John's Passion Narrative appears in John 18 and 19. There are three major sections in his treatment of Jesus' Passion. The first, John 18:1-27, encompasses the arrest of Jesus, the interrogation before the high priest, and Peter's denial. The second major section, John 18:28-19:16a, deals with Jesus' trial before Pilate. The trial unfolds in seven scenes or episodes that alternate between being outside and inside the Praetorium. The final major section of the Passion Narrative occupies John 19:16b-42. The crucifixion of Jesus and his burial are the main focus. John also composed this section with seven scenes or episodes. John 20 begins the Resurrection Narrative of the Fourth Gospel.
John 19:16b-42 - The Crucifixion and Burial Of Jesus
This final section of the Passion Narrative is built around seven episodes as follows:
Compared to the Synoptic accounts of the crucifixion John presents a calm picture. He does not emphasize or mention such things as the taunts of the crowds, the darkness at noon, or Jesus' cry of dereliction from the cross. Although Jesus is crucified, John still portrays him as in control and steadily, of his own will, moving toward the fulfillment of the Father's will.
The first episode simply states that Jesus went out and they crucified him. The concluding section of verse 16, Therefore, they took Jesus, really belongs with verse 17 and some versions have shifted the versification to make sense. The "they" would appear to be the chief priests and the Jews according to the previous context. However, the following verses make it clear that it was the Roman soldiers who took custody of Jesus to crucify him.
John emphatically states in verse 17 that Jesus carried his own cross. The Synoptic gospels all mention a certain Simon of Cyrene being compelled to carry Jesus' cross. There have been several ways proposed to harmonize John's account of Jesus carrying his own cross and Simon of Cyrene bearing his cross for him. The most popular suggestion is that Jesus carried the cross bar and Simon carried the upright. However, it is most likely historically, that the upright was permanently erected at the crucifixion site and usually it was only the cross bar that had to be carried to the site.
The most probable explanation is that Jesus began the journey from Pilate's hall carrying the cross bar and that at some point Simon was drafted to carry it the rest of the way. The wording in the Synoptics almost suggests such a solution. Matthew 27:32 states that "when they went out . . . they found Simon." The word "went out" suggests that it was at the city gate that Simon entered the picture. Mark 15:21 and Luke 23:26 mention that Simon was coming in from the field or country, which also suggests the city gate as the approximate point when Jesus was relieved of the cross bar and it was placed on Simon.
More important is the question of why John would emphasize Jesus' role and ignore that played by Simon. It is possible, but not likely, that John simply did not know about Simon. In the second century a heresy called Docetism became quite popular. It taught that Jesus was not really human, but only appeared to be. Since the Docetists could not believe in a crucified god, they argued that Jesus was not crucified. Instead, they said, at Golgotha Simon of Cyrene was crucified and Jesus slipped away.
There is some evidence that John was trying to oppose views about Jesus that had Docetic tendencies. Perhaps he omitted the reference to Simon to discredit the Docetic theory of Simon being crucified. While that it possible, John's emphasis on Jesus carrying his own cross bar is consistent with the pattern of the Fourth Gospel. John wants us to recognize that Jesus moved to the cross of his own free will in obedience to the Father. He did not shirk the cross in any way.
The location of the crucifixion cannot be determined with absolute certainty. One thing is certain; it was outside the city wall of Jerusalem since the corpses would make the area ritually "unclean" for the Jews. The most ancient and reliable tradition places the crucifixion at the present site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. That location was outside the city walls in Jesus' time, though later (and now) enclosed by the wall. From the time Christianity became a legal religion in the fourth century it has been identified as the site of the crucifixion. There is a small hill inside the elaborate building though apparently the hill was scraped away by or for early pilgrims.
John notes that the name Golgotha was Hebrew or Aramaic for Place of a Skull. The Latin word for skull is calvaria from which the name "Calvary" is derived. It is most likely that the "Golgotha" received its name because it was a hill with some resemblance to a skull. The so-called "Gordon's Calvary" which is located north of the present city walls near a garden tomb gives a good picture of what Golgotha probably looked like.
