This verse is well know and used, even beyond Christian circles. Many people say this statement having no idea that it’s a bible quote. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) In fact this is not just a bible quote, but a quote from Jesus… these are ‘red letter’ words.
Now if we back up a few chapters, we see the Jews conspiring to fulfill scripture without even knowing it. As Jesus was performing more and more miracles, and His followers were growing significantly, the Pharisees (ruling class) became nervous of what this would do to their current system of rule and balance. They had a pretty good thing. While they were subjects to Rome, they were allowed to rule themselves for the most part. Although they weren’t actual slaves like centuries before in Egypt, they were just as captive. They were under the oppressive authority of Cesar.
Now this man called Jesus shows up and begins to ‘upset the apple cart’. He is an uneducated man yet knows the scripture better than any priest. People are following Him and listening to Him, watching Him perform amazing miracles. Finally the miracle of miracles occurs, He raises Lazarus from the dead. As the Pharisees gather to discuss what do do, Caiaphas (the high priest) interjects. He literally shares the gospel of Christ in a couple sentences, without realizing it.
“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.” (John 11:47-53)
Although it was the fear of them losing power and the Romans fully taking over everything, the end result was the exact plan of God. Their irrational fear blinded them to the fulfillment of scriptures occurring before them, but that fear drove them to have ‘one man die for the people’. Caiaphas goes so far as to say that Jesus would not only die for the Jewish nation but for ALL children of God around the world.
And so Caiaphas sets in motion the plot to have Jesus put to death, not as punishment, but as a sacrifice to save all the children of God. Even in their own plot, Jesus did not die for any sin committed (although they used the charge of blasphemy to drive the process). But from the very beginning of the plan, this plot was NOT about punishment but was ALL about salvation. To the Pharisees, it was salvation from the Roman oppressors. But in reality, it was salvation from our own sin.
Jesus died for all who believe (all children of God). As we believe and are ‘adopted’ by God, we become His children. At that moment, Jesus’ death washes us clean.