John 18:1 – 19:42
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John 18:1 – 19:42 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 18:1-2. WHEN JESUS HAD SPOKEN THESE WORDS
1When Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples over the brook (Greek: cheimarrou—brook or ravine) Kidron, where there was a garden, into which he and his disciples entered. 2Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples.
“When Jesus had spoken these words” (18:1). The phrase, “these words,” could refer to Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in chapter 17, but it seems likely that it would also include his Farewell Discourse (13:31—16:33) and possibly his comments in the earlier part of chapter 13 as well.
“he went out with his disciples over the brook Kidron” (18:1). “He went out” could mean either that he left the upper room or that he left Jerusalem.
The Kidron Valley is a deep ravine (approximately 200 feet deep as it passes the Mount of Olives—not easy to cross). It is located on the east side of Jerusalem, and it separates Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. At the bottom of the valley, the Kidron Brook carries substantial water during the rainy winter season but little or none during the summer. The valley begins north of Jerusalem and runs 15 miles to the Dead Sea. Given the relative elevations of Jerusalem (+2,500 feet) and the Dead Sea (1,300 feet below sea level), the Kidron Valley descends 3,800 feet in it brief course.
“where there was a garden, into which he and his disciples entered” (18:1). Matthew and Mark identify the garden as Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14:32), a garden that sits across the Kidron Valley from the temple. Luke tells us that, while Jesus was teaching in the temple toward the end of his ministry, he would spend the night at the Mount of Olives (Luke 21:37) where Gethsemane was located. Luke also tells us that it was Jesus’ custom to go to the Mount of Olives (22:39).
“Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, for Jesus often met there with his disciples” (18:2). A betrayer would not want to lead soldiers on a wild goose chase, so Judas’ knowledge of Jesus’ affinity for the Mount of Olives suits Judas’ purpose. The Mount of Olives makes a convenient place to arrest Jesus, because it would be deserted at night. The soldiers’ main concern would be not to stir up the populace, so this lonely place suits their purposes as well.
JOHN 18:3. HAVING TAKEN A DETACHMENT OF SOLDIERS AND OFFICERS
3Judas then, having taken a detachment (Greek: speiran) of soldiers and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees, came there with lanterns, torches, and weapons.
“a detachment (speiran) of soldiers.” A speiran is a Roman cohort—about 600 soldiers. These soldiers are charged with maintaining order during Passover when large crowds gather in Jerusalem and emotions run high. Usually the Romans augment their Jerusalem force during festivals with additional soldiers from Caesarea, so there would be an especially imposing presence of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem at this time. It is unlikely that the Roman commander would dispatch the entire cohort to arrest Jesus, so this is probably a small squad of soldiers.
“and officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees.” These would be the Jewish temple police, charged with maintaining order in the temple—presumably the same temple police who earlier chose not to arrest Jesus because “Never has anyone spoken like this!” (7:45).
“the chief priests and the Pharisees.” These chief priests and Pharisees are surely members of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews. They would be in charge of the temple police, and earlier criticized the temple police for their earlier failure to arrest Jesus (7:45-47). The Romans delegate some civil and criminal authority to the Sanhedrin, but this authority is limited and does not extend to capital crimes (18:31). Upon Jesus’ arrest, he will be taken to Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest (18:13), which leads us to believe that it is the temple police rather than the Roman soldiers who arrest Jesus in the garden.
JOHN 18:4-9. I AM HE
4Jesus therefore, knowing all the things that were happening to him, went forth, and said to them, “Who are you looking for?” 5They answered him, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus said to them, “I am he” (Greek: ego eimi). Judas also, who betrayed him, was standing with them. 6When therefore he said to them, “I am he,” they went backward, and fell to the ground. 7Again therefore he asked them, “Who are you looking for?” They said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” 8Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. If therefore you seek me, let these go their way,” 9that the word might be fulfilled which he spoke, “Of those whom you have given me, I have lost none.”
“Jesus therefore, knowing all the things that were happening to him, went forth, and said to them, ‘Who are you looking for?'” (18:4). Jesus’ hour has finally come (17:1), and he is prepared for it. He make no attempt to evade arrest, but rather seizes the initiative. Rather than waiting for Judas to point him out, he takes charge—asks who they are looking for.
The Synoptic Gospels mention that Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss (Matthew 26:49; Mark 14:45; Luke 22:47), but this Gospel leaves out that detail. The emphasis here is on Jesus as master of this situation.
“They answered him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus said to them, ‘I am he'” (ego eimi) (18:5). Jesus’ response, ego eimi, can be understood in either of two ways.
• First, it could be simply a way for Jesus to identify himself. That is the easiest way to understand ego eimi, and is surely the way that the Roman soldiers would have understood it.
• Second, ego eimi can be understood as coded language that refers back to Moses’ encounter with God many centuries earlier. On that occasion, when Moses asked God his name, God replied, “You shall tell the children of Israel this: ‘I AM has sent me to you'” (Exodus 3:14). In that verse, “I AM” is “ego eimi” in the Septuagint—the Greek version of the Old Testament. Also, in Isaiah 40-55, God uses this phrase, “I am,” over and over to refer to himself. In other words, ego eimi can be construed as God’s name. When Jesus applies ego eimi to himself, he could be identifying himself with God—as God.
Ego eimi is an important phrase in this Gospel, which includes seven “I am” sayings:
• “Ego eimi the bread of life” (6:35, 48; cf. 6:51)
• “Ego eimi the light of the world” (8:12)
• “Ego eimi the sheep’s door” (10:7)
• “Ego eimi the good shepherd” (10:11, 14)
• “Ego eimi the resurrection and the life” (11:25)
• “Ego eimi the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6)
• “Ego eimi the true vine” (15:1)
In these ego eimi statements, Jesus proclaims that he has come to meet our deepest needs (O’Day, 601).
“Judas also, who betrayed him, was standing with them” (18:5). The Gospels all brand Judas as a betrayer—that is his core identity. This Gospel also portrays him as a thief (12:6).
“When therefore he said to them, ‘I am he,’ they went backward, and fell to the ground” (18:6). The narration doesn’t make it clear whether the men who fell to the ground are Roman soldiers or Jewish temple police, but presumably it is the latter. As noted above, these temple police earlier failed to arrest Jesus because “Never has anyone spoken like this!” (7:45). While this resulted in their being criticized by the chief priests and Pharisees (7:45-47), it seems clear that they have not lost their respect—even awe—of Jesus. It seems possible that they might even have understood the significance of Jesus’ ego eimi statements (18:5-6).
“Again therefore he asked them, “Who are you looking for?” They said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ Jesus answered, ‘I told you that I am he. If therefore you seek me, let these go their way'” (18:7-8). Even as he faces death, the Good Shepherd demonstrates his concern for his sheep (Morris, 659). Jesus knows what to expect—knows that he faces a violent death—but his first thought is not for himself but rather for his disciples. He makes it clear that he is the one that they want, so there is no need for them to cause further problems for his disciples.
“that the word might be fulfilled which he spoke, ‘Of those whom you have given me, I have lost none'” (18:9). The word that Jesus had spoken was part of his prayer in chapter 17: “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in your name. Those whom you have given me I have kept. None of them is lost, except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (17:12). His concern for his disciples’ spiritual well-being is mirrored by his concern for their physical well-being.
JOHN 18:10-11. SIMON PETER, HAVING A SWORD, DREW IT
10Simon Peter therefore, having a sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus. 11Jesus therefore said to Peter, “Put the sword into its sheath. The cup which the Father has given me, shall I not surely drink it?”
“Simon Peter therefore, having a sword, drew it, and struck the high priest’s servant, and cut off his right ear. The servant’s name was Malchus” (18:10). Peter, always quick to act, strikes out against those who have come to arrest Jesus. His gesture reflects his spontaneity, his courage, and his commitment to Jesus, but it is a futile gesture. While we are not certain of the size of the group that has come to arrest Jesus, it is surely substantial—substantial enough to deal with any problem that they might encounter—more than substantial enough to deal with Jesus’ small band of disciples. Peter’s action reflects a determination to go down fighting rather than to allow this group to arrest Jesus unopposed. We must admire Peter’s courage and loyalty to Jesus, but his gesture has no chance of succeeding and every chance of bringing down the full force of Rome on all of Jesus’ disciples. It is a grand gesture, but foolish.
The Synoptic Gospels all report this incident (Matthew 26:51-52; Mark 14:47; Luke 22:49-51), but the Gospel of John is the only one that reports the names of Peter and Malchus.
“Jesus therefore said to Peter, ‘Put the sword into its sheath. The cup which the Father has given me, shall I not surely drink it?'” (18:11). Jesus’ words carry a mild rebuke, not because Peter has acted foolishly, but because Jesus must drink the cup that the Father has given him. The word “cup” is used frequently in the Old Testament in much the same way that we might use the word “lot”—i.e., fortune or destiny. In some cases it has a positive connotation—”my cup runs over” (Psalm 23:5), but in many cases it speaks of suffering or hardship—”On the wicked he will rain blazing coals; fire, sulfur, and scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup” (Psalm 11:6; cf. Isaiah 51:17, 22; Jeremiah 25:15; 49:12; Lamentations 4:12; Ezekiel 23:31-33; Habakkuk 2:16; Zechariah 12:2). When Jesus speaks of “the cup which the Father has given me,” he is speaking of a cup of suffering. But Jesus has no intention of trying to avoid this cup. The Father has given Jesus this cup, and it is for the purpose of drinking it that Jesus has come into the world.
