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These verses exhibit to our eyes a wonderful picture, a picture which ought to be deeply interesting to all who profess and call themselves Christians. Like every great historical picture, it contains special points on which we should fix our special attention. Above all, it contains three life-like portraits, which we shall find it useful to examine in order.
The first portrait in the picture is that of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.
We see the Savior of mankind scourged, crowned with thorns, mocked, smitten, rejected by His own people, unjustly condemned by a judge who saw no fault in Him, and finally delivered up to a most painful death. Yet this was He who was the eternal Son of God, whom the Father’s countless angels delighted to honor. This was He who came into the world to save sinners, and after living a blameless life for thirty years, spent the last three years of His time on earth in going about doing good, and preaching the Gospel. Surely the sun never shone on a more wondrous sight since the day of its creation!
Let us admire that love of Christ which Paul declares "passeth knowledge," and let us see an endless depth of meaning in the expression. There is no earthly love with which it can be compared, and no standard by which to measure it. It is a love that stands alone. Never let us forget when we ponder this tale of suffering, that Jesus suffered for our sins, the Just for the unjust, that He was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities, and that with His stripes we are healed.
Let us diligently follow the example of His patience in all the trials and afflictions of life, and specially in those which may be brought upon us by religion. When He was reviled, He reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not, but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously. Let us arm ourselves with the same mind. Let us consider Him who endured such contradiction of sinners without a murmur, and strive to glorify Him by suffering well, no less than by doing well.
The second portrait in the picture before us, is that of the unbelieving Jews who favored our Lord’s death.
We see them for three or four long hours obstinately rejecting Pilate’s offer to release our Lord,—fiercely demanding His crucifixion,—savagely claiming His condemnation to death as a right,—persistently refusing to acknowledge Him as their King,—declaring that they had no King but Cæsar,—and finally accumulating on their own heads the greater part of the guilt of His murder. Yet, these were the children of Israel and the seed of Abraham, to whom pertained the promises and the Mosaic ceremonial, the temple sacrifices and the temple priesthood. These were men who professed to look for a Prophet like unto Moses, and a son of David who was to set up a kingdom as Messiah. Never, surely, was there such an exhibition of the depth of human wickedness since the day when Adam fell.
Let us mark with fear and trembling the enormous danger of long-continued rejection of light and knowledge. There is such a thing as judicial blindness; and it is the last and sorest judgment which God can send upon men. He who, like Pharaoh and Ahab, is often reproved but refuses to receive reproof, will finally have a heart harder than the nether mill-stone, and a conscience past feeling, and seared as with a hot iron. This was the state of the Jewish nation during the time of our Lord’s ministry; and the heading up of their sin was their deliberate rejection of Him, when Pilate desired to let Him go. From such judicial blindness may we all pray to be delivered! There is no worse judgment from God than to be left to ourselves, and given over to our own wicked hearts and the devil. There is no surer way to bring that judgment upon us than to persist in refusing warnings and sinning against light. These words of Solomon are very awful: "Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded; but ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh." (Proverbs 1:24-26.) Never let it be forgotten, that, like the Jews, we may at length be given up to strong delusion, so that we believe lies, and think that we are doing God service while we are committing sin. (2 Thessalonians 2:11; John 16:2.)
The third, and last portrait in the picture before us, is that of Pontius Pilate.
We see a Roman Governor,—a man of rank and high position,—an imperial representative of the most powerful nation on earth,—a man who ought to have been the fountain of justice and equity,—halting between two opinions in a case as clear as the sun at noonday. We see him knowing what was right, and yet afraid to act up to his knowledge,—convinced in his own conscience that he ought to acquit the prisoner before him, and yet afraid to do it lest he should displease His accusers,—sacrificing the claims of justice to the base fear of man,—sanctioning from sheer cowardice, an enormous crime,—and finally countenancing, from love of man’s good opinion, the murder of an innocent person. Never perhaps did human nature make such a contemptible exhibition. Never was there a name so justly handed down to a world’s scorn as the name which is embalmed in all our creeds,—the name of Pontius Pilate.
Let us learn what miserable creatures great men are, when they have no high principles within them, and no faith in the reality of a God above them. The meanest laborer who has grace and fears God, is a nobler being in the eyes of his Creator than the King, ruler, or statesman, whose first aim it is to please the people. To have one conscience in private and another in public,—one rule of duty for our own souls, and another for our public actions,—to see clearly what is right before God, and yet for the sake of popularity to do wrong,—this may seem to some both right, and politic, and statesman-like, and wise. But it is a character which no Christian man can ever regard with respect.
Let us pray that our own country may never be without men in high places who have grace to think right, and courage to act up to their knowledge, without truckling to the opinion of men. Those who fear God more than man, and care for pleasing God more than man, are the best rulers of a nation, and in the long run of years are always most respected. Men like Pontius Pilate, who are always trimming and compromising, led by popular opinion instead of leading popular opinion, afraid of doing right if it gives offence, ready to do wrong if it makes them personally popular, such men are the worst governors that a country can have. They are often God’s heavy judgment on a nation because of a nation’s sins.
v1.—[Then Pilate...took Jesus...scourged Him.] The cruel injury inflicted on our Lord’s body, in this verse, was probably far more severe than an English reader might suppose. It was a punishment which among the Romans generally preceded crucifixion, and was sometimes so painful and violent that the sufferer died under it. It was often a scourging with rods, and not always with cords, as painters and sculptors represent. Josephus, the Jewish historian, in his "Antiquities," particularly mentions that malefactors were scourged, and tormented in every way, before they were put to death. Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible says, that under the Roman mode of scourging, "the culprit was stripped, stretched with cords or thongs on a frame, and beaten with rods."
As to Pilate’s reason for inflicting this punishment on our Lord, there seems little doubt. He secretly hoped that this tremendous scourging, in the Roman fashion, would satisfy the Jews; and that after seeing Jesus beaten, bleeding, and torn with rods, they would be content to let Him go free. As usual, he was doubleminded, cruel, and deceitful. He tried to please the Jews by ill-treating our Lord as much as possible, and at the same time he hoped to please his own conscience a little by not putting Him to death. He told the Jews, indeed, according to Luke’s account, what He wanted: "I will chastise Him and release him." (Luke 23:16.) How entirely this weak design failed we shall see by-and-by.
Chrysostom says, "Pilate scourged Jesus, desiring to exhaust and soothe the fury of the Jews. Being anxious to stay the evil at this point, he scourged Him, and permitted to be done what was done, and the robe and crown to be put on Him, in order to relax their anger." Augustine and Cyril say much the same.
The importance of this particular portion of our Lord’s sufferings is strongly shown by the fact that Isaiah specially says, "by His stripes we are healed;" and that Peter specially quotes that text in his first epistle. (Isaiah 53:5. 1 Peter 2:24.) Our Lord Himself particularly foretold that He would be scourged. (Luke 18:33.)
It may seem needless to say that Pilate did not scourge Jesus with his own hands. Any plain reader will at once conclude that the scourging was inflicted by his soldiers or attendants. Yet the venerable Bede thinks that Pilate himself scourged Jesus. And it is worth remembering that a modern sceptical writer has actually argued that the book of Leviticus must be uninspired, because in that book the priest is commanded to lift, and move, and offer up the bodies of slain sacrifices, which alone he could not do! Surely he might have recollected that a man is said to do things, when he does them by the hands of servants and attendants! It was thus, no doubt, that Pilate scourged Jesus. The word "took" probably means, "commanded Him to be seized."
Hengstenberg thinks that the remarkable incident of Pilate’s "washing his hands" (Matthew 27:24), and declaring his innocence of Christ’s blood, comes in between this verse and the preceding chapter. I would rather place it after the fifteenth verse of this nineteenth chapter.
The place where this horrible indignity was inflicted on our Lord’s holy person (according to Matthew 27:27) was the prætorium, or common hall, which was probably a kind of guard-room, where the Roman soldiers used to spend their time, and keep themselves in readiness to do anything the Governor wished. What kind of a place the guard-room of a body of rough Roman soldiers can have been we can hardly conceive, even if we visit the worst regimental guard-rooms of modern days.
Some think that our Lord was scourged twice; once at the beginning of Pilate’s examination, and once after His final condemnation. This however seems to me very doubtful. The idea probably arises from not carefully observing that the proceedings before Pilate, after the scourging recorded here, are peculiar to John’s Gospel, and omitted by Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Besser remarks, "Before the message, ’Christ our righteousness’ was revived, and the Lutheran ’Christ for us’ was again the refreshment of weary souls, men could not draw much refreshment from Christ’s scourging. Before the Reformation whole hosts of self-bewailing penitents came forth from Italy and spread over Germany. They were called ’Flagellants;’ and naked to the waist they roamed through towns and villages, singing penitential hymns like Dies Iræ, and flogging one another."
v2.—[And...soldiers...crown...thorns...head.] About the object of the soldiers in this act there can be no doubt. It was done in mockery and ridicule of our blessed Lord, and to pour contempt on the idea of His being a King. These rude men would show how they defied such a King. We can well believe that rough heathen soldiers, like Roman legionaries, were expert and trained by practice in the best way of torturing a prisoner.
Thorns, according to Tristram, are so common in Palestine, that the soldiers would have no difficulty in finding materials for weaving this crown. Hasselquist, quoted in Smith’s Dictionary, says, "The plant called ’nebk’ (zizyphus spina Christi) was very suitable for the purpose, as it has many sharp thorns, and its flexible, pliant, and round branches, might easily be plaited in the form of a crown; and what, in my opinion, seems the greatest proof is, that the leaves most resemble those of ivy, as they are of a very deep green. Perhaps the enemies of Christ would choose a plant like that with which Emperors and Generals used to be crowned, that there might be calumny even in the punishment." How painful and irritating such a crown of thorns would be, sticking into the forehead or head of one whose hands were bound, we can easily imagine.
Here, as in every step of Christ’s passion, we see His complete and perfect substitution for sinners. He, the innocent sin-bearer, wore the crown of thorns, that we, the guilty, might wear a crown of glory. Vast is the contrast which there will be between the crown of glory that Christ will wear at His second advent, and the crown of thorns which He wore at His first coming.
Lightfoot remarks that "it was a most unquestionable token that Christ’s kingdom was not of this world, when He was crowned only with thorns and briars, which are the curse of the earth." It was, moreover, a striking symbol of the consequences of the fall being laid on the head of our divine Substitute. In Leviticus it is written that Aaron shall lay his hands "upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the Children of Israel, and all their transgressions in all their sins, putting them upon the head of the goat." (Leviticus 16:21.)
History says that in the Crusades, when Godfrey of Bouillon, the Christian General, was made King of Jerusalem, he refused to be crowned with a golden crown,—saying that "it did not become him to wear a crown of gold, in the city where his Saviour had worn a crown of thorns."
Rollock observes, "Ye shall find these soldiers even worse inclined than Pilate was. This falls out: if the master command them to do one evil deed, often the servants will do two."
When John Huss, the martyr, was brought forth to be burned, they put a paper over his head, on which were pictured three devils, and the title "heresiarch." When he saw it, he said, "My Lord Jesus Christ, for my sake, did wear a crown of thorns: why should not I, therefore, for His sake, wear this ignominious crown?"
[And they put...purple robe.] This again was done as a mark of contempt and derision. A mock royal robe was thrown over our Lord’s shoulders, in order to show how ridiculous and contemptible was the idea of His kingdom. The colour, "purple," was doubtless meant to be a derisive imitation of the well-known imperial purple, the colour worn by Emperors and Kings. Some have thought that this robe was only an old soldier’s cape, such as a guard-house would easily furnish. Some, with more show of probability, have thought that this "robe" must be the "gorgeous robe" which Herod put on our Lord, mentioned by Luke, when he sent Him back to Pilate (Luke 23:11), a circumstance which John has not recorded. In any case we need not doubt that the "robe" was some shabby, cast-off garment. It is worth remembering that this brilliant colour, scarlet or purple, would make our blessed Lord a most conspicuous object to every eye, when He was led through the streets from Herod, or brought forth from Pilate’s house to the assembled multitude of Jews.—Once more we should call to mind the symbolical nature of this transaction also. Our Lord was clothed with a robe of shame and contempt, that we might be clothed with a spotless garment of righteousness, and stand in white robes before the throne of God.
v3.—[And said, Hail, King of the Jews!] This again was evidently done to pour contempt upon our Lord. The words of the soldiers were spoken in contemptuous imitation of the words addressed to a Roman Emperor, on his assuming Imperial power: "Hail, Emperor! ave Imperator!" It was as much as saying, "Thou a King indeed! Thou and thy kingdom are alike base and contemptible."
Hengstenberg observes, "It was the kingdom of the Jews itself that the soldiers laughed at. They regarded Jesus as the representative of the Messianic hope of the Jews. They would turn to ridicule these royal hopes, which were known far in the heathen world, more especially as they aspired to the dominion of the whole earth."
Let us not fail to remark at this point that ridicule, scorn, and contempt, were one prominent portion of our blessed Master’s sufferings. Any one who knows human nature, must know that few things are more difficult to bear than ridicule, especially when we know that it is undeserved, and when it is for religion’s sake. Those who have to endure such ridicule may take comfort in the thought that Christ can sympathize with them; for it is a cup which He Himself drank to the very dregs. Here again He was our Substitute. He bore contempt, that we might receive praise and glory at the last day.
Henry remarks, "If at any time we are ridiculed for well-doing, let us not be ashamed, but glorify God; for thus we are partakers of Christ’s sufferings."
[And they smote...hands.] The words so rendered would be equally well translated, "they gave Him blows with a rod or stick." The same Greek word in the singular is so translated in the marginal reading of John 18:22. When we compare Matthew 27:27, Matthew 27:30, where it says the soldiers took a reed and smote Him with it on the head, it seems highly probable that this was the action here recorded. According to Matthew, the soldiers put the reed in our Lord’s hand as a mock sceptre; and when, as Lampe observes, "He refused to retain it in His right hand, because He came to suffer indignities, but not to perform them," they snatched it out of His hand, and brutally struck Him with it on the head. This appears to me a reasonable and satisfactory supposition, and makes it most likely that the blow here was not "with the hand."
If the blows were inflicted on the head, whether with hand or reed, we can easily conceive what acute bodily pain they might occasion to a head crowned with thorns. The thorns would be driven into the skin, till the blood ran down the face and forehead and neck of our Lord. Truly "He was bruised for our iniquities." (Isaiah 53:5.)
v4.—[Pilate therefore went forth, etc.] This verse opens a new scene of the painful story of the passion. The scourging being over, and the mockery of the soldiers having gone on as long as Pilate thought it worth while, the Roman Governor went forth outside the palace where he lived, to the Jews, who were waiting to hear the result of his private interview with our Lord. We must remember that, under the influence of hypocritical scrupulosity, they would not go inside the Gentile Governor’s house, lest forsooth they should be "defiled," and were therefore waiting in the court outside. Now Pilate comes out of his palace and speaks to them. The words of the verse seem to show that Pilate came out first, and that our Lord was led out behind him.—"Behold I am bringing Him outside again, that you may know that I can find no fault or cause of condemnation in Him, and no ground for your charge that He is a stirrer up of sedition and a rebel King. He is only a weak, harmless fanatic, who lays claim to no kingdom of this world, and I bring Him forth to you as a poor, contemptible person, worthy of scorn, but not one that I can pronounce worthy of death. I have examined Him myself, and I inform you that I can see no harm in Him."
It seems to me quite plain that Pilate’s private interview with our Lord had completely satisfied the Governor that He was a harmless, innocent person, and made him feel a strong desire to dismiss Him unhurt; and he secretly hoped that the Jews would be satisfied when they saw the prisoner whom they had accused brought out beaten and bruised, and treated with scorn and contempt, and that they would not press the charge any further. How thoroughly this cowardly double-dealing man was disappointed, and what violence he had to do to his own conscience, we shall soon see.
It is very noteworthy that the expression, "I find no fault in Him," is used three times by Pilate, in the same Greek words, in John’s account of the passion. (John 18:38; John 19:4-6.) It was meet and right that he who had the chief hand in slaying the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for our sins, should three times publicly declare that he found no spot or blemish in Him. He was proclaimed a Lamb without spot or fault, after a searching examination, by him that slew Him.
v5.—[Then... Jesus forth...thorns...robe.] The language of this sentence appears to me to show that Pilate went outside the palace first, and announced that he was going to bring out the prisoner, and that then our Lord followed him. The word "forth," both in this and the preceding verse, means literally, "outside," or "without." It is the same that is used in the texts, "His brethren stood without" (Matthew 12:46); and "Without are dogs." (Revelation 22:15.)
That our blessed Lord, the eternal Word, should have meekly submitted to be led out after this fashion, as a gazing-stock and an object of scorn, with an old purple robe on His shoulders and a crown of thorns on His head, His back bleeding from scourging and His head from thorns, to feast the eyes of a taunting, howling, bloodthirsty crowd, is indeed a wondrous thought! Truly, "though He was rich, yet for our sakes He became poor." (2 Corinthians 8:9.) Since the world began, the sun never shone on a more surprising spectacle both for angels and men.
[And Pilate...Behold the Man.] This famous sentence, so well known as "Ecce Homo," in Latin, admits of two views being taken of it. Pilate may have spoken it in contempt: "Behold the Man you accuse of setting Himself up as a King! See what a weak, helpless, contemptible creature He is."—Or else Pilate may have spoken it in pity: "Behold the poor feeble Man whom you want me to sentence to death. Surely your demands may be satisfied by what I have done to Him. Is He not punished enough?"—Perhaps both views are correct. In any case there can be little doubt that the latent feeling of Pilate was the hope that the Jews, on seeing our Lord’s miserable condition, would be content, and would allow Him to be let go. In this hope, again, we shall find he was completely deceived.
Pilate probably threw a strong emphasis on the expression "Man," indicative of contempt. This may have led to the Jews saying so strongly, in the seventh verse, that the prisoner "made Himself the Son of God," and claimed to be Divine, and not a mere "man," as Pilate had said. He probably also meant the Jews to mark that He said, "Behold the man," not "your King," but a mere common man.
v6.—[When the chief priests...crucify Him.] We see in this verse the complete failure of Pilate’s secret scheme for avoiding the condemnation of our Lord. The pitiful sight of the bleeding and despised prisoner had not the effect of softening down the feelings of His cruel enemies. They would not be content with anything but His death, and the moment He appeared they raised the fierce cry, "Crucify Him, crucify Him."
Let it be noted that the chief priests were the foremost in raising the cry for crucifixion. It is a painful fact that in every age, none have been such hard, cruel, unfeeling, and bloody-minded persecutors of God’s saints, as the ministers of religion. The conduct of Bishop Bonner, in the reign of bloody Mary, towards some of our martyred Reformers, is a melancholy proof of this.
The "officers" here mentioned were the attendants, and servants, and immediate followers of the priests, who would naturally take up any cry raised by their masters.
The word rendered "cried out," means a loud shout or clamorous cry, and is peculiar to John’s account of this part of the passion. It is the same word that is used of our Lord at the grave of Lazarus: "He cried, Lazarus, come forth." (John 11:43.) It is the same that is used of the multitude at Jerusalem, when they would no longer listen to Paul speaking to them on the stairs: "They cried out, and cast off their clothes, and threw dust into the air." (Acts 22:23.)
The cry "Crucify" was equivalent to a demand that our Lord might be put to death after the Roman manner.
Cyril remarks, "When the multitude would perhaps have blushed with shame at the sight of what had been done, remembering Christ’s miracles, the priests are the first to cry out, and so inflame and stir up the mob."
He who would know to what an extraordinary degree of bloodthirstiness a mob may be stirred up when once excited, should study the history of the Reign of Terror at Paris, during the first French revolution.
[Pilate saith...Take ye...in Him.] This, as Cyril justly argues, is the language of one vexed, and irritated, and made impatient by the pertinacity with which the priests stuck to their point. "Do your bloody work yourselves, if you must needs have it done. Take your prisoner away, and do not trouble me with the case. I find no fault in Him, and I dislike being made your tool in this matter." It seems impossible to put any other construction on Pilate’s words. He could not have meant gravely and seriously that he would allow the Jews to put the prisoner to death, and thus admit the precedent of letting them inflict capital punishment. Temper, vexation, and irony, seem to lie at the bottom of His words; and the chief priests seem to have taken his words in this sense. We cannot doubt that they would gladly have taken away our Lord and crucified Him at once, if they had thought Pilate really meant they should do so.