Verse 18 very simply and directly states, they crucified him. There is no mention here of the horror and pain involved. Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, described crucifixion as "the most wretched of deaths." Even Roman writers believed that it was a cruel and terrible punishment. The criminal was usually nailed to the cross bar which was then lifted to the top of a stake or pole planted in the ground. Skeletal remains of a man crucified at Jerusalem in the first century show that the nails were driven between the two forearm bones just above the wrists. The victim was rendered totally helpless and left to hang as either the laughing stock of the people or a severe example of what could happen to them. John also mentions in verse 18 that two others were crucified with Jesus, but he did not provide any further information about them.
The second episode, presented in verses 19-22, revolves around the inscription. All the gospels mention the inscription, but only John states that Pilate wrote it. It is best to assume that John meant that Pilate had the inscription written rather than that Pilate himself penned the words. It was customary to publish on some sort of sign the crime for which the execution was the punishment. The idea was that people would read the crime, see the horrible punishment, and not commit the same crime themselves.
If Pilate followed the procedure used in some other crucifixions the sign with the charges would have been carried through the streets with Jesus and then hung on the cross at the crucifixion site. John states that the inscription was in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. These were the three most important languages in Palestine at that time. Hebrew (or Aramaic) was the language of the local Jewish people. Greek was the universal language of business and travel spoken by most everyone in the Roman Empire. Latin was the official language of the Romans.
John states that the inscription read, "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS." John emphasized the kingship of Jesus more than the other gospels. This is a fine example of his irony. The obvious meaning of the inscription is that Jesus had claimed to be the king of the Jews and crucifixion awaited anyone foolish enough to repeat such a threat against Rome. But the actual words do state the messiahship of Jesus.
As a result the Jews object to the wording and request that it be rewritten to read, "He said, 'I am king of the Jews'." At that point Pilate gained a bit of revenge for all the trouble the Jews had caused him with the trial of Jesus. His refusal implied that the statement about Jesus was irrevocable. That is exactly what John wants us to understand about Jesus. He is king and no request or political action can change that fact. Pilate leaves the inscription as a hidden confession of faith. As Lindars states, "The title is retained, not only as the grounds for crucifixion, but also as the proclamation of the gospel."
The third episode describes the disposition of Jesus' clothing in verses 23 and 24. It was customary for the soldiers on duty at a crucifixion to divide the criminal's personal belongings among themselves. It is not likely that the gospels would have even mentioned Jesus' clothing had not the early church realized an important fact. The way the Roman soldiers divided Jesus' clothing gave fuller meaning to Psalm 22:18. That verse read, "They divide my clothes among themselves and for my clothing they cast lots."
Psalm 22 was quoted in the New Testament 22 times. Jesus' so-called cry of dereliction from the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" is taken directly from Psalm 22:1. It may well be that Jesus' use of the Psalm as he was being crucified caused the early church to especially study those verses and enabled them to see fuller, richer meaning of the words of the Psalm revealed by the death of Jesus.
The outer garment was divided into four parts among the four soldiers who were involved. More attention has been given to the tunic or inner garment. The tunic was worn next to the skin and thus was "underwear." Generally, it was a type of shift garment cut from a single piece of cloth, often linen, with a hole for the head and arms.
Scholars are divided about the significance of the tunic. The word used in Psalm 22:18 that corresponded to the tunic was also used to describe the long blue robe of the high priest. Josephus indicates that the priest's robe was a single piece with a hole for the head and arms. Some scholars believe that John's details were designed to portray Jesus as the true High Priest. The idea is given even greater appeal for another reason. Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher who lived while Jesus was alive, allegorically interpreted the high priest's long blue robe as the Logos, which united all things into a [seamless] unity.
Other scholars note that a seamless tunic need not have any significance. Any weaver could have made a seamless tunic and thus it need not point to either a precious and expensive robe or to the High Priest. One must admit that if John intended to portray Jesus as a High Priest, he was not very direct about it. It is more likely that John mentioned the dividing of Jesus' garments in order to quote Psalm 22:18.
C. H. Dodd has shown that when New Testament writers quote a verse from the Old Testament they usually have the whole context of that verse in mind. If John quoted Psalm 22:18 with the whole Psalm in mind some interesting perspectives come to light. Psalm 22:19-21 contains a prayer for salvation. The following verses praise God for His intervention and salvation. The Psalm climaxes with worship of the Lord. That custom of Roman soldiers to divide the victim's belongings opened up a whole Psalm of praise to God for what He had done through Christ.
