The Gospel of John is particular in style and content, and is very different from the other synoptic Gospels. Commentators have long suggested that John uses a form of circular technique that this Gospel manages to state its entire message practically in every passage of the Gospel.
Jesus is the center of the Gospel. He is the eternal Word springing forth from the very life of God before time began, arching into the created world and into the arena of time and space, there becoming “flesh” and revealing God’s glory to the world. To reveal God is the heart of his mission. It is not a mere dissemination of information about God. What Jesus reveals is that God will not condemn the world but that God loves the world and intends to save it (3:16-17).
All aspects of Jesus’ life become revelatory. His words which John shapes into long, meditative discourses, become words of truth revealing God. His acts of healing become luminous ‘signs’ manifesting God’s glory. His acts of healings are considered as ‘signs’ manifesting God’s ‘glory’ and God’s compassion. Even his death becomes a sign which reveals the quality of God’s love for the world (15:12-13).
The Word comes into the world and through death and resurrection returns to God. The return to God – not only of the Word but of all humanity is the final purpose of Jesus’ mission to the world. Thus the Johannine vision is expressed in 17:21-22 “that they may all be one in us …that they may be one, as we are one”. And to help his disciples and the world to achieve that God-given destiny, the Risen Christ sends the power of the Spirit into the world.
The book can be divided into four parts:
- The Book of Signs (1:19 – 12:50)
- The Book of Glory (13:1 – 20:31)
- Return to Galilee (21:1–25)
Notice how the passion narrative comes within the Book of Glory.
Preparation for the Passion Narratives
The death of Jesus drives the story in the Gospel of John from start to finish. Of all the Gospels, John gives the most prominence to the strife between Jesus and his opponents. As soon as Jesus begins his public ministry conflict breaks out into the open. Soon as his ministry gets fully underway the conflict and the open exchanges become angry and often violent.
The three passion predictions in Mk have their own parallels in John too in terms of the “lifting up” sayings. In fact for John, the cross of Jesus is both a sign of death and of exaltation.
In John 3:14 “The Son of Man must be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We must not that for John, Jesus willfully walks up to the cross. He is not ‘handed over’ like in the other Gospels. In John, to be “lifted up” has two meanings. First of all, it implies to be lifted up onto the cross and finally lifted up to the Father.
The second instance comes in Jn 8:28. Again the stress is that it is all the Father’s doing. The third instance comes in Jn 12:32,34.
John’s conception of the Gospel of drama has a certain “spatial” dimension to it. Jesus, the Son of Man who “comes down” from heaven, is “sent” from God. He “enters into the world” and “abides” there. Conversely, with death, Jesus “leaves” the world, and “returns” to his Father, and “ascends” to where he was before.
We must also note that Jn 12:27 –36 is reminiscent of Jesus’ agony in the garden as portrayed in the Synoptic Gospels. But here, Jesus gets an answer of confirmation from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” For John, the death or exaltation of Jesus is a glorious act, which brings glory to God. It is all in the saving plan of God, all at its appointed time.
This aspect of appointed time comes out clearly in John’s idea of “the hour”. We first encounter this in John 2:4 when Jesus tells his mother that “his hour has not yet come”. In Chp 7, his enemies want to arrest him but were unable to lay hands on him “because his hour had not yet come” (7:30). A similar note is found in 8:20 where Jesus’ strong condemnation of the Pharisees in the Temple does not lead to his arrest because “his hour has not yet come”. And the Book of Glory begins with the solemn declaration: “Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father…” (13:1)
John towards the end of the Gospel often connects the “hour” of the death of Jesus and the notion of “glory”. This is seen in Chp 12 when the Greeks come to meet him and he tells them that “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (12:23). Again in Chp 17 immediately before the beginning of the passion narrative: “After Jesus has spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, ‘Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you …’” (17:1).
The notions of “glory” and “to glorify” have rich theological meaning in John and are closely connected with his basic interpretation of Jesus as the revealer of God. Jesus’ entire life and work is to “glorify” God, that is, to give God due honor and praise (See 17:4). And, in turn, God “glorifies” Jesus by giving him victory over death: “… so now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had in your presence before the world was created” (17:5).
In binding the “hour” of the death of Jesus with the notion of “glory”, especially in the latter part of his Gospel, John prepares the reader for the paradox of the cross. It is a moment that seems to rush forward with terrible power, but it will also be moment of exaltation and triumph when the glory of God will stream through the crucified Jesus.
The motif of the Passover is also used very effectively in the Gospel. The Baptist identifies Jesus as the “lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29, 26), an apparent allusion to the lamb slaughtered for the Passover ritual. For John the last Supper is not a Passover one. Against the tradition of the Synoptics, John holds that the Passover meal in the year Jesus died fell on the night before the Sabbath – that is on Good Friday. For John, Jesus is the “lamb of God” who was slaughtered like the other lambs at 12:00 pm. If he was the Lamb of God, then none of his bones could be broken on the cross.
