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30. The Last Supper (Luke 22:1-23)


Those of you who know me rather well realize that I am, at heart and in fact, a country boy. Well, I had a rather embarrassing thing happen to me while I was driving through some cattle country in east Texas a few weeks ago. I saw an animal standing by a water tank, but I could not tell for certain whether it was a horse or a cow. You must believe that this is normally not a difficult decision for me. Since I was driving with a fellow even older and wiser in the ways of rural life, I asked him what it was. With a glitter in his eye, he responded, “Well, I’d guess that it was about the longest-necked cow I ever did see, but if you told me it was a big-bellied horse I shore wouldn’t call you a liar!” Regardless of what you might be thinking, that animal had what seemed to be the characteristics of both a cow and a horse.

I know you are beginning to wonder what all of this has to do with the biblical account of the Last Supper, recorded in the gospel of Luke, chapter 22. Quite frankly, it is a problem similar to that which I faced with that animal standing by that water tank. The Last Supper is a kind of hybrid, a mixture of an Old Testament Passover celebration, along with the institution of a New Testament Lord’s Table (or communion) celebration.

An accurate exposition of this passage is crucial to us for several reasons. First of all it deals with one of the two ordinances of the church established by our Lord. If this celebration described in Luke 22 is not a typical observance of the Lord’s table (as I will endeavor to prove), then we are in danger of error when we use it as a pattern for our communion remembrances today.

Also, this passage is the source of three difficult problems to which the careful student of Scripture should have some kind of answer.

The first major problem which we face in this passage is a textual one.116 One of the Greek manuscripts omits the last half of verse 19 and all of verse 20. It would appear that this deletion was an attempt to solve the problem raised by the reference to two different cups of wine in the passage. Such a change in the text seems completely unnecessary to me.

The second problem is one of harmony and chronology.117 It hinges on an apparent discrepancy between the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) and the gospel of John. It is a significant problem because of its implications, first with regard to the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures, then for the interpretation of the Last Supper, and finally for a determination of the day on which our Lord was put to death. A casual reading of the synoptic gospels would seem to indicate that Jesus observed the Passover with His disciples, while John’s account would have Him put to death before its enactment (cf. John 18:28). While the explanations of this problem may differ, conservative scholars would agree that there is a solution.

The third problem relates to the great controversy over the precise meaning of the words of Jesus, “This is My body.” Roman Catholicism believes that each remembrance of the Lord’s death is a reenactment of the sacrifice of Christ, and that the elements actually become the literal flesh and blood of the Savior.118 Others hold that while such a miraculous transformation is not necessary, the Lord is somehow present with, but not in, the elements as they are partaken.119 In either of these cases, the observance is regarded as a sacrament, the actual conveyance of grace to the participant. The preferable interpretation, that this is the symbolic remembrance of our Lord’s death, avoids this error, while stressing the significance and symbolic meaning of this ordinance.120

It should be safe to assume that this event of the Last Supper is significant for every Christian to rightly understand and apply.

The Setting of the Last Supper

It is very difficult for the western mind to grasp what took place on this night without considerable preparation of mind. There is little in our own culture and experience that we can relate to this event. We shall assume, on much evidence, that this meal was, indeed, a Passover celebration.121

The Passover feast commenced the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was a week-long celebration. Preparations for the Passover meal began on Thursday morning with a diligent search for any leaven which might be in the house. Leaven was not to be used in the bread which was baked in preparation for the original exodus from Egypt because there would not be time to bake bread that would have to rise (Exodus 12:34). Also, leaven was a symbol of evil, and was therefore not to be present (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8).

Also, on Thursday morning the unleavened bread would be prepared for the feast. In the afternoon, the Passover lamb would be taken to the temple and slain. After sunset the actual Passover meal was observed. Normally, this was a family gathering, with not less than ten, nor usually more than twenty at the table.

The Passover liturgy related to the meal as it was observed in the days of our Lord has been preserved:

“(1) Preliminary course. The head of the household pronounced the prayer of sanctification (qiddus), comprising the benediction for the festival and the first cup (the qiddus cup). The preliminary course (karpas), consisting of green herbs, bitter herbs and a sauce of fruit juice was eaten without bread. The meal was brought in but not yet eaten, the second cup was mixed with water and placed on the table, but not yet drunk.

(2) The Passover liturgy. The Passover service, in which the head of the household explained the special features of the Passover meal (Exod. 12:26) and proclaimed the outline of the story, the haggadah; the first part of the Passover Hallel (Psa. 113f.) was sung and the second cup (haggadah cup) was drunk.

(3) The main meal. The head of the household pronounced a benediction over the unleavened bread, which was distributed and the meal eaten which consisted of the Passover Lamb, mazzoth, bitter herbs (Exod. 12:8) and wine (optional). After grace the third cup (cup of blessing) was drunk.

(4) Conclusion. The second part of the Hallel (Pss. 115-118) was sung and a benediction pronounced over the fourth cup (Hallel cup).” 122

The biblical text gives us other significant backdrop to the Last Supper. In verses 7-13 Luke told of the preparations that were made for the supper. It is obvious that the location and details of the Last Supper were a closely guarded secret. The disciples did not know where the Passover was to be held nor what preparations had been made. Luke alone tells us that Peter and John (two of the most intimate of the disciples) were sent to handle the preparations. They were not told the location of the house123 where they were to gather, but were to discern that by a set of circumstances, all of which were out of the ordinary. They would see a man carrying a clay water vessel. This was unusual because normally these pots were borne by the women, while men carried water in skins. When they followed this man to his destination they were to ask the owner of the house for a room for the Teacher to use to keep the Passover (verse 11). He would then show them where they were to make their preparations.

All of this shroud of secrecy was on account of Judas, who had already agreed to betray the whereabouts of the Lord, and who waited for an opportune time, out of the sight of the crowds (verses 3-6). So far as Judas was concerned there would have been no better time than during the meal itself. Jesus carefully removed this option by keeping Judas ‘in the dark’ until it was too late for him to notify the officials as to their exact place of meeting. Judas, you will recall (John 13:27-30), left sometime during the meal to disclose the location where Jesus could be apprehended. I suspect that he led the temple guard first to the upper room, and, then, finding Him already gone, began to search for Him at some of His most frequently used places of refuge and privacy.

John includes the account of the washing of the feet of the disciples by our Lord (John 13:1-11). It was customary for the feet of the guests of a house to be washed as they entered. This would usually be done by the lowest slave. When the disciples entered the upper room it seems as though no one saw the basin and the water and towel waiting at the entrance to the upper room. Personally, I suspect that they were all too preoccupied with their efforts to be seated in the place of honor at the table. We do know that there was a spirit of self-assertion and the disciples, at this very meal, disputed over who was regarded as the greatest (verse 24).

Early in the Passover observance,124 Jesus removed his garments, girded Himself with a towel, and began to wash the feet of the disciples. It is probable that He began with Peter, who seems to have been reclining across from Jesus at the end of the table. Peter absolutely recoiled at the implications of this action by His Lord. They may have been wrong to have failed to wash one another’s feet, but Peter was not about to allow Jesus to undertake such a humble task.

What seemed such a magnanimous reticence and refusal on Peter’s part was met with a strong rebuke, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8). Peter failed to grasp the fact that this matter of footwashing by our Lord symbolized the underlying purpose and spirit of our Lord’s coming. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). In the laying aside of His garments and assuming the role and work of a slave, Jesus beautifully portrayed what has been called the ‘kenosis’ (emptying) of Jesus Christ, described by Paul in Philippians chapter two. In order to bring redemption and salvation to men, Jesus willingly set aside His rightful claims to submission and service as God; He veiled His splendor and visible glory in human flesh, and came to die as a transgressor in the place of sinful man.

For Peter to refuse to allow Jesus to wash his feet was to reject the underlying principle upon which the mission of Jesus was based. More than this, to reject the principle of servanthood was to refuse one of the primary prerequisites of discipleship. No wonder Peter could have no part with Jesus and deny servanthood.

Peter characteristically overreacted. If this were the case, he would not be content with a mere footwashing; he would like a complete bath. Such enthusiasm, while commendable, was not necessary. Those who have been bathed (once for all) by regeneration (cf. Titus 3:5) need not have another bath, but only such daily washing as daily contact with the world requires.

We have spent considerable time in considering the scene of the Last Supper. Only one matter yet remains to be described, and that is the underlying mood(s) of this gathering. This is very important, I believe, because so many go back to this supper as the pattern for our observance of the Lord’s Table, and therefore, to be consistent, we should by all rights reproduce the mood as well. What, then, was the prevailing mood of this meal?

Surely it was one of expectation and anticipation. The events of the past week had risen popular messianic expectations to a crescendo. Something had to happen. Was the kingdom about to be ushered in? Mixed with this excitement and expectation was a kind of dread, for Jesus had clearly said to His disciples that He was going up to Jerusalem to die (Matthew 20:17-19), and to some extent the disciples sensed that death awaited Him and them in Jerusalem (John 11:16).

There was also an atmosphere of contention and strife, and personal attitudes of self-aggrandizement. Each man argued with the rest about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24). There was also a distinct mood of grief concerning our Lord’s disclosure of the fact that He would die and that this would be achieved by a betrayer, who was one of the twelve.

All in all, it was not the ideal mood for a remembrance of the Passover, nor for the institution of the Lord’s Table. While we may wish it to have been some other way, we know our own hearts well enough to believe that such an atmosphere is realistic. It may not have been a lovely scene, but it was a likely one.

The Last Supper

Several observations are crucial to our understanding of this event. First of all, let me remind you of my assumption that this meal was, indeed, a Passover celebration.125 It is significant that while the other gospels refer to the twelve as ‘the twelve’ or ‘the disciples,’ Luke here uses the term ‘apostles’ (verse 14). I believe this is significant. Normally the Passover meal was a family celebration, and not just a gathering of men. The fact that the ‘apostles’ were alone with Jesus suggests that this event had particular significance for the church, of which the apostles were the foundation (Ephesians 2:20). Here is one of the evidences that while this meal had implications for the Jews, it was designed also for the church.

Second, I would underscore the intense desire of our Lord to gather with the twelve for this meal: “And He said to them, ‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Luke 22:15).

I suspect that this statement is pregnant with meaning. To begin with, let me suggest that it is hard to conceive that Jesus earnestly desired to eat this meal with the twelve because of the sympathetic understanding He would receive from them. While He knew that all but one truly loved Him, they had no real grasp of what shape His mission was about to take. While He thought of the cross, they argued about their crowns (verse 24).

I believe that from the viewpoint of God this Passover meal was the final observance of this feast, for all that it had memorialized was about to be greatly overshadowed by the work of the cross. Also, all that it anticipated was, in fact, achieved or made certain. Jesus was the Passover Lamb. There was no longer any need to put a lamb to death for the type had been superceded by its antitype, its fulfillment. The old covenant, being fulfilled in Christ, was to be set aside. The Kingdom, while still future, was certain to be established, because Messiah, at His first advent, had laid its foundation by His sacrificial death (cf. Isaiah 52:13–53:12). When Jesus once again takes up the cup, it will be in His Kingdom (verses 16,18). The eager anticipation of our Lord relates largely to the achievement of God’s purposes, and also to the association He has with God’s people at this meal.

There is, in my estimation, a distinct break between verses 18 and 19. Verses 15-18 describe the final observance of the Passover, now obsolete, so to speak, because of its supercession by the institution of the Lord’s Table. We should not at all be disturbed by the presence of the first cup, for it was simply one of the four cups associated with the Passover celebration. This cup was to be taken one final time, not to be taken up again until the establishment of the Kingdom.

In verses 19 and 20 our attention is turned from culmination and termination of the Passover celebration to the initiation of the Lord’s Table. Here, the symbols on the table which were a part of the Passover were reinvested with new meaning in the light of the work which the Lord Jesus was about to undertake. More than this, they symbolize the establishment of a new covenant between God and men. This is the new covenant which was prophesied by Jeremiah of old (Jeremiah 31:31-34). While the blood of the Passover lamb sufficed to withhold the judgment of God for a time, the blood of the Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus, actually took away the sins of the world (John 1:29).

The unleavened bread symbolizes the incarnation of God in human flesh. One Who had no sin in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). While the bread pertains to the earthly body and sinless life of the Lord Jesus, the wine is a visual symbol of His shed blood and violent death as the divine provision for men’s forgiveness of sin.

As I understand Luke’s account of the Last Supper, it is a subtle blending of two great symbolic remembrances, that of the Old Testament Passover and the New Testament ordinance of the Lord’s Supper. As such, this is a unique event, never again to be repeated in the form (or with the mood) that it was in that upper room hours before the death of the Savior. While the two events, the Passover and the Lord’s Table, are related, they are not to be equated, nor to be remembered simultaneously, for the greater has made unnecessary the lesser.

The Last Supper, then, is never again to be reenacted. It was a unique event, intended to terminate one ceremony and to institute another. The Lord’s Supper is to be understood as having some similarities to both the Passover celebration of the Old Testament, and the Last Supper of the gospels, but yet fully unique, and exclusive so far as our present-day obligation to continue its observance. We are no more to equate our remembrance of the Lord’s Table with the Last Supper than we are to identify our baptism with the baptism of the Lord Jesus by John, for they are not the same at all. Related, yes; but completely distinct.


What does all this mean in practical terms? First of all, it does not mean that we have no obligation to remember the Lord’s Supper. I have suggested that our obligation does not come from the gospel accounts of the Last Supper, nor does the pattern for our remembrance of the Lord. Our authority comes, I believe, from apostolic precept and apostolic practice. Paul’s instruction concerning the Lord’s Table was that which he received from the Lord (1 Corinthians 11:23). What was taught by Paul in the epistles was practiced by the churches in Acts. It would appear that while the Lord’s Table was daily observed in the first days of the church (Acts 2:46), the settled practice was that it was done on the first day of each week during the assembly of the whole church (cf. Acts 20:7).

This passage in Luke suggests that we are wrong when we pattern our observance of this ordinance after that in the gospels. We must remember that while the Last Supper anticipated the death of the Lord Jesus, the Lord’s Supper memorializes it. While the atmosphere at the Last Supper was more akin to that of a funeral, the Lord’s Supper, while a solemn remembrance is a joyful one, more in the spirit of that meal recorded later by Luke in chapter 24, after the Lord had been raised from the dead.

I am greatly puzzled and perplexed by those who seem so lackadaisical about the remembrance of our Lord. Some seem to think that it makes little difference whether one does so weekly, monthly, quarterly, or annually. Our Lord greatly desired this meal with the twelve, and I believe that our remembrance of Him is pleasing to Him. While the New Testament nowhere commands that we remember our Lord weekly, it would seem that this was the practice of the New Testament churches (Acts 20:7) . The only two options which the Scriptures reveal is that of daily and weekly observance.

“But such frequent repetition can become dull and monotonous,” people protest. You must excuse me for being so frank, but I have yet to hear a couple deeply in love with each other protesting frequent physical expression of their love for each other. (And personally, I believe that our physical relationship with our mates is illustrative and instructive concerning our spiritual intimacy with Christ.) You see, when we observe the Lord’s Supper each week we do not remember an institution or an ordinance, we remember our Lord Himself. “Keep on doing this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19b, my translation).

The waning of our desire to express spiritual intimacy with our Lord is indicative, all too often, of a coldness of heart. Only Judas (as I understand it) chose not to be at the table with our Lord as this Last Supper was concluded and the Lord’s Supper was instituted.

While impressed with the significance of this Last Supper, I cannot overlook its simplicity. It is described in the most ordinary term. There is no elaborate ceremony given in explicit detail as, for example, we would find in the Old Testament. It is amazing how ceremony can often overshadow the symbolism of such an event. If there were ceremony detailed for us we would concentrate our attention and our energies on reproducing these same ritualistic forms. Spirituality, like beauty, is closely related to simplicity. Where deadness occurs, ceremony shortly follows. We are prone to substitute ritual for reality, details for devotion.

“But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him, and said, ‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.’ But the Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:40-42).

Finally, I see in this event an excellent example of the way in which we must deal with the events and instructions of the Old Testament. Over and over people ponder how they should interpret and apply the Old Testament. One of my Hebrew professors, Dr. Bruce Waltke, once wisely advised, “When interpreting the Old Testament always ask the question, ‘Does the New Testament ratify, modify, or abrogate (nullify) this Old Testament teaching?’” As I understand the Last Supper, it does a little of each.126

116 “There is a textual problem here of great difficulty. In the ‘shorter’ text, followed by NEB, Goodspeed, where verses 19b-20 are omitted, the cup is given before the bread. In the ‘longer’ text (RSV, TEV, JB, Common Bible) the cup is mentioned twice. The shorter text is favoured by many on the grounds that the words are not likely to have been omitted if original and that they look like an insertion from I Corinthians 11:24f. to bring the passage into line with current liturgical practice. It is countered that the disputed words are found in all Greek MSS save one (Codex D) that Justin Martyr accepted them c. AD 150 (Apology i. 66; this is older than our oldest Greek MS) and that they may have been ommitted by scribes who could not understand two references to the cup. On the whole it seems that the longer text is to be preferred.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to St. Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 305.

117 The problem, simply stated, is this. John’s gospel clearly sets the time of the death of Christ at the same hour in which the Passover lambs were being slain (John 18:28; 19:14,36). In apparent contradiction to this, the synoptic gospels speak of the last supper as though it were the observance of the actual Passover. There is therefore an apparent 24-hour discrepancy in the gospels. In the synoptics, Jesus observed the Passover with His disciples; in John, Jesus was the Passover Lamb, put to death at the time of the slaughter of the Passover lamb, before the Passover meal was eaten.

