As you know, each of the Gospel writers contributes something to the account of the crucifixion that is not found in the other reports. Tatian, in the second century was the first to publish the four gospels together in a single work and he called that work the Diatessaron, or four-fold harmony. For that is what the four Gospels are. Each gospel writer sings a part that is complete in itself, a part suited to his particular voice, but together they make a beautiful harmony, something greater than the sum of its parts. John, just as do Matthew, Mark, and Luke, adds some details that the other Gospel writers do not, though his report, in the main, follows quite closely the account of the crucifixion as it is given in the Gospel of Mark. It is an ancient observation, however, that all of the Gospel accounts are remarkably chaste and artless, characterized by a striking lack of embellishment or, even, of commentary. They display what has been called “a noble reticence.” Here is the greatest thing that ever happened, the most remarkable event in the history of the world, and it is told very simply with no adornment and in very few verses. As Calvin comments, “…these matters call for secret meditation, rather than for the ornament of words.”
v.16 It was here, probably, that the soldiers administered the terrible beating and scourging that the other gospel writers record and that was commonly preliminary to crucifixion.
v.17 The Latin writer, Plutarch, writes in one of his works, “Each criminal as part of his punishment carries his cross on his back.” The reference is to the cross bar not the upright post, which was permanently fixed in the ground at the execution site. The other gospels tell us that Jesus, exhausted from a night without sleep and further much weakened from the two beatings he had endured, could not make it all the way to Golgotha and the soldiers had to commandeer a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, to carry the Lord’s cross the rest of the way.
v.18 Typically the victim was made to lie on his back on the ground. His arms where then stretched out and nailed to the cross bar. The cross bar was then lifted and secured to the upright and the man’s feet were nailed to it. It was a manner of death calculated to produce the maximum possible agony. To breathe, the victim had to push himself up, excruciatingly painful as that was. Muscle spasms wracked the body but collapse meant asphyxiation. Then, already beaten to a pulp, the criminal hung in the hot near-eastern sun and endured a terrible thirst.
v.22 It was customary for the crime for which the man was being executed to be written on a placard that was then fastened to the cross. This enhanced the deterrent effect of crucifixion. Everyone could see what crime he was being punished for and learn not to commit that crime himself! In this case it indicates the formal charge against Jesus as well as being Pilate’s last taunt, his revenge on the Jews for having put him in this uncomfortable position of executing a man he knew full well to be innocent. Of course, John expects that his Christian readers will understand the irony. Jesus, of course, was the King of the Jews and the Roman governor was unwittingly publishing that fact to the world.
v.24 Roman legal texts confirm that it was the accepted custom that the executioner’s squad would share out the minor possessions of the victim. In this case there were four soldiers in the squad.
The citation is from Psalm 22:18. In that psalm, written at a time of great trial in his life, David used the symbolism of an execution scene – especially this part of it, that the executioners are dividing his clothes among them – to depict his sense of abandonment. In David’s case it was a figure, an illustration. But David being the forerunner of Christ and an enacted prophecy of the Messiah, the final reference of the Psalm is to Christ himself and his own personal history. That reference is made all the more specific in Matthew and Mark where we read that on the cross the Lord cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” which is the first verse of that same Psalm 22.
v.27 The Lord had siblings, of course, Joseph and Mary’s younger sons and daughters. However, they were not sympathetic to him at this time – though would become so after his resurrection – and, in any case, they may not have been in Jerusalem at this time. They lived in Galilee, after all.
v.28 It is not absolutely certain what text the Lord was referring to. In Psalm 22:15, the psalm already quoted, there is a reference to David’s tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth, which, presumably, means his mouth was dry from thirst. However, most think the reference was to Psalm 69:21 [“They gave me vinegar for my thirst.”] That psalm has been cited twice before in the Gospel of John – 2:17 and 15:25 – and, more important, fits with the verse that now follows.
v.29 This drink is not to be confused with the “wine mixed with myrrh” which some kindly people offered to him before (Mark 15:23). That drink was a sedative, designed to dull the pain, and Jesus refused it. He had to have a clear head for what was to come because he still had work to do. This drink now offered to him could in fact prolong his life and his pain. This drink was the cheap thirst quencher the soldiers and common people would have themselves drunk.
v.34 I am not going to regale you with all the medical opinions concerning precisely where the Lord must have been stabbed and what fluid came out and how it was that it was separated into blood and water, or perhaps more likely, clearer serum and the deep red part of the blood that remained. Medical experts have experimented on cadavers and reproduced the same effect.
