John’s gospel expressed with great clarity the interplay in Caiaphas of carrying out God’s will and blind self-seeking. While the Council members were perplexed as to what should be done in view of the danger posed by the movement surrounding Jesus, Caiaphas made the decisive intervention saying: “You do not understand that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish” (Jn 11: 50). Author of John’s gospel points to this statement as a “prophetic utterance” that Caiaphas through the charism of his office as high priest, and not of his own accord.
The immediate consequence of Caiaphas’ statement was this: until that moment, the assembled Council had held back in fear from a death sentence, looking for other ways out of the crisis (admittedly without finding a solution). Only a theologically motivated declaration from the high priest could dispel their doubts and prepare them in principle for such a momentous decision.
On the surface, the content of Caiaphas’ prophecy is thoroughly pragmatic. It seems reasonable from his point of view: if the people can be saved through the death of one man and in no other way, then this individual’s death might seem the lesser evil and the politically correct path. But what on the surface and is intended to be merely pragmatic acquires an entirely new depth on the basis of its “prophetic” quality, which the author of John’s gospel points out in deliberation. The one man, Jesus, dies for the nation. The mystery of vicarious atonement shines forth because of its “prophetic” quality. It is this that constitutes the most profound content of Jesus’ mission.
After this pronouncement of Caiaphas, which was tantamount to a death sentence, the author of John’s gospel added a further comment from the perspective of the disciples’ faith. First he makes it clear that the reference to dying for the people was a prophetic utterance. Then he goes on to say that Jesus would die, “not for the nation only, but to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad” (Jn 11: 52). On first sight this seems a thoroughly Jewish manner of seeing events. It expresses the hope that in the messianic age, the Israelites scattered around the world would be gathered together in their own land.
On the lips of the evangelist this saying takes a new meaning. The gathering is oriented no longer toward a specific geographical territory, but toward the growth into unity of the children of God. The gathering is directed toward the unity of all believers. Thus it points ahead to the community of the Church and even beyond, toward definitive eschatological unity.