They were plotting to kill Lazarus. Yes, the same Lazarus whom Jesus had recently raised from the dead. John has been signaling in his gospel since Chapter 7 that the religious leaders had murderous thoughts about Jesus. Now in chapter 12 he reports that many Jews, after learning where Jesus was, wanted to come see him along with the newly-raised Lazarus (that P.T. Barnum instinct…strong in first-century Palestine). John then lets this drop in verse 10: “The chief priests decided that they would kill Lazarus too.”
(At this point I hear in my head that jarring needle-scratching-record sound they used to use on the old “Ally McBeal” TV show.) WHAT? The man has just been raised from the grave! He’s still trying to get that dead-stink off his skin and his insurance company on the phone—and now you want to kill him again? Why? In verse 11 John adds: “It was because of Lazarus that many of the Jews had deserted them and come to believe in Jesus.”
John 11 tells the backstory. Lazarus had fallen sick and died in Judea, the power center of religious leaders who were against the growing new movement. Jesus travels into the heart of opposition territory to raise his friend from the dead, despite his disciples’ fears that he will be assassinated. At the dramatic end of the story, Jesus commands Lazarus to come out from the tomb – and he does! While many who witness this astounding event then follow Jesus, John notes that “some went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.” (vs. 45-46)
Let that sink in.
Imagine the TV news reporter holding out a microphone to an eyewitness. “You’ve just seen the only human being ever, dead and buried for four days, come walking out of a stone-sealed tomb. Tell us what went through your mind.” “Gee, I don’t know, but this sure looks bad for the Pharisees.” A reaction like this only makes sense if these people regarded the Lazarus event as “fake news,” or a false flag to gin up Jesus’ following.
So how does Team Pharisee counter the fact that their enemy is raising people from the dead? The religious leaders ratchet things up with some always effective fearmongering. They have their cable TV hosts begin the drumbeat: “If we let [Jesus] go on like this, everyone will believe in him. Then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our people” (John 11:48). This amplifies everyone’s anxiety to existential levels, directing it squarely at Jesus, making it seem as if he is the enemy of Israel. As that message dominates the news cycle for a few days, Caiaphas, the current president of the chief priests, then tweets this out to his followers: “Don’t you see that it is better for you that one man die for the people rather than the whole nation be destroyed?” (John 11:50).
Here’s today’s parallel: “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,” as Trump told his mob on January 6. Sounds like Franklin Graham in early January (as Kathy Edin wrote in this forum). Graham declared, “If conservatives lose control of the Senate, there is nothing to stop the radical agenda of the left. There will not be another chance to get this right. The nation is depending on you.” Message: “The Romans (Democrats) will come and take away our temple (Christian nation).”
This provides a recipe for getting innocent people killed: Leaders who exaggerate the people’s fears to keep their power, plus followers who will justify anything to avoid these worst-case scenarios. The plot against Lazarus ultimately failed, and mercifully only a few people lost their lives in the Capitol on January 6th. It could have been much, much worse.
We must recognize that underlying these violent acts is a pernicious myth. Historian Richard Hofstadter, writing just after the McCarthy era, called out the “paranoid style” in American politics. These leaders always see “conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—[they] traffic in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. [They are] constantly manning the barricades of civilization.”
Specifically – the barricades of Christian civilization. As Tish Harrison Warren wrote in Christianity Today, “The storming of the Capitol cannot be understood outside the heresy of Christian nationalism peddled by the likes of Josh Hawley, Franklin Graham, and Robert Jeffress; the unhinged apocalyptic Trump-worship of Eric Metaxas; the blasphemies of the Jericho March; and the millions of evangelicals who see Jesus as a means to ill-conceived ideas of American greatness.”
We saw it with our own eyes on January 6. They came with military-grade weapons under “Jesus Saves” banners alongside Confederate, Trump, and American flags. Chants of “Hang Mike Pence” drowned out the strains of Christian music and a make-shift gallows meant for Democratic traitors eclipsed the rough wooden cross carried by rioters.
If we don’t fight against the lie of Christian Nationalism and call out the leaders who peddle it, we will see more collateral damage. And it could be far worse next time.