This week the impeachment trial of William Jefferson Clinton continues, and the case now appears to rest on the testimony of four witnesses: Monica Lewinsky, Sidney Blumenthal, Vernon Jordan, and U.S. President Bill Clinton. Each one has their own version of the truth, and the Senate must decide what testimony, if any, to believe as true. There are some scholars who approach the Gospels in a similar fashion. Four individuals bear witness here also: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Some scholars are quick to say they do not believe any one Gospel is altogether true and reliable. Thus, they think they must sort through all of the Gospels, picking and choosing (and sometimes even modifying an account), in an attempt to discern the “truth” from the New Testament Gospels.
How grateful I am to God that this is not my approach to the Gospels. When I come to the four Gospels, I believe that each one is completely true and reliable. There are differences between the Gospels, but this is by divine design. With the human limitations posed by my knowledge and intelligence, I could not handle the overload of knowing all that Jesus said and did in His earthly life and ministry. Each Gospel writer presents the truth from a slightly different perspective, giving us an important slice of the truth. John indicates that he has selectively recorded a number of significant signs, so that the reader might come to “believe” in Jesus as the promised Messiah, thereby obtaining eternal life (John 20:30-31).
In their accounts of our Lord’s crucifixion and death, Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the so-called Synoptic Gospels), all mention Simon of Cyrene. They describe the mockery of Jesus by the crowd, by the Jewish religious leaders, and by the two robbers who were crucified beside our Lord. They tell us about the three hours of darkness, and Matthew and Mark record the cry of our Lord, “My God, My God, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?” The Synoptic Gospels refer to the women who kept their vigil at the cross, as close to their Lord as they could get. In the Synoptics, we read of the curtain of the temple being torn in two, from top to bottom, and of the soldiers casting lots for our Lord’s garments.
Each Gospel has its own unique contribution to the overall picture of what took place when our Lord suffered and died on the cross of Calvary. Matthew gets our attention with his account of the earthquake, which followed our Lord’s death, so that the tombs of some in the vicinity of Jerusalem were opened, and these resurrected folks made appearances in Jerusalem (Matthew 27:52-54). Mark informs us that Simon of Cyrene is the father of Alexander and Rufus (15:21). Luke has his own story to tell of Jesus on the road to Calvary, of His prayer that God forgive those who were crucifying Him (23:34), of the Lord’s conversation with one of the two thieves who believed, and a record of the Lord’s words, “Father, into Your hands I commit my spirit!” (23:46). Perhaps Luke’s most unique contribution is his account of the people leaving the scene of our Lord’s execution, “beating their breasts” (23:48).
John’s Gospel is truly unique in its portrayal of our Lord’s death. John may have been the only Gospel writer to have been an eye-witness of the crucifixion (see 19:35). John omits much that is recorded in the Synoptic Gospels, including:
Any reference to Simon of Cyrene
Everything but a brief reference to the two others being crucified beside Jesus
The mockery of the crowd, the Jewish religious leaders, and the two thieves
The cry, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?”
The three hours of darkness
The torn veil of the temple
The testimony of the centurion
John’s material in our text can be summarized in this way:
Verses 17-22: Yet another “sign” in John: The “King of the Jews”
Verses 23-27 Lottery and loyalty: four men and four women, at the foot of the cross
Verses 28-30 Two statements: “I thirst.”; “It is finished!”
Verses 31-37 No bones broken, but a pierced side
So they took Jesus, 17 and he went out, carrying his own cross, to the place called ‘The Place of the Skull’ (called in Aramaic Golgotha). 18 There they crucified him along with two others, one on each side, with Jesus in the middle. 19 Pilate also had a notice written and placed on the cross. This is what was written on it: “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” 20 So many of the Jewish residents of Jerusalem read this notice, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the notice was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21 Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The king of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am king of the Jews’.” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
John’s statement that Jesus “went out, carrying His own cross” (verse 17) does not contradict the account of the Synoptics, which inform us that Simon of Cyrene171 carried our Lord’s cross to Calvary. Jesus must have taken up His cross in Jerusalem and carried it as far as outside the city. Then, at some stage of the journey to Golgotha, it must have become evident that Jesus could no longer bear the weight of His cross. He appears to have been beaten more than the two others who were crucified. It may also have been a matter of time. Time was now short, and there was pressure to get on quickly with the crucifixion. If someone were to carry our Lord’s cross for Him, they would get to Golgotha more quickly. Simon of Cyrene was on his way to Jerusalem from out in the country and was drafted to carry our Lord’s cross for Him. One cannot help but wonder what impact his encounter with Jesus made on Simon’s life. The fact that Mark mentions that he was the father of Alexander and Rufus (15:21) makes one wonder if he and his sons did not come to faith, so that those who read Mark’s Gospel would recognize these two sons as fellow-saints.
