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Lenten Passion Week Perspectives – Caiaphas
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the gospel of John, chapter 11, we’re going to start there this morning, although we’re going to read in a few places.
As Meg mentioned already, we’ve entered a season of the church known as lent, which is a time of fasting and waiting before the celebration of Easter each year. Fasting, the giving up of lesser things in our lives in order to make room for God to speak, teaches us our our dependence upon the Lord alone. Observance of the church calendar teaches us that our lives are built around the things God does in the world, our days are numbered by him. The world tries to convince that we are in control of our lives, the time we have and how we spend it, whether we are celebrating or mourning. The truth in Christ is that the Lord has numbered our days; he is in control of our lives, and brings to us each season according to his wisdom, which is higher than ours.
For most of the year thus far we’ve been in the book of Lamentations, which was a difficult but really beneficial study, at least for me. If you have struggled, in any way in the past year, if you have experienced loss or pain, I would encourage you to go back and read that little book, listen to the sermons, take part in the services, and allow God to begin to heal you.
We’ve decided, through the season of Lent, to follow individual people through the last week or so of Jesus’ life, to see through their eyes the events which brought our savior to the cross to die in our place—just as he died in the place of each person in the passion narrative, the last week of Jesus’ life. My hope is that we would begin to see pieces of ourselves in each of these men and women, to understand them and their part in bringing Christ to the cross, as a means of understanding our own part in the crucifixion of Christ.
Today I want you to imagine yourself in the place of Caiaphas, the high priest; to see his motivations and his sins as our own. Read with me, starting in John, chapter 11, starting in v. 45. [John 11:45-55]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me. Father God, who decided to give your own self for the sake of your people; Christ, our great high priest who atoned for us; Holy Spirit, we pray you would show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
My first point from our text today is this: we are Caiaphas. We are Caiaphas.
In the text it mentions that Caiaphas is the high priest. That’s an ancient title, more ancient in Israel than the title of king, and in many ways equally important. The high priests existed before Israel even entered the promised land, before there was even a kingdom, much less a king in Israel. And even even after the conquering of the kingdom and exile, after the return and rebuilding, through centuries of foreign rule, there was a high priest among the people of Israel.
By the time Caiaphas inherited the high priesthood in Jerusalem, there was no king on the throne. Rome had removed the king and placed in his stead a Roman governor, named Pilate, but Pilate saw Jerusalem as insignificant to the real events of the world; small, and dysfunctional, and he only came to Jerusalem occasionally. The day-to-day rule of the city, and therefore of the region, was left in the hands of the high priest. In many ways, Caiaphas had obtained the positions of both priest and king in Jerusalem.
The high priest lived in a palace in the center of the city, near the temple, with servants and guards enough not to notice Peter and John warming themselves at a fire among them. Usually the high priests didn’t last long. Rome would kill anyone who displeased them, and they had begun to rotate the high priesthood so as to not leave one person with too much power for long; but Caiaphas had been in place for decades. He was established. He knew what would please Rome. If power is a game, Caiaphas knew how to play; how to win.
If you know the prophets, though, you know Caiaphas has a problem. The prophets foretold that a messiah was coming who would be both high priest and king in Jerusalem—the exact seat where Caiaphas was sitting. In the passage we just read, when Caiaphas hears that all of Jerusalem was following after Jesus’s teachings, calling him the messiah, abiding by Jesus’s laws, he has a choice. He can either give up his seat and admit that Jesus is Messiah, priest, and king, or he can try to keep his seat at the table.
In many ways, Caiaphas is the opposite of Jesus. When Jesus, in his abundant life, raises Lazarus from the dead, Caiaphas begins to plot to kill both Jesus and Lazarus. As Jesus publicly preaches and performs miracles drawing multitudes to himself, Caiaphas plots in secret how best to draw people away from him. And as Jesus prays to God in the garden, “thy will be done,” even though it was the will of God that Jesus would leave his throne and die for the sake of his people, Caiaphas moves to make sure Caiaphas’s will be done, to ensure that he keeps his throne for another year, and that he, Caiaphas, would not die for the sake of the sins of his people; and this morning, I’m telling you, if we’re going to imagine ourselves as one person in this story, we are Caiaphas.
