Celebrations of Easter usually begin with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. But the events of Passion Week cannot be understood without backing up to the event just a few days earlier in Bethany, just over the hill to the east of Jerusalem. That event was the raising of Lazarus at the home and at the behest of Martha and Mary (John 11:3).
Jesus had been a bit slow in coming (11:6), perhaps deliberately so (11:15). Trouble was in the wind. Surely Jesus and his disciples sensed the dangers that lay ahead. Thomas whispered to the other disciples, “Let us also go [to Bethany], that we may die” too (11:16). On the way there, Jesus would famously affirm to Martha, “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live” (11:25).
This personal favor, offered by Jesus to Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, all of whom he loved (11:5), is reported is detail in John 11, right before the account of Jesus’s anointing in Bethany and entry into Jerusalem in John 12. The raising of Lazarus was a newsworthy event, in and of itself. The death of Lazarus was a conspicuous event, since his family had some wealth, a family tomb, and social connections. Many Jews had come to mourn with Mary (11:19, 31), and some of them were well connected with leading Pharisees in Jerusalem (11:45-46). Many of these leading Jews in Jerusalem “had seen the things which Jesus did” and they “believed on him” (11:45). The news spread immediately and was acted upon quickly (11:48).
With this as background, it is not hard to imagine why a large multitude of people would have followed Jesus into Jerusalem shouting Hosanna! Save us now! John makes it clear that the crowd was especially excited by the raising of Lazarus. The people who were “with him when he called Lazarus out of his grave, and raised him from the dead” were talking openly and strongly and did “bear record,” and for that reason (“for this cause”) the people in the Holy City came out and “also met him, for that they heard that he had done this miracle” (12:17-18).
Moreover, without seeing the raising of Lazarus as background to the Passion Week, it is perhaps even harder to imagine why the chief priests were able, by the end of the week, to turn Jesus’s popularity into utter abandonment by the crowd. The leaders in Jerusalem were poised and ready to move tactically to arrest Jesus, condemn him, take him to Pilate, accuse him, get permission to execute him, and complete the crucifixion, start to finish, all within about ten hours’ time.
How could that have happened? Perhaps the raising of Lazarus, which was the greatest and most closely observed of all of Jesus’s miracles, was simply too powerful, too convincing, too threatening, or too unusual, and at the same time too close to Jerusalem for it have been ignored, one way or the other. Either it was the greatest manifestation ever seen of divine power in the temple district, or it was the most deceptive act ever imagined by a clever imposter. While many saw it the first way and believed on Jesus, others continued to fear that Jesus had tricked or was “deceiv[ing] the people” (John 7:12, 47). Right after Jesus had raised Lazarus, “some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done” (11:46). This report, which must have been tantamount to the filing of a legal notice (see Leviticus 5:1), had already galvanized the deep division between the two extremes that confronted Jesus as he humbly rode into Jerusalem on the day after his last ordinary Sabbath.
Indeed, before that triumphal day, important legal steps had already been set in motion. John 11:47 reports: “Then gathered the chief priests and Pharisees a council (synedrion).” More than just getting together for an informal conversation or committee meeting, this assembly must have been something of an official gathering, the calling of a session of the Sanhedrin with both parties, the chief priests (the Sadducees) and the Pharisees involved. What was their concern? They wondered “What do we do?” They felt the need to take action. They readily recognized that Jesus had not just worked miracles, but that his many miracles constituted signs, pointing to something more than just doing good. The Sanhedrin found that Jesus in fact had given “many signs” (polla sēmeia). Although not mentioned by John, it would have been well known among these legal scholars and administrators that, according to the law, if these signs or wonders led people to “go after other gods,” then those miracles were evil and the wonderworker was to “be put to death” (Deuteronomy 13:2, 5).
As they discussed the case of Jesus and Lazarus, some argued, “If we let [Jesus] thus alone (aphōmen, or if we allow him to go on in this way, or forgive him, or condone his conduct), everyone will believe on him and “the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (11:48). They feared that “the place” (ton topon, or the temple) and the people (to ethnos, the people of Israel) would be arousin, a strong word meaning to be destroyed, taken away, swept off, conquered by force, even by killing.