For the third time we should notice Pilate’s emphatic declaration: "I find no fault in Him." Three times he vainly tried to evade condemning our Lord, or to make the Jews desist from their bloody design: once by asking the Jews to choose between Christ and Barabbas,—once by sending Him to Herod,—once by scourging Him, and exhibiting Him in a contemptible light before the people. Three times he failed utterly.
Burkitt remarks, "Hypocrites within the pale of the visible Church may be guilty of such monstrous acts of wickedness, as even the consciences of heathens without the Church may boggle at and protest against."
v7.—[The Jews answered him, etc.] In this verse we find the priests taking up a new ground of accusation against our Lord. They saw that their political accusation had failed. Pilate would not condemn Him as a King, and refused to see any fault in Him on that score. They, therefore, charge our Lord with blasphemy, and committing an offence against their law. As to Pilate’s ironical words, "Take ye Him and crucify Him," they made no remark on them, as though they knew they were not meant to be taken seriously. The whole sense must be filled up in some such way as this,—"It is no use telling us to crucify this prisoner ourselves, because you well know that it is not lawful for us to put any man to death; but seeing that you will not condemn Him as a political offender, we now charge Him with an offence against our religion, which, as our Governor, you are bound to defend and protect. We call upon you to condemn Him to death for claiming to be the Son of God, which, according to our law, is blasphemy, and a capital crime." This is a lengthy paraphrase, undoubtedly, but one which is necessary, if we would fill up the sense of the verse, and understand what the Jews meant.
The "law" referred to by the Jews is probably Leviticus 24:16. But it is curious that "stoning" is the punishment there mentioned, and not a word is said of crucifixion. This they do not tell Pilate. There is, perhaps, more fulness in the expression "a law" than appears at first. It may mean, "we Jews have a law given us by man from God, which is our rule of faith in religion. It is a law, we know, not binding on Gentiles, but it is a law which we feel bound to obey. One of the articles of that law is, that ’He that blasphemeth the name of the Lord shall be stoned.’ We ask that this article may be enforced in the case of this man. He has blasphemed by calling Himself the Son of God, and He ought to be put to death. We, therefore, demand His life." There certainly seems an emphasis in the Greek on the word "we," as if it meant "we Jews," in contradistinction to Gentiles.
The expression "He ought" is literally, "he owes it," he is a debtor, he is under an obligation or penalty of death, according to the terms of our code of law.
The expression "made Himself," must mean appointed, constituted, or declared Himself the Son of God. Compare Mark 3:14, John 6:15, John 8:53
The expression "Son of God" meant far more to a Jewish mind than it does to us. We see in John 5:18 that the Jews considered that when our Lord said that God was His Father He made Himself "equal with God." See also John 10:33. One thing at any rate is very clear: whatever Socinians may say, our Lord distinctly laid claim to divinity, and the Jews distinctly understood Him to mean that He was God as well as man.
Cyril well remarks that if the Jews had dealt justly, they would have told the Gentile ruler that the person before him had not only claimed to be the Son of God, but had also done many miracles in proof of His divinity.
Rollock observes, "Look, what blinds them! The Word of God that should make them see, blinds them so that they use it to their ruin. The best things in the world, yea, the Word of God itself, serve to wicked men for nothing else but their induration. The more they read, the blinder they are. And why? Because they abuse the word, and make it not a guide to direct their affections and actions."
v8.—[When Pilate...heard...was afraid.] In this verse we see Pilate in a different frame of mind. This new charge of blasphemy against our Lord threw a new light over his feelings. He began to be really frightened and uncomfortable. The thought that the meek and gentle prisoner before him might after all be some superior Being, and not a mere common man, filled his weak and ignorant conscience with alarm. What if he had before him some God in human form? What if it should turn out that he was actually inflicting bodily injuries on one of the Gods? As a Roman he had doubtless heard and read many stories, drawn from the heathen mythology of Greece and Rome, about Gods coming down to earth, and appearing in human form. Perhaps the prisoner before him was one! The idea raised new fears in his mind. Already he had been made very uncomfortable about Him. Our Lord’s calm, dignified, and majestic demeanour had doubtless made an impression. His evident innocence of all guilt, and the extraordinary malice of His enemies, whose characters Pilate most likely knew well, had produced an effect. His own wife’s dream had its influence. Even before the last charge of the Jews the Roman judge had been awe-struck, and secretly convinced of our Lord’s innocence, and anxious to have Him set free, and actually "afraid" of his prisoner. But when he heard of His being the "Son of God," he was made more afraid.
Burgon remarks, "Like Gamaliel in the Acts, Pilate was seized with a salutary apprehension, lest haply he be found even to fight against God."
The "saying" referred to must mean the expression, "Son of God."
The word "more" deserves attention. It shows clearly that from the first Pilate had been "afraid," and uneasy in conscience. He had never liked the case being brought before him at all. To have such an extraordinary preacher, and a worker of such miracles as our Lord, brought to his bar, frightened him. But now when he heard that He laid claim to divinity, he was "more afraid." We must never forget that Pilate, as Roman Governor of Judæa, charged with the management of a most turbulent and troublesome province, was doubtless informed by spies, as well as by the officers of his army, of everything that went on in Judæa. Can we doubt for a moment that he must have heard many accounts of our Lord’s ministry, and specially of his miracles and astonishing power over the sick and the dead? Can we doubt that he heard of the raising of Lazarus at Bethany, within a walk of Jerusalem? Remembering all this, we may well suppose that he regarded the whole case brought before him by the Jews with much anxiety from the very first, and we can well understand that when he heard that Jesus was "the Son of God," he was more than ever alarmed. Unprincipled rulers have an uneasy position.
Bishop Hall thinks that the cause of Pilate’s fear was only the increased rage and excitement of the people. He was afraid of a riot and tumult!
v9.—[And went again...judgment hall.] This means, that, on hearing this fresh charge of blasphemy, Pilate retired again from the outside of the palace into the inner part, where he had before conversed with our Lord, once more leaving the Jews outside. This new charge was so serious that he did not care to enter into it publicly, and preferred examining our Lord about it privately.
[And saith...Whence art Thou?] This question I think can admit of only one meaning. It meant,—"Who art Thou? What art Thou? Art Thou from heaven? Art Thou one of the gods come down to earth, of whom I have heard the priests talk? What is Thy real nature and history? If Thou art some superior being, more than a common man, tell me plainly, that I may know how to deal with thy case. Tell me privately, while these Jews are not present, that I may know what line to take up with Thine enemies."—We may well believe that Pilate caught at the secret hope that Jesus might tell him something about Himself, which would enable Him to make a firm stand and deliver Him from the Jews. In this hope, again, the Roman Governor was destined to be disappointed.
[But Jesus gave him no answer.] Our Lord’s silence, when this appeal was made to Him by Pilate, is very striking. Hitherto He had spoken freely and replied to questions; now He refused to speak any more. The reason of our Lord’s silence must be sought in the state of Pilate’s soul. He deserved no answer, and therefore got none. He had forfeited his title to any further revelation about his prisoner. He had been told plainly the nature of our Lord’s kingdom, and the purpose of our Lord’s coming into the world, and been obliged to confess publicly his innocence. And yet, with all this light and knowledge, he had treated our Lord with flagrant injustice, scourged Him, allowed Him to be treated with the vilest indignities by his soldiers, and held Him up to scorn, knowing in his own mind all the time that He was a guiltless person. He had, in short, sinned away his opportunities, forsaken his own mercies, and turned a deaf ear to the cries of his own conscience. Hence our Lord would have nothing more to do with him, and would tell him nothing more. "He gave him no answer."
Here, as in many other cases, we learn that God will not force conviction on men, and will not compel obstinate unbelievers to believe, and will not always strive with men’s consciences. Most men, like Pilate, have a day of grace, and an open door put before them. If they refuse to enter in, and choose their own sinful way, the door is often shut, and never opened again. There is such a thing as a "day of visitation," when Christ speaks to men. If they will not hear His voice, and open the door of their hearts, they are often let alone, given over to a reprobate mind, and left to reap the fruit of their own sins. It was so with Pharaoh, and Saul, and Ahab; and Pilate’s case was like theirs. He had his opportunity, and did not choose to use it, but preferred to please the Jews at the expense of his conscience, and to do what he knew was wrong. We see the consequence. Our Lord will tell him nothing more.
In saying all this, I think we must not forget that Pilate’s wicked refusal to listen to his own conscience, and our Lord’s consequent refusal to speak to him any more, were all overruled by the eternal counsels of God to the carrying out of His purpose of redemption. In handling such a point we must speak with reverence. But it is plain that if our Lord had revealed to Pilate who He was, and forced Pilate to see it, the crucifixion might perhaps never have taken place, and the great sacrifice for a world’s sins might never have been offered up on the cross. Our Lord’s silence was just and well merited. But it was also part of God’s counsels about man’s salvation.
Let us note that there is "a time to be silent," as well as "a time to speak." This is a matter in the social intercourse of daily life, about which we all need to pray for wisdom. To be always saying to everybody everything we know, is not the line of a wise follower of Christ.
Let us note that if we do not make a good use of light and opportunities,—and if we resist Christ speaking to our conscience,—a time may come when, like Pilate, we may speak to Christ, and ask things of Him, and He may give us no answer. It is written in a certain place, "They would none of my counsel, they despised all my reproof; therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way." "Then shall they call upon Me, but I will not answer." (Proverbs 1:24-32.)
Chrysostom observes, "Christ answered nothing, because He knew that Pilate asked all the questions idly."
Besser remarks, "A petition to Christ for enlightenment, even when offered up in a man’s last moments from a death bed, never fails of being answered, if offered in sincerity and from the heart; and obtains for the suppliant as much grace as is needful for salvation. But to a Pilate Jesus is silent."
v10.—[Then saith Pilate, etc.] In this verse we see the imperious, fierce, haughty, arrogant temper of the Roman Governor breaking out. Accustomed to see prisoners cringing before him, and willing to do anything to obtain his favour, he could not understand our Lord’s silence. He addresses Him in a tone of anger and surprise combined:—"Why dost Thou not answer my question? Dost thou know what Thou art doing in offending me? Dost Thou not know that Thou art at my mercy, and that I have power to crucify Thee or release Thee, according as I think right?"—I can see no other reasonable construction that can be put on Pilate’s words. The idea that he was only persuading our Lord, and gently reminding Him of his own power, seems utterly unreasonable, and inconsistent with the following verse.
This high-minded claim to absolute power is one which ungodly great men are fond of making. It is written of Nebuchadnezzar, "Whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive; and whom he would he set up, and whom he would he put down." (Daniel 5:19.) Yet even when such men boast of power, they are often like Pilate, mere slaves, and afraid of resisting popular opinion. Pilate talked of "power to release;" but he knew in his own mind that he was afraid, and so unable to exercise it.
It is only fair to remember that the Greek word rendered "power," might be rendered "authority," or "commission;" and in this sense Pilate might only mean, "I have commission from the Roman Government to sentence prisoners to death or let them go free: would it not be for Thine interest to speak to me?"
v11.—[Jesus answered, etc.] Our Lord’s reply to Pilate in this verse is remarkably calm and dignified, though not without some difficulties, because of its elliptical construction. It may be paraphrased thus: "Thou speakest of power. Thou dost not know that both thou and the Jews are only tools in the hand of a higher Being, and that thou couldest have no power whatever against Me, if it were not given thee by God. This, however, thou dost not understand, and art therefore less guilty than the Jews. The Jews who delivered Me into thine hand, do know that all power is from God. Thus their knowledge makes them more guilty than thou. Both thou and they are committing a great sin; but their sin is a sin against knowledge, and thine is comparatively a sin of ignorance. You are both unconsciously mere instruments in the hand of God, and you could do nothing against Me, if God did not permit and overrule it." The logical connection of the former and latter parts of the verse is by no means clear. The precise object of "therefore," and the reason why God’s overruling providence made the Jews more guilty than the Gentiles, are things which it is not easy to explain. But I must think that the latent idea of our Lord was to remind Pilate how ignorantly he was acting, and how little he knew what he was about compared to the Jews.
That the possession of superior knowledge increases the sinfulness of a sinner’s sin, seems taught by implication in this verse. It was more sinful in the Jews, with all their knowledge of the law and the prophets, to deliver up Christ to be crucified, than it was in Pilate, an ignorant heathen, to condemn Him and put Him to death.
The word "he" is differently interpreted. Some think that it must refer to Caiaphas, as the high priest and chief actor in the whole affair of our Lord’s murder. Some even think it refers to Judas Iscariot. The more probable idea is that it refers to the whole Jewish people, personified by "he," and represented by their high priest.
One thing, at any rate, is very certain. This was the last word that Jesus spoke during His trial. Henceforth He was "like a lamb before his shearers, dumb."
Hengstenberg remarks, that in apportioning the comparative guilt of Pilate and of the Jews, our Lord shows Himself even at this crisis the true Judge of mankind.
Lampe remarks, "The sin of the Jews was heavier than that of Pilate. Pilate was a Gentile, ignorant alike of the Messiah and His distinguishing marks: the Jews had read the prophecies about Him. Pilate could only have heard something about our Lord’s great miracles by rumour and report: they were all done under the very eyes of the Jews. Pilate injured Jesus unwillingly, and from cowardice: they injured Him from hatred and envy. Finally, Pilate was only the instrument: the Jews were the impelling cause. Thus our Lord pronounces His opinion concerning His judges, an opinion according to which He will one day judge them."
The expression "therefore," or literally "on account of this," is rather a difficult one. Markland says it means, "Because he has not this power from above, which thou hast, the Jew has the greater sin." Pearce takes much the same view.
Rollock observes, speaking of the inquisition in Spain, "The Papists, when they have caught a Christian who confesseth Jesus Christ, after trying him, put him in the hands of the Emperor or King of Spain. Then they wash their hands, as clean of His blood; and who took his life but the King of Spain? But the wrath of God persecutes them, and the blood of the innocent lies on them, because they delivered them into their hands to be tormented."
Hutcheson observes, that "the greatest height of impiety is found within the visible Church," where there is most knowledge.
When all has been said, we must admit that there is probably something in the verse more deep than we have line to fathom. The two propositions of the verse are both quite intelligible; but the connecting-link, "therefore," is a hard knot, which has not yet been fairly untied.
Augustine paraphrases this sentence thus: "He sins worse who of ill-will delivers up the innocent to the power to be put to death, than doth the power itself, if for the fear of another greater power it puts to death the innocent. The Jews delivered Me unto the power, as having ill-will against Me; but thou art about to exercise thy power against Me, as being afraid for thyself. Not that a man has a right to put to death an innocent person from fear; but to put to death out of hatred is much more evil than to put to death out of fear." Cyril says much the same.
One thing, at any rate, is very clear. There are degrees in sin. All are not equally sinful. The servant who knew his master’s will and did it not, was more guilty than he who knew it not.
v12.—[And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release Him.] This is a remarkable sentence. It evidently means that from this point of the case Pilate sought more diligently than ever to have our Lord acquitted and set free. Before he wished it: now he really took pains to effect it. Whether this was occasioned by our Lord’s manner and demeanour in speaking the words of the preceding verse, or by some meaning which He attached to the words, we cannot tell. But so it was.
How and in what manner Pilate "sought to release" Jesus, we are not told by John. But it is evident that he left our Lord in the hall, where he had been asking Him, "Whence art Thou?" and went out alone to the Jews, to tell them he could make nothing of their charge of blasphemy, and wished to let the prisoner go. This must have taken place outside the doors, because the Jews scrupulously refused to go inside. Moreover, the Jews could not have known of this fresh desire to release Jesus, if Pilate had not come forth and communicated it to them. In this verse, therefore, be it remembered, we have Pilate and the Jews alone, outside the palace, and our Lord left inside. Pilate proposes to release Him, and the Jews protest against it. Then we shall find Pilate goes in again, and brings Jesus out for the last time.
[But the Jews cried out...Cæsar.] In these words we see the Jews stopping Pilate short, in his weak efforts to get our Lord released, by an argument which they well knew would weigh heavily on a Roman mind. They tell him plainly that they will accuse him to Cæsar, the Roman Emperor, as a governor unfriendly to the Imperial interests.—"You are no friend to Cæsar if you let off this prisoner. Every one who sets himself up as a king, be his kingdom what it may, is usurping part of Cæsar’s authority, and is a rebel. If you pass over this Man’s claim to be a king, and set Him at liberty, we shall complain of you to Cæsar."—This was a settling and clinching argument. Pilate knew well that his own government of Judæa would not bear any investigation. He also knew well the cold, suspicious, cruel character of Tiberius Cæsar, the Emperor of Rome, which is specially mentioned by Tacitus and Suetonius, the Roman historians, and he might well dread the result of any appeal to him from the Jews. From this moment all his hopes of getting rid of this anxious case, and letting our Lord go away unharmed, were dashed to the ground. He would rather connive at a murder to please the Jews, than allow himself to be charged with neglect of Imperial interests and unfriendliness to Cæsar.
It is hard to say which was the more wretched and contemptible sight at this point of the history,—Pilate trampling on his own conscience to avoid the possible displeasure of an earthly monarch, or the Jews pretending to care for Cæsar’s interests, and warning Pilate not to do anything unfriendly to him! It was a melancholy exhibition of cowardice on the one side, and duplicity on the other; and the whole result was a foul murder!
v13.—[When Pilate heard that saying, etc.] The "saying" here refers to the Jews’ saying about Cæsar in the preceding verse. When Pilate heard the dreaded name of Cæsar brought up, and found himself threatened with a possible complaint to Rome as a neglector of Imperial interests, he saw plainly that nothing more could be done, and that he must give way to the demands of the Jews and sacrifice an innocent prisoner. He therefore returned to the palace, brought forth Jesus again, and for the first time took his seat on the throne of judgment outside the palace, in the courtyard, or paved area adjacent to it. The case was now over. Pilate’s weak efforts to deliver an innocent prisoner from unjust accusation were useless. He dared no longer oppose the bloody demands of the Jews. There remained nothing to be done but to take his seat publicly on the throne of judgment and pronounce the sentence.
The word "forth" here, as in the fourth and fifth verses, means literally "outside." Pearce remarks, that "this is the fifth time that Pilate came forth and tried to prevail with the Jews that Jesus might not be crucified."
On the "judgment seat," Parkhurst remarks: "In the Roman provinces, justice was administered in the open air, the presiding judge sitting on a tribunal, on a raised ground covered with marble."
The "pavement" means the marble, or Mosaic levelled space, on which the judge’s chair was placed. Parkhurst says that Roman Governors used sometimes to carry with them the materials to form such a pavement.
The word "Gabbatha," according to Hammond, is more Syriac than Hebrew; "according to the custom of the New Testament, which calls Syriac, at that time the vulgar language of the Jews, Hebrew." Parkhurst says that the word means literally a raised place; and remarks that John does not mean in this verse that Gabbatha means pavement,—but that the same place which in Greek was called "pavement," was called in Hebrew "the raised place."
[And it was...preparation of the passover.] This remarkable expression cannot mean that "this was the hour for preparing the passover meal," for it was not. It means, "this was the day before the great sabbath of the passover week, a day well-known among the Jews as the preparation, or day of preparing for the passover sabbath, which was peculiarly a high day." Mark expressly says this in his account of the passion. (Mark 15:42.) That all the Jewish feasts had their "eves," or preparation days, is quite clear from Rabbinical writers.
We should observe how accurately and precisely John marks the day of the crucifixion.
[And about the sixth hour.] This expression raises a grave difficulty, and one which in every age has perplexed the minds of Bible readers. The difficulty lies in the fact that Mark in his Gospel expressly says, "it was the third hour, and they crucified Him" (Mark 15:25); while John in this place says our Lord was only condemned at the sixth hour! Yet both Evangelists wrote by inspiration, and both were incapable of making a mistake. How then are we to reconcile and harmonize these two conflicting statements. The solutions of the difficulty suggested are many and various.
(a) Some say, as the rationalistic writers, that one of the two Evangelists made a blunder, and that one of the accounts therefore is false. This is a solution which will satisfy no reverent-minded Christian. If Bible writers could make blunders like this, there is no such thing as inspiration, and there is an end of all confidence in Scripture as an infallible guide.
(b) Some say, as Theophylact, Beza, Nonnus (in his poetical paraphrase), Tittman, Leigh, Usher (vol. vii. 176), Kuinoel, Bengel, Pearce, Alford, Scott, and Bloomfield, that the discrepancy has probably been caused by an error of the manuscript writers, and that the true reading in John should be "third," and not "sixth hour." This, however, is a very short-cut road out of the difficulty, and the immense proportion of old manuscripts are flatly against it.