In one verse (17), John takes us from the judgment seat of Pilate to the “Place of the Skull.” John does not belabor the process of crucifixion, though we know it was the most cruel form of execution devised by man.172 The two robbers (whom Luke calls “criminals”) are crucified with our Lord, one on His left, and the other to His right. It seems significant that Jesus was placed in the center. Surely He was the focus of this event, as everyone seemed to know, and as those who passed by could figure out for themselves.
John chooses to expand his account concerning the written notice that was attached to the cross above the head of our Lord. The other Gospels mention it, but it is John who gives us the most detail and the greatest insight here. Indicating the charges for which the condemned was crucified was common practice. In this way, those who witnessed the crucifixion would be warned by seeing that Rome took this particular offense seriously. We do not know whether the two men beside Jesus had notices above their heads, but we are told by every Gospel that the charges against Jesus (with slight variations) were written out: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
The place where Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem was not far from the city and was close to the road. Many Jews—a number of whom were pilgrims—were on their way to or from Jerusalem and therefore passed by the cross of our Lord. Messianic hopes ran high, especially at Passover, and so the words written above the head of Jesus caught the attention of those passing by. The words were written in Aramaic, the language of the Jews of Palestine, Latin, the language of the Romans, and Greek, the common language of the day in that part of the world. It would have been difficult to pass by that way and not look upon Jesus, and to read the notice above His head. Many of those who saw the sign paused to ponder its meaning, making Jesus the center of attention.
This notoriety and publicity upset the Jewish religious leaders. They did not wish for Jesus’ claims to be advertised publicly. They especially did not like the inference of Pilate’s wording, which may have been intended as a barb for those who wanted Jesus crucified. Pilate’s words almost implied that Jesus’ claim to be the “King of the Jews” was true. Seeking to remedy the situation, the Jews appealed to Pilate, urging him to modify the words posted on the cross of Jesus. They wanted the notice to indicate only that Jesus claimed to be “King of the Jews,” the inference being that His claim was false. These Jews were highly skilled in debating over words and their meaning,173 but they did not win this battle of the wills. Pilate had had just about enough of them for one day; he was not going to let them tell him what to do this time. Pilate’s words would stand as they were written. And that was the end of this discussion.
Is it not interesting that both Caiaphas and Pilate find themselves unwittingly bearing witness to the fact that Jesus is indeed the Son of God, the King of Israel? Not long before, Caiaphas, as the high priest, spoke prophetically about our Lord’s substitutionary death (John 11:47-52). And now, here in our text, Pilate refers to Jesus as “the King of the Jews.” Neither of these powerful men had any intention of giving glory to God, but both of them spoke (or wrote, in Pilate’s case) of Jesus in a way that was prophetic. If God can speak through a dumb animal (i.e., Balaam’s donkey, Numbers 22:28-30), He can surely speak through men who do not even believe in Him. It may have been out of spite for the Jews that Pilate wrote what he did, but what he wrote was true, and in so doing, Pilate called attention to Jesus as Israel’s Messiah, the “King of the Jews.”
For the wrath of man shall praise You; With a remnant of wrath You will gird Yourself (Psalm 76:10, NASB).
23 Now when the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothing and made four shares, one for each soldier, and the tunic remained. (Now the tunic was seamless,174 woven from top to bottom as a single piece.) 24 So the soldiers said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but throw dice to see who will get it.” This took place to fulfill the scripture that says, “They divided up my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things. 25 Now standing beside Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 So when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, “Woman, look, here is your son!” 27 He then said to his disciple, “Look, here is your mother!” From that very time the disciple took her into his own home.
It is John’s Gospel which most emphatically underscores the fulfillment of prophecy in the events surrounding our Lord’s death. Three times in our text John specifically informs his readers that prophecy has been fulfilled (verses 24, 36 and 37). When our Lord’s garments are divided according to lot, John informs us that this fulfills the prophecy of Psalm 22:18: “They divided My garments among them, And for My clothing they cast lots” (NKJV).
Translators have a choice to make at verse 25. They must decide just how many women John is referring to here. As you can see, the translators of the NET Bible (like most others) have opted to identify four women, though the mere movement of a comma could reduce this number to three. I believe that John does mean to specify four women here. There are a number of reasons for doing so, which we shall not belabor at this point. I am inclined to read verses 23-27 in a way that contrasts the four soldiers at the foot of the cross with the four saintly women who are also standing by their Lord.
The four men John focuses on are all Roman soldiers. It has fallen to their lot to carry out the crucifixion of Jesus and the two robbers. They appear to be oblivious to the suffering of the three men hanging on their crosses. According to Luke (23:36), the soldiers joined in with the others who mocked Jesus, virtually daring Him to come down from the cross to save Himself. John characterizes these four soldiers using this one scene. As Jesus hung there, beaten and bleeding, the solders were down on their knees. They weren’t praying; they were casting lots. They were, so to speak, rolling the dice to see which one of them would get the one-piece tunic. I can almost see one of the men shaking the dice in the palm of his hand, saying, “Com’ on, snake eyes …Yes! It’s mine!”
