having his own way ‘by hook or by crook.’”[2] Caiaphas speaks up to the Sanhedrin: “You know nothing at all” (v49)! It is as if he is saying, “You are a bunch of ignorant twits!” And then he says something that is truly remarkable: “It is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish” (v50). John offers us more information behind these words: “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, 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” (vv51-52).

What is going on here? It sounds, at first hearing, as if Caiaphas is preaching the Gospel in a way that far exceeded the apostles at this point! But, the way we understand his words are in no way similar to the way he intended his words when he spoke them. For Caiaphas, the proposal of Jesus’ dying for the nation was not a message of salvation through the atonement for sins. The key phrase is expedient for you. He is speaking entirely from self-interest. Caiaphas’ proposal is that if Jesus is allowed to live, there will be a massive uprising and the nation will be destroyed (as the Pharisees had already stated), and therefore, it was better – better for the priests, better for the Pharisees, better for the nation – for Jesus to die than for the nation to be destroyed. Putting Jesus to death was as a political strategy to keep in Rome’s good graces.

Ironically, what for Caiaphas is just a political ploy is in truth a prophetic promise of God. Caiaphas probably thought that his words were coming from his own mind and heart, and out of his own mouth. However, John is aware (in retrospect) that Caiaphas was speaking better than he knew. These words did not come from his own initiative, but he was unwittingly speaking biblical truth about the purpose and plan of God. Without knowing the fuller sense of his words, he was actually prophesying and proclaiming God’s wondrous truth. When Caiaphas spoke, on this occasion anyway, God Himself was speaking, even if they were using the same words to say different things. Caiaphas had poured one meaning into his words, but God had poured an altogether different meaning into them. With the same words that Caiaphas had intended to bring an end to Jesus, God was declaring His ultimate plan and promise of salvation.

Jesus was indeed to die as a scapegoat, but not to pacify the Romans. He was to die as the sacrificial Lamb of God to take away the sins of His people – those who would believe upon Him, whether they be of this nation (Israel) or scattered abroad (Gentiles). Indeed, it is expedient – it is beneficial – to us all that Jesus die for us than for all of us to perish. Jesus Himself declared that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but will have everlasting life (Jn 3:16). He would die so that we would not perish under God’s eternal condemnation for our sins, but that we might be saved through His sacrificial death. He was bearing our sins and receiving their penalty in Himself as our substitute as He died. Through the death of Jesus, God has gathered together into one family and one Kingdom the children of God, Jew and Gentile alike, who are scattered abroad.  

Men will announce their predictions and proclamations, but it is the Lord’s prophecies and promises that prevail. Pilate will mockingly install the placard above the head of the dying Lord Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews,” but it is God’s promise in a more sure and certain way that He is truly the King of all kings. The Pharisees will scoff at the foot of the cross saying, “This man saved others, but he cannot save Himself!” But God’s truth prevails. He could save Himself, but in giving up His life in death, He was in fact saving others in a way that they could not fathom. And still today, people will use many fine sounding words to predict and prognosticate about the present and the future. Most of those words will fall to the ground in vain. But some of them may speak truth in a way that they themselves do not know. In the end, however, it will not be the predictions and proclamations of men that win the day. It will be God’s promises and prophecies that are found to never fail!

III. Men adopt their plots, but the Lord’s plan prevails. (v53)

After all this deliberation among the council members, a conclusion has been reached and a plot has been adopted. It is not a new one. They had already settled their hearts on killing Jesus long before. Here, they were just affirming it: “From that day on they planned together to kill Him” (v53). This is the plot: together, they will bring Jesus to His death. It was thoroughly devised. As it plays out, we will see how they will involve one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas Iscariot, and pay him to turn Jesus over to them. The choreography of the trial is already settled. They will bounce Him around from court to court in order to secure the verdict, and utilize false witnesses to testify against Him. Then, once they convict Him of a capital offense, they will turn Him over to the Romans to pass the sentence in order to keep the peace in the region. They had dotted all the “i”s and crossed all the “t”s in this plot. And it almost worked.