(c) Some say, as Augustine does in one place, and Bullinger, "that at the third hour the Lord was crucified by the tongues of the Jews, and at the sixth by the hands of the soldiers." This, however, to say the least, is a weak and childish explanation. Moreover, it is open to the grave objection that it would make out our Lord to have been only three hours on the cross, and all that time in the dark, and not seen consequently by any one! At this rate, the inscription over His head on the cross would certainly not have been read by many! "There was darkness over all the land from the sixth to the ninth hour."
(d) Some say that Mark reckoned time on the Jewish plan, by which the hours began to count from the morning, and their seven o’clock answered to our one; while John reckoned time on our English plan, which is the same as the Roman one, and John’s sixth hour meant literally about six in the morning. According to this theory Jesus was condemned, in John’s account of the passion, at six o’clock in the morning, and crucified, in Mark’s account, at nine o’clock.
This explanation is very commonly adopted, and is supported by Wordsworth, Lee, and Burgon. But it is open to very serious objections. I see no proof whatever that John reckons time on the Roman and English plan, and not on the Jewish plan. The passage in the story of the Samaritan woman, which is commonly quoted as a proof, is no proof at all, and on reflection will cut directly the other way. If the "sixth hour," when Jesus sat on the well (see John 4:6), meant really our English six o’clock in the evening, it makes it impossible to understand how the conversation with the woman, her return to her native village, the telling of the men to come and see Jesus, the coming of the men, the return of the disciples with meat, could all be brought into the short space of one evening! The thing would have been impossible.—Moreover, it is an additional objection, that if Jesus was condemned at six o’clock in the morning, there are left three long hours between, the condemnation and the crucifixion unaccounted for and unexplained. I am obliged to say that in my judgment this way of explaining the difficulty completely fails.
(e) Some think, as Calvin, Bucer, Gualter, Brentius, Musculus, Gerhard, Lampe, Hammond, Poole, Jansenius, Burkitt, Hengstenberg, and Ellicott, that John’s sixth hour means any time after our nine o’clock in the morning; any time, in fact, within the space begun by the Jewish third hour. They say that the Jews divided the twelve hours of their day into four great portions: from six to nine, from nine to twelve, from twelve to three, and from three to six. They also say that any part of the time after our six in the morning would be called the third hour, and any time after our nine in the morning would be called the sixth hour. And they conclude that both the condemnation and the crucifixion took place soon after nine o’clock,—Mark calling it the third hour, because it was near our nine o’clock; John calling it the sixth hour, because it was some time between our nine and twelve.
Grotius says, in Parkhurst, that the third, sixth, and ninth hours, which were most esteemed for prayer and other services, were marked by the sounding of a trumpet, and that after the trumpet sounding at the third hour, the sixth hour was considered to be at hand. Glass and Lampe support this opinion; and Lampe shows from Maimonides, a famous Jewish writer, that the Jews really divided the day into four quarters. Hengstenberg also remarks that the fourth and fifth hours are never mentioned in the New Testament.
This theory undoubtedly brings the two Evangelists near to one another, if it does not quite reconcile them.
(f) Some think, as Augustine in a second place suggests, and Harmer, quoted in Parkhurst, following him, that the "sixth hour here does not refer to the time of day, but to the preparation of the passover;"—and that the meaning is, "It was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour after that preparation began." But as that preparation often began very early indeed in the morning, or about our three o’clock, six hours counted from that time would bring us down to Mark’s third hour, or our nine o’clock. Lightfoot supports this view, which is certainly very ingenious, and would clear away all difficulty. But it may fairly be objected that plain readers would hardly attach such a meaning as Harmer suggests to "the sixth hour."
The difficulty is one of those which will probably never be solved. God has been pleased to leave it in Scripture for the trial of our faith and patience, and we must wait for its solution. Questions of time and date, like this, are often the most puzzling, from our inability to place ourselves in the position of the writer, and from the widely different manner in which measures and points of time are expressed in the language of different nations and in different ages. This very difficulty before us, perhaps, presented no difficulty whatever to the Apostolic Fathers, such as Polycarp and Clement. Perhaps they possessed some simple clue to its solution of which we know nothing. It is our wisdom to be patient, and to believe that it admits of explanation, though we have not eyes to see it.
If I must venture an opinion, I think there is more to be said for the fifth of the six solutions I have given than for any other. But I allow that it is incomplete. In any case we must in fairness remember that John does not say, distinctly and expressly, "it was the sixth hour," but "about the sixth hour." This shows that some latitude may be allowed in interpretation, and that the acknowledged discrepancy between John and Mark must not be too far pressed, or made of too much importance. One thing, at all events, appears to me quite inadmissible. We cannot allow ourselves to suppose that Jesus was not crucified till twelve o’clock in the day, when the miraculous darkness began, and that He only hung on the cross three hours.
[And he saith...Behold your King!] These words must have been spoken in bitter irony, anger, and contempt. "Behold the Man whom you accuse of setting Himself up as a King and being an enemy to Cæsar! Behold this bleeding, weak, humble, meek, helpless prisoner!—this wretched, harmless Person you pretend to be afraid of, and want me to crucify! You wish your own King to be put to death? This, I am to understand, is what you desire. Look at Him, and say!"
v15.—[But they cried...away...crucify Him.] As on former occasions, Pilate’s public appeal had not the slightest effect on the Jews. Once more they raised their fierce, relentless, obstinate cry, and demanded the Prisoner’s death by crucifixion. Nothing but His blood would satisfy them. The horrible excesses of the Parisian mob, during the infamous Reign of Terror in the first French revolution, give us some faint idea of the savage spirit which can run through a crowd, by a kind of infection, when their hatred is stirred up against an individual.
The Greek word rendered "away with him," is literally, "take him away;" and often means, "take Him away to execution or destruction."
Henry remarks, that this public rejection of Christ fulfilled two prophecies of Isaiah: "Him whom the nation abhorreth" (Isaiah 49:7); and "We hid as it were our faces from Him." (Isaiah 53:2).
[Pilate saith...crucify your King?] For the last time Pilate put the question to the Jews, and gave them a last chance of relenting. In bitter irony he asked,—"Shall I then really crucify your own King? Shall I, a Roman, order a King of the Jews to be put to an ignominious death? Is this your wish and desire?"
[The chief priests...no king but Cæsar.] These memorable words inflicted indelible disgrace on the leaders of the Jews, and stamped the Jews for ever as a fallen, blinded, God-forsaking, God-forsaken, and apostate nation. They, who at one time used to say, "The Lord God is our King," renounced the faith of their forefathers, and publicly declared that Cæsar was their king, and not God. They stultified themselves, and gave the lie to their own boasted declaration of independence of foreign powers. Had they not said themselves, "We be Abraham’s seed, and were never in bondage to any man"? (John 8:33.) Had they not tried to entrap our Lord into saying something in favour of Cæsar, that they might damage His reputation? "Is it lawful to give tribute to Cæsar?" (Matthew 22:17.) And now, forsooth, they shout out, "We have no king but Cæsar!" Above all they madly proclaimed to the world, though they knew it not, that Jacob’s ancient prophecy was fulfilled, that "the sceptre had departed from Judah," and that Messiah must have come. (Genesis 49:10.) Truly the sceptre had departed, when chief priests could say, "We have no king but Cæsar."
Cyril remarks, that "while other nations, all over the world, cling tenaciously to their own religion, and honour those whom they call gods, and will not forsake them, Israel revolted from God, cast off His authority, and claimed Cæsar as their king. Justly therefore they were delivered over into Cæsar’s hands, and endured the heaviest calamities."
Henry remarks,—"They would have no king but Cæsar, and never have they had any other to this day, ’but have been many days without a king, and without a prince’ (Hosea 3:4), that is, without any of their own, and the kings of the nations have ruled over them. Since they will have no king but Cæsar, so shall their doom be: themselves have decided it."
Lampe compares the conduct of the priests in this place to that of the trees in Jotham’s parable, who said to the bramble, "Come and reign over us." (Judges 9:14.) The very men who ought to have taught the people to hope for the Messiah, here publicly renounce the Messiah’s kingdom, and declare themselves contented with Cæsar!
I cannot but think that Pilate’s public washing of his hands before the people, and saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person" (Matthew 27:24), must come in at this part of John’s narrative.
v16.—[Then delivered, etc.] This verse describes the conclusion of the most unjust trial of our blessed Lord, when, "in His humiliation, His judgment was taken away." (Acts 8:33.) All was now over. The last appeal had been made to the Jews, and for the last time they had rejected it. What happened is described by Luke, but passed over by John. "Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required." (Luke 23:24.) He then formally delivered over our Lord into the hands of the chief priests, and formally gave them permission to put Him to death by crucifixion. These hardened and wicked men at once "took Jesus and led Him away."—Of course we must not suppose that the "chief priests" themselves laid hands on our Lord, and with their own hands led Him away. No doubt the Roman soldiers of Pilate were the executioners, and a centurion had charge of all the bloody transaction of the execution. But inasmuch as the soldiers only carried out the wishes of the priests, the priests were the responsible persons and prime agents in this judicial murder. Luke says, "He delivered Jesus to their will." (Luke 23:25.)
Let us remember, when we read that word "delivered," that it is expressly written, He was "delivered for our offences," and that God "spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all." (Romans 4:25; Romans 8:32.) Christ was delivered to death, that we might be delivered from death and set free. Here is substitution.
Let us remember, as we read the word "led," that Isaiah expressly foretold that Messiah should be "brought, or led, as a Lamb to the slaughter." (Isaiah 53:7. Acts 8:32.)
Alford thinks it possible that at this point the scourging of our Lord was repeated. But I see no satisfactory proof of this. Considering what a Roman scourging was, it is not probable that any body could have endured it twice in one day.
Let us note, that according to the narrative of John, there seems no delay between the condemnation of our Lord and His crucifixion. He went at once from Gabbatha to Golgotha, and from the judgment to execution. At this rate the theory, supported by Burgon and others, that there was a delay of three hours, between six o’clock and nine, after condemnation, is completely overthrown. If we looked at Matthew and Mark alone, we might fancy that Pilate saw nothing more of our Lord after He had been scourged and mocked by the soldiers. But it appears plain to me, if we carefully compare John’s account with that of Matthew and Mark, that they have not recorded our Lord’s last appearance before Pilate, which John relates. Nor can I feel surprised at this, when I remember that throughout John’s Gospel, he supplies what the other evangelists have omitted. In particular he supplies our Lord’s examination before Annas, and His private conversation with Pilate, when the Jews would not enter Pilate’s palace, and entirely omits the examination before Caiaphas. So likewise I think he supplies the last scene in our Lord’s trial, which Matthew and Mark entirely omit, for some wise reason. Holding this theory, which to me seems the most natural account of the order of things, I cannot see any room for an interval of time between the final condemnation and the crucifixion.
Henry remarks with much shrewdness, "Judgment was no sooner pronounced, than with all possible expedition the prosecutors, having gained their point, resolved to lose no time, lest Pilate should change his mind and order a reprieve, and also lest there should be an uproar among the people."
How John became acquainted with all the details of our Lord’s trial, and the private conversations between Him and Pilate, is a question which none can answer satisfactorily who do not hold the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That John was in and about the palace of the high priest, and not far from our Lord all the time, from the seizure in Gethsemane up to His death, we may well believe; but that he could have over-heard the private conversations between Jesus and Pilate, seems simply impossible. How then could he know anything about them, and write them down? There is but one answer. He wrote them by inspiration of the Holy Ghost.
Why the common people, who always "heard Jesus gladly," permitted our Lord’s crucifixion so easily, and made no resistance, is at first sight rather hard to understand. The Galileans, who would have made Jesus King at one time, were of course at Jerusalem in great numbers, on account of the passover feast. The triumphal entry into Jerusalem, when an immense multitude cried, "Hosanna to the Son of David!—blessed is the King that cometh!" had happened only a few days before. The priests themselves were afraid of "an uproar among the people." Yet there is not a symptom of any opposition to the judicial murder which was arranged, and carried into execution. How was this?
In reply, we must probably take into account the following considerations. (1) There was a superstitious reverence for the priests among all Jews. The mere fact that the high priests accused Jesus would have immense weight. (2) The fear of the Roman garrison kept the people back. (3) The followers and friends of Jesus were almost entirely the poor and lower orders. (4) All multitudes are fickle and capricious.
He that can read a passage like this without a deep sense of man’s debt to Christ, must have a very cold, or a very thoughtless heart. Great must be the love of the Lord Jesus to sinners, when He could voluntarily endure such sufferings for their salvation. Great must be the sinfulness of sin, when such an amount of vicarious suffering was needed in order to provide redemption.
We should observe, first, in this passage, how our Lord had to bear His cross when He went forth from the city to Golgotha.
We need not doubt that there was a deep meaning in all this circumstance. For one thing, it was part of that depth of humiliation to which our Lord submitted as our substitute. One portion of the punishment imposed on the vilest criminals, was that they should carry their own cross when they went to execution; and this portion was laid upon our Lord. In the fullest sense He was reckoned a sinner, and counted a curse for our sakes.—For another thing, it was a fulfillment of the great type of the sin-offering of the Mosaic law. It is written, that "the bullock for the sin-offering, and the goat for the sin-offering, whose blood was brought in to make atonement in the holy place, shall one carry forth without the camp." (Leviticus 16:27.) Little did the blinded Jews imagine, when they madly hounded on the Romans to crucify Jesus outside the gates, that they were unconsciously perfecting the mightiest sin-offering that was ever seen. It is written, "Jesus, that He might sanctify the people with his own blood, suffered without the gate." (Hebrews 13:12.)
The practical lesson which all true Christians should gather from the fact before us, is one that should be kept in continual remembrance. Like our Master, we must be content to go forth "without the camp," bearing His reproach. We must come out from the world and be separate, and be willing, if need be, to stand alone. Like our Master, we must be willing to take up our cross daily, and to be persecuted both for our doctrine and our practice. Well would it be for the Church if there was more of the true cross to be seen among Christians! To wear material crosses as an ornament, to place material crosses on churches and tombs, all this is cheap and easy work, and entails no trouble. But to have Christ’s cross in our hearts, to carry Christ’s cross in our daily walk, to know the fellowship of His sufferings, to be made conformable to His death, to have crucified affections, and live crucified lives,—all this needs self-denial; and Christians of this stamp are few and far between. Yet, this, we may be sure, is the only cross-bearing and cross-carrying that does good in the world. The times require less of the cross outwardly and more of the cross within.
We should observe, secondly, in this passage, how our Lord was crucified as a King.
The title placed over our Lord’s head made this plain and unmistakable. The reader of Greek, or Latin, or Hebrew, could not fail to see that He who hung on the central cross of the three on Golgotha, had a royal title over His head. The overruling hand of God so ordered matters, that the strong will of Pilate overrode for once the wishes of the malicious Jews. In spite of the chief priests, our Lord was crucified as "the King of the Jews."
It was meet and right that so it should be. Even before our Lord was born, the angel Gabriel declared to the virgin Mary, "The Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David: and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:32-33.) Almost as soon as He was born, there came wise men from the East, saying, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?" (Matthew 2:2.) The very week before the crucifixion, the multitude who accompanied our Lord at His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, had cried, "Blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord." (John 12:13.) The current belief of all godly Jews was, that when Messiah, the Son of David came, He would come as a King. A kingdom of heaven and a kingdom of God was continually proclaimed by our Lord throughout His ministry. A King indeed He was, as He told Pilate, of a kingdom utterly unlike the kingdoms of this world, but for all that a true King of a true kingdom, and a Ruler of true subjects. As such He was born. As such He lived. As such He was crucified. And as such He will come again, and reign over the whole earth, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Let us take care that we ourselves know Christ as our King, and that His kingdom is set up within our hearts. They only will find Him their Savior at the last day, who have obeyed Him as King in this world. Let us cheerfully pay Him that tribute of faith, and love, and obedience, which He prizes far above gold. Above all, let us never be afraid to own ourselves His faithful subjects, soldiers, servants and followers, however much He may be despised by the world. A day will soon come when the despised Nazarene who hung on the cross, shall take to Himself His great power and reign, and put down every enemy under His feet. The kingdoms of this world, as Daniel foretold, shall be swept aside, and become the kingdom of our God and of His Christ. And at last every knee shall bow to Him, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
We should observe, lastly, in these verses, how tenderly our Lord took thought for Mary, His mother.
We are told that even in the awful agonies of body and mind which our Lord endured, He did not forget her of whom He was born. He mercifully remembered her desolate condition, and the crushing effect of the sorrowful sight before her. He knew that, holy as she was, she was only a woman, and that, as a woman, she must deeply feel the death of such a Son. He therefore commended her to the protection of His best-loved and best-loving disciple, in brief and touching words: "Woman," He said, "behold thy son! Then saith He to the disciple, Behold thy mother! And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home."
We surely need no stronger proof than we have here, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was never meant to be honored as divine, or to be prayed to, worshiped, and trusted in, as the friend and patroness of sinners. Common sense points out that she who needed the care and protection of another, was never likely to help men and women to heaven, or to be in any sense a mediator between God and man! It is not too much to say, however painful the assertion, that of all the inventions of the Church of Rome, there never was one more utterly devoid of foundation, both in Scripture and reason, than the doctrine of Mary-worship.
Let us turn from points of controversy to a subject of far more practical importance. Let us take comfort in the thought that we have in Jesus a Savior of matchless tenderness, matchless sympathy, matchless consideration for the condition of His believing people. Let us never forget His words, "Whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother." (Mark 3:35.) The heart that even on the cross felt for Mary, is a heart that never changes. Jesus never forgets any that love Him, and even in their worst estate remembers their need. No wonder that Peter says, "Casting all your care upon Him; for He careth for you." (1 Peter 5:7.)
v17.—[And He bearing His cross.] It was the Roman custom to compel criminals, sentenced to crucifixion, to carry their own cross. Our Lord was thus treated like the vilest felon. "Furcifer," was the Latin name of ignominy and contempt given to the worst criminals. It means, literally, "cross-bearer."
Besser observes that our Lord, when a workman in the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth, had willingly carried pieces of timber in the service of His foster-father. Here, with no less cheerfulness, He bears to Golgotha the timber of the cross, in order to raise the altar on which He is to be sacrificed, and to do the will of his Father in heaven.
Whether the "cross" that our Lord bore, was a straight piece of timber, with another transverse piece fixed across it, for the hands of the criminal to be nailed to,—or whether it was a tree with two forked arms, admits perhaps of some little doubt. The almost universal tradition of the Churches is that it was the former: viz., a cross made of two pieces. Yet it is worth remembering that it was very common to crucify on a tree such as I have described,—that the Latin word for "cross-bearer," means, literally, "forked-tree-bearer,"—and that our Bible translators have four times spoken of the "wood" on which our Lord was crucified as "the tree." (Acts 5:30; Acts 10:39; Acts 13:29; 1 Peter 2:24.) The matter therefore is not quite so clear as some may think, though of course it is one of no consequence. The cross of two pieces at right angles, is certainly more picturesque than a common tree shaped like the letter Y, and the habitual use of the cross in Christian art, and the general tradition of ecclesiastical history, have combined to make most people regard the question as a settled one. Yet the undeniable use of forked trees in crucifying criminals, and the equally undeniable difficulty of carrying a cross of two transverse pieces, compared with a forked tree, are points that really ought not to be overlooked. The matter, after all, is one of pure conjecture. But, to say the least, it is quite a disputable point whether the cross with which Christendom is so familiar, on the gable ends of churches, on tombs, in painted windows, in crucifixes, or in the simple ornamental form which ladies are so fond of wearing,—the cross, I say, of two transverse pieces at right angles, is really and truly the kind of cross on which Christ was crucified! There is no proof positive that the whole of Christendom is not mistaken. Of course, if the cross itself had been preserved and found, it would settle the dispute. But there is not the slightest reason to suppose that it was preserved, or treated with any respect, either by Jews, Romans, or disciples. The famous story of the "discovery or invention of the cross" by the Empress Helena in 326 A.D., is a mere apocryphal legend invented by man, and deserves no more attention than the many pretended pieces of the true cross, which are exhibited in Romish churches as sacred relics.
Ambrose says, quaintly enough, that the form of the cross is that of a sword with the point downward; above is the hilt toward heaven, as if in the hand of God; below is the point toward earth, as if thrust through the head of the old serpent the devil.