John would also leave out the words of consecration which we traditionally find in the other Synoptics. However the last meal is an extended one. It starts in Chp 13 and extends right up to Chp 17, within which we have the farewell discourses. It is from these farewell discourses that we derive important aspects of Christian theology – especially that Jesus is the true Vine and the “way to the Father” and finally promises the Holy Spirit. At the beginning of this last meal, Jesus does something very characteristic – he gets up from the table and washes the feet of his disciples. For Jesus – this is a very important act. It signifies two things. First, it is a way of being in communion with Jesus. That is why he would tell Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no share in me” (13:8). Secondly, he is giving them an example to follow (13:14). The last Supper is not only a meal of being in communion with one another and with Jesus, it is also primarily a symbolism – an imperative – for all of us to be at service of our neighbour. Catholic Priesthood should always remember that their privilege of celebrating the Eucharist – in remembrance of the “last Supper” is not a matter of privilege – but it is a command to be at the service of the community.
But what about the consecration proper, and the bread? Why does John leave it out of the Last Supper? I think John puts things in a proper perspective – namely, the Last Supper was a special occasion which Jesus wanted to share with his closest disciples – giving them final instruction before the impeding passion and death. It is meal which recounted his whole life as well as recounted the passion and death of Jesus. It is also a continuation of the various “fellowship–meals” that Jesus celebrated with his disciples and with various other groups throughout his active ministry. John already includes a theology of the Eucharist as early as Chp 6 within the context of him feeding the five thousand people where he says: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry” (6:35). A little later when the Jews dispute how can a man give his own flesh to eat, Jesus would say “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood will have eternal life …” (6:53).
It is only in the Gospel of John that death is interpreted as a special act of friendship and love: “This is my commandment, that you love another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”(15:12–13).
It is also in the Gospel of John that we have the scene of the raising of Lazarus. Obviously this passage is used to explain the resurrection and the concept of eternal life by believing in Jesus. At the same time, the death of Lazarus foreshadows Jesus’ own death and is the trigger that finally leads to his own death (see 11:45–53). The raising of Lazarus, therefore, sums up Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel and reveals the meaning of his own death: through the cross Jesus will rescue his beloved from death.
Another last point for our consideration before we take up the passion narrative proper is the intense opposition against Jesus portrayed in the Gospel of John – opposition of people who refused to believe in him. However in John’s perspective, behind all this unyielding hostility is the face of the demonic. John’s Gospel curiously has no exorcisms, a point of major contrast with the Synoptic Gospels. But Jesus’ combat with evil which the Synoptic Gospels express by means of the exorcism stories find its echo in the Fourth Gospel in the bitter conflict between Jesus and his opponents. This opposition finds it culmination in Judas, one of his disciples. See 13:2 “The devil had already put it in the heart of Judas…. to betray him”
The Arrest of Jesus
John begins the passion narrative with the Arrest of Jesus where Jesus confronts his enemies (18:1–1). The structure is similar to that of the synoptic, though it is mentioned they crossed the Kidron valley and went to a garden there. It was a place known to Jesus and his disciples. They intended to spend the night there. This is quite normal, considering that during the Passover crowd came down to Jerusalem, and were required to spend the night with the confines of the extended city.
In the arrest scene, the evangelist evokes the mood of Jesus’ conversation with Judas by using the symbolism of darkness. In accepting the morsel from Jesus at supper, Satan enters him, and he goes out into the “night” (13:30). He once again alludes to the “night” when he notes that Judas along with the Roman soldier and the temple police coming with “lanterns and torches and weapons”.
Here Jesus himself is totally in charge of the situation, and he comes forth and asks them: “Who are you looking for?” to which they answer “Jesus of Nazareth”. Jesus declares that “I am he”, and the armed band “stepped back and fell to the ground”(18:6). Jesus appears in full command of the situation.
Jesus’ words to Judas and the police are literally: ego eimi, “I am”. The impact of these words on the enemies of Jesus confirms this as an instance Jesus is revealing the divine name ascribed only to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, “I am”. John is playing with the word “ego eimi” to show Jesus’ divine nature. It is a divine revelation. Several times, John employs the same tool in the Gospel (See 13:19).
The captors of Jesus recoil from this divine authority and fall to the ground (18:6), a typical biblical reaction to the manifestation of divine presence.