Caiphas, the high priest, however, rejected these arguments (saying “Ye know nothing at all”) and made his case based on logic (logizesthe), that it would be better, advantageous, or helpful for us that one man die on behalf of the people, rather than for the whole Jewish nation to be destroyed (11:50). The Gospel of John makes a point that Caiphas did not say as his own personal opinion, but acting officially as the High Priest (11:51). He authoritatively (even if unwittingly) prophesied that Jesus would die for the people, and not just for the people but so that the scattered children of God could be gathered unto that One (11:52).
This gathering and these words have a ring of legal finality to them. Thus the Gospel of John continues, “Then from that day forth they took counsel (ebouleusanto, or were legally resolved together) that they would kill him. Even though this deliberation was conducted without the accused being present, a strong consensus had been reached.
This is significant for several reasons. In the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the trial of Jesus, such as it was, occurs after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. But in John, there is no legal trial in John 18. There, Jesus was taken from the Garden of Gethsemane to Annas (where no real trial takes place) and then to Pilate (where he was accused). Thus the question often asked, where is the Jewish trial in the Gospel of John? The answer may well be in John 11. There we have a convening of the Sanhedrin, formal accusations, deliberation, reasoning, and even reaching of a verdict. This reading of John is confirmed in several ways.
Following that decision, an order was issued that anyone who knew of Jesus’s whereabouts needed to report that information so that he could be captured. “Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment, that, if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him” (11:57). This order treated Jesus as a dangerous, wanted criminal. In the meantime, Jesus withdrew and went into seclusion: He “walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near to the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim, and there continued with his disciples” (11:54).
Moreover, plans for the arrest of Lazarus were also contemplated: And “the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus” (12:10-11). Presumably in the view of the legal authorities, Lazarus was either an accomplice to, or was at least a witness of, what Jesus had done in raising him from the tomb, which some of the Jews had decided was some kind of legally actionable trick or magical conjuring of the dead.
Although Jesus was not present at that proceeding, none of the members of the Sanhedrin doubted the factual accuracy of the allegations against Jesus, and neither does the Gospel of John doubt that Jesus worked many controversial miracles. Upon his arrest, Jesus presumably would have been given told about the legal determination that had been reached against him, with perhaps a chance to recant and change his behavior. Something like that opportunity was given to Jesus in John 18:19-23, but on that occasion no one felt any need to reconvene the entire Sanhedrin to vote again on something that they had previously decided.
The determination and action of the chief priests would not have come as any surprise to Jesus. The day before the triumphal entry, many of the Jews “knew that Jesus was” again in Bethany, “and they came not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus also, whom he had raised from the dead” (12:9). Those Jews would have known about the arrest warrant, and probably told Jesus that the chief priests and Pharisees wanted to capture him.
Then entering the Temple the day after his triumphal entry, Jesus was immediately confronted by the chief priests and the elders who asked him: “By what authority doest thou these things? And who gave thee this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). These were questions Jesus had been asked before, when the scribes (lawyers) had come up from Jerusalem to Galilee at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. On that previous occasion, the lawyers had come to investigate by which “authority” (Mark 1:27) Jesus was performing his miracles. If he performed miracles by the power of God and to God’s glory, his miracles were beyond reproach. But if it was “by the prince of the devils [that he] casteth he out devils” (Mark 3:22), then he was committing a capital offense for which he could be put to death.
By asking this very question once again of Jesus right after the raising of Lazarus, the chief priests and the elders would have been acting on the assurance that his many signs and wonders, and most recently of all his conspicuous raising of Lazarus, now warranted his death. And having been confronted by this very challenge on previous occasions, Jesus could well have anticipated—as he walked toward Bethany to answer the plea of his dear friends to come and heal their dying brother Lazarus—that by openly raising Lazarus from the dead, he was effectively signing his own death warrant.