18:12-14: SO THEY SEIZED JESUS AND BOUND HIM
12So the detachment, the commanding officer (Greek: chiliarchos—the commander of the cohort—literally, commander of a thousand), and the officers of the Jews, seized Jesus and bound him, 13and led him to Annas first, for he was father-in-law to Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. 14Now it was Caiaphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should perish for the people.
“So the detachment, the commanding officer (chiliarchos), and the officers of the Jews, seized Jesus and bound him” (18:12). Once again, this Gospel distinguishes between the Roman soldiers and the temple police. Together they arrest and bind Jesus—binding almost surely being a routine safeguard in situations like this.
Chiliarchos literally means “commander of a thousand,” so this is not just any Roman officer but is the commander of the Roman cohort. The presence of the cohort commander does not mean that the entire cohort is present at the garden, but does indicate the seriousness with which the Romans are taking the potential for trouble here. This commander can be only one place at a time, and has decided that this is the place that demands his presence at this moment.
“and led him to Annas first, for he was father-in-law to Caiaphas, who was high priest that year” (18:13). This is the only Gospel that reports the visit to Annas, who was high priest in earlier years—from 6-15 A.D. The office of high priest was supposed to be a lifetime appointment, but Valerius Gratus, prefect of Judea, deposed Annas in 15 A.D. This interference with their religious affairs would certainly have caused a good deal of resentment among the Jewish people, which partially explains Annas’ continuing influence even after he was deposed from office. His influence was such that he was able to effect the appointment of five of his sons as high priest, as well as his son-in-law, Caiaphas.
In the minds of many people, Annas is the legitimate high priest, even though he was deposed many years earlier. The fact that they bring Jesus first to Annas probably reflects his status as the patriarch of the high priestly family—and as the true high priest in the opinion of many. It seems likely that, when Annas sends Jesus to Caiaphas for further action (18:24), he will also send his assessment of Jesus and a recommendation regarding the action to be taken. As a patriarchal figure in a patriarchal society, Annas’ recommendation would carry great weight with Caiaphas.
The fact that they take Jesus first to Annas and then to Caiaphas suggests that the Roman soldiers, having insured that any potential for disturbance had been quelled, turned Jesus over to the temple police for further action.
“Caiaphas, who was high priest that year” (18:13). “This year” does not indicate that Caiaphas is high priest only for a year, but rather than he is the high priest in this world-changing year—the year of Christ’s crucifixion. Valerius Gratus, who deposed Annas as high priest in 15 A.D., appointed Caiaphas as high priest in 18 A.D.—a position that Caiaphas would hold until 36 A.D., when he was deposed by Vitellius.
“Now it was Caiaphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should perish for the people” (18:14). This refers to an incident reported earlier, where Caiaphas told the Sanhedrin, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:49-50). The Evangelist added the comment: “(Caiaphas) did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (11:49-52).
Matthew records that at Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin Caiaphas will rend his clothes when Jesus makes this “blasphemous” statement, “You have said it. Nevertheless, I tell you, after this you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of the sky” (Matthew 26:57-65).
JOHN 18:15-18. ARE YOU ALSO ONE OF THIS MAN’S DISCIPLES?
15Simon Peter followed Jesus, as did another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered in with Jesus into the court of the high priest; 16but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to her who kept the door, and brought in Peter. 17Then the maid who kept the door said to Peter, “Are you also one of this man’s disciples?” He said, “I am not.” 18Now the servants and the officers were standing there, having made a fire of coals, for it was cold. They were warming themselves. Peter was with them, standing and warming himself.
“Simon Peter followed Jesus, as did another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered in with Jesus into the court of the high priest”(18:15). Who is the disciple who accompanies Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest—identified here only as “another disciple”? The traditional answer is that he is the Apostle John, in part because he is not named. This Gospel has another unnamed disciple—the one “whom Jesus loved” (13:23; 20:2; 21:7, 20), who has traditionally been identified as the Apostle John. Could the unnamed “another disciple” (18:15) be the unnamed one “whom Jesus loved”? Could they both be John? That is possible but not certain.
The primary argument against identifying “another disciple” as John is the fact that this disciple “was known to the high priest” (18:15). It seems unlikely that a simple fisherman such as John (Matthew 4:21) would know the high priest well enough to obtain easy access to his courtyard—but that would not be impossible. Another possibility is that “another disciple” could be Joseph of Arimathea (15:43; 19:38) or Nicodemus (John 3; 7:50-51; 19:39)—well-placed men who could be expected to know the high priest and who were secret followers of Jesus.
“into the court of the high priest” (18:15). Verse 18:24 makes it clear that the high priest mentioned here and in 18:19 is Annas.
“but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to her who kept the door, and brought in Peter” (18:16). Imagine how lonely Peter must have felt as he watched Jesus and the other disciple disappear into the courtyard of the high priest—a place that would seem absolutely foreign to Peter. Given Peter’s impetuous nature, it is difficult to imagine him hesitating to enter the courtyard with Jesus, but it seems that the gate guard has barred him from entering. The unnamed disciple rectifies the situation by going outside the gate to help Peter gain admittance—a thoughtful act, especially given the stressful circumstances.
The fact that a woman is guarding the courtyard shows that this is not the temple courtyard—temple guards are all men. This is probably the courtyard of Annas’ residence.
“Then the maid who kept the door said to Peter, ‘Are you also one of this man’s disciples?’ He said, ‘I am not.'” (18:17). The Synoptic Gospels refer to this woman as a servant girl or a servant girl of the high priest (Matthew 26:69; Mark 14:66; Luke 22:56). They do not mention that she was guarding the courtyard. The woman’s question is phrased in the Greek to expect a “No!” answer. That makes it easy for Peter to respond by denying that he is Jesus’ disciple, and he responds as expected—takes the easy out.
“Now the servants and the officers were standing there, having made a fire of coals, for it was cold. They were warming themselves. Peter was with them, standing and warming himself” (18:18). Mark 14:54 and Luke 22:55 mention the fire, but only John identifies it as a charcoal fire. In 18:25, we will find Peter once again “standing and warming himself”—almost surely at this same fire.
JOHN 18:19-24. IF I HAVE SPOKEN WELL, WHY DO YOU BEAT ME?
19The high priest therefore asked Jesus about his disciples, and about his teaching. 20Jesus answered him, “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues, and in the temple, where the Jews always meet. I said nothing in secret.21Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them. Behold, these know the things which I said.” 22When he had said this, one of the officers standing by slapped Jesus with his hand, saying, “Do you answer the high priest like that?” 23Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken evil, testify of the evil; but if well, why do you beat me?” 24Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas, the high priest.
“The high priest therefore asked Jesus about his disciples, and about his teaching” (18:19). Given that Annas will have Jesus bound and sent to Caiaphas in 18:24, Annas is surely the “high priest” who conducts the interrogation here. Since he is no longer the official high priest and is not conducting this interrogation before the Sanhedrin (the official ruling body of the Jewish people), he is not, strictly speaking, bound by the Jewish law that requires that legal judgments be based on the testimony of witnesses. The law either discourages or forbids officials from trying to persuade people to incriminate themselves. At best, this interrogation is the unofficial activity of a private citizen trying to uncover the truth. At worst, it is a quasi-official activity (the temple guard is still involved, after all) that transgresses the legal protections afforded the individual by Jewish law.
Annas pursues two lines of questioning—the first about Jesus’ disciples and the second about his teaching. In Jesus’ response, he avoids any mention of his disciples—refuses to implicate them. In his recent High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prayed, “While I was with them in the world, I kept them in your name. Those whom you have given me I have kept” (17:12). He went on to pray that the Father would continue to “keep them from the evil one” (17:15). Now, even though under the stress of interrogation, Jesus does not waver in his commitment to the welfare of his disciples.
“Jesus answered him, ‘I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues, and in the temple, where the Jews always meet. I said nothing in secret'” (18:20). Jesus answers the interrogation by stating that he has taught openly, not secretly, so that his teaching is public knowledge. There is therefore no need for this questionable interrogation. One would expect, in fact, that the officials would have ascertained the facts prior to making an arrest.
As a matter of fact, the chief priests and Pharisees have been attempting to learn about Jesus, although they could hardly defend their efforts as fair and unbiased. They have been trying to find ways to stop Jesus—to arrest him—to kill him (8:45-52; 9:13-34; 10:22-39; 11:45-57; 12:37-43). In their defense, we should note that they are charged with protecting the people against false teaching, are persuaded that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy (10:33), and are concerned that he might lead the people wrongly. Given these concerns, they have an obligation to ascertain the facts. However, their concern for their own self-interest as members of the establishment clouds their judgment, and their circumvention of safeguards and procedures established by Jewish law insures a faulty result.
When Jesus says that he has not taught secretly, he is not suggesting that he has not taught his disciples privately. He has, in fact, done that. However, his private teaching and his public proclamation have been consistent—what he said in private accords with his public statements. He has not engaged in toothless public preaching while privately inciting rebellion.
“Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them. Behold, these know the things which I said” (18:21). Given the protections afforded by Jewish law and the requirement that convictions be based on the testimony of witnesses, this interrogation is either questionable or illegal. According to Jewish law, Annas should be gathering testimony from witnesses instead of questioning Jesus. In the previous verse, Jesus said that Annas could learn everything he needed to know from Jesus’ public teaching. In this verse, he asks Annas to conclude this interrogation and to call witnesses so that they might proceed in accord with the law.