We can also see a stark contrast with the Synoptics, where Judas comes forth to offer Jesus a treacherous kiss to identify Jesus. Not so in John. More than that, Jesus also protects his disciples so that they have no need to flee: “If you are looking for me, let the men go” and wins their freedom (18:8)
The evangelist sees this as a fulfillment of what he has said earlier in 6:39 and 17:12, that he would guard them and not one of them would be lost. Jesus’ protectiveness of the disciples recounts the imagery of the good shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep (see 10:28–29).
It is only in the Gospel of John that it is said that it was Peter who struck and cut the ear of “Malchus”, the servant of the High Priest. He also mentions that it was the ‘right ear’. This scene gives occasion for Jesus to bring out another theological statement: “Am in not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” The symbolism of the ‘cup’ stands for Jesus’ death. Even in the Synoptics, Jesus would pray to the Father to take this cup away from him. However in John, he longs for the cup of suffering, and this is seen on the cross when he will cry out “I thirst”. Jesus is determined to drink the “cup” of his death because this act of ultimate friendship love – and not the violent force – is capable of revealing God’s own redemptive love for the world.
In other words, John draws a sharp contrast between the exercise of power, used by the enemies of Jesus who come with weapons and the liberating power of Jesus’ own life and death. This fundamental contrast between the two opposing worlds of values – revealed so vividly in the arrest scene will be stressed again when Jesus confronts Pilate at the trial: “My kingdom is not from the world….” At the end of the arrest scene, John would again put the blame on “the soldiers, their officer and the Jewish police”(18:12).
Unlike the other Synoptics, Jesus is taken by the arresting party to Annas who was the father–in–law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. There seems to be some confusion again in 18:19, where it is reported that the high priest questioned Jesus. Still later, it is again reported in 18:24 that Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas, the high priest. Who exactly questioned Jesus? Was it Annas or Caiaphas? Who was the high priest that year?
Anyway it is not depicted as a formal trial, but merely in the form of a questioning about his disciples and about his teaching. There is no question about whether he is the Messiah or the Son of God. Rather the focus seems to be on his teaching. They probably were trying to find out whether he was training people (disciples) with a secret agenda. At the end of the questioning, it appears that Jesus is left totally in command of the situation, and Annas is left bewildered. There is a reporting about a temple Police striking Jesus on the face because he dared to answer back to the High Priest. But Jesus is left totally composed after the incident. He replies that his teaching was not at all secret, but rather public in the synagogues and the temples. The explicit reference to the synagogue is probably a reference to the expulsion faced by the Johannine Christians from the synagogues.
The questioning of Jesus by Annas is sandwiched very effectively between the denials of Peter to show the contrast between the two. It is only in the Gospel of John that it is mentioned that Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus, and that this other disciple was known to the high priest and he went with Jesus into the courtyard. The question of who exactly this other disciple is matter of much debate. Is it the same as the beloved disciple of Jesus?
Jesus on Trial (18:28–19:16)
We now come to the central act of the passion narrative in the Gospel of John, where Jesus is brought before Pilate which extends from 18:28 to 19:16a. It has a careful theological and dramatic structure split into seven scenes. The main point of this theological structure is to show the Kingship of Jesus. But apart from that, the structure incorporates an inner dynamism which unfolds as it goes on.
- 18:28–32 Outside the Praetorium
- 18:32–38a Inside (Kingship of Jesus)
- 18:38b–40 Outside (Not guilty– choice – Barnabas + Jesus
- 19:1–3 Inside (scourge Jesus / crown of thorns / royal vestments)
- 19:4–8 Outside (not guilty/behold the man)
- 19:9–11 Inside (Question about origins)
- 19:13–16 Pilate delivers Jesus to crucifixion.
While some scholars hold that John has constructed a chiastic (dove–tail structure) with the focus being on the kingship of Jesus in 19:1–3, others doubt it.
They would maintain that the power of the trial scene is found not in the symmetry of its structure but in the dynamism of the narrative. The drama intensifies as it moves from the initial confrontation between Pilate and the Jewish leaders through to the finals demands for Jesus’ crucifixion and Pilate’s reluctant deliverance of Jesus to death. There are several group and strands in this narrative, the main characters being – Pilate, the Jewish leaders, and Jesus. It is important to realize that unlike the synoptic, there is no mention of the “crowds” in the Gospel of John.
Pilate, for example, begins with seemingly cool insolence when first presented with leader’s demands and in his subsequent interrogation of Jesus. But when his initial declaration of Jesus’ innocence is violently rebuffed by the “Jews”, the prefect himself is drawn in to the struggle: first attempting to release Jesus according to the Passover custom; then trying to have the prisoner scourged to demonstrate his innocence and then gripped with fear as he senses the mysterious nature of Jesus; and finally trying one last desperate attempt to have Jesus released by presenting him to the Jews as their king.
The evangelist also portrays the behavior of the Jewish leaders as becoming more intense and more desperate as the trial moves to its climax.
