The bulk of the chapter is the account of the death and resurrection of Jesus’ good friend Lazarus. It’s a fascinating tale. Jesus first delays in coming to Lazarus’ aid, suggesting, somewhat cryptically, that Lazarus will survive the illness (vv. 1-4). But once Jesus does arrive on the scene, his friend has already died and the whole matter becomes a crisis of faith for the witnesses. In the end, Lazarus emerges from the tomb smelling quite fresh and all appears well.
Then the story makes an interesting shift, away from Jesus directly, to the broader context. Some of those who witnessed this resurrection felt compelled to report it to the Pharisees (v. 46). The Pharisees, in turn, call a council with the chief priests (v. 47). The conversation that John records says something remarkable about resurrection’s meaning among first century Jews.
In verse 48, the situation is assessed. If Jesus continues doing what he’s doing, performing signs and wonders and whatnot, things will turn ugly for the Jews. These men at the top of Jewish society seemed to believe that if Jesus kept at it, then the Romans would soon bring trouble on the people, generally. Significantly, it’s the occurrence of a resurrection that prompts such a conversation.
What does this mean? Why would a resurrection strike fear in the hearts of Jewish religious and political leaders? Why would the Romans see Jesus as a threat worth subduing? Two things I’ll say in answer.
First, a word about what Jesus was shaping up to be. We can all agree that Jesus was regarded as a messianic figure. This is why the disciples were following him in the first place. Moreover, his choice of twelve disciples (twelve new tribes of Israel) points toward this role. The many signs and wonders he performed had people whispering, Could this be the messiah? The result was more and more people attaching themselves to his cause, or “believing in him.” By nature, a messiah of Israel is also a political figure, a king, in fact, along the lines of David. And anyone claiming to be a king (or even doing the things a potential king might do) is a natural threat to the incumbent ruler – in this case, Caesar.
Second, resurrection is specifically a threat to any entrenched powers. This is less and less the case among today’s liberal governments, but the ultimate weapon that any political authority has over its subjects is the death penalty. Debate the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrence all you want, but if a king doesn’t like what you’re doing, he can very easily just kill you and all your followers. Problem solved. Indeed, the Romans were not bashful about such a tactic.
But what if someone were roaming the kingdom raising the dead? What if someone were undoing the king’s edicts of capital punishment? Well, you can see how any ruler would have to restrict such a powerful person. If death and the threat of death is going to continue to exert control over the populace, one who resurrects the dead must be stopped.