John 19 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

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Jesus Is Crucified

Jesus is led to the place of crucifixion and nailed to the cross (vv. 16-18). While his enemies continue to squabble with one another (vv. 19-22) and divide his clothes (vv. 23-24), Jesus himself continues to love his followers and direct their own sharing in his love (vv. 25-27). Then he dies (vv. 28-30).Jesus Is Hung on the Cross (19:16-18) John's description of the actual crucifixion is amazingly brief. People in the ancient world would not need a description, since such executions were not rare (Hengel 1977:38). Although crucifixion could take a variety of forms (cf. Hengel 1977:25-32; Brown 1994:2:945-52), it was common to have the victim carry the crossbeam to the place of crucifixion where the upright was already in place. Occasionally the victim was tied to the crossbeam with leather thongs, but most often nails were used, as in the case of Jesus. The nails were five to seven inches long and were driven through the feet and wrists, not the hands (Edwards, Gabel and Hosmer 1986:1459). Crosses in the shape of an X or a T were used, but since the title was attached over Jesus' head (Mt 27:37) we know the style used for Jesus' cross was the shape we usually imagine, a t, which was also a common form. The person was laid on the ground and nailed to the crosspiece, which was then hoisted into place. Often the person was only a short distance off the ground, though the fact that a stick was needed in order to offer Jesus a drink (v. 29) suggests his head was higher than arm's length above the people on the ground. The nail wounds would cause a great deal of bleeding, but death often took place through suffocation. A little seat rest was attached to allow the person to maintain a position in which it was possible to breathe, thus prolonging the agony.

It is not known why the place was called Skull (v. 17; calvaria in Latin, hence the name Calvary), but the fact that Joseph had a tomb close by suggests this was not a place of public execution (Brown 1970:900). The notion that the landscape had the appearance of a skull is possible, as evidenced by the hill near Gordon's Calvary today, though the shape of this particular hill is more recent than the first century. The traditional site at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, not the Garden Tomb at Gordon's Calvary, is most likely authentic (R. H. Smith 1976; Brown 1994:2:937-40, 1279-83).

John mentions the other two victims crucified with Jesus (v. 18), but he does not describe them as fully as the Synoptic writers do. John also leaves out mention of Simon of Cyrene helping carry Jesus' cross. This comparison with the other Gospels helps us appreciate how John's account is very focused, very spare. In what follows he will not dwell on Jesus' own agony, except for his thirst just before his death (v. 28). Instead, John describes the activity swirling around Jesus, showing how it all relates to the glory. While John directs our attention to various people around the cross, we must not lose sight of the one on the cross. That which is not described is actually what dominates the scene.Pilate and the Jewish Leaders Fight over the Title (19:19-22) It was common practice to have those sentenced to crucifixion carry signs indicating the cause of their punishment or to have others carry the signs for the accused (Brown 1994:2:963). The title Pilate has written, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS (v. 19), continues to goad the Jewish leaders, as their reaction demonstrates (v. 21). They insist that he change it, but for the first time he stands firm against them. Now that their threat against him has passed he can afford to be strong (cf. Westcott 1908:2:310), which only serves to portray his pathetic weakness all the more clearly. His famous line--What I have written, I have written (v. 22)--sounds, in the context, merely petulant and childish.

Pilate earlier announced Jesus as "the man" (v. 5) and as "your king" (v. 14), and now he combines these themes in the title for Jesus' cross. Designating Jesus as being from Nazareth focuses on his humble humanity, while giving him the title of king speaks of his grandeur (see comment on 18:5-6). It was written in the three major languages of the region and read by many of the Jews since it was near the city (v. 20). The Romans did what they could to make crucifixions gruesome and public for the purpose of deterrence. But John seems to suggest this title over the cross was itself a form of witness to Israel and the world. Pilate unwittingly made such a proclamation, of course, as was the case with his having chosen the title itself. Such features fit with John's theme that all is working out according to God's will, even despite some of the participants. Indeed, "the two men who were most responsible for the death of Jesus became the unwitting prophets of the death of Jesus: the one declaring it as the means of redemption for Israel and the nations (11:49-50) the other proclaiming it the occasion of his exaltation to be King of Israel and Lord of all" (Beasley-Murray 1987:346).

So here we have another irony: the man who does not have a clue about the truth (18:38) proclaims, unwittingly, the truth about Jesus. And we have the tragedy of the representatives of the one true God, who should have recognized the truth, continuing to reject it.The Soldiers Divide Jesus' Clothes (19:23-24) Normally the victim would be led naked to the place of crucifixion. The fact that Jesus' clothes were not taken from him until the point of crucifixion may suggest that he was allowed to retain some form of covering while on the cross itself (Brown 1994:2:953), perhaps out of deference to Jewish objections to nudity. Since, however, the normal undergarment was either a tunic or a loincloth, and Jesus' tunic was taken from him (v. 23; Brown 1970:902), it is perhaps more likely he was naked. Early Christian tradition is divided on the subject (cf. Brown 1994:2:953).

