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John 19

Barclay's Daily Study BibleDaily Study Bible

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Verses 1-42

Chapter 19

JESUS AND PILATE ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 )

19:1-16 They brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early in the morning and they themselves did not enter into the headquarters, in case they should be defiled; but they wished to avoid defilement because they wished to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and said: "What charge do you bring against this man?" They answered him: "If he had not been an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said to them: "You take him, and judge him according to your laws." The Jews said to Pilate: "It is not permitted to us to put anyone to death." This happened that there might be fulfilled the word of Jesus, which he spoke in indication of the kind of death he was going to die. So Pilate went again into his headquarters, and called Jesus, and said to him: "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered: "Are you saying this because you have discovered it yourself?. Or did others tell it to you about me?" Pilate answered: "Am I a Jew? Your own countrymen and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered: "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world, my servants would have fought to prevent me being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom does not have its source here." So Pilate said to him: "So you are a king then?" Jesus said: "It is you who are saying that I am a king. The reason why I was born and came into the world is that I should bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." "What is truth?" Pilate said to him.

When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them: "I find no fault in him. You have a custom that I should release one person to you at the Passover time. Do you wish me to release the King of the Jews for you?" They shouted: "Not this man, but Barabbas." And Barabbas was a brigand.

Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him; and the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head. And they put a purple robe on him; and they kept coming to him and saying: "Hail! King of the Jews!" And they dealt him repeated blows. Pilate came out again and said to them: "See! I bring him out to you, because I want you to know that I find no fault in him." So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them: "See! The Man!" So, when the chief priests and officers saw him, they shouted: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them: "You take. him, and crucify him! For I find no fault in him." The Jews answered him: "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he made himself out to be the Son of God." When Pilate heard this saying, he was still more alarmed.

He went into his headquarters again, and said to Jesus: "Where do you come from?" Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him: "Do you refuse to speak to me? Are you not aware that I have authority to release you, and authority to crucify you?" Jesus answered him: "You would have no authority against me whatsoever, unless it had been given to you from above. That is why he who betrayed me to you is guilty of the greater sin." From this moment Pilate tried every way to release him; but the Jews kept insistently shouting: "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Every man who makes himself a king is an opponent of Caesar." So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out. He took his seat on his judgment seat, in the place that is called the Pavement--in Hebrew, Gabbatha. It was the day of the preparation for the Passover. It was about twelve o'clock midday. He said to the Jews: "See! Your king!" They shouted: "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." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.

This is the most dramatic account of the trial of Jesus in the New Testament, and to have cut it into small sections would have been to lose the drama. It has to be read as one; but now that we have read it as one, we shall take several days to study it. The drama of this passage lies in the clash and interplay of personalities. It will therefore be best to study it, not section by section, but in the light of the actors within it.

We begin by looking at the Jews. In the time of Jesus the Jews were subject to the Romans. The Romans allowed them a good deal of self-government, but they had not the right to carry out the death penalty. The ius gladii, as it was called, the right of the sword, belonged only to the Romans. As the Talmud records: "Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, judgment in matters of life and death was taken away from Israel." The first Roman governor of Palestine was named Coponius, and Josephus, telling of his appointment as governor, says that he was sent as procurator "having the power of life and death put into his hands by Caesar." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 2, 8, 1). Josephus also tells of a certain priest called Ananus who determined to execute certain of his enemies. Jews of more prudent mind protested against his decision on the grounds that he had no right either to take it or carry it out. Ananus was not allowed to carry his decision into practice and was deposed from office for even thinking of doing so. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20, 9, 1). It is true that sometimes, as, for instance, in the case of Stephen, the Jews did take the law into their own hands; but legally they had no right to inflict the death penalty on anyone. That was why they had to bring Jesus to Pilate before he could be crucified.

If the Jews had themselves been able to carry out the death penalty, it would have been by stoning. The Law lays it down: "And he who blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall be put to death, all the congregation shall stone him" ( Leviticus 24:16). in such a case the witnesses whose word proved the crime had to be the first to fling the stones. "The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people" ( Deuteronomy 17:7). That is the point of John 18:32. That verse says that all this was happening that there might be fulfilled the word of Jesus in indication of the kind of death he was going to die. He had said that when he was lifted up, that is, when he was crucified, he would draw all men to him ( John 12:32). If that prophecy of Jesus was to be fulfilled, he must be crucified, not stoned; and therefore, even apart from the fact that Roman law would not allow the Jews to carry out the death penalty, Jesus had to die a Roman death, because he had to be lifted up.

The Jews from start to finish were seeking to use Pilate for their purposes. They could not kill Jesus themselves, so they were determined that the Romans would kill him for them.

JESUS AND PILATE - JEWS ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 continued)

But there were more things about the Jews than that.

(i) They began by hating Jesus; but they finished in a very hysteria of hatred, howling like wolves, with faces twisted in bitterness: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" In the end they reached such an insanity of hatred that they were impervious to reason and to mercy and even to the claims of common humanity. Nothing in this world warps a man's judgment as hatred does. Once a man allows himself to hate, he can neither think nor see straight, nor listen without distortion. Hatred is a terrible thing because it takes a man's senses away.

(ii) The hatred of the Jews made them lose all sense of proportion. They were so careful of ceremonial and ritual cleanness that they would not enter Pilate's headquarters, and yet they were busy doing everything possible to crucify the Son of God. To eat the Passover, a Jew had to be absolutely ceremonially clean. Now, if they had gone into Pilate's headquarters, they would have incurred uncleanness in a double way. First, the scribal law said: "The dwelling-places of Gentiles are unclean." Second, the Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Part of the preparation for it was a ceremonial search for leaven, and the banishing of every particle of leaven from every house because it was the symbol of evil. To go into Pilate's headquarters would have been to go into a place where leaven might be found; and to go into such a place when the Passover was being prepared was to render oneself unclean. But even if the Jews had entered a Gentile house which contained leaven, they would have been unclean only until evening. Then they would have had to undergo ceremonial bathing after which they would have been clean.

Now see what the Jews were doing. They were carrying out the details of the ceremonial law with meticulous care; and at the same time they were hounding to the Cross the Son of God. That is just the kind of thing that men are always liable to do. Many a church member fusses about the sheerest trifles, and breaks God's law of love and of forgiveness and of service every day. There is even many a church in which the details of vestments, furnishings, ritual, ceremonial are attended to with the most detailed care, and where the spirit of love and fellowship are conspicuous only by their absence. One of the most tragic things in the world is how the human mind can lose its sense of proportion and its ability to put first things first.

