As alert readers will no doubt be aware, I have been studying John recently (you can read my previous blog posts on the subject here and here). I promised in my last post that I would blog about John 19, and I thought this would be as good a time as any – particularly while it’s still relatively fresh in my memory. I’m not going to spend much time on context here, because frankly – we’d be here all day. So I’m just going to say this post would be most profitable if you’ve read John 19 before we begin (and preferably have it open in front of you, or in another tab, or whatever it is you kids do these days.)
Note that in this post I’ll only be able to touch on a fraction of what’s there, it truly is an amazingly rich gospel. I’ll just pull out some of the things which really struck me this time.
Part One: The Trial (18:28-19:16)
Quick general comment before we get going: one thing which I found particularly interesting is the fact that the trial takes place before a Roman governer and a Roman court. Why? Surely it is to indicate the universal significance of Jesus’ death. The Roman Empire was the known world of the day – it is representative of Jesus being crucified before all humanity, and yet at the same time dying for those very same who were crucifying him. We may come back to this later on.
The first thing to note about this section is that it doesn’t begin at the start of chapter nineteen! Chapter 19 is actually a continuation of the trial before Pilate. What is interesting is that it’s comprised of seven ‘scenes’: if you read, you’ll notice that the action switches from inside to outside: Pilate keeps coming in and out, sometimes bringing Jesus out as well. (This is by no means the first time that John has used a sevenfold arrangement – he’s quite fond of them).
Why is this significant? I think there might be a chiastic structure in there (if you don’t know what that means, don’t ask) – but in general I think the significance is this: the middle scene is 19:1-3, where Jesus is ‘crowned’ by the soldiers and the come up to him repeatedly and say “Hail, king of the Jews!”
The irony here is absolutely epic, if you’ll excuse the term. Here, the true King of the Jews, the King of the World, is being prepared for execution and mocked by people who think they have power over him. And yet, here they are, crowning him with thorns, while he quietly reigns over them in truth. It’s breathtaking, isn’t it? The central scene of the trial sees the nations in a sense crowning him as king, even as they reject him.
This is a fulfilment of the theme running right through John – that those in opposition to Jesus are actually not beyond his power (see, for example, what I quoted about John 11: “there is a sense of profound irony about the decision-making of the agents of death, a sense of their ultimate impotence before the force of life that is operative in Jesus.” – Andrew Lincoln)
Behold the Man (v5)
The NIV translation smooths this over a bit, but the literal translation is something like “Behold: The man!” Why do you think John uses such an unusual expression?
One suggestion is that this is exactly the same expression used in 1 Samuel 9:17 (LXX – Greek translation of the Old Testament; John often quotes from it) when God says to Samuel: “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.” In other words, Pilate’s words could be a subtle allusion to God’s proclamation of him as King – which would ironically fit with the central scene as I mentioned above.
There may be another purpose to the words, though: behold the man. In Romans 5 (and other places), the apostle Paul contrasts Adam with Jesus: in the same way that one man brought death to all men, so life comes through a man. I wonder whether there is also something of that here.
‘The Jews’ (v15)
Throughout John’s gospel, “The Jews” is a slightly ambiguous term. I don’t want to go into that here (suffice it to say that John is most definitely not anti-Semitic), but here the characterisation of ‘The Jews’ comes to a head. Pilate’s words to them are typical of his sarcastic, biting attitude: “Shall I crucify your king?” The irony of the situation is huge: the Jews are essentially asking Pilate to put a man to death for claiming to be their king. As one commentator puts it, “The shame they heap on their king they heap on their own heads” (Beasley-Murray).
And, in another irony, even as they reject Jesus, they are rejecting their true King (see 1 Sam 8:7). Throughout the gospel, Jesus is portrayed as the true fulfilment of the Israelite hopes – and yet they continually do not understand and reject him. Here, their rejection is sealed with their reply to Pilate: “We have no king but Caesar”. This is one of those jaw-dropping moments in the gospel where, given the history of Israel, such a thing should have been unthinkable.
Part Two: The Crucifixion (19:17-27)
Crucified in the Middle (v18)
Some people read a lot of significance into the fact that Jesus was crucified in the middle of two robbers. The commentators at this point disagree with each other; I think I would generally side with Carson and say that the matter is uncertain! However, it does seem clear that Jesus is being portrayed as the Isaianic servant, who in Isa. 53:12 is said to be ‘numbered with the transgressors’. Jesus was counted as a common criminal, as part of God’s plan and purpose.
The Inscription (v19)
Jesus’ cross has an inscription over it which reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. The inscription was in Aramaic (the language of the people); Latin (the language of the Roman empire); and Greek (the universal language at the time). What’s the significance of this? Here, Pilate – ironically again – without knowing it, declares Jesus to be the true King of the Jews, even as he crucifies him. The languages of the inscription indicates once more the universal significance of the cross: it wasn’t just for Jews or Romans – it was for everybody.