Liberal ‘scholars’ have little difficulty here. They delight in pointing out this ‘error’ to the conservative, who holds to biblical inerrancy. They are free to accept John’s account and discard the synoptics as inaccurate, or to regard the synoptics as correct, and John to be in error.

Conservative scholarship has posed several possible harmonizations of the gospel records, three of which are currently most popular: (1) On the basis of some historical data, it is known that there was a division within the nation as to when the month of Nisan was to commence. Because of this confusion over the calendar, there ended up being two days on which the passover lambs were slaughtered and two days on which Passover was observed, one, a day earlier than the other. Jesus could then have observed the (first) Passover with the disciples, while He died as the true Passover Lamb on the second, a day later. (2) There is also evidence that some (perhaps the Galilean Jews) commenced the new day in the morning, at daybreak, while the Judean Jews began the new day in the evening at six o’clock. If such were the case, the synoptics were reckoning from the Galilean time frame, and John from the Judean.

A third view, held by a number of conservative scholars, contends that there is no real discrepancy between John’s account and the synoptics. Every alleged problem is explained individually. For further reference on this complicated matter, consult: Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), pp. 75-90; Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1951), pp. 649-670. R.T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), pp. 136-140. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 774-785.

118 This view is usually called ‘transubstantiation’ by the theologians: “The theory of transubstantiation, accepted by Rome as a dogma in 1215, is an attempt to explain the statements of Christ: “This is my body,” and “This is my blood” (Mark 14:22,24) as applied to the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper. It is insisted that the “is” must be taken with the strictest literalism. But to our senses the bread and wine seem to remain exactly as they were even when consecrated. There is no perceptible miracle of transformation. The explanation is found in terms of a distinction between the so-called “substance” (or true reality) and the “accidents” (the specific, perceptible characteristics). The latter remain, but the former, i.e., the substance of bread and wine, is changed into that of the body and blood of Christ.” Geoffrey W. Bromiley, “Transubstantiation,” Baker’s Dictionary of Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960), p. 530.

119 This theory is labled ‘consubstantiation.’ It is the view of Lutheran theologians: “In Luther’s own language, the actual body and blood of Christ exist “in, with, or under” the elements of bread and wine. No permanent association is postulated: the relationship is confined to the sacramental action. The transformation is effected by the Word of God, not by priestly consecration.” A. Skevington Wood, “Consubstantiation,” Ibid., p. 138.

120 “The taking, breaking and distribution of bread were regular features of the Passover observance and would cause no surprise. But as He gave it to His followers Jesus said, This is my body. These words have caused tremendous controversy in the church. The critical point is the meaning of is. Some argue for a change of the bread into the body of Christ, but the verb can mean very various kinds of identification, as we see from such statements as ‘I am the door,’ ‘I am the bread of life,’ ‘that rock was Christ.’ In this case identity cannot be in mind, for Jesus’ body was physically present at the time. It must be used in some such sense as ‘represents,’ ‘signifies,’ or, perhaps, ‘conveys’ (cf. Moffatt, ‘This means…’). The statement is a strong one and should not be watered down, but neither should it be overpressed.” Morris, p. 306.

121 Hoehner summarizes the evidence for this Last Supper being a Passover: “(1) the Synoptics explicitly state that the Last Supper was a Passover (Matth. 26:2,17,18,19; Mark 14:1,12,14,16; Luke 22:1,7,8,13,15). (2) It took place, as required by the Law (Deut. 16:7), within the gates of Jerusalem even though it was so crowded at the time. (3) The Upper Room was made available without difficulty in keeping with the Passover custom. (4) The Last Supper was eaten at night (Matt. 26:20; Mark 14:17; John 13:30; 1 Cor. 11:23) which was an unusual time for a meal. (5) Jesus limited Himself to the twelve rather than eating with the large circle of followers (which corresponds to the Passover custom). (6) A reclining posture at the table was for special occasions only. (7) The meal was eaten in levitical purity (John 13:10). (8) Jesus broke the bread during the meal (Matt. 26:26; Mark 14:22) rather than as customarily done at the beginningof the meal. (9) Red wine was drunk which was only for special occasions. (10) Some of the disciples thought that Judas left (John 13:29) to purchase items for the feast which would not have been necessary if the Last Supper was a day before the Passover since he would have had the whole next day (Nisan l4) available for this purpose. (11) Some of the disciples thought that Judas left to give to the poor (John 13:29) which was customary on Passover night. (12) The Last Supper ends with the singing of a hymn which would have been the second half of the Passover hallel. (13) Jesus did not return to Bethany which was outside of Jerusalem’s limit but went to spend the night on the Mount of Olives which was within the enlarged city limits for the purpose of the Passover feast. (14) The interpretation of specific elements of the meal was a part of the Passover riitual.” Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), pp. 76-77.

122 B. Klappert, “The Lord’s Supper,” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976), II, p. 522.

123 It is possible that this house belonged to Mary, the mother of Mark, and that this upper room was frequently used by Jesus and the apostles, though there is no way to conclusively prove this (cf. Acts 1:13; 12:12).

124 Edersheim believes that this footwashing was an adaptation of the customary handwashing which was a part of the Passover ceremony:

“The next part of the ceremonial was for the Head of the Company to rise and ‘wash hands.’ It is this part of the ritual of which St. John records the adapatation and transformation on the part of Christ. The washing of the disciples’ feet is evidently connected with the ritual of ‘handwashing.’ Now this was done twice during the Paschal Supper: the first time by the Head of the Company alone, immediately after the first cup; the second time by all present, at a much later part of the service, immediately before the actual meal (on the Lamb &c.). If the footwashing had taken place on the latter occasion, it is natural to suppose that, when the Lord rose, all the disciples would have followed His example, and so the washing of their feet would have been impossible. Again, the footwashing, which was intended both as a lesson and as an example of humility and service, was evidently connected with the dispute ‘which of them should be appointed to be greatest.’ If so, the symbolical act of our Lord must have followed close on the strife of the disciples, and on our Lord’s teaching what in the Church constituted rule and greatness. Hence the act must have been connected with the first handwashing—that by the Head of the Company—immediately after the first cup, and not with that at a later period, when much else had intervened.” Alford Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), II, p. 497.

Edersheim then goes on to point out the significance of this adaptation: “The act of externalism and self-righteousness represented by the washing of hands, and by which the Head of the Company was to be distinguished from all others and consecrated, He changed into a footwashing, in which the Lord and Master was to be distinguished, indeed, from the others—but by the humblest service of love, and in which He showed by His example what characterised greatness in the Kingdom, and that service was evidence of rule.” Ibid., p. 499

125 Cf. fn. 5, Morris, p. 306.

126 “He spoke the words of institution in the setting of his last celebration of the Passover and “clearly referred to many features of the feast, assimilating some and changing others.…” W. Marxsen, as quoted by Klappert, “The Lord’s Supper,” New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, II, p. 529.

Related Topics: Christology, Communion

32. Facing the Future: A Prescription for Peace (John 14)


This week someone left a cartoon on the Xerox machine at my office in which a man was lying on the couch of a psychiatrist. When the psychiatrist asked the client what his problem was he confided that he had all kinds of fears about the future. “Doctor,” he began, “I’m worried about the energy crisis, inflation, the situation in the Middle East, political and social upheaval in Africa, our diplomatic relations with China …” I wish I could remember all of the concerns of the man in the cartoon; there were at least a dozen. In the final frame the psychiatrist responded, “Shut up and move over,” after which he proceeded to get on the couch with the patient.

A cartoon such as this would be much more amusing if it did not contain so much truth. The problems of the future are almost overwhelming. Those in a position to know the facts are privately saying that things are not nearly as bad as they seem—they are worse. Public officials seem to have taken the same approach to our national problems as many doctors do with a terminally ill patient—keep the unpleasant truth from them as long as possible.

Secular philosophy and ethics have come to assume a fearful future. That is why they are dominated by a note of absolute despair: “The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach, and where none may tarry long.”139

On the popular and practical level, this despair concerning the future has led to what has been called the ‘now generation.’ The most optimistic view of life is that ‘we only go around once, so we’d better grab all the gusto we can get!’, to parrot the beer commercial. Those who are more thoughtful and better informed are not so sure we are even going to go around once, and thus our pursuit of pleasure is an even more frantic one.

As a Christian I am not going to tell you that things are not all that bad. If I read my Bible correctly,140 things are going to proceed from bad to worse as the time of our Lord’s return draws near. The days ahead may be difficult indeed, but our Lord has not left us without hope.

It is at the point of facing the frightening prospects of the future that we can find a common ground with the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord had spoken more frequently and clearly of His death in Jerusalem.141 During the last supper Jesus had revealed that He was to be betrayed by one of His most intimate associates (John 13:18,21). Finally, He had told Peter that before the night was over he would deny knowing his Lord (John 13:38).

All of this was a most perplexing situation to those who had given up everything to become the followers of the Savior (Matthew 19:27). They saw the future now as something to be feared, rather than that which was eagerly anticipated. They, like many of us, viewed the future as something to be dreaded rather than desired.

The words of the Lord Jesus are words of comfort and encouragement. They contain a message of peace and consolation. It is by understanding and applying the principles of this passage that you and I can look the future in the face with faith rather than fear, with hope rather than despair.

The Answer to Peter’s Question:
“Where Are You Going”

Verses 1-4 of chapter fourteen are an answer to Peter’s question in chapter 13, “Lord, where are You going?” (John 13:36). Our Lord had revealed that He was departing and that His disciples would not be able to follow Him for a little while. Peter confidently assured His Lord that he would follow Him anywhere, even to death. Chapter 13 closed with Jesus’ disturbing prophecy of Peter’s denial. The first four verses of chapter fourteen contain our Lord’s fuller response to the question raised by Peter as to where He was going.

This ‘going’ was a return to the heavenly Father, but more than this it involved an agonizing death by crucifixion.142 What prompted Peter’s question was not a lack of information, for our Lord had already spoken clearly of His death. The problem was the disciples stubborn refusal to accept the clear teaching of Christ. Suffering and death did not fit their preconceived ideas of Messiahship or of the coming Kingdom. Jesus couldn’t mean what He was saying. And so the questions persisted, always seeking some other answer than what they had consistently been told.

Jesus began by dealing with the underlying cause of their unrest and spiritual agitation—a lack of faith. God’s prescription for fear is faith. “Let not your heart be troubled, believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1).143 Just as the disciples had trusted in God, so they must believe in the Lord Jesus. They could not help but question in their own minds the wisdom of the Savior in virtually precipitating His own death. This seemed to the disciples to be a foolish and senseless casting away of all their hopes.

To undergird the diminishing hopes of the eleven, Jesus first assured them of the final outcome of the immediate events of the future. He urged them to consider the final chapter of history before drawing hasty conclusions about the events of the immediate future. The final destination of our Lord was to return to the Father’s house, that is, heaven. The ultimate outcome of our Lord’s going was that He prepared a place for us there with Him and with the Father. He will go, but He will also just as surely return to take us to be with Him forever.

The events of the immediate future were not contradictory to this ultimate goal of history, but complimentary to it. It was true that Jesus would go, but more than this we should understand that he must go. This ‘must’ is not so much a necessity so far as the physical preparation of heaven is concerned, for Jesus said, “In My Father’s house are many dwelling places” (verse 2). Heaven already exists with more than adequate accommodations for all true believers.

There is a two-fold sense in which we must understand the preparation of heaven for men. First, it was necessary for heaven to be prepared for man. This preparation was not meant to be understood in a physical sense as I have already suggested, for it was physically more than adequate for human habitation (verse 2). In the book of Hebrews, especially in chapter 9, we are informed that the high priestly work of Christ involved entering into heaven to cleanse it (Hebrews 9:23-28). It is on the basis of this preparation that our Lord will return again to take the Christians home to be with Him (Hebrews 9:28).

In another sense, we must realize that the death of Christ prepared us for heaven. Every man, woman, and child is born in a state of rebellion against God, doomed to eternal punishment apart from divine intervention (Ephesians 2:1-3; Romans 3:9-20). It was the death of Jesus Christ on Calvary’s cross that provided the eternal redemption which makes every believer fit for eternity in the presence of God (Romans 3:21-26; Ephesians, 2:3-10; Colossians 1:12-22; 2:13-14; Hebrews 9:23-28).

Not long ago a friend of mine went to a very fine restaurant in Dallas. He was not allowed to dine there because he did not have on a coat and tie, which was a requirement of that establishment. Heaven is something like that, I believe. Sinful men are not properly attired to enter into it. The death of Jesus Christ has removed the filthy rags of our self-righteousness. We have been clothed in His righteousness and thus prepared to spend eternity in heaven by faith with Him.

Our Lord did not spell out in detail the means for the preparation of heaven for men and men for heaven, for they were not yet able to grasp it (cf. John 16:12). The Holy Spirit would make these things clear in time to come (John 16:13ff.). The going of our Lord was a physical departure, a return to the abode of the Father. But Jesus’ leaving was also the sacrificial death of the sinless Lamb of God, on Whom would be laid the sins of men. It was for this reason He had come, and so He must leave His disciples for a while.

Jesus was going, by means of a tortuous death upon a Roman cross. It was a departure far worse than the disciples were capable of imagining. Yet while this going was far worse than they feared, the outcome was not what they feared. They viewed Jesus’ departure as a permanent separation from the One they deeply loved. While His departure would mean a temporary end to His physical presence, it was the means of establishing a much deeper and more intimate relationship.

To use the analogy of marriage for a moment, Christ’s physical presence among the twelve had been something like an engagement. The departure or going of the Lord meant an end to this kind of relationship. But it also brought about a marriage, in which a much fuller and more permanent union would be accomplished. Think of the devastating results if Jesus had given the disciples what they wanted! He would continue in His physical presence, but they would continue in their sins. He could never take them home with Him to live with His Father, because they were not fit for it.

Jesus’ departure was a painful one. There was nothing pleasant about it. But it was both necessary and preparatory. It brought about the possibility of a greater and more permanent union and communion with Him. He would leave them for a while; He must leave them for a while. This would be painful for them and Him, but it would be profitable in the results which it would accomplish.

In Jesus’ answer to the question of Peter, there is a principle which may bring us great comfort in facing the future: GOD OFTEN EMPLOYS TEMPORARY PAIN TO BRING ENDURING PLEASURE.

Think of the birth of a child. For nine months after new life is conceived it lives in the protection of the womb. This idyllic existence cannot continue indefinitely. Through a painful process, the baby is brought into the world. And yet it is this pain which introduces the greater pleasure of a far more intimate and lasting relationship as parent and child.

So it is with the Christian life. We may fear the future. The future may be even more difficult than we imagine it to be. We may face great trials and testing and undergo great pain. In the face of such frightening possibilities we need not lose our spiritual composure because we know that our ultimate destiny is to spend eternity in the presence of God in eternal fellowship with our Savior. If there should be suffering and pain in our pathway, we may be confident: that God will use this to further us along the path to our heavenly goal.

Thomas’ Question Answered:
“How Can We Know the Way?”

Thomas was the hard-headed realist of the group. He would not believe Jesus was raised from the dead until he saw the evidence first hand (John 20:24-25). Here he was not content with the answer given by our Lord. So far as he was concerned, Jesus had not yet answered the first question satisfactorily. They did not know where He was going. They surely did not know the way.

To Thomas, the issue was a simple one, but he could not seem to hear the answer. How can one know how to get somewhere when he doesn’t know his destination? How can one find the path without knowing the place? The disciples still did not comprehend Jesus’ words concerning His departure. They refused to accept His predictions of His death. They were unwilling to think of the Master’s departure as anything more than getting out of the country, perhaps until they had cooled down. They were thinking in the most literal and physical terms. They didn’t know His destination; they surely could not know the directions as to how to get there to meet Him.

Jesus’ reply was almost too simple. He not only claimed to be the goal but the guide. The ultimate destiny of the disciples was to be with Christ. They puzzled over the details of getting to where He was. Jesus informed them that He was the guide as well as the goal: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me” (John 14:6). Our final destination, if we are truly born again, is heaven, the Father’s house. No one knows the way to the Father’s house better than the Son. He was soon to make His way back to be with the Father, later to return for His own to share in His riches. It was enough for the disciples that they know the Son and He would be their guide. In the final analysis the way is not our responsibility, but His.

There is a very important principle here, I believe. JESUS CHRIST IS BOTH OUR GOAL AND OUR GUIDE. THE ‘SECRET’ OF GUIDANCE IS TO KNOW THE GUIDE.

In a day when the future looks dim and dangerous there is great interest, even undue concern, about guidance. Here is one of the great obsessions of our day, knowing the specific will of God. In the process we have come to place more emphasis on guidance than on the guide.144 All of us should listen to the words of our Lord, for He is the all-sufficient Savior. He is the giver of life, the energizing force of the Christian (cf. John 1:1-4). He is also the embodiment of truth, the perfect reflection of the Father. His is finally the way. We need not know every fork of life’s road or every bend in the path so long as we are close to the guide.

The only way to the Father is through the Son. Here is summarized in a sentence the purpose of the Life and Ministry of our Lord Jesus. All men are sinners, under the condemnation of God. The only way to the Father is through the atoning work of the Son on the cross of Calvary. That is the one point where the disciples would have wanted Him to abort His mission.

In the matter of initial salvation, the Son is the only way to the Father. And, so far as the Christian is concerned, the Son is the only way to the presence of the Father as well. We need to consistently rely on Christ as the source of our sanctification as well as our justification.