(ii) The Jews did not hesitate to twist their charge against Jesus. In their own private examination the charge they had formulated was one of blasphemy ( Matthew 26:65). They knew well that Pilate would not proceed on a charge like that. He would have said it was their own private religious quarrel and they could settle is as they liked without coming to him. In the end what the Jews produced was a charge of rebellion and political insurrection. They accused Jesus of claiming to be a king, although they knew that their accusation was a lie. Hatred is a terrible thing and does not hesitate to twist the truth.

(iv) In order to compass the death of Jesus the Jews denied every principle they had. The most astonishing thing they said that day was: "We have no king but Caesar." Samuel's word to the people was that God alone was their king ( 1 Samuel 12:12). When the crown was offered to Gideon, his answer was: "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you: the Lord will rule over you" ( Judges 8:23). When the Romans had first come into Palestine, they had taken a census in order to arrange the normal taxation to which subject people were liable. And there had been the most bloody rebellion, because the Jews insisted that God alone was their king, and to him alone they would pay tribute. When the Jewish leader said: "We have no king but Caesar." it was the most astonishing volte-face in history. The very statement must have taken Pilate's breath away, and he must have looked at them in half-bewildered, half-cynical amusement. The Jews were prepared to abandon every principle they had in order to eliminate Jesus.

It is a terrible picture. The hatred of the Jews turned them into a maddened mob of shrieking, frenzied fanatics. In their hatred they forgot all mercy, all sense of proportion, all justice, all their principles, even God. Never in history was the insanity of hatred so vividly shown.

JESUS AND PILATE - PILATE'S HISTORY ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 continued)

Now we turn to the second personality in this story--Pilate. Throughout the trial his conduct is well-nigh incomprehensible. It is abundantly clear, it could not be clearer, that Pilate knew that the charges of the Jews were a series of lies, that he knew that Jesus was completely innocent, that he was deeply impressed with him, and that he did not wish to condemn him to death--and yet he did. First, he tried to refuse to deal with the case; then he tried to release Jesus on the grounds that at the Passover a criminal was always released; then he tried to compromise by scourging Jesus; then he made a last appeal. But he refused all through to put his foot down and tell the Jews that he would have nothing to do with their evil machinations. We will never even begin to understand Pilate unless we understand his history, which is set out for us partly in the writings of Josephus and partly in the writings of Philo.

To understand the part that Pilate played in this drama we must go back a long way. To begin with, what was a Roman governor doing in Judaea at all?

In 4 B.C. Herod the Great died. He had been king of the whole of Palestine. For all his faults he was in many ways a good king, and he had been very friendly with the Romans. In his will he divided up his kingdom between three of his sons. Antipas received Galilee and Peraea; Philip received Batanea, Auranitis and Trachonitis, the wild unpopulated regions of the north-east; and Archelaus, who at the time was only eighteen years old, received Idumaea, Judaea and Samaria. The Romans approved this distribution of the kingdom, and ratified it.

Antipas and Philip governed quietly and well; but Archelaus governed with such extortion and tyranny that the Jews themselves requested the Romans to remove him, and to appoint a governor. The likelihood is that they expected to be incorporated into the large province of Syria; and had that been so, the province was so large that they would very probably have been left pretty much to carry on the way they were. All Roman provinces were divided into two classes. Those which required troops stationed in them were in the direct control of the Emperor and were imperial provinces; those which did not require troops but were peaceful and trouble-free, were in the direct control of the senate and were senatorial provinces.

Palestine was obviously a troubled land; it needed troops and therefore it was in the control of the Emperor. Really great provinces were governed either by a proconsul or a legate; Syria was like that. Smaller provinces of the second class, were governed by a procurator. He was in full control of the military and judicial administration of the province. He visited every part of the province at least once a year and heard cases and complaints. He superintended the ingathering of taxes but had no authority to increase them. He was paid a salary from the treasury and was strictly forbidden to accept either presents or bribes; and, if he exceeded his duties, the people of his province had power to report him to the Emperor.

It was a procurator that Augustus appointed to control the affairs of Palestine, and the first one took over in A.D. 6. Pilate took over in A.D. 26 and remained in office until A.D. 35. Palestine was a province bristling with problems, one which required a firm and a strong and a wise hand. We do not know Pilate's previous history, but we do know that he must have had the reputation of being a good administrator or he would never have been given the responsible position of governing Palestine. It had to be kept in order, for, as a glance at the map will show, it was the bridge between Egypt and Syria.

But as governor Pilate was a failure. He seemed to begin with a complete contempt and a complete lack of sympathy for the Jews. Three famous, or infamous, incidents marked his career.

The first occurred on his first visit to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not the capital of the province; its headquarters were at Caesarea. But the procurator paid many visits to Jerusalem, and, when he did, he stayed in the old palace of the Herods in the west part of the city. When he came to Jerusalem, he always came with a detachment of soldiers. The soldiers had their standards; and on the top of the standard there was a little bust in metal of the reigning Emperor. The Emperor was regarded as a god, and to the Jew that little bust on the standards was a graven image.

All previous Roman governors, in deference to the religious scruples of the Jews, had removed that image before they entered the city. Pilate refused to do so. The Jews besought him to do so. Pilate was adamant; he would not pander to the superstitions of the Jews. He went back to Caesarea. The Jews followed him. They dogged his footsteps for five days. They were humble, but determined in their requests. Finally he told them to meet him in the amphitheatre. He surrounded them with armed soldiers, and informed them that if they did not stop their requests they would be killed there and then. The Jews bared their necks and bade the soldiers strike. Not even Pilate could massacre defenceless men like that. He was beaten and compelled to agree that the images should thereafter be removed from the standards. That was how Pilate began, and it was a bad beginning.

The second incident was this. The Jerusalem water supply was inadequate. Pilate determined to build a new aqueduct. Where was the money to come from? He raided the Temple treasury which contained millions. It is very unlikely that Pilate took money that was deposited for the sacrifices and the Temple service. Much more likely, he took money which was entitled Korban, and which came from sources which made it impossible to use for sacred purposes. His aqueduct was much needed; it was a worthy and a great undertaking; the water supply would even be of great benefit to the Temple which needed much cleansing with its continual sacrifices. But the people resented it; they rioted and surged through the streets. Pilate mingled his soldiers with them in plain clothes, with concealed weapons. At a given signal they attacked the mob and many a Jew was clubbed or stabbed to death. Once again Pilate was unpopular--and he was rendered liable to be reported to the Emperor.

The third incident turned out even worse for Pilate. As we have seen, when he was in Jerusalem, he stayed in the ancient palace of the Herods. He had certain shields made; and on them he had inscribed the name of Tiberius the Emperor. These shields were what is known as votive shields; they were devoted to the honour and the memory of the Emperor. Now the Emperor was regarded as a god; so here was the name of a strange god inscribed and displayed for reverence in the holy city. The people were enraged; the greatest men, even his closest supporters, besought Pilate to remove them. He refused. The Jews reported the matter to Tiberius the Emperor, and he ordered Pilate to remove them.