With exceptional skill, the evangelist portrays Jesus himself calmly asserting his majesty while hostility and desperation swirl around him. Jesus does not speak to the Jewish authorities; his last word to them was at the interrogation by Annas (18:23). The authorities are portrayed by John as having lost their ear for the truth; there is nothing more that Jesus can say to them. But he does speak to Pilate, firmly declaring the nature of his kingship, and identifying the sources of his own authority while reminding the prefect of the limits on his. When Pilate’s indifference to the truth becomes apparent, Jesus ceases to speak to him as well.
There is also shuttling between the “inside” and the “outside” of the praetorium. The Jewish leaders refuse to go inside because they would be defiled. This is probably because of contact with the Gentiles. But John adds a bit of irony to this situation. Their primary concern is that of defilement because of the Passover feast, while they hand the ‘lamb of God’ to be killed and crucified.
John tends to group the Chief Priest and the leaders of the nations as “the Jews”. He repeatedly does this during the trial scene. The clubbing together of the opponents of Jesus as “the Jews” is most unfortunate and probably reflects the problems faced in the Johannine community.
1) The Jewish Leaders hand Jesus over to Pilate to be condemned
In the first scene (18:28–32), there are several historical issues which can be raised, but this is not the main part of the narrative. The reader is not introduced to Pilate who was the Roman Prefect. Perhaps these details were known to the Johannine community. The Praetorium is the residence of the Roman Prefect while he was residing in Jerusalem. The conversation between Pilate and the Jewish authorities seems quite acidic. Pilate asks them about the charges, to which they reply, that they would not have handed him over, if he was not a criminal. Pilate retorts back saying, “take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” We then are told that the Jews were not allowed to put anyone to death. Whether the Jews had the power to put a person to death is a matter of much debate and conjecture. And probably this issue will never be resolved. But it does put the Jewish elders in a bad light. Jesus was crucified – and this puts the blame on the Romans. But because John adds that the Jews wanted to put Jesus to death but could not do so – it ultimately puts the blame on the Jews. In all probability there was a high degree of collaboration between both the Jews and Pilate which ultimately ended up in the death of Jesus.
2) Pilate interrogates Jesus about his kingship
In the second scene, Pilate enters the Praetorium and quite unexpectedly asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Fears about Jesus’ claim to political power were undoubtedly part of the historical forces that lead to Jesus’ death. However the objective of John is different in this gospel. Jesus’ response drives a wedge between the purely political meaning of the question and the theological meaning of the question. He poses a question to the Pilate. The prisoner interrogates his interrogator: “Do you ask this of your own accord or do others tell you about me?” But Pilate tries to question Jesus again: “What have you done?” The reader already knows that what Jesus “had done” are not crimes deserving punishment but acts of redeeming love that will climax with his death on the cross.
Jesus’ declaration moves the conversation in this direction: “My kingdom is not from this world; if my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from here” (18:3). It is important to understand Johannine theology here.
In comparison to the Synoptics which uses the metaphor of the “kingdom of God” quite often, John refers only twice to the “Kingdom of God” (3:3,5) but does portray Jesus as a royal figure whose enthronement on the cross insures God’ sovereignty over the world. In the Synoptic Gospels, the metaphor is played out in a temporal framework. The full establishment of the rule of God is a future event, but that future reality begins to impinge on the present through the words and actions of Jesus. Jesus’ acts of healing, exorcism and liberation bring about the experience of the kingdom of God. Jesus inaugurates the Kingdom of God, but its final fulfillment is in eschatological time.
But John’s Gospel often prefers to cast the contrasting realities of a sinful present and redeemed future into spatial, rather than temporal, terms. God’s realm where truth and love abides is “above”; it is another “world”. The sphere in which darkness, untruth and hatred exercise its toxic power is “below”, in “this world”. But we should not confuse this as a mere “heaven” and “earth”, making us think in dualistic terms: the world is bad and evil. Rather John’s perspective is different. The evangelist portrays two co–existing and yet ultimately conflicting “worlds” of values and meaning. One is deadly “world” ruled by darkness and untruth and ultimately demonic; the other is God’s “world” or realm, where truth and love reign. The historical human arena weaves between these two “worlds”, at times submitting to evil and hating Jesus, and at other times yearning to be free and thus the object of God’s redeeming love (see 3:16–17).
What this implies in the discussion between Pilate and Jesus is that Jesus’ kingship is “not from this world” (18:36) – namely, it does not find its power from the same world of values that Pilate and the Jewish leaders present. Both the opposing groups use force and violence to exercise their power. Jesus’ power comes from love and truth.
Pilate asks Jesus: “So you are a king then?” which leads to one of the most important statements of Jesus’ royal mission: “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” (18:37).