I say it almost worked. You might say, “No, it did work. They succeeded in killing Jesus!” Well, the fact of the matter is that their plot failed horribly, but God’s eternal plan prevailed gloriously. You see, Jesus did not die because of these men’s plot. He died because of His Father’s plan. He was consciously aware of what He had come to do, and He knew that the Father had set a time for it to happen. That is why, in John 7:30, when the crowds tried to seize Him, they could not because, as John writes there, “His hour had not yet come.” Again in John 8:20, they were unable to seize Him because “His hour had not yet come.” And in John 13:1, Jesus gathered His disciples together for a final meal because He knew “that His hour had come that he would depart out of this world to the Father.” These events were not transpiring according to the plot of evil men, but according to the eternal plan of His Father.

Looking back on the death of Jesus, the Christians in Jerusalem said in their prayer to God in Acts 4:27 that “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 peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.” Note that well: Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, and Israelites, had gathered together to do something against Jesus; but they could not do anything apart from what God’s hand and God’s plan had predestined to take place. When Jesus stood before Pilate, Pilate asked Him, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:10-11). Nothing in this wicked plot of evil men would have ever been accomplished if it had not been for the plan of God that brought His Son, the Lord Jesus, to die for us. Isaiah had foretold it, some 700 years earlier, declaring God’s truth that had been revealed to him. He spoke of the Servant of the Lord who was coming, and he said, “The Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief” (Isa 53:10). Get that – it pleased the Lord to crush Jesus in death. Why? Because He was rendering Himself as a guilt offering (53:10). He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities. The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. The Lord caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him (Isa 53:5-6). It was not the plot of men to put Jesus on the cross. It was the plan of God, so that our sins might receive the penalty that they deserve – the full outpouring of the just judgment of God – but that we might be saved because our sins were condemned in Christ, our Substitute.

The plot of men failed. They wanted to be rid of Jesus. But they could not be rid of Jesus. They thought they had gotten rid of Him by putting Him to death, but this was the plan of God, not the plot of men, at work. So, in Acts 2:23, the Apostle Peter declared that, “this Man [Jesus], delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. But God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power.” In the resurrection of Jesus, God demonstrated that He had vindicated His Son, He had destroyed sin and death, and He had prevailed in all that He had planned in order to redeem us from sin. That Sunday morning when the tomb was found empty and Jesus was found alive, the evil plot of men and Satan had failed miserably, but the eternal plan of God prevailed mightily.

And so it always does. “Many plans are in a man's heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand.” The Lord Jesus has triumphed over all of the attempts of men to marginalize and silence Him; over all the predictions made about how wonderful life would be without Him; over all the plots of evil men, inspired by Satan, to destroy Him. And His purposes will always prevail. In your life, you may have attempted to neatly compartmentalize things and isolate Jesus over into one little corner so that He doesn’t begin to be too much of a problem for you. That won’t work. He will be Lord over your entire life, and will not relent until you yield to Him. Maybe you’ve tried to ignore Him altogether. That won’t work either. He is entirely unable to be ignored. The day will come when you must deal with Jesus. Maybe you have theorized about your future and what it will be like when all of your plans come together. Have you consulted with the Lord about your plans? Do they correspond to His plan? Are you open to Him invading and radically altering your plans? Know this – it is the Lord’s purpose and plan that will ultimately stand. Do not look upon the cross as a great tragedy that could have been prevented. Do not look at it as an accident of human history or as a result of wicked plans made by evil men. When you look upon the cross, you can glory in it, knowing that God, in His infinite love for you, had eternally planned this event. He turned every plan and plot and prediction of men on its head and His purpose prevailed so that you might be saved. The cross and resurrection of Jesus show Him to be the Victor, not the victim. And He will always be just that – always the Victor, never the victim; always in control, never being controlled. If you have received the Salvation that is offered to you through this eternal plan of God, you can exult and magnify the name of the Lord who endured the cross, despising the shame, so that you might live with Him forever. If you have never come to know this Jesus by faith, you can today, knowing and trusting that He endured all of this, under the eternal plan of God, to save you from sin. Know that evil did not triumph on the day that Christ died, and it never will. On that day, and on this one, and ultimately on the last day, you can rest assured that the purposes of God will always prevail.

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