Philip’s Request:
“Show Us the Father and It Is Enough”

Again and again the unbelieving Jews sought signs from the Savior (cf. Matthew 12:38). The words of promise of the Lord Jesus were not sufficient for Philip (or I suspect, for any of the other disciples). If only Jesus could perform a spectacular sign by revealing the Father to them in all His splendor, that would be enough. That would set their hearts and minds at rest. This was the request of Philip.

The issue was one of confirmation. The future looked so threatening and the words of Jesus seemed so abstract. If only there could be some kind of spectacular confirmation. If they could just see the Father …

In this request Philip revealed the frailty of the disciple’s faith at this point in their lives. They had missed one of the primary purposes of Christ’s coming, for He had come to reveal the Father.

“No man has seen God at any time; but the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (John 1:18).

“And he who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me” (John 12:45).

Throughout the Old Testament man had been forbidden to make idols or images because they were fashioned by human hands. Man can never accurately reflect the perfections of God. But Jesus Christ, the God-Man, is the product of divine creation, by means of the virgin birth. He alone rightly reveals God to man. Thus we can worship the Son as God (cf. Matthew 2:11; 8:2, etc.).

Divine confirmation of the identity of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah had already been accomplished. Jesus reminded His followers of the two main streams of His authority, His words (verse 10) and His works (verse 11). His teaching had been marked by an authority far above that of Israel’s religious leadership (cf. Matthew 7:28-29). His miracles were a divine seal of approval upon His claims (cf. John 3:2; 11:41-45; Acts 2:22). Even His enemies had to acknowledge the convincing force of His works (John 11:47-48; 12:9-19). His opponents refused to accept His claim to be God, but since He demonstrated supernatural powers, they had to attribute His works to the power of Satan (Mark 3:22).

In addition to the confirming evidences of Jesus’ words and works, there was yet another attestation to the presence of God to be revealed. It would come at a future time. “In that day you shall know that I am in My Father, and you in Me, and I in you” (John 14:20). The day of which Jesus spoke was not the day of His return for His own, nor of His second advent to establish His Kingdom. It was the day in which the power of the Holy Spirit would be released in the lives of Jesus’ followers. That day began at Pentecost and has continued until the present. Because of this spiritual power in the lives of true believers Jesus could promise: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go to the Father” (John 14:12).

How foolish our requests and desires are. The disciples desperately hoped that what they feared would not come to pass. If our Lord had not died upon that cross and ascended to be with the Father, we would never spend eternity with God, nor could we have entered into the intimate relationship we now have with the Son. More than this, had the Savior not departed, the assurance of His presence in us through His Spirit would not have been available. These ‘greater works’ were the direct result of the departure of the Son (cf. Ephesians 4:7-16). The presence and power of the Lord Jesus Christ is multiplied in His physical absence through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.145

There are at least three prerequisites for the release of God’s power in the life of one of His own which are made clear in this passage. First, the acts which are done with great power must be those which bring glory to the Father (verse 13). Second, supernatural power is provided only for those things which are done in the name of the Lord Jesus. By this I understand that our requests of God must be consistent with the character and purposes of the Son (John 14:13). We must come to understand that our work is, in reality, the work of our Lord Jesus through us. Finally, works of power must always be the product of the ministry of the Holy Spirit (verses 17ff.).

There is behind the request of Philip and the answer of our Lord, a principle which we must never forget: THE REQUEST FOR A SPECTACULAR CONFIRMATION OF THE PRESENCE OF GOD IS OFTEN PROMPTED BY A LACK OF FAITH IN WHAT GOD HAS CLEARLY REVEALED TO US IN HIS WORD.

Many of us desire that God reveal Himself to us in some spectacular way, to prove to us that He is real. God has disclosed Himself to man through the final and compelling revelation of His Son (Hebrews 1:1-2). To ask for anything more is to challenge the sufficiency of what God has done.

There is additional confirmation of our faith, but it does not come from ‘out of the blue.’ It comes from the blessing of God as we are obedient to His Word. “If you Love Me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may be with you forever” (John 14:15-16).

God does disclose Himself to His children, but normally it is not in a once-for-all spectacular way. (Spectacular confirmations had occurred in the sight of the disciples, but how quickly they were forgotten in the light of present or imminent adversity. Such was also the case in the Old Testament.) God normally affirms our faith as we are obedient to His Word and seek to fulfill His purposes in our lives.

The Answer to the Question of Judas:
“Why Will You Reveal Yourself to Us and Not to the World?”

Philip had requested some kind of spectacular manifestation of the Father to assure them at a time of little faith. Jesus had refused immediate response for His assurance would be given in a more continual day-to-day manner. Also, the manifestation of the Father would not be universal, but restricted to believers who would live in obedience to the will and Word of God. Messianic expectation in the days of our Lord knew nothing of this kind of manifestation. They looked for Messiah to come in a blaze of glory, to convince the entire nation that He was the Savior, and to immediately establish His Kingdom. The words of Jesus in no way fit this expectation. Judas (not Iscariot, verse 22) pressed Jesus for an explanation.

Even more intriguing than the question is Jesus’ answer. Do you see it? You shouldn’t, for there really isn’t one. Jesus politely refused to explain His statement for the present time. Instead, He chose to reiterate what He had already said, namely that the primary duty of the disciples would be obedience (verses 23-24). No explanation is given.


There is a song which I remember from my childhood which contains the words, “We’ll understand it better bye and bye.” Our fears about the future often incline us to ponder questions which are not at all profitable to us. Faith does not attempt to press God for answers which He has not chosen to give.

God did not answer this question for several reasons. First, they could not grasp the answer anyhow. Secondly, they would not believe the answer, for they refused to consider our Lord’s predictions of His death seriously. Thirdly, the answer would not really have any positive benefit for their lives. Finally, He had made provision for their full comprehension in the near future (John 14:26).

It would be well for us to give serious thought to some of the questions for which we seek an answer from God. Many of them should likely be set aside. Surely we should not be distressed if God has chosen not to inform us of His plans and purposes at present.

Jesus’ Final Words on the
Subject of the Disciples’ Fear for the Future

Jesus summed up His response to the questions of the troubled disciples in verses 25-31. The words which Jesus spoke were provisional and preliminary. The disciples were perplexed because they did not comprehend what He was saying. Further clarification and revelation would be the work of the Holy Spirit after the departure of the Master. Then all of these words would be brought to memory and their meaning more fully grasped (verses 25-26).

The outcome of Jesus’ words should be faith, the corrective to fear. Since the Lord Jesus has promised peace, they need not face the future with timidity and trepidation (verse 27). The right response to the words of Jesus concerning His departure should have been rejoicing, not remorse and grief (verse 28). Since the Father is greater than the Son,146 love would have dictated that the disciples rejoice in the joy of the Son at His return to the Father’s above. The grief of the disciples, much as ours at the death of a loved one, is selfish, thinking only of our loss and not their gain.

Verse 29 gives us the reason why Jesus spoke these words of the fourteenth chapter of John. It was not to bring immediate relief to their troubled hearts, but a peace that would be final and complete. His teaching in these verses was for the purpose of enhancing the faith of His followers. Much of prophecy falls under this purpose of strengthening our faith. When all of His words were literally fulfilled, then the disciples would realize more fully the greatness of the One in Whom their faith was founded. Fulfilled prophecy is one of the foundation stones of faith.


The message of the Savior is so simple that we look for a solution much more complicated and hidden. To summarize our Lord’s prescription for peace in facing our fear of the future we need only two words: trust and obey. That is the message of our Lord in the briefest terms. When we cannot comprehend the future we must simply trust in Him in whose hands the future rests. When we do not know what our duties will be in future times, we can be assured that God only requires us to be faithful in doing that which is our present responsibility. Would you like to look the future straight in the eye without doubts and fears? Simply do as our Lord instructs. Trust and obey. There is no other way. That is the message of a well-known hymn. That is the message of our Lord Himself.

139 An excerpt from Bertrand Russell’s essay, “A Free Man’s Worship, as quoted by Wilber M. Smith,” Therefore Stand, 13th ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1972), pp. 195-196.

140 Cf. 2 Timothy 3:1ff.

141 Matthew 20:18-19; John 3:14; 12:32-33.

142 In this passage there are two Greek words employed which are translated ‘go.’ The one (poreuomai) is a word used of one going on a journey. But it is also a euphemism for death. I believe that is clearly implied in verses 2 and 3. The other term (hupago) conveys the idea of returning. Our Lord’s going was to death, but it resulted in His return ‘home’ to the Father.

143 There is a great deal of discussion about the correct translation of verse one since the two terms ‘believe’ can be taken either as indicatives (a statement of fact) or as imperatives (a command). The overall tone here best fits the imperative mood in my estimation. I prefer the first verb to be translated as an indicative the second as an imperative: “Stop letting your heart be troubled; you believe in God; believe also in Me” (my translation). In any case the sense of our Lord’s words is clear. The answer to fear is faith.

144 “… it seem as if something is wrong when Christians are more interested in making decisions than in the growth of character, in geographic placement than in holy living, in guidance than in the Guide. Not God, but guidance. Not His sovereignty, but my search. Not now, not then. Not here, but there. Our problem is not so much over-emphasizing guidance as overlooking God. God has become the Hinge we must discover instead of the One Who has placed the door, and us, and the heathen, and the Tomb, and the Cross, and Eden, and the Tree, and the stars.” Joseph Bayly, ed. Essays on Guidance (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1968), Preface, p. 2.

145 The emphasis of this promise, I believe, is on the quantity of the miraculous evidences of divine power, not the quality of the miracles. Jesus evidenced the power of God in one body. Now we are His body, the church, God’s power is now evidenced through a multitude of believers.

146 Some have attempted to use these words to disprove the deity of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Father is greater, not in the sense of being God, while the Son is only man. God is greater in the sense of His headship within the Godhead. He is the One to Whom the Son is in constant submission and obedience (cf. John 5:19; 7:28; 8:28; 15:10; 17:4; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28).

Related Topics: Christology, Eschatology (Things to Come)

33. Abiding in Christ (John 15)


When Community Bible Chapel began several years ago, I was given a bit of wise counsel from one of the elders of Believers Chapel. He said, “Bob, I’ve been involved in the starting of several churches and my experience has always been the same. You begin with a flurry of enthusiasm and excitement, but sooner or later it comes down to just plain endurance just sticking it out.”

Such a statement is not only true of starting a church, but of other areas of life as well. Take marriage, for example. For the first few weeks or months, marriage is able to function on the fuel of romantic feelings. But sooner or later we come to the realization that marriage is not only enjoying, but enduring. There must be the transition from romance to routine. I do not mean that marriage is a drag to be endured with gritted teeth, but that it is not one continual high, perpetually warm fuzzy feeling.

When the words of John chapter fifteen were spoken, the disciples had spent a great deal of time with the Savior and the honeymoon period was about to come to a close. The expectations of the disciples were unrealistic and untimely. They had hoped for a spectacular demonstration by our Lord which would convince the nation of Israel that He was their Messiah. They had hoped for the Kingdom to be established and for positions of power and prominence in His regime. The ‘triumphal entry’ (John 12) seemed to elevate their expectations and excitement.

In John chapter 15, our Lord brought before the eleven the realities of the future. He would not be heralded as Israel’s king, but hated (verse 18). They, too, would soon experience the hostility of an unbelieving nation (verses 18-25). This should come as no shock, for Christ’s rejection had been prophesied centuries before (verse 25).

In this chapter our Lord gave instructions concerning how His disciples could maintain fellowship and fruitfulness in the difficult days which lay before them. The nature of the relationship between Christ and His followers was to change from a physical one to that which was spiritual, and the means of sustaining this kind of relationship are described for us.

Abiding in Christ

Throughout the upper room discourse, the disciples found our Lord’s words to be abstract and confusing (John 13:22ff.; 14:5,8,22; 16:17ff.). To make His teaching clear and concrete, He used the analogy of a vine, a figure familiar to the Jewish mind.

In the Old Testament, the nation of Israel was often likened to a vine. In Psalm 80:8 the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt is described in terms of a vine being transplanted from the soil of Egypt to that of Canaan. In Isaiah 5 the nation Israel is likened to a vineyard that does not produce fruit. In Jeremiah 2:21 Israel is described as a vine that is sending out degenerate shoots. Over and over again Israel was referred to as a vine. The vine had become a symbol of the nation Israel. It was found on Jewish coins in the Maccabean period, and in the days which our Lord walked upon the earth there was a huge filigree of a vine adorning the entrance of the temple of Herod, evaluated by some (who likely were exaggerating) at a value of more than $12,000,000.147

Our Relationship Is Defined in Terms of a Vine (vss 1-3)

Our Lord described the new relationship between Himself and His followers in terms of a vine and its branches in the first three verses. He is the true vine, believers are the branches, and the Father is the vine-keeper.

The Lord Jesus is the true vine. This word true is used primarily in two senses in the New Testament. First of all it denotes that which is true or genuine in contrast to that which is false or spurious. Surely our Lord is the one genuine vine in whom we should abide, and surely we understand that there are other “false” vines. But this I do not think to be the emphasis which our Lord intends here. This word “true” is also used of that which is the ultimate realization, or here, of that which is the heavenly reality which transcends any earthly counterpart. I think, then, that Jesus is saying that whereas the vine was a picture of Israel in the Old Testament, He is the fullest realization of Israel’s hope, of their expectations, of what God intended her to be as her Messiah. Israel, as a vine, was an utter failure; it never achieved its goal. Our Lord Jesus Christ Who came as the True Vine would accomplish all Israel failed to do.

As the true vine our Lord is the source of life and strength and fruit. There is a relationship of complete dependence between the branch and the vine. The vine supplies life-giving nourishment to the branches. Apart from it, the branches have neither life nor fruit.

As the branches, we are the visible manifestation of the life of the vine. We are the instruments of fruit-bearing. Since our Lord’s ascension into heaven, the church has been the body of Christ. The world is to see Him in us—we are His hands, His feet, His mouth. The Lord once ministered in His earthly body, but now ministers and reveals His life in His spiritual body. What Jesus began to do and teach (Acts 1:1), His church now continues to do and say.

The Father is intimately involved in this relationship between the vine and the branches. He deals with the unfruitful branches.148 Even those branches which are fruitful receive His care in order to effect greater fruitfulness.

Lest the mention of removing unfruitful branches create any doubts or fears, Jesus assured the disciples that they had already demonstrated their genuineness and sincerity. They had already been cleansed by faith in His words (verse 3). The word ‘clean’ in verse 3 is the same expression used earlier by our Lord of saving faith. “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you” (John 13:10). His true followers were saved; they were ‘clean.’ Only Judas was unclean, due to his unbelief.

Our Responsibilities in the Vine (vss 4-8)

Verses 1-3 pertain to our position, while verses 4-8 speak of our practice. We come to the first imperative (or command) of the chapter in verse 4. Here our Lord tells us what we are to do as branches in Him. “Abide in Me, and I in you” (John 15:4a).

This is our Christian responsibility—to “abide” in Christ. John is fond of this word “abide.” He uses the term (meno) over fifty times in his writings; eleven times in this chapter. Underlying the meaning of this term is the idea of belief. Negatively this is seen in chapter five of John’s gospel: “And you do not have His word abiding in you, for you do not believe Him whom He sent” (John 5:38).

Positively, it occurs in this sense of belief in chapter six: “He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (John 6:56).

Abiding, then, requires a belief in the sacrificial work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. It is a dependence upon His provision of life and strength that is emphasized in John 15:4. It is a belief and a relation with the person of Jesus Christ and His Word (John 15:7).

In addition, the idea of remaining or enduring is implied by the word abide. “The multitude therefore answered Him, ‘We have heard out of the Law that the Christ is to remain (abide) forever, and how can you say, ‘The Son of man must be lifted up’?” (John 12:34).

This is clearly the force of the term in verse 16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain” (John 15:16). Abiding is believing, depending, and persevering.

The principle behind the command of our Lord to abide is stated both negatively and positively in verses 4 and 5. Negatively, it is impossible to bear fruit without abiding. Positively, if one abides in Christ he will bear much fruit. Abiding is essential for fruit bearing.

The necessity of abiding is further demonstrated in verses 6-8. In verse 6 we are given a negative illustration of the results if we do not abide. In verses 7 and 8 we learn the benefits of abiding.

Failing to abide is more than just a hindrance to fruitfulness; it is a severing from the source of life. Not to abide leads to death and destruction. “If anyone does not abide in Me he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned” (John 15:6).

I do not believe that Jesus is here teaching that we can lose our salvation by failing to abide. He is simply showing that abiding is not an option, but an essential requirement for life. To not abide is to face the inevitable consequence which is death and judgment.

On the positive side, abiding in Christ results in conformity to the Word of God. The one in whom the Word abides can be confident of receiving the answers to his prayers for he will pray according to the will of God. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7).

Furthermore, by abiding in Christ we are caused to bear fruit which brings glory to the Father and thereby demonstrates our discipleship (verse 8).

Abiding in Christ’s Love

Yet another dimension of abiding in Christ is introduced at verse 9, for we find another imperative. “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love” (John 15:9).

Abiding in Christ (verses 4-8) stressed belief, dependence, and endurance. The emphasis in verses 9-25 is on obedience. This is “how” we abide in Christ’s love: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments, and abide in His Love” (John 15:10).

The finest illustration of this kind of abiding is found in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. His life was marked by a total submission and obedience to the will of the Father (John 8:28-29).