“When he had said this, one of the officers standing by slapped Jesus with his hand, saying, ‘Do you answer the high priest like that?'” (18:22). If Jesus had spoken disrespectfully to Annas, he could be accused of violating the prohibition against cursing a leader of the people (Exodus 22:28), but he has done no such thing. He is guilty only of refusing to be intimidated, and is asking for nothing but proper legal procedure.
Even if Jesus were guilty of disrespect, the proper recourse would be to add the charge of disrespect to any other charges being pressed against him. The policeman who struck Jesus exceeded his authority.
“Jesus answered him, ‘If I have spoken evil, testify of the evil; but if well, why do you beat me?'” (18:23). Once again, Jesus refuses to be intimidated and requests proper procedure—”testify of the evil.” He further challenges the policeman to explain his actions.
“Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas, the high priest” (18:24). Annas has apparently decided that he is not going to get any satisfaction in questioning Jesus, so he sends him to Caiaphas, who is the official high priest and the proper authority for trying Jesus before the Sanhedrin. While this Gospel doesn’t tell us the details of Jesus’ visit to Caiaphas, the Synoptics fill in some of the details (Mark 14:53-65; Matthew 26:57-68; Luke 22:66-71). They send Jesus to Caiaphas bound, which would surely be routine procedure for any prisoner.
JOHN 18:25-27. IMMEDIATELY THE COCK CROWED
25Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said therefore to him, “You aren’t also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it, and said, “I am not.” 26One of the servants of the high priest, being a relative of him whose ear Peter had cut off, said, “Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?” 27Peter therefore denied it again, and immediately the rooster crowed.
“Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They said therefore to him, “You aren’t also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it, and said, “I am not.” (18:25). Now the narrator brings us back to Peter, who is still warming himself by the charcoal fire that was first mentioned in 18:18. Once again he is asked if he is Jesus’ disciple, and once again the question takes a form that expects the answer, “No!” Once again, Peter responds as expected.
The sequence is somewhat different here than in the Synoptic accounts. In the Gospel of Mark, for instance, the account of Peter’s three denials follows the account of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin. This Gospel does not give an account of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, but only alludes to it (18:24, 29). The author positions Peter’s last two denials after Jesus’ interrogation by Annas, because Jesus’ forthrightness (18:1-11, 19-24) contrast so dramatically with Peter’s quavering denials (18:15-18, 25-27) (Brown, 842).
“One of the servants of the high priest, being a relative of him whose ear Peter had cut off, said, ‘Didn’t I see you in the garden with him?'” (18:26). This third question comes from a relative of Malchus, the slave whose ear Peter severed in the garden (18:10). This time the questioner has more confidence and poses his question in a form that expects the answer, “Yes.”
“Peter therefore denied it again” (18:27a). It should be easier for Peter to respond truthfully to this man’s question, which expects a “Yes” response, than to the earlier questions, which expected a “No” response. Peter, however, has committed himself twice to denying his relationship to Jesus, and now continues on the same course. Once we have told a lie, it becomes ever so much harder to tell the truth.
There are minor variations in the accounts of the four Gospels concerning Peter’s denials. We could spend considerable effort attempting to reconcile them, but it seems better to acknowledge them as the kind of variations to be expected in accounts by four different authors.
“and immediately the rooster crowed” (18:27b). Earlier, Peter said, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you,” but Jesus had responded, “Will you lay down your life for me? Most certainly I tell you, the rooster won’t crow until you have denied me three times” (13:37-38). Now the cock crows, and this Gospel leaves to our imaginations how that must have affected Peter. The Synoptics tell us that Peter “broke down and wept” (Mark 14:72; Matthew 26:75; Luke 22:52).
JOHN 18:28-32. WHAT ACCUSATION DO YOU BRING AGAINST THIS MAN?
28They led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praetorium. It was early, and they themselves didn’t enter into the Praetorium, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover. 29Pilate therefore went out to them, and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30They answered him, “If this man weren’t an evildoer, we wouldn’t have delivered him up to you.” 31Pilate therefore said to them, “Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.” Therefore the Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death,” 32that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke, signifying by what kind of death he should die.
“They led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praetorium” (18:28a). As noted above, this Gospel gives no details about Jesus’ interrogation before Caiaphas, but will instead focus on the trial before Pilate. But first, the author makes us aware that, while Pilate attests to Jesus’ innocence, he finally honors the the high priest’s demand for Jesus’ conviction and execution (Morris, 673).
“It was early” (18:28b). We could understand this in general terms, that it was early in the morning, or we could understand it in more specific terms, that it was during the fourth watch, between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m.
Some scholars note that Jewish law forbids proceedings during the night that could lead to a death penalty, so the Sanhedrin should withhold action until 6:00 a.m. to comply with the law. We have no way of knowing if they are in compliance with this law. However, the Jewish law in question comes from the Mishna, the codification of Jewish oral tradition that was not completed until two centuries after Jesus’ death. Many of its provisions had been part of Jewish tradition for centuries, so it is quite possible that the prohibition against night proceedings in capital cases was in effect when Jesus was tried. However, we cannot be certain about that (Brooks, 240).
“they themselves didn’t enter into the Praetorium, that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (18:28c). The headquarters of a Roman commander or governor is called a praetorium. The Roman governor’s permanent residence/praetorium is in Caesarea, but governors typically reside in Jerusalem during the great feasts to insure domestic order there. Their temporary headquarters, wherever they establish it, becomes their praetorium. Pilate probably makes his praetorium in Jerusalem either at the Fortress Antonia or at Herod’s Palace.
“that they might not be defiled” (18:28c). Jewish tradition prescribes that a Jew entering a Gentile home becomes unclean and therefore ineligible to participate in the religious feasts. Such uncleanness is temporary and can be removed by a cleansing process, but usually only after seven days have passed. It would bring great shame on a Jewish leader to defile himself and thus become ineligible to participate in the Passover. It is quite understandable why they refuse to enter Pilate’s praetorium. The irony is that they are so observant of Jewish law regarding ceremonial purity, but so unobservant when it comes to passing capital judgment on Jesus.
“Pilate therefore went out to them, and said, ‘What accusation do you bring against this man?'” (18:29). Pilate understands their reluctance to enter his praetorium, and honors their concern by coming out to meet with them. When he asks them to state their charges against Jesus, he in effect begins a trial proceeding.
While this Gospel does not report Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas, the Synoptics make it clear that the Sanhedrin convicted Jesus of blasphemy, a capital offense under Jewish law (Leviticus 24:16), and condemned him to a death sentence (Mark 14:53-65). However, although the Romans give Jewish leaders a good deal of authority over civil and criminal matters, Rome retains full control over capital crimes.
This causes the Jewish leaders great difficulty, because they are not allowed to carry out the death sentence by stoning, which is the penalty for blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16). They must instead ask the Roman governor (Pilate) to prescribe the death penalty, but that would require that they specify a charge against Jesus that Rome would recognize as a capital offense. Jesus has not committed a capital offense under Roman law, so the Jewish leaders are caught in a “Catch-22″—a situation in which the desired outcome is impossible to attain because the law makes no provision for it. They cannot stone Jesus, because Rome will not permit it, but neither can they cannot charge Jesus with a capital offense under Roman law because his alleged offense is a matter only of Jewish law.
Rome does allow one exception regarding capital punishment. Jewish leaders are allowed to execute a death sentence “against violators of the sanctity of the temple.” For this reason, the Sanhedrin said, “We heard (Jesus) say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58) (Bruce, 351).
Given that the Jewish leaders have involved Roman soldiers in Jesus’ arrest, Pilate is surely fully aware of the Jewish leaders’ problem. When he asks them to specify their accusation against Jesus, he understands the bind in which he is putting them. It is possible that his primary interest is rendering true justice in this case, but it is likely that he is also enjoying his power over these Jewish leaders—and their discomfort at having him open a trial proceeding by asking them to specify their accusation.
“They answered him, ‘If this man weren’t an evildoer, we wouldn’t have delivered him up to you'” (18:30). This lame answer is the functional equivalent of “You can trust us!” It is such a weak answer that it suggests that they expected Pilate to rubber-stamp their request for a death sentence and failed to consider how they might respond if required to specify a charge against Jesus.
“Pilate therefore said to them, ‘Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law.’ Therefore the Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death'” (18:31). When Pilate tells them to judge Jesus according to their law, he knows full-well what they want and the restrictions on the death penalty that make it impossible for their to achieve their goal without his support.
“that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke, signifying by what kind of death he should die” (18:32). Jesus earlier said, “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32). “Lifted up from the earth” is code language for crucifixion. If the Jewish leaders had been allowed to stone Jesus, that would not have fulfilled Jesus prediction that he would be “lifted up.”
JOHN 18:33-38a. ARE YOU THE KING OF THE JEWS?
33Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, called Jesus, and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34Jesus answered him, “Do you say this by yourself, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate answered, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you to me. What have you done?” 36Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not of this world (Greek: kosmou—from kosmos). If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered to the Jews. But now my Kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate therefore said to him, “Are you a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this reason I have been born, and for this reason I have come into the world, that I should testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38aPilate said to him, “What is truth?”
“Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, called Jesus, and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?'” (18:33). Pilate has been meeting with the Jewish leaders outside his praetorium headquarters in deference to their reluctance to enter a Gentile building, but he now goes inside his headquarters. He has Jesus brought to him there for questioning.
Pilate goes directly to the main issue, asking, “Are you the King of the Jews?” The “you” is emphatic, as if Pilate is incredulous that the man standing before him could consider himself to be a king (Morris, 679).