One thing only is very certain. Whatever was the shape of the cross on which Jesus was crucified, it could not have been the huge, tall, heavy thing which painters and sculptors have continually represented it to be. To suppose that any man could carry such an enormous weight of timber, as the cross is made to be in Rubens’ famous picture of the "Descent from the Cross," is preposterous and absurd. A cross was manifestly not a larger thing than could be lifted and borne on the shoulders of one person. Some get over the difficulty by maintaining the theory that the transverse piece was the only part of the cross which the criminal carried. But there is no sufficient evidence that this was the case.
It is noteworthy that John is the only Evangelist who says that our Lord bore His own cross. Matthew, Mark and Luke, all say that Simon the Cyrenian was compelled to bear it. The explanation is probably this. Our Lord bore the cross for a short part of the way from the judgment-seat to Golgotha. Weakness and physical exhaustion, after all the mental and bodily suffering of the last night, rendered it impossible for Him to carry it all the way. Just at the moment when His strength failed, perhaps at the city gate, the soldiers saw Simon coming into the city, and pressed him into the service. As on other occasions, John records a fact which the other Evangelists for wise reasons passed over. It is interesting to remember that the circumstance is one which John must have seen in all probability with his own eyes.
That our blessed Lord, who had a body like our own, and not a body of superhuman vigour, should have been unable to carry the cross more than a little way, need not surprise us at all, if we consider all that He had gone through to try His physical strength, and tax His nervous system to the uttermost, in the eighteen hours preceding His crucifixion.
It is hardly necessary to remark that the type of Isaac bearing the wood for the sacrifice on Moriah, in which he himself was to be the victim, was here fulfilled by our Lord. It is moreover a curious circumstance, mentioned by Bishop Pearson, that a Jewish commentator on Genesis 22:6, speaks of Isaac carrying the wood for the burnt offering, "as a man carries his cross upon his shoulders."
[Went forth.] That expression show’s clearly that our Lord went out of the city to be crucified. He was condemned in the open air, and "went forth" cannot mean out of Pilate’s house, but went outside of Jerusalem, without the gates. Trifling as this incident may seem to a careless reader, it was a striking fulfilment of one of the great types of the Mosaic law. The sin offering on the great day of atonement was to be carried forth "without the camp." (Leviticus 16:27.) Our Lord came to be the true sin offering, to give His soul an offering for our sins. Therefore it was divinely overruled of God, that, in order to fulfil the type perfectly, He should suffer outside the city. (See also Leviticus 4:12-21.) Paul specially refers to this when he tells the Hebrew Christians, who were familiar with the law of Moses, that "Jesus suffered without the gate." (Hebrews 13:12.) The minutest details of our Lord’s passion have a deep meaning.
[Into a place...skull...Golgotha.] The precise position of this place is not known certainly, and can only be conjectured. We only know (from John 19:20) that it was "nigh to the city," that it was "outside" the walls of Jerusalem at the time of our Lord’s crucifixion, and that it was near some public road, as there is mention in one Gospel of them "that passed by." (Matthew 27:39.) So many changes have taken place, during the long period of 1800 years, in the boundary walls and the soil of Jerusalem, that no wise man will speak positively as to the exact whereabouts of Golgotha at this day. Though outside the walls 1800 years ago, it is far from unlikely that it is within the walls at this time.
(a) Some maintain, as most probable, that Golgotha was a place between the then existing wall of Jerusalem, and the descent into the valley of the Kidron, on the east side of the city, near the road leading to Bethany. In this case the cross must have been in full view of any one standing on the tower of Antonia, in the temple courts, on the Mount of Olives, or upon the eastern wall of the city. If this is correct, the crucifixion might have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people at once with perfect ease; and from the sufferer being lifted up, as it were, in the air, must have been an event of extraordinary publicity. According to the advocates of this theory, the traditional site now assigned to the Holy Sepulchre is the true one.
(b) Others, however, who have carefully examined the topography of Jerusalem, and are extremely likely to be wise and impartial judges, are decidedly of [the] opinion that Golgotha was on the north side of Jerusalem, near the Damascus gate; and they repudiate altogether the site commonly assigned to the holy sepulchre at the present time. An old and valued friend, who has walked repeatedly over this "debatable land," says, "I think the crucifixion took place on the north side of the city, near the present Damascus gate, on a platform of rock, just above a valley which runs on in endless tombs nearly two miles. Beneath this platform is a garden of olives still, full of excavations. In one of these, I think, was the sepulchre."
(c) Others, and among them another friend, who has travelled much in Palestine, and published the results of his travels, inclines to think that Golgotha was on the west side of Jerusalem, near the Jaffa gate. The friend I refer to says, in a letter to me on this subject, "When I was first in Jerusalem in 1857, I visited some extraordinary fissures and cracks in the rocks west of the city, reminding me of the expression, the rocks rent. (Matthew 27:51.) These fissures are now all filled up." Much, he adds, depends on the question whether Pilate resided in the tower of Antonia, and had his judgment hall there, or in the tower of Hippicus. This, however, we have no means of ascertaining.
In the face of such conflicting opinions I dare not speak positively, and I must leave my readers to judge for themselves. The question is one about which no one, it is clear, has any right to be heard, unless he has actually seen Jerusalem.
Why the place was called "the place of a skull" we are not told, and are left entirely to conjecture.
(a) Some think, as Gualter, Bullinger, Musculus, Gerhard, Burgon, Alford, Besser, and others, that the verse points to the bones, skeletons, and skulls, of executed criminals, which were lying about on Golgotha, as the common place of execution. This theory, however, is open to the grave objection, that it is most unlikely that dead men’s bones would be left lying above ground, so near the city, when, according to the Mosaic law, they made any Jew unclean who touched them. The Pharisees, with their excessive scrupulosity about externals, were not likely to tolerate such a source of defilement close to the holy city!—Moreover, John expressly says, that in the place were Jesus was crucified "there was a garden." (John 19:41.) This does not look like a place where dead men’s bones and the skulls of criminals would be left lying about! The very mention of this "garden" would suggest the idea that the place was not ordinarily used for execution, and that the Pharisees chose it only for its singular publicity. If it was on the east side, we can well believe that they felt a diabolical pleasure in tormenting our Lord to the last, by making Him die with the temple, the Mount of Olives, and His favourite Gethsemane before His eyes.
(b) Some think, as Lampe, Ellicott, and others, that the name, "place of a skull," arose from the shape of the small rising ground, like a skull, on which the cross was fixed. That such small elevations of limestone rock are to be found in that vicinity, is asserted by some travellers. To me there seems more probability in this theory than in the other. The name "Calvary," we should remember, is never used in the Greek; and the marginal reading in Luke 23:33 ought certainly to be in the text.
One thing alone is very certain. There is not the slightest authority for the common idea, that the place where our Lord was crucified was a hill, or mountain. The common expression in hymns and religious poetry, "Mount Calvary," is utterly incorrect and unwarrantable, and the favourite antithesis, or comparison between Mount Sinai and Mount Calvary, is so completely destitute of any Scriptural basis, that it is almost profane. Anything more unlike, as a matter of fact, than Sinai and Golgotha, cannot be conceived.
Origen, Cyprian, Epiphanius, Augustine, Jerome, and Theophylact, all mention an old tradition, that Golgotha was the place where the first Adam, our forefather, was buried, and that the second Adam was buried near the first! This of course is a ridiculous, lying fable, as Noah’s flood must have swept away all certainty about Adam’s grave.
v18.—[Where they crucified Him.] This famous mode of execution is so well known to every one that little need be said of it. The common mode of inflicting it, in all probability, was to strip the criminal,—to lay him on the cross on his back,—to nail his hands to the two extremities of the cross-piece, or fork of the cross,—to nail his feet to the upright piece, or principal stem of the cross,—then to raise the cross on end, and drop it into a hole prepared for it,—and then to leave the sufferer to a lingering and painful death. It was a death which combined the maximum of pain with the least immediate destruction of life. The agony of having nails driven through parts so full of nerves and sinews as the hands and feet, must have been intense. Yet wounds of the hands and feet are not mortal, and do not injure any great leading blood-vessel. Hence a crucified person, even in an eastern climate, exposed to the sun, might live two or three days, enduring extreme pain, without being relieved by death, if he was naturally a very strong man and in vigorous health. This is what we must remember our blessed Lord went through, when we read "they crucified Him." To a sensitive, delicate-minded person, it is hard to imagine any capital punishment more distressing. This is what Jesus endured willingly for us sinners. Hanging, as it were, between earth and heaven, He exactly fulfilled the type of the brazen serpent, which Moses lifted up in the wilderness. (John 3:14.)
Whether the person crucified was bound to the cross with ropes, to prevent the possibility of his breaking off from the nails in convulsive struggling,—whether He was stripped completely naked, or had a cloth round His loins,—whether each foot had a separate nail, or one nail was driven through both feet,—are disputed points which we have no means of settling.—Some think, following Irenæus, Tertullian, and Justin Martyr, that there was a kind of seat or projection in the middle of the stem of the cross, to bear up the weight of the body, and also a place for the feet to rest on. Jeremy Taylor thinks, in support of this view, that the body of a crucified person could not rest only on the four wounds of hands and feet. Bishop Pearson also quotes a passage from Seneca, which seems to favour the idea.—As to the nails, Nonnus and Gregory Nazianzen say there were only three, and that one was driven through both feet at once. Cyprian says there were four.—But these are matters about which we really know nothing, and it is useless to guess and speculate about them. Of one thing however we may be very sure. The feet of a crucified person were much nearer the ground than is commonly supposed, and very likely not more than a foot or two from the earth. In this, as in other points, most pictures of the crucifixion are grossly incorrect, and the cross is made out to be a piece of timber so long and so thick that no one mortal man could ever have carried it.
Concerning the precise amount of physical suffering, and the precise effect on the human body in a crucifixion, the following medical account by a German physician, named Richter, quoted in Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, can hardly fail to interest a Bible reader. He says, "(1) The unnatural position and violent tension of the body caused a painful sensation from the least motion. (2) The nails being driven through parts of the hands and feet which are full of nerves and tendons, and yet at a distance from the heart, created the most exquisite anguish. (3) The exposure of so many wounds and lacerations brought on inflammation, which tended to become gangrene, and every moment increased the poignancy of suffering. (4) In the distended parts of the body more blood flowed through the arteries than could be carried back into the veins: and hence too much blood found its way from the aorta into the head and stomach, and the blood vessels of the head became pressed and swollen. The general obstruction of circulation caused an internal excitement, exertion, and anxiety, more intolerable than death itself. (5) There was the inexpressible misery of gradually increasing and lingering anguish. (6) To all this we may add burning and raging thirst." (Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible: article, Crucifixion.) On the whole subject of the cross, and the sufferings connected with crucifixion, "Lipsius de Cruce" (published in 1595) is a most exhaustive book.
When we remember, beside all this, that our Lord’s head was crowned with thorns, His back torn with savage scourging, and His whole system weighed down by the mental and bodily agony of the sleepless night following the Lord’s Supper, we may have some faint idea of the intensity of His sufferings.
When we read "they" crucified, we are left to conjecture who it can refer to. It cannot be the Jews, because they could only stand by, and superintend at the most, as the Roman soldiers would certainly not let the punishment be inflicted by any other hands than their own. It must either be the four soldiers who were the executioners, or else it must be interpreted generally after the manner of other places, for "He was crucified." Thus, in John 16:2, "They shall put you out of the synagogues." In that sentence "they" cannot refer to any person in particular. The simplest plan is to refer it generally to the whole party,—Jews and Gentiles together.
[And two others with Him, etc.] We know from the other Gospels that these other two were malefactors and thieves. The object of crucifying our Lord between them is plain. It was intended as a last indignity and injury. It was a public declaration that He was counted no better than the vilest criminals.
Little as our Lord’s enemies meant it, this very crucifixion between two thieves did two great things. One was, that it precisely fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy about Messiah: "He was numbered with the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12.) The other was, that it gave our Lord the opportunity of working one more mighty miracle, even in His last hours,—the miracle of converting the penitent thief, forgiving his sins, and opening to him paradise. If His enemies had been content to crucify Him alone, this last trophy could not have been won, and our Lord’s power over sin and the devil would not have been exhibited. So easy is it for God to bring good out of evil, and to make the malice of His enemies work round to His praise.
Augustine remarks, that three very different persons hung together on the three crosses on Golgotha. One was the Saviour of sinners. One was a sinner about to be saved. One was a sinner about to be damned. (On Psalms 34:1-22.)
Cyril sees in the two malefactors a type of the Jewish and Gentile Churches: the one rejected, impenitent, and lost; the other believing at the eleventh hour, and saved.
Many pious commentators remark, that even on the cross our Lord gave an emblem of His kingly power. On His right hand was a saved soul whom He admits into His kingdom; on His left hand, a lost soul whom He leaves to reap the fruit of his own ways. There was right and left on the cross, even as there will be right and left, saved and unsaved, when He sits on the judgment-seat, wearing the crown at the last day.
It only remains to add that the cruel punishment of crucifixion was formally abolished by the Emperor Constantine, towards the end of his reign. It is an awful historical fact that when Jerusalem was taken by Titus, he crucified so many Jews around the city, that Josephus says that space and room failed for crosses, and crosses could not be found in sufficient number for bodies! Reland well remarks, "They who had nothing but ’crucify’ in their mouths, were therewith paid home in their bodies."
v19.—[And Pilate wrote a title...cross.] To fix a board with an inscription over the head of the person crucified, appears to have been a well-known custom, and is mentioned as such by classical writers. Some say it was a board covered with white gypsum, with letters of black, and others say that the letters were red. Pilate therefore did nothing unusual. In our Lord’s case it served two ends, whether Pilate meant them or not. For one thing, it proclaimed to all passers-by, and all who saw the crucifixion, that Jesus did really suffer, that He was not at the last moment released and another punished in His stead, and that He was not taken away by miraculous interference from His enemies’ hands. For another thing, it drew attention of all witnesses and passers-by to our Lord, and made it quite certain on which of the three crosses He hung. Without this, a person looking at three naked figures hanging on their crosses, from a little distance off, might well have doubted which of the three was Jesus. The title made it plain. That our Lord was regarded as no common every-day criminal, and that it was thought right to call special attention to Him, is evident from this title being put on His cross.
[Jesus...Nazareth...King...Jews.] Pilate’s reasons for choosing to place this description of our Lord over His cross, we are left to conjecture. My own decided opinion is that he worded the title as he did, in anger and vexation, and with an intention to annoy and insult the Jews. He publicly held up to scorn their King, as a poor criminal from a mean village in Galilee, a fitting king for such a people!—Whatever his motive may have been, it was curiously overruled by God that even on the cross our Lord should be styled a "King." He came to be a King, and as a King He lived and suffered and died, though not acknowledged and honoured by His subjects. "Nazarene" identified our Lord as the well-known Teacher from Galilee, who for three years had stirred the Jewish mind. "King" identified Him as the Person accused by the chief priests for claiming a kingdom, and formally rejected by them, on the plea that they had no king but Cæsar. It was a very full and significant title.
A careful reader of the Gospels will not fail to observe, that each Gospel writer gives this title in a slightly different form, and that there are in fact four versions of it. The question naturally arises, Which is correct? The versions do not at all contradict one another; but that of Mark, "the King of the Jews," is much shorter than that of John. No two, in a word, are exactly like.—In reply, it is fair to remind the reader, that the inscription was written in three languages; and that it is far from unlikely that it was in one form in one language, and in another form in another. The one common point in all the four versions is, "the King of the Jews," and this was probably the only point that Mark, in his brief and condensed history, was taught to record. John gives the whole inscription, because he alone narrates the dispute between the priests and Pilate about it. If I may venture a conjecture, I should guess that Mark gives the Latin inscription, Luke the Greek, and Matthew and John the Hebrew one. But why it seemed good to the Holy Ghost that Matthew should omit the expression, "of Nazareth," which John mentions, I do not pretend to say. It is precisely one of those things in which it is wisest to confess our ignorance, and to be willing to wait for more light.
John alone records that Pilate "wrote" and "put" on the cross this title. We are not obliged to suppose that he did both with his own hands. The writing was almost certainly his own act. The putting the title on the cross he probably left to the soldiers.
The common pictures of the crucifixion, showing a kind of scroll, or parchment, over our Lord’s head on the cross, are most probably in this, as in other details, most incorrect representations of the real facts. Moreover most painters seem to forget that it was written three times over, being in three languages!
v20.—[This title then read many, etc.] This seems to be one of John’s parenthetical comments. It also reads like the report of an eyewitness; and this we know John was. He stood by and saw all that happened. It is as though he said, "I can testify that many of the Jews saw and read this title,—some as they passed along the road which ran by,—some from the walls of the city, for the place was near the walls. It was an inscription moreover so contrived, that hardly any one in Jerusalem could fail to understand it; for it was written in the three languages most likely to be known,—in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin."
It is almost needless to say that the title was in Hebrew, because every Jew would know it, the oldest language in the world, and the language of the Old Testament,—in Greek, because this was the language most known in all eastern countries, and the language of all literary and educated people,—in Latin, because this was the language of the Romans, the ruling nation in the world. The Roman soldiers would all understand the Latin; the Greek proselytes and Hellenistic Jews would all understand the Greek; and the pure Jews from Galilee and Judæa, and every part of the earth, assembled for the passover, would all understand the Hebrew. All would go away to spread the tidings that one Jesus, the King of the Jews, had been put to death by crucifixion at the passover feast.
Henry remarks, "In the Hebrew, the oracles of God were recorded; in Greek, the learning of the philosophers; and in Latin, the laws of the empire. In each of these languages Christ is proclaimed King, in whom are hid all the treasures of revelation, wisdom, and power."
To this very day it is certain that no three languages can be more useful for a Christian minister to know, if he would be familiar with his Bible, than Hebrew, Greek, and Latin.
The last day alone, perhaps, will disclose the effect this title had on those who read it. When the priests and their companions saw it, they mocked and scoffed: "King indeed! Let Christ the King of Israel descend from the cross, and we will believe." (Mark 15:32.) But there was one man who saw the title probably with very different eyes. The penitent thief perhaps grasped at the word "King," and believed. Who can tell that this was not the root of his cry, "Lord remember me, when Thou comest into Thy kingdom." (Luke 23:42.) Perhaps Pilate’s title helped to save a soul!
Brentius remarks, that when we think of the cross of Christ, and the title on it, which so many read, we should remember there was another handwriting nailed to that cross spiritually, which no mortal could read. Jesus Christ, by His vicarious death for us, "Blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross." (Colossians 2:14.)
v21.—[Then said the chief priests, etc.] This verse brings out the feeling which the sight of Pilate’s title excited in the minds of the chief priests. They were annoyed and angry. They did not like the idea of this crucified criminal being publicly declared "the King of the Jews." They detected the latent scorn and irony which guided Pilate’s hands, and lay at the bottom of his mind. They did not like so public an announcement that they had crucified their own King, and wanted "no King but Cæsar." They were vexed at the implied reflection on themselves. Besides this, they were probably uncomfortable in conscience. Hardened and wicked as they were, they had, many of them, we may be sure, a secret conviction which they vainly tried to keep down, that they were doing a wrong thing, and a thing which by and by they would find it hard to defend either to themselves or others. Hence they tried to get Pilate to alter the title, and to make it appear that our Lord was only a pretended King,—an impostor who "said that He was King." This, they doubtless thought, would shift some of the guilt off their shoulders, and make it appear that our Lord was crucified for usurping a title to which He was legally proved to have no claim.
When and where the chief priests said this to Pilate does not appear. It must either have been when the whole party was leaving the judgment-seat for Golgotha, or after our Lord was nailed to the tree, or while the soldiers were nailing Him. Looking at John’s account, one might fancy that the centurion sent word to Pilate that the prisoner was being nailed to the cross, and asked for a title to put over His head, before the cross was reared. If we do not suppose this, we must believe that Pilate actually accompanied the party outside the walls, and was only at a little distance off during the last horrible preparations. In that case he might easily write a title, and the priests might easily be standing by. The difficulty is to understand where the parties could be, when the priests said "write not;" and it is one which must be left unsettled. It seems, however, certain that once put over our Lord’s head, the title was not expected to be taken down; and the request was not to alter it, after being put up, but to write a different title before it was put up.
Bengel observes, that this is the only place in John’s Gospel where the chief priests are called "the chief priests of the Jews." He thinks it is intended to mark emphatically the bitter hatred with which the priests of the Jews regarded the King of the Jews.