It is relevant to note how Pilate ended up. This last incident happened after Jesus had been crucified, in the year A.D. 35. There was a revolt in Samaria. It was not very serious but Pilate crushed it with sadistic ferocity and a plethora of executions. The Samaritans had always been regarded as loyal citizens of Rome and the legate of Syria intervened. Tiberius ordered Pilate back to Rome. When he was on the way, Tiberius died; so far as we know, Pilate never came to judgment; and from that moment he vanishes from history.

It is clear why Pilate acted as he did. The Jews blackmailed him into crucifying Jesus. They said: "If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend." This was, in effect: "Your record is not too good; you were reported once before; if you do not give us our way, we will report you again to the Emperor, and you will be dismissed." On that day in Jerusalem, Pilate's past rose up and haunted him. He was blackmailed into assenting to the death of Christ, because his previous mistakes had made it impossible for him both to defy the Jews and to keep his post. Somehow one cannot help being sorry for Pilate. He wanted to do the right thing; but he had not the courage to defy the Jews and do it. He crucified Jesus in order to keep his job.

JESUS AND PILATE - PILATE'S CONDUCT ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 continued)

We have seen Pilate's history; let us now look at his conduct during his trial of Jesus. He did not wish to condemn Jesus, because he knew that he was innocent; and yet he was caught in the mesh of his own past.

(i) Pilate began by trying to put the responsibility on to someone else. He said to the Jews: "You take this man and judge him according to your laws." He tried to evade the responsibility of dealing with Jesus; but that is precisely what no one can do. No one can deal with Jesus for us; we must deal with him ourselves.

(ii) Pilate went on to try to find a way of escape from the entanglement in which he found himself. He tried to use the custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover in order to engineer the release of Jesus. He tried to evade dealing directly with Jesus himself; but again that is precisely what no one can do. There is no escape from a personal decision in regard to Jesus; we must ourselves decide what we will do with him, accept him or reject him.

(iii) Pilate went on to see what compromise could do. He ordered Jesus to be scourged. It must have been in Pilate's mind that a scourging might satisfy, or at least blunt the edge of, Jewish hostility. He felt that he might avoid having to give the verdict of the cross by giving the verdict of scourging. Once again, that is what no man can do. No man can compromise with Jesus; no man can serve two masters. We are either for Jesus or against him.

(iv) Pilate went on to try what appeal could do. He led Jesus out broken by the scourging and showed him to the people. He asked them: "Shall I crucify your king?" He tried to swing the balance by this appeal to emotion and to pity. But no man can hope that appeal to others can take the place of his own personal decision; and it was Pilate's place to make his own decision. No man can evade a personal verdict and a personal decision in regard to Jesus Christ.

In the end Pilate admitted defeat. He abandoned Jesus to the mob, because he had not the courage to take the right decision and to do the right thing.

But there are still more side-lights here on the character of Pilate.

(i) There is a hint of Pilate's ingrained attitude of contempt. he asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus asked whether he asked this on the basis of what he himself had discovered, or on the basis of information indirectly received. Pilate's answer was: "Am I a Jew? How do you expect me to know anything about Jewish affairs?" He was too proud to involve himself in what he regarded as Jewish squabbles and superstitions. And that pride was exactly what made him a bad governor. No one can govern a people if he makes no attempt to understand them and to enter into their thoughts and minds.

(ii) There is a kind of superstitious curiosity about Pilate. He wished to know whence Jesus came--and it was more than Jesus' native place that he was thinking of. When he heard that Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God, he was still more disturbed. Pilate was superstitious rather than religious, fearing that there might be something in it. He was afraid to come to a decision in Jesus' favour because of the Jews; he was equally afraid to come to a decision against him, because he had the lurking suspicion that God might be in this.

(iii) But at the heart of Pilate was a wistful longing. When Jesus said that he had come to witness to the truth, Pilate's answer was: "What is truth?" There are many ways in which a man might ask that question. He might ask it in cynical and sardonic humour. Bacon immortalized Pilate's answer, when he wrote: "What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer." But it was not in cynical humour that Pilate asked this question; nor was it the question of a man who did not care. Here was the chink in his armour. He asked the question wistfully and wearily.

Pilate by this world's standards was a successful man. He had come almost to the top of the Roman civil service; he was governor-general of a Roman province; but there was something missing. Here in the presence of this simple, disturbing hated Galilaean, Pilate felt that for him the truth was still a mystery--and that now he had got himself into a situation where there was no chance to learn it. It may be he jested, but it was the jest of despair. Philip Gibbs somewhere tells of listening to a debate between T. S. Eliot, Margaret Irwin, C. Day Lewis and other distinguished people on the subject, "Is this life worth living?" "True, they jested," he said, "but they jested like jesters knocking at the door of death."

Pilate was like that. Into his life there came Jesus, and suddenly he saw what he had missed. That day he might have found all that he had missed; but he had not the courage to defy the world in spite of his past, and to take his stand with Christ and a future which was glorious.

JESUS AND PILATE - JESUS ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 continued)

We have thought of the picture of the crowd in this trial of Jesus and we have thought of the picture of Pilate. Now we must come to the central character in the drama--Jesus himself. He is depicted before us with a series of master-strokes.

(i) First and foremost, no one can read this story without seeing the sheer majesty of Jesus. There is no sense that he is on trial. When a man faces him, it is not Jesus who is on trial; it is the man. Pilate may have treated many Jewish things with arrogant contempt, but he did not so treat Jesus. We cannot help feeling that it is Jesus who is in control and Pilate who is bewildered and floundering in a situation which he cannot understand. The majesty of Jesus never shone more radiantly than in the hour when he was on trial before men.

(ii) Jesus speaks with utter directness to us of his kingdom; it is not, he says, of this earth. The atmosphere in Jerusalem was always explosive; during the Passover it was sheer dynamite. The Romans well knew that, and during the Passover time they always drafted extra troops into Jerusalem. But Pilate never at any time had more than three thousand men under his command. Some would be in Caesarea, his headquarters; some would be on garrison duty in Samaria; there cannot really have been more than a few hundred on duty in Jerusalem. If Jesus had wished to raise the standard of rebellion and to fight it out, he could have done it easily enough. But he makes it quite clear that he claims to be a king and equally clear that his kingdom is not based on force but is a kingdom in the hearts of men. He would never deny that he aimed at conquest, but it was the conquest of love.

(iii) Jesus tells us why he came into the world. He came to witness to the truth; he came to tell men the truth about God, the truth about themselves, and the truth about life. As Emerson had it:

"When half-gods go,

The gods arrive."