It almost sounds as if these soldiers were bored. Perhaps they had carried out this duty so many times they were just mechanically doing their job. There was nothing new or unexpected here, not yet, that is.175 From experience, these soldiers must have felt they knew almost exactly what would happen over the next few hours. Their ears very likely tuned out every moan and cry. They may have learned not to even look at their victims. If there is going to be any excitement for them at all, it will be in the casting of lots to see who wins the garments the dying men will leave behind. I cannot think of any way John could have better captured the cold-heartedness of these four men than by seizing upon this moment in time as they huddle together on the ground, casting lots for our Lord’s garments. They see nothing to gain from Jesus but some item of clothing. In today’s terms, they would look upon Jesus as the source of a baseball cap, an Izod shirt, a pair of Haggar slacks, or maybe—if they are lucky—a pair of Nike shoes. That’s all Jesus was to them—a chance to win a piece of clothing. As He hung there on that cross, shedding His precious blood for guilty sinners, all they could think about was our Lord’s tunic. When Jesus was “rolling away the burden of our sins” (as the hymn celebrates), they were rolling the dice.
Yet, let us not be too quick to judge these soldiers. They are no different, in heart, than many today. They ignore the atoning work of Jesus and look to Him only to meet their material needs—not the need for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life—but for their physical needs. Even we who name the name of Christ as Savior and Lord all too often only look to Him to care for our material needs. Our prayers sound more like shopping lists than serious petitions for our spiritual needs and those of others.
In stark contrast to the four male dice-rolling soldiers are the four dedicated women John identifies by name. The soldiers seem to have no appreciation for who Jesus is. They may never have seen Him before. They have no compassion on Him, even though He is suffering beyond words. These four women linger as close to the cross as they can get. They are among those women who followed Jesus, supporting Him from their own means (Mark 15:40-41; Luke 8:1-3). They did not look upon His death as a means of gaining some of His possessions (as was the case with the soldiers), but as the greatest loss they had ever suffered. Was it one of these women who gave Jesus the seamless garment for which the soldiers gambled?
Recently, I had to go to the doctor for my annual physical examination. You all know what that is like. They hand you something that seems little bigger, and probably thinner, than a paper towel. You sort of wrap it around yourself, and then desperately attempt to hold the thing together, struggling to preserve what little dignity remains. My experience at the doctor’s office helped me appreciate something I had not thought of before, which William Hendriksen called to my attention in his commentary on John:
“The clear implication of the passage which we are studying must not escape us. It is this: Jesus bore for us the curse of nakedness in order to deliver us from it! Cf. Gen. 3:9-11, 21; then II Cor. 5:4; Rev. 7:12, 13. Surely if what Ham did to his father Noah is singled out for special mention because of its reprehensible character, what the soldiers did when they disrobed Jesus and then divided his garments among themselves, casting lots, should cause us to pause with horror.”176
Hanging upon that cross, our Lord was almost naked as He bore our punishment for sin. After man first sinned, nakedness became shameful (see Genesis 9:20-27; 2 Samuel 10:1-5; Isaiah 20:4). Can you imagine the humiliation our Lord endured as He hung upon that cross, half-naked, with hundreds of people looking on? It is no wonder that David wrote of our Lord: “For dogs have surrounded Me; The congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet; I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me” (Psalm 22:16-17, NKJV, emphasis mine). Our Lord bore the curse of nakedness for us, so that we might be clothed in His righteousness.
It was as Jesus was hanging there, half-naked, on that cross that He made arrangements for the care of His mother: “So when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, look, here is your son!’ He then said to his disciple, ‘Look, here is your mother!’ From that very time the disciple took her into his own home” (John 19:26-27).
Once again we come upon “the other disciple,” whom we can reasonably assume to be John. Much is made of this text, too much by some. As D. A. Carson notes, Roman Catholicism seeks to find here a mandate for the veneration of Mary. This is a view which Carson rejects as contrary to the text and to the tenor of John’s Gospel:
Roman Catholic exegesis has tended not so much to see Mary coming under the care of the beloved disciple, as the reverse; and if the beloved disciple is also taken as an idealization of all true disciples, the way is cleared to think of Mary as the mother of the church.177
… the Fourth Gospel focuses on the exclusiveness of the Son, the finality of his cross-work, the promise of the Paraclete as the definitive aid to the believers after Jesus has been glorified, and correspondingly de-emphasizes Mary by giving her almost no part to play in the narrative, and by reporting a rebuke, however gentle, that Jesus administered to her (2:4). With such themes lying on the surface of the text, it is most natural to see in vv. 26-27 an expression of Jesus’ love and care for his mother, a thoughtful provision for her needs at the hour of supreme devastation. … To argue, then, that this scene is symbolic of a continuing role for Mary as the church comes under her care is without adequate contextual control. It is so anachronistic an interpretation that [it] is difficult to imagine how it could have gained such sway apart from the developments of centuries of later traditions.178
The common Protestant interpretation of this incident is that Jesus, knowing He was about to die and to return to the Father, made arrangements for the long-term care of His mother.179 This “long-term” element does raise some questions in my mind. We are told in Scripture that it is the responsibility of the immediate family to look after their own:
3 Honor widows who are truly in need. 4 But if a widow has children or grandchildren, they should first learn to fulfill their duty toward their own household and so repay their parents what is owed them. For this is what pleases God (1 Timothy 5:3-4).