Pilate’s question tells us that the Jewish leaders have charged that Jesus claims to be (or is trying to establish himself as) King of the Jews. This is a political charge that Pilate cannot ignore. If Jesus is trying to assume a political kingship, that constitutes sedition, a capital offense, and Pilate would be right to prescribe the death penalty. That is clearly what the Jewish leaders are hoping for, but their true concern is theological rather than political—that Jesus considers himself to be the Son of God (19:7). As noted above, they are not free to stone Jesus for his supposed theological offense, so they have reformulated their charge against Jesus to warrant a death penalty under Roman law.
All four Gospels report Pilate’s question the same way, but Jesus’ response in the Synoptics is different—“You say so” (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3).
“Jesus answered him, ‘Do you say this by yourself, or did others tell you about me?'” (18:34). To our ears, this question sounds disrespectful—as if Jesus is asking Pilate if he required coaching to come up with this foolish question. That, however, is not Jesus’ intent. He is asking whether this is Pilate’s question, which would be concerned with an attempt by Jesus to establish himself as a political king—or a question formulated by the Jewish leaders, which would be concerned with an attempt by Jesus to establish himself as a religious king—a messiah—a Son of God. If it is Pilate’s question, the answer is “No.” If it is the Jewish leaders’ question, the answer is “Yes.” Jesus cannot answer the question without knowing from whence it comes.
As was true in the garden (18:4-9) and at Anna’s interrogation (18:19-24), Jesus responds to an intimidating situation by subtly taking charge. In this case, he puts Pilate on the defensive by asking this question.
“Pilate answered, ‘I’m not a Jew, am I?'” (18:35a). This question reveals something of the low esteem in which Pilate holds Jews. Pilate is a Roman, and proud of it. He would be very unhappy to have someone think of him as a Jew—VERY unhappy.
“Your own nation and the chief priests delivered you (paredokan—from paradidomi) to me” (18:35b). Pilate acknowledges that this encounter is not of his making. The Jewish leaders have handed Jesus over (paradidomi) to him. Paradidomi is used in this Gospel to speak of Judas’ betrayal (6:64, 71; 12:4; 13:11; 18:2) and Jesus’ enemies handing him over to those who will crucify him (18:30, 35; 19:11, 16).
“What have you done?” (18:35c). Pilate admits his puzzlement. Jesus’ own people have handed him over to Pilate and have let Pilate know that they want him dead (18:31). However, they have not been honest regarding their reasons. They have a hidden agenda, and hidden agendas always lead to confusion. As noted above, they consider Jesus guilty of blasphemy, a capital offense under Jewish law. However, Rome will not allow the Jewish leaders to carry out an execution—nor will Rome carry out an execution in behalf of the Jewish leaders unless the criminal is guilty of a capital offense under Roman law. Therefore the Jewish leaders have not revealed their concern about blasphemy, but have instead trumped up charges that Jesus is guilty of sedition against Rome, claiming to be King of the Jews. Pilate senses that something is wrong, but can’t figure out what it is. Therefore, he asks Jesus, “What have you done?”—hoping that Jesus will say something that will help Pilate to make sense of this situation.
“My kingdom is not of this world” (Greek: kosmou—from kosmos) (18:36a). Jesus cannot deny that he is a king, but he is not a king in the sense that Pilate understands that word. His kingdom is “not of this world” (kosmos). The kosmos, in this Gospel, is the world opposed to God. Jesus has come to establish the kingdom of God, a spiritual kingdom where people allow God to rule their hearts and lives.
We might be tempted to think that Jesus’ kingdom poses no threat to Rome, but Jesus’ kingdom poses a threat to every kosmos-kingdom. While capable of being good citizens—very good citizens—Jesus’ disciples owe their first allegiance to God rather than to nation. While capable of being good workers—very good workers—they owe their first allegiance to God rather than to their employer. At their best, Jesus’ disciples rise up against oppressive kosmos-kingdoms to seek justice for the poor. At their best, Christians serve as advocates for the powerless against powerful kosmos-kingdoms.
When the Nazis began to persecute Jews, Martin Niemoeller told his congregation, “Before one can say the Apostle’s Creed, he (she) must first wear the Star of David.” Cardinal Faulhaber ordered priests to place Stars of David and yellow armbands on statues of Jesus and Mary. Bonhoeffer even participated in an attempt to assassinate Hitler. While Jesus’ kingdom is not of this kosmos, it is hardly toothless where kosmos-kingdoms are concerned.
“If my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would fight, that I wouldn’t be delivered to the Jews. But now my Kingdom is not from here” (18:36b). As proof that he has not been trying to establish a worldly kingdom, Jesus reminds Pilate of the ease with which the soldiers and police arrested him. With the exception of impetuous Peter, the disciples didn’t lift a hand to prevent the arrest—and Jesus quickly put Peter in his place and repaired the damage that Peter had done.
“Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Are you a king then?'” (18:37a). Pilate asked Jesus to explain what he has done (18:35), and Jesus explained about the nature of his kingdom (18:36). Pilate picks up on Jesus’ word, “kingdom,” and seeks further clarification. Is Jesus saying that he is a king?
“Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king'” (18:37b). Jesus doesn’t deny that he is a king, but simply says that “king” is Pilate’s word. Once again, the problem is how the word “king” is understood. Pilate is concerned that Jesus might be a kosmos-king, but Jesus’ kingdom is not of this kosmos.
“For this reason I have been born, and for this reason I have come into the world, that I should testify to the truth” (18:37c). This brings to mind what Paul had to say about the Incarnation. “Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8). Verse 18:37c echoes Paul’s words. Keep in mind that this Gospel does not include the story of Jesus’ birth. This statement of Jesus in 18:37c is the closest thing to a birth story in this Gospel.
Jesus’ purpose in being born—in coming to earth—was to “testify to the truth” (18:37c). Truth is an important word in this Gospel:
• The Word who became flesh is “full of grace and truth” (1:14).
• “Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (1:17).
• “he who does the truth comes to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God” (3:21).
• The Father seeks those who worship “in spirit and truth” (4:23).
• John the Baptist “testified to the truth” (5:33).
• “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (8:32).
• Jesus rebukes his enemies for trying to kill him, “a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God” (8:40).
• The devil “was a murderer from the beginning, and doesn’t stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks on his own; for he is a liar, and its father” (8:44).
• The devil is therefore opposed to God, who is truth—and to Jesus, who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6).
• Jesus speaks of “the Spirit of truth, whom the kosmos can’t receive,” and promises his disciples that they know the Spirit of truth, because “he lives with you, and will be in you” (14:17).
• Jesus says that the Spirit of truth (the Holy Spirit) “will testify about me” (15:26), and promises that the Spirit of truth “will declare to you things that are coming” (16:13).
• In his High Priestly Prayer, Jesus prays that God will “sanctify (his disciples) in your truth; your word is truth” (17:17).
It must be obvious, then, that when Jesus says, “I have come into the world, that I should testify to the truth” (18:37), he is talking about something more profound than the kind of truth that we pledge to tell in a courtroom—truth as over against a lie. This Gospel borrows from the Old Testament understanding of truth where the Hebrew words for truth also suggest faithfulness (Morris, 259).
Jesus has come into this kosmos to bear witness to God, who is truth—which is another way of saying that God is faithful, reliable, trustworthy, and sure. Jesus has also come into this kosmos as truth embodied in flesh—as God embodied in flesh. His life bears witness to the truth. He makes it possible for his disciples to know the truth (8:32), which is another way of saying that he reveals God and all things Godly to his disciples. He promises the disciples, “the truth will make you free” (8:32)—free from sin and the self-destructive behaviors that would otherwise threaten to undo them.
“Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice'” (18:37d). Being a disciple of Jesus has ethical implications. Since Jesus is the truth (14:6), those who belong to Jesus also belong to the truth (18:37d). They listen to Jesus’ voice, just as a sheep listens for the voice of the shepherd (10:3). They “follow him, because they know his voice” (10:4). “They will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him; for they don’t know the voice of strangers” (10:5). They “come to the light, that his works may be revealed, that they have been done in God “ (3:21). Just as Jesus’ life bore witness to the truth, our lives also need to bear witness to the truth.
“Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?'” (18:38a). The context makes it clear that Pilate does not wait for Jesus to answer. This is a rhetorical question with which he concludes his conversation with Jesus.
JOHN 18:38b-40. I FIND NO BASIS FOR A CHARGE AGAINST HIM
38bWhen he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39But you have a custom, that I should release someone to you at the Passover. Therefore do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40Then they all shouted again, saying, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
“When he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him'” (18:38b). The Jewish leaders, in their concern for religious purity, have not entered Pilate’s headquarters, but Pilate has questioned Jesus inside his headquarters. Now Pilate goes outside once again to meet with the Jewish leaders. He tells them that, in his judgment, they have no case against Jesus. His judgment, of course, is the one that counts. When it comes to capital cases, he has complete authority and they have none. Pilate will state this finding of Jesus’ innocence twice again (19:4, 6; cf. Luke 23:14).
“But you have a custom, that I should release someone to you at the Passover. Therefore do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” (18:39). Mark and Luke present this incident somewhat differently—the crowd asks for the release of Barabbas, and Pilate offers to give them “the King of the Jews” instead (Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:18-25). In Matthew’s Gospel, Pilate offers them “Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 27:17). In John’s Gospel, Pilate makes no mention of Barabbas, but asks only if they want him to release “the King of the Jews” (18:39).