The days of guessings and gropings and half-truths were gone. He came to tell men the truth. That is one of the great reasons why we must either accept or refuse Christ. There is no half-way house about the truth. A man either accepts it, or rejects it; and Christ is the truth.

(iv) We see the physical courage of Jesus. Pilate had him scourged. When a man was scourged he was tied to a whipping-post in such a way that his back was fully exposed. The lash was a long leathern thong, studded at intervals with pellets of lead and sharpened pieces of bone. It literally tore a man's back into strips. Few remained conscious throughout the ordeal; some died; and many went raving mad. Jesus stood that. And after it, Pilate led him out to the crowd and said: "See! The man!" Here is one of John's double meanings. It must have been Pilate's first intention to awaken the pity of the Jews. "Look!" he said. "Look at this poor, bruised, bleeding creature! Look at this wretchedness! Can you possibly wish to hound a creature like this to an utterly unnecessary death?" But we can almost hear the tone of his voice change as he says it, and see the wonder dawn in his eyes. And instead of saying it half-contemptuously, to awaken pity, he says it with an admiration that will not be repressed. The word that Pilate used is ho ( G3588) anthropos ( G444) , which is the normal Greek for a human being; but not so long afterwards the Greek thinkers were using that very term for the heavenly man, the ideal man, the pattern of manhood. It is always true that whatever else we say or do not say about Jesus, his sheer heroism is without parallel. Here indeed is a man.

JESUS AND PILATE - THE TRIAL ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 continued)

(v) Once again we see here in the trial of Jesus the spontaneousness of his death and the supreme control of God. Pilate warned Jesus that he had power to release him or to crucify him. Jesus answered that Pilate had no power at all, except what had been given him by God. The crucifixion of Jesus never, from beginning to end, reads like the story of a man caught up in an inexorable web of circumstances over which he had no control; it never reads like the story of a man who was hounded to his death; it is the story of a man whose last days were a triumphant procession towards the goal of the Cross.

(vi) And here also is the terrible picture of the silence of Jesus. There was a time when he had no answer to give to Pilate. There were other times when Jesus was silent. He was silent before the High Priest ( Matthew 26:63; Mark 14:61). He was silent before Herod ( Luke 23:9). He was silent when the charges against him were made to Pilate by the Jewish authorities ( Matthew 27:14; Mark 15:5). We have sometimes the experience, when talking to other people, of finding that argument and discussion are no longer possible, because we and they have no common ground. It is almost as if we spoke another language. That happens when men do in fact speak another mental and spiritual language. It is a terrible day when Jesus is silent to a man. There can be nothing more terrible than for a man's mind to be so shut by his pride and his self-will, that there is nothing Jesus can say to him that will make any difference.

(vii) Finally, it is just possible that in this trial scene there is a strange, dramatic climax, which is a magnificent example of John's dramatic irony.

The scene comes to an end by saying that Pilate brought Jesus out; as we have translated it, and as the King James Version and Revised Standard translate it, Pilate came out to the place that was called the Pavement of Gabbatha--which may mean the tessellated pavement of marble mosaic--and sat upon the judgment seat. This was the bema ( G968) , on which the magistrate sat to give his official decisions. Now the verb for to sit is kathizein ( G2523) , and that may be either intransitive or transitive; it may mean either to sit down oneself, or to seat another. Just possibly it means here that Pilate with one last mocking gesture brought Jesus out, clad in the terrible finery of the old purple robe and with his forehead girt with the crown of thorns and the drops of blood the thorns had wakened, and set him in the judgment seat, and with a wave of his hand said: "Am I to crucify your king?" The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says that in the mockery, they set Jesus on the seat of judgment and said: "Judge justly, King of Israel." Justin Martyr too says that "they set Jesus on the judgment seat, and said, 'Give judgment for us'." It may be that Pilate jestingly caricatured Jesus as judge. If that is so, what dramatic irony is there. That which was a mockery was the truth; and one day those who had mocked Jesus as judge would meet him as judge--and would remember.

So in this dramatic trial scene we see the immutable majesty, the undaunted courage and the serene acceptance of the Cross of Jesus. Never was he so regal as when men did their worst to humiliate him.

JESUS AND PILATE - THE SOLDIERS ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 continued)

We have looked at the main personalities in the trial of Jesus--the Jews with their hatred, Pilate with his haunting past, and Jesus in the serenity of his regal majesty. But certain other people were on the outskirts of the scene.

(i) There were the soldiers. When Jesus was given into their hands to be scourged, they amused themselves with their crude horse-play. He was a king? Well then, let him have a robe and crown. So they put an old purple robe on him and a crown of thorns round his brow; and they slapped him on the face. They were playing a game that ancient people commonly played. Philo in his work On Flaccus tells of a very similar thing that the mob at Alexandria did. "There was a madman named Carabas, afflicted not with the savage and beastlike sort of madness--for this form is undisguisable both for sufferers and bystanders--but with the quiet and milder kind. He used to spend his days and nights naked in the streets, sheltering from neither heat nor frost, a plaything of children and idle lads. They joined in driving the wretch to the gymnasium, and, setting him aloft so that he could be seen by everyone, they flattened a strip of bark for a fillet and put it on his head, and wrapped a floor-rug round his body for a mantle, and for sceptre someone catching sight of a small piece of the native papyrus that had been thrown on the road handed it to him. And when he had assumed the insignia of kingship as in theatrical mimes, and had been arrayed in the character of king, young men bearing staffs on their shoulders took their stance on either side in place of spearmen, mimic lancers. Then others approached, some as if to greet him, others as though to plead their causes, others as though to petition him about public matters. Then from the surrounding multitudes rang forth an outlandish shout of 'Marin,' the name by which it is said that kings are called in Syria." It is a poignant thing that the soldiers treated Jesus as a ribald crowd might treat an idiot boy.

And yet of all the people involved in the trial of Jesus, the soldiers were least to blame, for they did not know what they were doing. Most likely they had come up from Caesarea and did not know what it was all about. Jesus to them was only a chance criminal.

Here is another example of the dramatic irony of John. The soldiers made a caricature of Jesus as king, while in actual fact he was the only king. Beneath the jest there was eternal truth.

JESUS AND PILATE - BARABBAS ( John 18:28-40 ; John 19:1-16 continued)

(ii) Last of all there was Barabbas whose episode John tells very briefly indeed. Of the custom of freeing a prisoner at Passover we know nothing more than the gospels tell us. The other gospels to some extent fill out John's brief picture and when we put all our information together we find that Barabbas was a notable prisoner, a brigand, who had taken part in a certain insurrection in the city and had committed murder ( Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:17-25; Acts 3:14).

