John (Part 68): To the Cross (ch 19)
Pilate had been wanting to find means to let Jesus go because he did not believe Jesus was a threat—he could not find any fault with him. But now in the midst of a conversation, as Pilate is interested in finding out whether there is any divine connection here, Jesus will not talk to him. Somewhat frustrated, Pilate lets Jesus know that he has the power to crucify him or release him. But Jesus responds that Pilate has no power except that which is given divinely. Further, that because God controls the situation, those who accused and turned Jesus over to Pilate have the greater sin.
Pilate actually appreciates this answer. It further settles in Pilate’s mind the fact that Jesus is no threat. Jesus is not staring defiantly at Pilate with the disdainful manner of an insurrectionist, just waiting to be released so he can wreak havoc. Rather, Jesus is comfortable in his condition, replying that God is directing even his capture. Further, Jesus does not even consider Rome an enemy upon which to place blame. Jesus has spoken of greater blame to his own people. So, Pilate redoubles his efforts to release Jesus.
However, the tricks and reasoning have all seemed to run out. Once more Pilate leads Jesus out to the angry Jews and says, “Here is your king!” Again, this is not a noble proclamation, but rather an invitation to realize how ridiculous the situation is. Jesus?—the scrawny, passive desert dweller?—this man, Pilate says, is who you are worried about claiming kingship? Surely they would see the impossibility. But the Jews continue to cry for him to be crucified.
Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your king?” appealing to their national pride. After all, if they worry about him being king of the Jews and Rome kills him, won’t it be another oppressive mark against Israel? But, incomprehensibly, these Rome-hating Jews cry out, “We have no king but Caesar!”
Pilate is left with no choice, and he turns Jesus over to the soldiers to be crucified.
But did Pilate really have no choice? Of course, he had a choice. But even facing the one who IS truth, Pilate ignores God’s truth and decides for himself. He mimics the deception and selfish concern that winds its way all the way back to the Garden. Eve was deceived about truth; Pilate is as well. Adam chose a truth based on his own selfish interest; Pilate chose the same.
The scene shifts now to the crucifixion. Jesus, John says, carries his own cross. While the Synoptics do say that another carried the cross, this is not a matter for inerrancy wrangling. Sure, Jesus could have started out with it, but unable to continue the soldiers made someone else do the heavy-lifting. But that’s not John’s point. John is not providing a narrative on how who brought the cross to Calvary. John is making a theological point that no one among the Jews—even his own disciples—or the governmental rule or anybody was coming to Jesus’s defense. Jesus was alone—he carried his cross, this burden in marching toward death—all alone.
The scene we see is meant to show shame. He is crucified between two criminals. The shame is not merely that crucifixion was for bad people and therefore shameful. Everything about this picture shows shame because it is death itself that is above all shameful. Life is relationship with God. Death is separation from God. Separation from God is shameful, and all humankind was lost in the grip of shameful death. And so John paints a shameful scene that Jesus approaches voluntarily for our sake.
Were these two criminals scheduled to be crucified that day? Probably not. But Pilate has them crucified—one on each side—to highlight the same mocking scorn he had been trying to lay on the Jews all along. Two guilty criminals—two robbers, killers, fighters, men of physical strength, cunning, and guile—surround this rather thin, rather diminutive, rather unforceful man. But it is this slight man in the middle that has a sign placed over him: “King of the Jews.” It is meant by Pilate as mockery—not to Jesus—but to the Jews who acted threatened by this most unthreatening-looking man. And then the soldiers cast lots for his clothes. John reminds us that this clothes divvying was foretold in Scripture—in Psalm 22, a psalm full of additional description of shame.
But then against this backdrop of shame, John reveals purpose. Mary, Jesus’s mother, is there at the foot of the cross. So is John. Jesus tells Mary to look to John for care, and he tells John to care for Mary. Why this? Why now? Jesus had known earlier he was about to face this moment. Could he not have told John at the meal the previous evening to take care of his mother? Is this simply showing a good son looking out for his mother? I don’t think so.
Although John doesn’t give a birth narrative in his Gospel as do Matthew and Luke, John does mention the coming forth of the Messiah from a woman in Revelation 12. There we see a woman who gives birth to a male child who would shepherd the nations. Some interpreters see this woman as Mary, since Mary is the one who gave birth to Jesus. But most scholars understand the woman to be Israel—the nation. The picture is of the Messiah coming forth from the Jews pictured as a child being born to a mother. This, I think, is the picture we are to see with Mary and Jesus. Jesus the person was born of Mary. But that birthing imaged the greater idea that the Messiah came from Israel. As the Messiah accomplishes his task and is about to leave, he turns back to Israel (as Jesus is turning his attention back to Mary) and puts his people—the true Israel of God—into the care of the disciples (represented here by John). Thus, the incident is not merely about a son being nice to his mother, but rather about the theological import of what Jesus is doing in accomplishing salvation and then as he leaves the earth to give care of this gospel message to the disciples as they carry it to those who will hear—the church—the Israel of God.
Verse 28 next tells us that Jesus knew everything was now accomplished. He then said that he is thirsty. It is not that everything was accomplished so now he could spend time on his own needs. Even this picture of his thirst is meant as a picture of purpose. A jar of vinegar didn’t just happen to be sitting there. We know from other historians that vinegar (an intentionally soured wine) was standard issue for soldiers. Of course, they wouldn’t carry water that could become bacteria laden. So they were issued this drink that would refresh them in their duties. The drink was mixed with myrrh, an oil that can have a sweet aroma. The myrrh countered the sour taste of the vinegar. When Jesus first is brought to Calvary, they try to give him this vinegar drink mixed with gall—a bile that would dull his senses so that the pain is not so great. But Jesus refused that (Mt 27:34). But now on the cross, the give him the vinegar for his thirst. Verse 29 tells us they dipped a sponge in the vinegar, attached it to a branch of hyssop, and reached it up to him. Remember that this is done on Passover. The scene’s picture should remind us of the first Passover. By God’s instruction, Moses told the people in Exodus 12:22 to dip a cluster of hyssop in the blood of the sacrifice and, reaching up, brush that across the lintel and doorposts of their home. The blood of sacrifice, wiped on the door with the hyssop, is what we should see as the sour wine (symbolizing sacrificial blood) is given by the hyssop branch (not to be wiped on the cross) but to be taken in by Jesus, who is the door to escape from the judgment of God.