One result of our obedience to our Lord’s command is joy. Obedience brings joy into our Christian experience as it did for our Lord: “Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

Not wishing to leave the imperative to abide in His love in abstract terms, Jesus gives a very specific and practical example of the commandments of which He speaks. “This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you.” If abiding in Christ is understood as experiencing God’s love in Christ, verses 12ff. underscore expressing Christ’s love through us. The ultimate demonstration of love is about to be witnessed by the disciples. Christ will lay down His life for His friends. If the love of Christ is to be shown in His disciples, they must be willing to give themselves to and for others.

I must repeat the story I heard of the man who was waxing eloquent to his wife of how much he loved her. He told her he would even die for her. “That won’t be necessary,” she responded, unimpressed, “just pick up that towel and help me with these dishes.” Few of us will be required to pay the ultimate price of friendship. All of us should be willing to do so and to show it in simple acts of sacrificial kindness.

The abiding of obedience results in an intimacy which cannot be experienced in any other way. Abiding in Christ by obeying His commands changes our relationship from that of slaves to that of friends (verse 14-15). The intimacy of friendship includes us in the inner circle of God, and here our Lord makes known His secrets.

Abiding in Christ in its simplest terms is trusting our Lord and obeying His word. There are no special techniques or formulas. It is as simple as our belief and behavior. Abiding in Christ provides us with life and strength. It is the only way to fruitfulness. Abiding in Christ assures us of answered prayer and an intimacy with Christ.

Verse 16 makes it crystal clear that our abiding in Christ is not the determining factor behind our eternal security as believers. Our Lord is not threatening us with the loss of salvation if we sometimes fail to abide. This passage was intended to bring peace, assurance and comfort to troubled men (cf. John 14:1). How comforting, then, to hear these words of assurance: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give you” (John 17:16).

We might like to think that we found Christ, as the “I Found It” bumper stickers seem to imply. Ultimately, we did not choose God; He chose us. The initiator of our salvation determines the one on whom our security rests, for Paul wrote, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6). God chose us as the objects of His grace. He appointed us to represent Him to a lost world. He determined that we would bear fruit and that the results of our labors would be lasting. What a comfort! What motivation for service!

God never requires us to do that which is without good reason. One practical reason for the command to love one another is that if we do not love other Christians, no one will, for the world will hate us because of Christ (verses 18ff.).

We shall not explore this final portion in great detail, but will make several observations.

(1) The world’s hatred for us is the result of our abiding in Christ. Abiding in Christ identifies us with Him before the world. Because the world hated Him without a cause (verse 25), they will also hate us (verse 18).

(2) The Lord bursts the bubble of the disciples’ messianic expectations in these verses. They were looking for glory and honor. That is not what lay ahead. According to tradition, all of the disciples, save one, would die a martyr’s death. Within hours, our Lord would be lifted upon a cross and His disciples scattered.

Circumstances were to be drastically changed within a few hours. A week after He was heralded as Messiah by the throngs, He was rejected and crowned with thorns. The intimacy of physical contact and association with their Lord would be set aside for a deeper, more lasting, spiritual union with Him. All of these changes necessitated learning to abide in Christ in a way they had never known before.


The summation of this chapter can be expressed in two statements: (1) Abide in me—experience that love (verses 1-8); and (2) Express that love (verses 9-17).

If we understand and apply this passage correctly, it will virtually turn our priorities upside-down. Most of us are preoccupied with our performance as Christians, rather than being occupied with the person of Christ. We are more interested in the results we achieve than in simply resting in Him—abiding in Him. We want to appropriate His power, but fail to appreciate His person. Abiding stresses the source of our life and strength, but we frequently ignore the person of Christ to seek the product of our union with Him. We have the cart before the horse.

Abiding is our obligation; fruitfulness is God’s concern. The True Vine is the Author, the Source and the Finisher of our faith. We should be seeking His fellowship, and leaving the fruit to Him.

How instructive the physical union of man and woman is here. This is not conjecture; I find it clearly taught in Psalm 127.

“Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it; unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, to retire late, to eat the bread of painful labors; for He gives to His beloved even in his sleep. Behold, children are a gift of the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth. How blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them; they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate.”

The first two verses graphically reveal the futility of self-effort. Human effort without divine enablement is fruitless and frustrating. We simply wear ourselves down for no good reason.

Verses 3-5 are in contrast to the first two verses. Children are a gift of the Lord. Men do not acquire offspring by hard labor. Children are given to men in their sleep, without striving. That is, children are a result, not a cause. When a man and his wife have an intimacy of relationship, there is often from their union the gift of children. Children come from resting, not striving, from intimacy, not fervency; they are the result of a union, not an intense effort.

That is the lesson which we need to learn today. We have become preoccupied with results. We want to have guidance, but we ignore the Guide. We seek God as the Giver, rather than the Gift, the Rewarder rather than the Reward. We seek His blessings rather than see Him as the Blessing.

There is no special formula or technique by which fruitfulness can be attained. It results from merely abiding. Abiding in its simplest terms is trusting—and obeying. May God enable us to abide in Him.

147 James E. Rosscup, Abiding in Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973), pp. 27-28.

148 The commentaries contain seemingly endless discussions of the interpretation of the expression in verse 2, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; …” The questions are difficult.

(1) Since these branches are said to be ‘in me,’ does this mean that they represent unfruitful Christians? Many fine scholars do not think so, cf. Rosscup, pp. 185ff. If the answer to this question is “yes,” then the crux of the matter falls upon the Greek word (airo), ‘takes away’ (NASV). It could either mean ‘lifting up’ in the sense of supporting, undergirding (cf. Matthew 4:6), or the ‘removing’ of physical death (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:30). It cannot refer to one’s loss of salvation. First of all, the context is one of comfort and assurance, not of warning (cf. John 14:1). Second, we must remember the words of Jesus in verse 16: “You did not choose Me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He may give you.”

(2) The second major question is whether or not verse 2 must be understood as parallel to verse 6. My personal opinion is that we have lost sight of the major thrust of these verses which stress our relationship to the Father and the Son. We are confident that the loss of our salvation is impossible (verse 16). It is the Father’s task alone to deal with believers (fruitful branches) and unbelievers (unfruitful branches, those who only profess to be ‘in the vine’).

Related Topics: Christology, Spiritual Life

34. How to Handle a Hostile World (John 16)


In what is perhaps the most significant Christian book of this decade, J. I. Packer speaks to a certain type of evangelical ministry which is well-intentioned, but cruel.149 It is a ministry which means to offer men hope and encouragement by portraying the Christian life as a kind of utopian desert island, free from the trials and cares of life.150

In actuality it creates great upset in the lives of untaught Christians. Salvation in Jesus Christ does not promise freedom from difficulties.151 It does promise peace with God and the power to cope with life’s trials. When unsuspecting Christians encounter trials which they did not expect, they tend to question the reality of their faith, or the vitality of their spiritual life. Often they perceive problems as divine punishment for evils unwittingly committed.

Often this kind of teaching and ministry can result in despair. Many come to faith in Christ because of personal problems and difficulties. They are wrongly promised quick and easy solutions to life’s troubles if they simply trust in Christ as their Savior. They turn to God in desperation. But when their problems remain it appears that God has forsaken them. If God cannot deliver them, what hope is left?

The disciples of our Lord viewed the teaching of Jesus through rose-colored glasses as well. Their hope was for a Messiah who would come in a spectacular blaze of glory and who would put away all the evils and injustices of life.

As our Lord’s days on earth came to an end, more and more time was spent preparing the disciples for a future quite different than that for which they had hoped. Jesus would be put to a shameful death, and in His absence, the disciples would find themselves the object of the world’s hostility toward the Savior of men (cf. John 15:18ff.)

In the sixteenth chapter of the gospel of John, our Lord taught His followers what they should expect from an unbelieving world. He also revealed how a Christian can handle a hostile world. It is my hope that as we study this chapter we will come to see the Christian experience in the world for what it is and that we may learn from these words of the Master how to cope with these realities.

Opposition and the Necessity of Divine Enablement

The subject of persecution has already been introduced in chapter 15. It is the natural outgrowth of abiding in Christ (John 15:18-24). Love for one another is no option where Christians are despised for their faith in Christ. Abiding in Christ necessitates love for the brethren. We must love one another to prove ourselves to be His disciples (John 15:8-13). So we must love one another because we shall find little encouragement and comfort from the world.

The first provision of our Lord for those facing opposition is to be assured that it is a part of God’s will for our lives. In the words of the well-known proverb, ‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed.’ I can understand how it would be necessary for our Lord to inform His disciples of such hatred and animosity. Previous experience had not suggested it to them to any great degree. They had witnessed the crowds following Jesus, seeking to see Him and to touch Him. What little opposition Jesus had faced had been from a relatively small, but influential, group of the nation’s religious leaders. The triumphal entry fostered the hopes of the disciples that the sentiments of the masses would prevail.

Then, too, the Messianic expectations of the disciples did not include thoughts of suffering and rejection. They knew of passages which spoke of Messiah’s rejection and suffering (1 Peter 1:10,12), but practically, they set these aside in favor of more optimistic prophecies. They expected Messiah to gloriously reveal Himself, to win the support of the people, and to triumph over evil and especially Israel’s enemies. Suffering and rejection, until the last few days of Jesus’ life and ministry, were given little, if any, serious consideration.

Opposition had not yet been directed toward the disciples. The resistance that had surfaced during Jesus’ earthly ministry had come from the religious leaders who were as yet afraid to attack Jesus openly due to His popular support (cf. Matthew 21:26,46). The execution of the Savior was made possible by the rejection of Jesus by the common people. From then on hostility would be intense, and in the absence of the Master, it would be focused upon His disciples. More than anything else, the disciples needed to realize that such opposition was to be expected. It was a part of God’s plan for His own.

Not only was the opposition to be severe, even unto death (John 16:2), but it was to be religious in origin. Those who hotly pursued Christians were not atheists who believed in no god at all; they were devoted adherents of orthodox religion who considered their deeds an act of religious devotion (verse 2).152 Saul, before his conversion, carried out his work with religious passion (cf. Acts 9:1,2; 22:1-15; 26:4-12). Hostility clothed in the garb of religiosity, has always dealt harshly with its opponents.153

Unbelief so dominated the minds of men that they put the Messiah to death and would attempt to do the same to His disciples. Such opposition necessitated divine enablement if a lost world was to be won to Christ and the church was to survive. But verses 5 and 6 remind us that the disciples also needed divine enablement. It was their hardness of heart that kept them from accepting the truth which Jesus had revealed to them about His coming destiny, and theirs.

Jesus had told them He was going, and yet, He said, none of them was asking (present tense) Him where (verse 5). Now Peter had asked (John 13:36). And they still did not understand what Jesus meant by this (John 16:17:ff), but for the moment they would not ask. The reason for their present reticence, I believe, is found in verse 6: “But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart.” While the disciples did not understand the predictions of Jesus, they did perceive that their outcome was not what they desired. Their hearts were filled with sorrow. It was an unpleasant subject, and they did not really want to understand more at the moment.

When our family goes home to visit with our parents, we find the last couple of hours before we must leave the most painful. We are often considerably more subdued and quiet, and we avoid the delicate subject of our departure. That, I believe, is what our Lord is referring to. The disciples lack of faith evidenced itself in a kind of resistance to explore future. For this reason, they, too, needed divine enablement.

Let us beware of coming down on the disciples for their avoidance of persecution and opposition. Suffering is not a popular subject among Christians today, either. Unfortunately, modern-day evangelistic methods have adopted the techniques of Madison Avenue. The approach is to capitalize on the positive benefits of the faith, ignoring or underestimating the costs involved. Evangelism is conducted more like the college athletic draft than the proclamation of the truth. We pick those who appear to be the most likely to succeed and then offer them all kinds of inducements to join up with God’s team. No wonder so many new Christians stumble over the opposition they face. Life in Christ is not what it was said to be. Fortunately for Christians, the courts have not yet entertained suits pertaining to false advertising in evangelistic efforts.

How sad it is that Christians have not understood that adversity is a part of discipleship. In the process of sugar-coating the gospel, we have placed a snare in the path of new converts. They expect a life of ease and they learn to their dismay that it is a life of struggle and opposition. The first thing we must know in order to handle a hostile world is that the world is hostile to Christ and His followers.

The Ministry of the Holy Spirit

Contrary to some popular teaching, the world is not beating on our door for the good news of the gospel (cf. 1 Peter 4:12ff.). Men are dead in their trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3). They are blind to spiritual truths (2 Corinthians 4:4). They are enemies of our Lord and His people. While we are called to be witnesses (John 15:27), such testimony would be useless apart from divine intervention in the affairs of men. This is what is promised by our Lord in verses 7-11.

“But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you. And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment; concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me; and concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me; and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been judged.”

The departure of the Lord Jesus should not be a cause of grief, but a source of great blessing and encouragement. If our Lord did not ‘go away’ it would have been impossible for the Holy Spirit to come. When Jesus departed, He sent the Holy Spirit to minister in His stead (verse 7), and this would result in even greater miracles (in quantity) than those of our Lord (John 14:12).

The ministry of the Holy Spirit, with respect to the unbelieving world, is to confirm the witness of the believer. The matter of witnessing is a cooperative venture, involving men and the Holy Spirit. “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, that is the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me, and you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning” (John 15:26-27).

Our responsibility is to provide ‘external’ witness to the truth. We are to speak the truths of the gospel to men in such a way as to demonstrate their need of salvation. The Spirit’s task is to give ‘internal’ witness to the truths of the gospel. Our Lord described this internal witness as ‘convicting.’154

It would seem that there are various degrees of conviction, and that it is conducted at several levels. Not all men would experience the same degree of conviction, nor would all respond to it by repentance and faith in Christ. Conviction would seem to be universal on its lowest level. There is a certain amount of revelation available to all men (Romans 1,2). The Holy Spirit brings the issue presented by these facts into focus, so that men must see that the weight of the evidence demands a decision in agreement with God. A second level of conviction is on a moral plane. Inwardly, the Holy Spirit touches the conscience of man, bringing an inner sense of guilt, due to sin. The standard violated may be that of divine law, or simply of one’s own standards for the conduct of others (Romans 2).

The conviction of the Holy Spirit is necessary on both of these levels due to man’s fallenness. The doctrine of total depravity explains the effect of the fall on all men, in that every part of our being (intellect, emotions, will) has been polluted by sin. The convicting ministry of the Spirit overrides the effect of the fall on man’s mind by sharpening the focus on the issues of the gospel (or at least concerning some revelation of God, Romans 1). The evidence demands that men conclude with the Scriptures that there is a mighty, creative God Whose greatness is evidenced in creation. Man’s conscience has been rendered insensitive to sin, and so the Spirit at least momentarily and partially overcomes that insensitivity to bring an awareness of guilt.

One can be aware of the issues of the gospel and have a consciousness of personal sin and still not be saved. Man’s fallen will must also be changed in order to enable him to respond to the God toward which he is actively hostile (cf. Acts 16:14; Philippians 1:29). More than this, man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1) and he must be given life if he is to respond to the call of the gospel (Ephesians 2:5; Titus 3:5).

In this way we can see that the work of the Holy Spirit has a universal scope, while at the same time all men are not saved by His ministry of conviction. Once the convicting work of the Spirit has taken place, man cannot plead an ignorance of the issues or of his need of salvation. Fundamentally, the reason for man’s unbelief is not ignorance but arrogance. He does not believe, not for intellectual reasons, but for moral reasons he will not believe. Man does not believe because he will not believe. From a human standpoint, man cannot be saved because he will not be saved.

So we see that the outcome of the Holy Spirit’s ministry to unsaved men is at least two-fold. They are intellectually cornered and morally conscience-stricken. But they are not necessarily converted. The verdict demanded by the Holy Spirit is that men are sinners and that the gospel is the only way of salvation.

The case pressed upon unbelieving mankind is primarily threefold: “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, and righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8).

The first issue is that of a man’s personal sin. Although many lines of evidence could easily be brought against him, there is one primary issue and that is unbelief. Men may differ as to whether or not a certain action is a sin, but no one can excuse willful unbelief in the person of Jesus Christ. Perhaps, my friend, you have chosen to believe that God would judge men on the curve, and you have hoped to be in the winning half. First and foremost, I believe God is concerned with one thing: what have you done with His Son? He was sent to reveal the truth of God (John 1:14-18). Have you believed in Him? He was sent to bear the sins of the world and to provide the righteousness you need for eternal life (2 Corinthians 5:21). Have you trusted in Him? You may make all kinds of professions, but it is the Spirit of God Who searches your heart and either convicts of sin and unbelief or of faith and being a child of God (John 16:9; Romans 8:15-17).

The second issue pressed by God’s Spirit is that of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The unbelievers of Jesus’ day had concluded that He was a sinner (John 9:24) and that they were righteous (Luke 18:9). The Holy Spirit works to reverse this decision. The main line of evidence is that of the empty tomb. “… concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me” (John 16:10).

Three days after the crucifixion of our Lord He began to appear to His disciples, who were chosen to be witnesses of His resurrection (Acts 1:22; 2:32). Our Lord’s post-resurrection appearances proved that death could not hold Him in its power (Romans 1:4). Then the apostles saw Him no more, for He had ascended to the Father. His ascension (evidenced by the fact that His disciples saw Him no more) proved that the Lord Jesus was righteous and acceptable to the Father to Whom He returned (cf. Acts 2:24-36). The empty grave enabled the Christian church to be born with great power in the very city where Jesus had been executed and buried.

The third issue which the Holy Spirit brings before men is that of future judgment. If all men are sinners, rightly condemned before God, and they have rejected Jesus Christ, God’s only provision for salvation, then the only fate which awaits them is certain judgment. Certainty of man’s judgment is established on the fact that the prince of sinners, Satan himself, has already been judged on the cross of Calvary (John 12:31).155 If God has dealt decisively with His chief opponent, surely He will eventually judge all those who have chosen to follow him in rejecting Jesus Christ.

