IS THERE SOMETHING IN THE BIBLE THAT PUZZLES YOU?
FREE Scholarly verse by verse commentaries on the Bible.
By Dr Peter Pett BA BD (Hons-London) DD
Jesus Is The Messiah, The King Of The Jews.
The emphasis that Jesus is ‘the King of the Jews’, and thus the Messiah, which is what John was seeking to underline (20.31) carries on through chapter 19. Here He is hailed as such, somewhat crudely, by the soldiers (19.3), is indirectly acknowledged as such by His accusers (19.12), is declared as such by Pilate (19.14-15), and is described as such in the superscription on His cross (19.19). And along with this is an acknowledgement of His claim to be the Son of God (19.7). His association with the Lamb of God is brought out in that not a bone of Him was to be broken (19.32-33, 36)
The Trial Continues (19.1-16a).
John has made clear in chapter 18 that, in facing His trial by His fellow Jews, Jesus had nothing to hide, although no details of their actual attempts to find prosecuting witnesses or of the charge of blasphemy has been given. In the examination before Annas Jesus has simply pointed to the proofs that He was unblemished. That is John’s emphasis, that the Lamb was open to examination before the High Priest and was found to be without blemish.
Again before Pilate John was concerned rather to show that as far as the final legal authority was concerned Jesus was innocent. He was not particularly trying to show the Judaisers as guilty, although in the circumstances how could he avoid it? For guilty they were. But what mattered to him above all was that Jesus was the unblemished Lamb, and the Messiah..
It would, of course, be foolish to blame the Jewish nation as a whole for the behaviour of the Judaisers. Indeed had they known of the situation many Jews, especially the Galileans gathered in Jerusalem, would have rallied to His support. It was the chief priests, aided by others who were antagonistic to Jesus, who bore the main responsibility. And as Ezekiel made clear, every man is responsible for his own sin. For these men were not thinking of the Jewish nation in what they did. They were thinking of themselves, of their own prestige and positions, and of their own prospective prosperity. Their actions were the actions of a ruling elite. And what they did only Jesus could have forgiven.
Pilate, on the other hand, had come to the conclusion that Jesus was not guilty of any charges against Him. However, he also was not prepared to come to a position where he stood firmly against the wishes of the Jewish leaders. He had done this previously in the past, rather foolishly and brutally, and the consequences had not been good for his reputation, and Tiberius Caesar was a very suspicious man. Thus Pilate felt that he dared not put himself in a position where they could again appeal against him to Caesar with accusations that he had allowed a dangerous ‘pretender to the throne’ to go free. So as far as he was concerned, justice had to come second to what was best for him.
19.1 ‘Then Pilate therefore took Jesus and scourged him.’
Throughout the ages, until fairly recent centuries, the treatment of prisoners has been similar. Unless they were important people (in the case of Rome, Roman citizens) they could be treated abysmally regardless of whether they were innocent or guilty. This was done ‘for the good of the state’. Guilt or innocence were irrelevant. What mattered was ‘getting at the truth’, so that the ill-treatment and even torture of detainees to ‘get at the truth’ was commonplace.
The thought appeared to be that once they had had a taste of what might be coming to them if they did not, they would tell the truth, and this just became the custom. They failed to recognise that thereby men would say whatever they wanted in order to escape more torture. The fact was that common people were not considered important, and it was therefore not uncommon for a person who was acknowledged to be innocent from the start, to leave custody with his health ruined because of the methods used to ‘obtain the truth’ from him about a crime, even when he had not been involved. Thus a preliminary scourging like that applied to Jesus was not unexpected, and would be carried out by the soldiers present.
At this stage Pilate appears still to have been seeking to release Jesus because He was innocent, and the scourging must not necessarily be seen as suggesting otherwise. It did, however, demonstrate that he might be prepared to go further.
Three forms of corporal punishment were employed by the Romans, in increasing degrees of severity, the fustigatio (beating), the flagellatio (flogging), and the verberatio (scourging). The first could, on occasion, be a punishment in itself, leaving the person then free to go. But the more severe forms were usually part of the capital sentence as a prelude to crucifixion. The most severe, verberatio, is what was usually indicated by the use of the Greek verb mastigo-o, which is used in verse 1. Men sometimes died when being scourged. So this would not be just a mild beating.
The Roman scourge was a dreadful thing. It consisted of a short wooden handle to which a number of leather thongs were attached whose ends were equipped with pieces of lead, brass and sharp bone depending on choice. The victim’s back was bared and the scourge laid on more or less heavily. It could cause severe damage penetrating well below the outer flesh. The choice of wording here may suggest an allusion to Isaiah 50.6, "I gave my back to those who scourge me…".
When Pilate first said, “I will scourge him and let him go’ (Luke 23.22) it was because he saw Him as innocent of the charges. The beating would merely serve as a warning, for it was felt in such cases that a scourging would give a warning to someone who, while not guilty, was no doubt guilty of something, as all common people were assumed to be. When that offer was refused Pilate then appears to have felt that if he could present the man in a sufficiently pathetic condition, a kind of parody of a king who was clearly no danger, he would be able to discharge Him. He had not yet recognised the vindictiveness of the Jewish leaders.
So the One Who had borne the burden of man’ suffering as He preached and healed, now received the marks of the dreaded scourge. His back was torn to ribbons as He commenced the path to the cross. The light Who had come to the world was seemingly being quenched (1.5). The One Who had come to reveal God’s love for the world was being returned after suitable treatment by that world.