What is clear here is that what is being emphasized is that Jesus actually died, that he was dead and was taken dead from the cross. Already when John wrote his Gospel, there were theories abroad that Jesus only appeared to die. There were those, under the influence of the prevailing philosophy of the time, who thought that Jesus, being God, could not die. John will have none of that. Jesus died beyond a shadow of a doubt. It has long been suggested that there must be some symbolism here: water is baptism, blood is the Lord’s Supper; water is the Holy Spirit, blood the redemption of Christ and so on. You often find this symbolism taken up in hymns. Toplady’s Rock of Ages has the lines, “Let the water and the blood, from thy riven side which flowed, be of sin the double cure, cleanse me from its guilt and power.” Of course, you could take Toplady there simply to be referring to the death of Christ as overcoming both sin’s guilt and its power. It is not clear, in any case, that any such symbolism was actually intended. It seems in the context to be an eyewitness recollection intended to demonstrate that the Lord Jesus indeed died on the cross. He did not merely appear to die.
v.35 The importance of the evidence of v. 34 (and the fact that the soldiers didn’t even need to break the Lord’s bones) is emphasized now in v. 35. John was there. He saw Jesus die. Just as he saw his glory, as he said in 1:14, he also saw his death.
v.36 The reference is probably either to Exodus 12:46 or Numbers 9:12, both of which make the point that no bone of the Passover Lamb was to be broken. In Psalm 34:20 we read that God so cares for the righteous man that “he protects all of his bones, not one of them will be broken.”
v.37 The reference here is to Zechariah 12:10. John doesn’t elaborate; he simply uses the text to confirm that the Messiah would be pierced.
Elder Pribyl and I were this past week in Dallas, Texas, at the General Assembly of our Presbyterian Church in America. Wednesday afternoon we took time to visit The Sixth Floor Museum located just several blocks from our downtown hotel. This is the museum located on the sixth floor of the building that was formerly the Texas Book Depository, the building and the very floor of the building from which Lee Harvey Oswald, on November 22, 1963, fired the shots that killed then President John F. Kennedy. One can look down upon the street from windows on that sixth floor and see in one’s mind’s eye the scene that every American citizen has seen a hundred times since that fateful day. Those of you old enough can remember exactly where you were when you first heard the news. And the same can be said of adults our age all over the world. It was not simply an American tragedy, an event of modern American history. As the museum reminded us, it was an event that changed the world. It was a defining moment of modern world history. The modern world would never be quite the same. More than just an American president died that day. If there ever could be said to have been an age of innocence in American history, it ended in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963.
Well, as much a watershed in history as was the assassination of President Kennedy, that event pales into nothingness in comparison with another death, another cruel, heartless, murder, one that is still exercising its influence on the course of human history and the life of every individual human being, even now, these some 2000 years later.
Even those who are not followers of Christ cannot escape the influence of the cross in human life. Churches are built in its shape, poets have bent their genius to consider it as the great symbol or image of human love and sacrifice, we wear it as jewelry around our necks in gold and silver, it is emblazoned on the flags of many nations, and on and on. And all this besides the fact that, through these two thousand years, it has drawn vast multitudes of people to it as the hope and meaning of their lives. I was sitting next to a couple on the plane last Friday night who were Christians. What did we have in common but the cross of Jesus Christ? No event has had a greater impact on human history and no event so profoundly connects this life to the world to come as the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
The most important aspect of the account of the crucifixion as given by the four Gospel writers is its historicity. All of them present the crucifixion, as they will the resurrection that followed it, as an event in space and time, a real event in human history, an occurrence on a Spring day outside of Jerusalem during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. The great interpretation of the meaning of the event is given elsewhere, both in the Gospels and in the rest of the NT. Christ died for sinners, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. He gave his life a ransom for many. He paid the debt of our sins and cancelled that debt. He became a curse for us. And we can find many more statements like that.
But, the Gospel writers, and John is no exception, also have their own specific emphases as they relate to circumstances of the crucifixion. As artless and restrained as this narrative is, as marked by reticence and a perfect restraint as it is, as little as John elaborates or explains the meaning of all that he relates of the crucifixion of the Savior, there are depths to plumb here and clearly the evangelist is intending to make important points in his own narration of these events, points that are not the same as the emphases one gets in the other Gospels that are narrating the same event. And in the case of John’s Gospel, the writer wears his heart on his sleeve. He lets us know in no uncertain terms how he wants us to think of the crucifixion.