We may well believe that even the wickedest men at their worst, are often more sore and uncomfortable inwardly than they appear outwardly. This it was that probably lay at the bottom of the chief priests’ remonstrance about the title. Herod’s cry, "It is John the Baptist," after John was dead, is another case in point.
v22.—[Pilate answered...I have written.] The hard, haughty, imperious character of the wicked Roman Governor comes out forcibly in these words. They show his contempt for the Jews:—"Trouble me not about the title: I have written it, and I shall not alter it to please you."—They suggest the idea that he was willing enough to be revenged on them for their obstinate refusal to meet his wishes, and consent to our Lord’s release. He was glad to hold them up to scorn and contempt, as a people who crucified their own king. It is likely enough that between his wife and his own conscience and the chief priests, the Roman Governor was vexed, worried, and irritated, and savagely resolved not to gratify the Jews any further in any matter. He had gone as far as he chose, in allowing them to murder an innocent and just person. He would not go an inch further. He now made a stand, and showed that he could be firm and unyielding and unbending when he liked. It is no uncommon thing to see a wicked man, when he has given way to the devil and trampled on his conscience in one direction, trying to make up for it by being firm in another.
Calvin observes that Pilate, by publishing in three languages Christ’s title, was "by a secret guidance made a herald of the Gospel." He contrasts his conduct with that of the Papists who prohibit the reading of the Gospel and the Scriptures by the common people. Gualter says much the same.
Bullinger remarks that Pilate acted like Caiaphas when he said, "It is expedient that one die for the people, not knowing what he said." Just so Pilate little knew what testimony he was bearing to Christ’s kingly office.
Leigh quotes a saying of Augustine: "If a man like Pilate can say, what I have written I have written, and will not alter, can we think that God doth write any in His book and blot him out again?"
v23.—[Then the soldiers, etc.] The soldiers having now finished their bloody work, having nailed our Lord to the cross, put the title over His head and reared the cross on end, proceeded to do what they probably always did,—to divide the clothes of the crucified criminal among themselves. In most countries the clothes of a person put to death by the law are the perquisite of the executioner. So it was with our Lord’s clothes. They had most likely first stripped our Lord naked, before nailing his hands and feet to the cross, and had laid his clothes on one side till they had finished their work. They now turned to the clothes, and, as they had done many a time on such occasions, proceeded to divide them. All four Evangelists particularly mention this, and evidently call our special attention to it.
The division into four portions shows clearly that there were four soldiers employed, beside the centurion, in the work of crucifixion. Many commentators see in them emblems of the four quarters of the Gentile world. This, however, seems to me fanciful. A quaternion, a small party of four, was a common division of soldiers in those days, just as "a file" of men is among ourselves. (See Acts 12:4.)
What the four portions of garments were we are left to conjecture. Hengstenberg thinks that they consisted of the covering of the head, the girdle, the shoes, and the under garment fitting to the body. Matthew’s report of the Sermon on the Mount contains a clear distinction between a coat and a cloak. (Matthew 5:40.) For these four portions the soldiers probably cast lots, in order that each one might have his part decided, and to prevent wrangling about the unequal value of the portions.
Others think that the language of John about the coat which was "not rent," is strong evidence that all the rest of our Lord’s clothes were rent into four pieces, and that Hengstenberg’s division of them will not stand. It must be admitted that there is much probability in this. It seems very unlikely that so much should be said about this seamless garment being not rent, if the other garments had not been torn in dividing them.
Concerning the "coat" here mentioned, it is not easy to say positively what part of our Lord’s dress it was.
(a) Most commentators say that it was the long inner tunic, girt about the waist, and reaching almost to the feet, which was the principal garment of an inhabitant of the East,—a kind of loose smock-frock with sleeves, such as any one may see a pattern of, in Leonardo da Vinci’s famous picture of the Lord’s Supper. The objection to this view, to my mind, is the grave difficulty of explaining how such a garment could be seamless and woven throughout,—though I doubt not our Lord wore it, and it was the hem of such a garment the woman touched.
(b) Some few commentators think it was the outer garment, a loose mantle or cape, thrown over the shoulders, which many wore above the tunic. Such a garment, having no sleeves, might easily be made in one piece without any seam, and perhaps was only drawn together or clasped about the shoulders. It is fair, nevertheless, to say that the Greek word here rendered "coat," ordinarily means the inward garment or tunic. (See Suicer and Parkhurst.) Becker’s Charicles, however, on this Greek word, shows some reason for thinking it sometimes means the outward coat.
The reader must judge for himself. The question is one which cannot be settled positively either way, and happily is not of any moment. To my own mind, the objection to the first and common view is very serious indeed, if not insuperable; but it may not appear so to others. The only thing we know for certain is that one portion of our Lord’s dress was not rent, but made the subject of casting lots as to who should have it. As to the ancient fable that our Lord’s coat was woven by his mother Mary when He was a child, grew with His growth, and never waxed old or wore out, it is a foolish apocryphal legend.
Bengel observes that we never read of our Lord "rending" His own garments in desperate sorrow, like Job, Jacob, Joshua, Caleb, Jepthah, Hezekiah, Mordecai, Ezra, Paul, and Barnabas. (See Genesis 37:34; Numbers 14:6; Judges 11:35; 2 Kings 19:1; Esther 4:1; Ezra 9:3; Job 1:20; Acts 14:14.)
On the incident recorded in this verse, Luther remarks, "This distribution of garments served for a sign that everything was done with Christ, just as with one who was abandoned, lost, and to be forgotten for ever." Even among ourselves, the division, sale, or giving away of a man’s clothes, is a plain indication of his being dead, or given up for lost; just as among soldiers and sailors, when dead or missing, the effects are sold or distributed.
Henry thinks that "the soldiers hoped to make something more than ordinary out of our Lord’s clothes, having heard of cures wrought by the touch of the hem of His garment, or expecting that His admirers would give any money for them." But this seems unlikely and fanciful.
Our Lord was treated, we should observe, just like all common criminals,—stripped naked, and His clothes sold under His eyes, as one dead already and cast off by man.
It is noteworthy that in this, as in many other things, our Lord was, in a striking manner, our substitute. He was stripped naked, and reckoned, and dealt with as a guilty sinner, in order that we might be clothed with the garment of His perfect righteousness and reckoned innocent.
v24.—[They said therefore among themselves, etc.] In this verse we are told that the conduct of the soldiers was a precise fulfilment of a prophecy delivered a thousand years before. (Psalms 22:18.) That prophecy foretold not only that Messiah’s garments should be parted and distributed, but that men should "cast lots for His vesture." Little did the four rough Roman soldiers think that they were actually supplying evidence of the truth of the Scriptures! They only saw that our Lord’s "coat" was a good and serviceable garment, which it was a pity to rend or tear, and therefore they agreed to cast lots who should have it. And yet, in so doing, they added to the great cloud of witnesses who prove the divine authority of the Bible. Men little consider that they are all instruments in God’s hand for accomplishing His purposes.
The importance of interpreting prophecy literally, and not figuratively, is strongly shown in this verse. The system of interpretation which unhappily prevails among many Christians—I mean the system of spiritualizing away all the plain statements of the prophets, and accommodating them to the Church of Christ—can never be reconciled with such a verse as this. The plain, literal meaning of words should evidently be the meaning placed on all the statements of Old Testament prophecy. This remark of course does not apply to symbolical prophecies, such as those of the seals, trumpets, and vials in Revelation.
The typical meaning of this seamless and unrent coat of our Lord is a point on which fanciful theological writers have loved to dwell in every age of the Church of Christ. It represented, we are told by Augustine and many others, the unity of the Church, and it was an allusion to the priesthood of the Divine wearer! I frankly confess that I am unable to believe such notions, and I doubt extremely whether they were intended by the Holy Ghost. But it is a fact mentioned by Henry, that "those who opposed Luther’s separation from the Church of Rome, urged much this seamless coat as an argument, and laid so much stress on it, that they were called Inconsutilistæ,—the seamless ones!"
As to the lying legend that this seamless coat was preserved and handed down to the Church as a precious relic, it is scarcely worth while to mention it, except as a melancholy illustration of the corruption of man, and the apostacy of the Church of Rome. The holy coat of Trèves, and its exhibition, are a scandal and disgrace to Christianity. Suffice it to say, that any one who can seriously believe that our Lord’s seamless coat, after falling into the hands of a heathen Romish soldier, was finally treasured up as a relic, or that the cross itself was kept safe and escaped destruction, must be so credulous a person that argument is thrown away on him.
It is worth remembering, that when the first Adam fell by sin and was cast out of Eden, God mercifully clothed him and covered his nakedness. When the second Adam died as our substitute, and was counted "a curse" for us on the cross, He was stripped naked and His clothes sold.
The object for which John concludes the verse with the words, "These things therefore the soldiers did," is not very apparent. Burgon suggests it may mean, "Such was the part which the soldiers played in this terrible tragedy. Uninfluenced by the Jews, without any direction from Pilate, these things the soldiers did." This however seems hardly satisfactory, because this was not all that the soldiers did.—I prefer thinking that John means to say, that he was actually an eye-witness of the soldiers unconsciously fulfilling an ancient prophecy: "I myself saw, with mine own eyes, the four soldiers casting lots on my Lord’s coat; and I can testify that I saw the words of the Psalmist literally fulfilled."
Lampe thinks that John makes this remark, in order to show how literally Scripture was fulfilled by men who were totally ignorant of Scripture. The Roman soldiers of course knew nothing of the Psalms, yet did the very things predicted in the Psalms.
v25.—[Now there stood by the cross, etc.] A wonderfully striking incident is recorded in this and the two following verses, which is not found in the other three Gospels. John tells us that at this awful moment, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and other women, two if not three, stood by the cross on which our Lord hung. "Love is strong as death;" and even amidst the crowd of taunting Jews and rough Roman soldiers, these holy women were determined to stand by our Lord to the last, and to show their unceasing affection to Him. When we remember that our Lord was a condemned criminal, peculiarly hated by the chief priests, and executed by Roman soldiers, the faithfulness and courage of these holy women can never be sufficiently admired. As long as the world stands they supply a glorious proof of what grace can do for the weak, and of the strength that love to Christ can supply. When all men but one forsook our Lord, more than one woman boldly confessed Him. Women, in short, were the last at the cross and the first at the tomb.
It is interesting to consider who and what they were, that stood by our Lord’s cross as He hung upon it. John, the beloved disciple, was there, we know; though with characteristic modesty he does not directly name it. But John 19:26 shows clearly that he was one of the party. He might well be the one that "Jesus loved." No Apostle seems to have had such deep feeling towards our Lord as John.—Mary, the mother of our Lord (never called the Virgin Mary in Scripture) was there. We must suppose that she had come up from Galilee to the feast of the passover, in company with the other women who ministered to our Lord. She must now have been comparatively old, at least forty-eight years old. To represent her in pictures as a beautiful young woman at the time of the crucifixion is absurd. Who can doubt that when she saw her Son hanging on the cross, she must have realized the truth of old Simeon’s prophecy, "A sword shall pierce through thine own soul also." (Luke 2:35.) Very striking and instructive is it to observe how very rarely she is named in the Gospel history.—Mary, the wife of Cleophas, or Alpheus, was there. The Greek leaves it uncertain whether it means daughter or wife; but nearly all think it must be wife. She seems to have been the mother of James and Jude the Apostles, and to have been related in some way to Mary, either as sister or sister-in-law. Hence James is called the "Lord’s brother." She too must have been nearly as old as Mary, if we may judge by her having two sons who were Apostles.—Mary of Magdala, in Galilee, commonly called Mary Magdalene, was also there. Of her we only know that Jesus had cast out of her seven devils, and that none of all the women who ministered to our Lord, seem to have felt such deep gratitude to our Saviour, and to have demonstrated such deep affection. The common doctrine that she had once been a notorious breaker of the seventh commandment has no foundation in Scripture. She probably was the youngest of all the party, and as such had to risk more, and sacrifice her own feelings more than any, in pressing through a crowd of enemies to the foot of the cross.
But were there only three women at the cross? This is a disputed question, and one which will probably never be settled, since the Greek wording of the verse before us leaves the point open either way.
(a) Most commentators think that the words, "His mother’s sister," belong to "Mary the wife of Cleophas," and are meant to define the relationship between that Mary and Mary the mother of our Lord.
(b) Others, as Pearce, Bengel, and Alford, think that "His mother’s sister" means a fourth woman, and that this woman was Salome the mother of James and John. The strongest argument in favour of this view is the distinct statement in Matthew’s account of the crucifixion, that many women beheld the sight, "among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children,"—that is, Salome. (Matthew 27:56.) If she stood with Mary Magdalene looking on, why should we doubt that she stood with her at the cross? The suppression of her name is quite characteristic of John. She was his own mother, and he modestly keeps back her name, as he keeps back his own. In what way she was the "sister" to the mother of our Lord we do not know. But there is no reason against it, that I know of. According to this view, the women at the foot of the cross were four: viz., (1) Mary, the mother of Jesus. (2) The sister of our Lord’s mother: i.e., Salome, the mother of John, who wrote this Gospel. (3) Mary, the wife of Alpheus and mother of two Apostles. (4) Mary Magdalene.
The reader must decide for himself. The question happily is not one affecting our salvation. For myself I must frankly declare my belief that the second view is the right one, and that there were four women, and not three only, at the foot of the cross. The objection that the word "and" is omitted before "Mary the wife of Cleophas" is worthless. In almost every catalogue of the Apostles the same omission may be noticed. (See Acts 1:13; Matthew 10:2; Luke 6:14.)
Whether all Christian women should always come forward and put themselves in such public and prominent positions as these holy women took up, is a grave question, about which each Christian woman must judge for herself. Considerations of physical strength and nervous self-command must not be overlooked. The four women who stood by the cross neither fainted nor went into hysterics, but were self-controlled, and calm. Let every one be persuaded in their own minds. Some women can do what others cannot.
Why the fierce enemies of our Lord among the Jews, and the rough Roman soldiers, permitted these holy women to stand undisturbed by the cross, is a question we have no means of deciding. Possibly the Romans may have thought it only fair and reasonable to let a criminal’s relatives and friends stand by him, when he could do the State no more harm, and they could not rescue him from death. Possibly the centurion who superintended the execution, may have felt some pity for the little weeping company of weak women. Who can tell but his kindness was a cup of cold water which was repaid him a hundred-fold? He said before the day ended, "Truly this was the Son of God." (Matthew 27:54.) Possibly John’s acquaintance with the high priest, already mentioned, may have procured him and his companions some favour. All these, however, are only conjectures, and we cannot settle the point
The Greek word rendered "stood" is literally "had stood." Does not this mean from the beginning of the crucifixion?
v26, v27.—[When Jesus therefore saw His mother, etc.] The incident recorded in these two verses is wonderfully touching and affecting. Even in this trying season of bodily and mental agony, our blessed Lord did not forget others.—He had not forgotten His brutal murderers; but had prayed for them: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."—He had not forgotten his fellow-sufferers by His side. When one of the crucified malefactors cried to him, "Lord, remember me," He had at once answered him, and promised him a speedy entrance into Paradise.—And now He did not forget His mother. He saw her standing by the cross, and knew well her distress, and felt tenderly for her desolate condition, left alone in a wicked world, after having lost such a Son. He therefore commended her to the care of John, His most loving and tenderhearted and faithful disciple. He told John to look on her as his mother, and told His mother to look on John as her son. No better and wiser arrangement could have been made in every way. None would care so much for the mother of Jesus as the disciple whom Jesus loved, and who lay in His bosom at the last supper. No home could be so suitable to Mary, as the home of one who was, according to the view maintained above, son to her own sister Salome.
The lessons of the whole transaction are deeply instructive.
(a) We should mark the depth and width of our Lord’s sympathies and affections. The Saviour on whom we are bid to repose the weight of our sinful souls is one whose love passeth knowledge. Shallow, skin-deep feelings in others, we all know, continually chill and disappoint us on every side in this world. But there is one whose mighty heart-affection knows no bottom. That one is Christ.
(b) We should mark the high honour our Lord puts on the fifth commandment. Even in His last hour He magnifies it, and makes it honourable, by providing for His mother according to the flesh. The Christian who does not lay himself out to honour father and mother—both one and the other parent, is a very ignorant religionist.
(c) We should mark that when Jesus died Joseph was probably dead, and that Mary had no other children beside our Lord. It is absurd to suppose that our Lord would have commended Mary to John, if she had had a husband or son to support her. The theory of some few writers, that Mary had other children by Joseph after Jesus was born, is very untenable, and grossly improbable.
(d) We should mark what a strong condemnation the passage supplies to the whole system of Mary-worship, as held by the Roman Catholic Church. There is not here a trace of the doctrine that Mary is patroness of the saints, protectress of the Church, and one who can help others. On the contrary, we see her requiring protection herself, and commended to the care and protection of a disciple! Hengstenberg remarks, "Our Lord’s design was not to provide for John, but to provide for His mother." Alford observes, "The Romanist idea that the Lord commended all His disciples, as represented by the beloved one, to the patronage of His mother, is simply absurd."
(e) Finally, we should mark how Jesus honours those who honour and boldly confess Him. To John, who alone of all the eleven stood by the cross, He gives the high privilege of taking charge of His mother. As Henry pleasantly remarks, it is a sign of great confidence, and a mark of great honour, to be made a trustee and a guardian by a great person, for those he leaves behind at his death. To the women Jesus gives the honour of being specially named and recorded for their faithfulness and love, in a Gospel which is read all over the world in 200 languages.
The Greek words rendered "his own home," mean literally, "his own things." It is a thoroughly indefinite expression. We can only suppose it means, that in [the] future, from that day, wherever John abode the mother of our Lord abode also. His home, in a word, became her home. There is no evidence whatever that John had any home in Jerusalem. If he had any home at all, it must have been in Galilee, near the lake of Gennesaret.
Bengel, Besser, Ellicott, and Alford, from the phrase "hour," suggest that John took Mary home immediately, so that she did not see our Lord die, and then returned to the cross. This, however, seems to me very improbable. The mother of our Lord would surely stay by the cross to the last, if any woman did. John would not leave the cross, in my opinion, for a minute. His narrative of the crucifixion reads like that of an eye-witness from first to last.
Hengstenberg takes the same view that I do.
The word "woman," in the twenty-sixth verse, is noteworthy. It must not be pressed too far as implying the slightest disrespect or want of affection. The whole transaction here narrated overthrows such an idea. But I think it is remarkable that our Lord does not say, "Mother." And I cannot help thinking that, even at this awful moment, He would remind her that she must never suffer herself or others to presume on the relationship between her and Him, or claim any supernatural honour on the ground of being His mother. Henceforth she must daily remember, that her first aim must be to live the life of faith as a believing woman, like all other Christian women. Her blessedness did not consist in being related to Christ according to the flesh, but in believing and keeping Christ’s Word. I firmly believe that, even on the cross, Jesus foresaw the future heresy of "Mary-worship." Therefore He said "Woman," and did not say "Mother."
Besser remarks, "Some old writers, as Bonaventura, say that Christ perhaps avoided the sweet name of mother, that He might not lacerate Mary’s heart with such a tender word of farewell. Others see in Christ’s manner of speaking a reference to the seed of the woman who was to bruise the serpent’s head. The most obvious view is, that the Lord, through this name woman, would direct His mother into that love which knows Christ no more after the flesh (2 Corinthians 5:16), and would also declare to us that in the midst of His work of atonement He felt Himself equally bound close to all sinners, and that He was not nearer to His mother than He was to thee and me."
This part of John’s narrative of Christ’s passion, contains points of deep interest, which are silently passed over by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The reason of this silence we are not told. Suffice it for us to remember that, both in what they recorded and in what they did not record, all four Evangelists wrote by inspiration of God.
Let us mark, for one thing, in these verses, the frequent fulfillments of prophetic Scripture throughout every part of Christ’s crucifixion. Three several predictions are specially mentioned, in Exodus, Psalms, and Zechariah, which received their accomplishment at the cross. Others, as every well-informed Bible-reader knows, might easily be added. All combine to prove one and the same thing. They prove that the death of our Lord Jesus Christ at Golgotha was a thing foreseen and predetermined by God. Hundreds of years before the crucifixion, every part of the solemn transaction was arranged in the Divine counsels, and the minutest particulars were revealed to the Prophets. From first to last it was a thing foreknown, and every portion of it was in accordance with a settled plan and design. In the highest, fullest sense, when Christ died, He "died according to the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3.)