While Christians do live in a hostile world where men not only reject the Savior, but also those who trust in Him, God has not left us to our own devices. Our witness is effective in the salvation of men’s souls because of the inner witness of the Holy Spirit to the essential truth of the gospel, sin, righteousness and judgment.

Several truths pertaining to evangelism should be evident from our Lord’s words concerning the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit:

First, while it is our obligation to present the claims of Christ to unbelievers (John 15:27; Acts 1:8, etc.), it is not our job to convince men, nor to convert them. Ultimately, ‘Salvation is of the Lord’ (Jonah 2:9). We often make enemies of the unsaved by attempting to convince men through persuasive techniques or argumentative force. People are not argued into the Kingdom of God. Witnessing is our task; winning souls is not. Often times we may feel that our witness has fallen upon deaf ears. But long after we have left, the Spirit can press home the truths of the gospel.

Second, it should almost go without saying that sin, righteousness, and judgment should be the core of our evangelistic message. These are the truths to which the Spirit will bear witness. Obviously, those are the truths of which we are assured of God’s inner witness by the Spirit. And yet having said this, how seldom the gospel is presented in these terms. Every man is a sinner. His unbelief is manifested in a variety of overt actions and inner attitudes. Jesus Christ alone is the sinless Son of God. He alone can serve as our substitute and bear our penalty for sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). And for all who reject Christ as the righteousness of God, there awaits the judgment of God. Men without Christ are destined for eternity apart from God (2 Thessalonians 1:9), and sharing Satan’s doom (Matthew 25:41).

It is not just fallen men who need the truths of God impressed upon their minds and hearts, it is true believers who need the ministry of the Holy Spirit also. The disciples were unable to grasp the true meaning of the words of the Lord. In verses 5 and 6 of chapter 16, the Lord had once again brought out the dullness of the hearts and minds of the disciples which made them unable to grasp what He said, and even unwilling to seek the truth, because of their grief and sorrow (verse 6).

We know this inability to comprehend spiritual truths to be true of every Christian (1 Corinthians 2:10-16). Even the Christian cannot comprehend divine truth unaided by the Holy Spirit. Just as the Spirit overcomes the effects of the fall on unsaved men to convince them of sin, righteousness, and judgment, so He illuminates and instructs Christians in the truths of God (John 16:12-15). There was much that Jesus wished to share with His disciples, but it would have been to no avail. The work of the cross was not yet accomplished. They would never understand this except as they looked back upon it. Jesus’ departure was necessary so that the greater work of the Holy Spirit could be accomplished in the lives of the disciples.

This work was to “guide them into all the truth” (verse 13). This ‘truth’ is not any and every truth—e.g., the truth of science, etc., as some have asserted. Jesus clarified His statement by telling us that it is all ‘the’ truth. The truth refers primarily to those truths pertaining to the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ (verses 13-15). Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life (14:6) and yet the disciples did not understand these truths pertaining to Christ as yet. This would be the ministry of the Spirit to the disciples, removing the veil of fallenness from over their hearts and minds, disclosing the meaning and significance of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. Apart from our Lord’s death and departure and the coming of the Spirit, He could have spent decades, even centuries, with His disciples and they still would not have grasped the meaning of His words concerning His departure. Only in retrospect by the illumination of the Holy Spirit did the disciples come to understand the meaning of Christ’s life and teaching.

The Relationship Between Sorrow and Joy

In spite of all the teaching of the Master, there still remained a cloud of confusion concerning His words. Jesus once more reiterated, in a somewhat indirect fashion, the fact that He was shortly to depart from His disciples by death, and then in a short while to return to them after His resurrection (verse 16).

This statement served to further frustrate the followers of our Lord who could make neither heads nor tails of what He was saying. Their theology of the coming kingdom contained nothing which would explain these words. Having asked before, they were reluctant to bring the subject up again. They revealed their confusion as they spoke to one another trying to determine what Jesus meant by His words.

Jesus answered their question, but in a different fashion than they expected. He would speak clearly in a few moments (cf. verse 28), but first He must deal with the problem underlying their question. The disciples refused to consider any explanation concerning the future which included suffering (cf. Matthew 16:21-23). They could not imagine how Messiah’s suffering could be consistent with His reign in glory. Because of this underlying misconception, Jesus explained the relationship between suffering and glory. Interestingly enough, Jesus did not speak of this in relation to Himself, but as it would be experienced by His followers. (Could this imply that the disciples were more concerned about their own suffering than that of Jesus?)

It was certain that the disciples would experience deep sorrow in the near future (verse 20). In contrast to this, the world would rejoice. They will grieve over the loss of their closest companion, but the world will think, “Good riddance!”

The eleven had come to look at sorrow as the enemy of joy, and this was simply not true. Suffering did not prevent glory; it prepared the way for it. God has not called us to suffer so that later He can take it away and replace it with glory. Suffering is the way to glory. Glory could not be attained through any other means but suffering.

An illustration of this is found in the birth of a child (verse 21). There is nothing pleasant about the labor pains which a woman endures in the child-bearing process. I have witnessed this with my wife six times, so I have some experience in this area. Obviously, my wife has even greater credentials here. But it is the pains of childbirth which prepare the mother’s body for the birth of the child. It is by means of the labor pains that a child is brought to life. Further, the pains of birth are forgotten in the joy of giving life. How quickly forgotten are all the unpleasant experiences of the birth process once the new child is in its mother’s arms. There will be sorrow for the disciples, but this sorrow is a necessary part of the process by which God gives life to fallen men. In the joys of new life, these sorrows will be considered worthwhile and will be quickly overshadowed by the glory that is sure to follow godly suffering.

The questions which filled the minds of the disciples would all be answered on the day in which sorrow is swallowed up by joy (verse 23). Their problem was one of perspective. From the perspective of the death, burial, resurrection and ascension of the Savior, all of these things would fall into place. At this time, there will be no more questions for they will understand how suffering brings joy and victory. Instead of seeking the answers to their questions, they will devote themselves to prayer, by which God Himself will meet their every need.

We have not really given proper emphasis to the matter of prayer in the upper room discourse of chapters 14-16. Communion with our Lord since His ascension is to be carried on through the Word of God (John 14:21,23,26; 15:7,10; 16:12-15; 17:17) and prayer (John 14:13-14; 15:16; 16:23f.). Repeatedly, Jesus assured His disciples of answered prayer.

Final Words of Assurance

The last recorded words of our Lord to His disciples (as recorded by John) before the awful events of that night are found in verses 25-33. They are not words of warning, but of assurance. Fear is never a healthy perspective by which to view the future. Jesus’ words are those which encourage faith.

His first assurance concerns one of the most distressing things the disciples faced: Jesus’ words about the future were obscure and confusing to their troubled minds. The Master promised them that in a short while they would understand all that they needed to live godly lives (verse 25).

Assurance was also rooted in the promise of an intimacy with the Father not previously known (verses 26-27). It would be incorrect to view the present ministry of our Lord in heaven, as one of continual pleading with the Father to bless and supply the needs of true believers. In a sense, that was necessary before the work of the cross. But after the Son died on the cross and the wrath of God against sinners was appeased, an intimacy with the Father was accomplished for the saints. God is not reluctant and unwilling to bless His children. He does not need to be pestered and prodded by the Son. He, Himself, loves His own and intimately involves Himself with their needs as a loving Father.156

Assurance is further given by a clear reaffirmation of Jesus as the divine Son of God, sent from the Heavenly Father, and soon to return to Him. “I came forth from the Father, and have come into the world. I am leaving the world again, and going to the Father” (John 16:28).

These words of the Savior reinforced the faltering faith of the disciples: “His disciples said, ‘Lo, now You are speaking plainly, and are not using a figure of speech. Now we know that You know all things, and have no need for anyone to question You; by this we believe that You came from God” (John 16:29,30).

But the most assuring certitude is yet to come. Yes, the disciples did find comfort and confidence in the words of Jesus. But in the storm of opposition that would soon come upon them their faith would seemingly be swept away. “Jesus answered them, “Do you now believe? Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone; because the Father is with Me” (John 16:31,32).

Is this not a word of warning, rather than of comfort? Jesus has predicted that the disciples will flee when the going gets rough within a short time. What the disciples needed to know was that ultimate victory was not dependent upon their faith, but upon the work of the Savior on the cross of Calvary. “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

It is in Christ that we have peace. It is in Him that we overcome the world. Far too much emphasis these days is placed upon the quality of our faith rather than in the infinite goodness and power of the object of our faith, Jesus Christ.

Our perception of situations is not often what it should be. Surely our performance falls far short of divine standards. Our assurance and faith in times of trial and opposition seem to crumble. It is not that faith is unimportant. God forbid that anyone should suggest this, for “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). But let us not place our assurance and confidence in our faith. Our faith is of no more value than the object in which it is placed. Victory and peace are in Jesus Christ. Victory has been won. And we, too, shall overcome as we abide in Him. Praise God!

149 I highly commend for your careful reading, J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973). Here I refer particularly to Chapter 21 entitled, “These Inward Trials,” pp. 221-229.

150 “The type of ministry that is here in mind starts by stressing, in an evangelistic context, the difference that becoming a Christian will make. Not only will it bring a man forgiveness of sins, peace of conscience, and fellowship with God as his Father; it will also mean that, through the power of the indwelling Spirit, he will be able to overcome the sins that previously mastered him, and the light and leading that God will give him will enable him to find a way through problems of guidance, self-fulfillment, personal relations, heart’s desire, and such like, which had hitherto defeated him completely. Now, put like that, in general terms, these great assurances are scriptural and true—praise God, they are! But it is possible so to stress them, and so to play down the rougher side of the Christian life—the daily chastening, the endless war with sin and Satan, the periodic walk in darkness as to give the impression that normal Christian living is a perfect bed of roses, a state of affairs in which everything in the garden is lovely all the time, and problems no longer exist—or, if they come, they have only to be taken to the throne of grace, and they will melt away at once. This is to suggest that the world, the flesh, and the devil, will give a man no serious trouble once he is a Christian; nor will his circumstances and personal relationships ever be a problem to himself. Such suggestions are mischievous, however, because they are false.” Ibid., p. 222.

151 Note, for example, these words of the apostle Paul: “And indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). The life of this great apostle was not a carefree existence (cf. 2. Corinthians 6:4-10).

152 It is interesting that the expression ‘offering service to God’ (verse 2), is a technical religious phrase, most often employed to describe the offering of a sacrifice. Cf. B. F. Wescott, The Gospel According to St. John, Reprint (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 226.

153 A friend of mine shared with me this statement of Pascal (Pensees): “Men never do evil so completely or cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”

154 William Hendriksen has a very helpful footnote pertaining to the Greek word (elengko) most often translated convict, convince, or reprove. He suggests that the Greek term has the same elasticity of meaning as its English counterparts. Convincing has a more intellectual flavor while conviction seems to deal with the moral consciousness of man. Cf. William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953), II, fn. 200, pp. 324-325.

Note also Wescott’s comments on the convicting ministry of the Holy Spirit: “Whatever the final issue may be, he who “convicts” another places the truth of the case in dispute in a clear light before him, so that it must be seen and acknowledged as truth. He who then rejects the conclusion which this exposition involves, rejects it with his eyes open and at his peril. Truth seen as truth carries with it condemnation to all who refuse to welcome it.” B. F. Wescott, John, p. 228.

155 The tense used is a perfect. It emphasizes the abiding results of Satan’s judgment. A past tense is legitimately employed to emphasize the certainty of Satan’s doom, even though the work of the cross was yet future when Jesus spoke these words.

156 “There is no contradiction with passages speaking of Christ’s perpetual intercession for His people (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25), nor with that in which John calls Him “an Advocate with the Father” (1 John 2:l). In all four passages there is one basic underlying thought, namely, that our approach to the Father rests firmly on Christ’s priestly work for us. That work is itself a perpetual intercession. It does not require to be supplemented by further intervention on our behalf. There is also a firm exclusion of the thought that the disciples should enlist Christ’s prayers for them as though He were more merciful and more ready to hear than is the Father.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 710.

Morris also cites Calvin as saying, “when Christ is said to intercede with the Father for us, let us not imagine anything fleshly about Him, as if He were on His knees before the Father offering humble supplications. But the power of His sacrifice, by which He once pacified God towards us, is always powerful and efficacious. The blood by which He atoned for our sins, the obedience which He rendered, is a continual intercession for us. This is a remarkable passage, by which we are taught that we have the heart of God as soon as we place before Him the name of His Son.” Ibid., p. 710, fn. 64.

Related Topics: Christology, Apologetics, Cultural Issues

35. The High Priestly Prayer of Jesus (John 17)


The story is told of a preacher who was shaking hands at the door of the church after his Sunday morning sermon. One outspoken member of the congregation thanked the pastor for both messages. “But I only preached once this morning,” he gently corrected. “Well, pastor, I meant the one you preached and the one you prayed.”

Some preachers seem to find it easier to pray their sermons than to preach them. (I can well remember amusing myself by timing them from week to week.) I would hope this is not because it is easier to say some things with ‘every head bowed’ than with people looking you straight in the eye. And lest we parents feel too smug here, we often pray little sermons to our children. For example: “Dear Lord, help little Sally not to leave her bed unmade and to be more respectful of her mommy and daddy.”

Another misuse of prayer is what I call the ‘evangelistic prayer.’ This is often prayed at church, but the most striking form of it is the restaurant version. Someone, normally with a booming voice, prays at sufficient volume for the entire restaurant to overhear. Usually every fork clatters to the plate, waitresses freeze in place, and all conversation stops. The prayer always includes a concise presentation of the gospel.

I have always been irritated by such forms of prayer for it appears they were not intended for God at all. Having said this, I must recognize that some of the prayers of our Lord were addressed to the Father, but were intended to be overheard. Among other examples I would include the prayer of Jesus for the raising of Lazarus (John 11:41-42) and this prayer in John chapter 17.

The high priestly prayer of Jesus serves as a fitting conclusion to the upper room discourse of chapters 14-16. In verse one of chapter 17 John informs us that this prayer is to be understood as a kind of conclusion to the Lord’s teaching in chapters 14-16. “These things Jesus spoke; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, he said …” (John 17:1a). It is my personal opinion that this prayer, the longest of Jesus’ recorded prayers, was intended to be overheard by His disciples. One purpose of this prayer was to bring comfort and hope to the troubled hearts of the disciples. It may have been more effective at the moment than all the teaching of chapters 14-16. While a measure of assurance resulted from the words of our Lord in chapters 14-16 (cf. 16:29-30), much more comfort and faith would be gained in the light of their fulfillment (John 13:19; 16:4). This prayer must have done much to calm the troubled hearts of the eleven.

Let us look carefully at this prayer, then, to find the comfort that it afforded the disciples. And let us remember that it was not only a prayer for the eleven, but for Christians of every age (John 17:20).

The Prayer of Jesus for Himself

There is one word that dominates Jesus’ prayer for Himself in verses 1-5—glory. It occurs in some form five times in these verses. Initially, it seems unfitting for Jesus to pray that He might receive glory for Himself. Looking more closely we find there are several observations concerning this request for glory which put the matter in a different light.

(1) Jesus requested that He be glorified in order to bring further glory to the Father. Jesus’ petition was not to receive glory independently from the Father, but to be glorified to the praise of the Father. “… Father, the hour has come; glorify Thy Son, that the Son may glorify Thee” (John 17:1 b). “And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, …” (John 17:5). Satan wanted to usurp God’s position and glory (Isaiah 14:12-14). He wanted to receive glory independently of God. Jesus prayed for glorification in order to exalt the Father.

(2) Jesus requested the glory which rightfully belonged to Him. “And now glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I ever had with Thee before the world was” (John 17:5). When the second person of the Godhead left heaven to become God incarnate, He temporarily set aside His glory (Philippians 2:5-8). This ‘kenosis’ was illustrated by the washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13. Our Lord did not lay aside any of His deity, but rather added perfect humanity to His deity.157 When the work of the cross was completed the glory which was momentarily laid aside was given back to Him. This, in part, is that which Jesus requested in His prayer.

(3) Christ’s glory was earned at the price of the cross. In addition to the restoration of the glory which our Lord possessed prior to His incarnation, there is additional glory which was earned by His earthly life and ministry. He had glorified the Father by His earthly life of obedience and submission (John 17:4). He was glorified, along with the Father in the salvation of men by His work on the cross (John 17:2-3). It is because of Christ’s willingness to set aside the glory that was rightfully His in order to save sinful men that the Father gave Him even greater glory.

“Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

What a beautiful commentary these verses in Philippians chapter two provide on the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus prayed to be glorified so that the Father would receive glory (Philippians 2:11). Jesus received the glory that was already His (Philippians 2:6), but because of His work on the cross (Philippians 2:7-8) was given an even greater glory (Philippians 2:9-11).

The matter of suffering and glory must be kept in proper perspective. The Christian experience is not one of grim determination which causes one to face a life of suffering and sorrow with glory to follow later. The Christian life is the abundant life (John 10:10b). It is one of joy and peace.

Nevertheless, trials (James 1:2-4,12), persecution (John 15:18ff.; 2 Timothy 2:12) and suffering (Philippians 1:29) are an inseparable part of the Christian experience. In times of difficulty, our faith is deepened (James 2:3), our fellowship with God is enriched (Philippians 3:10) and we experience deep joy in the midst of difficulties (John 17:13; 1 Peter 4:13; 2 Corinthians 12:10). In suffering and adversity we come to appreciate God as our great reward, as well as our rewarder.158 When all of our human resources have been spent, we find our sufficiency in Christ alone (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).