He had been smitten in the face before Annas (18.22), spat on and beaten before Caiaphas and the council (Matthew 26.67; Mark 14.65), mocked and caricatured before Herod (Luke 23.11), and He was now scourged by Pilate and knocked around by the Roman soldiers. He would be scourged again before being led out to crucifixion as a matter of course. We remember the words of Lamentation, ‘Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by, look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow which is done to me with which God has inflicted me in the day of His fierce anger.’ (Lamentations 1.12). These words, spoken of the sufferings of Zion, well fit what Jesus as the representative of Israel was now undergoing.
19.2 ‘And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head and clothed him in a purple cloak, and they came to him repeatedly and said, “Hail, King of the Jews”, and they struck him with their hands.’
Horseplay with condemned prisoners was a recognised pastime. It relieved the boredom of custodial duties. Here it was related to the charge brought against Him in typical military humour. There were many thorny plants in Palestine and one was used here. The thorns were probably intended to mimic the rays of light coming from the ‘radiant crowns’ which are shown as worn by rulers on contemporary coins. The fact that they might be painful did not concern the soldiers. The purple robe was intended to indicate royalty and was probably an officer’s cloak. Then they alternatively treated Him as a mock king and a buffoon. They were on the whole brutal men and behaved brutally. If they were auxiliaries, as they probably were, they were drawn from non-Jewish inhabitants of the land and would have had no liking for Jewish claimants. They were on duty. They were bored. They egged each other on. And here was a diversion, a Jewish pretender.
They did not realise that the crown of thorns was also symbolic of something else. That Jesus was taking on His own head the curse of the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3.18). He was bearing the sins of the world committed right from the beginning. This was why Adam and Eve could be forgiven and clothed in the coats of skins, representing animals which had been slain. It was because this One would bear the crown of thorns and be slain in their stead.
Again we are reminded that the One before Whom angels worshipped, (angels who must have been watching amazed in the face of this unbelievable scene), became the plaything of man.
19.4-5 ‘And Pilate went out again and says to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you so that you may know that I find no crime in him.” Jesus therefore came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple cloak. And Pilate says to them, “Behold, the man”.’
The battle of wills continued. Pilate did not like the Jewish authorities and he clearly objected to being railroaded by them. They had brought Jesus for Pilate to judge and in his view it was all a pretence. Their charges were ludicrous. Why then should he do what they wanted and be in line to take the blame? Why didn’t they deal with Him themselves?
Furthermore there was an underlying superstition within him that this man may have been more than He seemed. His wife had sent him a warning about continuous nightmares she had had about Him (Matthew 27.19) and this fitted in with the man’s own talk about a kingdom in another world. He did not like the situation at all.
So he again told them that he found the man innocent of any specific crime. This was the nub. They did not seem to be able to bring any evidence whatsoever. Why then should he take the risk of executing Him? He was after all accountable for his judgments.
So he brought Jesus out and said, ‘Look at him’. Standing there weakly with blood streaming from His wounds and dressed grotesquely He did not appear to be much of a danger to anyone. Surely they were not afraid of Him? What could such a person possibly do?
He had in fact no comprehension of the thoughts and bitterness filling their minds at this man who had so flouted their teachings and had shown them up before the people, bitterness that had been built up over the years as He had constantly shown them to be in the wrong. To them He had power, for He had the power of words and popularity. And they had had enough of it. They would never forgive Him.
Furthermore they knew that Pilate was wavering. He had not been firm in his judgment, appealing to them rather than overriding them; he had offered to release Jesus according to a custom, as though He had been guilty; and he had subjected Jesus to the dreadful scourge, a pointer to guilt.
‘Behold, the man.’ While Pilate simply means ‘look at the fellow’, and considered Him innocent, and the soldiers looked at Him and considered Him a loser, and the Judaisers looked at Him and saw in Him their bitter enemy, John saw a deeper significance in the word ‘Man’. Here was the One Who represented mankind, the second Man (Romans 5.12-21; 1 Corinthians 15.47), the One Who as Man would, through His own death, redeem mankind, being the bruiser of the Serpent’s head (Genesis 3.15). He represented Man, bruised but triumphant.
19.6-8 ‘When therefore the chief priests and the officers saw him they cried out, saying, “Crucify him, crucify him.” Pilate says to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no crime in him.” The Judaisers answered, “We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.” When Pilate therefore heard this saying he was the more afraid.’
The sight of Jesus reawakened the hatred of the Judaisers and their supporters. Pilate saw a pathetic figure. They saw a thorn in their sides. He saw someone relatively harmless. They saw the man whose teaching had often brought them into such ridicule that they could never forgive Him. He saw someone powerless to do anything. They saw the man whose miracles had won Him allegiance from the crowds and even support from among their own. He saw a quiet philosopher. They saw One who had challenged their status and sought to ruin their prosperous trading in the Temple. So they had only one thing in mind. “Crucify him, crucify him,” was their cry. They were beyond reason. They were beyond thought. They simply wanted to get rid of Him. Their minds were tired and they had worked themselves up in the previous few weeks to a state of such frustration and vindictiveness that any possibility of retraction was absent.
