2403) Understanding Caiaphas


Caiaphas, James Tissot  (1836-1902)


John 11:47-50  — The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin.  “What are we accomplishing?” they asked.  “Here is this man performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”  Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all!  You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”


     Jesus was not the first Jewish man to claim that he was the Messiah.  For many people at that time the word Messiah had political overtones.  In Israel there was a close intertwining of the political and the religious.  The underground Jewish independence movement in the first century saw, in the Old Testament prophecies of a coming Messiah, one who would lead a rebellion against the Roman occupation forces.

     The Israelites were always fiercely independent, unwilling to accept anyone else’s rule in their land.  They resented the pagan Roman soldiers with their pagan insignias plastered all over everything, including the temple.  These revolutionaries believed that with God on their side, they could defeat even the power of Rome.  They just needed the promised Messiah to lead them.

     Not everyone in Israel felt that way, of course.  Many, in fact, had no such political ambitions, nor did they have that understanding of the Messiah.  The religious leaders had a very different approach to the Roman presence.  They also despised the Romans, but they were a little better at facing the facts.  They knew that no small, untrained, and unequipped band of revolutionaries would be able to dislodge the world’s most powerful military force.  Rebellion would only anger the Romans, and then it would be worse for everyone.

     So while the revolutionaries were looking for one messiah after another to lead the revolt, the religious leaders felt it was their duty to protect the people from these crackpot messiahs.  There had already been a couple of these false Messiahs who led revolts that were crushed (see Acts 5:29-40).  The religious leaders wanted to get along with the Romans as well as they could.  So the opposition Jesus faced from the religious leaders wasn’t simply because they were evil and stupid.  As time went on, their blindness and refusal to face the facts about Jesus became ridiculous, and then evil.  But at first they had good reasons to be cautious.  To them, Jesus was just the latest in a long line of lunatics upsetting everything for no good purpose.  They believed it was their duty to protect the people from his type.

     Caiaphas was the top religious leader, the high priest in Jerusalem.  Caiaphas was the one man who was, most of all, responsible for the execution of Jesus.  Several months earlier he had already expressed his wish that Jesus be arrested and killed.  It was Caiaphas who arranged for that arrest, and then questioned Jesus before the Jewish ruling council.  Caiaphas declared Jesus guilty and then insisted that he be crucified for blasphemy.  And it was Caiaphas who brought Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor who was in command of such things.  Caiaphas then forced Pilate’s hand to approve of, and then carry out, the sentence of execution.

     Caiaphas would have seen himself as the protector of the traditional religion.  In previous conflicts with the Romans, Caiaphas had proven to be a fearless defender of the faith of his ancestors against the challenges of the pagan soldiers.

     I am also big on defending the one true faith, so I would have been with him on that.  But for Caiaphas and the religious establishment of Jesus day, the protections around that one true faith had grown into an endless list of laws and rules and obligations.  That all had come to have the effect of not protecting, but killing and burying the life and spirit and truth of the old time religion.  Therefore, some of the harshest words of Jesus in the Gospels were directed at these chief priest and other religious leaders.

     The main hope of the old time religion was that someday God would send a Messiah to save the people from their sins.  That was the religious hope that many people had, as opposed to the political hopes of the revolutionaries.  What this Messiah would do and look like wasn’t exactly spelled out in the Old Testament, but many people were beginning to see that hope fulfilled in the person of Jesus.  They were ready to believe that he was the one that the Jews had been anticipating for centuries.

     Caiaphas, however, never considered that possibility.  Not even after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, just outside of Jerusalem and in full view of a crowd that included some of the religious leaders; not even then would Caiaphas open his heart and mind to the possibility that Jesus was indeed, from God.

    We cannot know with certainty what was going on in Caiaphas’s heart, but for whatever reason, he had one agenda for Jesus, and that was to have him killed in order to protect the religious establishment.  Matthew 26:3-4 says, “Then the chief priest and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him.”

     Of those who played a part in the last week of Jesus’ life, it is only Caiaphas’s agenda that is completely followed.  Caiaphas’s use of his own power and his manipulation of Pilate’s power got him exactly what he wanted– the elimination of Jesus.

   In God’s providence it turned out that Caiaphas’s wicked agenda also accomplished God’s perfect agenda.  In John chapter 11, right after the report reached Caiaphas that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd, several religious leaders asked,: “What shall we do?  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away our nation.”  Well, Romans or no Romans, it was indeed God’s intention that everyone would believe in Jesus.  But that was not the intention of Caiaphas, so he replied, “You know nothing at all.  Don’t you realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish?”

     Yes, for “one man to die for the people” was just what God had in mind.