Why, then, would Jesus assign the responsibility of caring for His mother to John, who is not one of her sons? The answer most would give is that none of her other sons were believers (see John 7:5). This is true, of course, but not for long. We know that within days or weeks, James, Jesus’ half-brother, will come to faith and eventually become a prominent leader in the church at Jerusalem (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 1 Corinthians 15:7; Galatians 1:19). Why would Jesus assign the long-term care of Mary to John, knowing that James, her son, will soon come to faith?
I would suggest that our problems are solved if we see Jesus providing here for Mary’s short-term care. Surely we would agree that Jesus knew James was one of the elect. If James is one of our Lord’s “sheep,” then Jesus would know it and would not act in a way that was contrary to this knowledge. I would suggest to you that Jesus was providing for the care of His mother for the next few days or weeks. We know that John immediately began to care for Mary, because he tells us so in verse 27 (“from that very time”—literally, “from that hour”). There are those who believe that John (or his family) may have actually owned a home in Jerusalem. This could explain why John (“the other disciple”) was known to the high priest and to the servant girl at the gate (18:16). Mary, like the disciples, could have been in danger and would certainly need to be looked after for a while. John would have been the one most able and willing to carry out this task.
The next few days were going to be pure agony. We do not know for certain that Mary’s other sons were present in Jerusalem (though we would expect so—see John 7:1-9), but if they were, can you imagine what kind of comfort these unbelieving sons would have been to their believing mother?180 I can almost hear James trying to comfort Mary after the death of Jesus: “Mom, you know I told Jesus to give up His insane talk about being the Messiah. He must have been out of His mind. And now, all of this foolishness was for nothing, except to shame us.” I believe that Jesus assigned John to care for Mary because he was the one closest to the heart of our Lord, and because he was the first disciple to believe (see John 20:8). He also seems to have had the means to do so. Who better to look after Mary in the next dark and difficult days than John?
28 After this Jesus, because he knew that by this time everything was completed, to fulfill the scripture, said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was there, so they put a sponge soaked in sour wine on a branch of hyssop and lifted it to Jesus’ mouth. 30 So when he had received the sour wine, Jesus said, “It is completed,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
I am amazed at the words of verse 28. Jesus knew that everything was completed. He was no helpless victim, powerless, and therefore subject to the whims of those who had arrested Him. Jesus was aware of every Scripture that spoke of His atoning death as the promised Messiah. In the last few weeks especially, Jesus has been orchestrating events so that His death would perfectly fulfill all these prophecies. In the final moments of His life, Jesus takes note of the fact that every prophetic detail has been arranged for so that He now may proceed to complete His mission, in a way that fulfills the remaining prophecies concerning His death.
Jesus utters the words, “I am thirsty,” which prompts one of those standing nearby to dip a sponge into sour wine and convey it to the lips of our Lord. This is not the same offer of wine that was made as the crucifixion began (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23). The “wine” that Jesus refused at the outset of His crucifixion was mixed with a narcotic-like pain killer.181 Jesus refused this because He insisted on drinking the “cup of God’s wrath” to the full (John 18:11). The “wine” Jesus now accepts is a cheap wine. It did not deaden any of His pain. Our Lord’s thirst and His partaking of this “wine” seems to have served a two-fold purpose. First, it fulfilled Scripture:
My strength is dried up like a potsherd, And My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death (Psalm 22:15, NKJV).
I am weary with my crying; My throat is dry; My eyes fail while I wait for my God (Psalm 69:3, NKJV).
They also gave me gall for my food, And for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink (Psalm 69:21, NKJV).
While there is considerable discussion about John’s reference to the “branch of hyssop” that was used to lift the sponge to our Lord’s lips,182 we can hardly fail to see the significance of the hyssop in relation to the blood of the Passover lamb: “And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning” (Exodus 12:22, NKJV).
Second, it would seem as though the vinegar-like wine served to help clear the throat of our Lord, so that He could end His life triumphantly, with a shout. So far as John informs us, the “shout” is not, “It is completed,” but rather as Luke informs us, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). These two statements must have come in close proximity to each other, however. The words that John records were no doubt spoken first, and then were followed by the words that Luke records. John simply tells us that Jesus “said,” “It is completed.” Jesus declares that His work is completed, and then He gives up His Spirit.
It really has been completed, hasn’t it? Everything for which John has been preparing us in this Gospel has now been accomplished by our Lord. John 1 declares that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, who called the world into being. He is the One sent to earth by the Father, in order to reveal Him to men. He is the One who “came unto His own place and to His own people,” and yet those who were “His own”—the Jews—rejected Him. He was “lifted up” so that He could draw all men unto Himself (3:13-18). He came to do His Father’s will (4:34) and has now completed it. He came to declare His Father’s Word, and He has proclaimed it (8:26-28, 38; 12:49-50; 14:10). He came to glorify the Father, and on the cross, He has done that (12:23, 28, 41; 13:32; 17:1, 4). It truly is finished; His task has been completed.