The suffering of this life takes many forms. It may be that of opposition from friends and loved ones (Matthew 10:34ff.; 1 Peter 4:4). It can be a physical or mental experience. It may involve setting aside temporary pleasures for eternal rewards (Hebrews 11:24-26). It may be the normal failures and frustrations of our humanity (Romans 7:15ff.; 8:18ff.) as we attempt to live in a way pleasing to God and as we await our final glorification.

We should not only say that Christian suffering leads to glory, but that in many cases suffering is glory.

“By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin; considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:24-26).

We are told that Moses considered the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt (verse 26). Moses came to view his sufferings as glory. So also the sufferings of the Savior were a part of His glory as well (John 12:27–28).

The Christian life is a mixture of the bitter and the sweet. We have a good measure of life’s pleasures and fulfillments. There are also the bitter experiences of suffering and sorrow. These the Lord sweetens with His presence and peace, blending the bitter and the sweet in such a way as to bring about His glory and our good (Romans 8:28). There is no lifestyle more desirable than that of the disciple. There is none more difficult. But He gives greater grace to meet life’s trials and provides His strength for our weaknesses (2 Corinthians 12:9).

It must also be said that suffering is not the only way to bring glory to God. To believe this would be to become Christian masochists. Our Lord glorified the Father by His words and works, by revealing Him to men (John 1:14; 17:4). We glorify God by our faith in Him and our obedience to His Word. The disciples brought glory to our Lord before they experienced suffering for His sake (John 17:10). In short, we bring glory to God when He manifests Himself in our lives, whether in times of triumph or trial, of success or suffering.

The prayer of our Lord reveals that He has already glorified the Father by His earthly life and ministry (verse 4). But now the hour of His death had come (verse 1). As He had glorified the Father by His life, now He prays that He might do the same in His death.

Here is the touchstone for many Christians today. Are we as willing to live for the glory of God as we are to die for it? A willingness to do either will free us from much of the agony we experience in facing the future. The joy of the apostle Paul in the face of his sufferings in that Roman jail was that which resulted from his willingness to live or die, to prosper or to perish, for the glory of God and the progress of the gospel (Philippians 1:18-26).

Have you ever made this commitment, my Christian friend? It is the dedication of which the apostle Paul spoke in Romans chapter twelve, verses 1 and 2. Have you asked God to glorify Himself through you? It may mean suffering, it may mean success. Most likely it will mean both. That is the commitment a true disciple of our Lord must make. It is such unconditional surrender to the purposes of God which brings Him glory and results in our good.

The Prayer of Jesus for His Disciples

From His request concerning Himself our Lord quickly turned to the needs of His disciples, for it is in them that He had been glorified (verse 10). And it was in them our Lord would be glorified after His resurrection and ascension.

The request of the Lord Jesus was founded upon several factors.

First, He accomplished His earthly task of revealing the Father to the disciples (verse 6-8). It is interesting to note how positively the faith of the disciples is stated. I believe the perspective of the Savior throughout this prayer is from the other side of the cross. Our Lord assumed the fact of His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. From the other side of the cross the disciples would be fully assured concerning all Jesus said and did to reveal the Father to them.

Second, our Lord assumed the consummation of His ministry in the work of the cross. Our Lord prayed, “Holy Father, keep them in Thy name, the name which Thou hast given Me, that they may be one, even as we are” (John 17:11b). The request of Jesus is based upon the name which the Father has given to Him. In Philippians chapter two we are told that, as a result of His humiliation and obedience unto death, the Father gave Him a name above every other (Philippians 2:9). That name, I believe, is the name Jesus (Philippians 2:10). Jesus (or its Old Testament counterpart, Joshua) meant ‘Yahweh is salvation.’

The name of a person in the days of our Lord represented a person’s character. The character of our Lord in His earthly life and ministry is well depicted by the name, Jesus. It is on the basis of our Lord’s character as God’s Savior for man that this prayer of our Lord is grounded.

Third, our Lord’s prayer is based upon the fact that those for whom He prayed were true believers: “I ask on their behalf; I do not ask on behalf of the world, but of those whom Thou hast given Me; for they are Thine (John 17:9). The disciples were believers because they belonged to the Father and were given to the Son (17:6,9-10). They were believers also because they came to faith in the person of Jesus Christ as the One sent from God (17:8).

The Lord’s petition on behalf of His disciples was that the Father keep them: “Holy Father, keep them in Thy name …” (John 17:11b). This keeping was done by the Lord while He was with His disciples (verse 12), but now He is returning to the Father (verses 11,13). The keeping of the disciples has several facets:

(1) The keeping for which Jesus prayed involved the eternal security of His followers. Our Lord had already spoken to His disciples concerning the frailty of their faith under fire (John 13:38; 16:31-32). Praise God that our future does not rest upon the strength of our faith, but in its object. Keeping is God’s work, not ours. It is ours to abide (chapter 15), and His to keep.

Judas was not an exception to the rule. Our Lord did not fail to keep Him. He was the ‘son of perdition’ (verse 12). He was never saved (John 13:10,11), so he was not lost out of the keeping hand of God. His destruction was a fulfillment of his character and destiny, as well as of prophecy (verse 12).

(2) The keeping of the disciples involved giving them joy in the midst of the world’s hatred and opposition, verses 13-14. They were not of the world, just as the Savior was not. Consequently, the world would hate them and oppose them. The Father’s keeping included joy and steadfastness in this opposition.

(3) The keeping of the Father included protection against the attacks of Satan, verse 15. “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one.” Our Lord’s prayer does not guarantee that we will be kept from Satan’s attack (Ephesians 6:10ff.; 1 Peter 5:18-9), but that we will be preserved in times of Satanic opposition. God does not promise we will avoid testing, but that we will endure it.

(4) The keeping of the Father includes the sanctification of the believer. “Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). This sanctification is a far cry from mere separation. This spacial view of holiness was held by the Pharisees. They were only concerned with external separation (cf. Mark 2:15-17). Their ideas stemmed largely from a misconception of Old Testament sanctification. God, however, is not impressed with externalism, but with the condition of the heart (cf. Matthew 6:1-18; 23; Luke 16:15).

The legalistic forms of Christianity of our present day equates sanctification with mere separation. We think we are holy ‘because we never allow ourselves the occasion to be in the world. We hide behind church walls as though the church building was a fortress against worldliness. We spend all of our time in church activities so that we cannot be among the lost. This is not sanctification. There is a great difference between being ‘in the world’ and being ‘of the world.’ Dr. Billy Graham once defined it as the difference between isolation and insulation. What a difference there is.

There is no better illustration of sanctification than that of our Lord Jesus Christ (verses 16-19). Our Lord was physically untouched by man’s sin in the sanctity of heaven. There, God was untouched by the sins of men. But He left the blessedness of heaven in order to remove the blemish of sin from men. Even as the Holy God was no less holy for entering a sinful world, neither are we for living in the world. This is our calling (verse 16).

If our sanctification is not synonymous with separation, what is it? We can see it best defined in the work of our Lord. “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself, that they themselves may be sanctified in truth” (John 17:19). Our Lord was not sanctified by separation, but by dedication and obedience to the will and the work of the Father. Ultimately, this sanctification took Him to the cross of Calvary. And it was this work of the Son which assures the sanctification of every saint.

We are sanctified by the work of Christ on the cross. We are also sanctified by the Word of truth (verse 17). As we trust in the Lord Jesus and devote our hearts to do His will we can live holy and blameless lives in the midst of a sinful world.

The Prayer of Jesus for All Believers

The petition of the Lord Jesus for all believers primarily concerns Christian unity:

“… that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me. And the glory which Thou hast given Me I have given to them; that they may be one, just as We are one; I in them, and Thou in Me, that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Thou didst love Me” (John 17:21-23).

It is vital that we recognize the vast difference between unity and uniformity. Unity is best demonstrated in diversity; uniformity is threatened by diversity.

Our Lord chose as disciples men who were radically different in temperament, personality and political philosophy. It was because of their glaring differences that their unity was so evident.

In the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches that diversity is not opposed to unity; it is essential to it. How could the body function rightly if every member were an eye, or an ear, or a mouth? True unity demands diversity, and diversity displays true unity. Marriage could be used to further illustrate this principle.160

I say this because some churches seem to be trying to turn out ‘cookie cutter Christians’ who look alike (dress codes), think alike (credal codes, often concerning non-essentials) and act alike (codes of conduct). Sad to say, such legalism does not display true unity, nor does it constitute true spirituality. It simply teaches Christian conformity. But when the peer group changes, so does creed and conduct. This is all too frequently seen as our young people go off to college. We have not taught them to think, but to conform.

If unity is not to be found in uniformity, it is to be seen in union. “I in them, and them in Me that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst love Me” (John 17:23). The unity of the trinity is unity of being, of essence and of purpose. We are the children of God by faith if we dwell in God and He dwells in us (verse 23); there is then essential unity, between the believer and God, and also between one believer and every other.

Our unity, then, does not lie in nonfundamental (I did not say unimportant) factors, but in being a true believer. Unity should not be hindered between two believers who hold differing views concerning the details of our Lord’s return, or concerning the doctrine of eternal security, important as it is. Too many Christians think of unity only in terms of those who think and act alike. Often unity is expressed only within a church or a denomination, if at all.

Notice that unity is a vitally important matter. In the last moments of our Lord’s earthly ministry, He prayed for it. It is the way Christians are identified in a world where everyone ‘does his own thing’ and values personal independence and liberties above all else (verse 23). Here is the mark of the Christian community—unity.

In verse 24 the Lord prayed for reunion. He will shortly be led away to His trial and execution. After His ascension He will no longer physically walk among His people, until they are reunited with Him. It is for this reunion that our Lord prayed. “Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24).

Finally, in verses 25 and 26, Jesus prayed He might continue to minister to His own, even in His physical absence. “O righteous Father, although the world has not known Thee, yet I have known Thee; and these have known that Thou didst send Me; and I have made Thy name known to them, and will make it known; that the love wherewith Thou didst love Me may be in them, and I in them” (John 17:25-26).

His work of revealing the Father was done, and the disciples had come to know God through His life and ministry. And yet He desired to continue to reveal Himself in them and to abide in them. This I take to be the substance of His request in verse 26.

It is a great prayer which our Lord allowed His disciples to overhear in their hour of anxiety and distress. It is little wonder that the Spirit of God has preserved it for us as well.


Before we leave this prayer of our Lord, let us focus our attention on it so far as we are instructed by this prayer about prayer.

(1) The Presuppositions of This Prayer. A prayer such as this one cannot be made apart from several premises. First of all, it assumes the sovereignty of God in the salvation and keeping of men. True believers are those who belong to the Father and are given to the Son (verses 6,9-10). Their salvation is procured by the work of the Son (verses 2-3) in which we believe (verses 6-8). Once saved by God, men are kept and preserved by Him also (verses 11-19). There is no more comforting thought than that our salvation rests securely in the hands of God.

Also, this prayer assumes the sufficiency of the work of the Son on the cross, procuring and securing their salvation. All that our Lord requested is promised on the completed work of Christ on the cross (verses 11,12). The Savior is not a mere man, but the Son of God. Who else can claim to have been with the Father in eternity past (verses 5,24)? Who else but the Son of God can claim that everything which belongs to the Father is also His (verses 9,10)?

(2) The Power of This Prayer. While we are not specifically told so, this prayer must have had a tremendous impact on the hearts of the disciples. We can assume, since this prayer has been preserved for us, that it was intended to bring peace and assurance to our troubled hearts. If we believe in the One Who prayed it and in the sufficiency of His work at Calvary, what right have we to worry and fret?

I would like to go one step further by suggesting that we may not have realized the value of praying for others in their hearing. Numerous times I have gone to the bedside of those facing surgery and found that a prayer of assurance and protection brings peace of heart and soul.

I would suggest that this prayer provides us with an excellent model for prayer on behalf of another Christian. It seeks the glory of God, even at the price of personal suffering, assured that what is for God’s glory is ultimately for our good (indeed, our best). It confidently petitions for divine protection, not from suffering, but from Satan, spiritual collapse, and opposition. It seeks a greater unity among true believers, and looks ultimately for a reunion with our Lord.

While we do not know the precise program of God for our lives, or others, we are assured of the fact that God’s purposes will be achieved: His glory, our good (Romans 8:28ff.), our sanctification and union with our Lord and other Christians.

(3) The Price of Prayer. Let us not leave this prayer of our Lord without seriously considering the price of it. Every request which our Lord made on our behalf necessitated the personal sacrifice of the Lord Jesus on the cross of Calvary. Apart from His finished work in His death, burial and resurrection and ascension, these words would be mere wishful thinking.

The price He has paid for man’s salvation is one none of us could have paid. It was paid once for all, and never needs to be paid again (Hebrews 9:24-28). But there is a sense in which our prayers have a price. Can we pray that God will minister to others without a commitment to minister in any way we can? Every prayer has a price tag. Let us be mindful of our responsibilities when we pray.

157 “The Lord had become flesh: a real human baby. He had not ceased to be God; He was no less God then than before; but He had begun to be man. He was not now God minus some elements of His deity, but God plus all that He had made His own by taking manhood to Himself.” J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 50. I would highly recommend your study of the entire chapter, “God Incarnate,” pp. 45-56.

158 “In Hebrews 11:6 we’re told that God is the ‘rewarder of those that diligently seek Him.’ And in Genesis 15:1 God said to Abraham: ‘I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.’ Somebody said the difference between Patrick Henry and the average American today is that Patrick Henry said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’ and the average American today just says, ‘gimme.’ Sometimes we make a Santa Claus out of the Lord. We want the gifts and not the Giver, we want the blessing more than we want the Blesser. We need to get over the ‘gimmes.’ The Christian life ought to follow the pattern of the Lord’s prayer. It begins with His name, His kingdom, His will and then ‘give us this day our daily bread.’” Vance Havner, “Things I’ve Learned in the Night,” Moody Monthly, June, 1974, p. 29.

159 One should probably use caution in making too much of the distinctions between verses 6-19 and 20-26, as though the first section was only for the eleven and the remainder exclusively for believers of a later time. In fact our Lord prayed for unity among the eleven (verse 11) as well as for all believers (verses 21-23).

It may be best, then, to understand verse 20 as saying, in effect, “This prayer is not only for the eleven, but for all true believers.” In this case there is little distinction made as to the benefactors of this petition, and simply a change of emphasis in the requests which are made. Verses 6-19 deal more with protection, 20-26 with unification.

160 Even in the Godhead there is an illustration of unity in diversity. Father, Son and Spirit are equally God, yet there is diversity of role and function.

Related Topics: Christology, Ecclesiology (The Church), Prayer

36. Who Killed Jesus, The Messiah? Part I (John 18:1-27)


Several weeks ago the president of the United States faced the nation concerning the shortages of petroleum in the United States. In one part of the program, President Carter was asked in effect, “Mr. President, just who is responsible for the present shortages?” I have never had a desire to be the president of the United States, but I would have loved to have been in his shoes at that moment and to have been able to answer that particular question.

Now I am probably going to reveal my naivet concerning the energy crisis, but this is what my answer would have been. Everybody is at fault. The Arab oil cartel is guilty of pressing an unfair advantage by raising their prices dramatically over the past few months. The American petroleum industry is guilty of encouraging peak consumption levels of petroleum products in order to maximize corporate profits. The American public is guilty for using far more than its share of the world’s natural resources and for wanting government to fix the current situation with little or no increase in fuel prices and with no change in their present lifestyle. The Congress is guilty of failing to deal effectively with the situation due to their fear of adverse public reaction. Perhaps our national leaders have been guilty of failing to tell the public the whole truth, painful as it may be.

The question of the responsibility for current fuel shortages is a recent one. The question of the responsibility for the death of Jesus, the Messiah, is one that has been debated for centuries. Strangely enough, the answers to both questions were remarkably similar.

In our study of the arrest and Jewish trial of our Lord, we must conclude that the Jewish nation is unquestionably guilty of rejecting Jesus as Messiah and of precipitating His crucifixion. Having said this we must hasten to add that our next study of the Roman trial and execution of Christ will show the Gentiles to be equally guilty for the death of the Savior. Let us keep this in mind as we approach this lesson in the life and times of Jesus Christ.

The Arrest of Jesus

Judas Iscariot had left the Upper Room before the Passover meal was concluded (John 13:27-30). He knew intimately the places which our Lord frequented. It seems as though Jesus may never have stayed overnight in a house in Jerusalem, but camped outside the city in this garden in which He had just agonized in prayer.161 Judas had little trouble finding the Master in the dark of that night, and Jesus made no effort to elude His captors.

The arrest of Jesus was not going to be bungled this time (cf. John 7:44-46). A great multitude was led to the garden by Judas (Matthew 26:47). They came fully armed with lights, swords, and clubs (John 18:3). Among this delegation were both Romans and Jewish peace officers (verse 3). John tells us that it was a Roman cohort, which was normally made up of 600 men. It is difficult to determine exactly how many were present in the garden.162 While some scholars tend to play down the number actually there, we must remember that the gospels inform us that it was a ‘great multitude’ (Matthew 26:47, cf. vs. 55). Both by their weapons and their numbers it is obvious that Jesus was regarded as a formidable enemy. Accompanying the Roman soldiers were the officers of the Sanhedrin, or, as John says, ‘from the chief priests and Pharisees’ (verse 3).

