John 19: Cleft for Me

As a disclaimer about the graphic nature of today’s passage: if you are sensitive to depictions of violence, you may want to consider covering your ears or leaving the room. If, on the other hand, you’ve ever watched a modern movie or the 6 o’clock news, it should, sadly, be a walk in the park.

As a disclaimer about the graphic nature of today’s passage: if you are sensitive to depictions of violence, you may want to consider covering your ears or leaving the room. If, on the other hand, you’ve ever watched a modern movie or the 6 o’clock news, it should, sadly, be a walk in the park.

One more disclaimer: it may seem an odd choice to read from the crucifixion at Christmastime. As I mentioned last week, I am keen to finish our Journey through John’s gospel in January, and that is why I am pressing through today. I believe in the sovereignty of God, even in the timing of the passages we study on Sunday mornings. And so I believe it is no mistake that the story of the cross is the particular passage we happen to land on today. 

It is a longer text, so I will break it into four shorter reflections. 

Notwithstanding, there is a distinct reflection of Christmas in this passage. If we have ears to hear, we will see that Christmas foreshadowed the cross of Christ in many ways. 

So let us begin:

Part 1: Jesus Sentenced to Be Crucified

19 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face.

4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”

6 As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”

7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

12 From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.”

13 When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.

“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.

15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.

“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered.

16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

According to commentator Bruce Milne, “The Romans had three levels of flogging: the fustigatio, a lighter beating for lesser offences; the flogellatio, a brutal flogging for more serious crimes; and the verberatio, the most terrible of all, which was administered as part of the preliminary to crucifixion.” (Bruce Milne, The Message of John) The most severe level was known to leave a victim's bones protruding from the skin. Jesus was most likely flogged twice – the first flogging would have been the lighter, “teach-you-a-lesson” kind. It was Pilate’s attempt to appease the religious elite while still maintaining that the Nazarene had done nothing wrong. But it did not appease the gathering crowd. They demanded crucifixion, which included as a prelude one more flogging. This second flogging of Jesus would have been the heaviest version, designed to weaken the victim to hasten his death.

Pilate brings Jesus out for a humiliating fashion show after the first flogging, draped in a purple robe; thorns stabbing his scalp. Pilate declares in his native Latin, “Ecce Homo” – “Behold the man.” But the crowd of religious thugs is not appeased. After nearly six hours of back and forth, Pilate finds himself checked by the bloodthirsty crowd, threatened by their declaration that no friend of Caesar would allow this man to live. 

Their ploy was clever, for even though Pilate found Jesus to be innocent, he was under constant pressure to appease the emperor. Pilate’s close friend and mentor, Sejanus had been one of Caesar’s inner circle in Rome, but even Sejanus would be executed by Tiberias Caesar in 33 AD – not long after the crucifixion of Christ – under suspicion that he was not a true “friend of Caesar.” The religious leaders of Jerusalem have Pilate’s back against the wall.

Pilate may be cornered, but he is not silenced. He does not give up this match quietly, and uses every opportunity to subjugate and insult the sensibilities of the religious leaders. Where he first declared in his native Latin, “Ecce homo” – “behold the man” – he now proclaims “Ecce rex” – “Behold your king.” This infuriates the leaders, who would rather kiss Caesar’s feet than accept Jesus as their king.

With this final pronouncement, Pilate concedes the match, but also manages to force his opponents to publicly swear allegiance, even if falsely, to Caesar. The apostle John, in recording this exchange, accomplishes two purposes. First, he reveals that the religious elite had forsaken God, their rightful king. And second, John reveals that even the gentile Pilate makes the progression from recognizing Jesus as a mere man to declaring him a king. Of course, Pilate does so not out of belief, but from a desire to mock the mob. John makes sure that we face the glaring irony.  

Part 2: The Crucifixion of Jesus

So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. 17 Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”

22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

23 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.