The name Barabbas is interesting. There are two possibilities as to its derivation. It may be compounded of Bar Abba which would mean "son of the father," or it may be compounded of Bar Rabban, which would mean "son of the Rabbi." It is not impossible that Barabbas was the son of some Rabbi, a scion of some noble family who had gone wrong; and it may well be that, criminal though he was, he was popular with the people as a kind of Robin Hood character. It is certainly true that we must not think of Barabbas as a sneak thief, or a petty pilferer, or a burglar. He was a lestes ( G3027) , which means a brigand. Either he was one of the warrior brigands who infested the Jericho road, the kind of man into whose hands the traveller in the parable fell; or, perhaps even more probable, he was one of the Zealots who had sworn to rid Palestine of the Romans, even if it meant a career of murder, robbery, assassination and crime. Barabbas was no petty criminal. A man of violence he might be, but his violence was the kind which might well have a romance and a glamour about it and make him the popular hero of the crowd and the despair of the law at one and the same time.

There is a still more interesting thing about Barabbas. It is a second name and there must have been a first name, just as, for instance, Peter had been Simon bar-Jonah, Simon the son of Jonah. Now there are certain ancient Greek manuscripts, and certain Syrian and Armenian translations of the New Testament which actually give the name of Barabbas as Jesus. That is by no means impossible, because in those days Jesus was a common name, being the Greek form of Joshua. If so, the choice of the crowd was even more dramatic, for they were shouting: "Not Jesus the Nazarene, but Jesus Barabbas."

The choice of the mob has been the eternal choice. Barabbas was the man of force and blood, the man who chose to reach his end by violent means. Jesus was the man of love and of gentleness, whose kingdom was in the hearts of men. It is the tragic fact of history that all through the ages men have chosen the way of Barabbas and refused the way of Jesus.

What happened to Barabbas no man knows; but John Oxenham in one of his books has an imaginary picture of him. At first Barabbas could think of nothing but his freedom; then he began to look at the man who had died that he might live. Something about Jesus fascinated him and he followed him out to see the end. As he saw Jesus bearing his Cross, one thought burned into his mind: "I should have been carrying that Cross, not he. He saved me!" And as he saw Jesus hanging on Calvary, the only thing of which he could think was: "I should have been hanging there, not he. He saved me!" It may be so, or it may not be so; but certainly Barabbas was one of the sinners Jesus died to save.

Note On The Date Of The Crucifixion ( John 19:14)

There is one great problem in the fourth gospel which we did not take note of at all when we were studying it. Here we can note it only very briefly, for it is really an unsolved problem on which the literature is immense.

It is quite certain that the fourth gospel and the other three give different dates for the Crucifixion, and take different views of what the last meal together was.

In the Synoptic gospels it is clear that the Last Supper was the Passover and that Jesus was crucified on Passover Day. It must be remembered that the Jewish day began at 6 p.m. on what to us is the day before. The Passover fell on 15th Nisan; but 15th Nisan began on what to us is 14th Nisan at 6 p.m. Mark seems to be quite clear; he says: "And on the first day of unleavened bread, when they sacrificed the passover, his disciples said unto him, Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the passover?" Jesus gives them instructions. Then Mark goes on: "And they prepared the passover, and when it was evening he came with the twelve." ( Mark 14:12-17) Undoubtedly Mark wished to show the Last Supper as a Passover meal and that Jesus was crucified on Passover day; and Matthew and Luke follow Mark.

On the other hand John is quite clear that Jesus was crucified on the day before the passover. He begins his story of the last meal: "Now before the feast of the Passover..." ( John 13:1). When Judas left the upper room, they thought he had gone to prepare for the Passover ( John 13:29). The Jews would not enter the judgment hall lest they should become unclean and be prevented from eating the Passover ( John 18:28). The judgment is during the preparation for the Passover ( John 19:14).

There is here a contradiction for which there is no compromise solution. Either the Synoptic gospels are correct or John is. Scholars are much divided. But it seems most likely that the Synoptics are correct. John was always looking for hidden meanings. In his story Jesus is crucified as somewhere near the sixth hour ( John 19:14). It was just then that in the Temple the Passover lambs were being killed. By far the likeliest thing is that John dated things in order that Jesus would be crucified at exactly the same time as the Passover lambs were being killed, so that he might be seen as the great Passover Lamb who saved his people and took away the sins of the world. It seems that the Synoptic gospels are right intact, while John is right in truth; and John was always more interested in eternal truth than in mere historic fact.

There is no full explanation of this obvious discrepancy; but this seems to us the best.

THE WAY TO THE CROSS ( John 19:17-22 )

19:17-22 So they took Jesus, and he, carrying his Cross for himself, went out to the place that is called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha. They crucified him there, and with him they crucified two others, one on either side, and Jesus in the middle. Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the Cross. On it was written: "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Many of the Jews read this title, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. So the chief priests repeatedly said to Pilate: "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews.' But write, 'He said I am the King of the Jews.'" Pilate answered: "What I have written, I have written."

There was no more terrible death than death by crucifixion. Even the Romans themselves regarded it with a shudder of horror. Cicero declared that it was "the most cruel and horrifying death." Tacitus said that it was a "despicable death." It was originally a Persian method of execution. It may have been used because, to the Persians, the earth was sacred, and they wished to avoid defiling it with the body of an evil-doer. So they nailed him to a cross and left him to die there, looking to the vultures and the carrion crows to complete the work. The Carthaginians took over crucifixion from the Persians; and the Romans learned it from the Carthaginians.

Crucifixion was never used as a method of execution in the homeland, but only in the provinces, and there only in the case of slaves. It was unthinkable that a Roman citizen should die such a death. Cicero says: "It is a crime for a Roman citizen to be bound; it is a worse crime for him to be beaten; it is well nigh parricide for him to be killed; what am I to say if he be killed on a cross? A nefarious action such as that is incapable of description by any word, for there is none fit to describe it." It was that death, the most dreaded in the ancient world, the death of slaves and criminals, that Jesus died.

The routine of crucifixion was always the same. When the case had been heard and the criminal condemned, the judge uttered the fateful sentence: "Ibis ad crucem," "You will go to the cross." The verdict was carried out there and then. The condemned man was placed in the centre of a quaternion, a company of four Roman soldiers. His own cross was placed upon his shoulders. Scourging always preceded crucifixion and it is to be remembered how terrible scourging was. Often the criminal had to be lashed and goaded along the road, to keep him on his feet, as he staggered to the place of crucifixion. Before him walked an officer with a placard on which was written the crime for which he was to die and he was led through as many streets as possible on the way to execution. There was a double reason for that. There was the grim reason that as many as possible should see and take warning from his fate. But there was a merciful reason. The placard was carried before the condemned man and the long route was chosen, so that if anyone could still bear witness in his favour, he might come forward and do so. In such a case, the procession was hatted and the case retried.