- In the first place, John tells us that all that happened that day, on Golgatha, outside of Jerusalem, was the fulfillment of the Father’s plan for the salvation of the world.
Cruel as all of this was, unjust, despicable, it was precisely what Jesus came into the world to do. Terrible as it was for him – and we know very little of how terrible it was for him [In the lovely hymn the poet says with great insight, “The cross is sharp but in thy woe, this is the lightest part; our sin it is that pierces thee, and breaks thy sacred heart.”] – I say, terrible as it was for him, it was exactly the assignment he had received from his Father and precisely what he had set his face to do and said he would do all through the days of his public ministry.
You have seen how John makes a point of this in his account of the crucifixion. Three times in these few verses John makes a point of explaining that something happened “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” He says that first in regard to the dividing of the Lord’s clothes by the execution squad. This doesn’t mean that the soldiers intentionally complied with the Scripture, or knew that they were fulfilling an ancient prophecy. They knew nothing of the kind. John means that God so superintended the unfolding event, down to its very details, that all things occurred in such a way as to fulfill the ancient prophecies of the Messiah and his work
Then, again, in v. 28, he says in regard to the Lord’s being given wine vinegar to drink that this happened, “so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.” And, then, once more, in v. 36, John makes a point of saying that the soldier’s finding the Lord already dead after just three hours on the cross – victims of crucifixion could live for days in that agony – their piercing his side to leave the matter in no doubt, their deciding not to bother to break his legs, all of this as well, each and every particular circumstance, “happened so that the Scripture would be fulfilled.” Long ago it had been prophesied that he would die in this way, with none of his bones broken, a striking exception to the ordinary treatment of the crucified, and that he would be pierced, as well, not what one would expect at a crucifixion.
Jesus, as we have seen in the last two chapters, was put to death by a coalition of definite historical forces. Church and state and people all combined to destroy him. Pharisaic and Sadducean envy, blindness, fear and intolerance, priestly exclusiveness and self-seeking as exemplified in Caiaphas, imperial policy and power as embodied in Pilate, popular disappointment and resentment and revenge as seen in the Jerusalem mob – these were the things which put Jesus on the cross. But it would be a profound mistake to suppose that these historic forces were the final, determining factor. Jesus was not driven to death by these forces. They were the forces that divine providence used to put him on the cross. But he went to death by crucifixion because it was God’s plan for him to die and to die in that way and no other. It was the purpose for which he had been sent into the world that he should die on that cross, wracked by that terrible thirst. It was the Father’s will and the Father’s love for his people that put the Son there and the Son’s willing submission to and undertaking of his Father’s plan, because this was what had to be done if we were to be saved. There is certainly no separation between the Father and the Son here. There is certainly none of that preposterous notion that you still hear from time to time that the Son went to the cross to persuade his Father to love his people instead of to curse them and punish them. The Son went to fulfill the Father’s plan, as we have heard many times in this Gospel already and as John wishes to emphasize to us once more in his account of the crucifixion itself. This was all according to plan. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him, should not perish but have everlasting life.” See the genius and the love and the power of God all combining to accomplish by these so terrible and yet so necessary means, your salvation and mine.
- But there is a second emphasis here that is a special feature of John’s account and that is that the crucifixion was an act of obedience on the part of the Lord Jesus.
We think of his suffering on the cross, but we do not so often or so carefully think of his obedience there. But it is an emphasis here. John makes a point of recording the tender care the Lord showed for his mother while in his own agony on the cross. While his life was ebbing away he kept the fifth commandment as the dutiful son he had always been. But there is much more obedience on his part than this.
In v. 28, John tells us that Jesus acted explicitly so as to fulfill the Scripture. Indeed, some have suggested that John intends us to understand that Jesus said, “I thirst,” that he gave voice to that terrible agony of thirst, precisely so that they would give him the wine vinegar and fulfill the prophecy of Psalm 69:21. It seems even that he took the wine so as to be able to say, “It is finished.” “It is finished,” the NIV’s translation of a single Greek verb, is not entirely captured by any short English phrase. “It is finished” here includes the idea of the completion or the carrying out of a task. In John 17:4, for example, the Lord had said to the Father, in his prayer in the Upper Room, “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.” That’s another form of the same verb is used there. This is the idea of many earlier statements recorded in this Gospel to the effect that the Lord came into the world with an assignment to fulfill, an assignment given him by his Father in Heaven. “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” (10:17-18) In any case, John is clearly emphasizing the fact that the Lord Jesus, while in his agony on the cross, was fulfilling the divine plan for the Messiah, the plan that had been laid down long before the Son of God came into the world to become a man. He was a loyal, faithful Son, doing his Father’s will to the very last and doing it down to the last detail. The cross is the culmination, in other words, of his filial obedience.