To be a “king” is the very purpose of Jesus’ mission in the world. That God–given sovereignty is expressed not in oppressive forces but in “bearing witness to the truth”. Bearing witness to the truth is a fundamental theme of John’s gospel. It is evoked a number of times in the previous chapters. The full Gospel of John can be see in terms of Jesus’ mission of bearing witness to the truth. This is seen in Jesus being the “light of the world” as well as his opponents who cannot accept his message because they are opponents to the truth.
The episode ends with Pilate’s famous question: “What is truth?” It shows Pilate’s cynicism, or his rather agnostic ideas about truth.
3) Pilate declares Jesus to be Innocent (18:38b–40)
A new episode begins as Pilate goes outside to declare Jesus innocent. He even tries to placate the Jewish authorities. He reminds them of a certain custom of having a prisoner released on the occasion of the Passover and suggest that the choice be “the King of the Jews” (18:39). But they refuse: “Not this man, but Barnabas!” (18:40)
The scene is drenched with irony. A Gentile official finds Jesus innocent while the Jewish Leaders seek his destruction. This is a foretaste of the ultimate failure of the Jewish community to accept the message of Jesus as more and more Gentiles enter the ranks of the early Christians. While Christianity started of among Jewish Christians, by the end of the 1st century more and more Gentiles filled the rank and file of the early Church.
The same irony present in the Synoptics is present here. They choose a bandit over an innocent man.
4) The Roman Soldiers Scourge and Mock Jesus (19:1-3)
The scourging and mocking scene in John is different with regards to the other Synoptics. They place it after Jesus was condemned which is more historical for the simple reason that the Romans always flogged the criminals before they lead them out to be crucified. Luke apparently does not have the flogging of Jesus.
John’s purpose is clearly more dramatical and theological. The cruelty inflicted on Jesus prepares for the subsequent episode when the battered prisoner will be brought out and displayed to the crowd.
Jesus is mocked by the Roman soldiers for his pretensions to kingship (19:2–3). The major symbols of royal power are conferred on him, but in each case with vicious mockery so that Jesus’ claim to royal status is ridiculed and denied. He is crowned, but with a crown of thorns. He is given a purple robe and hailed a “King of the Jews” by the soldiers, but blows rather than acts of respect are part of their homage.
The reader of course knows that Jesus is a ‘king’ and so in the eyes of the Gospel and the reader, the mockery turns in on itself. What is being mocked is not Jesus but the symbols of ‘earthly’ Kingship put onto him: the crown, the royal robe, the acclamations and rituals of homage. True dignity and power are now expressed in the anti–signs of seeming powerlessness born by this prisoner.
What was the motive of Pilate having Jesus’ flogged as portrayed in the Gospel? Was it to humiliate Jesus or just to pacify the elders?
5) Pilate Presents Jesus to the Leaders and Again Declares his Innocence (19:4–8)
Pilate goes outside once more and declares that he is bringing the prisoner out and that he finds no case against him. He presents Jesus to the public saying “Here is the man!” (19.5). The “Ecce Homo” – with Jesus standing with the royal symbols about him, totally exhausted. For some, “here is the man” is meant to evoke the “Son of Man” title found in the other Synoptics but also found in the three “lifting up” predictions.
Instead of evoking the people’s sympathy, it evokes their violence and hatred. For the first time in the passion narrative, there is talk of crucifying Jesus and it comes with a vengeance. Pilate retorts back that they should take him back and crucify him themselves if they wanted to. Now the pitch of the battle is raised. They bring up a new accusation against Jesus – namely that he claimed to be “Son of God” (19:7) and therefore deserves to be killed. This would be in accordance with the injunction of Lev 24:16 which commanded that anyone who “blasphemes the name of the Lord will be put to death”. At least three times in John’s Gospel the Jews attempt to kill Jesus for this very reason (See 5:18; 8:59; 10:31–19). This is clearly a confessional title used by Jesus – to denote the special relationship which existed between God and him.
From the violence of the crowd, it becomes clear what are the real reasons the Jewish elders reject Jesus and why he must be crucified– his claim to be the Son of God. They reject his claims to sonship and consider it blasphemous.
At the mention of the mysterious new note in the accusation, Pilate becomes “more afraid” (19:8). His “fear” is the kind of shuddering awe frequently provoked by an encounter with the transcendent in the bible. Pilate’s control of the situation becomes more tenuous as he begins to realize he is a player in a cosmic drama that far exceeds his comprehension.
6) Pilate interrogates Jesus about his origins (19:9–12)
As soon as Pilate hears the accusation of the Jews, he moves back inside to question Jesus once more. While earlier the focus of the questioning has been on Jesus’ kingship, now the focus is on Jesus’ power.