We are not able to verify this custom of prisoner release from other historical sources, but the mention of it in all four Gospels is strong evidence of its authenticity.
“Then they all shouted again, saying, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber” (18:40). Mark and Luke tell us that Barabbas was in prison for murder committed in conjunction with an insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19).
The crowd would have a natural affinity for an insurrectionist such as Barabbas, because his crime would have involved an attempt to drive out the Romans. However, Mark and Matthew tell us that “stirred up the multitude, that he should release Barabbas to them instead” (Mark 15:11; Matthew 27:20)—so the movement to save Barabbas and to kill Jesus was far from spontaneous—Jesus’ enemies are behind the crowd’s actions.
There is irony here. Barabbas is guilty of sedition, but Pilate, who would like to see Barabbas punished, finds himself bound to release him. Jesus is innocent of sedition and Pilate, who would like to release Jesus, finds himself bound to punish him. The guilty man is set free, and the innocent man is sentenced to die.
JOHN 19:1-3. HAIL, KING OF THE JEWS!
1So Pilate then took Jesus, and flogged him. 2The soldiers twisted thorns into a crown, and put it on his head, and dressed him in a purple garment. 3They kept saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and they kept slapping him.
“So Pilate then took Jesus, and flogged him” (19:1). As we will see in 19:4, Pilate’s apparent purpose in flogging Jesus is to avoid a crucifixion. Perhaps he can generate sympathy for Jesus. Perhaps he can convince the Jews that flogging is punishment enough. Perhaps he can make Jesus look so pitiful that his claim to be King of the Jews will seem ridiculous.
Mark and Matthew (Matthew uses Mark as one of his primary sources) report Pilate as having Jesus flogged after giving up trying to dissuade the crowd. In their version, Pilate has Jesus flogged immediately prior to handing him over to be crucified (Mark 15:15; Matthew 27:26). In Luke’s version, Pilate offers to have Jesus flogged and then released (Luke 23:22), but the crowd refuses his offer. It is probably better to regard these as minor variations by different writers than to try to reconcile the details.
The Romans have three different levels of flogging, depending on the seriousness of the offense. The fustigatio is the least severe—the flagellatio is next—and the verberatio the most severe. The Romans tend to reserve the verberatio for situations where other punishment, such as crucifixion, is part of the sentence. While all three levels of flogging are brutal, the verberatio has the potential to kill the person to whom it is administered and has the advantage of hastening his death.
If Pilate has the flogging administered while still trying to dissuade the crowd from having Jesus crucified (as in this Gospel), the flogging administered to Jesus could be any of the three levels of flogging. If he has the flogging administered after he decides to crucify Jesus, it will almost surely be the verberatio. Some scholars have suggested (because of the differences in the four accounts) that Pilate might have had Jesus flogged twice—by the least severe method in his attempt to change the mind of the crowd—and then by the most severe method once he decided that he must have Jesus crucified (Carson, 597-598). That, however, is speculative.
“The soldiers twisted thorns into a crown, and put it on his head” (19:2a). The soldiers engage in three stages of mockery—a crown of thorns, a robe of purple, and a mock greeting.
On their coins, Romans picture emperors and gods wearing radiate crowns—crowns woven from leafy branches encircling the head. The soldiers weave a similar crown from thorny branches as a cruel imitation. Scholars speculate that the branches might have been from a date palm with thorns several inches long.
“and dressed him in a purple garment” (19:2b). Purple dye is derived from a murex snail and is quite expensive, so purple cloth is expensive and is reserved for wealthy or powerful people. It is possible that these soldiers are able to borrow the purple robe from one of their officers.
“They kept saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and they kept slapping him” (19:3). The soldiers modify their standard greeting for the emperor (“Hail, Caesar!”) as their final form of mockery. Instead of saluting, they strike Jesus in the face. If they slap his face, the result is painful. If they do it with closed fists, the result is much more devastating. It is likely that a large number of soldiers would be drawn to participate in this cruel horseplay.
JOHN 19:4-7. CRUCIFY! CRUCIFY!
4Then Pilate went out again, and said to them, “Behold, I bring him out to you, that you may know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5Jesus therefore came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple garment. Pilate said to them, “Behold, the man!” 6When therefore the chief priests and the officers saw him, they shouted, saying, “Crucify! Crucify!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves, and crucify him, for I find no basis for a charge against him.” 7The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”
“Then Pilate went out again, and said to them, ‘Behold, I bring him out to you, that you may know that I find no basis for a charge against him'” (19:4). Once again Pilate goes outside his headquarters to meet with the Jewish leaders. Once again he declares that he finds no legal grounds to prosecute Jesus.
“Jesus therefore came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple garment” (19:5a). Jesus comes outside to join Pilate, either at Pilate’s command or at the shove of a Roman soldier. He is dressed in his crown of thorns and his purple robe—mock symbols of his mock power. By this time he has been flogged (19:1) and beaten by the soldiers (19:3), so he is bruised and bloodied—a pitiful sight. This is surely part of Pilate’s plan—to reveal Jesus as pathetic rather than dangerous.
Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the man!'” (19:5b). Pilate’s words are probably intended to be ironic—”Here is the man. Doesn’t he look dangerous?” But Pilate’s words are more revealing than he understands. Just as Caiaphas earlier spoke the truth without realizing it when he “prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation” (11:51), so also Pilate speaks the truth without realizing it when he introduces Jesus with the words, “Here is the man!” Jesus is the Son of Man—the one sent from heaven to save the world.
Pilate’s words and actions mock both Jesus and his accusers. If Jesus is a pitiful rather than a dangerous character, his accusers have been guilty of stirring up a tempest in a teacup. The Jewish leaders no doubt understand the implications of Pilate’s words, and this only hardens them in their determination to have Jesus crucified.
“When therefore the chief priests and the officers saw him, they shouted, saying, ‘Crucify! Crucify!'” (19:6a). In the Synoptic Gospels, the chief priests stir up the crowds to demand Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ crucifixion (Mark 15:11-15), but in this Gospel the chief priests and police take direct action rather than stirring the crowds to action. It is the chief priests and police who shout, “Crucify! Crucify!”
Pilate said to them, ‘Take him yourselves, and crucify him, for I find no basis for a charge against him'” (19:6b). In the Greek, there is a strong contrast between “yourselves” and “I.” Pilate is saying, “You do it, because I find no reason to do it.” It sounds as if he is authorizing the Jewish leaders to kill Jesus, but his words are the words of a disgusted man, frustrated at the intransigence of these hardheaded Jews. The Jewish leaders don’t understand Pilate to be authorizing them to kill Jesus. If they did, they would take immediate action.
“The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God'” (19:7). As noted above, Rome gives its colonies a good deal of authority to maintain law and order. While Pilate’s primary responsibility is to enforce Roman law, he must also support local leaders in their enforcement of local laws. He cannot allow the local populace to imagine that they can play the Romans against the Jewish leaders and vice versa. Leaders must present a united front lest people exploit them.
The law of which the Jewish leaders speak is blasphemy. They believe Jesus to be guilty of blasphemy because he was “making himself equal with God” (5:18) or making himself God (10:33). The penalty for blasphemy is death by stoning (Leviticus 24:16).
“because he made himself the Son of God” (19:7). While Jesus usually refers to himself as the Son of Man in this Gospel (1:51; 3:13-14; 5:27; 6:27, 53, 62; 8:28; 12:23; 13:31), he has on occasion referred to himself as the Son of God (3:18; 5:25; 11:4). He regularly refers to God as Father (4:21-23; 5:17-45; 6:27-46, 65, etc.).
However, there is precedent in Israel for men being known as Sons of God. Israelites thought of themselves as God’s sons (Exodus 4:22; Isaiah 1:2; Jeremiah 3:22)—and their kings as sons of God (2 Samuel 7:14; Psalm 2:7).
We should keep in mind that the religious leaders who became Jesus’ opponents have a responsibility for ferreting out false prophets and stopping them from spreading their influence. However, much of their opposition is driven by the fact that Jesus has challenged their authority at every step. These religious authorities are as concerned (or more concerned) about their personal power as they are about their religious duties.
JOHN 19:8-11. YOU WOULD HAVE NO POWER AGAINST ME
8When therefore Pilate heard this saying, he was more afraid. 9He entered into the Praetorium again, and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10Pilate therefore said to him, “Aren’t you speaking to me? Don’t you know that I have power to release you, and have power to crucify you?” 11Jesus answered, “You would have no power at all against me, unless it were given to you from above. Therefore he who delivered me to you has greater sin.”
“When therefore Pilate heard this saying, he was more afraid” (19:8). Pilate becomes afraid when he hears that Jesus claims to be the Son of God (19:7). Among the Romans, stories of gods that appear in human form are common. Pilate has had Jesus flogged. If Jesus really turns out to be a son of the gods, Pilate fears the consequences of his actions. Furthermore, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Pilate’s wife has sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). That message has reinforced Pilate’s anxiety. It also seems possible that Jesus’ demeanor throughout his interrogations has left Pilate wondering if Jesus might indeed be divine.
“He entered into the Praetorium again, and said to Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer” (19:9). Trying one more time to make sense of recent events, Pilate asks Jesus one more question—”Where are you from?” It would be interesting to know how Pilate would have responded had Jesus answered that he was from God, but Jesus makes no answer at all.