It was no helpless victim of cruel circumstances who died on Calvary; for in that sacrifice, as the NT from first to last insists, Jesus himself was priest and willingly laid down his soul upon the altar. ‘The Son of man came,’ he said, ‘…to give his life.’ (Mark 10:45) There was surely an element of necessity in all of this: ‘The Son of Man,’ he once said, ‘must suffer,… and be slain’ (Luke 9:22). But it was the necessity, not of the violence and hatred of the religious leaders or the people or Pilate, but of his own consuming love for his Father and for the people his Father had given to him. From the beginning Jesus had undertaken his work of world redemption with his eyes open, knowing full well the price and willingly accepting it. He had been given an assignment by the Father he loved with a stronger and purer and deeper love than anyone of us begins to understand. Out of that love for his Father that he has spoken of so often in this Gospel, out of the unity of his mind and heart with the Father, came his amazing calmness and self-possession as the end drew near. Never was the thinking of man further from the fact than when his judges and his executioners imagined themselves masters of the situation at last and controllers of his destiny. Jesus, was supremely master in that hour when he went to his death, “not beaten by human malice or dragged helplessly at the chariot wheels of fate,” but voluntarily, an obedient and dutiful Son, acting in accordance with the will of his Father and so victoriously completing his work. [J. Stalker, Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, 164-165.]
When Jesus said, “It is finished,” He was saying nothing more than what everyone else on Calvary was saying then – but with what a difference! It was finished for the soldiers, and they could go back to their barracks now. It was finished for his mother and Mary Magdalene and the broken hearted disciples who had loved him to the end, and they could go wearily back to a world that would never be the same. It was finished for the jesting priests and the rabble mob, and they could congratulate themselves that their vengeance was complete and they had rid themselves of the Nazarene. But when the man on the center cross suddenly raised his eyes to the heavens and cried out, “It is finished,” with all the remaining strength he could muster, the whole kingdom of darkness must have trembled to its foundations. For it was not simply the life and public ministry that was finally finished now for Jesus. This was no mere sigh of relief. The work he had come to do was finished, Satan’s empire was finished, the redeeming of the earth was finished, the sin, guilt, and death of the people of God were finished. With that last triumphant cry – and that is what it was, a cry of triumph, of victory – the soul of Jesus burst home into his Father’s presence. A faithful Son at last home with the Father he had served more faithfully than any Son had ever served a father. [From Stalker, 170-171]
See your salvation being accomplished before your eyes, brothers and sisters. Father and Son together. The Father’s love and the Father’s plan being brought to pass by the faithful Son. Is there anything more beautiful, more perfect, more essentially good than this? No wonder such a thing should save the world! Where were you when all of this was being done? You were two-thousand years yet to be born. You had nothing to do with it, nothing whatever. But you were there! You were there in the Father’s heart. You were embraced in his plan. You were there in the Son who loved you and gave himself for you. The most important event in the history of the world, and it was all about you! And all the words in all the worlds cannot describe what a wonder that is or what love and thanksgiving and service you owe to the Father and the Son because of it. I tell you in eternity to come you will care for nothing but that your life be an answer to that Friday afternoon! Be wise and make it an answer now!
It was strange and unsettling to be in the place where Oswald stood and fired the shots that killed President Kennedy. But it is infinitely more dreadful but also wonderful and life transforming to behold our own eternal life being purchased at such terrible cost to the Father and the Son, to see the Lord hung up on that cross and to know it all the eternal divine plan, to see the Father and the Son struggling, suffering together, to see such love in action, such genius, such power over sin, such perfect commitment in a human being, such filial devotion. All the other characters recede and only the Father and the Son are left, together accomplishing at terrible cost your happiness and mine! How wonderful that heaven should come to us because the Son of God loved his Father so and because both the Father and the Son loved us so that they were willing to suffer beyond our power to imagine to secure our salvation.