24 “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”

This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled that said,

“They divided my clothes among them

    and cast lots for my garment.”

So this is what the soldiers did.

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

Crucifixion was a dog’s death, brutal and torturous. No Roman citizen, not even the worst criminal, was allowed to be crucified because it was so horrific.

The victim would be stretched across a heavy wooden beam, and spiked to it with long, rough iron nails through the upper wrists. Then the beam and the trailing victim would be dragged across the ground to the base of an upright post. Lifting the mangled mess of writhing flesh, blood, and wood off the ground, soldiers would fasten the crosspiece to the upright, then drive one more spike through the feet of the victim. 

Then the agony started. 

The victim would be forced to constantly shift their weight from their impaled feet to their wrists. With their weight on their wrists, they couldn’t breathe. With their weight on their feet, they were in excruciating pain. And so as long as he was able, the miserable body shifted his weight back and forth, until the mercy of death came. This is why executioners sometimes shattered the leg bones of their victims with a heavy iron mallet – to speed up the process by ensuring the victim would have no alternative but to hang by their wrists and suffocate quickly.

The crucified was completely naked, of course, a final touch of humiliation. Their clothes, sandals, belt, and even underwear were distributed as spoils for the soldiers.  

John makes an interesting note that concurs with the other gospels: most of the men had fled, but among the witnesses who remained were Jesus' mother Mary and a few other women. By one way of reading the gospel record, the sister of Mary would have been Salome, the mother of James and John, and therefore in this single passage we have our only Biblical clue that the author, John, may have been Jesus' cousin. That would help explain why Jesus would commend his mother into John’s care; she may have been a close relative. 

Moreover, up to this point, we are told that Jesus’ own earthly brothers did not believe in him yet. It may be that Jesus knew Mary would find more comfort in the home of her nephew, who believed, than among her own sons, who did not believe.

Part 3: The Death of Jesus

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” 37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”

It says that Jesus gives up His Spirit, a reminder that this terrible act of suffering was a deliberate choice that Jesus made. He was in control the whole time, and could easily have avoided the cross. But He knew the Father’s plan, and He knew that only by shedding His blood could we be saved. 

After crucifixion, bodies were usually left to rot and decompose, the sentences posted near the corpses serving as a very effective warning to all who passed by. In this case, however, Pilate allowed the bodies to be taken down so as not to disrupt the Passover feast.

John records that several prophecies are fulfilled in this passage, but the most remarkable to me are those related to the Passover. You may recall the story: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God set them free one night by visiting death on the firstborn. Only those who had the blood of a sacrificial lamb painted on the crosspiece of their doorways were spared from judgment. The Passover, like Christmas, foreshadows the cross of Christ. 

The symbols of Passover that are fulfilled in the passion account are profound. The angel of death is the pure and just wrath of God, The doorpost is the cross, the blood of the lamb is the blood of Jesus. Even the seemingly inconsequential mention of wine-vinegar being raised to the crucified Jesus on a hyssop branch is reminiscent of the brushes used to spread blood on the doorposts Exodus 12:22: “Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe.”

At every step, John is writing to remind us of the mysterious title John the Baptist gave to Jesus at the very beginning: “Ecce, Agnus Dei!” – “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” 

Part 4: The Burial of Jesus 

38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Christmas foreshadows this last scene, the last hour of our Lord’s earthly ministry. Wise men approach. The savior has no place to lay his head. He is wrapped in cloths. The aroma of myrrh – a gift from one of the wise men named Nicodemus – thickens the air. There is no hay in this cave, no manger, only a stone on which to rest his head. No cattle are lowing, but creation is groaning. His mother, pierced with grief, cradles him for the last time. The virgin sings a lullaby. There, in a new cleft, of a new rock, the one whose birth the angels sung, whose death the angels now mourn, is laid to rest in peace. Perplexed, the baleful band seals the tomb. They sink into the twilight. Tonight will be a most silent night.

So this is Christmas. And what have we done?

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