John now shows us the great sign to which his gospel has been pointing – the cross of Christ. He has carefully selected seven statements and seven signs to answer the question, “Who is Jesus and how can I be certain that his claims are true?” These statements each begin with the declaration “I am”:
- “I am the bread of life” (6:35, 41, 48-51)
- “I am the light of the world” (8:12, 9:5)
- “I am the door of the sheep” (10:7, 9)
- “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd gives his life for the sheep” (10:11,14)
- “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25)
- “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6)
- “I am the true vine” (15:1,5)
Notice that each of these signs point to “the hour” of his death and our text today in John 19. In fact, a deeper look will show that Jesus’ death provides the gift that each of the signs promises. So, the cross is indeed the greatest sign that demonstrates Jesus is the Christ. John has already reminded us of the significance of Jesus’ death, even before he describes the scene. We see, for example, how John the Baptist had pointed out that Jesus was “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1.29). In another instance, Jesus himself declared, “…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (3.14-15). Jesus is also “the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep” (10.11). The very last day of his public ministry Jesus had stated that by him being lifted up on the cross, he would draw all men to himself (12.32). We can almost hear John saying, “Now, let me tell you what actually happened, and then the meaning of all I’ve been writing about will become clear.”
Following Jesus’ arrest and trial, Pilate relents to the crowd’s manipulation (v.12) and places Jesus in the hands of the Roman soldiers (v.16). John’s aim is for us to see the theology behind this event. So, he tells this story in a straightforward, simple way, with very limited details.
The Crucifixion (16b-18)
It was the custom for a condemned criminal to carry his own cross to the place of execution. He would not be carrying the whole cross, but the crossbeam (Lat. patibulum), which would later be attached to a larger, vertical post (Lat. staticulum). By this point, however, Jesus was already bruised, bloody, and likely in total shock from the brutal scourging applied by the Roman soldiers. The other gospel writers indicate that while carrying this cross beam, Jesus falls down under its weight and this crossbeam is given to a bystander named Simon from Cyrene (Mark 15.21, Luke 23.26).
Jesus’ journey takes him outside the city gates and to a public place where everyone will be sure to see. John’s naming of the place in v.17 (Golgotha, The Place of a Skull) is surely meant to focus us on the certainty and horror of Jesus’ death. However, instead of focusing on the pain Jesus endures on the cross and the gory details of crucifixion, John simply says, “There they crucified him.”
He adds (along with the other gospel writers) that Jesus was crucified with “two others”. Mark and Luke refer to these two men as “bandits” or “robbers” (Gk. Lestes). Scholars tell us that the word is best translated “terrorist”.
The Crime (19-22)
According to custom, Pilate has a sign placed on the cross to provide written notice of the criminal’s name and the activity, which deserved death – a warning to all who saw it. This plays out as a bit of irony for Pilate, since he seems to want to pay back the Jewish council for embarrassing him publicly. In reality, the inscription stated the truth of who Jesus really was. Of course, Pilate didn’t mean it in that way, but it stuck, along with his insult, much to the chagrin of the Jews.
Though not intended as such, the cross, then, is the means of Jesus’ exaltation and glory. Jesus is indeed a crucified King. F.F. Bruce’s comment is worth noting: “The Crucified One is the true king, the kingliest king of all; because it is he who is stretched on the cross, he turns an obscene instrument of torture into a throne of glory and ‘reigns from the tree’”.
The Contrast (23-27)
The account also highlights a striking contrast between the four cold-hearted soldiers and the four devoted women at the foot of the cross. The law provided the opportunity for the executioners to divide the spoils of the victim. John tells us that the soldiers initially divided Jesus’ clothes into four parts (possibly a belt, sandals, head covering, outer robe or cloak). That left them to gamble over the tunic (23-24). There is something absolutely bitter and personal about this scene and reveals the callous unbelief of these soldiers. Jesus himself speaks of it in prophetic words from Psalm 22.18: “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” John writes, “So the soldiers did these things, 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Other than the presence of these devoted women and John, the implication is that God has absolutely abandoned Jesus (see Mt. 27.46). The dividing of His clothes seem an especially emotional and poignant image of just how personal this was for Jesus.
The Conclusion (26-33)
John records three statements of Jesus upon the cross:
- • “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” (vv.26-27). Even in his dying, Jesus thinks about and makes provision for his mother.
- • “I thirst.” The One who offers to quench the thirst of every man is himself thirsty. Jesus, for our sake, drank the sour wine and tasted death for each of us (Heb. 2.9).
- • “It is finished.” No one took Jesus’ life. He gave it. He is not at the mercy of historical events. He controls them, even to the point of choosing when He himself would die for our sins and when He would rise again (cf. 10.17-18).
John takes pains to show us that Jesus was in control of his own death. Soldiers would break the legs of crucified victims to hasten their death before the Jewish Sabbath. John explains that Jesus was already dead when they came to him. To confirm it, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear. Blood and water flowed out, which some commentators understand to mean that his heart literally had broken.
When we look at the death of Christ, we often see it as a tragedy of sorts. Nothing could be further from the truth. The hour of his death is the hour of glory. For there, Jesus took our sins upon himself. Indeed, He became sin for us that he might bring us life. It was not a defeat but a glorious victory.
As far as we know, John is the only gospel writer to have actually witnessed the crucifixion. Near the end of his life, he writes from heaven’s perspective of this event in the book of Revelation:
“Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!’” (Rev. 5.11-12).