We note that this was not an average baying crowd. It was made up of the Chief Priests and their officers and supporters, and supporters of the insurrectionists like Barabbas. The former had lost all dignity and abased themselves. And now for the first time they were truthful with Pilate. Up to this point they had presented Jesus as a troublemaker, and a possible insurrectionist. Now they admitted the truth. It was a question of theology after all. He had made Himself out to be the Son of God, and this was against their law of blasphemy (Leviticus 24.16). But even that was not the real charge, that was the one that was used to convince the Sanhedrin. The real reason that He was there was because He had exposed their teaching and their ways. What greater blasphemy could there be than that?
There is little reason to doubt that the final thing that had infuriated them was His claim that He would be seen as the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of God and coming in the clouds of Heaven (Mark 14.62; Matthew 26.64; Luke 22.69-70), as the King Who would come to the throne of God to receive glory and kingship (Daniel 7.1-14). They saw this as a snub to them and as a claim to be the Son of God in a unique sense and as a further claim to be destined to share God’s power. And they were in fact right. Where they were wrong was in not recognising the validity of His claim as evidenced by the signs that He had performed.
‘You take Him and crucify Him according to your law.’ Pilate was angry and somewhat afraid. Angry because they had been dishonest with him, and afraid because of the uneasy feeling he had about this man. He did not like coming up against something to do with unearthly powers. So he essentially derided them. ‘That is your sentence,’ he says, ‘passed on the basis of your laws. So you crucify him.’
But he knew perfectly well that they could not. Their powers were limited. Blasphemy against Judaism was not a Roman offence. Rome’s laws were not intended to enforce non-earthly superstitions. Why then should Rome do the job for them?
19.9 ‘And he entered into the Praetorium again and says to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.’
Pilate’s words indicate his uneasiness. Superstitious ideas were taking hold of him. Could this man really be from another world? ‘Where are you from?’ he asked, and there was apprehension in his voice. But the silent figure before him simply looked at him and gave no answer.
For Jesus knew that this was not the question of a seeker seeking truth and He knew that no reply would make any difference. So He said nothing. If Pilate did genuinely want to know there were ways for him to find out. But He knew that in the end Pilate was going to give way to the Judaisers. It was only Pilate’s anger at being outmanoeuvred by those whom he despised that had kept him going thus long. Any answer Jesus gave would therefore only prolong His suffering.
19.10 ‘Pilate therefore says to him, “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and have power to crucify you?” ’
The unearthly silence unnerved Pilate. He could not understand it. Why did this man not plead obsequiously for mercy? Why did He not viciously rail at him? Did He not realise that His life was in the balance. Why did He not say something? Pilate was not used to prisoners who did not try to gain their release by some means or other. Did the man not realise what total power he had over Him? The authority to release or the authority to crucify. What greater authority than that? He could understand defiance, he could understand weeping, but not this. So as he struggled with his conscience and tried to bolster himself up he was confused.
But John knew, and the readers knew, that in this case Pilate had no power at all. Nor had the Judaisers. There was only One Who was making the decisions, and that was Jesus. And as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth (Isaiah 53.7).
19.11 ‘Jesus answered him, “You would have no power against me unless it was given to you from above. That is why he who delivered me to you has greater sin”.’
Jesus acknowledged Pilate’s earthly authority, although pointing out that it was a deputed authority. The words could mean that Pilate had the authority ‘from above’, that is from the Emperor, and that that was what gave him the power to do what he said. Possibly that is how Pilate took it. But the greater meaning is clear to the reader. It was that he had authority because the Lord of the Universe was allowing it. It was because of that that he had been put in this position. He had not chosen to be there. He was but a pawn, even though a responsible pawn. So, although he might not decide as he should, it would not be with a deliberate vindictiveness like that of his accusers. Thus his sin was less. It was, however, still sin for he had free choice and little excuse.
‘He who delivered me.’ The contrast is between the one who ‘delivered’ Him up, and Pilate, so that we must see the ‘he’ as the High Priest, but behind him lay his cronies. Those responsible for worship in God’s Temple would now offer up God’s Son.
Pilate probably recognised both meanings. He was pacified that the man recognised his authority from Caesar, of which he was no doubt very proud. It had been hardly obtained. And he accepted that possibly it might be by the permission of some supreme being. Either way it reminded him that he was speaking in Caesar’s name and gave him the motive for making a further effort for the man’s release.
19.12a ‘On this Pilate sought to release him.’
Up to this point Pilate had been consistent in his view. He had examined Jesus and constantly declared Him without blemish. He did not think that this man was a troublemaker or insurrectionist, and he did not care whether he was a blasphemer against the Jewish religion. He wanted to be awkward with the Jewish leaders. And he was also a little uneasy about the man. So he still did not want to give way. Subconsciously he must surely have recognised that to give way would actually undermine the authority he had so proudly claimed. So he again voiced his doubts to the accusers.
But now came the crunch. Up to now both sides had tried to put on a facade of justice. Had they succeeded the real truth may never have come to the fore, but now justice became irrelevant. It became a matter of political threat and negotiation.
19.12b ‘But the Judaisers cried out saying, “If you release this man you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar.” ’
They had kept their final threats until last. First they had hoped for a quick ratification of their own ‘findings’. Then they had hoped Jesus would say something foolish. Then they had hoped that Pilate would give way under their pressure. But each time Pilate had come back with the ‘not guilty’ verdict. So they felt that now they had no choice but to apply the final threat. If he let Jesus go they would report him to Caesar as having let go someone who claimed to set himself up against Caesar.