“Pilate therefore said to him, ‘Aren’t you speaking to me? Don’t you know that I have power to release you, and have power to crucify you?'” (19:10). Jesus’ refusal to respond angers Pilate. To persuade Jesus to talk, Pilate holds out a carrot (release) and a stick (crucifixion). By Roman law, he has the power of life and death over Jesus, and he suggests that he might allow Jesus to live. However, he is feeling great pressure from the Jewish leaders to crucify Jesus, and his suggestion that he might free Jesus is becoming less realistic by the minute.
“Jesus answered, ‘You would have no power at all against me, unless it were given to you from above'” (19:11a). Jesus corrects Pilate. Yes, Pilate has life and death authority over him, but that authority comes from a power greater than Pilate’s emperor. Without God’s consent, Pilate would be powerless against Jesus.
We should not construe this to mean that Pilate is relieved of responsibility for his actions. God has not made it impossible for Pilate to do the right thing. Like Judas, Pilate will be held accountable for his actions this day.
“therefore he who has delivered (paradous—from paradidomi) me to you has greater sin'” (19:11b). This word, paradidomi, has been used several times in this Gospel to refer to Judas’ betrayal (6:64, 71; 12:4; 13:11; 18:2), so we are tempted to think that Jesus is talking about Judas as the one who “has greater sin.” However, Judas didn’t hand Jesus over to Pilate, but to the temple police and the Jewish leaders. While Judas was, indeed, guilty of a great sin, Jesus is almost certainly talking here about Caiaphas, the high priest, who some time ago began to persuade the Sanhedrin “to have one man (Jesus) die for the people” (11:50). While Caiaphas’ name appears only a few times in this Gospel, he is the leader of the “chief priests” who have been unrelenting in their efforts to have Jesus crucified (7:32, 45; 11:47, 57; 18:3, 35; 19:6). It is Caiaphas who “has greater sin.”
However, the fact that Caiaphas is guilty of the greater sin does not eliminate Pilate’s guilt. Pilate’s sin is the lesser sin, but still a terrible sin—crucifying the Son of God.
JOHN 19:12. YOU AREN’T CAESAR’S FRIEND
12At this, Pilate was seeking to release him, but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you aren’t Caesar’s friend! Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar!”
“At this, Pilate was seeking to release him” (19:12a). Pilate was convinced from the beginning that Jesus is innocent of sedition, and has tried to save him on several occasions. To Pilate’s credit, he does not want to see a miscarriage of justice take place on his watch. He also seems to be impressed with Jesus and wants to save a good man. Pilate’s heart is in the right place—but his spine is weak.
“but the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If you release this man, you aren’t Caesar’s friend! Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar!'” (19:12b). Whereas in verse 6, it was the chief priests and temple police who shouted, “Crucify him,” in this verse it is “the Jews” who protest Jesus’ release. We cannot be certain whether “the Jews” refers only to the Jewish leaders or whether it also includes the crowd.
This verse introduces a new and sinister element to the dialogue. Everyone (Jews and Romans alike) knows that Emperor Tiberius is paranoid and will not tolerate anyone who might challenge his authority. Everyone also knows that the Jewish leaders have complained to the emperor about Pilate in the past and will not hesitate to complain again. Everyone knows that Pilate will be hard-pressed to defend himself if they complain that Pilate failed to condemn a man guilty of sedition. The chief priests and their followers have been slow to find Pilate’s “Achilles heel,” but in this verse they have finally find it.
JOHN 19:13-16a. NOW IT WAS THE PREPARATION DAY OF THE PASSOVER
13When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called “The Pavement,” but in Hebrew, “Gabbatha.” 14Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover, at about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” 15They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!”
Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar!” 16aSo then he delivered him to them to be crucified.
“When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat” (19:13a). Pilate finally admits defeat by moving to his judge’s bench—an imposing raised platform designed to emphasize his authority and the gravity of the proceedings.
It is possible to translate this verse in such a way that it is Jesus, rather than Pilate, who sits on the judge’s bench. Some scholars believe that this is the correct translation—that Pilate seats Jesus on the judge’s bench to mock the Jewish leaders. However, this would be a gross violation of Roman protocol, and Pilate would also be mocking himself by such a move—so it is surely Pilate who sits on the judgment bench.
“at a place called ‘The Pavement,’ but in Hebrew, ‘Gabbatha'” (19:13b). These are the names of the place in Greek and Hebrew (or Aramaic, the common language of the Jewish people in Jesus’ day). In recent years, a large paved area has been excavated at what is thought to be the Fortress Antonia—one of the two places where Pilate is most likely to have established his headquarters (the other being Herod’s Palace). It is possible that this paved area is the site where this trial took place.
“Now it was the Preparation Day of the Passover” (19:14a). There is a good deal of scholarly dispute regarding which day this is. In the Synoptics, the Last Supper was a Passover meal (Mark 14:12 ff.; Matthew 26:17 ff.; Luke 22:7 ff.). However, the Gospel of John reports the Last Supper as being “before the feast of the Passover” (13:1)—and the disciples as thinking at the Last Supper that Jesus told Judas, “Buy what things we need for the feast” (13:29)—and the Jewish leaders as refusing to enter Pilate’s headquarters lest they defile themselves and become ineligible to eat the Passover (18:28)—and the Jewish leaders as wanting the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed “because it was Preparation Day” (19:31). It therefore appears as if, in this Gospel, that Jesus is crucified at the hour that the Passover lambs are slaughtered.
Scholarly attempts to resolve this difference between the Synoptics and the Gospel of John are lengthy and complex—beyond the scope of this commentary. For more detail, Morris, 684-695, 708-709 is especially good; see also Carson, 603-605; Brown, 882, 895; and Bruce, 364.
“at about the sixth hour” (19:14b). The sixth hour would be noon. Mark says that it was the third hour (9:00 a.m.) when they crucified Jesus (Mark 15:25). Some scholars try to reconcile these accounts by suggesting that John is using a Roman method of calculating time while Mark is using a Jewish method. However, people in that time had no watches and were not precise in marking time. It is likely that the time is somewhere between the third and sixth hours (between 9:00 a.m. and noon) and that Mark estimates it as the earlier hour and John estimates it as the later hour.
“He said to the Jews, ‘Behold, your King!'” (19:14c). Pilate again taunts them by presenting Jesus to them as their king. The irony, of course, is that Jesus really is their king, but they refuse to acknowledge him as such.
“They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?'” (19:15a). Once again the Jewish leaders (and perhaps the crowd) demand Jesus’ crucifixion, and once again Pilate taunts them by calling Jesus their king. By this time, however, positions on both sides have long since been hardened, and there is no possibility of dialogue.
“The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar!'” (19:15b). The irony here is thick. The chief priests rebuff Pilate’s claim that Jesus is their king by saying that the emperor is their only king—but God is the rightful king of Israel (Judges 8:23; 1 Samuel 8:7). By claiming the emperor as their only king, the chief priests are guilty of the blasphemy of which they have accused Jesus—and they risk inciting zealots to accuse them of treason as well. As the Prologue to this Gospel announced earlier, “He came to his own, and those who were his own didn’t receive him” (1:11).
“So then he delivered him to them to be crucified” (19:16a). There is no record in this Gospel of Pilate officially pronouncing sentence on Jesus, but he finally admits defeat here and hands Jesus over “to them” for crucifixion. In one sense, Pilate hands Jesus over to the Roman soldiers, because they are the ones who will carry out the crucifixion. However, in another sense, Pilate is really turning Jesus over to the Jewish leaders who have demanded Jesus’ crucifixion.
JOHN 19:16b-18. THE PLACE OF A SKULL
16bSo they took Jesus and led him away. 17He went out, bearing his cross, to the place called “The Place of a Skull,” which is called in Hebrew, “Golgotha,” 18where they crucified him, and with him two others, on either side one, and Jesus in the middle.
“So they took Jesus and led him away. He went out, bearing his cross, to the place called ‘The Place of a Skull,’ which is called in Hebrew, ‘Golgotha'” (19:16b-17). The people who take Jesus away are Roman soldiers, detailed to the execution squad. This Gospel reports that Jesus carries the cross by himself, while the Synoptics report that the soldiers impress Simon of Cyrene into service to help Jesus (Mark 15:21; Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26). There is no need to try to reconcile these accounts. The Synoptics have chosen to emphasize certain things, and this Gospel has chosen to emphasize others—in particular the Father’s plan and the Son’s obedience (Carson, 609).
The condemned man carries only the cross-member of the cross—the horizontal part. The vertical part would already be in place at the crucifixion site. Once the condemned man arrives at the site, he is forced to lie down so that the soldiers might fasten him to the cross-member, and then the cross-member with the victim attached is lifted and fastened to the upright member with thongs or nails—nails in this case (20:25).
“where they crucified him, and with him two others, on either side one, and Jesus in the middle” (19:18). The Synoptics (Luke in particular) give us more detail about the other two men (Mark 15:27; Matthew 27:38, 44; Luke 23:32-33, 39-43). Mark and Matthew call these “two others” lestas, which is the same word that they use to describe Barabbas. It is possible, then, that the two men are insurrectionists rather than ordinary thieves.
The emphasis in this Gospel is that Jesus is crucified between the two lestas (thieves or insurrectionists)—thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah that he “was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
JOHN 19:19-22. JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS
19Pilate wrote a title also, and put it on the cross. There was written, “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” 20Therefore many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. 21The chief priests of the Jews therefore said to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘he said, I am King of the Jews.'” 22Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
“Pilate wrote a title also, and put it on the cross. There was written, ‘JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS'” (19:19). Romans typically write on a placard the crime for which the person is being punished and affix the placard to the cross or tie it around the criminal’s neck. This titulus, as the Romans call it, informs passersby of the criminal’s offense and warns them not to violate Roman law. All four Gospels mention the titulus affixed to Jesus’ cross. The wording varies slightly, as can be expected from accounts written by different people (see Mark 15:26; Matthew 27:37; Luke 23:38).