He asks Jesus a fundamental open–ended question typical of Johannine theology: “Where are you from?” (19:9) This question about his origins is a recurrent theme in the Gospel of John. Recognizing Jesus’ “origin” is, in Johannine perspective, the sign of authentic faith (17:8). Conversely, not to recognize “where Jesus is from” is tantamount to not recognizing or believing in Jesus. In his teaching in the Temple Jesus had sharply challenged the Jewish authorities when they claimed to know where Jesus comes from: “You know me, and you know where I come from? I have not come on my own. But the one who sent me is true, and you do not know him. I know him, because I am from him, and he sent me “(7:28–29).
Pilate fails to recognize that Jesus is the truth–incarnate and now he fails to recognize that Jesus come from God. However Jesus’ silence infuriates Pilate, and provides an adequate transition to the next theme of power. Pilate claims that he has the power and authority to release Jesus or to crucify him. But Jesus boldly challenges his claim.
What is the meaning of Jesus’ claim in 19:11? Pilate has no authority at all over Jesus except that which is given to him in the moment of the Passion drama. Jesus radically challenges the authority claims of Pilate, just as he does the religious claims of the Jewish authority. Pilate’s authority to condemn Jesus to crucifixion is, in the evangelist’s perspective, not derived from his position as Roman perfect of the might of the Rome that stood behind it, nor even from the driven warrant give to legitimate rulers of the state for the common good. Pilate is enabled to act through Jesus – as are the Jewish authorities – only because they are caught up in the God–directed drama of salvation. Because Jesus was destined to give his life in friendship love on the cross as the ultimate and unimpeachable sign of God’s unconditional love for the world – for this reason and no other Pilate is given “power” over Jesus. The real power rests with Jesus alone as seen in 17:1–2.
Jesus’ bold declaration of power seems to shake Pilate’s spirit and he resolves to set Jesus free. But Pilate’s lack of faith to believe in the truth ultimately takes its tool. He is “powerless” to resist the forces of evil. He is compelled to crucify Jesus when the Jewish leaders start bringing up the issue of loyalty to Caesar. It is with a sense of irony that John reports that it is the Jewish leaders rather than the Roman procurator who speaks about loyalty to Caesar.
7) Pilate delivers Jesus to be crucified (19:13–16)
Pilate brings Jesus outside and sits himself on the Judge’s bench. The time is mentioned. It is about noon. According to Jewish law, the lamb was to be sacrificed in the evening. But given the large number of lambs to be sacrificed in the 1st century, this was generously interpreted to be afternoon when the lambs began to be sacrificed in the temple. It is at this moment that Pilate condemns Jesus to be crucified. He brings Jesus out and presents him “Here is the King!” in contrast to the previous “here is the man!” The idea of the kingship of Jesus runs through the full scene with Pilate from start to finish. Defeated by their unyielding determination and their threat to his own political security, Pilate appears to mock the Jewish leaders even as he submits to their demands.
The drama reaches its summit with a final exchange: “Shall I crucify your king?” The chief priest answered: “We have no king but the emperor” (19:15). Only a narrative steeped in Jewish theology and Jewish symbolism could measure the terrible irony of such a situation. In rejecting Jesus the priests have gone too far, stripping themselves of their ancestral loyalty to God alone as king and accepting the sovereignty of a power to which Judaism could never submit. This is hardly historical, but a dose of Johannine irony. In the perspective of John, the consequence of rejecting the Truth and embracing falseness is destruction of self, and everything one stood for. It is a covenant with darkness.
The Crucifixion of Jesus
“Then he handed him over to them to be crucified” (19:16). The stress on “them” in the text is puzzling. Most probably John would like to reiterate that it was the Chief Priest and Elders who put Jesus to death. However it is surely not historical. The crucifixion was done by Roman soldiers and immediately in the following passages, the Roman soldiers are once more in charge.
In typical Johannine fashion, and in stark contrast to the Synoptics, the portrayal of Jesus carrying his cross to his death shows him being completely in control. There is no Simon of Cyrene to carry his cross. He carries it by himself. There are no three groups to mock Jesus. If anything at all, the theme of Jesus’ kingship and exaltation continue into the passion.
Jesus is crucified between two others. In the Gospel of John, they are not mentioned as thieves, and an inscription is put up on the cross, just as is described in the other Gospels. However, the particular emphasis here on the inscription written in three different languages and the protest of the Chief Priests point to the fact that John intends something different here. Pilate wants to rub it in to the Jews, that Jesus proclaimed himself King of the Jews, and the consequences of such a claim. But John’s irony in depicting this scene as he does, is that Pilate actually keeps proclaiming Jesus as King to the world even during his crucifixion and death. Many people read the inscription, because the crucifixion was in a prominent place.
