A reflection on John 19:17-42 for Sunday, November 13, 2022 at Mosaic Baptist Church.
…and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews”, but, “This man said, I am King of the Jews.”’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’ When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.’ This was to fulfil what the scripture says,
‘They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.’
And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfil the scripture), ‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken.’ And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced.’
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
John 19:16-42 (NRSVA)
John’s telling of the story of the crucifixion of Jesus is more than an account of events. Of course, this is not to deny that there are facts here enabling the reader to understand what actually happened to Jesus on the crest of Golgotha. It is history.
As with all history, however, there is interpretation here. These events have significance and meaning. John is inviting us to encounter this story on a deeper level than simply knowing what occurred on the cross.
Clearly, John, as he has throughout his narrative, has a purpose to telling the Jesus-story. We’ve seen this on a number of occasions. John’s is essentially a call to ‘believe’ – and this even though his imagined audience – now generations from these events – are not eyewitnesses.
A call to believe without seeing.
Our account of the crucifixion is no exception. Purpose is seen here in the debate over the sign above Jesus’ head. It gently points to a tension between the religious leaders and Pilate. In doing so, out text subtlety asks where we sit: Is all this ‘King of the Jews’ talk an empty claim, or one of substance?
In the same way, the humiliating barter over Jesus clothes becomes a way of pointing to not only the fulfilment of scripture but, more importantly, it is evidence that there is purpose even in this brutal execution. Jesus’ request for a drink emphasises the same.
John believes God sits behind even these events.
But do we?
John is also intentional and purposeful in ensuring that we know Jesus, the ‘light of the world’, is dead – though the term itself is never used. The words, ‘Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit’ introduce a narrative centred on the spear that brings forth ’blood and water’ – standard evidence that the heart has stopped pumping. Again, it is offered here as the reliable testimony of an eyewitness who has experience with death, evidence of prophetic fulfilment, and another invitation to ’believe’. We are invited to add to this mounting evidence of death the reputable people who recognise Jesus’ passing and prepare both body and tomb.
Clearly it is important to John that we know that Jesus is dead. This is no swoon. There is no sleight of hand at work here. There is no escaping of Jesus from the cross. He does not simply come close to dying. God does not rescue or send a vengeful angelic host.
John wants us to know that the light of the world is truly ’extinguished’ and that the long-predicted plans of God are being completed.
A strange combination.
Jesus’ ’It is finished’ seems to sum up this passage – even as it leaves us wondering how narrowly or broadly John intends us to understand ’it’. Is this just a reference to the end of Jesus’ pain and suffering? Is it a summation of Jesus’ incarnation? How does this relate to all the scripture citations John has utilised through his gospel? Is this to be interpreted as a cryptic reference to the conquoring of sin? In what sense is this the pinnacle of Jesus’ revelation of the loving heart of God?
Of course, all these positions have been defended. What is clear – at this stage of John’s account – is that something significant in the purpose of God has been fulfilled even as Jesus’ light is extinguished.
The light of life at work even through the darkness, uncertainty, and finality of death.
Even here, in this account of the torture, suffering, death, and burial of the ’light of the world’, God is – mysteriously – at work.
What do you think is the significance of the author of life working through death? What does this say about the extent of Jesus’ incarnation?
What do you make of Jesus’ final words here? What do you believe is finished?