Jesus—His Life and Message: The Pharisees Plot

November 10, 2020

by Peter Amsterdam

The Gospel of John provides a behind-the-scenes look at a meeting of the Jewish leadership as they deliberated what to do about Jesus and planned a course of action. Prior to this meeting, we read of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead1 and we are told that many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.2 What follows is the response of the Jewish leadership.

The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”3 

Jesus was becoming very popular among the people because He was healing the sick and had raised Lazarus from the dead. Because His growing popularity threatened their position as the religious leadership of Israel, these men gathered to discuss ways to eliminate the problem.

It’s not clear whether this “Council” included the complete Sanhedrin—which consisted of 71 members, with the high priest as the chief officer—or if it was an informal meeting of only some members of the Sanhedrin. In any case, this group gathered to discuss what to do about Jesus, as the success of His ministry was a threat to their religious and political power. Throughout this Gospel they had confronted Jesus, challenged His teaching, and tried to discredit Him, but to no avail. He kept on teaching and doing miracles, and had now raised Lazarus from the dead. These men recognized the miracles that Jesus had done, but rather than embracing Him, they felt His popularity would bring political repercussions at the hands of the Romans.

The chief priests and Pharisees were clearly concerned about preserving the status quo, as they were members of the Sanhedrin and had power and privilege within the state. It was to their advantage that Jesus’ ministry be eliminated in order to keep His influence from challenging their standing with Rome.

One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”4

Joseph Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, who had been the previous high priest. Caiaphas was high priest from about AD 18 to AD 36, so saying that he was high priest that year referred to his being high priest in the year of Jesus’ death.

Caiaphas spoke condescendingly to the members of the Sanhedrin, saying you know nothing at all, implying that he understood what they did not. He went on to point out that it was to their advantage that this one man, Jesus, be the scapegoat who would die so that the whole nation wouldn’t be lost. Author Leon Morris wrote:

Neither Caiaphas nor the others were basically concerned for the abstract right and wrong, nor yet for the nation as a whole. But the position of the privileged class is threatened and their action would save this privileged class.5

Another author notes:

The guardians of the sacred traditions of Israel were reduced to the level of political functionaries. … Right had become equated with the avoidance of trouble and the preservation of their hold on power.6

The Gospel writer now veers from the story in order to comment on Caiaphas’s statement:

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.7

In this particular instance, Caiaphas prophesied about Jesus’ sacrificial death for both the Jews and the Gentiles who would come to Him from all over the world. This didn’t mean that Caiaphas was considered to be a prophet, but rather that on this one occasion he “prophesied”—that is, he spoke for God.8

We’re told that Jesus was “going to die for the nation.” However, this was not to be understood in the sense that His death would deliver Israel from the oppression of Rome; but rather that He would “die for the nation” redemptively, as He would “lay down His life for His sheep.”

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.9

I lay down my life for the sheep.10

Jesus’ death was a death for others, a substitutionary death. His death wasn’t only for the people of Israel, but also for the children of God who are scattered abroad.

Having made these points, the Gospel writer returns to the gathering of those discussing what measures should be taken regarding Jesus and the conclusion that they came to.

So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.11

The council, which included the high priest, Caiaphas, agreed that it was expedient that Jesus die; and they began plotting how to put their plan into action.

Earlier in this Gospel, we saw that some had come to the conclusion that Jesus must die.

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.12

He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.13

You seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did.14 

However, this time was different, as the chief priest and at least some members of the Sanhedrin had agreed in a semi-official act that Jesus must be killed, and He was now clearly in danger. This point is also made in the Gospel of Matthew:

Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.15

Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples.16

We’re not told how Jesus became aware that the council was making plans to put Him to death, but from that time forward He took precautions for His safety. In this instance, He went to the city of Ephraim. The exact location of this town is unknown, but it is thought to have been situated to the northeast of Jerusalem. What we do know is that the town of Ephraim was a safer place for Jesus than Jerusalem.

The statement that Jesus no longer walked openly among the Jews expresses that He didn’t stay in the vicinity of Jerusalem. It is similar to other statements in the Gospel of John where Jesus had to take precautions both to save His life and avoid arrest.

After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.17

They picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.18

Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.19

By going to the town of Ephraim with His disciples, Jesus was safe—at least for the time being.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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2 John 11:45–46.

3 John 11:47–48.

4 John 11:49–50.

5 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 503.

6 Milne, The Message of John, 173.

7 John 11:51–52.

8 Michaels, The Gospel of John, 652.

9 John 10:11.

10 John 10:15.

11 John 11:53.

12 John 5:18.

13 John 7:1.

14 John 8:40.

15 Matthew 26:3–4.

16 John 11:54.

17 John 7:1.

18 John 8:59.

19 John 10:39.