And because all of His prerequisite work has been completed, our Lord can now die. His life is not taken away from Him; He voluntarily gives it up, just as He had indicated earlier:
14 “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me— 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that do not come from this sheepfold. I must bring them too, and they will listen to my voice, so that there will be one flock and one shepherd. 17 This is why the Father loves me—because I lay down my life, so that I may take it back again. 18 No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down of my own free will. I have the authority to lay it down, and I have the authority to take it back again. This is the commandment I received from my Father” (John 10:14-18).
Jesus gave up His spirit; it was not taken from Him. In fact, Pilate will be surprised to hear that Jesus has died so soon (Mark 15:44). The soldiers had to hasten the death of the two thieves, but not that of our Lord. Even the timing of His death was indicative of His sovereign control over all things. Because Jesus died when He did, His legs would not be broken, thus fulfilling yet another prophecy as we shall see in the next verses.
31 Then, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not stay on the crosses on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was an especially important one), the Jewish religious authorities asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies taken down. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who had been crucified with Jesus, first the one and then the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and blood and water flowed out immediately. 35 And the person who saw it has testified (and his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth), so that you also may believe. 36 For these things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled, “Not a bone of his will be broken.” 37 And again another scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
John chooses not to repeat much of what the other Gospels have recorded. Verses 31-37 are unique to John’s Gospel. They describe what football fans know as the “two-minute offense.” This is the offensive plan implemented by the team which is behind when there are two minutes or less left on the clock. Everything is hurried up, or designed to stop the clock. The quarterback may call the next two plays so that they can skip the huddle. The quarterback throws the ball rather than runs it so the clock will stop if it is an incomplete pass. The team will also use its time-outs strategically. All of this is done because there is little time left in the game.
The Jews were now in their “two-minute offense.” Time was running out for them. They had been forced to go through the formalities of a trial and to obtain Pilate’s cooperation in the crucifixion of Jesus. They were still under great time constraints because this was the day of preparation; they must be done with this crucifixion by evening so they could begin to observe the Sabbath by evening. Normally, death by crucifixion would take much longer, and this was no problem to Rome. While the Romans liked to leave the bodies of those crucified exposed for some time, to serve as a warning to all, the Jews could not allow these bodies to remain exposed after nightfall. The men would have to die more quickly than normal so that their bodies could be taken down.183
Rome had a solution for this situation.184 A heavy hammer was used to crush the bones of the victims’ legs. This would make it impossible for those being crucified to push up with their legs in order to facilitate the breathing process. Once their leg bones were broken, the victims died within a short time. The soldiers therefore set out to break the legs of all three. For some reason, they started on the outside, waiting to deal with Jesus last. (Is it possible that having seen and heard the events of that day—such as the three hours of darkness—they were now reluctant to do further bodily harm to Jesus?) When they came to Him, it was apparent that He was already dead. There was no need to break His legs.
One of the soldiers must have wanted to make absolutely sure that Jesus was dead, so he thrust his spear into our Lord’s side. Immediately, both blood and water gushed out, a fact to which John gives special significance. There have been many interesting attempts to explain the spiritual significance of this fact. For example, some have seen the “water” to be a symbol of Christian baptism, while the “blood” is said to symbolize communion. This is a very difficult connection to prove, and it seems forced to me.
Others have gone to considerable effort to show that this was a natural phenomena,185 as though it were necessary to prove that what happened to Jesus happens to others as well. In other words, they wish to show that this is humanly possible. I remember when I was studying the Book of Jonah, several commentators referred to other historical accounts of men being swallowed by fish and surviving. That such things could, in fact, happen was construed as proof that, in Jonah’s case, it did happen. I would have been content to believe in Jonah’s miraculous rescue, whether or not it had ever happened to anyone else before. Why do we work so hard to prove that things which are supernatural are natural?
Perhaps the “water and blood” that poured from our Lord’s wound was a normal phenomena, something that one should expect in a death such as our Lord’s. But I am perfectly content for this phenomena to be absolutely unique. Was His birth not unique? Why should His death not be unique in some respects as well? As I read John’s words in verse 35, he seems to make a point of the fact that “blood and water” came from the wound that was inflicted by the thrust of the soldier’s spear. Might John not have been referring to this as something unique, and therefore most noteworthy? Does he not seem to employ this as yet another “sign” that points to the deity of our Lord and the truth of the Gospel? “And the person who saw it has testified (and his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth), so that you also may believe” (verse 35). May this not have been one of the factors that the centurion took into account, which contributed to his astonishment at the way Jesus died? “When the centurion, who stood in front of him, saw that he breathed no more, he said, ‘Truly, this man was God’s Son!’” (Mark 15:39).