It’s easy for me to see myself in Caiaphas’s place. I’m a pastor, after all, in positions of authority here and elsewhere, and though I try to follow Jesus, and not Caiaphas, in his example as priest and king, I fail over and over again to serve, to honor God and not myself, to lay down my life, to submit myself to my wife and to you, church, not to consider my position as something to be grasped.
I think each of us is like Caiaphas, and in small, daily ways, we usurp Christ’s position as priest and king in our lives. If Christ is king, and not us, then why do we not follow his laws? Why do we create our own laws, either by rejecting the laws of God entirely and trusting in ourselves to know what is good and evil, or by simplifying the laws of God into laws we can keep. We create codes of ethics, life mottos, that make us look good in comparison to those we choose to condemn, so we never have to confess or admit that we are real sinners. If your faith is not grounded in confession, I guarantee you you’ve made your own law—because in terms of God’s law, Christ alone is good. If Jesus is king and not us, we need his pardon. If we are kings, we need only our own approval.
And listen, if Christ is our high priest, the one who atones for our sins, the one who makes us holy, then why do we act as though we are able to atone for our own sins? Why do we act like, if we work hard enough, we can make ourselves holy? We reject help, we don’t seek out the medicine and accountability we need. Then, we look down on others for not accomplishing the morality, whatever level of stability we have, because we think we pulled ourselves up. We forget: there, but for the grace of God, go we. We forget: if any part of us is good, that is a part God has healed by his power and restored to rights. Christ is our high priest. Only he is able to atone for us, to forgive us our sins, to make us clean.
We are Caiaphas, and my second point is this: Jesus died in Caiaphas’s place. We are Caiaphas, and Jesus died in Caiaphas’s place.
After Caiaphas has Jesus arrested, they question and beat him, then they drag Jesus to Pilate’s residence, his praetorium, it was kind of half residence, half fortress, there was a large courtyard surrounded by walls. And John writes in chapter 18:28, “ They led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.  So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?”  They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.”  Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
If you’ve read the book of John, this should be a confusing interaction, because Caiaphas killed people all the time. Pilate in the text says, basically, “Why are you bothering me with this? If you want to kill him, kill him.” Just in John’s account, the leaders of Jerusalem have already tried to kill Jesus several times. Paul, on Caiaphas’s orders kills Stephen just a few months after this moment. The chief priests are comfortable with killing. So why can they, all the sudden, not kill Jesus? The reason is in the first and last verses we just read: they didn’t want to make themselves unclean so they could eat the passover feast.
They wanted to remain ready to worship the Lord according to his law. If they did anything to make themselves unclean according to Levitical laws, they would need to stay home from the feast, which would have been a shame.
You see, the chief priests played a big part in the passover celebration. On the first and seventh day of the feast, all of Israel would gather at the temple for a holy assembly, led by the high priest. It was a big to-do. It was the reason Pilate was in town, it was the reason none of the chief priests want to enter even the courtyard of Pilate’s house, the reason why they didn’t even want to risk touching blood, or something dead. They wanted to keep themselves clean so they could participate in the feast, stand in front of the assembly of Israel and declare that because of the slain passover lamb, the people of Israel are spared from the wrath of God and free from bondage.
The irony is, of course, that while they are meticulous to follow some parts of the law—other laws, say against murder and bearing false witness—they break freely without even considering themselves unclean. They’re wearing just the right clothes to church, but on the way there, they’re murdering the son of God.
What they don’t see, what they don’t understand, is that Jesus is the passover lamb who has made himself unclean for them, who was allowing himself to be slain so they might be spared the wrath of God. He’s gone into Pilate’s house, accepted the shame they cast on him rather than defend himself, entered into death itself, became uncleanness itself, all for their sake. He took what they meant for evil: the idea that one man should die rather than the nations, and he intended it for good. He would die, one man, for the sake of his people, the firstborn brother for the sake of his family.