Jesus did not shrink from His captors, but went out to meet them, an action which obviously unnerved the soldiers. Before they had the chance to say a word, He asked them, “Whom do you seek?” (verse 4). When Jesus identified Himself as the One they were seeking it caught them by surprise. In fear, they stepped backwards as He advanced upon them. As in any large crowd the inevitable occurred. Everyone did not retreat simultaneously, and feet became quickly entangled. They literally fell all over themselves. If the events of that night had not been so treacherous and evil, it would have been a comical scene.

Jesus’ aggressive action in this confrontation was purposeful. His captors were embarrassed and rattled by their clumsiness. Jesus had also elicited from them twice that He was the One they sought. Consequently, His disciple should be free to go, rather than to be arrested with Him. This was understood by John as another fulfillment of Jesus’ words (cf. verse 9).

If there was any moment at which the disciples should act to defend their Lord, it would be during this time of confusion. Discerning what was about to take place, the disciples asked if they should make a fight of it. “And when those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’” (Luke 22:49). Apparently, Peter did not wait for the answer. He struck out with his sword, severing the right ear of Malchus, slave of the high priest (John 18:10). I have always wondered how this could happen. If Peter had chopped down with his sword, surely much more damage would have been done. I would suspect that Peter slashed horizontally with his sword, intending to sever the head of Malchus. Perhaps seeing what was coming, Malchus tipped his head to the side as he ducked the oncoming sword, losing only an ear in the process.

I would suggest that the Lord’s healing of Malchus (Luke 22:51) at this moment was more out of concern for His disciples than an act of compassion for His opponents. Had Malchus returned with such an injury, there would be ample evidence for the arrest of His disciples. This healing precluded such action—there was no longer any evidence of resisting arrest on the part of the disciples.

From the accounts of the gospel writers concerning the arrest of Jesus Christ, one primary truth stands out: Jesus was in complete control of the circumstances. He was not the helpless victim of a cruel and unjust system; His life was not snatched from Him; He gave Himself up. In the words of our Lord, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down my life that I make take it up again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:17-18). Jesus’ surrender to His captors was the will of the Father (verse 11). Had this not been so, He could have summoned the hosts of heaven to His aid: “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).

Jesus Before Annas and Caiaphas

Following His arrest, our Lord is subjected to a series of hearings and trials. The night of His arrest He was brought before Annas, Caiaphas (John 18:19-24), and an assembly of religious leaders which may have been an official meeting of the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:57ff.).163 Early the next morning there was what seems to have been a perfunctory, but seemingly more official assembly of the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:1,2). After this, our Lord was taken before Pilate, the Roman governor (John 18:23ff.), sent off to Herod (Luke 23:7ff.), and returned to Pilate (Luke 23:11-12), by whom He was finally sentenced to death.

After His arrest, Jesus was immediately brought before Annas (John 18:13). Annas was not the official high priest, but he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was the high priest at the time.164 For nearly 20 years now, Annas had been removed as the high priest of the nation Israel. Nonetheless he was the head of his family, and was instrumental in seeing to it that five of his sons would hold this same office. Regardless of his official title, he was seemingly the real power and brains behind the scene.165

The nature of the questions asked by Annas is revealing: “The high priest therefore questioned Jesus about His disciples and about His teaching” (John 18:19). It was obvious, even to Pilate, that the real issue behind the trial of Jesus was that of prestige, popularity and political power (Matthew 27:18). The Jewish leaders were jealous of the tremendous influence wielded by this Galilean. Annas therefore questioned Jesus concerning His disciples. He seemed to care more about the numbers that followed Jesus’ teaching than the content of His teaching.

Jesus carefully avoided any reference to His disciples, probably in order to protect them. Of His teaching there was no need to ask questions of the Master. He had spoken publicly, for all to hear and judge His words (verse 20). He did not have two teachings, one for His disciples and one for public consumption.166

But there was a legal issue which Jesus raised at this point. This was not a legal hearing in the first place. This was a personal confrontation with the unofficial high priest who had long sought the removal of Jesus. His son-in-law had previously determined that Jesus must be gotten rid of’ (verse 14). Annas no doubt wished to gloat over his apparent victory, and hopefully to obtain evidence for the upcoming trial of Jesus from His own lips.

It was because of Annas’ illegal questioning that Jesus responded, “Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; behold these know what I said” (John 18:21). In Jewish justice, as in our own system, no one can be compelled to produce testimony against himself. This was what Annas was doing. He was ‘fishing’ in his questions. Jesus refused to respond to such illegal questioning. One of the officers who stood by considered the response of Jesus insolent and struck Him (verse 22).

Some have accused Jesus of not following His own instruction to ‘turn the other cheek.’ May I suggest that the actions of Jesus are an excellent commentary on His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus there taught that one should never lash back or seek to retaliate for personal insults. But here it was not a matter of insult so much as a question of legal rights. Jesus would not tolerate injustice. It was not a matter of personal feelings in this situation but of principle. How few there are today who will stand up for matters of principle.

John’s account of the Jewish ‘trial ‘ of Jesus is strangely brief. Jesus was brought before Annas, the king pin of the Jewish opposition against the Lord Jesus. This was no trial at all, but a mere ‘fishing expedition’ by which the ‘high priest’ had hoped to gather evidence for the trial to come. As Jesus was sent from the presence of Annas to stand before Caiaphas, the official high priest, Annas must have felt extremely frustrated. All he got out of Jesus was a rebuke for his shoddy misuse of Jewish justice.

Why did John give us an account of only this encounter with Annas? The actual trial before the Sanhedrin late the night of His arrest is barely mentioned. Primarily, it would seem to be all the report that was needed. There was no real justice in these trials, but only a sham. The other gospels spoke of them. That was enough. The audience with Annas showed the stubborn unbelief of the religious leaders of Israel. All they had in mind was getting rid of Jesus (cf. verse 14).

Matthew informs us that when Jesus was brought before Caiaphas, assembled there also were the scribes and elders. Whether or not this was considered to be an official meeting of the Sanhedrin, we cannot know for certain. Either way, it was not a legal proceeding.167

The prosecution attempted in vain to present consistent testimony against Jesus, but the witnesses could not agree. The testimonial evidence consisted of twisted versions of some of the teaching of Jesus.168 It was obvious that they were getting nowhere, so Caiaphas made one last daring challenge. Putting Jesus under oath, he demanded to know whether He was the Messiah, the Son of God (Matthew 26:63). Fully aware of the consequences, Jesus gave His answer in the clearest of terms. Not only did He say, “Yes,” but He spoke of His return in power and glory at the right hand of the Father (Matthew 26:64).

Inwardly ecstatic, Caiaphas feigned disgust and abhorrence of what He considered to be blasphemy. He tore his robes, signifying his response to Jesus’ answer. Now there was no need to carry on any further. Here was the evidence which paved the way for Jesus’ execution. The death sentence was pronounced, and these supposedly impartial jurors then engaged in the physical abuse of the Savior (Matthew 26:66-67). Whatever occurred in the meeting of the Sanhedrin on the following morning (Matthew 27:1-2), it was only a facade and a mere rubber stamp on what had already been determined, even before the arrest of Jesus.

Both the decision of the Sanhedrin and the process by which it was determined were a disgrace to the high standards of Jewish jurisprudence. Stewart169 lists five specific ways in which this trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin was illegal.

(1) The men who were trying the case were also those who had arranged for Jesus’ betrayal. They could in no way be considered an impartial body of jurors.

(2) The trial did not begin with a specific charge against Jesus, as Jewish law demanded. Throughout the trial, it was obvious that the Sanhedrin was searching for some kind of evidence which would be sufficient for a charge worthy of the death penalty.

(3) The judge who was trying the case was the leader for the prosecution. His statement in John 11:50 clearly revealed his determination to do away with Jesus.

(4) No witnesses for Jesus’ defense were produced. No opportunity for Jesus’ defense was allowed. Barclay informs us that, “in any trial the process began by the laying before the court of all the evidence for the innocence of the accused, before the evidence for his guilt was adduced.”170

(5) Finally, the trial was conducted hastily, and thereby violated several regulations concerning the trial of one accused of a capital offense. Such a trial could not be conducted at night, as it was (cf. fn. 7). The law also stated that in capital cases sentence of death must be pronounced on the day after the trial, after 24 hours had elapsed. Furthermore, such cases could not be heard on the day preceding a Sabbath or one of the great festivals.

The trial completely failed to prove any wrongdoing on the part of Jesus, the Messiah. What it did reveal was a blindness so complete, a rejection so final, that the finest in Israel made a sham of their own judicial system. In reality, it was they who were on trial, and their guilt was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Jesus Denied by Peter
(18:15-18; 25-27)

We have already spoken of Peter’s failure, so we shall not linger here. Suffice it to say, as Charles Eerdman reminds us, “… it was not his faith that failed, but his courage.”171

I understand John’s purpose in this chapter as underscoring the complete rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people. Even those who were His closest friends and followers, for a brief moment in time, forsook the One Who loved them, and was to give Himself for them. The story of Jesus’ rejection by the religious leaders of the nation is therefore interwoven with the account of Peter’s three-fold denial.172


The two themes which dominate the Jewish trial of our Lord Jesus Christ are the deity of Christ and the depravity of man. Knowing what was ahead, Jesus fearlessly advanced to meet His captors. Although He was about to face a terrible death, Jesus’ concern during His arrest was for the safety of His disciples. Even in this tragic moment, there were unmistakable flashes of the deity of our Lord. His opponents fell before Him, so awesome was His personal authority and dignity. When Peter sliced off the ear of Malchus, Jesus healed him. While Jesus could have called the angels of heaven to His rescue, He surrendered to His foes. What majesty!

Some would seem to think of Jesus as a good man who fell as the helpless victim of treacherous men. Such was never the case. The Messiah laid down His life as a payment for the sins of men, but His life was never snatched from Him. No man took His life; He gave it up.

Against the backdrop of our Lord’s deity is seen the depravity of fallen man. Here was the best that Israel had to offer. The high priest (official and unofficial) was not godly and a guardian of justice, but a scheming politician who is willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent man (more than this, the Son of God) for the sake of expediency. The Sanhedrin was made up of Israel’s finest, yet they made a mockery of justice. Even Peter, under the questioning of a mere servant girl, sank to the point of denying His Lord.

Lest any of us feel a kind of smugness concerning the conduct of these men in the presence of our Lord, let me speak very candidly. Had you or I been in the place of either Peter or the high priest, we would have done the same. Even more than this, we must go on to say that the same thing goes on today as it did then. Men continue to reject Jesus as the Savior of men and to mock His name. Worse than this, they do so without even giving the matter a moment’s serious thought.

And we who name the name of Christ as our Lord so often deny Him before men. We may not necessarily publicly renounce Him with curses, but we simply keep quiet when it is the time to speak a word for Him. When the name of Christ is a reproach we simply shrink back and allow people to assume that we would have nothing to do with Him. Praise God, our salvation and our eternal security rests in the work which Jesus Christ accomplished on our behalf.

I am impressed with the fact that there was no real decision for or against Christ made by Israel’s leaders at this trial. Those decisions had long before been settled. The ‘trial’ of our Lord was a mere pretext to enact what had been previously planned. So, too, in our day, men and women often do not arrive at their decision to reject Christ in the great trials and crisis points of life—they simply confirm and carry out the decisions they have made over the days, months, and years of their lives. The great trials of life simply show us to be what we have become; they do not make us what we are. Let us carefully weigh the consequences of our decisions moment by moment.

Finally, I believe that John’s purpose in recording the trials of Jesus was to lay the foundation for the work of Christ on the cross. If Jesus Christ were not divine, His death would have been useless. If men were not depraved, His death was needless. By highlighting the deity of Christ and man’s depravity, we are reminded both of the need for Christ’s death and of its efficacy.

161 “The information that Jesus and the disciples often went to the Garden is found here only, though Luke tells us that Jesus lodged “in” the mount of Olives every night during passion week (Luke 21:37). This probably means that He and the disciples used to bivouac, sleeping in the open air, and probably in this very garden. Ryle reminds us that “Excepting at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, we have no mention of our Lord ever being in any house in Jerusalem.” “Ofttimes” would be a curious way of referring to Jesus’ custom on the present visit only. It probably indicates that He had been in the habit of using the garden through the years.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 741.

162 “A cohort was the tenth part of a legion and thus normally comprised 600 men (though in practice the number varied a good deal) … John will not of course, mean that 600 or so soldiers took part in the arrest but that the “cohort” performed the task, i.e. a detachment was sent. Some point out that speira was used on occasion of a maniple, which was one-third of a cohort, i.e. 200 men. But even this is rather large. John is surely not saying that the whole speira was present, but rather using a form of speech like our “the police came to arrest the man.” Yet we must bear in mind that the Romans could use surprisingly large numbers of soldiers where one prisoner was in question (Acts 23:23), and that here they may well have feared a riot.” Ibid., p. 741, fn. 5.

163 “The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the Jews. It was composed of Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and elders of the people; it numbered seventy-one members; and it was presided over by the High Priest. For a trial such as this a quorum was twenty-three.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 2nd ed., 1958), II, p. 390.

164 We should remember that originally the office of high priest was for a man’s lifetime, but under Roman rule it was Rome who appointed high priests as and when they saw fit.

165 “Annas held no official position. But he wielded an immense influence and prestige, and in the Sanhedrin no man’s opinion carried greater weight. Twenty years before, he had been high priest, a title which he still received by courtesy; and no fewer than five of his sons had succeeded him in this, the highest position in the land. It is probable that it was Annas who had established, for reasons of personal gain, the traffic of the bazaar within the Temple courts which Jesus had so sternly denounced.” James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ (Nashville: Abington, 1978), p. 196.

166 This is not to avoid the fact that Jesus eventually veiled His teaching due to the rejection of His words (cf. Mark 4:1-25, 33-34). The point here is that there was no duplicity in His teaching. He taught His disciples in much more depth and detail than the masses, but His teaching was consistent.

167 “Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:1, says that capital cases could only legally be tried in the daytime; it would in any case probably take several hours to gather the full Sanhedrin for a formal session.” R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 145, fn. 2.

168 For example, the witnesses testified of hearing Jesus say, “I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14:58).

169 James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ, pp. 198-200.

It should also be said that some scholars question some of the charges of illegality, based upon the writings contained in the Mishnah. This is because the writings of the Mishnah concerning the procedures and practices of the Sanhedrin refer to a later time than that of Jesus’ day. One must therefore assume that such later rules accurately reflect the rules for the Sanhedrin of New Testament times.

170 “The difficulty in evaluating points of procedure by comparing the Gospel accounts with the Mishnah is this, that when the Mishnah is compared with other Jewish sources, whether rabbinic writings or Josephus, which lie closer to the time of the Gospels than it does, the unreliable character of the Sanhedrin tractate clearly appears.” Everett F. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 204.

Nevertheless, we must conclude that the proceedings of the Sanhedrin regarding the trial of Christ were hasty and shoddy, and that the real decision to do away with Jesus had been made long before that dark night in Jewish history.

171 Charles R. Erdman, The Gospel of John (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1944), p. 153.

172 There are a number of difficulties presented by variances in the Gospel accounts. None of these, however, are insurmountable. For a helpful discussion of some of the problems involved and suggestions as to their solutions, cf. Morris, John, pp. 750-753.

Related Topics: Christology, Atonement

37. Who Killed Jesus, The Messiah? Part 2 (John 18:28-19:16)


As a teacher and parent I have heard a lot of lame excuses in my lifetime. Once when I was teaching high school courses in a state penitentiary an inmate was found to be in possession of an eyedropper and a hypodermic needle. When asked what he was doing with it, he replied, “I was using it to feed the birds.”

Early in the history of the church, many excuses were made for the conduct of the Gentiles in the trial and execution of Jesus, the Messiah. Christian legend would tell us that Pilate’s wife was a true believer, and that even Pilate, himself, came to faith in Christ.173

The effect of some of these early church writings was that the role of the Gentiles in the murder of Jesus Christ was played down, while the guilt of the Jews was stressed. One does not need to read far to sympathize with the negative reactions of the Jews to such blame-shifting.

From our last study, it was evident that the Jewish nation was clearly guilty of rejecting their Messiah and of condemning Him to death. Our study of the Roman trial of our Savior will convince us that the Gentiles were also to blame for the death of the Messiah. While the outward forms of legality may have been maintained in Jesus’ Roman trial, the substance was just as evil as that of His Jewish trial(s).

Before we begin our lesson, let me suggest that it is not really Jesus Who is on trial in our text, but Pilate. Throughout John’s account we see Pilate torn between the innocence of Jesus and the insistence of the Jews to put Him to death. Pilate is like a ping pong ball batted from one side to the other. Ultimately, he failed the test, just as his Jewish contemporaries.

Pilate and the Jews

In order to comply with the rules of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court met a second time shortly after daybreak to go through the formalities of a legal trial and to pronounce sentence. In order to dispatch with this matter as quickly as possible, the Jewish leaders brought Jesus before Pilate early in the morning. It would seem as though they expected little opposition from Pilate and that they were surprised and irritated by his efforts to conduct this matter strictly according to Roman legal procedures.

Pilate was the fifth procurator of Judea, a position which he held for ten years.174 As such, he possessed almost absolute power over the Jews and was directly responsible to the emperor. So long as imperial authority was maintained and Roman taxes were paid, Pilate allowed the Jews to exercise a great deal of self-government. The Sanhedrin was, therefore, both the highest religious and civil Jewish authority in Israel, subject to Pilate. One right Rome carefully guarded was that of capital punishment. The Jews could not, as they admitted, put a man to death (John 18:31). For this they must receive Pilate’s approval.175 This was why they came to the Praetorium early in the morning.