We need not hesitate to regard such fulfillments of prophecy as strong evidence of the Divine authority of God’s Word. The Prophets foretell not only Christ’s death, but the particulars of His death. It is impossible to explain so many accomplishments of predicted circumstances upon any other theory. To talk of luck, chance, and accidental coincidence, as sufficient explanation, is preposterous and absurd. The only rational account is the inspiration of God. The Prophets who foretold the particulars of the crucifixion, were inspired by Him who foresees the end from the beginning; and the books they wrote under His inspiration ought not to be read as human compositions, but Divine. Great indeed are the difficulties of all who pretend to deny the inspiration of the Bible. It really requires more unreasoning faith to be an infidel than to be a Christian. The man who regards the repeated fulfillments of minute prophecies about Christ’s death, such as the prophecies about His dress, His thirst, His pierced side, and His bones, as the result of chance, and not of design, must indeed be a credulous man.
We should mark, secondly, in these verses, the peculiarly solemn saying which came from our Lord’s lips just before He died. John relates that "when He had received the vinegar, He said, it is finished; and He bowed His head and gave up the ghost." It is surely not too much to say, that of all the seven famous sayings of Christ on the cross, none is more remarkable than this, which John alone has recorded.
The precise meaning of this wondrous expression, "It is finished," is a point which the Holy Ghost has not thought good to reveal to us. There is a depth about it, we must all instinctively feel, which man has probably no line to fathom. Yet there is perhaps no irreverence in conjecturing the thoughts that were in our Lord’s mind, when the word was spoken. The finishing of all the known and unknown sufferings which He came to endure, as our Substitute,—the finishing of the ceremonial law, which He came to wind up and fulfill, as the true Sacrifice for sin,—the finishing of the many prophecies, which He came to accomplish,—the finishing of the great work of man’s redemption, which was now close at hand,—all this, we need not doubt, our Lord had in view when He said, "It is finished." There may have been more behind [it(?)], for aught we know. But in handling the language of such a Being as our Savior, on such an occasion, and at so mysterious a crisis of His history, it is well to be cautious. "The place whereon we stand is holy ground."
One comfortable thought, at all events, stands out most clearly on the face of this famous expression. We rest our souls on a "finished work," if we rest them on the work of Jesus Christ the Lord. We need not fear that either sin, or Satan, or law shall condemn us at the last day. We may lean back on the thought, that we have a Savior who has done all, paid all, accomplished all, performed all that is necessary for our salvation. We may take up the challenge of the Apostle, "Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that died: yea, rather that is risen again; who is even at the right hand of God; who also maketh intercession for us." (Romans 8:34.) When we look at our own works, we may well be ashamed of their imperfections. But when we look at the finished work of Christ, we may feel peace. We "are complete in Him," if we believe. (Colossians 2:10.)
We should mark, lastly, in these verses, the reality and truth of Christ’s death. We are told that "one of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side, and forthwith came there out blood and water." This incident, small as it may seem at first sight, supplies probable proof that the heart of our blessed Lord was pierced, and that life was consequently extinct. He did not merely faint, or swoon away, or become insensible, as some have dared to insinuate. His heart actually ceased to beat, and He actually died. Great, indeed, was the importance of this fact. We must all see, on a moment’s reflection, that without a real death there could be no real sacrifice; that without a real death there could be no real resurrection; and that without a real death and real resurrection, the whole of Christianity is a house built on sand, and has no foundation at all. Little indeed did that reckless Roman soldier dream that he was a mighty helper of our holy religion, when he thrust his spear into our Lord’s side.
That the "blood and water" mentioned in this place had a deep spiritual meaning, we can hardly doubt. John himself seems to refer to them in his first Epistle, as highly significant. "This is He that came by water and blood." (1 John 5:6.) The Church in every age has been of one mind in holding that they are emblems of spiritual things. Yet the precise meaning of the blood and water is a subject about which Christians have never agreed, and perhaps will never agree till the Lord returns.
The favorite theory that the blood and water mean the two Sacraments, however plausible and popular, may be reasonably regarded as somewhat destitute of solid foundation. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were ordinances already in existence when our Lord died, and they needed no reappointing. It is surely not necessary to drag in these two blessed Sacraments on every occasion, and to insist on thrusting them forward, as the hidden sense of every disputed text where the number "two" is mentioned. Such pertinacious application of hard places in Scripture to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper does no real good, and brings no real honor to the Sacraments. It is questionable whether it does not tend to vulgarize them, and bring them into contempt.
The true meaning of the blood and water is probably to be sought in the famous prophecy of Zechariah, where he says, "In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and uncleanness." (Zechariah 13:1.) When was that fountain so truly and really opened as in the hour when Christ died? What emblem of atonement and purification was so well known to the Jews as blood and water? Why then should we hesitate to believe that the flow of "blood and water" from our Lord’s side was a significant declaration to the Jewish nation, that the true fountain for sin was at length thrown open, and that henceforth sinners might come boldly to Christ for pardon, and wash and be clean? This interpretation, at any rate, deserves serious thought and consideration.
Whatever view we take of the blood and water, let us make sure that we ourselves are "washed and made white in the blood of the Lamb." (Revelation 7:14.) It will matter nothing at the last day, that we held during life the most exalted view of the sacraments, if we never came to Christ by faith, and never had personal dealings with Him. Faith in Christ is the one thing needful. "He that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life." (1 John 5:12.)
v28.—[After this.] When our Lord had commended His mother, Mary, to John, I believe that the miraculous darkness for three hours came on. During those three hours I believe our Lord said nothing, except "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" As the darkness was passing away, He said, "I thirst." This, and the two last sayings, "It is finished," and "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit," were all that He said during the last three hours. Thus three of His seven sayings on the cross were before the darkness, and four after it, or during it.
The order of the famous seven sayings was as follows:—
1. "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
2. "To day shalt thou be with Me in paradise."
3. "Woman behold thy son. Behold thy mother."
4. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me."
5. "I thirst."
6. "It is finished."
7. "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
[Jesus knowing...accomplished, etc.] In order to understand this verse aright, there is one point concerning our Lord’s death which must be carefully remembered. His death was entirely a voluntary act on His part. In this one respect His death was unlike that of a common man; and we need not wonder at it when we consider that He was God and man in one Person. The final separation between body and soul, in His case, could not take place until He willed it; and all the power of Jews and Romans together could not have effected it against His will. We die because we cannot help it: Christ died because He willed to die, and not until the moment arrived when He saw it best. He said Himself, "No man taketh my life from Me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again." (John 10:18.) As a matter of fact, we know that our Lord was crucified about nine o’clock in the morning, and that He died about three o’clock in the afternoon of the same day. Mere physical suffering would not account for this. A person crucified in full health was known sometimes to linger on alive for three days! It is evident therefore that our Lord willed to give up the ghost in the same day that He was crucified, for some wise reason. This reason, we can easily suppose, was to secure the fullest publicity for His atoning death. He died in broad day-light, in the sight of myriads of spectators; and thus the reality of His death could never be denied. This voluntariness and free choice of His death, and of the hour of His death, in my judgment, lie at the bottom of the verse before us.
Remembering all this, I believe that the sense of the verse before us must be paraphrased in the following way:—"After this, Jesus knowing in His own mind that all things were now practically accomplished, which He came into the world to do, and knowing that it was expedient that His death should be a most public event, in the face of the crowds assembled to view His crucifixion, proceeded to say the last words which He intended to say, before giving up the ghost at three o’clock, and by saying them fulfilled a prophecy of Scripture."—Nothing in the details of our Lord’s death, we must always remember, was accidental or by chance. Every part of the great sacrifice for sin was foreordained and arranged in the eternal counsels of the Trinity, even to the words which He was to speak on the cross.
The expression "I thirst," was chiefly used, I believe, in order to afford a public testimony of the reality and intensity of His bodily sufferings, and to prevent any one supposing, because of His marvellous calmness and patience, that He was miraculously free from suffering. On the contrary, He would have all around Him know that He felt what all severely wounded persons, and especially all crucified persons felt,—a burning and consuming thirst. So that when we read that "He suffered for sins," we are to understand that He really and truly suffered.
Henry observes, "The torments of hell are represented by a violent thirst, in the complaint of the rich man who begged for a drop of water to cool his tongue. To that everlasting thirst we had all been condemned, if Christ had not suffered on the cross, and said, ’I thirst.’"
Scott observes that Christ suffered thirst, in order that we might drink the water of life for ever, and thirst no more.
Quesnel remarks, "The tongue of Jesus Christ underwent its own particular torment, in order to atone for the ill-use which men make of their tongues by blasphemy, evil-speaking, vanity, lying, gluttony, and drunkenness."
The theory that Christ only said "I thirst," in order to fulfil Scripture, is to my mind unsatisfactory and unreasonable. His saying "I thirst," was a fulfilment of Scripture, but He did not merely say it in order to fulfil Scripture. John, according to his style of writing, only meant that by His saying "I thirst," and having His thirst relieved by vinegar, the words of Psalms 69:21, were fulfilled.
The Greek word which is rendered "accomplished," is the same that is rendered "finished" in John 19:30. This difference, within two verses, in translating the same word, is one of those blemishes in our authorized version which must be regretted.
The connection of the sentence, "that the Scripture might be fulfilled," is not very clear to my mind. Is it to be taken with the words that follow in the verse, or with those that immediately precede it?—The common view taken, undoubtedly, is to connect the sentence with "I thirst." The sense will then be, "Jesus saith, I thirst, so that by this the Scripture was fulfilled." But is it necessary to make this connection? Might not the sentence be connected with the one which precedes? The sense will then be, "Jesus knowing that all things were now accomplished, so that the Scripture was fulfilled concerning Himself, said, I thirst." In three other places in John where the sentence occurs, "that the Scripture might be fulfilled," the connection is with what goes before, and not with what follows. (John 17:12; John 19:24-36.) Semler and Tholuck incline to take this view. But I admit that the matter is doubtful, and it certainly is not one of vital importance. One thing only we must remember. Our Lord did not say, "I thirst," for no other purpose than to fulfil the Scriptures. He spoke with far deeper and stronger reasons, and yet by His speaking and afterwards drinking vinegar, a passage in the prophetical Psalms was fulfilled.
v29.—[Now there was set...vessel....vinegar.] This would be more literally rendered "there was lying" a vessel. In all probability this was a vessel full of the sour wine in common use among the Roman soldiers.
[And they filled a sponge, etc.] The persons here spoken of seem to be the Roman soldiers who carried out the details of the crucifixion. The vinegar was theirs, and it is not likely that any one would have dared to interfere with the criminal hanging on the cross, except the soldiers. The act recorded here must be carefully distinguished from that recorded in Matthew 27:34, and is the same as that recorded in Matthew 27:48. The first drink of vinegar and gall, commonly given to criminals to deaden their pains, our Lord refused. The second, here mentioned, was given, I believe, notwithstanding what some writers say, in kindness and compassion, and our Lord did not refuse to accept it. A sponge filled with vinegar and put on the end of a stick, was far the easiest and most convenient way of giving drink to one whose head was at least seven or eight feet from the ground, and whose hands, being nailed to the cross, were of course unable to take any cup, and put it to his mouth. From a sponge full of liquid, pressed against the lips, a crucified person might suck some moisture, and receive some benefit.
What this "hyssop" here mentioned was, is a point by no means clearly ascertained. Casaubon speaks of the question as a proverbial difficulty. Some think that it was a branch of the plant hyssop fastened to the end of a reed. This seems very improbable, because of the "sponge." Dr. Forbes Royle maintains that it was the caper plant, which bears a stick about three or four feet long. Hengstenberg gives evidence from Talmudic writers that the hyssop was among the branches used at the feast of tabernacles, and that its stalk was an ell long. Like many other questions of Bible natural history, the point must probably be left obscure. Some see deep meaning in the mention of hyssop, as the plant used in the ceremonial sprinklings of the law of Moses. (See Hebrews 9:19.) Hyssop, moreover, was used at the passover in sprinkling the door posts with blood. (Exodus 12:22.) Yet the allusion, to say the least, seems doubtful, nor is it quite clear how any typical meaning can be got out of the mention of the plant in this place.
It is very noteworthy that even in the roughest, hardest kind of men, like these heathen soldiers, there is sometimes a tender and compassionate spot in the breast. According to Matthew’s account the cry, "I thirst," must have followed soon after the cry, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken Me." This exhibition of great mental and bodily agony combined, in my opinion, touched the feelings of the soldiers, and one of them at least ran to give our Lord vinegar. We should remember this in dealing with men. Even the worst have often a soft place, if we can find it out, in their inward nature.
Cyril maintains strongly, I must admit, that the act of the soldiers in giving our Lord the sponge full of vinegar, was not an act of kindness, but of mockery and insult. I cannot however, agree with him. He does not appear to distinguish between the first drink which our Lord refused at the beginning of His crucifixion, and the last which He accepted; but speaks of them as one and the same. Theophylact agrees with Cyril.
v30.—[When Jesus therefore...finished.] Our Lord having now given plain proof that He had endured intense bodily suffering, and that like any other human sufferer He could appreciate a slight relief of thirst, such as the vinegar afforded, proceeded to utter one of His last and most solemn sayings: "It is finished."
This remarkable expression, in the Greek, is one single word in a perfect tense, "It has been completed." It stands here in majestic simplicity, without note or comment from John, and we are left entirely to conjecture what the full meaning of it is. For eighteen hundred years Christians have explained it as they best can, and some portion of its meaning in all likelihood has been discovered. Yet it is far from unlikely that such a word, spoken on such an occasion, by such a person, at such a moment, just before death, contains depths which no one has ever completely fathomed. Some meanings there are, which no one perhaps will dispute, belonging to this grand expression, which I will briefly mention. No one single meaning, we may be sure, exhausts the whole phrase. It is rich, full, and replete with deep truths.
(a) Our Lord meant that His great work of redemption was finished. He had, as Daniel foretold, "finished transgression, made an end of sin, made reconciliation for iniquity, and brought in everlasting righteousness." (Daniel 9:24.) After thirty-three years, since the day when He was born in Bethlehem, He had done all, paid all, performed all, suffered all that was needful to save sinners, and satisfy the justice of God. He had fought the battle and won it, and in two days would give proof of it by rising again.
(b) Our Lord meant that God’s determinate counsel and forewill concerning His death was now accomplished and finished. All that had been appointed from all eternity that He should suffer, He had now suffered.
(c) Our Lord meant that He had finished the work of keeping God’s holy law. He had kept it to the uttermost, as our Head and representative, and Satan had found nothing in Him. He had magnified the law and made it honourable, by doing perfectly all its requirements. "Woe unto us," says Burkitt, "if Christ had left but one farthing of our debt unpaid. We must have lain in hell insolvent to all eternity."
(d) Our Lord meant that He had finished the types and figures of the ceremonial law. He had at length offered up the perfect sacrifice, of which every Mosaic sacrifice was a type and symbol, and there remained no more need of offerings for sin. The old covenant was finished.
(e) Our Lord meant that He had finished and fulfilled the prophesies of the Old Testament. At length, as the Seed of the woman, he had bruised the serpent’s head, and accomplished the work which Messiah was engaged by covenant to come and perform.
(f) Finally, our Lord meant that His sufferings were finished. Like His Apostle, He had "finished His course." His long life of pain and contradiction from sinners, and above all His intense sufferings, as bearer of our sins on Gethsemane and Calvary, were at last at an end. The storm was over, and the worst was passed. The cup of suffering was at last drained to the very dregs.
Thoughts such as these come to my own mind, when I read the solemn phrase, "It is finished." But I am far from saying that the phrase does not contain a great deal more. In interpreting such a saying, I am deeply conscious that there is an inexhaustible fulness in our Lord’s words. I am sure we are more likely to make too little of them than to make too much.
Luther remarks, "In this word, ’It is finished,’ will I comfort myself. I am forced to confess that all my finishing of the will of God is imperfect, piecemeal work, while yet the law urges on me that not so much as one tittle of it must remain unaccomplished. Christ is the end of the law. What it requires, Christ has performed."
To the objection of some persons, that all things were not completely finished and accomplished, until Jesus rose again and ascended into heaven, Calvin replies that Jesus knew that all things were now practically accomplished, and that nothing now remained to hinder His finishing the work He came to do.
[And He bowed His head.] This is the action of one dying. When the will ceases to exercise power over muscles and nerves, at once those parts of the body which are not rigid like the bones, collapse and fall in any direction to which their centre of gravity inclines them. The head of a crucified person would naturally in death droop forward on the breast, the neck being no longer kept stiff by the will. This is what seems to have happened in the case of our Lord.
May we not gather from this expression, that our Lord up to this moment held up His head erect, firm, steady, and unmoved, even under extreme pain?
Alford remarks how this little incident was evidently recorded by an eye-witness. The miraculous darkness must have now passed away, in order to let this movement of the head be seen.
[And gave up the ghost.] These words mean, literally, "delivered up the spirit." It is an expression never used of any dying person in the Bible except our Lord. It is an expression denoting voluntary action. He delivered up His spirit of His own free will, because the hour was come when He chose to do it. He had just said, after using the phrase "It is finished,"—"Father into Thy hands I commend my spirit,"—and then He proceeded to deliver up His spirit into the hands of God the Father. It is the Father, and none else, to whom the words, "He delivered up," must apply.
Augustine observes, "Not against His will did the Saviour’s spirit leave His flesh, but because He would, and when He would, and how He would. Who is there that can even go to sleep when he will, as Jesus died when He would? Who thus puts off his clothes when he will, as Jesus unclothed Himself of His flesh when He would? Who goes thus out of his door when he will, as Jesus, when He would, went out of the world?"
In death, as well as in life, our Lord has left us an example. Of course we cannot, like Him, choose the moment of our death, and in this, as in everything else, we must be content to follow Him at an enormous distance. The best of saints is a miserable copy of his Master. Nevertheless, we too, as Cyril observes, must endeavour to put our souls into God’s hands, if God is really our Father, when the last hour of our lives comes; and like Jesus, to place them by faith in our Father’s keeping, and trust our Father to take care of them.
Above all, let us never forget, as we read of Christ’s death, that He died for our sins, as our Substitute. His death is our life. He died that we might live. We who believe on Christ shall live for evermore, sinners as we are, because Christ died for us, the innocent for the guilty. Satan cannot drag us away to everlasting death in hell. The second death cannot harm us. We may safely say,—"Who can condemn me, or slay my soul? I know well that I deserve death, and that I ought to die, because of my sins. But then my blessed Head and Substitute died for me, and when He died, I, His poor weak member, was reckoned to die also. Get thee behind me, Satan, for Christ was crucified and died. My debt is paid, and thou canst not demand it twice over."—For ever let us bless God that Christ "gave up the ghost," and really died upon the cross, before myriads of witnesses. That "giving up the ghost" was the hinge on which all our salvation turned. In vain Christ’s life and miracles and preaching, if Christ had not at last died for us! We needed not merely a teacher, but an atonement, and the death of a Substitute. The mightiest transaction that ever took place on earth since the fall of man, was accomplished when Jesus "gave up the ghost." The careless crowd around the cross saw nothing but the common death of a common criminal. But in the eyes of God the Father the promised payment for a world’s sin was at last effected, and the kingdom of heaven was thrown wide open to all believers. The finest pictures of the crucifixion that artists have ever painted, give a miserably insufficient idea of what took place when Jesus "gave up the ghost." They can show a suffering man on a cross, but they cannot convey the least notion of what was really going on,—the satisfaction of God’s broken law, the payment of sinners’ debt to God, and the complete atonement for a world’s sin.
The precise physical cause of the death of Christ is a very interesting subject, which must be reverently approached, but deserves attention. Dr. Stroud, in his book on the subject, takes a view which is supported by the opinions of three eminent Edinburgh physicians, the late Sir James Simpson, Dr. Begbie, and Dr. Struthers. This view is that the immediate cause of our Lord’s decease was rupture of the heart. Dr. Simpson argues that all the circumstances of our Lord’s death,—His crying with a loud voice just before death, not like an exhausted person, and His sudden giving up the ghost,—confirm this view very strongly. He also says that "strong mental emotions, produce sometimes laceration or rupture of the walls of the heart;" and he adds, "If ever a human heart was riven and ruptured by the mere amount of mental agony endured, it would surely be that of our Redeemer." Above all, he argues that the rupture of the heart would go far to account for the flow of blood and water from our Lord’s side, when pierced with a spear. Dr. Simpson’s very interesting letter on the subject, will be found in the appendix to "Hanna’s Last Days of our Lord’s Passion."
