Studies in John’s Gospel—Lesson 42
by Reta Halteman Finger
In a recent issue of the Christian Century (Jan 7, 2015), Katherine Willis Pershey writes about her experience with chronic pain. A gruesome crucifix she encountered in an old Mexican church has become for her “a sort of icon of the banality of pain—even divine pain.” Her following sentence hit home to me. “For all the competing theories of atonement, there is a singular fact about the crucifixion: it hurt like hell.”
I suppose hurting like hell was driven home to anyone who has watched Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, but none of the canonical Gospels describe the physical aspects of crucifixion. They didn’t need to. Given that olive trees lined many public roads in Palestine and elsewhere, passersby were used to seeing accused criminals and revolutionaries with arms stretched on crossbars, and feet nailed to the upright trunk.
There was nothing romantic about it. The victims had been stripped naked, their 10-level pain laced with public humiliation and shame. Many lingered for days, covered in their own excrement. From the onlookers’ mocking point of view, they got what they deserved. After they died, corpses were usually left hanging for birds and other predators to pick their bones clean. Crucifixions were Rome’s most dramatic advertisements to occupied peoples: “We’re in charge. Don’t mess with us, or you’re next!”
Depending on their particular plots and characterizations of Jesus, each of our four Gospels provides some different details about Jesus’s crucifixion and his last words. I find three important emphases in John’s account: the inscription over the cross, Jesus’s emotional control and concern for others, and the various ways scripture is fulfilled. Can you identify examples in the scripture passage for this lesson (John 19:16b-42) and show how they are consistent with the overall characterization of Jesus through this Gospel?
The provocative inscription
• Pilate placed an inscription written in three languages on Jesus’s cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (19:19-20). This is sometimes taken to support Pilate’s sympathy for Jesus. But in light of the competitive and antagonistic relationship we saw in Lessons 40 and 41 between the Roman governor and his Jewish temple clients, what is the real reason Pilate put up the sign and then refused to change it? (19:21-22). How does it mock the temple high priests? What did the sign convey to passersby at the time, and what did it mean to the author’s later Jesus-community? How does it climax the ironic mode in which this Gospel was written?
Jesus’s emotional control and concern for family
• Why would Jesus’s cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34), be inappropriate to include in John’s plot? How do Jesus’s last words in this Gospel show his emotional control even as he is dying?
• What is the plight of an elderly widow whose oldest son is dying, and how does Jesus as the son deal with this? Is it possible that “Mary wife of Clopas” and the “beloved disciple” are the siblings Mary and Lazarus from John 11? How might the presence of these five people at the cross highlight Jesus’s emphasis in this Gospel on discipleship as family?
In four comparisons, John’s Gospel shows how details around Jesus’s death bring to mind texts from three categories of Jewish scripture: Torah, Psalms, and Prophets. Look up the biblical references in each of these places in John chapter 19:
• Verse 24— compare with Psalm 22:18
• Verse 28— compare with Psalm 69:21; Psalm 22:15
• Verses 33 and 36— compare with Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20 (note the connection of these verses to Passover)
• Verses 34 and 37— compare with Zechariah 12:10
Viewed from the perspective of typical first-century Palestinians living under Roman occupation, Jesus’s fate was the worst possible outcome, since it combined extreme physical pain, public humiliation, and loss of hope. Even Jesus’s closest friends (except Judas) had little premonition of what was to happen that weekend. How do these persistent echoes of Hebrew scripture provide an undercurrent of God’s providence in the midst of what appears a crushing defeat?
The coming Passover observance, as well as the intervention of two local but secret disciples, explains why Jesus’s body did not remain on the cross to decay (19:38-42). What evidence in the text shows that Joseph and Nicodemus were of higher social status and wealth than the Galilean peasant disciples?
Further questions for discussion and reflection
1. Although the Synoptic Gospels show Jesus dying on Passover Day itself, John says he died on the Day of Preparation (19:14, 31, 42), the day all the lambs were killed to celebrate the last meal before the Hebrews’ escaped from Egyptian slavery (Exodus 12:1-42). Is this why John omits a Last Supper, since by that time Jesus would have already been dead? Why is there a discrepancy (see John 1:29)? Who is right—John or the Synoptics?
2. Muslims believe that someone else took Jesus’s place on the cross, because God would never have allowed God’s prophet to be so humiliated. This makes sense, given the strong emphasis on public honor in the Middle East, both then and now. How does the verbal and dramatic irony of John 19:17-42 (and Jesus’s predictions in 12:27-36) address that perspective?
3. What does Jesus’s crucifixion mean to you?
4. What is wrong with the picture below? How are Jesus’s cross and his crucifixion glorified in most Christian art?