John 11:1–8, 38–57
When Jesus got the message from Mary and Martha that his dear friend Lazarus was very sick, Jesus and his disciples were in Perea.
Some months before this, Jesus had been in the far north of Galilee on Mount Hermon where Peter, James and John saw him transfigured. That event marked that start of his journey south to Jerusalem and to his crucifixion.
Galilee was ruled by Herod, and although Herod was a nasty person he didn’t concern himself with Jesus. Jesus was free to wander around a perform miracles in Galilee and the greatest threat to Jesus seems to have been the attempts to make him the leader of a rebel army.
Judea in the south, ruled by Pontius Pilate, was a very different place and a very dangerous place for the most part. It was in Judea that people tried to kill Jesus. John 8:59 recalls how when Jesus attended the Feast of Tabernacles “they picked up stones to throw at him.” John 10:31 relates how when Jesus was at the Feast of Dedication, “Once again the people picked up stones to kill him.” Perhaps this made Bethany and Lazarus’ family all the more special as a place of welcome and safety.
Although Jesus had come to Judea knowing he was to die there on a cross, it was not the right time and so when they tried to murder him he had taken his disciples to Perea. Perea was a long and thin province on the other side of the Jordan river that was also ruled by Herod. Perea was the portion of the Promised Land given to the Israelite tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half tribe of Manasseh. It was rocky and largely uninhabited because when the exile of the Jews ended none of the returnees wanted to live there. When John the Baptist was baptising people in the Jordan river, he was living in Perea. It is a strong candidate for the place where Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by Satan. Today Perea is part of the kingdom of Jordan.
Perea was remote and it was safe, while Judea was filled with danger. It was quite natural for his disciples to be unhappy at the idea of returning to Judea so soon after they had tried to kill Jesus. Although Jesus loved Mary and Martha and Lazarus, he waited two days after getting the message, and then he said to his disciples, “Let’s go back to Judea.” They said, “Rabbi, only a few days ago the people in Judea were trying to stone you. Are you going there again?”
They feared that Jesus would be killed and that they would also be killed, but they obeyed.
As you all know, Jesus raised Lazarus back to life in Bethany. It was a wonderful moment and John says that when they saw it, “Many of the people who were with Mary believed in Jesus.”
Wouldn’t it be great if the whole story were like that, but of course it isn’t.
Jesus is fighting a cosmic battle against the forces of evil, who did not give up and go away after tempting him in the desert. As it says in Luke 4:13 – “When the devil had finished tempting Jesus, he left him until the next opportunity came.”
Jesus suffered supremely on the cross, but there was much suffering on the way to the cross.
Other people who saw the miracle of Lazarus reacted with rejection and hostility. John says, “Some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” Down in Judea where the Pharisees and Sadducees had real power, Jesus was seen as a threat.
The Pharisees at once acted on the information. The chief priests, who were Sadducees, and the Pharisees, their natural foes, together comprised the supreme authority. They immediately “called the high council together.” Their great worry, the fear that motivated them, caused them to ask the question, “What are we going to do?” You may well ask why they needed to do anything in reaction to this wonderful miracle, which they did not deny but feared. They were afraid that “soon everyone will believe in him.” And wouldn’t that be a great thing for every Jew, especially the leaders, to be alive at the coming of the Messiah. Instead it was seen as a threat and they focused on how it would affect their lives and their situation in the world. They thought that if people began to follow Jesus and he continued to perform miracles, “Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.”
Of course, the Roman army did just that anyway after they had killed the messiah. And everyone reading John’s Gospel would have known that as it had already happened.
“So from that time on, the Jewish leaders began to plot Jesus’ death. As a result, Jesus stopped his public ministry among the people and left Jerusalem. He went to a place near the wilderness, to the village of Ephraim, and stayed there with his disciples.” “그 날부터 그들은 예수님을 죽일 음모를 꾸미기 시작했다. 그래서 예수님은 유대인 가운데 더 이상 드러나게 다니지 않으시고 그 곳을 떠나 광야 가까이 있는 에브라임이라는 마을로 가셔서 제자들과 함께 거기에 머물러 계셨다.” (John 11:53–54)
Jesus was obedient to God the Father in the manner and the timing of his death. He did not protest the illegal plot by the Jewish leaders, but Jesus instead humbly retreated until it was the right time.
Jesus went to Ephraim, a village in the wild, uncultivated hill-country thirteen miles to the north-east of Jerusalem. This village was perched on a conspicuous mount and enjoyed an extensive view between the central towns and the Jordan valley. It is probably the same place as Ophrah (mentioned in Joshua 18:23), Ephron (2 Chronicles 13:19) and the modern Palestinian village of Taybeh. Ephraim or Taybeh, the place that gave shelter and welcome to our Lord Jesus in a time of need, is today unusual among Arab places in being a Christian village. It has struggled to survive and a few years ago residents feared that the Christian population would entirely disappear. According to the mayor, the population in 2010 was 2,300 people.
The high priest, Caiaphas, proposed that if they killed one person it would save the nation and themselves. He saw that the high council had an opportunity for gain with one simple act.
This is against Jewish principles. Jewish teachers taught that even in war or siege, a single Israelite was not to be betrayed for the benefit of others.
His devious plan was to simultaneously get rid of an awkward factor in their community, a person dangerous to their influence, and to curry favour with Rome, by putting to death someone who was claiming to be king of the Jews.
Caiaphas saw this as a great political opportunity to increase his position in the world and solidify his power in society. Caiaphas saw Jesus and his popular following as something the Jewish leaders could use to exhibit their loyalty to the empire, rather than as something that endangered them and brought suspicion on their loyalty to Rome. Sacrifice Jesus, Caiaphas said, and we will not only rid ourselves of a troublesome person, but we will show our zeal for the supremacy of Rome and ingratiate ourselves with the imperial authorities.
And so we see that God can speak even through a wickedly motivated person seeking only his own power and playing a complex game of political chess.
The scene has now been prepared, the script has been written, for what will be played out next week. It’s now almost time for the Jewish Passover celebration. People from all over the country are arriving in Jerusalem early so they can go through the purification ceremony. They keep looking for Jesus as they stand around in the Temple. Everyone has heard the news, and they are all saying to each other, “What do you think? He won’t come for Passover, will he?”
The movement of Jesus in and out of seclusion shows him working around the intentions of his enemies as he works out the intentions of his Father. There is a similar pattern in Jesus’ work in our lives today. Jesus moves in and out of seclusion in our lives, not because his life is threatened but as part of his love for us, to wean us from false attachments, even false views we may have of God himself.
You can trust Jesus when things look bad, and when he seems to have other plans, because he has the best plan of all.