In Jerusalem the place of execution was called The Place of a Skull, in Aramaic, Golgotha ( G1115 and H1538) . (Calvary is the Latin for the Place of a Skull.) It must have been outside the city walls, for it was not lawful to crucify a man within the boundaries of the city. Where it was we do not certainly know.

More than one reason has been put forward for the strange, grim name, 'The Place of a Skull.' There is a legend that it was so called because the skull of Adam was buried there. There is a suggestion that it was because it was littered with the skulls of crucified criminals. That is not likely. By Roman law a criminal must hang upon his cross until he died from hunger and thirst and exposure, a torture which sometimes lasted for days; but by Jewish law the body must be taken down and buried by nightfall. In Roman law the criminal's body was not buried but simply thrown away for the vultures and the crows and the pariah dogs to dispose of; but that would have been quite illegal under Jewish law and no Jewish place would be littered with skulls. It is much more likely that the place received its name because it was on a hill shaped like a skull. In any event it was a grim name for a place where grim things were done.

So Jesus went out, bruised and bleeding, his flesh torn to ribbons by the scourging, carrying his own Cross to the place where he was to die.

THE WAY TO THE CROSS ( John 19:17-22 continued)

In this passage there are two further things we must note. The inscription on Jesus' Cross was in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. These were the three great languages of the ancient world and they stood for three great nations. In the economy of God every nation has something to teach the world; and these three stood for three great contributions to the world and to world history. Greece taught the world beauty of form and of thought; Rome taught the world law and good government; the Hebrews taught the world religion and the worship of the true God. The consummation of all these things is seen in Jesus. In him was the supreme beauty and the highest thought of God. In him was the law of God and the kingdom of God. In him was the very image of God. All the world's seekings and strivings found their consummation in him. It was symbolic that the three great languages of the world should call him king.

There is no doubt that Pilate put this inscription on the Cross of Jesus to irritate and annoy the Jews. They had just said that they had no king but Caesar; they had just absolutely refused to have Jesus as their king. And Pilate, by way of a grim jest, put this inscription on his Cross. The Jewish leaders repeatedly asked him to remove it; and Pilate refused. "What I have written," he said, "I have written." Here is Pilate the inflexible, the man who will not yield an inch. So very short a time before, this same man had been weakly vacillating as to whether to crucify Jesus or to let him go; and in the end had allowed himself to be bullied and blackmailed into giving the Jews their will. Adamant about the inscription, he had been weak about the crucifixion.

It is one of the paradoxical things in life that we can be stubborn about things which do not matter and weak about things of supreme importance. If Pilate had only withstood the blackmailing tactics of the Jews and had refused to be coerced into giving them their will with Jesus, he might have gone down in history as one of its great, strong men. But because he yielded on the important thing and stood firm on the unimportant, his name is a name of shame. Pilate was the man who took a stand on the wrong things and too late.


19:23-24 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, and they divided them into four parts, a part for each soldier; and they took his tunic. It was a tunic which had no seam, woven throughout in one piece from the top. They said to each other: "Don't let's cut it up, but let us cast lots for it, and settle that way who will have it." This happened that the passage of scripture which says, "They divided my clothes among themselves, and they cast lots for my raiment," might be fulfilled. So, then, that is what the soldiers did.

We have already seen that a criminal was escorted to the place of execution by a quaternion of four soldiers. One of the perquisites of these soldiers was the clothes of the victim. Every Jew wore five articles of apparel--his shoes, his turban, his girdle, his tunic, and his outer robe. There were four soldiers, and there were five articles. They diced for them, each had his pick and the inner tunic was left. It was seamless, woven all in one piece. To have cut it into four pieces would have been to render it useless, and so they diced again to see who would possess it. There are many things in this vivid picture.

(i) Studdert Kennedy has a poem based on it. The soldiers were gamblers; and so in a sense was Jesus. He staked everything on his utter fidelity to God; he staked everything on the Cross. This was his last and greatest appeal to men, his last and greatest act of obedience towards God.

"And, sitting down, they watched him there,

The soldiers did;

There, while they played at dice,

He made his sacrifice,

And died upon his Cross to rid

God's world of sin.

He was a gambler, too, my Christ.

He took his life and threw

It for a world redeemed.

And ere the agony was done,

Before the westering sun went down,

Crowning that day with its crimson crown,

He knew that he had won."

There is a sense in which every Christian is a gambler, for every Christian must venture for his name.

(ii) No picture so shows the indifference of the world to Christ. There on the Cross Jesus was dying in agony; and there at the foot of the Cross the soldiers threw their dice as if it did not matter. An artist painted Christ standing with nail-pierced hands outstretched in a modern city, while the crowds surge by. Not one of them is even sparing him a look, except only a young hospital nurse; and beneath the picture there is the question: "Is it nothing to you all you who pass by?" ( Lamentations 1:12). The tragedy is not the hostility of the world to Christ; the tragedy is the world's indifference which treats the love of God as if it did not matter.

(iii) There are two further points which we must note in this picture. There is a legend that Mary herself had woven the seamless tunic and given it as a last gift to her son when he went out into the world. If that be true--and it may well be, for it was a custom of Jewish mothers to do just that--there is a double poignancy in the picture of these insensitive soldiers gambling for the tunic of Jesus which was his mother's gift.

(iv) But there is something half-hidden here. Jesus' tunic is described as being without seam, woven in one piece from top to bottom. That is the precise description of the linen tunic which the High Priest wore. Let us remember that the function of the priest was to be the liaison between God and man. The Latin for priest is pontifex, which means bridge-builder, and the priest was to build a bridge between God and man. No one ever did that as Jesus did. He is the perfect High Priest through whom men come to God. Again and again we have seen that there are two meanings in so many of John's statements, a meaning which lies on the surface, and a deeper inner meaning. When John tells us of the seamless tunic of Jesus it is not just a description of the kind of clothes that Jesus wore; it is something which tells us that Jesus is the perfect priest, opening the perfect way for all men to the presence of God.

(v) Lastly we note that in this incident John finds a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. He reads back into it the saying of the Psalmist: "They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots" ( Psalms 22:18).

A SON'S LOVE ( John 19:25-27 )

19:25-27 But his mother, and his mother's sister, and Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary from Magdala, stood near the Cross of Jesus. So Jesus saw his mother, and he saw the disciple whom he loved standing by, and he said to his mother: "Woman! See! Your son." Then he said to the disciple: "See! Your mother!" And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.