Thus at the moment of his crucifixion Jesus is proclaimed as King to the entire world. This is the ultimate reason he is “lifted up” on the cross; Jesus had proclaimed it so in the Gospel. “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:31-32) .
Thus each of the deadly details of the execution are transformed and receive a new meaning: the crucifixion is the ascent of a throne; those crucified with Jesus are his retinue; the placing of the inscription become the proclamation of Jesus’ royal status; the multiple languages of the inscription and the public site of the execution insure the universal transmission of Jesus’ message; Pilate’s insistence becomes the means whereby Jesus’ identity is revealed despite the hostility of the Jewish leaders and the Roman prefect’s own corruption.
The sense of triumph – so transparent in John’s Gospel – shimmers through the darkest moment of Jesus’ life.
John like the other Synoptics goes on to report how the soldiers divided his clothes among them, and gambled for his clothes. This is a clear reference to Ps 22:18 which plays such a major role in Mk and Mt, especially with the last words of Jesus. But John puts a special emphasis on the inner garment of Jesus which was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. While there are many interpretations of why John stressed this point, including a reference to the unity of the Church, which is one of the major themes in John, in all probability it refers to the garment the High Priest wore. In this John is trying to compare Jesus as the High Priest, a reference which repeats in the Letter to the Hebrews. The fact that the Garment of the High Priest too was a seamless one is not mentioned directly in the scriptures (Ex 28), but we know this from other sources – especially from the historian Josephus who reports this fact. Thus Jesus is the High Priest who takes away the sins of the world.
The next description is about Jesus’ conversation with Mary and the disciple who Jesus loved. Clearly this is much more that a son doing his final duty towards his mother! And who is this beloved disciple? Is it the Apostle John? We know that John often uses the literary device of “types”, where a person stands for a group of people. Could it mean that the beloved disciple actually stands for the full church, and that Jesus is trying to cement a relationship between Mary and the future Church. Scholars also try to draw a link between the story of Cana where Jesus told his mother that his “hour” has not yet come to this story in the passion narrative when his hour has finally arrived. At the end of it, there is a special link now between the Church (or the Johannine Community) and Jesus.
The end is nearing, and the Gospel reports that Jesus knew that “the end was now hearing”. In comparison to other Gospels there is no cry of dereliction and no final mockery. Rather there is an emphasis of Jesus’ prophetic knowledge.
The Greek verb used for “complete” or “finish” is teleo, a word with a particular significance in John. It is used quite often in the Gospel – when Jesus talks about the mission – “completing the work(s)” entrusted to Jesus by the Father. Now at the moment of death that great “work” of Jesus was about to be “completed”.
A final word is spoken: “I am thirsty”. John tries to connect this with the fulfillment of Scripture. This probably refers to Ps 69:21 which speaks of vinegar – “The gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” – and Ps 22:16 which describes the thirst of the suffering just man – “my mount is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to my jaws”. Both psalms may have played a key role in linking Jesus’ thirst to the scripture.
But John tries to portray that Jesus not only fulfills the scripture, but completes it. More than a mocking of Jesus is implied in this utterance of Jesus. It is an obvious reference to the moment of violence in the Garden, when Jesus rebukes Peter and told him to hold his sword back: “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (18:11). Completing the work of the Father – giving his life out of love for the world and thus returning in exaltation to God – this was “food” Jesus would eat (4:34) and the “cup” he would drink (18:11).
The wine was reached to him on a hyssop. The reference to “hyssop” may also be symbolic. Mark and Matthew refer to a “reed” on which the bystanders place the sponge full of vinegar (see Mk 15:36; Mt 27:48). Hyssop is ill suited for the task of holding up vinegar soaked sponge since it is leafy and pliant. However, John may have intend to evoke the Passover symbolism which runs through the Passion story. The hyssop was used to spread the blood on the lintel of the two doorposts (Ex 12:22-23). Similarly the letter to the Hebrews recalls the sprinkling of blood with “hyssop” that sealed the covenant (9:18-20). Does the evangelist try to evoke this symbolism?
Johannine irony is at work in the Passion story. On the literal level of the text, the soldiers oversee the execution of the messianic pretender – and respond to this cry of thirst. It evokes a feeling of sympathy to the casual reader and that of contempt to the passers by. But the reader sees that there is more to just that. Jesus’ cry of thirst is a deliberate act, reaffirming in the face of death his complete freedom and unswerving commitment to the mission God had entrusted to him. He thirsts because he desires deeply to “drink” the cup given to him – the cup that will complete the work he has been given to do, the work of loving his own in the world until the end. The blood of his death will bring a deliverance foreshadowed in the liberation of Israel from slavery.