Already in John’s day, there were those seeking sophisticated alternative explanations for the death and resurrection of our Lord. One of these was known as docetism, the view that Jesus did not come in “flesh and blood,” but as some kind of spirit being. John’s description of our Lord’s death, especially of the “blood and water,” shows the folly of denying that Jesus Christ came in the flesh (see 1 John 4:2). There were also those who contended that, although Jesus was truly “flesh and blood,” He did not actually die; He just “swooned” and was revived by the cool temperature in the tomb. This account of the spear thrust into the side of our Lord deals a death blow to swoon theories and to docetism.
Once again, John wishes us to see that the things which took place at Calvary were the very things God had prophesied.186 Jesus, by giving up His life earlier than expected, was spared from having His legs broken. John sees in this a fulfillment of prophecy. Though the Old Testament text that is fulfilled is not indicated, very likely it comes from Exodus 12 or Psalm 34:20, or both:
43 And the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “This is the ordinance of the Passover: No foreigner shall eat it. 44 But every man’s servant who is bought for money, when you have circumcised him, then he may eat it. 45 A sojourner and a hired servant shall not eat it. 46 In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not carry any of the flesh outside the house, nor shall you break one of its bones” (Exodus 12:43-46, NKJV; see also Numbers 9:12).
He guards all his bones; Not one of them is broken (Psalm 34:20, NKJV).
The other fulfilled prophecy, referred to by John in verse 37, is from Zechariah 12:10:
“And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10, NKJV).
The piercing of the side of our Lord was prophetically necessary, since Zechariah 12:10 refers to the Messiah. And so what John describes is what Zechariah foretold. Everything was truly going according to God’s plan. Not one prophecy failed to be fulfilled.
All of this, mind you, happened in spite of the norm, and in spite of the Jews’ request. The Jews, alarmed by how long the execution was taking, were desperate to get this over with so that they could get on with “worshipping God.” They requested of Pilate that he have the legs of all three men broken, which was a common practice. Had things gone as everyone expected, the legs of our Lord would have been broken as well. But the Jews did not get their way. The soldiers broke the legs of the other two, but seeing that Jesus was already dead (because, we are told, Jesus gave up His spirit—verse 30) they chose not to go to the trouble of breaking the legs of a dead man. Instead, perhaps at a whim, one soldier thrusts his spear into the Savior’s side. The result is that two prophecies are fulfilled in one stroke. The legs of Jesus are not broken, and the side of Jesus is pierced. Even in death, our Lord perfectly fulfilled the Scriptures.
One of the most striking things about the accounts of our Lord’s death in the Gospels is the absence of sensationalism. The physical suffering of our Lord was designed to be as great as men could devise. Many are those who attempt to expand upon the New Testament’s account of our Lord’s death, so we can appreciate more fully the physical torture He endured for us.
I do not in any way desire to minimize the physical suffering of our Lord on the cross, but neither do I wish to make more of it than the Gospels do. Why isn’t there more emphasis on the physical pain that our Lord endured? I would suggest several answers. First, the physical suffering of our Lord was but a small part of what He endured at Calvary. To put it differently, our Lord’s physical pain was the suffering which men were able to impose upon Him. But the great suffering which our Lord endured at Calvary was the spiritual suffering our Lord experienced at the hand of God. Our Lord became sin for us, and He suffered in our place to save us from our sins. Our Lord suffered the eternal wrath of God. Compared to this suffering, our Lord’s physical suffering was but a drop in the bucket.
Second, there is really no way we can fathom God’s wrath. If you are like me, you have tried to imagine what heaven will be like. No matter how hard we try, no matter how far we let our imaginations go, our minds fall far short of grasping the wonders of heaven: “But just as it is written, ‘Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him’” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
If our minds cannot begin to fathom the good things God has in store for His children, why would we think that our minds would be able to comprehend the horror of God’s wrath, which will come upon those who have rebelled against Him? God has graciously kept us from understanding what would only horrify us. As Jesus Himself said, “So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
Third—and here I can be justly criticized for speculation—I wonder if knowing how much our Lord suffered might cause us needless suffering. I am a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I must tell you that I don’t like to suffer, but it is even more painful for me to watch one of those close to me, one whom I dearly love, suffer. I think, at times, that my suffering—vicariously through the pain of a loved one—is greater than the actual suffering which is experienced. If the purpose of our Lord’s suffering was to suffer in our behalf, to suffer instead of us, then why would He graphically describe His own immense suffering for us? Would this not cause us great agony? What I am trying to say here is that God was gracious in not telling us any more than He did, because it would cause us to suffer. We need not suffer for those sins for which He suffered and died.
Perhaps this helps to explain the three hours of darkness, which John chooses not to mention. It is my opinion that God “turned out the lights” so that no one would be able to see the bulk of the spiritual suffering our Lord endured at the Father’s hand. Do you remember in the Book of Exodus, when Moses asked God to see His glory (Exodus 33:18)? God allowed Moses to see a portion of His glory, but not the totality of it. God covered Moses with His hand, so that he would not die beholding His unveiled glory. I wonder if God did not do something similar with the darkness, as our Lord suffered on the cross. Would men have survived if they beheld the wrath of God being poured out in full measure upon the Son? How good God is to keep us from knowing any more of the suffering of the Son than He has revealed, than He wants us to know.