It was a despicable position to take. Had Jesus positively been seeking to raise an insurrection they might have had a case. But they knew, and Pilate knew, that that was not so. He knew that they hated Jesus because He was not their friend. They really did not care whether he was Caesar’s friend or not.
‘You are not Caesar’s friend.’ Later the title of ‘Caesar’s Friend’ was an honour given to men who were seen as loyal to Caesar and worthy of his commendation. There is evidence to suggest that it was used at this time. Thus it may be that Pilate bore the title and was charged with being unfaithful to it. But whether that is so or not the same implication was there.
That suggestion made him stop and think. What could he now do? However false the report sent in it would cause an investigation, and there were some things he did not want investigated. He could be called to Rome. He could simply be replaced as inefficient and incapable. Anything could happen. And all he had to do to save himself was let this man be crucified, like hundreds of others. And he could get his revenge later. For they must surely realise he would never forgive them
19.13 ‘When Pilate therefore heard these words he brought Jesus out and sat down on the Judgment Seat at the place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew Gabbatha.’
At this point Pilate gave up on justice. Now they all knew that they had won. The solemn moment had come. ‘Justice’ would now be declared from the Judgment Seat. Let all the world admire Roman justice. The innocent man would be declared guilty. The verdict would save Pilate’s flagging career for a time and would maintain the Chief Priesthood for another forty years. But both had sealed their own fates. The one would finally be recalled, the others would be destroyed in the flames of a Jerusalem rejected by God.
The Pavement was probably a flat area in front of what was previously Herod’s palace. Typically John also gives us the Hebrew for it, Gabbatha (‘height, eminence’), which suggests that the Pavement was an area raised above the ground (although Gabbatha and The Pavement need not be strictly synonymous). Archaeology has discovered the remains of such a pavement with evidence of games played on it by soldiers carved in it.
19.14a ‘Now it was the Friday (or preparation) of the Passover, it was about the sixth hour.’
The word for ‘preparation’ (paraskeue) meant primarily ‘Friday’, as it still does in modern Greek, and had done from time immemorial. This was because it was the day before the Sabbath. Thus this need mean no more than that it was the Friday of Passover week. It could, however also mean ‘preparation day’, i.e. preparation for a festival, in this case the Passover.
‘About the sixth hour’. This is the comment of someone who vaguely remembers roughly the time of day. There were no watches or public clocks and time was not as important then as it is now. If ‘about the sixth hour’ is in Roman time indicating around six in the morning, this would be about 6.00 am on a Friday morning, but it probably means nothing more than a vague ‘early in the day’. If it is Jewish time it is ‘about noon’. In this case it may be simply John’s intention to link the time in the reader’s mind with the time when the Passover sacrifices could commence, stressing that Jesus is the Passover lamb, without being too specific as to time. The former seems more probable as John appears constantly to use Roman time.
The term ‘paraskeue’ could be used for the ‘preparation day’ for a festival, and some would see it as referring to the day for preparing for the Passover feast. If in this particular year two Passovers were celebrated on successive days then this could be its meaning, but it is not required by the Greek (see on 18.28). The idea that John would actually seek to change the well established tradition in the early church, recognised in all three Synoptic Gospels, that this was the day after Jesus’ celebration of the Passover, is ludicrous and could only be considered if there were no evidence to the contrary.
The good detective and the good historian do not jump to conclusions on just ‘the obvious’. They try to fit all the pieces together. It is often the unwillingness to reject the clue that appears out of line that results in the truth being discovered. This is the basis of true scholarship (and true detective work).
19.14b-15 ‘And he says to the Judaisers, “Look, see your king.” They therefore cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him.” Pilate says to them, “Shall I crucify your king?” The Chief Priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!”
Today we would call it mob rule, except that sadly the mob were the judicial authorities. There were no witnesses called, there was no evidence laid, the verdict was based on passion and political expediency. Pilate felt he could no longer resist. He made one final feeble attempt and then gave up. The Jewish leaders were determined to have blood, and not only to have blood but to have it by a method that would bring a curse on the One Who died, by His hanging on a cross. They wanted Him shamed.
There is no way in which they can be exonerated, although attempts have been made to do so. Every good Jew must equally condemn them for their behaviour. And the truth is unavoidable because it is not based on the Gospel records but on the facts of what actually happened, that Jesus actually lived an outstanding life, as revealed by His teachings, that He was crucified, and that Pilate and Rome had nothing to gain by His death. The records simply verify what we would already surmise.
‘We have no king but Caesar’. It was a good job that the common people did not hear this statement. Any Pharisees present must have been squirming. This ran contrary to the whole of Jewish belief. They were betraying their own people. They were rejecting the hope of the Messiah. To most Jews God was king and Caesar an intruder whom they longed to get rid of, and they looked for God to send their Messiah to set them free. But to the Chief Priests Caesar was important because he maintained the status quo and thus their power base. In less than forty years they would be totally disillusioned, and their power would be broken.
9.16a ‘Therefore he then delivered Jesus to them to be crucified.’
The trial was over, the verdict had been given, and Pilate probably thought he would escape with a few days of bad conscience, while the Chief Priests no doubt believed that another problem was satisfactorily out of the way. Jesus was handed over to the crucifying party. They could now go back and finish off their Passover meal in peace, still ‘undefiled’, or so they foolishly believed. And the future would go on as normal.