It is this undergarment (chiton, the garment worn next to the skin) that is of most interest to John. It is seamless, and therefore to prevent its being torn the soldiers decide to draw lots for it (v. 24). The fact that it is seamless probably does not indicate that it was unusual or an item of luxury (Brown 1970:903). John's focus on this feature has led many to find symbolism in this garment (cf. Brown 1994:2:955-58). The two main proposals for John's detail have been that it is a symbol either of Jesus as high priest, since the high priest's chiton was seamless, according to Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 3.161), or of the unity of the church (for example, Cyprian On the Unity of the Church 7), that is, the community as brought together by the death of Christ (Barrett 1978:550, 552).

Such thoughts are true and edifying, but they are not John's primary focus. The significance of the garment's being seamless is that the soldiers are led to draw of lots for it, which in turn echoes Psalm 22:18 (v. 24). This is the first of four Old Testament passages cited as being fulfilled in Jesus' Passion, all of which refer to particular details of what takes place (vv. 28, 36-37). John marshals these texts around this most central, and most scandalous, event in order to show that the death of God's Son was in fact the will of God the Father. Behind the idea of fulfillment is the notion of God's sovereign control, which weaves repeating patterns: Scripture expresses God's will, and Jesus is submissive to God's will, so his activity fulfills the Scripture because it flows from the same source and is controlled by the same Father.

Psalm 22 is a psalm of King David in his role as a righteous sufferer. The title above Jesus' head is proclaiming him to be king of the Jews, and John sees Jesus as replicating a pattern of the greatest king in Israel's past. Thus, this reference is not a gratuitous proof text, but a link with a type. Fulfillment of Scripture, in this sense, is the replication of a pattern, and Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment, the center of all the patterns. The Synoptics also allude to this connection regarding the garments (Mt 27:35 par. Mk 15:24 par. Lk 23:34) as well as the connection through Jesus' cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me" (Mt 27:46 par. Mk 15:34), which is Psalm 22:1. The figure of the righteous king who suffers is embodied in Jesus par excellence. If the opponents understood King David better they might have recognized King Jesus.Jesus Cares for His Mother and the Beloved Disciple (19:25-27) John now turns to another distinct group at the cross (men . . . de, vv. 24-25), namely those who are there out of love for Jesus. It was not unheard of for friends and relatives to be near the one crucified or for enemies to come to jeer (cf. t. Gittin 7:1, 330; y. Gittin 7; 48c; 39; b. Baba Metzia 83b; Stauffer 1960:136, 229). Mark tells us there was quite a crowd of women present (15:41), but John focuses on a handful near the cross. The list of women most likely refers to four individuals (Brown 1994:2:1014-15). Mark, in his Gospel, lists three women in particular who were present, "Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome" (15:40). It has been assumed from early times that the mother of James and Joses is the one referred to in John as Mary the wife of Clopas and that Salome is the one John calls his mother's sister. Salome, in turn, is further identified with the mother of the sons of Zebedee, as mentioned in Matthew's account (27:56). Accordingly, the sons of Zebedee were Jesus' cousins. Raymond Brown considers this identification "dubious" (1994:2:1017), and the texts admittedly do not allow certainty, since, as Mark says, there were a number of women present. However, if the Beloved Disciple, whom I take to be John, the son of Zebedee, is Jesus' cousin, then Jesus' commending his mother to his care corresponds a little more with normal family patterns, though much more is involved as we will soon see. Furthermore, it is striking that neither Jesus' mother nor his aunt are named, a trait they share with the Beloved Disciple (cf. Carson 1991:616).

With these supporters standing near him, Jesus focuses on his mother and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 26-27). Jesus says to his mother, "Woman, behold your son," and to the Beloved Disciple, "Behold your mother." Similar language was used in connection with betrothal (Tobit 7:12) and thus seems to signal some change of relationship. Jesus' mother is now brought under the care of the Beloved Disciple (v. 27). In this Gospel there is a symbolic role for both the mother of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, for they are both examples of true discipleship (see comments on 2:1-11 and 13:23). So in changing the relationship they have to one another, Jesus is completing the formation of the community gathered around him--gathered around him precisely as he is on the cross (C. Koester 1995:214-19). The new community is now seen to be a new family (cf. 20:17; Newbigin 1982:255).