In putting on the inscription, Pilate acts like Caiaphas in 11:49-50 – speaking more truly than he knows. Thus, the two men symbolizing the leader of the Jewish authorites and the might of the Roman Empire – in opposition to Jesus – both declare truths about him. Once again, we see the theme of the earthly powers as impotent in the face of God’s plan. What we see here is actually the divine king reigning from the cross.
There is also a rich irony: Jesus, “the king of the Jews”, is crucified – symbolising the death of the Jewish messianic hope. And yet, at the same time, the true Jewish Messiah is being crucified for the sins of the whole world.
The Soldiers and the Women (vv24-25)
This doesn’t come across in the NIV so well, but the Greek contrasts “So this is what the soldiers did” (end of v24) with the women standing near the cross in v25. The women are standing there, loyal to Jesus, even while the soldiers crucify him. I wonder whether this is John, speaking directly to the reader: what does good discipleship look like? To follow Jesus, even to follow him to the cross (c.f. 12:26).
Jesus’ Mother and the Beloved Disciple (vv25-27)
This is a fairly contentious passage: Roman Catholic theologians have seen this in a certain way relating to Mary / the Church. I’m not convinced about reading too much significance into it per se, but I do think it signifies Jesus leaving his relationship with his mother (as a mother), and as such making provision for her. It’s interesting to compare this episode with Jesus’ first sign in chapter two. Carson expresses it succinctly: “In 2.1-11, Mary approaches Jesus as a mother and is somewhat rebuffed. If she demonstrates the first signs of faith, it must be the faith of a disciple, not a mother.” I think that’s neat: at the start of the gospel we see Mary approaching Jesus as a mother; now she approaches Jesus as a disciple and is accepted as such.
Another thing which may be of some significance is Mary being entrusted to the Beloved Disciple – probably the one who wrote the gospel. His testimony is true (see below) – is she being entrusted to the true witness, and is that a bit like what happens to us as we read?
Part 3: Jesus’ Death and Burial
This is really two separate sections but as I’m running out of steam I’ll treat them as one.
Water and Blood (vv34-35)
This is another area of contention. John seems to make a big thing about the blood and water (v35), so some people have gone a bit crazy with the interpretation. In particular, a common view is that the water and blood symbolise the two sacraments (baptism and communion). I’m not convinced by that: I don’t think that pays enough attention to the way water is used throughout John.
It’s also important not to read an overly symbolic meaning. In particular, John stresses in 1:14 that the Word “became flesh”, and here we see that Jesus did in fact die a human death. Medicine has told us that this is actually accurate as to what would happen if someone had been dead for that time – something which they almost certainly wouldn’t have known at the time.
If I had to go with a symbolic meaning, I’d probably read it alongside 1 John 5:6-8. Water seems to be seen – as with the rest of John’s gospel – as symbolising new life in the Spirit (see in particularly John 7:38). The blood is only mentioned in 6:53-56, which seems to be John’s version of the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Both of these things are related to life as Christians, life which is accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross. This seems the most likely symbolic meaning to me.
The Burial (vv38-42)
What struck me most about the burial was that it was one fit for a king. Nicodemus brings an incredible quantity of spices to the tomb – an excessive quantity, even. A quantity which was not unknown for kings to be buried with. Jesus, the one who had died ironically as ‘king of the Jews’, is here buried by two of his followers as king.
What I like about this section particularly is the way that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus both seem to ‘come out’ as disciples of Jesus – compare this to 12:42-43 where having a secret faith is not commended. Once again, I believe John is speaking through the pages to the reader: what is our response going to be to Jesus? The thing which brought Joseph and Nicodemus out into the open was the cross. Asking for Jesus’ body was a very public thing to do, and yet here they are – out in the open.
What does it mean for us?
Surely the biggest message for the reader of this passage – as with the rest of John – is what will your response be to Jesus? Here, the reader is presented with several responses to Jesus. Pilate, although believing in Jesus’ innocence, ultimately does not understand where Jesus is from or where his kingdom lies. Pilate understands the language of power, not truth. The Jews are seen as those who exchange their King for Caesar, who reject their God and crucify him.
In contrast to these, those standing by the cross as well as Joseph and Nicodemus are seen as loyal followers of Jesus – those who would endure hardship and the scorn of the world in order to follow Him (15.19). In obedience to Jesus’ words in 12.26, Jesus’ followers follow him out to the cross and endure hardship and shame as their king is crucified – while at the same time, Jesus is dying that they might have life.
The application for us today is similar. How will we respond to Jesus? Will we be like Pilate, speaking the language of power but not the language of truth? Will we be like the Jews, those who claimed to have a great understanding and insight into the Scriptures but ultimately rejected their Messiah? Or will we be like those followers of Jesus, who appeared weak but ultimately will receive the eternal life with the King who reigns over all?