Concerning the deep question as to what became of our Lord’s soul when He gave up the ghost, it must suffice to believe that His soul went to paradise, the place of the departed spirits of believers. He said to the penitent thief, "To-day shalt thou be with Me in paradise." (Luke 23:43.) This is the true meaning of the article, "descended into hell," in the Belief. "Hell" in that clause certainly does not mean the place of punishment, but the separate state or place of departed spirits.
Some theologians hold that, between His death and resurrection "He went and preached to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:19); and proclaimed the accomplishment of His work of atonement. This, to say the least, is doubtful. But Athanasius, Ambrose, Zwingle, Calvin, Erasmus, Calovius, and Alford hold the view.
Concerning the miraculous signs which accompanied our Lord’s death,—the darkness from twelve o’clock to three, the earthquake, the rending of the temple veil,—John is silent, and doubtless for some wise reason. But we may well believe that they struck myriads with awe and astonishment, and perhaps smoothed the way for our Lord’s burial in Joseph’s tomb, without opposition or objection.
v31.—[The Jews therefore, because it was, etc.] The "Jews" in this verse, as in many other places in John’s Gospel, can only mean the chief priests and leaders of the nation at Jerusalem; the same men who had pressed on Pilate our Lord’s crucifixion,—Annas, Caiaphas, and their companions.
The "preparation" means the day preceding the passover sabbath. That sabbath being pre-eminently a "high day," or, to render the Greek literally, a "great" day in the year, the Friday, or day preceding it, was devoted to special preparations. Hence the day went by the name of "the preparation of the sabbath." The expression makes it certain that Jesus was crucified on a Friday. The Jews saw clearly that, unless they took active measures to prevent it, the body of our Lord would remain all night hanging on the tree of the cross, the law would be broken (Deuteronomy 21:23), and a dead body would hang throughout the sabbath in full view of the temple, and close by the city walls. Therefore they made haste to have Him taken down from the cross and buried.
The "breaking of the legs" of crucified criminals, in order to despatch them, seems to have been a common accompaniment of this barbarous mode of execution, when it was necessary to make an end of them, and get them out of the way. In asking Pilate to allow this breaking of legs, they did nothing but what was usual. But for anything we can see, the thing would not have been done if the Jews had not asked.—The verse supplies a wonderful example of the way in which God can make the wickedest men unconsciously carry out His purposes, and promote His glory. If the Jews had not interfered this Friday afternoon, for anything we can see, Pilate would have allowed our Lord’s body to hang upon the cross till Sunday or Monday, and perhaps to see corruption. The Jews procured our Lord’s burial the very day that He died, and thus secured the fulfilment of His famous prophecy: "Destroy this temple of my body, and in three days I will raise it up." (John 2:19.) If He had not been buried till Sunday or Monday, He could not have risen again the third day after His death. As it was, the Jews managed things so that our Lord was laid in the grave before the evening of Friday, and was thus enabled to fulfil the famous type of Jonah, and give the sign He had promised to give of His Messiahship, by lying three days in the earth, and then rising again the third day after He died. All this could not have happened if the Jews had not interfered, and got Him taken from the cross and buried on Friday afternoon!—How true it is that the wickedest enemies of God are only axes and saws and hammers in His hands, and are ignorantly His instruments for doing His work in the world. The restless, busy, meddling of Caiaphas and his companions, was actually one of the causes that Christ rose the third day after death, and His Messiahship was proved. Pilate was their tool: but they were God’s tools! The Romans, in all probability, would have left our Lord’s body hanging on the cross till sun and rain had putrefied and consumed it, had such a thing been possible. Bishop Pearson says it was a common rule of Roman law not to permit sepulture to the body of a crucified person. The burial, therefore, was entirely owing to the request of the Jews. The providence of God ordered things so that they who interceded for His crucifixion interceded for His burial. And by so doing they actually paved the way for the crowning miracle of His resurrection!
Let us mark the miserable scrupulosity that is sometimes compatible with the utmost deadness of conscience. Thus we see men making ado about a dead body remaining on the cross on the Sabbath, at the very time when they had just murdered an innocent living person with the most flagrant injustice and monstrous cruelty. It is a specimen of "straining out a gnat, and swallowing a camel."
v32.—[Then came the soldiers, etc.] Pilate having given his consent to the request of the Jews, the Roman soldiers proceeded to break the legs of the criminals, and began with the two thieves. Why they began with them is by no means clear. If the three crosses were all in a row, it is hard to see why the two outer criminals of the three should have their legs broken first, and the one in the centre be left to the last. We must suppose one of three things in order to explain this.
(a) Possibly two of the soldiers broke the legs of one malefactor, and the other two the legs of the other. Reason and common-sense point out that it does not require four men to do this horrid work on a helpless, unresisting, crucified person. Thus, having finished their work at the two outward crosses, they would come last to the centre one.
(b) Possibly the two outward crosses may have been rather forwarder in position than the central one, so that the sufferers might see each others’ faces. In that case the soldiers would naturally begin with the crosses they came to first. This, perhaps, would account for the penitent thief having read the word "King" over our Lord’s head on the cross.
(c) Possibly the soldiers saw that our Lord was dead, even before they came up to Him. At any rate they probably saw that He was still and motionless, and thus suspecting that He was dead, they did not trouble themselves with His body, but began with the two who evidently were yet alive.
It is noteworthy that the penitent thief, even after his conversion, had more suffering to go through before He entered paradise. The grace of God and the pardon of sin did not deliver him from the agony of having his legs broken. When Christ undertakes to save our souls, He does not undertake to deliver us from bodily pains and a conflict with the last enemy. Penitents, as well as impenitents, must taste death and all its accompaniments. Conversion is not heaven, though it leads to it.
Scott remarks that those who broke the legs of the penitent thief, and hastened his end, were unconscious instruments of fulfilling our Lord’s promise, "To-day shalt thou be with me in Paradise."
How the legs of crucified criminals were broken we do not know; but it was probably done in the roughest manner. With such tools at hand as the hammers used for driving in the nails, and the mattocks and spades used for putting the cross in the ground, the soldiers could hardly want instruments. It must be remembered that a simple fracture would not cause death. The Greek word which we render "break," means, literally, "shiver to pieces." May it not be feared that this is the true meaning here?
v33.—[But when they came to Jesus, etc.] This verse contains the first proof of the mighty fact that our Lord really died. We are told that the soldiers did not break His legs, because they "saw that He was dead already." Accustomed as Roman soldiers necessarily were to see death in every form, wounds of every kind, and dead bodies of every description, and trained to take away human life by their profession, they were of all men least likely to make a mistake about such a matter. Thus we have it most expressly recorded, that the soldiers "saw that He was dead already," and therefore did not break His legs. Our salvation hinges so entirely on Jesus Christ’s vicarious death, that a moment’s reflection will show us the divine wisdom of the fact being thoroughly proved. His unbelieving enemies could never say that He did not really die, and that He was only in a swoon, or fainting-fit, or state of insensibility. The Roman soldiers are witnesses that on the centre cross of the three they saw a dead man.
v34.—[But one...spear...pierced His side.] Here we have the second proof that our Lord did really die. One of the soldiers, determined to make sure work and to leave nothing uncertain, thrust his spear into our Lord’s side, in all probability directing his thrust at the heart, as the seat of vitality. That thrust made it certain, if there had been any doubt before, that the body on the central cross was actually dead. They believed it from appearance, and perhaps from touch, when they first came up to the cross. They made it quite certain by the thrust of the spear. The body of a person in a swoon would have given some sign of life, when pierced with a spear.
The gross inaccuracy of those pictures which represent this soldier as a horseman, is worth noticing. Our Lord’s body was easily within reach of the thrust of a spear in the hands of a foot soldier. There is no evidence whatever that any Roman cavalry were near the cross!
The theory of Bishop Pearson, that this soldier pierced our Lord’s side in anger and impatience, as if provoked to find Him dead, does not appear to me well-founded. It is not likely that the soldiers would be angry at finding a state of things which saved them trouble. To me it seems far more likely that the thrust was the hasty, careless act of a rough soldier, accustomed to prove in this way whether a body was alive or dead. I have heard it said by an eye-witness, that some of the Cossacks who followed our retreating cavalry, after the famous Balaclava charge, in the Crimean war, were seen to prick the bodies of fallen soldiers with their spears, in order to see whether they were dead or alive.
Theophylact suggests that this soldier thrust the spear into our Lord’s side in order to gratify the wicked Jews who stood by.
Besser remarks, most sensibly, "Even the soldier’s spear was guided by the Father’s hand."
[And forthwith...blood and water.] The remarkable fact here recorded has given rise to considerable difference of opinion.
(a) Some, as Grotius, Calvin, Beza, and others, hold that this issue of blood and water was a proof that the heart or pericardium was pierced, and death in consequence quite certain. They say that the same result would follow from a thrust into the side of any person lately dead, and that blood and water, or something closely resembling it, would immediately flow out. They maintain, therefore, that there was nothing supernatural in the circumstance recorded.
(b) Others, as most of the Fathers, Brentius, Musculus, Calovius, Lampe, Lightfoot, Rollock, Jansenius, Bengel, Horsley, and Hengstenberg, hold that this issue of blood and water was supernatural, extraordinary, unusual, and contrary to all experience; and they maintain that it was a special miracle.
The question is one of those which will probably never be settled. We are not in possession of sufficiently precise information to justify a very positive opinion. We do not know for a certainty that the left side of our Lord was pierced and not the right. We do not know exactly how much blood and water flowed out, whether a large quantity or a very little. That a miracle might take place at such a death, on such an occasion, and in the body of such a Person, we have no right to deny. The mere facts that, when our Lord hung on the cross, the sun was darkened, and, when He gave up the ghost, the veil of the temple was rent in twain, and the rocks rent, and the earth quaked, might well prepare our minds to see nothing extraordinary in a miracle taking place, and almost to expect it. Perhaps the safest line to adopt is to combine both views. The thrust of the spear into the side caused blood to flow, and proved that the seat of vitality in the body was pierced. The extraordinary and unusual flow of blood and water was a supernatural event, and meant to teach spiritual lessons.
I may be allowed to say that three eminent medical men in large practice, whom I have ventured to consult on this verse, are all of one mind,—that any large flow of blood and water from a dead body is contrary to all ordinary experience. Each of them, singularly enough, has expressed this opinion independently, and without any communication with the other two.
Concerning the symbolical meaning of this flow of "blood and water" from our Lord’s side much has been written in every age of the Church. That it had a deep spiritual sense appears almost certain from John’s words in his first Epistle. (1 John 5:6-8.) But what the real symbolical meaning was, is a very disputable question.
(a) The common opinion is, that the blood and water symbolized the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, both given by Christ and emanating from Him, and both symbols of atonement, cleansing, and forgiveness. This is the view of Chrysostom, Augustine, Andrews, and a large body of divines, both ancient and modern. I cannot myself receive this opinion. In matters like this I dare not call any man master, or endorse an interpretation of Scripture, when I do not feel convinced that it is true. I cannot see the necessity of dragging in the sacraments at every point in the exposition of God’s Word, as some do.
(b) My own opinion is most decided, that the flow of blood and water, whether supernatural or not, was meant to be a symbolical fulfilment of the famous prophecy in Zechariah: "In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness." (Zechariah 13:1.) It was a practical declaration, by fact and deed, to all Jews, that by Christ’s death that famous prophecy was fulfilled, and that now at last there was a fountain opened for sinners, and a way of atonement and forgiveness made plain by Christ’s death. The moment He was dead this fountain was opened and began to flow. Over the bleeding side of our Lord there might have been written, "Behold the fountain for all sin." It is no small evidence to my mind, in favour of this view, that this famous prophecy occurs only five verses after the text immediately quoted by John in this very chapter, "they shall look on Him whom they pierced." (Zechariah 12:10.)
Augustine sees a type of this wound in our Lord’s side, from which flowed blood and water, in the door in the side of Noah’s ark, by which the living creatures entered in and were preserved from drowning! He also sees another type of the transaction in the first Adam sleeping and Eve being formed out of his side!
The opinion held by some, that this "blood and water" warrant the mixture of water and wine in the Lord’s Supper, seems to me utterly untenable. As Musculus sensibly observes, it was not "wine and water," but "blood and water" that flowed from our Lord’s side. There is not the slightest evidence that our Lord used water at the institution of the Lord’s Supper.
That "blood" was the symbol of atonement, and "water" of cleansing, every careful reader of the Old Testament must know. The two things are brought together by Paul in Hebrews 9:19. The smiting of the rock by Moses, and water flowing forth, was also typical of the event before us. Lightfoot mentions a Jewish tradition that blood and water flowed from the rock at first.
Henry says, "The blood and water signified the two great benefits which all believers partake of through Christ,—justification and sanctification. Blood stands for remission, water for regeneration; blood for atonement, water for purification. The two must always go together. Christ hath joined them together, and we must not think to put them asunder. They both flowed from the pierced side of our Redeemer."
v35.—[And he that saw it bare record, etc.] This singular verse, by common consent, can only refer to John. It is as though he said, "The fact that I now testify to I saw with my own eyes; and my testimony is true, and accurate, and trustworthy, and I know that I say true things in recording the fact, so that you to whom I write need not hesitate to believe me. I stood by. I saw it. I was an eye-witness, and I do not write by hear-say."
The Greek word rendered "true" in the second place in this verse, means, literally, "true things."
The question arises naturally, To what does John refer in this peculiar verse? (a) Does he refer only to the issue of blood and water from our Lord’s side, as a singularly miraculous event? (b) Or does he refer to the thrust of the spear into our Lord’s side, as a convincing proof that our Lord really died? (c) Or does he refer to the fact that our Lord’s legs were not broken, and that he thus saw the great type of the passover-lamb fulfilled?
I decidedly lean to the opinion that the verse refers to all the three things I have mentioned together, and not to any one of them only. All three things were so remarkable, and so calculated to strike the mind of a pious and intelligent Jew, and all happened in such close and rapid succession, that John emphatically records that he saw all the three with his own eyes. He seems to say, "I saw myself that not a bone of the Lamb of God was broken, so that He fulfilled the type of the passover. I saw myself a spear thrust into His heart, so that He was a true Sacrifice, and really died. And I saw myself that blood and water came out of His side, and I beheld a fulfilment of the old prophecy of a fountain for sin being opened." When we consider the immense importance and significance of all these three things, we need not wonder that John should have been inspired to write this verse, in which he emphatically tells his readers that he is writing down nothing but the plain naked truth, and that he actually saw these three things,—the unbroken legs, the pierced side, the flow of blood and water,—with his own eyes.
Pearce and Alford think that the expression "that ye might believe," signifies that ye might believe that Jesus did really die on the cross. Others decidedly prefer thinking that it means, "that ye may believe that blood and water did really flow from the side of Jesus after His death." Others take the phrase in a general sense, "that ye may believe more firmly than ever on Christ, as the true sacrifice for sin."
v36, v37.—[For these things were done, etc.] In these two verses John explains distinctly to his readers why two of the facts he has just mentioned, however trifling they might seem to an ignorant person, were in reality of great importance. By one of these facts,—the not breaking a bone of our Lord’s body,—the text was fulfilled which said that not a bone of the passover-lamb should be broken. (Exodus 12:46.) By the other fact,—the piercing of our Lord’s side,—the prophecy of Zechariah was fulfilled, that the inhabitants of Jerusalem "should look on Him whom they pierced." (Zechariah 12:10.)
Alford observes that the expression, "they shall look," does not refer to the Roman soldiers, but to the repentant in the world, who at the time this Gospel was written had began to fulfil this prophecy; and that it also contains a prophetic reference to the future conversion of Israel, who were here the real piercers, though the act was done by the hand of others."
It is almost needless to say that the passage, like many others, does not mean that these things were done in order that Scripture might be fulfilled, but that by these things being done the Scripture was fulfilled, and God’s perfect foreknowledge about the least details of Christ’s death was proved. Nothing in the great sacrifice happened by chance, luck, or accident. All was arranged as appointed, from first to last, many centuries before, by the determinate counsel of God. Caiaphas, Pilate, the Roman soldiers, were all unconscious instruments in carrying into effect what God had long predicted and foretold to the least jot and tittle.
Let us carefully note here what strong evidence these verses supply in favour of a literal, and not a merely spiritual, fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies.
Rollock observes, "If God have ordained and said anything, it lies not in the hands of any man to disannul it. If God shall say, "There shall not be one bone of my anointed broken," great Cæsar and all the kings of the earth, the King of Spain, and the Pope, and all their adherents, shall not be able to do the contrary. So, in the midst of all fear and danger, let us depend on the providence of God."
There is a peculiar interest attached to these five verses of Scripture. They introduce us to a stranger, of whom we never heard before. They bring in an old friend, whose name is known wherever the Bible is read. They describe the most important funeral that ever took place in this world. From each of these three points of interest we may learn a very profitable lesson.
We learn, for one thing, from these verses, that there are some true Christians in the world of whom very little is known. The case of Joseph of Arimathæa teaches this very plainly. Here is a man named among the friends of Christ, whose very name we never find elsewhere in the New Testament, and whose history, both before and after this crisis, is completely withheld from the Church. He comes forward to do honor to Christ, when the Apostles had forsaken Him and fled. He cares for Him and delights to do Him service, even when dead,—not because of any miracle which he saw Him do, but out of free and gratuitous love. He does not hesitate to confess himself one of Christ’s friends, at a time when Jews and Romans alike had condemned Him as a malefactor, and put Him to death. Surely the man who could do such things must have had strong faith! Can we wonder that, wherever the Gospel is preached, throughout the whole world, this pious action of Joseph is told of as a memorial of him?
Let us hope and believe that there are many Christians in every age, who, like Joseph, are the Lord’s hidden servants, unknown to the Church and the world, but well known to God. Even in Elijah’s time there were seven thousand in Israel who had never bowed the knee to Baal, although the desponding prophet knew nothing of it. Perhaps, at this very day, there are saints in the back streets of some of our great towns, or in the lanes of some of our country parishes, who make no noise in the world, and yet love Christ and are loved by Him. Ill-health, or poverty, or the daily cares of some laborious calling, render it impossible for them to come forward in public; and so they live and die comparatively unknown. Yet the last day may show an astonished world that some of these very people, like Joseph, honored Christ as much as any on earth, and that their names were written in heaven. After all, it is special circumstances that bring to the surface special Christians. It is not them that make the greatest show in the Church, who are always found the fastest friends of Christ.
We learn, for another thing, from these verses, that there are some servants of Christ whose latter end is better than their beginning. The case of Nicodemus teaches that lesson very plainly. The only man who dared to help Joseph in his holy work of burying our Lord, was one who at first "came to Jesus by night," and was nothing better than an ignorant inquirer after truth. At a later period in our Lord’s ministry we find this same Nicodemus coming forward with somewhat more boldness, and raising in the Council of the Pharisees the question, "Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?" (John 7:57.) Finally, we see him in the passage before us, ministering to our Lord’s dead body, and not ashamed to take an active part in giving to the despised Nazarene an honorable burial. How great the contrast between the man who timidly crept into the Lord’s lodging to ask a question, and the man who brought a hundred pounds weight of myrrh and aloes to anoint His dead body! Yet it was the same Nicodemus. How great may be a man’s growth in grace, and faith, and knowledge, and courage, in the short space of three years.
We shall do well to store up these things in our minds, and to remember the case of Nicodemus, in forming our estimate of other people’s religion. We must not condemn others as graceless and godless, because they do not see the whole truth at once, and only reach decided Christianity by slow degrees. The Holy Ghost always leads believers to the same foundation truths, and into the same highway to heaven. In these there is invariable uniformity. But the Holy Ghost does not always lead believers through the same experience, or at the same rate of speed. In this there is much diversity in His operations.
He that says conversion is a needless thing, and that an unconverted man may be saved, is undoubtedly under a strange delusion. But he that says that no one is converted except he becomes a full-blown and established Christian in a single day, is no less under a delusion. Let us not judge others rashly and hastily. Let us believe that a man’s beginnings in religion may be very small, and yet his latter end may greatly increase. Has a man real grace? Has he within him the genuine work of the Spirit? This is the grand question. If he has, we may safely hope that his grace will grow, and we should deal with him gently, and bear with him charitably, though at present he may be a mere babe in spiritual attainments. The life in a helpless infant is as real and true a thing as the life in a full-grown man: the difference is only one of degree. "Who hath despised the day of small things?" (Zechariah 4:10.) The very Christian who begins his religion with a timid night-visit, and an ignorant inquiry, may stand forward alone one day, and confess Christ boldly in the full light of the sun.