But from the eternal point of view this was the moment when the Lamb was handed over to be sacrificed. He had been examined and found to be without fault. Now He would be offered up to God as a whole offering, as a Passover sacrifice, as a guilt offering (Isaiah 53.10).
‘To them’. To His accusers in principle, to the Roman soldiers in fact. Then He would be scourged again as a matter of course (Mark 15.15) before being led off to crucifixion. Everyone was satisfied. Things could now go on as normal.
The Lamb is Offered Up (19.16b-37).
Meanwhile the innocent victim was being dragged through the streets of the city, and then through an outer gate in order to be crucified ‘outside the gate’ (Hebrews 13.12). Rejected by those to whom He had come He was being treated as an excrescence, seen as not even fit to suffer within the city, something emphasised by the fact that He was being crucified. In the words of Deuteronomy 21.23, ‘a hanged man is accursed by God’, and that is how the Jews would see it. They overlooked the fact that that was only true where the judgment was deserved.
19.16b-18 ‘They therefore took Jesus, and he went out bearing the cross for himself, to the place called the Place of the Skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha., where they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus in the middle.’
Jesus, His back in tatters, His clothes covered in blood, was now made to bear the means of His execution. The heavy timber which would form the crosspiece of His cross was laid across His back. (The upright would be found on site). We learn elsewhere that in the end all this proved too much for Him in His weakened state so that He had to have assistance (Luke 23.26). He Who was bearing the sins of the world could not even carry His crosspiece.
‘The Place of the Skull’. This was possibly some well known natural formation in nature depicting a skull. Such a place can be seen today but it is not necessarily the identical one. Such things come and go. Nature’s work often produces shapes which are identified as one thing or another, and equally often erodes them away. Alternately it may have been a place which had become connected with a particular skull of some famous or infamous person. We really do not know. But John saw the name as fitting the current situation. It was the place of death.
‘Where they crucified him.’ Every angel in Heaven must have stood in readiness, every sword must have been unsheathed, awaiting the Father’s expected command, a thousand legions of them and more. But no word came and in perplexity they sheathed them again. They could not understand it. The One Who was the outshining of the Father’s glory, the One Whom they had worshipped through the ages, was being nailed ignominiously to a cross, and they were forced to stand by and do nothing.
But on earth the scene was more simplistic. The timber was laid down on the ground, the bleeding figure was roughly thrust on it, the hammer thudded as the nails were driven home, and the whole was lifted up as a spectacle for the world to behold its bleeding king.
He was not alone. Two brigands were crucified with Him, one on either side, and He in the middle. He was being ‘numbered with the transgressors’ (Isaiah 53.12; Luke 22.37). They represented God’s sentence of death on the world for which He died. He was the sacrifice made on their behalf. They bore their own curse. He bore our curse that we may not have to bear it if we come to Him. For by this act of crucifixion He had become accursed in the eyes of men on our behalf (Galatians 3.13; Deuteronomy 21.23).
19.19-22 ‘And Pilate wrote a title also, and put it on the cross. And there was written, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title therefore read many of the Jews for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Hebrew (Aramaic?) and Latin and Greek. And the Chief Priests of the Jews therefore said to Pilate, “Do not write the King of the Jews, but that he said, ‘I am the king of the Jews’.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written”.’
It was normal for a man’s crime to be recorded on his cross, and what Pilate wrote tied in with his earlier words (18.39; 19.14, 15). The Jews had charged Him with claiming to be a king, so Pilate was determined to let the Jews know that he saw Jesus as their king. Something about Jesus had impressed him, and besides, he hated these proud, demanding priests. He possibly felt that Jesus was their superior. So he was being deliberately provocative. The use of three languages ensured that all could read it wherever they came from. Aramaic was often spoken of as ‘Hebrew’. Aramaic and Greek were the two popular languages in the area.
The cross was clearly in a very public place where many people passed by and as they passed they read what was written. The city was still full of people there for the Passover, which would include many Galileans. And as they looked at this One whom they had seen as a prophet, no doubt many a word was said, and many a rumour passed round. The King of the Jews had been crucified. And the stories built up, and blame was ascribed. It is not surprising that the Chief Priests were unhappy.
They therefore approached Pilate to ask him to change the words. But Pilate knew that he was on safe ground here. He had had enough of these interfering priests, and it must have given him great pleasure to be able to say, ‘what I have written, I have written.’ As far as he was concerned, if anyone deserved that miserable title of ‘King of the Jews’ it was Jesus. As far as the writer was concerned he wanted his readers to know that Jesus’ claim bore Pilate’s approbation.
‘The chief priests of the Jews’. This is an expression only used here. There is an ironic contrast between ‘the king of the Jews’ and the ‘chief priests of the Jews’. He came to His own and His own received Him not (1.11). They were the chief priests of the very people over whom He was king, but they disowned Him. And they were supposed to be representing God.
19.23-24 ‘The soldiers therefore, when they had crucified Jesus, took his clothes and made four parts, to every soldier a part, and they also took the coat. Now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. They said therefore one to another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, who shall have it”, that the Scripture might be fulfilled which says, ‘they parted my clothes among them and on my raiment did they cast lots’ (Psalm 22.18). These things therefore the soldiers did.’