The fourth episode is unique to John. None of the other gospels mention the way in which Jesus provided for his mother's care like John 19:25-27 do. At the literal and historical level this episode portrays Jesus as a loving son providing social security for his mother. However, John's gospel has not given much attention to Jesus' compassion and kindness to anyone. If would be unusual for John to report this event at the cross and to see no theological importance to it.
There have been many attempts to provide theological and allegorical interpretations of Jesus' provision for his mother. It is significant that it was the beloved disciple to whom Jesus gave the care of his mother. Church tradition sees John the son of Zebedee as the beloved disciple. However, the beloved disciple functions in a symbolic way in this gospel for the ideal Christian believer.
The role of Mary is more difficult to determine. It is important that this is the only time she is mentioned in the Fourth Gospel except for the Wedding at Cana described in John 2:1-11. There she was the one who sought Jesus' help and waited until he gave it. Here at the cross Mary also stood and waited. She received a new relationship and security. It may be that John saw that Jesus not only provided for his mother; he also provided for all those who wait for a new and secure relationship with Christ.
The ideal Christian will always be involved in "taking care of" those who need Jesus' help and relationship with him. Lindars notes that that new relationship between the Beloved Disciple and Mary was only possible because of the death of Jesus. In a powerful pictorial way John illustrates part of the benefit that people who need and want Christ will receive because of his death.
We ought to notice Jesus' concern for his mother and show a similar care for our family members. However, the story has deeper meaning in John's mind. We ought to also be involved in taking care of many, many people who need and want Christ by putting them in touch with "beloved disciples." For most of us, we ought to be putting the seekers in touch with Christ by being the agents of touch for them.
The fifth episode, narrated in verses 28-30, finally brings us to the death of Jesus. There are two important issues in these verses. First, there is no doubt that Jesus would have been thirsty. There is no reason to think that he had had an opportunity for a drink since the arrest at least twelve hours earlier. After trials, scourgings, carrying the cross, and then being crucified he would have been dehydrated.
However, John was not particularly concerned about Jesus' physical condition. Verse 28 presents Jesus' cry, "I am thirsty," as a conscious act spoken to fulfill prophecy. The first clause in the verse reads, Jesus, because he knew that all things had already come to fulfillment in order to fill full the Scripture, said, 'I am thirsty'. The word I have translated "come to fulfillment," can mean "complete or reach the goal." John believed that Jesus knew that the goal that he and the Father had set before the Word became flesh was now achieved. John constructed the verb to show that the goal was reached and the results were continuous. Christ's atoning death on the cross was the goal, but the continuing results were also part of God's intention.
Those results reach us. For us to refuse to believe in Jesus is to oppose a significant part of God's purpose in sending Christ to die. Our sins are part of the sins of the world that the Lamb of God died to take away. John also used an almost identical word to describe the Scripture being filled full. It is not the word usually used for fulfillment of Scripture. The word John used also speaks of reaching the goal.
John may have Psalm 69:21 in mind as the Scripture that was fulfilled. The wording of verse 29 is very much influenced by Psalm 69. However, there is no clear indication of a specific Scripture passage that John had in mind. It may well be that the death of Jesus means that all of the Old Testament had reached its goal. The purpose of Scripture is not just to exist in its own right or even to provide us information. Scripture was written in order that we might be saved. The death of Jesus makes the purpose of Scripture possible.
Second, after Jesus had taken the sour wine he announced the completion of the will of God and died. The wording of verse 30 is also important. Jesus' final words according to John are, "It is finished." This translates a single Greek word which is the same word used in the first part of verse 28. We could easily translate, "The goal has been reached" or "It has been completed or accomplished."
The tone is very different from that of Matthew and Mark where Jesus cries out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" John wants us to know that Jesus died only after he knew that the whole will of the Father had been completed. It is the final piece of John showing us that Jesus was in control throughout the Passion. Then "he bowed his head and gave up [his] spirit."
Even in this seemingly straightforward statement of Jesus' death John's theological artistry is at work. John's wording is different from Mark and Luke who simply state that Jesus expired (the Greek means "breathed out [for the final time]"). Matthew states that Jesus surrendered or let go of or gave up his spirit. John's expression is similar to Matthew's but he uses a different word for "gave up." John's word means to hand over to another person, but John does not say who the other person(s) might be.
