A person who was trying to sell me something recently accused me of not being a Christian (essentially because I did not buy his product), so I asked him to define what a Christian is. He really didn’t know, but he said something about being kind to others. That is nice and appropriate, but if that is to be the sum of it, it is not what the Bible teaches.
And that brings me to our verse today. It is an odd verse and does not get much attention. It appears in John 11 where Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. Many people believed in Jesus because of that, and this troubled the religious leaders. The high priest, Caiaphas, reminded them that he had prophesied earlier that one person needed to die for the nation. It seems odd that he would say that; he certainly did not say it as a friend of Jesus but rather in the general interest of one person taking punishment so the Romans would not judge the nation of Jews.
John 11:51-52 (English Standard Version): “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”
But notice with me several points he made. First, he spoke of Jesus dying for someone else. The particular word translated “for” here in English can have the sense of ‘in place of’ or ‘instead of.’ Theologians call this substitutionary atonement. Someone can die in such a way as to provide a benefit to someone else. Since Jesus was sinless, He could pay the death penalty for the sins of others. Then Romans 5:17 and 1 Corinthians 1:30 point out that in connection with Jesus’ sacrificial death, He gave His righteousness to those who believe in Him; those are then acceptable in heaven.
Second, when he spoke of the “nation,” he meant the nation of the Jews. The Jews did not possess a free, sovereign nation at the time as they were a part of the Roman Empire, yet they did have some level of self-rule in that arrangement. But then he mentioned others outside that nation. Did he mean Jews not living in Judea? He could have, or he could have wanted it to mean that. But if he was truly prophesying, God’s meaning was likely that Jesus’ death would impact others besides Jews, also. I am grateful that His death impacted Jews and me!
Third, he said that the purpose of Jesus’ death would be to gather into one the children of God. What kind of oneness is this? Of spirit, of belief, of location? You could make other suggestions. Is it a oneness right here and now? Is it an ultimate oneness? We do know that Revelation 21:3 promises a time when there will be a New Jerusalem where God dwells with His people. Perhaps that is the oneness of which he spoke even if he himself did not comprehend it.
Caiaphas did not give us a definition of salvation from eternal condemnation. But he hinted at it. However we describe the salvation God offers us, it is connected to the death of Jesus. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 in giving a succinct definition of the gospel puts it this way: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” There are three steps here, and the last two are dependent on the first, His death. It is rather important.
So if you are asked what a Christian is, you really should include something about the death of Jesus. It’s an important part of the definition. It’s His death that was the sacrifice for sins. Being polite has its benefits, and I’m all for it. But the only politeness that really counts is that which grows out of believing the good news about Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection and as a consequence being transformed by His Spirit.