The cross is a great revealer of truth. The cross is the measure of the magnitude of our sin. When we read of what took place at the cross, we almost tremble at the way men mocked God, knowing that had we been alive then, we would have joined them, apart from the grace of God. The cross reveals to us the dreadfulness of our sins. It is just such sin that required the cross to cure it. If the price of the cure is also the measure of the magnitude of the disease, sin is a horrible malady. The cross is the measure of God’s hatred of sin. The cross is also the measure of God’s love and grace, poured out upon those whom He saves.
The cross, as terrible as it is, is a wondrous and even beautiful thing, for the Christian. We sing that song, “The Old Rugged Cross,” with gratitude and wonder. We sing that we “love that old cross …”, and so we do, or rather, we love Him who died on it. And every week, in our church at least, we gather to celebrate, once again, the sacrifice which our Lord made on our behalf, through the shedding of His precious blood. No matter how many times I read the accounts of our Lord’s death, I am always struck with wonder, gratitude, and praise. I am reminded of the words of a hymn that is not in our hymnal, but should be, “Jesus, keep me near the cross …” So it should be.
I am sure that the events which occurred at the cross had a great impact on those who witnessed the death of our Lord. The centurion was convinced from what he saw that Jesus was the Son of God. Some of those who heard Peter preach at Pentecost may well have witnessed our Lord’s death at Calvary. Luke (23:48) tells us that the multitudes, when they beheld this sight, went away beating their breasts. It was a horrible day for those who thought it might be entertaining. I wonder how many of these folks were later saved.
If you are a Christian, you should be stirred in your soul every time you read of our Lord’s death. We should never tire of remembering Him and His death, as our Lord commanded (see Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:23ff.). We should take every temptation to sin seriously, knowing what our sin cost Him at Calvary. We should never cease to preach Christ crucified, for this is what the gospel is all about.
Is it possible that someone is reading these words who has not yet grasped the fact that the death of Jesus Christ is no mere historical fact, unrelated to men and women today? The death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross was His full and final payment for the penalty of our sin. It is on the basis of His death and resurrection that the offer of salvation is made to all. Those who trust in the work of Jesus at Calvary are saved. Have you received the gift of salvation, which was purchased at Calvary? If not, I urge you to acknowledge your sin, and to own up to the fact that His suffering at Calvary is what you deserve. Receive the gift of the forgiveness of your sins, trusting that He has paid the penalty for your sin.
As I think of the picture of the cross which John has painted for us, I remember the crowds as they taunted and mocked the Lord Jesus Christ. I hear their words ringing in my ears, “We have no king, but Caesar!” (19:15), and “His blood be upon us and our children!” (Matthew 27:25). These are the most horrifying words imaginable. Not many years later, Jerusalem will pay a heavy price for the Jews’ part in the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Thirty years later, on this very spot, judgment was pronounced against some of the best citizens of Jerusalem. Of the 3,600 victims of the governor’s fury, not a few were scourged and crucified! Judas died in a loathsome suicide, the house of Annas was destroyed some years later, Caiaphas was deposed a year after the crucifixion, and Pilate was soon after banished to Gaul and there died in suicide. When Jerusalem fell, her wretched citizens were crucified around her walls until, in the historian’s grim language, ‘space was wanting for the crosses, and crosses for the bodies.’ The horrors of the siege of Jerusalem are unparalleled in history.187
As I have reflected on our text, I have asked myself this question: “What is the unique contribution which the Gospel of John makes to the description of our Lord’s death on the cross of Calvary?” In the Synoptic Gospels, we read a great deal concerning the mockery of the crowds, of the Jewish religious leaders, of the Roman soldiers, and even of the two thieves. But John passes these matters by. Why? I think there is a good reason, one that makes a lot of sense once you stop to think about it—John wants our Lord Jesus to be central and preeminent in his account of the death of the Savior at Calvary. Jesus is center stage in John, as He ought to be. Calvary is about a cross, the cross of Jesus Christ. It is He alone, through His cross, who saves sinners. Let us never lose this focus.
171 “… the second-century gnostic heretic Basilides in his commentary on John argues that Simon the Cyrene took Jesus’ place and died on the cross in his stead—the common view of Muslims to this day.” D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p. 609.
172 “Crucifixion was regarded as a very shameful thing, and the writers of antiquity apparently did not care to dwell on it; they certainly shrank from recording details. The words of Cicero are often quoted, when he spoke of crucifixion as ‘that most cruel and disgusting penalty.’ We should perhaps notice also the words of the Jewish writer Josephus who spoke of it as ‘the most wretched of deaths.’” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 4, p. 655.