The word "[his]" does not appear in the text. There are two ways John's phrase can be translated. It can mean that Jesus gave [his] spirit to the Father in death. It could also mean that Jesus gave the Spirit to those believers at the foot of the cross by means of his death. It is so typical for John to construct sentences with this kind of dual meaning that he must have done it on purpose. It was John's way of reminding his readers what Jesus had said back in John 16:7, "It is beneficial for you that I go away. For if I do not go, the Paraclete will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you."
The sixth episode is found only in John's gospel. Verses 31-37 describe the piercing of Jesus' side. For strong and stubborn men crucifixion was often a long process. Several days might pass before the criminal finally died. The Romans were happy to leave an agonizing victim moaning on the cross. It strengthened the deterrent aspect of crucifixion.
However, Deuteronomy 21:22-23 specified that the body of a criminal executed by being hanged from a tree should not be left hanging overnight. An exposed corpse was thought to defile the land. Because of that Old Testament passage the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross overnight. The fact that the following day was the Sabbath of Passover season and thus a doubly holy day made the removal of the bodies even more urgent. But bodies could not be removed until the victims were dead. One of the ways of hastening the death of a crucified person was to break their legs. This prevented them from using their legs as support and increased the likely onset of shock from the additional pain.
The soldiers broke the two robbers' legs, but when came to Jesus they discovered that he was already dead. Whether in anger that he was already dead or simply callous cruelty or to be sure that he was dead, one of the soldiers thrust a spear into Jesus' side. Blood and water burst from his side. John may have several purposes in mentioning the blood and water.
First, it is clear from verses 36 and 37 that these first events following Jesus' death fulfilled Scripture. Exodus 12:10 and 46 specifically state that no bones are to be broken in the Passover Lamb. Psalm 34:20 also declares that the righteous sufferer's bones will not be broken. Zechariah 12:10 speaks of looking at the one they have pierced.
Second, the emphasis on blood and water bursting from Jesus' side may have also been motivated by John's desire to combat rising Docetism. The literal, physical death of Christ is strongly affirmed by the statement about blood and water.
Third, throughout Christian history there have been interpreters who believed John mentioned the blood and water for symbolic or theological reasons. The most common symbolism expressed is that the blood refers to the Eucharist or Lord's Supper and the water refers to baptism. This raises the question of sacramental symbolism again. John is never explicit in referring to the sacraments. He always "hints" when dealing with them.
However, in this passage the sacramental implication is secondary at best. The blood most normally would point to the sacrificial death of the Passover Lamb. The purpose of mentioning the blood was expressed in 1 John 1:7, "The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." John may well have thought of baptism when he mentioned the water. However, the usual symbolism of water in John's gospel is the Holy Spirit. Zechariah 12:10 also speaks of the "the Spirit of grace." Atonement from sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit are the two main results of Jesus' death. Lindars beautifully puts the matter, "His desire is to suggest the theological meaning of the death of Jesus as the opening of a fountain of grace. No sooner is Jesus' sacrifice complete than the flow of life for the world begins."
Verse 35 tends to support such a conclusion. John presents himself as an eyewitness to the flowing blood and water. Most significantly he states that he gives this evidence (the language is of witnessing or giving testimony) in order that you also might believe. The purpose of mentioning the blood and water is evangelistic - so that readers will believe in Christ.
Charles Wesley caught John's purpose in a verse of his powerful hymn, "O Love Divine, What Hast Thou Done?"
Then let us sit beneath His Cross
The final episode in the Passion Narrative describes Jesus' burial in verses 38-42. There are several features that differ from the Synoptics that are consistent with John's purposes. Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four gospels. Only John mentions that Nicodemus helped in the burial. Perhaps this was John's way of showing that Nicodemus, who had been on the fence so long, became a believer. It is also possible that John mentions him here for the Greek meaning of his name, "victory for the people."
Another Johannine theme is hinted at in verse 39. John states that Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of the myrrh and aloe spice mixture. That would have been an extravagant amount, but the rabbis spoke of huge amounts of spices for the burial of kings. This detail of a hundred pounds, mentioned only in John, is the final stroke in his portrait of Jesus as King.
John 20:1-10 - First Evidence of Jesus' Resurrection
John's resurrection narrative consists of a series of episodes. John 20:1-10 presents the first episode. It is noteworthy that none of the gospels describe Jesus' resurrection. All the gospels begin the resurrection narratives with the discovery of the empty tomb. The effect of that use of narrative is that the reader is allowed (indeed, required) to experience the tension of the agony and hopeful ecstasy of the resurrection for himself or herself.