Thus the radical thirst of Jesus completes al of the sacred promises of Scriptures and brings the mission of Jesus to its summit. One final word is spoken, a word in perfect harmony with the tone of the entire Johannine Passion story: “It is finished(telelestai)” (19:30). The same verb, used twice before in this scene (see 19:28), brings the life of Jesus to its goal. He has “completed” his work and returned to God.
John paints a consistent portrait to his Gopsel: Jesus dies with majestic assurance. The mission of redemptive love that brought the Word to flesh and animated his signs and life-giving words now reaches its summit and completion at the instant of death. The moment of death is described in a way that fits this tone of completion. Jesus “bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (19:30).
The drama is not over. The Jews wanted to hasten the deaths of the crucified men. They asked the bones to be broken, which seems a common practice for the crucifixion of those days. The crucified person would find it more difficult to breathe. Jesus’ bones was not broken, because he had already died. However there is a deeper symbolism in this fact, which is only reported by John. “None of his bones shall be broken” – actually paraphrases several descriptions of the paschal lamb. Scripture mandates that “you shall not break any of its bones” (Exodus 12:46) and further reiterates that the lamb is not be consumed intact “with its head, legs and inner organs”. Thus John completes the parallel that Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who gives his life “to take away the sins of the world” (1:29,35).
Some commentators see another allusion in Ps 34 which speaks about Yahweh’ protection of the righteous one, even as this just Israelite is surrounded by evildoers. The Lord “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken ” (Ps 34:30).
Finally Jesus’ side is pierced, and out of it flows blood and water. Clearly again, the Gospel of John gives a symbolic meaning to the “blood and water”. But what exactly does it mean? There is much debate on this. Clearly this is a reference to other passages when Jesus speaks about “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, one cannot enter the Kingdom of God” (3:5). Similarly on another occasion on the feast of the Tabernacles, Jesus proclaims in Jerusalem: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’ “(7:37-38)
Water clearly has a symbolic meaning in John and symbolizes the powerful new life that Jesus gives the believer. Furthermore, water is expressive of the Spirit in which the life-giving power of Jesus’ death is experienced. These symbolic meanings of “water” in the fourth Gospel enables the reader to infer the meaning of the flow of water from the side of Jesus.
The symbolism of blood can be seen in the “Bread of life” discourse in Chp 6 where references are found to the blood of Jesus. This is expressed in a type of sacramental language, and signifies the saving aspects of Jesus’ death: “In all truth I tell you, if you do not eat the flesh of Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Anyone who does eat my flesh and drink my blood has eternal life, and I shall raise that person up on the last day. My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (6:53-55)
Therefore we can conclude that the flow of blood and water from the pierced side of Jesus signifies the salvific effect of Jesus’ death. The death of Jesus, in John’s perspective, has an immediate impact: the Spirit of God flows out into the world. This had been promised by Jesus. But one can go beyond the basic interpretation of these symbols and move on to the sacramental and ecclesial dimension. The Church considers that it was formed at this precise moment. this was the institution of the Church, out of the side of Jesus. The Church is in the instrument out of which flows grace and strength to the faithful.
Burial of Jesus
Finally a brief account is made of the burial of Jesus. What is special in the Gospel of John is the mention of Nicodemus. But these two individuals, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who were Jesus’ disciples in secret, now come forward to bury Jesus. Both of them are ambiguous disciples of Jesus. They were afraid to fully embrace the truth. Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night and is shown that he does not understand what Jesus is saying. In fact John portrays them previously in a very bad light. The placing of them in the burial scene is again theological. These two disciples who were earlier such timid and fearful disciples now come out into the open emboldened by the grace which flows out from the side of Jesus during his death.
The “mixture” of myrrh and aloes weighs literally more than 70 pounds. What was Nicodemus intent? Does the enormous spice simply confirm that Nicodemus did not understand Jesus and his destiny? Or is it symbolic of a royal burial of Jesus, extending the royal triumph over death that was so strong in John’s crucifixion narrative. The placing of Jesus in a “new” and never before used tomb complements this royal motif.
The passion narrative in the Gospel of John stands apart from the synoptic descriptions precisely because of highly theological and mystical themes evoked through the symbolism that John employs. Indeed one cannot read the passion narrative in John apart from the rest of the Gospel. John portrays Jesus as someone totally in control, drinking the cup the Father has prepared for him, and then exalting and glorifying God by being raised on the cross. John portrays Jesus as a majestic King throughout the narrative. And finally Jesus’ death is the high-point of the Gospel, and not the resurrection. At the death of Jesus, he and the Father are glorified, and God redeeming plan is fulfilled. Out of his side flows saving grace and strength.
I am greatly indebted to Donald Senior’s book, “The Passion of Jesus in the Gospel of John” from the Liturgical Press,Minnesota published in 1991 from which I have generously borrowed for the above lecture.