In the end Jesus was not absolutely alone. At his Cross there were these four women who loved him. Some commentators explain their presence there by saying that in those days women were so unimportant that no one ever took any notice of women disciples, and that therefore these women were running no risk at all by being near the Cross of Jesus. That surely is a poor and unworthy explanation. It was always a dangerous thing to be an associate of a man whom the Roman government believed to be so dangerous that he deserved a Cross. It is always a dangerous thing to demonstrate one's love for someone whom the orthodox regard as a heretic. The presence of these women at the Cross was not due to the fact that they were so unimportant that no one would notice them; their presence was due to the fact that perfect love casts out fear.

They are a strange company. Of one, Mary the wife of Clopas, we know nothing; but we know something of the other three.

(i) There was Mary, Jesus' mother. Maybe she could not understand, but she could love. Her presence there was the most natural thing in the world for a mother. Jesus might be a criminal in the eyes of the law, but he was her son. As Kipling had it:

"If I were hanged on the highest hill,

Mother o' mine, O mother o' mine!

I know whose love would follow me still,

Mother o' mine, O mother o' mine!

If I were drowned in the deepest sea,

Mother o' mine, O mother o' mine!

I know whose tears would come down to me,

Mother o' mine, O mother o' mine!

If I were damned of body and soul,

I know whose prayers would make me whole,

Mother o' mine, O mother o' mine!"

The eternal love of motherhood is in Mary at the Cross.

(ii) There was Jesus' mother's sister. In John she is not named, but a study of the parallel passages ( Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56) makes it quite clear that she was Salome, the mother of James and John. The strange thing about her is that she had received from Jesus a very definite and stern rebuff. Once she had come to Jesus to ask him to give her sons the chief place in his kingdom ( Matthew 20:20), and Jesus had taught her how wrong such ambitious thoughts were. Salome was the woman he had rebuked--and yet she was there at the Cross. Her presence says much for her and for Jesus. It shows that she had the humility to accept rebuke and to love on with undiminished devotion; it shows that he could rebuke in such a way that his love shone through the rebuke. Salome's presence is a lesson to us on how to give and how to receive a rebuke.

(ii) There was Mary from Magdala. All we know about her is that out of her Jesus cast seven devils ( Mark 16:9; Luke 8:2). She could never forget what Jesus had done for her. His love had rescued her, and her love was such that it could never die. It was Mary's motto, written on her heart: "I will not forget what he has done for me."

But in this passage there is something which is surely one of the loveliest things in all the gospel story. When Jesus saw his mother, he could not but think of the days ahead. He could not commit her to the care of his brothers, for they did not believe in him yet ( John 7:5). And, after all, John had a double qualification for the service Jesus entrusted to him--he was Jesus' cousin, being Salome's son, and he was the disciple whom Jesus loved. So Jesus committed Mary to John's care and John to Mary's, so that they should comfort each other's loneliness when he was gone.

There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus in the agony of the Cross, when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of his mother in the days ahead. He never forgot the duties that lay to his hand. He was Mary's eldest son, and even in the moment of his cosmic battle, he did not forget the simple things that lay near home. To the end of the day, even on the Cross, Jesus was thinking more of the sorrows of others than of his own.


19:28-30 After that, when Jesus knew that everything was completed, he said, in order that the scripture might be fulfilled: "I thirst." There was a vessel standing there full of vinegar. So they put a sponge soaked in vinegar on a hyssop reed, and put it to his mouth. When he had received the vinegar, Jesus said; "It is finished." And he leaned his head back, and gave up his spirit.

In this passage John brings us face to face with two things about Jesus.

(i) He brings us face to face with his human suffering; when Jesus was on the Cross, he knew the agony of thirst. When John was writing his gospel, round about A.D. 100, a certain tendency had arisen in religious and philosophical thought, called gnosticism. One of its great tenets was that spirit was altogether good and matter altogether evil. Certain conclusions followed. One was that God, who was pure spirit, could never take upon himself a body, because that was matter, and matter was evil. They therefore taught that Jesus never had a real body. They said that he was only a phantom. They said, for instance, that when Jesus walked, his feet left no prints on the ground, because he was pure spirit in a phantom body.

They went on to argue that God could never really suffer, and that therefore Jesus never really suffered but went through the whole experience of the Cross without any real pain. When the Gnostics thought like that, they believed they were honouring God and honouring Jesus; but they were really destroying Jesus. If he was ever to redeem man, he must become man. He had to become what we are in order to make us what he is. That is why John stresses the fact that Jesus felt thirst; he wished to show that he was really human and really underwent the agony of the Cross. John goes out of his way to stress the real humanity and the real suffering of Jesus.

(ii) But, equally, he brings us face to face with the triumph of Jesus. When we compare the four gospels we find a most illuminating thing. The other three do not tell us that Jesus said, "It is finished." But they do tell us that he died with a great shout upon his lips ( Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46). On the other hand, John does not speak of the great cry, but does say that Jesus' last words were, "It is finished." The explanation is that the great shout and the words, "It is finished," are one and the same thing. "It is finished" is one word in Greek--tetelestai ( G5055) --and Jesus died with a shout of triumph on his lips. He did not say, "It is finished," in weary defeat; he said it as one who shouts for joy because the victory is won. He seemed to be broken on the Cross, but he knew that his victory was won.

The last sentence of this passage makes the thing even clearer. John says that Jesus leaned back his head and gave up his spirit. John uses the word which might be used for settling back upon a pillow. For Jesus the strife was over and the battle was won; and even on the Cross he knew the joy of victory and the rest of the man who has completed his task and can lean back, content and at peace.

Two further things we must notice in this passage, John traces back Jesus' cry, "I thirst," to the fulfilment of a verse in the Old Testament. He is thinking of Psalms 69:21. "They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink."

The second thing is another of John's hidden things. He tells us that it was on a hyssop reed that they put the sponge containing the vinegar. Now a hyssop reed is an unlikely thing to use for such a purpose, for it was only a stalk, like strong grass, and at the most two feet long. So unlikely is it that some scholars have thought that it is a mistake for a very similar word which means a lance or a spear. But it was hyssop which John wrote and hyssop which John meant. When we go centuries back to the first Passover when the children of Israel left their slavery in Egypt, we remember how the angel of death was to walk abroad that night and to slay every first born son of the Egyptians. We remember how the Israelites were to slay the Passover lamb and were to smear the doorposts of their houses with its blood so that the avenging angel of death would pass over their houses. And the ancient instruction was: "Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood which is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood which is in the basin" ( Exodus 12:22). It was the blood of the Passover lamb which saved the people of God; it was the blood of Jesus which was to save the world from sin. The very mention of hyssop would take the thoughts of any Jew back to the saving blood of the Passover lamb; and this was John's way of saying that Jesus was the great Passover Lamb of God whose death was to save the whole world from sin.

