So 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.” But 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.” 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. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.
Another clear verse that clearly demonstrates the truth of Limited Atonement! I am dumbfounded that non-Calvinists can so boldly claim that Jesus died for each and every person when this verse clearly says he died only for the “children of God.” Obviously they are just reading the Bible through their own theological lens and missing what it actually says!
Some that have already read the passage carefully will see that I am poking a bit of fun at my Calvinist brothers (and sisters). For those of you that did not read the passage carefully, we will get to it in this post. But even though I have added a touch of irony to my version of the “Calvinist challenge” on these verses, it is completely accurate. The exasperation that my Calvinist brethren feel towards those of us who have not seen the beauty of the “doctrines of grace” is genuine. Because of this until now I have only had one Calvinist acknowledge that I even understand Calvinism. Many others have said I don’t have a clue what Calvinists believe. The assumption seems to be, if I had really understood the “doctrines of grace” I would have embraced them. I guess the only other option is that I saw them but chose to resist them. Sorry, I’m in light-hearted mood today, so I will ask any Calvinist readers to just give me the benefit of the doubt and assume I am laughing with them and not at them😉
Several times Calvinists have referred me to this passage in the midst of a discussion on the doctrine of limited atonement. But after being referred to it, I have trouble getting them to admit what it says. Since my blog posts are mostly a one way conversation I will take some time in this setting to walk through these few verses and point out how they actually refute limited atonement.
Saving the Whole Nation
The dialogue in these verses was spoken soon after Lazarus had been raised from the dead. Since many people were believing in Jesus because of that event, the religious leaders were afraid that everyone would proclaim Jesus the King of Israel (i.e. Messiah). This would have disastrous effects on the nation in general and the privileges of the leaders in particular. Rome would surely crush such treason and the leaders would be held doubly accountable. In order to avoid all of this Caiaphas suggested nipping any such rebellion in the bud by killing Jesus. In this way the peace would be kept and the nation would be saved.
John tells us that Caiaphas words have a meaning that he did not intend. In fact, he says that these words were a prophecy from God (i.e. “not on his own accord”). Indeed Jesus would die to save the nation as Caiaphas suggested, but not in the sense that he meant. Jesus would die to save them from their sins, not from the Roman government. This is quite in line with Matthew 1:21 which declares that Christ was given the name Jesus because he would “save his people from their sins.”
I have had one friend say to me, but dying for “the nation” in John 11:51 means for “the elect.” In one sense this is true, he was talking about “the elect” in the sense of God’s Old Testament chosen people. There is no honest way to say that John is referring to any group of people other than the nation that Caiaphas is referring to (i.e. Israel according to the flesh). Others will try to say but he is only talking about the elect within that nation. But verse 50 completely rules that out. Caiaphas was talking about saving “the whole nation.”
So in John 11:50-51 John says that Jesus Christ died to save the entire nation of Israel. Peter says as much to the Jews in Acts 3:36, “God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” And he reiterates this in Acts 5:31, “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” Jesus is the Savior of Israel whether they receive that salvation or not!
“But then you are saying Jesus failed since not all Jews have been saved,” my Calvinist friends will retort. Not at all, but I am saying, as the Bible makes clear that salvation is not unilaterally given by the King, but must be received through turning from our sins back to God and placing our trust in him as the Savior of all men. Jesus came to his own people the Jews to save them from their sin, but they rejected him. But as many as received him he gave the right to become children of God, whether Jew or Gentile (John 1:11-13). He did not fail to gather them under his wings, but they refused to be gathered (Luke 13:34). God allowing men to refuse the provision and offer of salvation is not a failure on his part, but a sovereign decree that we as mere clay should not question the Potter about (Mark 16:16, Romans 9:20).
Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Day of Atonement. He died as a sacrifice for the whole nation of Israel. But just as in the Old Testament one did not benefit from the national sacrifice if they did not meet the conditions of turning to God and placing their trust in his provision and mercy, neither will any Jew benefit from the Savior’s atoning sacrifice unless they repent and believe.
I don’t imagine this breakdown of John 11:50-51 is acceptable to any of my beloved Calvinist brethren, but I do hope that it helps those not committed to Reformed Theology understand that these verses are not a reason to make such a commitment.
Gathering the Children of God
“Aha, but Jesus did not die for all the people of the world, because verse 52 says that Jesus only died for the sins of the ‘children of God’ (i.e. the predestined elect),” I hear hearts mumbling in triumph. (Again, sorry I am being so sarcastic today, I hope it will be taken as it is meant, in light-hearted humor. If you take it in any other way you are not permitted to comment on this post;) Please re-read verses 51-52 again very carefully. I will give you a minute. Times up! I hope you note that it did not say, “Jesus died for the children of God scattered abroad.” Much less did it say that “he died ONLY for the children of God scattered abroad.” But it did say that he died “to gather” the scattered children of God. This passage is saying Jesus died to save the whole nation of Israel and also to gather the children of God that were scattered abroad. So what could this mean?
The fact that Jesus died to gather these individuals is clear. But who these “children of God” are is not so clear for some of us, including me. I can see only two possible biblical options.
1. They are the Gentiles that would come to faith in Christ.
2. They are faithful covenant-keeping Jews scattered abroad in the Diaspora.
The best verse in the broad context to defend the first view would be John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” This verse connects the death of Christ with the gathering of people from Gentiles from all over the world. If this verse is parallel with John 11:52 then we see that the death of Jesus would be the means of attracting all nations to the truth that is found in Jesus. In that way of thinking, this verse would tell us that it is through the message of the Cross that the “children of God” would be gathered together with the believing remnant of Israel.