We learn, lastly, from these verses, that the burial of the dead is an act which God sanctions and approves. We need not doubt that this is part of the lesson which the passage before us was meant to convey to our minds. Of course, it supplies unanswerable evidence that our Lord really died, and afterwards really rose again; but it also teaches that, when the body of a Christian is dead, there is fitness in burying it with decent honor. It is not for nothing that the burials of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph, and Moses are carefully recorded in holy writ. It is not for nothing that we are told that John the Baptist was laid in a tomb; and that "devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him." (Acts 8:2.) It is not for nothing that we are told so particularly about the burial of Christ.
The true Christian need never be ashamed of regarding a funeral with peculiar reverence and solemnity. It is the body, which may be the instrument of committing the greatest sins, or of bringing the greatest glory to God. It is the body, which the eternal Son of God honored by dwelling in it for thirty and three years, and finally dying in our stead. It is the body, with which He rose again and ascended up into heaven. It is the body, in which He sits at the right hand of God, and represents us before the Father, as our Advocate and Priest. It is the body, which is now the temple of the Holy Ghost, while the believer lives. It is the body, which will rise again, when the last trumpet sounds, and, reunited to the soul, will live in heaven to all eternity. Surely, in the face of such facts as these, we never need suppose that reverence bestowed on the burial of the body is reverence thrown away.
Let us leave the subject with one word of caution. Let us take care that we do not regard a sumptuous funeral as an atonement for a life wasted in carelessness and sin. We may bury a man in the most expensive style, and spend hundreds of pounds in mourning. We may place over his grave a costly marble stone, and inscribe on it a flattering epitaph. But all this will not save our souls or his. The turning point at the last day will not be how we are buried, but whether we were "buried with Christ," and repented and believed. (Romans 6:4.) Better a thousand times to die the death of the righteous, have a lowly grave and a pauper’s funeral, than to die graceless, and lie under a marble tomb!
v38.—[And after this Joseph of Arimathæa.] This verse begins John’s account of our Lord’s burial. The manner of that burial was one of the things predicted by Isaiah (Isaiah 53:9), in a verse which is not correctly translated. It should be, "His grave was appointed with the wicked: but with the rich man was His tomb." The details of His burial are carefully recorded by all the four Evangelists. Each of them names Joseph as the prime agent in the transaction, and, singularly enough, each mentions something that the other three Gospel-writers do not mention. Matthew alone says that he was "a rich man." (Matthew 27:51.) Mark alone says that he was "an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God." (Mark 15:43.) Luke alone says that he was "a good man and a just," who had "not consented to the counsel and deed of them, . . . who himself waited for the kingdom of God." (Luke 23:50-51.) John alone says here, that he was "a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews." It is another singular fact about Joseph, that we never hear a word about him in Scripture, except on this occasion of our Lord’s burial. Both before and after this interesting event, the Bible, for some wise reason, is entirely silent about him. Nor can we explain how an inhabitant of Arimathæa happened to have a new tomb at Jerusalem. We must either suppose that, as a rich man, he had two residences, or else that, though born at Arimathæa, he had lately removed to Jerusalem. The utmost we know is that the article in the Greek before "Joseph," and before "of Arimathæa," seems to indicate that he was a person well known by history to the readers of John’s Gospel.
About the place whence Joseph came, "Arimathæa," nothing certain is known. Some think that it is Ramah, where Samuel dwelt. (1 Samuel 7:17.) The Septuagint Greek translator certainly calls Ramah "Armathaim," which looks like it. Luke calls it a "city of Judæa." Nothing certain seems to be known about it.
[Being a disciple...secretly...Jews.] The Greek word rendered "secretly," is literally "a concealed" disciple,—a past participle. The expression teaches the interesting fact that there were Jews who secretly believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and yet had not courage to confess Him before His crucifixion. We are distinctly told in John 12:42, that "many of the chief rulers believed, but did not confess Christ, because of the Pharisees." But the character given of them, that "they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God," is so condemnatory, that we may well doubt whether Joseph was one of these. Want of physical or moral courage was probably the flaw in his character. It is only fair to remember that, as "a rich man and a counsellor," he had far more to sacrifice, and far more opposition to encounter, than poor fishermen or publicans would have. His backwardness to confess Christ cannot of course be defended. But his case teaches us that there is sometimes more spiritual work going on in men’s minds than appears. We must not set down every one as utterly graceless and godless, who is not bold and outspoken at present. We must charitably hope that there are some secret disciples, who at present hold their tongues and say nothing, and yet, like Joseph, will one day come forward, and be courageous witnesses for Christ. All is not gold that glitters, and all is not dross that now looks dirty and makes no show. We must be charitable and hope on.—His case should also teach us the great power of that mischievous principle, the fear of man. Open sin kills its thousands, but the fear of man its tens of thousands. Let us watch and pray against it. Faith is the grand secret of victory over it. Like Moses, we must ever live as those who "see Him that is invisible." (Hebrews 11:27.) And to faith must be added the expulsive power of a new principle,—the fear of God. "I fear God," said holy Col. Gardiner, "and there is none else that I need fear."
[Besought Pilate...take...body...Jesus.] The conduct of Joseph deserves our praise and admiration, and his name will be held in honour by the Church of Christ, in consequence of it, as long as the world stands. Whatever Joseph was at first, he shone brightly at last. "The last are first" sometimes. Let us see what he did.
(a) Joseph honoured Christ, when our Lord’s own apostles had forsaken Him. He showed more faith and courage than His nearest and dearest friends.
(b) Joseph honoured Christ, when it was a dangerous thing to do Him honour. To come forward and avow respect for one condemned as a malefactor, for one cast out by the High Priests and leaders of the Jews,—to say practically, "I am Christ’s friend," was bold indeed. Mark particularly says, "He went in boldly unto Pilate" (Mark 15:43), showing plainly that it was an act of uncommon courage.
(c) Joseph honoured Christ, when He was a lifeless corpse, and to all appearance could do nothing for him. It was not when Jesus was doing miracles and preaching wonderful sermons, but when there remained nothing of Him but a dead body, that he came forward and asked leave to bury Him.
Why Joseph’s "fear" departed, and he acted with such marvellous boldness now, is a question which we have no means of settling. But reason points out that in all probability he had been an eye-witness of much that had happened this eventful day. He had possibly stood within a short distance of the cross, and seen all that took place, and heard every one of our Lord’s seven sayings. The miraculous darkness for three hours, and the earthquake, must have arrested his attention. Surely it is not presumptuous to conjecture, that all this must have had a mighty effect on Joseph’s soul, and made him resolve at once to cast fear away, and avow himself openly one of Christ’s friends. It is almost certain that he must have been near the cross at three o’clock, when our Lord gave up the ghost, or else how could he have known of His death, and had time to think of burying Him?
After all it is a deep truth, that circumstances bring out character in an extraordinary way. Just as the developing liquid brings out of the dull grey glass in the photographer’s hands, a latent image which you never suspected before, so do circumstances bring out in some men a decision and power of character, which before you would have thought impossible.
Rollock remarks, "When Christ was working wonders, and speaking as never man spake, all this moved not Joseph to come forth and show himself. But now, Christ being dead and in shame, he comes out. Whereunto do I ascribe this? I ascribe it to the force that comes from the death of Christ. There was never a living man in the world that had such power as that dead body had. More mighty was His death than His life."
[And Pilate gave him leave.] The entire absence of difficulties in Joseph’s way is, at first sight, rather remarkable. We may easily believe that Pilate was willing enough to grant Joseph’s request. He did not grant it till the centurion certified that Jesus was actually dead, and the ends of justice (so called) attained. Then at once he gave permission. It is fair to remember that he had regarded our Lord as guiltless all along, that if left to his own free will he would have released Him. It is probable, moreover, that he was vexed and annoyed at the obstinate pertinacity with which the Jews pressed for our Lord’s death against his wish, and that he would be glad enough to pay them off, and spite them, by gratifying any friend of our Lord. But we must also remember that to the burial of our Lord’s body the Jews themselves had no objection, and had even asked that the death of the criminals might be hastened and the dead bodies got out of the way. What they would have done with the body of our Lord, if Joseph had not come forward, we cannot certainly tell. Lightfoot says there was a common grave for the bodies of malefactors. In any case Joseph’s request was not likely to meet with objection either from Gentile or Jew. But, for all that, we must not forget that it made him a marked man, as a friend of Christ, and utterly ruined his character with Caiaphas and the high priests.
[He came therefore...took...body...Jesus.] The word rendered "took" here, is the same that is rendered "took away" just above.—Some think, as Tholuck and Ellicott, that the Roman soldiers took the body down from the cross. But I see no certain proof of this, and I think it unlikely they would take the trouble to do it, if others were willing to undertake the task. The meaning, in my opinion, is that Joseph came up to the cross, raised and lifted from it the lifeless corpse of our Lord and took it away for burial. Whether this was done by rearing a ladder against the cross, as Rubens’ famous picture represents, and so letting down the body after drawing out the nails; or whether by taking up the cross out of the hole in which it was fixed, laying it on the ground, and then taking out the nails, is a question which we have no means of deciding. To me it seems far more probable that the latter plan would be adopted than the former, and that as the cross was most likely reared up with the body on it, so it was taken down again with the body on it. But every reader must judge for himself.
In whatever way the body was taken down, or taken off the cross, everything seems to me to indicate that Joseph was the person who did it with his own hands. This is the more remarkable, when we consider that to touch a dead body made a Jew ceremonially unclean, and that this was the afternoon preceding the passover Sabbath. There seems, however, no reason why we should suppose that no one helped Joseph. He could hardly lift the cross, or reverently lift off the body of a full-grown person in the prime of life, without some aid. Why should we hesitate to believe that John and Nicodemus helped him?
It is a curious coincidence, though perhaps only a coincidence, that it was a "Joseph," who probably first touched and received our Lord’s body when He was born into the world at Bethlehem, and again a "Joseph," who was the last to hold, and lift, and handle the dead body of the same Lord, when He was buried.
v39.—[And there came also Nicodemus...night.] The fact here recorded is quite peculiar to John’s Gospel. For wise reasons, neither Matthew, Mark, nor Luke, ever mention the name of Nicodemus. John mentions him three times,—first as a secret inquirer (John 3:1-2); secondly, as a timid advocate of justice towards our Lord in the Jewish Council (John 7:50-51); and lastly, in this place. Both here and on the second occasion, he emphatically inserts the explanatory comment, that it was the same Nicodemus which "at first came to Jesus by night."
The verse before us seems to show that Nicodemus came forward as a volunteer, and helped to bury our Lord, and did not shrink to take part with Joseph in his good work. I can hardly think that he went with Joseph to Pilate. There is not a word to show this in any of the four Gospels.
Some think that by agreement Nicodemus went to fetch the hundred pounds’ weight of spice (no slight burden to carry), while Joseph went to Pilate.
I should rather conjecture, that when Nicodemus saw Joseph coming boldly forward and showing anxiety to honour our Lord’s body,—Joseph, whom doubtless as a Pharisee and counsellor, he knew well,—his own heart was stirred within him, his own timidity fell to the ground, and he came forward and offered to aid. In so doing he deserves praise and honour, though in a lower degree, like Joseph. He showed more reverence and love to our Lord when dead, than he had ever done when alive. Once more we see that circumstances bring out character in very unexpected ways. The man that began seeking Jesus by night, at last confesses Jesus openly before the world, in the full light of day.
The case of Nicodemus is deeply instructive. It shows us how small and weak the beginning of true religion may be in the soul of man. It shows us that we must not despair of any one because he begins with a little timid, secret inquiry after Christ. It shows us that there are wide differences and varieties in the characters of believers. Some are brought into full light at once, and take up the cross without delay. Others attain light very slowly, and halt long between two opinions. It shows us that those who make the least display at first, sometimes shine brightest and come out best at last. Nicodemus confessed his love to Christ when Peter, James, and Andrew, had all run away. What need we have for patience and charity in forming an estimate of other people’s religion! There are more successors of Nicodemus in the Church of Christ than we are aware of. We may see some marvellous changes in some persons, if we live with them a few years. The strongest, hardiest trees, are often the slowest in growth. He that sets down men and women as graceless and godless, if they do not profess full assurance of hope the first day they take up religion and hear the Gospel, forgets the case of Nicodemus, and exhibits his own ignorance of the ways of the Spirit. All God’s elect are led to Christ, undoubtedly, but not all at the same speed, or through the same experience.
Calvin remarks on the conduct of Joseph and Nicodemus, "Here we have a striking proof that Christ’s death was more quickening than His life. So great was the efficacy of that sweet savour which the death of Christ conveyed to the minds of these two men, that it quickly extinguished all the passions of the flesh."
Quesnel observes, "Wonderful is the power of Christ’s death, which gives courage to confess Him in His deepest humiliation, to those who, when He was doing miracles, came to Him only in secret."
Henry observes that Joseph and Nicodemus showed weak faith, but strong love. "A firm faith in Christ’s resurrection would have saved them this cost and expense." But they showed their deep love to our Lord’s person and teaching.
[And brought...myrrh..aloes...weight.] The mixture here mentioned was probably in the shape of powder. The two ingredients were strongly aromatic and antiseptic. The large quantity brought shows the wealth and the liberal mind of Nicodemus. It also shows his wise forethought. A dead body so torn and lacerated as that of our blessed Lord, would need an unusually large quantity of antiseptics or preservatives, to check the tendency to corruption which such a climate would cause, even at Easter. Considering also that everything must have been done with some haste, the large quantity of spices used was probably meant to compensate for the want of time to do the work slowly and carefully.
v40.—[Then took...body...wound...clothes...spices.] Here we are told the precise manner of the preparation of our Lord’s body for burial. As always in that time and country, He was not put into a coffin. He was simply wrapped up in linen cloths, on which the preparation of myrrh and aloes had been laid. Thus the powder would be next to our Lord’s body, and interpose between the linen and His skin. How the linen clothes were provided, we are told by Mark. Joseph "bought fine linen." (Mark 15:46.) Joseph, being a rich man, had no difficulty in supplying funds for this purpose.
The word "wound" means literally "bound."
The sentence before us supplies one more strong evidence of the reality of Christ’s death. Joseph and Nicodemus could not possibly be deceived. When they touched and handled the body, and wrapped it in linen clothes, they must have felt convinced that the heart had ceased to beat, and that life was extinct. There is no mistaking the feel of a dead body.
[As the manner...Jews...bury.] This is one of those occasional comments or explanatory remarks, which John sometimes makes in his Gospel, supplying strong internal evidence that he wrote for all the Church of Christ in every land, Gentiles as well as Jews, and that he thought it wise to explain Jewish customs. The reference appears to be to the wrapping of the body in linen, rather than to the use of the spices. Lazarus at Bethany came out of the grave wrapped around with cloths.
The wise foresight of the Spirit of God appears strongly in the details here given of our Lord’s burial. The quantity of spices used was so great, that it anticipates the objection that our Lord’s body might possibly "see corruption" in some degree before His resurrection. At the same time, the special mention of Joseph being "a rich man," and Nicodemus "a ruler" helping him, completely stops the mouths of those who would have said that the followers of our Lord could never have found means to prevent the wounds of His body corrupting. By God’s superintending providence, inclining rich men to come forward, the difficulty was obviated, and the means provided.
Besser says, "Twice was Jesus Christ rich in the days of His poverty. Once, immediately after His birth, when the wise men from the East offered Him gold, and frankincense, and myrrh; and now, after His ignominious death, when a rich man buries him, and a distinguished man provides spices to anoint Him. Yea, a rich Joseph has taken the place of that poor Joseph who stood by the manger."
v41.—[Now in the place...crucified...garden.] This verse tells us the place where our Lord was buried. It was in "a garden" close to the spot called Golgotha, where He was crucified. This fact alone seems to dispose of the theory, that the "place of a skull" meant a place where the skeletons and bones of executed criminals were lying about! Reason and common-sense point out, that, even if there were no argument against the theory from the Jewish customs about bones, it is very unlikely that "a garden" would have been near such a loathsome place. Golgotha could hardly be a place of execution, or a place where criminals were frequently crucified, if there was a garden near! The pictures that commonly represent the scene of the crucifixion as a bleak desolate-looking rocky hill. are manifestly quite incorrect. It was a place near to which, or where "there was a garden."
The curious coincidence that the fall of the first Adam, the agony, the cross, and the sepulchre of the second Adam, were all alike connected with a garden, can hardly fail to strike a reflecting mind.
[And in the garden...new sepulchre...laid.] Here we have the very receptacle described in which our Lord’s sacred body was laid. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all tell us it was "hewn out of a rock,"—the limestone rock, which is the rock of the place. John tells us that it was "new;" and, like Luke, adds that "never man was laid in" it before.
It is curious that Matthew alone tells us that this tomb was Joseph’s own, "which he had hewn out of a rock." (Matthew 27:60.) Theophylact remarks, that it is a striking proof of our Lord’s poverty, that while He lived He had no house of His own, and when He died He was buried in another’s tomb.
It is almost needless to say that both the conditions of the sepulchre above mentioned are of great importance, and deserve careful notice. (a) Our Lord’s tomb was hewn out of a hard limestone rock. This made it clearly impossible for any one to say, that the disciples made a subterraneous entrance into the tomb by night, and stole the body away. By the entrance that it was carried into the sepulchre, by the same it must be carried out.—(b) Our Lord’s tomb was a new one, in which no one had ever been laid. This made it impossible for any one to say, after the resurrection, that there was no proof that Jesus rose from the dead, and that it might possibly be some one else. This could not be, when His body was the first and only body that was ever laid in this grave. Wonderful is it to see how at every turn the overruling wisdom of God has stopped, obviated, and frustrated, by wise provisions, the objections of infidels.
v42.—[Then laid they Jesus, etc.] In order to see the full meaning of this verse, we should slightly invert the order of the words, and paraphrase them in some such way as this:—"In this new rock-hewn tomb, therefore, Joseph and Nicodemus laid the body of Jesus, because it was conveniently nigh at hand, and because the Jews’ preparation day, or day preceding the passover sabbath, left them little time, and made it necessary to hasten their proceedings."—We may well believe that these two holy men had but little time, when we consider that our Lord did not give up the ghost till three o’clock, that the day ended at six, and that only three hours were left for Joseph to go to Pilate and get leave to remove the body from the cross, for Joseph and Nicodemus to take the nails out and lift the body from the tree, for wrapping the body in linen with a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, and for finally carrying it to the tomb and rolling a huge stone to the mouth of the tomb.—When we remember, beside this, that the body of a full-grown man, wrapped in linen with a hundred pounds of additional weight in myrrh and aloes, would be a most awkward and difficult burden for two men to carry, we may well believe that nothing but severe exertion could have enabled Joseph and Nicodemus to finish their labour of love before six o’clock. The wonder is that they managed to do it at all. It certainly could not have been done if they had not got a sepulchre nigh at hand. Again the Holy Ghost appears to me to foresee the objection that there was not time to bury our Lord, and mercifully supplies the words which answer it: "the sepulchre was nigh at hand." Even then we can hardly doubt that John and the women from Galilee must have lent some help. At all events it is distinctly recorded that the women were present, and that they were sitting by and beheld were the body was laid.
Thus ended the most wonderful funeral the sun ever shone upon. Such a death and such a burial,—so little understood by man and so important in the sight of God,—there never was, and never can be again. Who need doubt the love of Christ, when we consider the deep humiliation that Christ went through for our sakes! To tabernacle in our flesh at all, to die after the manner of a man, to allow His holy body to hang naked on a cross, to suffer it to be lifted, handled, carried like a lump of cold clay, and shut up in a dark, silent, solitary tomb,—this was indeed love that passeth knowledge. What true believer need fear the grave now? Solemn as is the thought of our last narrow bed, we must never forget that "it is the place where the Lord lay." (Matthew 28:6.) "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." (1 Corinthians 15:56.)
Henry observes, "Christ’s death should comfort us against the fear of death. The grave could not long keep Christ, and it shall not long keep us. It was a loathsome prison before, it is a perfumed bed now. He whose Head is in heaven, need not fear to put his feet into the grave."
Every Bible reader knows that Isaiah’s famous prophecy contains the words, "He made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death." (Isaiah 53:9.) But not every one knows the interesting fact that the more correct translation of the Hebrew words would be, "His grave was appointed to be with the wicked; but with the rich man was His tomb." This is the opinion of such eminent scholars as Capellus, Vitringa, Bishop Lowth, and Bishop Horsley.
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Ryle, J. C. "Commentary on John 19". "J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11