“And it was painful. The Roman philosopher Seneca speaks of the very slow and painful way the crucified died and asks whether anyone would willingly die in this way: ‘Can anyone be found who would prefer wasting away in pain dying limb by limb, or letting out his life drop by drop, rather than expiring once for all? Can any man be found willing to be fastened to the accursed tree, long sickly, already deformed, swelling with ugly weals on shoulders and chest, and drawing the breath of life amid long-drawn-out agony? He would have many excuses for dying even before mounting the cross’ (cited from Martin Hengel, Crucifixion [London, 1977], pp. 30-31.” Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John, IV, p. 655.
173 Legalists (then or now) always seem inclined to haggle over words (see Acts 18:15; 1 Timothy 6:4). There are times when words and their technical meanings are important, but let us not forget that those who wish to debate the technical meaning of words sometimes do so to avoid or deny the clear meaning of these words (see, for example, Luke 10:29). Those of us who take pride in our ability to probe the “deep meanings” of words should be cautioned.
174 “The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the high priest’s robe was seamless: ‘… this tunic is not composed of two pieces, to be stitched at the shoulders and at the sides: it is one long woven cloth, with a slit for the neck, parted not crosswise but lengthwise from the breast to a point in the middle of the back’ (it was this slit that the high priest prolonged when he tore his robes, as in Mark 14:63). It is possible that John is hinting at Jesus’ priestly activity when he mentions this seamless robe at the time of his death, but the point cannot be insisted upon. In any case we do not know how many people other than priests wore seamless tunics.” Morris, Reflections, IV, pp. 663-664.
175 Something changed all this, as we can see from the statement of the centurion (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39). The three hours of darkness must have had an impact on them all, not to mention the unusual way in which Jesus died, followed by the violent earthquake of Matthew 27:51ff.
179 “As William Barclay says, ‘There is something infinitely moving in the fact that Jesus in the agony of the Cross, in the moment when the salvation of the world hung in the balance, thought of the loneliness of His mother in the days when He was taken away. Jesus never forgot the duties that lay to His hand.’ Earlier in this Gospel we are told that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in him (7:5), and we may fairly infer that they were out of sympathy with Mary. So it was important that there should be somebody who would look after her when Jesus was no longer there.” Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), vol. 4, p. 665. Morris does not emphasize the “long-term” element here, but it seems to be implied.
180 See Psalm 69:8.
181 “It is good to know that it was customary for a drug to be offered to the crucified so that some of the pain was mitigated. We read of the custom in Sanh. 43a, ‘When one is led out to execution, he is given a goblet of wine containing a grain of frankincense, in order to benumb his senses, for it is written, Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul. And it has also been taught: The noble women in Jerusalem used to donate and bring it’ (Soncino edn., pp. 279ff.).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971), p. 814, fn. 72.
183 What irony we see here. The Jews zealously seek to keep the law regarding the defilement of the land through the exposure of dead bodies, and yet they are in the process of killing the Son of God. Is this not a case of “straining a gnat and swallowing a camel” (see Matthew 23:24)?
184 “Stripped naked and beaten to pulpy weakness …, the victim could hang in the hot sun for hours, even days. To breathe, it was necessary to push with the legs and pull with the arms to keep the chest cavity open and functioning. Terrible muscle spasm wracked the entire body; but since collapse meant asphyxiation, the strain went on and on. This is also why the seducula … prolonged life and agony: it partially supported the body’s weight, and therefore encouraged the victim to fight on.” Carson, The Gospel According to John, p. 610.
185 Morris, for example, includes this footnote in his commentary on John: “This was argued by William Stroud, M.D., in his book, Treatise on the Physical Cause of the Death of Christ (London, 1847). He maintained that rupture of the heart may be caused by great mental agony and that it ‘is usually attended with immediate death, and with an effusion into the pericardium (the capsule containing the heart) of the blood previously circulating through that organ; which when thus extravasated, although scarcely in any other case, separates into its constitutent parts, so as to present the appearance commonly termed blood and water’ (op. cit., 2nd edn., 1871, pp. 74f.). This view was accepted by Sir Alexander Simpson (Expositor 8, xi, 1916, pp. 334ff.) who said that he had examined several cases ‘in which the pericardial bag was greatly distended and the blood had separated into clot and watery serum’ (op. cit., p. 336). It has been urged against it that John does not tell us whether it was the left or right side that was pierced. We cannot be certain that the spear was thrust into the region of the heart. Tasker cites a paper by a medical man, J. L. Cameron, arguing that the passage indicates a flow of blood from the heart and great blood vessels adjacent, and water from the acutely dilated stomach. Dodd refers us to a study by Raymond Schmittlein which sees traumatic shock as the fundamental cause of death (HTFG, p. 136).” Morris, The Gospel According to John, p. 819, fn. 88.
186 “Dr. J. P. Free in his excellent book, Archaeology and Bible History, p. 284, calls attention to the fact that according to Canon Liddon there are three hundred thirty-two distinct prophecies in the Old Testament which have been literally fulfilled in Christ, …” William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, p. 430.