Some will say, “This proves unconditional election!” It only gives support for unconditional election if one is willing to say that unsaved Gentiles are children of God before they come to faith in Christ. But Jesus tells us that people who sin are slaves to the Devil. And Paul tells us that before we were children of God we were all children of wrath. And John tells us in John 1:12 that it is through believing that we become children of God. So there is no way that I am aware of to say that sinful, unbelieving Gentiles were children of God before they believed unless one holds to the hyper-Calvinist teaching of eternal justification (i.e. the elect were born justified because they were already justified from the foundations of the world). And I doubt my readers hold that doctrine.
So if the phrase “children of God” cannot be applied to unbelieving Gentiles it can only be applied to believing Gentiles. But of course before the Gospel came to them they could not believe in Christ. It is written, “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). So if John is using this phrase about unbelieving Gentiles he can only be saying that through Jesus’ death, and the message about that death, he will gather those who become God’s children through faith into the fold of Israel. As Paul says elsewhere, those Gentiles who believe will be “grafted into” Israel (Romans 11). In this case he would be speaking in a general and futuristic way, not a definite present sense. He would not be saying they are now the children of God, but many will become children of God and then be gathered.
I don’t know if I can accept this interpretation or not. The strongest evidence that can be given for it is from John 12:32. One could also appeal to John 10:16, where Jesus says he will gather “other sheep,” but I could not include that as evidence because I believe Jesus is referring to the Jewish Diaspora and the Old Testament promises of reunification in John 10:16. So I will leave the reader to wrestle with that.
In John 11:51-52 John says the death of Jesus is the means by which Jesus will gather together the scattered children of God. Above we considered the opinion that the “children of God” refers to unbelieving Gentiles. I believe that is a possible interpretation. But on the other hand there is a sense in which the children of Israel were the “children of God.” In fact in John 8 the Pharisees claim to be not only children of Israel but also children of God. Jesus of course rejects their claim and tells them that if they were truly children of God (i.e. faithful covenant-keeping Jews living in obedience to God) they would come to faith in Christ. But since they were actually rebellious Israelites, they were children of the Devil doing his bidding.
At the time of Christ’s ministry there were men who were living blameless lives in accordance with the Law of Moses. Men like Nathaniel of whom Jesus said, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit” (John 1:47). And people like Zechariah and Elizabeth who were “both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). Since these were faithful to the covenant God had given Israel there was a sense in which they could be called “the children of God.” After all, Israel was “the son” of God, and to Israel “belong the adoption” (Hosea 11:1, Matthew 2:15, Romans 9:4).
Of course if John is using “children of God” in the Old Covenant sense, that is somewhat different from how he uses it in John 1:12 when he talks about “becoming children of God.” But I will leave the reader to wrestle with the subtle nuances of the phrase, since I have enough trouble understanding it myself.
In John 10:16 Jesus says that he has “other sheep not of this fold” that he must gather in order to make “one flock.” This has great similarity with John 11:51-52. And these verses bring to mind Old Testament passages like Ezekiel 37:21-22 and Micah 2:12.
I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob; I will gather the remnant of Israel; I will set them together like sheep in a fold, like a flock in its pasture, a noisy multitude of men.
Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer divided into two kingdoms.
Looking at the phrase “children of God” from this Jewish perspective we could understand John, in John 11:50-52, trying to communicate that Jesus’ death for the nation of Israel was not only to save the Israelites by “turning them from their sins,” but also as a fulfillment of the national hopes of Israel (Acts 3:36). Jesus was not only saving individual believers, but was fulfilling Old Testament promises of reunification and return from exile.
In light of the Diaspora (i.e. the scattering of Jews all over the world), Old Testament prophesies and the Christian belief that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament hopes and ended the exile, I find this interpretation more compelling. In light of this John would be saying that Jesus’ death not only saves Israel from their sins, but is also the means by which the “children of God” who have been “scattered” by the exile can be “gathered” back into one people with one King. Though they are still living throughout the world, they are united under the Messiah.
John 11:50-52 cannot be appealed to in order to defend the doctrine of limited atonement. These verses contradict that doctrine. Jesus died for the “whole nation” of Israel, even the ones who will perish in their sins. It must also be noted that this verse does not say Jesus “died to save the children of God,” much less, “died to save ONLY the children of God.” Instead it says that he died to “gather” the children of God who had been scattered abroad.
If one tries to appeal to the phrase “children of God” in order to prove unconditional election, he would have to couple that doctrine with the hyper-Calvinist doctrine of eternal justification, which I am sure most of my Calvinist brothers and sisters would wish to distance themselves from. Without the predestinarian interpretation as an option we are left to decide whether the “children of God” refers to those who would become children of God through the preaching of the Cross (John 12:32), or to those faithful covenant-keeping Jews that were scattered throughout the world because of the Diaspora. It is hard for me to decide for sure which he means. John 10 would lead us to faithful Jews, John 12 to unbelieving Gentiles. The term scattered reminds us of the Diaspora, but the contrast with “the whole nation” would make us think it refers to the Gentiles that were to be saved. I have to delay my judgment and I will leave the reader to his/her own.