His degradation was emphasised by the fact that having been stripped naked, His bloodstained clothes were divided up among themselves by the members of the escort. It was in fact normal for those who carried out a crucifixion to share the possessions of the victim. Jesus would have had an escort of four and these four divided up His clothes.
‘The coat was seamless.’ This was similar to the robe of the High Priest (Exodus 28.31-32) and the connection may have been in John’s mind. The thought is that it was unmarred and complete in itself. Far more important to him, however, was that it ensured the exact fulfilment of Psalm 22.18. For it made the soldiers cast lots for it, so that just as the Psalmist had prophesied, the soldiers ‘did it’.
‘Also the coat’. A difficult phrase possibly put in later as an explanatory note to make the situation clear. It is not found in the Bodmer papyrus. But it does not matter whether we include it or not. The meaning is clear enough with it or without it.
19.25 ‘But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas and Mary Magdalene.’
As it is unlikely that Mary’s sister would also be called Mary we must probably see this as referring to four women, Mary and her sister; together with Mary Magdalene and Mary of Clopas. Mary’s sister may well have been called Salome (Mark 15.40), and may well have been the mother of James and John (Matthew 27.56). In fact this would explain the anonymity. The writer never mentions names of those connected with James and John, a further confirmation that John is the author. There is therefore a contrast between these four faithful followers and the four soldiers who carried out the crucifixion.
Mary Magdalene was a woman out of whom Jesus had cast seven devils (Mark 16.9). There is absolutely no reason why we should assume that she was an unchaste woman. Later tradition was probably the result of speculation. (Woe betide facts when a man finds a sermon coming on).
We know that a number of women followed Jesus and His disciples about at various times and sometimes provided for them financially (Luke 8.3). They would form a female unit. It was to their credit that they were there at His hour of greatest need. But to be fair to the disciples the women would not be seen to be in as great a danger as the Apostles who saw themselves as marked men and liable to arrest.
19.26-27 ‘When therefore Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he says to his mother, “Woman, behold your son”. Then he says to the disciple, “behold, your mother”. And from that hour the disciple took her into his own family circle.’
Jesus’ love and concern for His mother comes out here. Sometimes He had had to rebuke her when she had sought to interfere with His ministry, but His love for her never wavered. Now at this moment of His supreme agony some of His thoughts were for her. Basically He was saying to her, ‘here is someone you can look to’, and to John, ‘look after her’.
‘Woman’. Gentle, friendly and kind but not as intimate as ‘mother’. The equivalent to a Yorkshireman would be ‘lass’ or to a Scotsman ‘lassie’. It is noteworthy that Jesus never referred to Mary as ‘mother’. Once He had begun His ministry there had to be that small difference subtly revealed, for He now belonged to the people of God as a whole (Mark 3.35). But that His concern for her had been genuine comes out here in His provision for her. ‘Woman’ stresses that she was one of humankind. Jesus never at any stage gave reason to believe that she was to be seen as unique. (In one sense only was she unique, that she was the human being through whom Jesus was born into the world. But the conception was the work of God the Holy Spirit. His Godhead was not of Mary. That is why the later early church would insist that she be called ‘theopheros’ - ‘God-bearer’, and not ‘the mother of God’. The latter came into emphasis later in a more heretical age ).
‘Behold your son’. Once the father was dead the son was responsible for looking after the mother both spiritually and materially. This responsibility Jesus now passed on to John. Mary could look to him in the future. He knew that John’s heart would respond to Mary’s needs, especially in the short term when she would need it most. For it was now that He did not want her to be without understanding support.
‘Behold your mother.’ He asked John to take on the responsibility that was His. The idea was that he would take responsibility for her, not that he should come under the authority of Mary.
But what of His brothers? They were seemingly not there at the cross, and they should have been for He was their brother, so He could not charge them with the task. He thus turned to the one who alone was there and available. His mother needed help now. Nor were Jesus’ brothers at this stage necessarily true followers of His. He thus showed here that He wanted His band to stay together and to love one another, assisting each other in whatever need. He wanted his mother to be a part of the ongoing work of the new church.
Many things have been read into these words which have exalted Mary above measure, but the facts are against it. None of such ideas are found in the New Testament. She was a good and godly woman. But we must not forget that the main reason she was chosen to bear Jesus was because she was betrothed to Joseph, the theoretical heir to the throne of Israel, not because she was exceptional in other ways. It was many centuries later, when men began to look for a mother figure, that all the sentimental ideas clung to by the Roman Catholic church began to creep in and at last took over. For men have always had a weak spot for womankind. In later centuries as doctrine developed some would begin to call her ‘the mother of God’, but the earlier church as a whole objected to this and it was finally agreed that she should be called ‘theopheros’, the God-bearer, but not the mother of God, for she was not the source of Jesus’ Godhood.
19.28 ‘After this Jesus, knowing that all things are now finished that the Scripture might be accomplished, says “I thirst”.’
‘All things are now finished that the Scripture might be accomplished’ (compare Matthew 26.56). We cannot even begin to comprehend the fullness of these words, nor the depth of the things that had to be accomplished. He had bruised the Serpent’s head (Genesis 3.15), He had made Himself an offering for sin (Isaiah 53.10), He had been wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, He had borne in Himself the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53.5-6), He had brought healing in His wings (Malachi 4.2). He had made Himself the all-sufficient Redeemer of mankind (Isaiah 59.20; Jeremiah 50.34). He had perfected for ever those who are being sanctified (Hebrews 10.14). To comment properly on this verse we would need to go through the Bible verse by verse and chapter by chapter to reveal all the ways in which He fulfilled them. But what mattered most was that all that had to be done had been done. Thus the specific Scripture in mind may have been Psalm 22.31, suggested by the later cry ‘it is finished’.
