Apparently, the Sanhedrin could not keep secret for long its intent to put Jesus to death, for in today’s passage we read that once those plans began, Jesus ceased to walk “openly among the Jews” (John 11:54). John clarifies this statement by stating that Jesus withdrew with His disciples to the town called Ephraim, so for Jesus not to walk openly meant that He would not be ministering in public in Jerusalem, at least for a little while. Ephraim is probably the same town as Ephron, which is mentioned in 2 Chronicles 13:19 and was about twelve miles outside of Jerusalem. So, Jesus went to a town that was far enough away from the Holy City that He would not be in imminent danger and yet was close enough for Him soon to return to Jerusalem, which is recorded in John 12.
Jesus’ withdrawal to Ephraim tells us two things. First, it indicates that our Savior did not put His fate in the hands of men. Christ came to die (3:14), but He would die at the time and place of His choosing. Though evil men would put Him to death, ultimately His destiny was in His own hands. He would lay down His life at the appropriate moment, and no one would take it from Him before then (10:18).
Second, Jesus’ retreat to Ephraim helps us think more critically about the issue of martyrdom and being willing to die for Christ. In church history, some people have sought out martyrdom or invited persecution. Certainly, we must be willing to die for our Savior if we are ever called upon to recant our faith, but that does not mean martyrdom is something we should purposefully seek. If even Jesus could seek to escape those who wanted to kill Him, that means we should not think there is inherent virtue in looking for martyrdom. It can be appropriate to flee persecution. In short, we are called to be faithful to Christ and His gospel. If that brings suffering, we must be prepared to endure it, but that does not mean we must go out of our way to find it.
John 11:55 indicates that Jesus left Jerusalem for Ephraim when “the Passover of the Jews” was at hand. This was the final Passover that would occur before Jesus’ death, and as we will see, it was during the celebration of this Passover that Jesus was crucified (chap. 18–19). In keeping with practices first reported in Numbers 9:1–14, many Jews were purifying themselves ceremonially so that they could keep the feast (John 11:55). Jesus was not among them. As the perfect Lamb of God, He had no defilement that needed cleansing.