THE WATER AND THE BLOOD ( John 19:31-37 )

19:31-37 Since it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a very important day) the Jews asked Pilate to break their limbs, and to have the bodies removed. So the soldiers came, and they broke the limbs of the first criminal, and of the other who had been crucified with him. When they came to Jesus, and when they saw that he was already dead, they did not break his limbs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately water and blood came forth. And he who saw it is a witness to this, and his word is true. And he knows that he is speaking the truth, that you also may believe. These things happened that the passage of scripture which says: "His bone shall not be broken," should be fulfilled. And again another passage says: "They shall see him whom they have pierced."

In one thing the Jews were more merciful than the Romans. When the Romans carried out crucifixion under their own customs, the victim was simply left to die on the cross. He might hang for days in the heat of the midday sun and the cold of the night, tortured by thirst and tortured also by the gnats and the flies crawling in the weals on his torn back. Often men died raving mad on their crosses. Nor did the Romans bury the bodies of crucified criminals. They simply took them down and let the vultures and the crows and the dogs feed upon them.

The Jewish law was different. It laid it down: "If a man has committed a crime punishable by death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day" ( Deuteronomy 21:22-23). The Mishnah, the Jewish scribal law, laid down: "Everyone who allows the dead to remain overnight transgresses a positive command." The Sanhedrin actually was charged to have two burying places ready for those who had suffered the death penalty and were not to be buried in the burying place of their fathers. On this occasion it was even more important that the bodies should not be allowed to hang on the crosses overnight, because the next day was the Sabbath, and the very special Sabbath of the Passover.

A grim method was used to despatch criminals who lingered on. Their limbs were smashed with a mallet. That was done to the criminals who were crucified with Jesus, but mercifully he was spared that, for he was already dead. John sees that sparing of Jesus as a symbol of another Old Testament passage. It was laid down of the Passover lamb that not a bone of it should be broken ( Numbers 9:12). Once again John is seeing Jesus as the Passover Lamb who delivers his people from death.

Finally there follows a strange incident. When the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead they did not break his limbs with the mallet; but one of them--it must have been to make doubly sure that Jesus was dead--thrust a spear into his side. And there flowed out water and blood. John attaches special importance to that. He sees in it a fulfilment of the prophecy in Zechariah 12:10: "They look on him whom they have pierced." And he goes out of his way to say that this is an eye-witness account of what actually happened, and that he personally guarantees that it is true.

First of all, let us ask what actually happened. We cannot be sure but it may well be that Jesus died literally of a broken heart. Normally, of course, the body of a dead man will not bleed. It is suggested that what happened was that Jesus' experiences, physical and emotional, were so terrible that his heart was ruptured. When that happened the blood of the heart mingled with the fluid of the pericardium which surrounds the heart. The spear of the soldier pierced the pericardium and the mingled fluid and blood came forth. It would be a poignant thing to believe that Jesus, in the literal sense of the term, died of a broken heart.

Even so, why does John stress it so much? He does so for two reasons.

(i) To him it was the final, unanswerable proof that Jesus was a real man with a real body. Here was the answer to the gnostics with their ideas of phantoms and spirits and an unreal manhood. Here was proof that Jesus was bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh.

(ii) But to John this was more than a proof of the manhood of Jesus. It was a symbol of the two great sacraments of the Church. There is one sacrament which is based on water-baptism; and there is one which is based on blood--the Lord's Supper with its cup of blood--red wine. The water of baptism is the sign of the cleansing grace of God in Jesus Christ; the wine of the Lord's Supper is the symbol of the blood which was shed to save men from their sins. The water and the blood which flowed from the side of Christ were to John the sign of the cleansing water of baptism and the cleansing blood commemorated and experienced in the Lord's Supper. As Toplady wrote:

"Rock of ages, cleft for me,

Let me hide myself in thee;

Let the water and the blood,

From thy riven side which flowed,

Be of sin the double cure,

Cleanse me from its guilt and power."

THE LAST GIFTS TO JESUS ( John 19:38-42 )

19:38-42 After that, Joseph from Arimathaea, who because of fear of the Jews was a secret disciple of Jesus, asked Pilate to be allowed to take away Jesus' body, and Pilate gave him permission to do so. So he came and took his body away. Nicodemus, who first came to Jesus by night, came too, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds in weight. So they took Jesus' body and they wrapped it in linen clothes with spices, as it is the Jewish custom to lay a body in the tomb. There was a garden in the place where he was crucified; and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. So they laid Jesus there, because it was the day of preparation for the Sabbath, because the tomb was near at hand.

So Jesus died, and what had to be done now must be done quickly, for the Sabbath was almost begun and on the Sabbath no work could be done. The friends of Jesus were poor and could not have given him a fitting burial; but two people came forward.

Joseph of Arimathaea was one. He had always been a disciple of Jesus; he was a great man and a member of the Sanhedrin, and up to now he had kept his discipleship secret for he was afraid to make it known. Nicodemus was the other. It was the Jewish custom to wrap the bodies of the dead in linen clothes and to put sweet spices between the folds of the linen. Nicodemus brought enough spices for the burial of a king. So Joseph gave to Jesus a tomb; and Nicodemus gave him the clothes to wear within the tomb.

There is both tragedy and glory here.

(i) There is tragedy. Both Nicodemus and Joseph were members of the Sanhedrin, but they were secret disciples of Jesus. Either they had absented themselves from the meeting of the Sanhedrin which examined him and formulated the charge against him, or they had sat silent through it all. What a difference it would have made to Jesus, if, among these condemning, hectoring voices, one voice had been raised in his support. What a difference it would have made to see loyalty on one face amidst that sea of bleak, envenomed faces. But Nicodemus and Joseph were afraid.

We so often leave our tributes until people are dead. How much greater would loyalty in life have been than a new tomb and a shroud fit for a king. One flower in life is worth all the wreaths in the world in death; one word of love and praise and thanks in life is worth all the panegyrics in the world when life is gone.

(ii) But there is glory here, too. The death of Jesus had done for Joseph and Nicodemus what not even his life could do. No sooner had Jesus died on the Cross than Joseph forgot his fear and bearded the Roman governor with a request for the body. No sooner had Jesus died on the Cross than Nicodemus was there to bring a tribute that all men could see. The cowardice, the hesitation, the prudent concealment were gone. Those who had been afraid when Jesus was alive declared for him in a way that everyone could see as soon as he was dead. Jesus had not been dead an hour when his own prophecy came true: "I when I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men to myself" ( John 12:32). It may be that the silence of Nicodemus or his absence from the Sanhedrin brought sorrow to Jesus; but it is certain that he knew of the way in which they cast their fear aside after the Cross, and it is certain that already his heart was glad, for already the power of the Cross had begun to operate, and already it was drawing all men to him. The power of the Cross was even then turning the coward into the hero, and the waverer into the man who took an irrevocable decision for Christ.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on John 19". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.