Now He was free to think of His own needs. “I am thirsty”. Was this a plea for something to assuage His bodily need, or was it a cry to the Father in His longing for His Father’s presence (Psalm 42.1), a longing that could only be satisfied when He was fully restored to His Father? He had experienced the sufferings and desolation of the world, and now He knew its thirst (see Psalm 42.2, ‘My soul thirsts for God, for the living God’).
Many link ‘that the Scripture might be fulfilled’ with ‘I thirst’, but in our view it fits far better with the previous phrase (compare Matthew 26.56). There is no example in John or anywhere in the New Testament where ‘that the Scripture might be fulfilled’ is followed by, ‘he says’. Always it is followed immediately by the direct quote or by ‘which says’.
For the context reference should be made to Psalm 69.21 where the Psalmist says, ‘in my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink’, compare John 2.17 where the same Psalm is in mind.
The Psalmist in 22.15 also knew this thirst. There is no question but that that Psalm figured heavily in thoughts about the crucifixion and that Jesus saw Himself as going through a similar experience to that of the Psalmist. He quoted the first verse, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15.34; Matthew 27.46), He quoted the last verse “It is finished” (‘he has done it’) - (verse 30). He was scorned by the crowds (verse 7), He was poured out like water and all His bones were out of joint (verse 14), He declared His great thirst (verse 15) and His clothes were divided up (verse 18). But in neither case does the Psalmist specifically say, ‘I thirst’.
19.29 ‘There was set there a vessel full of sour wine. So they put a sponge full of sour wine on hyssop and brought it to his mouth.’
Near the cross was a vessel of sour wine. ‘Sour wine’ was soldiers’ wine and it was natural that the escort would have wine there to satisfy their needs and keep out the cold. It may therefore be that it was one of the soldiers who took pity on Jesus. But what a vivid picture we have here. The Saviour of the world, having died for the redemption of the world, receives from it cheap, sour wine when they should have laid the world at His feet. Yet we must not denigrate the act. It was remembered in Heaven.
‘On hyssop’. Because hyssop as known to us does not have a long stalk it has been suggested that a pike or javelin was used (necessitating a slight change in the Greek). But a long stalk would not be necessary. Jesus would be hung just off the ground and easily reachable. Besides the term hyssop may have been loosely applied to more than one plant, and part of the significance here is what hyssop indicated for it was connected with sacrifice and with the Passover (Exodus 12.22).
19.30 ‘When Jesus therefore had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished”, and he bowed his head and yielded up his spirit.’
All the Gospels tell us that ‘Jesus cried again with a loud voice’. Only John tells us what He said. “It is finished”, ‘tetelestai’, is the same verb as used in verse 28. All was now finished. God’s will had been done. As the final words in Psalm 22 tell us ‘He has done it’. God’s work had been accomplished, and Jesus had successfully completed His mission. The means of the world’s salvation had now been provided, and we can only bow in wonder. Interestingly we know from papyri that tetelestai would be written across invoices to indicate ‘paid in full’. He had given His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10.45).
‘And he bowed his head and yielded up his spirit.’ As He had said earlier, no one would take His life from Him, He would freely offer it up Himself (John 10.18). Here then He bowed His head and gave consent to His death and then deliberately yielded Himself into the hands of the Father. He was in control to the end
As we conclude this passage we should note that John has laid stress on two sayings which both reflect Jesus’ humanity, care for His mother and thirst. Amidst all the pointers to Christ’s divinity he wants us to know that Jesus was truly human. This was no demigod who strode the clouds and watched from afar but a living, human person dying a human death.
19.31 ‘The Judaisers therefore, because it was Friday (or the preparation), that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath, for the day of that Sabbath was a high day, asked of Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.’
‘Because it was Friday, or the preparation’. Paraskeue regularly means Friday, for it was the day of preparation for the Sabbath (see verse 14). Here the Sabbath is also a high day, a special day of the Feast, because it was the Sabbath of Passover week and in this case the day on which the Omer sheaf was presented (Leviticus 23.11). It may, however, be that paraskeue simply refers to the day of preparation prior to the Passover sabbath, for the 15th of Nisan was always a sabbath. It may not refer to the day of the week at all.
‘That the bodies should not remain on the cross.’ The breaking of the legs was to hasten their deaths, so that the bodies could be removed before the commencement of the Sabbath at around 6.00 p.m (sunset). Deuteronomy 21.22-23 and Joshua 8.29 specify that the bodies of executed criminals who have been hanged on a tree should not remain there overnight lest they defile the land, and according to Josephus this law was interpreted in the first century to cover the bodies of those who had been crucified. Philo of Alexandria also mentions that on occasion, especially at festivals, the bodies were taken down and given to relatives to bury (Flaccus 10 (83)). Thus while this lies behind the request it was made only because the following day was an important Sabbath. The normal Roman practise would have been to leave the bodies on the crosses, to serve as a warning to other would-be offenders.
‘And that they might be taken away’. Their death was a death of shame and their remaining there overnight would have been seen as polluting the land. Thus in view of the high day they wanted the bodies taken away. Having crucified Jesus they did not want His body to get between them and His Father!
