John 19 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
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).
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 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.
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.
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.
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.