In killing Jesus, Caiaphas is performing the very act towards which uncleanness in the Old Testament points. The entire law, which Caiaphas is so desperate to uphold, is fulfilled in Christ, and Christ is the one Caiaphas is putting to death. In seeking to uphold righteousness, Caiaphas is killing the only righteous person. In seeking to uphold truth, Caiaphas is killing truth itself.
We do the exact same today when we consider the sins of other more serious than our own; when we make some sins so large that ours look small; when we hear sermons or read the Bible and think we are justified, and others should be ashamed; we do the exact same.
Caiaphas should have been the one people were shouting at. He should have borne the shame of the crucifixion. Jesus was an innocent man! The same Jewish law which, outwardly Caiaphas is so careful to uphold, dictates that Caiaphas should have died for falsely accusing someone of a capital crime. Caiaphas should have been the one dragged into the Roman governor’s house, made unclean for the feast—he already was unclean inwardly, where no one but God sees. He should have been excluded from the feast, sent outside the city walls, his kingship mocked, his priesthood stripped. Caiaphas was the one who deserved everything Christ received, so in every sense, Jesus died in Caiaphas’s place.
So, very simply, if we are Caiaphas, and Jesus died in Caiaphas’s place, then, of course, Jesus died in our place. Jesus died in our place.
I said, at the start of the sermon that my hope is we would begin to see pieces of ourselves in the men and women surrounding Jesus in the week before his death, to understand them and their part in bringing Christ to the cross, as a means of understanding our own part in the crucifixion of Christ.
When I tell you that Jesus died in your place, this is what I mean: we are the ones who have sinned and done wrong, done damage to the world. If anyone deserves to be ashamed, I deserve to be ashamed, because I’ve done shameful things. I’ve sinned in the world, I’m not perfect. There are things in my life—actions, inactions—I regret. Yet here I am in the assembly of God, able to stand and speak in church, approach him and worship before him—God, who is perfect—and he finds no fault in me. Jesus took my shame—I imagine myself, like Caiaphas laying my own sins on Christ, and Christ doesn’t defend himself. He bears it, he takes it on, for my sake, and he prays, “Father, forgive them.”
If anyone deserves to be put out of the church, out of the city, it’s me. Like Caiaphas, I’ve contributed to the oppressions of our city, to the disorder of it. I’ve seen things I knew were unjust and done nothing about them. I’ve cared more for myself than for my neighbors, and yet. Christ gave up his crown to give one to me, carried a cross to the outskirts of the city of God so that one day he could welcome me through those same gates to live with him in peace; he bore the wrath of the Father so I might be welcomed into the family.
And if anyone deserves to die, it’s me. Like Caiaphas I have rebelled against God himself, thinking that my rule and my law, my plans, should stand rather than God’s own. Under the pretense of upholding the law of God, in my legalism, in my clever excuses I make where I slip past what I know God is wanting me to do; with every sin, with everything I’ve done wrong, I have contributed, I am complicit in the death of Christ, because it’s my sin that held him there. Wanting to earn my own righteousness, I’ve killed righteousness, himself. Wanting to follow my own version of truth, I’ve made a mockery of truth, himself.
I would invite you this morning to confess; pray to the Holy Spirit for his work of conviction so that you are able to see your sin rightly and confess; to see yourself in Caiaphas, as he decides Christ should die instead of himself. As he accuses the Author of the law of breaking the law. As he demands the death of the only source of life in the world. Recognize yourself, and know, those mistakes you’ve made, those sins, the things you’ve done wrong, everything you’re ashamed of, everything you intended for evil, Jesus intended for good. He died in your place.
It pleased God to die in your place, to bear your shame, to suffer your exclusion, so he might give you life, and honor, and welcome you into the city and family of God. He bore guilt so that we could be forgiven. Pray with me.