Pilate’s purpose in posting this wording on Jesus’ cross is to taunt the Jewish leaders one more time. The Jewish leaders backed Pilate into a corner and forced him to crucify Jesus, but they cannot prevent this last bit of revenge. It is the action of a petulant, angry man—an almost childish display of ill temper. But God turns Pilate’s vengeful action to a Godly purpose. The sign announces the truth. Jesus is, indeed, King of the Jews.
“Therefore many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek” (19:20). Roman soldiers perform executions in well-traveled places to maximize their visibility. They write the crime in Latin, Greek, and the local language to maximize its impact. The result is that many Jews read this inscription that Jesus is King of the Jews.
“The chief priests of the Jews therefore said to Pilate, ‘Don’t write, “The King of the Jews,” but, “he said, I am King of the Jews”‘” (19:21). The chief priests lodge a complaint with Pilate regarding the sign, which makes it sounds as if Jesus is really the King of the Jews (which, of course, he is). They want the sign altered to make it sound as if Jesus is only a pretender to the throne (which, of course, he is not).
“Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written'” (19:22). The Jewish leaders earlier forced Pilate to bend to their will, but they have no further leverage to force him to revise this sign. Pilate lets the wording stand—one final thumb in their eye.
JOHN 19:23-25a. THAT THE SCRIPTURE MIGHT BE FULFILLED
23Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also the coat. Now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. 24Then they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to decide whose it will be,” that the Scripture might be fulfilled, which says,
“They parted my garments among them.
For my cloak they cast lots.”
25aTherefore the soldiers did these things.
“Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments and made four parts, to every soldier a part” (19:23a). This verse tells us that there are four soldiers in the execution squad. It is standard Roman practice to require the person being crucified to disrobe and to allow the execution squad to keep his clothing.
They divide Jesus’ clothing in to four parts—one part for each soldier. This has sometimes been interpreted to mean that they cut the clothing into pieces at the seams. However, there were sufficient pieces of clothing, such as a belt, sandals, a head covering, a tunic (a lightweight robe worn next to the skin), and a robe (a heavier robe, worn over the tunic), to allow the soldiers to divide the clothing without cutting it. We have no way of determining how the soldiers decided the division of Jesus’ clothing.
“and also the coat. Now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. Then they said to one another, ‘Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to decide whose it will be'” (19: 23b-24a). The tunic is of special interest because it is woven in one piece and is therefore more valuable. They cast lots for it so that they don’t have to cut it apart and destroy its value.
“that the Scripture might be fulfilled, which says, ‘They parted my garments among them. For my cloak they cast lots.’ Therefore the soldiers did these things” (19:24b-25a). The scripture in question is Psalm 22:18, which says: “They divide my clothes among themselves. They cast lots for my clothing.”
JOHN 19:25b-27. STANDING BY THE CROSS WAS JESUS’ MOTHER
25bBut there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26Therefore when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold your son!” 27Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.
“But there were standing by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene” (19:25b). Some scholars have speculated that this verse could mean that there are only two or three women, but that is unlikely. There are almost certainly four women:
• Jesus’ mother, Mary, who is never named in this Gospel but is referred to as “Jesus’ mother” (2:1, 3) or “his mother” (2:5, 12).
• “his mother’s sister,” who is probably Salome (Mark 15:40) and possibly the mother of the sons of Zebedee (Matthew 27:56). If Salome is, indeed, the sister of Jesus’ mother and the mother of James and John, then the sons of Zebedee, James and John, are Jesus’ cousins. James and John, of course, are two of the three members of Jesus’ inner circle—the third being Peter.
• Mary the wife of Clopas, who is probably the mother of James the younger and Joses (Mark 15:40).
• Mary Magdalene, whom Jesus delivered from seven demons (Luke 8:2) and who will be the first witness to the resurrected Christ (20:11-18).
“Therefore when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home” (19:26-27).
We first encountered the unnamed “disciple whom (Jesus) loved” at the Last Supper (13:23). He will be mentioned again on three occasions (20:2; 21:7; 21:20). He is widely assumed to be the author of this Gospel.
In the midst of his misery, Jesus has the grace to consider his mother’s welfare. It is likely that she has been widowed for quite some time, because we have heard nothing about Joseph since Jesus’ visit to the temple as a twelve-year-old boy (Luke 2:42 ff. does not mention Joseph by name, but does mention “his parents”—Luke 2:43). If Mary is a middle-aged widow, she is vulnerable. As Mary’s son, Jesus has an obligation to provide for her, an obligation that he takes seriously even as he dies. His intent here is to make “the disciple whom he loved” responsible for his mother’s care.
There are a number of references to Jesus’ brothers in the Gospels (Matthew 12:46-47; 13:55; Mark 3:31-32; Luke 8:19-20; John 2:12; 7:3, 10), so it would seem more appropriate for Jesus to ask them to take care of their mother. However, they do not believe in Jesus (7:5), and might not be in Jerusalem at this time. To the best of our knowledge, Jesus’ beloved disciple is the only male disciple or kin who is present at the crucifixion. The other disciples have “left him, and fled” (Matthew 26:56; Mark 14:50).
JOHN 19:28-30. IT IS FINISHED
28After this, Jesus, seeing that all things were now finished (Greek: tetelestai—from teleo—finished, accomplished, completed), that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, “I am thirsty.” 29Now a vessel full of vinegar was set there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop, and held it at his mouth. 30When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished” (Greek: tetelestai). He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.
“After this, Jesus, seeing that all things were now finished”(tetelestai—from teleo) (19:28a). It is clear to Jesus that his death is near. “All things were now finished”—not that everything has come to an end, but that the goal has been accomplished. The sense here is not of a futile end but rather of a fulfilled mission—not of failure, but of the successful accomplishment of that which Jesus has come to do.
“that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I am thirsty'” (19:28). As noted above, this Gospel is concerned about the fulfillment of scripture, and more so as the story unfolds. The scripture in question here is most likely Psalm 69:21, which says: “They gave me gall for my food. In my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink.”
This is not to suggest that Jesus is not truly thirsty. It has been many hours since his arrest. He has been flogged and beaten, and has walked to the crucifixion site. Withholding water is a part of the crucifixion process. It is not difficult to imagine how terrible his thirst would be. But it is also likely that, when saying that he is thirsty, he understands that his words fulfill scripture.
“Now a vessel full of vinegar was set there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop, and held it at his mouth” (19:29). The Gospels report two separate incidents regarding wine. In the first, bystanders offer Jesus wine mixed with gall or myrrh (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23). Jesus refuses that wine, which is intended to dull his pain. In the second incident, Jesus drinks sour wine (Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 19:29).
There is some scholarly dispute about hyssop—whether a branch of hyssop could support a sponge soaked in wine—whether the Greek word should be hysso, a Roman javelin. The first seems possible—the second unlikely.
The wine that Jesus drinks just prior to his death is probably an inexpensive wine provided for the soldiers to drink while they maintain guard over the crucifixion site.
“When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished'” (tetelestai—from teleo) (19:30a). Teleo has shades of meaning, but the most likely meaning for this last word from the cross is that Jesus has accomplished the mission for which he has come to earth.
“He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit” (19:30b). It is not unusual for dying people to hang onto life until a loved one arrives to say goodbye—or until someone gives them permission to die—or until some other significant event takes place. Once that happens, they are able to let go. That is the sense that we have here with Jesus. He has accomplished what he came to do. He has borne the weight of the world’s sin and the agony of the cross. He has set in motion the events that will defeat Satan. He has made it possible for the kosmos-world to be saved (3:16).
JOHN 19:31-32. THE SOLDIERS BROKE THE LEGS OF THE TWO THIEVES
31Therefore the Jews, because it was the Preparation Day, so that the bodies wouldn’t remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a special one), asked of Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. 32Therefore the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who was crucified with him;
“Therefore the Jews, because it was the Preparation Day, so that the bodies wouldn’t remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a special one)” (19:31a). Jewish law says: “If a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and you hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him the same day; for he who is hanged is accursed of God; that you don’t defile your land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). In deference to that law, the Jewish leaders want the crucifixions completed and the bodies buried by the time that the sabbath begins at sundown Friday. Their interest in this is compounded by the fact that Passover happens to coincide with the upcoming sabbath.
Roman custom is to leave condemned people on their crosses until they die unaided, as a prolonged warning to passersby about the consequences of breaking Roman law. In many cases, it takes the condemned person several days to die. After the person dies, the Romans often leave the bodies hanging to rot as a continuing cautionary tale. Under normal circumstances, Jesus and his two companions could hang on their crosses for many days—throughout the sabbath and the Passover—which would be a serious violation of Jewish law and sensibilities.
“asked of Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (19:31b). The Jewish leaders ask Pilate to instruct the soldiers to break the legs of the condemned men to hasten death so that the bodies might be buried before the beginning of the sabbath. For men weakened by flogging and hours hanging on a cross, the trauma of a Roman mallet smashing their legs could put them into shock and lead to their death in fairly short order. Also, having their legs broken would hasten death through asphyxiation. They would be unable to use their legs to push their bodies upward to relieve pressure on their diaphragms. As a result, they would be unable to breathe properly, and would die rather quickly.