The story is unfolded step by step in John, each step raising hope, but only gradually revealing the truth of the resurrection. Mary Magdalene discovered that the stone had been removed from the tomb. This would have been a perfect place for John to have explained that Jesus had been raised. He does not. While hope begins to rise John drags the story out in great detail.
Mary Magdalene ran and found Peter and the beloved disciple. She tells them her conclusion that Jesus' body had been removed. (It is significant that she uses the title, "Lord.") The two disciples run to the tomb and John uses ("wastes") several phrases to describe who ran fastest, who stood outside the tomb, and who entered the tomb. He describes the grave clothes.
In the Synoptic gospels an angel announces that Christ is risen. Not in John. The beloved disciple came, saw the evidence, and according to verse 8 believed. Lindars' observes, "John does not say what the Beloved Disciple believed. He means that he drew the only possible conclusion from the facts, and the reader is expected to be able to do the same. The Disciple has reached Resurrection faith without an appearance of Jesus."
However, that did not mean that full understanding had come. Though the Disciple had believed he did not yet understand the Scripture, that He must rise from the dead. In a real sense the meaning of the resurrection and God's purpose in Salvation History gradually dawns on a believer for the rest of one's life. After we have met the Risen Christ and as we study and reflect upon the God who is revealed in Christ and in Scripture, we find understanding, appreciation, and joy continually growing and unfolding through the rest of our lives.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day ask the Lord to speak to you through His Word and to make the Word alive and meaningful to you that day.
First Day: Read the notes on John 19:16b-20:10. Look up the Scripture references given there.
1. Jot down one or two new insights that seemed important to you.
2. Select a truth for which you see a personal application in your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Do you sense the amazing grace of God when stand at the foot of the cross and know that Jesus died for you? Write a brief prayer expressing your feelings toward God for what He has done for you through Christ.
Second Day: Read John 20:1-31. Now focus in on John 20:11-18.
1. Who does John say was the first to see the risen Lord? In light of Luke 8:2 is there any special significance to this?
2. The question, "Woman, why are you weeping?" appears twice in these verses. Why do you think John emphasizes that question? How is the following question in verse 15, "Whom are you seeking?" important for our response to Jesus?
3. In your own words explain the meaning of Jesus' response to Mary in verse 17.
Third Day: Read John 20:1-31. Focus in on John 20:19-31.
1. What "gifts" does Jesus give the disciples when he appeared to them?
2. How do you explain Thomas' response to the other disciples in verse 25? Was he wrong to respond like that? Do you ever have feelings like his?
3. What is the meaning of Thomas' response to Jesus in verse 28? Have you felt that sense of worship, love, and adoration expressed by Thomas? Write a prayer expressing your feelings to Jesus about the resurrection.
Fourth Day: Read John 20:1-31. Continue to focus on John 20:19-31.
1. What was the disciples' response when they finally saw the risen Lord?
2. What was Jesus' response to Thomas' doubt? What kind of message does that give us about how God responds to our doubts? How does that make you feel?
3. What evidence shows the importance of believing in these verses? What are we to believe? Have you confessed that faith to Christ? If not, would you like to do so now? If you have, write a statement of your faith.
Fifth Day: Read John 21:1-25. Focus in on John 21:1-14.
1. What detail(s) in this story seem especially interesting to you?
2. The disciples did not recognize Jesus at first. What caused the Beloved Disciple to recognize Jesus? What applications of that can you make for your life?
3. Verses 1 and 14 emphasize that Jesus "manifested" or "revealed" himself to the disciples. What does this story reveal to you about the risen Lord Jesus?
Sixth Day: Read John 20:30-21:25. Focus on John 21:15-25 and 20:30-31.
1. What task was Peter given by Jesus in these verses? What did it mean?
2. What do you think is the key word or phrase in verses 19-22? What did Jesus mean by his statement in verse 22? How does it apply to you?
3. Using John 20:30-31 and 21:24-25 how would you express John's purpose in writing this gospel? Has that purpose been achieved in your life? Write a prayer asking the Lord to fully accomplish his purpose in your life as you study John through the rest of your life.