19.32-34 ‘The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who was crucified with him, but when they came to Jesus and saw that he was dead already they did not break his legs. However, one of the soldiers did pierce his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water.’
The shock of the painful smashing of the legs (crurifragium) by means of a heavy mallet or a bar of iron brought on premature death. The fact that Jesus legs were not broken John sees as significant (see following verses). The soldier did however pierce His side to see if He would still bleed, and thus prove to be alive.
‘There came out blood and water.’ John surely has in mind the blood which represented His death for mankind and the water which symbolised the Holy Spirit of life. Through His death would now come forgiveness and life. Thus in 1 John 5.6 He is described as ‘He who came by water and blood, not with the water only but with the water and the blood’. The thought is that He came first in the power of the Spirit as revealed in John’s baptism which spoke of the Spirit poured forth from above, and then through death as an offering for sin. The latter, John stresses, was necessary if the experience of the Holy Spirit was to be available to all and through all.
Various expert medical opinions have verified the possibility of this phenomenon, with ideas ranging from extreme dilatation of the stomach to serious rupture of the heart. Whatever it was it showed that He had suffered deeply. But what is to be brought out is that this was clearly an eyewitness description, something now confirmed.
19.35-37 ‘And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true, and he knows that he says what is true that you also may believe. For these things came about that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘A bone of him shall not be broken’. And again another Scripture says, They shall look on him whom they pierced’.’
If we compare the first two phrases with John 21.24 we get the impression that this witness is the disciple whom Jesus loved, in other words John. So John bears personal testimony to what he saw and he confirms its truth. He saw Him die, he saw that no bone was broken, he saw Him pierced, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled.
‘A bone of him shall not be broken’. In Exodus 12.46 and Numbers 9.12 it was stressed that not a bone of the Passover lamb should be broken. It had to be partaken of whole and complete. It is clear that John sees Jesus as the Passover Lamb. Compare also Psalm 34.20 where the unbroken bones are the sign of one who is righteous. Thus are His purity and His sacrificial death confirmed.
‘They shall look on Him whom they pierced.’ See Zechariah 12.10. This was the day of the piercing of God’s anointed. It was the day for the opening of a fountain for sin and uncleanness (Zechariah 13.1) which followed the day when the Spirit of grace and supplication was poured out (Zechariah 12.10). Thus again we have the water and the blood mingled.
The Burial of Jesus (19.38-42).
God’s watch over events is brought out initially in that Jesus had been anointed for His death (12.7). Now He was to have proper burial.
19.38-40 ‘And after these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Judaisers, asked of Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. He came therefore and took away his body. And there came also Nicodemus, he who at the first came to him by night (3.1-15), bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about one hundred pound weight. So they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.’
As a result of Jesus’ death two men came out of the night into the light and both were prominent members of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23.51; John 3.1; 7.50-51). The first was Joseph of Arimathea. He was a rich and pious man who ‘was looking for the kingdom of God’ (Matthew 27.57; Mark 15.43), and he went to Pilate to ask for the body for burial. His success was probably aided by the fact that the remaining members of the Sanhedrin would be preparing for the Sabbath high day. His being a lay member of the Sanhedrin, and not implicated in the charges against Jesus, may have lent strength to his plea. But he would certainly be aware that what he was doing would soon come out, and it demonstrated that he was at last ready to show his true colours. ‘A disciple of Jesus’ simply indicates that He had heard Jesus’ teaching and was in sympathy with it.
The second was Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus ‘by night’ to learn from Him (3.1-15). Now he too comes into the day by bringing a great quantity of spices so that Jesus may have a proper burial. It is clear that they must have discussed the matter together so that Joseph, as the wealthy and influential elder, went to Pilate while Nicodemus went and bought the spices.
Thus was Jesus not cast in an unmarked grave and his body was not mutilated as was the common lot of criminals. Instead He was placed in the tomb of a rich man, being ‘with the rich in His death’ (Isaiah 53.9).
It would appear that a number of cloths were used to wrap the body mingled with the spices and that a larger linen cloth was then used to cover the body (Mark 15.46; Luke 23.53). Arms and legs would be bound to the body to prevent spasmodic movement, and a turban put round his head probably also holding up his chin from sagging.
19.41 ‘Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no man had ever yet been laid. There then, because of the Jews’ preparation, (for the tomb was nearby), they laid Jesus.’
The burial had to be accomplished quickly because of the coming Sabbath. But Joseph had this tomb conveniently near to the place of crucifixion. It had never been used (a Jewish tomb might be used to house a number of bodies of family members) and was in a garden. The mention of the unused tomb is to stress the importance of the One Who laid there. He was being treated as royalty. The thought may also be that it had not been defiled by death. Furthermore new, unused things were regularly used when God was seen as involved (compare 2 Samuel 6.3)
The fact that it was in a garden reminds us that when man first sinned that too was in a garden. Now a garden was seeing the death of the second Adam, He through Whose coming sacrifice the first Adam had been spared. We learn elsewhere that the tomb was cut out of the rock, that it had a low entrance and that a great stone was rolled across to cover the entrance. Many examples of such tombs are known.
That Jesus was buried was an important part of the New Testament message. It stressed that He was truly man in a human body and that He truly died. Paul could say, ‘He died, ---- and was buried’ (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). But in His case it was not the end. It was in preparation for a new beginning.
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