It would be conceivable that Pilate would ignore the request of these Jewish leaders, because he is clearly unhappy with them. Earlier, he refused their request to change the wording on the titulus on Jesus cross (19:22), but he grants their request here. The text does not tell us that he orders the breaking of legs, but that is implied by the fact that the soldiers proceed to do that.
“Therefore the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who was crucified with him” (19:32). Jesus’ cross is located between the crosses of the two lestas (thieves or insurrectionists), so the soldiers apparently begin their work on either side, working toward the middle. They break the legs of the two lestas.
JOHN 19:33-37. THAT THE SCRIPTURE MIGHT BE FULFILLED
33but when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was already dead, they didn’t break his legs. 34However one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. 35He who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, that you may believe. 36For these things happened, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, “A bone of him will not be broken.” 37Again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they pierced.”
“but when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was already dead, they didn’t break his legs” (19:33). Jesus has been hanging on the cross for only a few hours, so death has come quickly for him. That is not particularly unusual, given that a severe flogging has the potential to kill. It is possible that Jesus has suffered two floggings (see the notes on 19:1 above), which would certainly hasten his death.
“However one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear” (19:34a). As people who deal with severe trauma know, it can be difficult to tell whether a comatose person is dead unless they check a pulse or a heart monitor. This soldier doesn’t bother to take Jesus’ pulse, because he has no interest in reviving him. His test is much cruder—thrusting a spear into Jesus’ body. If Jesus is dead, he will not respond. If he is not dead, his involuntary response will warn the soldier that further action is required—and the thrust of the spear will itself hasten Jesus’ death.
“and immediately blood and water came out” (19:34b). This raises two issues? First, what is the nature of the water? Second, what symbolism, if any, is intended by them?
Numerous possibilities have been suggested regarding the nature of the water, most of which assume that it is serum (the liquid part of blood without red blood cells). In 1847, a physician, J.C. Stroud, hypothesized that Jesus’ heart was ruptured, leaking blood into the pericardial sac, where the blood clotted, separating the serum from the red blood cells. However, more recent medical experts have found that an unlikely possibility. It is possible that the flogging caused a hemorrhage of Jesus’ pleural cavity, allowing blood to leak and then to separate into blood and serum (Brown, 946-947). The issuing forth of blood and water is certainly within the realm of physical possibility, but we can only guess at the true nature of the water.
With regard to symbolism, some have suggested that the blood and water symbolize the Lord’s Supper and baptism, but this is far from certain. Others have suggested that the blood symbolizes life and the water symbolizes cleansing, but again this is speculative.
The Gospel of John is the only Gospel to record the blood and water issuing from Jesus’ side, and it provides no clear answer to either of the above questions.
“He who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, that you may believe” (19:35). The writer of this Gospel wants us to understand that it was an eyewitness who reported the blood and water—and that he testified to them so that we might believe. This language is very similar to the verse that is thought to be the original closing verse of this Gospel: “but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31)—which suggests that the eyewitness is the author of this Gospel (see also 21:24).
“For these things happened, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘A bone of him will not be broken'” (19:36). Once again we have mention of fulfilled scripture. There are two Old Testament verses that are candidates for fulfillment here. One is Exodus 12:46, which constitutes part of the instructions for the preparation of the Passover lamb: “In one house shall it be eaten; you shall not carry out anything of the flesh abroad out of the house; neither shall you break a bone of it.” The other is Psalm 34:20, “He keeps all of his bones. Not one of them is broken”—God’s promise to a righteous man. Both verses are appropriate. Jesus is the Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:19), and he is also righteous (2 Timothy 4:8).
“Again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they pierced'” (19:37). The allusion here is to Zechariah 12:10: “I will pour on the house of David, and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplication; and they will look to me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for his only son, and will grieve bitterly for him, as one grieves for his firstborn” (see also Revelation 1:7).
JOHN 19:38-40. JOSEPH OF ARIMATHAEA TOOK AWAY JESUS’ BODY
38After these things, Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked of Pilate that he might take away Jesus’ body. Pilate gave him permission. He came therefore and took away his body. 39Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred Roman pounds (Greek: litras). 40So they took Jesus’ body, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury.
“After these things, Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked of Pilate that he might take away Jesus’ body” (19:38a). All four Gospels mention Joseph of Arimathea. They tell us that Joseph was “a prominent council member,” meaning a member of the Sanhedrin, the governing body of the Jews (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50)—that he had not agreed to the council’s plan and action (Luke 23:51)—that he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51)—that he was rich (Matthew 27:57)—that he “boldly went in to Pilate, and asked for Jesus’ body” (Mark 15:43)—that the tomb in which he buried Jesus was “a tomb that was cut in stone, where no one had ever been laid” (Luke 23:53)—that it was “his own new tomb, which he had cut out in the rock” (Matthew 27:60)—and that he rolled a great stone to seal the door to the tomb (Mark 15:46; Matthew 27:60).
The detail that I like best is that Joseph went to the tomb boldly (Mark 15:43). He had been a secret disciple because of his fear of the Jews (19:38), but after Jesus’ death he went BOLDLY to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body.
An ordinary man would find it difficult to gain access to Pilate, but Joseph’s position as a member of the Sanhedrin gives him access. That position is also the reason that he has kept his discipleship secret, and he can expect that his peers on the Sanhedrin will not be happy to learn that he has honored Jesus with burial in his own tomb.
Proper burial is important to Jews, and people are usually buried in family tombs that can be reused after decomposition does its work. Jewish law provides for the burial of a person executed as a criminal: “If a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and you hang him on a tree; his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him the same day; for he who is hanged is accursed of God; that you don’t defile your land which Yahweh your God gives you for an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). A family might choose not to defile the family tomb with such a person, but would usually bury him in a special plot designated for criminals and located outside the city.
“Pilate gave him permission. He came therefore and took away his body” (19:38b). It is not uncommon for Romans to turn over the body of an executed criminal to the criminal’s family following his death, but not when the person has been found guilty of sedition. Seditionists are left on their crosses until their bodies rot or are picked apart by vultures. It is remarkable that Pilate permits Joseph to bury Jesus body. It says something about his respect for Joseph and his belief that Jesus is not guilty—and it gives him another opportunity to taunt the Jewish leaders.
“Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came” (19:39a). The Synoptics make no mention of Nicodemus, but he is prominent in the Gospel of John—especially in the third chapter, where he comes to Jesus by night (John 3:1-21). He is a Pharisee (3:1; 7:47-50) and possibly a member of the Sanhedrin. Earlier, he tried to defend Jesus to the other Pharisees (7:51). After Jesus’ crucifixion, he will bring a large quantity of expensive ointments to anoint Jesus’ body (19:39).
“bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred Roman pounds” (litras) (19:39b). A litra weighs approximately 11.5 ounces or three-quarters of a pound. The total weight of the spices brought by Nicodemus is therefore about 75 pounds (34 kg). He would require help to carry such a heavy burden to Jesus’ burial site. It would be unusual for anyone to use such a large quantity of burial spices for an ordinary person, because the spices are quite expensive. It would not be unusual, however, to use very large quantities of spices to anoint the bodies of kings or other wealthy people. Jesus’ burial is fit for a king, which is appropriate for this Gospel in which Jesus’ kingship is the central theme.
“So they took Jesus’ body, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (19:40). Jews do not follow the Egyptian practice of embalming, which involves extracting the inner parts of the body and putting embalming spices in the cavity. The Jews use spices, not to preserve the body, but to mask the odor of decomposition. Anointing the body is also a way of paying one’s last respects. The usual Jewish practice is to wrap the body in long strips of cloth on which powdered myrrh and aloes are sprinkled.
JOHN 19:41-42. THEY LAID JESUS THERE
41Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden. In the garden was a new tomb in which no man had ever yet been laid. 42Then because of the Jews’ Preparation Day (for the tomb was near at hand) they laid Jesus there.
“Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden” (19:41a). The garden is substantial enough that Mary will later imagine that Jesus is the gardener (20:15).
“In the garden was a new tomb” (19:41b). As noted above, this is Joseph’s “own new tomb, which he had cut out in the rock” (Matthew 27:60). A tomb of this sort would be expensive, befitting a wealthy man like Joseph. For Joseph to use his personal tomb for Jesus’ burial is an extravagant gesture, rather like Nicodemus’ providing a hundred pounds of burial spices or like Mary’s anointing Jesus with a pound of costly perfume (12:3).
“in which no man had ever been laid” (19:41c). This is an important detail. On Easter morning, the disciples will find an empty tomb. It would have complicated the story if Jesus had been buried in a tomb where other bodies were lying, because the tomb would not have been empty on Easter morning. This burial in a tomb “in which no one had ever been laid” also suggests a burial befitting a king. While most tombs would be reused once decomposition had claimed the original decedents, a king would be laid in a new tomb that had never been used and would never be reused except for members of his own family.
“Then because of the Jews’ Preparation Day (for the tomb was near at hand) they laid Jesus there” (19:42). At sundown, the sabbath will begin—a special sabbath that coincides with the Passover. Once the sabbath begins, all work will have to stop. It is therefore imperative that Joseph and Nicodemus effect the burial prior to sundown. The convenient location of Joseph’s tomb nearby makes it possible for them to expedite the burial and to meet the deadline.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brooks, James A., The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture: Mark (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1991)
Brown, Raymond, The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI (Garden City: Doubleday, 1970)
Bruce, F. F., The Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983)
Carson, D. A., The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1991)
Morris, Leon, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Gospel According to John, Revised (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
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Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan