Summary of the Text
The lectionary text from John is an exceedingly long passage, but covers the main events that we commemorate on Good Friday. For that reason, I am going to break up the text into manageable chunks. I have grouped the text into the three main events that take place in John chapters 18 and 19: Judas’ betrayal and arrest, the trials (by Annas and Pilate), and the crucifixion.
The Betrayal & Arrest: In this opening passage, Jesus leaves the city of Jerusalem, crossing the Kidron Valley and entering “a garden.” The Synoptic (Mathew, Mark & Luke) gospels specify that it is the Garden of Gethsemane. John’s focus is less on the specific location than on the type of space Jesus chose to go, knowing “his hour” was soon approaching. As Dale Bruner notes in his commentary on John’s gospel,
“The first Adam lost it in a garden; the second Adam now begins to win it back there (see the two Adams in Romans 5)- The arresting posse, representing the whole human race — Gentile Rome, the Jewish people of God, and even the unfaithful Church in one (or even two) errant Christian disciples — all three come together (w. 2-3) to end the career of this one whom they all (except Peter) conceive to be an arrogant upstart.”
Aside from the clear connection to the Garden of Eden, Jesus’ decision to go to Gethsemane presents a number of interesting theological themes the preacher may want to discuss. For one, it seems likely that Jesus chose Gethsemane because, among other reasons, it was a place familiar to Jesus and his disciples. Some scholars even suggest that Jesus chose Gethsemane because he knew Judas was preparing to betray him and Jesus wanted to make it easy for Judas to find Him. There is also an implicit regard for the importance of place here. Jesus chooses a common “haunt,” if you will, where He and His disciples would come to pray, and perhaps even teach, rest, etc. Jesus, like us, had his favorite hang-out places. Could this be for Jesus what Celtic Christianity has called a “thin place?” Perhaps. At the very least Jesus’ attention to place honors the created world, and our own longing for specific places where we experience joy and connection with God and neighbor. Perhaps Jesus also chose Gethsemane because, as he prepared for the most arduous, painful experience of His life, being in a familiar place may have brought a sense of comfort.
The Betrayal: While much attention has been given to the obvious aspects of Judas’ betrayal, including his proximity to Jesus, to the greed intrinsic to the act (the 30 pieces of silver), or even the necessity of the betrayal as part of God’s sovereign will to create the circumstances necessary for Jesus to die for our sins, the preacher may want to ask this question, “is there something archetypal about betrayal and the human condition? In other words, is there something about experiencing betrayal that is intrinsic to the human experience? Most of us have experienced some form of betrayal in our lives, and having the God of the universe share that experience is a comfort to me.
When Judas approaches alongside the Roman soldiers and Jewish leaders, Jesus does not respond with timidity, but goes out to them and asks, “Who is it you want.” When they reply “Jesus of Nazareth,” he responds “I am [he],” or in the greek, “ego eimi” “I am.” Jesus intentionally connects His identity to the LORD, who when Moses approached the burning bush and asked who it was that kept the bush aflame, said, “I am who I am”. This question, “who is it you want?” is a question for the ages. Do you want to find the true Lord of the universe, or do you want to continue a life of self-righteous religiosity?
Once it is clear that Jesus is about to be arrested, Peter decides to make a feeble-attempt to rescue his lord from arrest. Dale Bruner’ commentary is again helpful here:
Peter’s impulsive, well-meant, but utterly unhelpful attack on Jesus’ enemies occurs next to last in our story (v. 10), reminding the Church afresh of her ever recurring, well-meaning, but always hurtful use of violence for Jesus’ cause in the world. Violence only cuts off the ears (physically and spiritually) of Jesus’ opponents; violence has never served Jesus’ person or cause. And so Jesus says one more time; “Put your knife back in its place! Am I not supposed to drink the cup my Father gave me?” Does not the cause of Jesus (and of his Church that bears his cause) go forward more by suffering than by fighting?” (The Gospel of John, A Commentary: p.1032)
The Trials: After his arrest, Jesus is first brought to Annas, whom John describes as the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest for that year. Why was Jesus brought first to Annas and not Caiaphas himself? The answer lies in the fact that while Caiaphas was the official high priest according to Roman law, the Jews saw the role of high priest as a life-term. And while it would be perhaps a stretch to consider Caiphas simply an “emperor with no robes,” nevertheless, the fact that Jesus was first sent to Annas demonstrates the former high priest’s continued power over the institutional religion in Jerusalem. Annas is referred to as “the high priest” in verse 22, not the “former” high priest, which indicates as well the continued place of power he held at the time.
John tells us that Annas questioned Jesus, no doubt in an attempt to catch him blaspheming against God. Jesus responds by arguing that he has always taught out in the open. He has not kept anything secret about his teaching. Jesus is then slapped by one of the officials, a premonition of things to come. Even after being struck, Jesus maintains his authority. He never loses control, and ultimately Annas decides to send him on to his son-in-law Caiaphas.
Peter Denies Jesus: While Jesus is questioned by Annas, Peter is questioned by some of the servants while waiting outside Annas’ residence in the courtyard. While warming himself by the fire, a servant girl asks if Peter is one of Jesus’ disciples. Peter replies, “I am not,” signalling the first time Peter would deny His Lord. As Gail O’Day notes, “the words of Peter’s denial, “I am not” (ouk eimi ; see also 18:25) are the antithesis of Jesus’ words of self-identification and revelation from 18:1–12, “I am” (“ego eimi; vv. 5–6, 8). Jesus freely and boldly declares who he is, but Peter, the representative disciple, cannot even claim discipleship.” Once at Caiphas’ residence, Peter is questioned again by one of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear was cut off by Peter during the arrest. Again Peter denies being one of Jesus’ disciples. We don’t learn anything from Jesus’ time at Caiphas’ residence other than Peter’s denial of his Lord.
Ritual Purity and Jesus: As Jesus is transitioned from Caiphas to Pilate and the Roman Governor’s palace, John notes that the Jewish leaders, in an attempt to avoid “uncleanness,” “did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.” In other words, the religion of the Jewish leaders is willing to put an innocent man to death, but they are not willing to corrupt themselves by entering the home of a pagan. John seems to be subtly pointing out the hypocrisy of such a decision by including what might first appear an odd detail in the account. The preacher may want to connect this decision to that of the priest and the Levite in the parable of the good Samaritan. The point of the parable, at least in part, is that it is their obedience, not their disobedience of their religion that leads them to leave the man attacked by robbers for dead. Jesus’ “fulfillment of the law” undermines this kind of religious hypocrisy by removing the obstructions to caring for the man dying by the side of the road. It would also abolish the situation that these Jewish leaders find themselves in, where they are willing to kill an innocent man, but they won’t become ceremonially unclean by entering the home of a pagan.
Pilate’s Trial: As Jesus enters Pilate’s grounds, a crowd, presumably made up of at least some of the Jewish leaders who arrested Jesus, forms outside. Pilate asks them directly, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” Their reply is interesting, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you. In other words, he is guilty before being proven innocent.
We’ve already seen the questionable justice system of Jesus’ day begin working itself out, but as we shall soon see, The Jewish leaders were a conquered people. They could not mete out justice unless their Roman overlords allowed it. Pilate will use this as leverage in his interactions with the Jewish leaders.
In verse 31, Pilate says, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” Pilate says this knowing full-well the Jewish leaders have no such authority. Colin Kruse provides a helpful explanation: “Pilate knew the Jews did not have the authority to do this, and so in this first exchange he prevailed, as ‘the Jews’ were forced to acknowledge, we have no right to execute anyone.”
After this back and forth with the Jewish leaders, Pilate returns inside to question Jesus himself. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds to a question with a question, “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (vs.34) Pilate responds with derision, “‘Am I a Jew?’” In other words, “how would I know what a king looks like to a Jew?” Pilate again places the onus on the Jewish leaders: “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me.
What is Truth?: What is it you have done?” Jesus responds with the famous “My kingdom is not of this world” statement. Pilate doesn’t seem to buy it, or perhaps Jesus’ response doesn’t fit into his categories, ‘You are a king then!” Pilate retorts. If Jesus saw himself as a king, then treason against Rome would certainly be up for discussion, as well as its consequences. But Jesus is not falling for Pilate’s feeble attempts to trap him. Instead he takes a slight detour, “You say that I am a king” Jesus responds, “in fact, the reason I was born into the world is to testify to the truth.” Pilate responds with his now famous question, “what is truth?” Dale Bruner provides a helpful commentary on this distinguished verse:
We would love to have a tape-recording of the tone of Pilate’s reply. Was it cynical, seeking, despairing, inviting, dismissing? The first and most obvious answer to Pilate’s question, however he asked it, is–in modern American idiom-”In your face!” Pilate, the Truth is talking to you personally right now and invitingly, promisingly so. All you have to do is ask one more question.” Pilate is that close. The oldest Church commentators believed Pilate really meant his question of “What is Truth?” and that his just-born conviction is the reason he then so abruptly went outside to arrange the amnesty…I think, at present, that his question is, in its way, as noble in its poignancy and its barely veiled despair (or skepticism) as Jesus’ immediately prior claim was noble in its assurance and simplicity. True disciples of Jesus will not cease asking Pilate’s question (“What is Truth?”) and will come to Jesus with this question longingly again and again (since the search for Truth iso ongoing and is quickened by Jesus the Truth in person) (p.1069)
Jesus or Barabbas: At this point, perhaps resigned to the fact that he was not going to get any more out of Jesus, Pilate returns to the crowd outside and offers to release one prisoner, on account of the Passover meal. One can’t help but see this as a proverbial “bone” being thrown to a conquered people. Give them the occasional moment of jubilee and perhaps you can hold off more insurrection. Pilate assumes they will choose Jesus to be saved, but the plan backfires and now Pilate feels pinned down to execute Jesus. One interesting side note is that we never see a definitive judgment of guilty being placed on Jesus. In fact, all Pilate says is that Jesus is innocent. Amongst other things, this is a brutal miscarriage of justice, but probably one that was common in the ancient world. “Mob rule” often prevailed over any formal legal system.
Like in John’s account, in Matthew’s gospel Pilate (literally) washes his hands of any responsibility for Jesus’ death sentence: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Mt. 27:24). Orders are then given for Jesus’ flogging, but he is never given a “guilty” sentence, the sure example of a broken justice system.
The Judgment: After failed attempts to change the crowd’s mind, Pilate relents and hands Jesus over to be crucified. The same Greek verse, paradidomi, is used as Pilate hands over Jesus. For further study, please refer to the word study in our Maundy Thursday Lectionary guide. At this point, John’s description of the moments leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion are somewhat sparse compared to synoptic accounts. Jesus is taken to ‘the place of the skull’ (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha) (vs.17).
The Crucifixion: There, John tells us, Jesus was placed between two other criminals to die a criminal’s death. John tells us that Pilate prepared a sign that was placed above Jesus on the cross. Known as a titulus cruces, it read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Jewish leaders protested, “Do not write “the King of the Jews,” but instead “this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” (vs.21) But Pilate refused, his contempt for the Jewish leadership resolved, “what I have written, I have written.” In other words, “don’t push it.” For further explanation of the titulus cruces, check out “What I have Written” in Sermon Illustrations on the Cross section of the website. From this moment, John moves to Jesus’ final moments on the cross and the division of Jesus’ clothes by the soldiers. John includes this seemingly innocuous, though brutal event, as a way of connecting Jesus’ death to Psalm 22.
“This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled:
They divided my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment.”
First, John tells us who was present for Jesus’ final moments: three Mary’s: “Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. John tells us that in those closing moments he admonishes John, who is self-referred to as “the disciple whom he loved” (vs.26) to care for Jesus’ mother once he is gone. In other words, even in his last tortuous moments, he is worrying about another, in this case his own mother. John is faithful to this responsibility, caring for Mary presumably to the end of her life.
“I am Thirsty”: As Jesus draws closer to his last breath, his vulnerable humanity is put on full display: “I am thirsty,” he says in verse 28. John describes how a drink of “wine vinegar” was soaked in a hyssop plant and then lifted to Jesus to drink. What, if any, is the significance of this description from John? Two passages in Psalms were probably considered. First from Psalm 22, which has already been mentioned in connection with Jesus’ clothes:
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. (Ps.22:15)
Another possibility could be Psalm 69:21
They put gall in my food
and gave me vinegar for my thirst.
Colin Kruse tells us that Wine vinegar was cheap wine usually given to Roman soldiers, first diluted with water. While John doesn’t say explicitly, we probably can assume it was a soldier who gave him the drink. Regardless, John found the connection to these two texts from the Psalms to be further proof that all that was happening was a part of God’s sovereign plan, not the machinations of vengeful enemies or a broken judicial system that was willing to, in the words of Caiaphas, have one man killed for the sake of the larger community. Finally Jesus says, “it is finished,” and gives up his “spirit” (vs.30). God the father can thus say, in the words of Jesus, “well done my good and faithful servant.” (Mt. 25:21)
Jesus’ Body is Removed from the Cross & His Body Prepared for Burial: John sheds more light on the brutality of crucifixion as he describes the process of “finishing off” the two criminals by breaking their legs. Jesus, on the other hand, is already found dead and thus not requiring a leg-breaking. Instead they chose to pierce his side, which brought about a “sudden flow of blood and water.” (vs.34) John here provides an interesting note: he says the soldier “gave testimony and his testimony is true. (vs.34) Any physical life of Jesus the Nazarene will only be possible by supernatural-intervention. John goes on about the soldier “He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe.” Who would be convinced that Jesus was a king? A king of kings? Perhaps the soldier who pierced his side and knew full-well that Jesus’ return was no natural occurrence, but only the work of an all-powerful God who could bring the dead to life.
Jesus’ Burial: John tells us that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus would come for Jesus’ body and have it taken to Joseph’s own burial chamber. Joseph would have been considered wealthy by contemporary standards to have a burial chamber available. Nicodemus was a Pharisee of some means as well. The risk each took demonstrates a faithfulness as well as the reality that all socio-economic classes can follow Jesus, not just the poor. It is people in high places that enable Jesus to be faithfully buried according to Jewish custom. But as we well know, the tomb will not be occupied for long…
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
He, the Life of all, our Lord and Savior, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. No. He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others, and those other His special enemies, a death which to them was supremely terrible and by no means to be faced; and He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death which they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat.
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
A Strange Exaltation
While summarizing the work of Joel Marcus, professor Lauren Winner describes the irony that in crucifixion, the victim is literally elevated above the rest of the crowd:
As Joel Marcus explains, this strangely “exalting” mode of execution was designed to mimic, parody, and puncture the pretensions of insubordinate transgressors by displaying a deliberately horrible mirror of their self-elevation.
For it is revealing that the criminals so punished were often precisely people who had, in the view of their judges, gotten “above” themselves—rebellious slaves, for example, or slaves who had insulted their masters, or people of any class who had not shown proper deference to the emperor, not to mention those who had revolted against him or who had, through brigandage or piracy, demonstrated disdain for imperial rule. Crucifixion was intended to unmask, in a deliberately grotesque manner, the pretension and arrogance of those who had exalted themselves beyond their station.
One who is slapped. —John Chrysostom’s definition of “fool” Jesus’s crucifixion was layered with many more layers of irony—calling Him king, clothing Him in mock-royal garb. But if Jesus’s elevation was mocked by the Roman punishment, that very mocking was in turn undone by the resurrection. It was not the Romans who had the last laugh.