A great deal has been made of this text. Many have understood Jesus' mother to be a symbol of Eve, the mother of the living, or a symbol of the church (cf. Brown 1970:923-27). Quite often it has been assumed that the disciple is given into the care of the mother, which has contributed to the development of views regarding Mary's role in the lives of Christians, who are symbolized by the Beloved Disciple. Such symbolism is a further development of John's own focus, which is on the new family formed among the disciples of Jesus, with the Beloved Disciple, who is the witness to Jesus par excellence, as the one exercising care (cf. Ridderbos 1997:611-15). The mother and the Beloved Disciple together symbolize the new community.

Here at the very end we see Jesus still exercising love and care (cf. 13:1). This loving concern is the glory that his death itself reveals most powerfully, since love is the laying down of one's life (cf. 1 Jn 3:16). In the course of his ministry Jesus was forming a new community around himself, and in the farewell discourse (13:31--17:26) he described how that community is to share in his own relation with the Father and to participate in the divine life, which is characterized by love. Now he has completed the formation of this community, at least for the stage prior to the sending of the Spirit and his own dwelling with them in a new way. This community is the fruit of his death, for it will be the locus of the divine life on earth. The divine life is characterized by love and therefore requires a community to express itself. The life of the community derives from Jesus' own giving of himself, and in turn such self-giving is to typify the community itself. Jesus' death is both a revelation of the love of God and an example of such self-giving love. Such love is only really possible when sin has been taken away, since the essence of sin is a false self-love that prevents one from sharing in the life of God, which is love.Jesus Dies (19:28-30) The significance of the formation of the community that has just taken place is further underscored when John says Jesus knows that all was now completed (v. 28). This is what he came to do--to form a community that can share in his own relation with the Father. With the work completed he can now finalize the completion through his death, so he says, I am thirsty (v. 28). John notes he said this in order to fulfill the Scripture--not that he was consciously thinking of texts and doing things to echo them, but rather that Scripture reveals God's will and Jesus perfectly accomplishes God's will (see comment on v. 24). The text he echoes (Ps 69:21) is another passage featuring King David as the righteous sufferer, and thus bears witness to Jesus' identity.

John shifts from pleroo, the word usually used to speak of the fulfillment of Scripture, to teleioo, the same word in the first part of the verse, there translated completed, and in Jesus' final cry, It is finished (v. 30). Jesus' own life, including his death and resurrection, is the primal pattern that Scripture itself replicates. He is the sun whose rays create shadows both backward and forward in time. Accordingly, he not only fulfills Scripture in the sense of replicating its patterns, he brings Scripture itself to completion by being its central referent.

John does not say who soaked a sponge in some cheap wine and lifted it to Jesus' lips with a stalk of hyssop (v. 29). The Synoptics also leave this indefinite, but they say a kalamos was used (Mt 27:48 par. Mk 15:36), that is, a reed, a staff or a stalk. Perhaps John has referred specifically to a hyssop stalk to interpret what is taking place, since hyssop was used to sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the doorposts just before the Exodus (Ex 12:22) and later was used for other purifying rites (Lev 14:4, 6; Num 19:18; Ps 51:7). John would be drawing out the juxtaposition of Jesus as king and Jesus as lamb, similar to the description in heaven of the Lion of the tribe of Judah who turns out to be "a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain" (Rev 5:5-6).

There seems to be something particularly significant about Jesus' thirst, since once Jesus receives the wine he says, It is finished, and dies (v. 30). On one level this thirst is the only reference in this Gospel to Jesus' actual physical suffering on the cross. But the idea of thirst may also have spiritual significance. Earlier Jesus had said, "My food . . . is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish (teleioo) his work" (4:34). And when he was arrested he told Peter to put his sword away, saying, "Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?" (18:11). "Hunger and thirst become images for Jesus' desire to fulfill the Father's will to the end" (Schnackenburg 1982:283). Since the cup represents wrath and suffering (see comment on 18:11), Jesus' taking of this drink may suggest the completion of that experience, as the Lamb of God now takes away the sin of the world. The work he has come to do is now complete. The great significance John attaches to the saying I am thirsty would then make sense because it would symbolize both Jesus' commitment to obey God's will and the fulfillment of the suffering of the one who is the righteous sufferer par excellence.

Jesus had said that no one takes his life from him but that he lays it down of his own accord (10:18), and his death is indeed described as a voluntary act: he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (v. 30). The order of Jesus' actions is important (Chrysostom In John 85.3). John does not say that Jesus died and then his head slumped over, but rather that he bowed his head, an attitude of submission, and then gave over (paredoken) his spirit. "At his own free will, he with a word dismissed from him his spirit, anticipating the executioner's work" (Tertullian Apology 21). The very form of his death continues to reveal him as the obedient Son, the key theme regarding his identity throughout his ministry. As the obedient Son, submissive to the Father, he fulfills the type of the true King, confirming the message of the sign over his head.

Next commentary:
Enemies and Friends Attend to Jesus' Body

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