Pilate was not a man who was predisposed to do any favors for the Jews. There seems to be little doubt that he despised the Jews and their customs, and that he would eagerly pursue any opportunity to vex his Jewish subjects. Whatever Pilate granted the Jews in this trial, he did begrudgingly.

Ill feelings were mutual between Pilate and his Jewish petitioners. When the Roman governors arrived in Jerusalem, they customarily removed their standards (a pole with a Roman eagle or an image of the emperor mounted on the top), respecting Jewish sensitiveness to such images. This Pilate stubbornly refused to do, so he left his standards visible as he entered Jerusalem. Immediately, there was a confrontation. Since Pilate’s choice was to arrest or slay the entire nation, he reluctantly gave in and removed the standards.

Some time later, Pilate decided Jerusalem needed a better water supply. In order to finance the construction of a new aqueduct, he took the money needed from the Temple treasury. When a crowd of protestors gathered, Pilate had some of his soldiers, dressed as civilians and mingling in the crowd, beat the demonstrators and subdue the crowd. Such actions did not engender warm feelings on the part of the Jews toward their procurator. The incident recorded in Luke 13:1, of Pilate mingling the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices, further widened the gap between Pilate and his Jewish subjects.

While Pilate could have learned some lessons in diplomacy, the Jewish leaders did little better. They not only insisted upon having an audience with Pilate early in the morning, but they then insulted him by refusing to enter the Praetorium. They flaunted him with their religious scruples, and forced him to come out to them. I doubt that Pilate was in a very benevolent mood.

Perhaps with considerable irritation, Pilate demanded to know the charges against Jesus (verse 29). Seemingly caught off guard, the religious leaders had to search for the right words. They could not present the Jewish charge of blasphemy, because Roman law would not recognize such an offense. Thus, they attempted to skirt the issue, “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you” (John 18:30). Pilate was unimpressed with such a poor explanation. He rightly perceived that it was, at the bottom, a religious issue, not one involving Roman law. And so he replied, “Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law” (verse 31). His petitioners revealed more than they wished when they countered, “We are not permitted to put any one to death” (verse 31).

John underscores the significance of this statement in verse 32. Had the Jews alone put Jesus to death according to their law, it would have been by stoning (Leviticus 24:16). There are several possible reasons why the religious leaders may have preferred crucifixion to stoning. First of all, it was, by far, the most painful and drawn out means of execution. They had years of pent-up anger and hostility toward Jesus. A quick and easy death was too good for Him. Second, crucifixion was more humiliating, and in the Jewish mind, implied that Jesus was thereby discredited. The Old Testament Scriptures referred to this kind of death as an evidence of divine disapproval (Deuteronomy 21:23). Finally, by this form of execution the Jews seemingly placed themselves in the background. In their eyes, it placed the responsibility (or guilt) for Jesus’ death on Rome. At least they must share the blame.

John’s comment in verse 32 reminds us that in this event, regardless of the motives of our Lord’s Jewish or Roman persecutors, was a fulfillment of our Lord’s words of prophecy concerning the type of death He would die: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). The saving death of the Messiah was one that was to be by crucifixion.

Pilate and Jesus

While John does not inform us of the charges made against Jesus, Luke gives three, all of which had political overtones which Pilate could not overlook: “And they began to accuse Him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King” (Luke 23:2). Going inside to speak with Jesus, Pilate pursued the critical question of Jesus’ kingship—“You are the King of the Jews?” (verse 33).

One would wonder what the tone of voice was with which Pilate asked this question. Initially, it was probably one of sarcasm and scoffing. John pictures Jesus’ response, not as a fervent defense of Himself, but as a probing of Pilate’s own heart. “Are you saying this on our own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” (verse 3).

Jesus was more interested in the motive behind Pilate’s question than in pursuing His own defense. Pilate dispelled any possibility of genuine interest or concern. He was just doing his job, and not really enjoying it either. Pilate’s only concern was to learn the reason for the intense efforts of those who were outside to do away with Jesus (verse 35).

Pilate wanted to know if Jesus was any real political threat to himself and to Rome. Jesus quickly set aside any such thoughts: “My Kingdom is not of this world. If My Kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My Kingdom is not of this realm” (verse 36).176

Pilate probed further into the nature of Jesus’ kingship: “So You are a King?” (verse 37).

Our Lord responded, “You say correctly that I am a King. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (verse 37). Jesus could not deny His kingship, but He could put Pilate’s fears to rest that He posed some kind of threat to Rome or to his own rule as procurator of Judea. The purpose of our Lord in His first coming was not to revolt against divinely ordained authority, but to reveal the truth of God to men. Revelation, not revolution, was His calling.

There seems to have been a mild appeal and invitation in the words of our Lord to Pilate. He had first asked if Pilate had questioned Him out of any personal interest (verse 34). Then He said, “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (verse 37). This should have encouraged even the slightest desire to pursue spiritual matters with the Savior.

Pilate’s answer made it clear that he was not in any way seeking the answers to any spiritual questions: “What is truth?” (verse 38). Here is the response of the agnostic and the skeptic. Pilate had no deep desire to discover the truth, either about the issues of eternal life, or even of the questions underlying the accusations made against Jesus. He simply wished to know if Jesus posed any threat to him.

Worse than this, it would appear that Pilate doubted that there was any such thing as truth. The only thing amazing about such a statement is that it is so contemporary and similar to the thinking of our own age. How sad it is when men despair due to the fact that there are, in their minds, no absolutes on which to base one’s beliefs and actions.

In Pilate’s mind, the conversation was finished. There was nothing more worth discussing. His time was too valuable to spend with this Galilean. While he was uninterested in pursuing spiritual truth, he at least was convinced that this Jesus posed no political threat to him or Rome. Whatever His Kingdom might be, it was neither political nor revolutionary.

Pilate and the Jews

Going out to the Jews, Pilate gave them his verdict: “I find no guilt in Him” (verse 38). The charges which the religious leaders pressed simply did not square with the facts. It was evident to Pilate that the real issue was not treason, but jealousy (cf. Matthew 27:18).

At one stage in the Roman trial of Jesus, Pilate had attempted to sidestep the matter by raising the question of jurisdiction and sending Him to Herod, but this effort accomplished nothing except to heal a breach in the relationship of these two politicians (Luke 23:7-12). Now he would try another approach, so that he would not have to reap the consequences of standing upon his convictions. He would attempt to adapt a Jewish custom to suit his own ends.

For some time there had been a custom of releasing some Jewish prisoner at Passover time. It would seem that the selection of this prisoner was made by the Jewish people, rather than by Pilate. Perhaps he could avoid his dilemma with a sophisticated type of plea-bargain. He could pronounce Jesus guilty, satisfying the Jew’s desire to shame Jesus publicly, and yet he would then release Jesus—in effect to pardon Him—so that no grave injustice would result.

Pilate could live with this compromise, but not the Jewish enemies of our Lord. They wanted blood, and nothing less. Pilate gave them a choice between Jesus and Barabbas.177 I suspect that he picked Barabbas because he was such a hardened criminal that no one would want him turned loose in society. He was a revolutionary, a thief, and a murderer (verse 39; Luke 23:19). But when it came down to a choice between one or the other, the crowd chose to let Barabbas live, and Jesus die.

The hypocrisy and evil of this decision is all too obvious. The crowds178 were willing to release a hardened and dangerous criminal and to crucify One Who was without blame. They released a man guilty of offenses far worse than those with which Jesus had been charged. Surely their hatred and rejection of Jesus clouded all sound judgment.

Having failed to accomplish his aim in offering to release Jesus instead of Barabbas Pilate tried yet another approach. He had Jesus mocked, beaten, and scourged,179 hoping that this would appease the blood-hungry crowds. Perhaps the crowd would have pity on Jesus after He had been severely punished. Perhaps, too, they would come to see the folly of supposing that such a pathetic figure could conceivably pose any threat to themselves or to Rome. Perhaps this is why Pilate brought Jesus forth to the crowds with the words, “Behold, the man!” (John 19:5).180

Sensing Pilate’s reluctance, the chief priests and officers pressed him vigorously with the demand, “Crucify, crucify!” (verse 6). Pilate then sought to have the Jews go about their evil deed on their own (verse 6). This would help to solve his troubled conscience. It was only now that the underlying issue surfaced. “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God” (verse 7).

The Jews had wanted a king (cf. John 6:15), but not the kind of king Jesus promised to be. They did not want a king like Jesus, and they could therefore not tolerate His claim to be the Son of God. Now the truth was out.

Pilate and Jesus

The religious charge of the Jews did not produce the desired effect upon Pilate. Seemingly in that callused heart there was at least some kind of religious sensitivity, even if only pagan superstition. As a Roman, he knew there were many accounts of the gods coming to the earth in the form of men. Besides this, Pilate had been warned by his wife not to take part in the execution of this “righteous man’ as she had been warned in a dream (Matthew 27:19).

This statement by the Jews prompted further investigation by Pilate, who by this time was even more fearful of his predicament (verse 8). The question, “Where are you from?” (verse 9), I would understand to be an investigation into Jesus’ origins. Was it possible that He actually was the Son of God (or in pagan theology, ‘a son of a god’)?

To this question of Pilate, Jesus gave no response. Jesus’ innocence or guilt with regard to the charge of treason did not hinge upon matters concerning His origin. Pilate must stick to the issues. Pilate was both perplexed and frustrated by the silence of the Savior. “You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” (verse 10). Pilate supposed that his authority should have awed the Lord Jesus, and that in the face of such power Jesus could not dare to remain silent. Jesus’ reply informed Pilate that his authority should not feed his pride, but produce humility. “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin” (verse 11).

Several observations about the nature of Pilate’s authority should serve to humble him. First of all, his was a delegated authority. It was ‘given to him from above.’ Man only has authority to the degree that God gives it. The ultimate source of all human authority is God. Second, while Pilate possessed divine authority in a specific sphere,181 that authority carries with it responsibility for one’s actions and decisions. Pilate wanted his authority but was desperately trying to avoid the responsibility that came with it. While the one who delivered up our Lord182 had the greater guilt, Pilate must share the burden of responsibility for his decision concerning the execution of Jesus.

Pilate and the Jews

Pilate was a tormented man. It was not Jesus’ destiny which hung in the balance, but his own. Our Lord consistently struck a sensitive nerve in the moral conscience of this Gentile governor. The Jewish leaders sought to find a weak point at which they could apply all the leverage of their advantage.

Pilate went out from his last conversation with the Master with a renewed determination to let him go (verse 12). But the smell of a Jewish victory was in the air and with renewed boldness the Jews revealed their last and most forceful argument: “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar” (verse 12) .183

Were it not for the skeletons in Pilate’s political closet, this threat would have posed no challenge to him. But his administration was strewn with the wreckage of high-handedness, cruelty, and corruption. He could not afford to have Rome investigate any charges against his administration.

The struggle was over. The Jewish leaders had prevailed, sitting down in the judgment seat. Pilate said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” (verse 14).

It is hard to discern whether the tone of his voice was appealing or sarcastic. Regardless, the Jews demanded the crucifixion of the Savior (verse 15). In answer to the question, “Shall I crucify your King?” (verse 15), the chief priests tragically responded, “We have no king but Caesar!” (verse 15).

With this statement, Israel’s leaders publicly renounced their greatest hope, the hope of a coming Messiah-king. Their hatred of Jesus was so intense they were willing to renounce the greatest doctrine of the Old Testament Scriptures, that of the coming of Messiah who would be Israel’s King. They proclaimed themselves to recognize only one king, Caesar.184

Not Jesus, but Barabbas. Not Jesus, but Caesar. What could be more tragic than this? And with this statement, Pilate delivered Jesus up to be put to death (verse 16).


Historically, it is evident that responsibility for the rejection and crucifixion of Christ must be shared by both Jews and Gentiles. It is interesting that very early in the history of the church there were writings produced which tended to play down the guilt of the Gentiles, and spotlight the guilt of the Jews.185 Such teaching must be rejected as inaccurate and unbiblical. Jews and Gentiles alike stand guilty for the rejection of Jesus Christ.

Pilate is a tragic representative of all those who reject Jesus Christ in the face of overwhelming evidence and contrary to the pleadings of one’s conscience. John’s purpose in recording the details of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is to demonstrate the innocence of Jesus, the Messiah. Jesus was not put to death as a political traitor, but as a political pawn. Just as Caiaphas had pronounced that Jesus must be done away with for the sake of expediency (John 11:50), so did Pilate.

Pilate was the victim of the consequences of his own past sins. Had he not committed sins of pride and passion, he would have had no fear of the investigation of his administration due to the changes of the Jews. As it was, he capitulated because his sins were all too evident. Pilate feared the judgment of Rome more than that of heaven.

The consequences of the decision made that day are such as to make even the present day reader of history shudder. Within a year Pilate was removed from office because of his harsh and insensitive treatment of his subjects. While Pilate may never have had to face the awesome specter of the scrutiny of Tiberius, some have said that he preferred to die by his own hand. In 30 years the Jews drank the cup of divine wrath to the brim, when the Jews sought to carry out the crime with which they charged the Savior. The details of the slaughter that followed are horrifying.186

Many of us, like Pilate, would prefer not to have to pass judgment on the person and claims of the Lord Jesus Christ. But we, like Pilate, cannot avoid a decision. And the consequences of this decision determine our eternal destiny.

Two observations remain to be made. First we are reminded of the vast difference between morality and legality. In a technical sense, the condemnation of Christ to die on a Roman cross was legal. In spite of this, it was the greatest moral transgression of all time. We must discern the difference between morality and legality.

I have a friend who encountered a would-be philosopher at a party. My friend put his finger on a fatal flaw in this young man’s thinking when he observed, “The trouble with you is that you have failed to distinguish between sin and crime. There are a lot of sins that are not crimes. And there are a lot of crimes that are not sins.” My friend was talking about the difference between legality and morality.

Here is one of the great deficiencies of legalism. It assumes that what is legal is also moral. In our society a man who is guilty of murder can be acquitted because of some legal technicality. Once abortion or using drugs is legal many consider that it is also morally right. We must distinguish between legality and morality. Neither Pilate nor the Jews saw the distinction.

Second, I am impressed by the ‘unscrupulous scrupulosity’ (as Edersheim phrases it) of the Jewish leaders. They would not defile themselves by entering into the Praetorium, yet they would conspire to put to death the sinless Son of God. Here is illustrated the condemning words of our Lord when He accused the scribes and Pharisees of ‘straining gnats and swallowing camels’ (Matthew 23:24). Here is also one of the great dangers of legalism. In stressing meticulous obedience to some kind of code, it fails to differentiate between that which is really important and that which is incidental.

Listen to these words of our Lord:

“Woe to you, blind guides, who say, Whoever swears by the temple, that is nothing; but whoever swears by the gold of the temple, he is obligated. You fools and blind men; which is more important, the gold, or the temple that sanctified the gold? And, ‘Whoever swears by the attar, that is nothing, but whoever swears by the offering upon it, he is obligated.’ You blind men, which is more important, the offering or the alter that sanctifies the offering? Therefore he who swears, swears both by the altar and by everything on it. And he who swears by the temple, swears both by the temple and by Him who dwells within it. And he who swears by heaven, swears both by the throne of God and by Him who sits upon it. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others. You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:16-24).

Throughout the history of the church, legalistic Christians have failed to discern between that which is primary and secondary. As a result many needless divisions have resulted and much harm has been done. Sincere Christians were put to death by other Christians because they differed with them over the necessity and mode of baptism.

Let me caution you, my friend, and I do so with sincere gravity. Some of those things which set us apart, which make us distinctive as a church (in particular, from other orthodox churches) may be non-fundamentals. Listen to me well. I did not say that these matters are unimportant, but they are not essential to saving faith or to genuine orthodoxy. Dare we divide or condemn others when we differ here? I fear that much unprofitable criticism of men like Billy Graham falls in this area. Legalism may be at the root of our failure to distinguish between matters of great importance and those which are of lesser importance, even if true.

I have a friend whom I respect highly, Dr. Haddon Robinson. There is a statement by which I will always remember him. “I will go to the wall for a lot of issues, but not for that one.” There is a lot of biblical wisdom in those words. May God enable us to discern those things which are worthy of our ‘going to the wall.’

173 “Later Christian legend was very sympathetic to Pilate, and tended to place all the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews, and to exonerate Pilate completely. Not unnaturally, legend came to say that Pilate’s wife, who it is said was a Jewish proselyte, and was called Claudia Procula, became a Christian. It was even held that Pilate himself became a Christian; and to this day the Coptic Church ranks both Pilate and his wife as saints.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1958), II, p. 397.

174 For a more detailed background of Pilate consult The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, General Editor (Chicago: Howard-Severance Company, 1915), IV, pp. 2396-2398.

175 R. T. France aptly observes, “To the Romans, the hearing before the Sanhedrin was an unofficial preliminary hearing, while to the Jews the Roman trial was a regrettable necessity to give effect to a sentence already passed, on other grounds, by themselves.” R. T. France I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 145. There is considerable discussion concerning whether or not the Jews could put a man to death in the light of several notable exceptions, such as the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:8–7:60). For a thorough discussion of this matter, cf. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 786-788.

176 Some would conclude from our Lord’s statement that Jesus never conceived of establishing an earthly kingdom. They would understand the only kingdom of our Lord to be His reign in the hearts of men. They would thus not look forward to the literal fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of a millennial Kingdom. Such an interpretation of these words spoken to Pilate would hardly seem to fit the facts. First of all, one would have to spiritualize all the Old Testament prophecies of a literal kingdom. Second, Jesus was speaking specifically to Pilate’s concerns about Him being a possible threat to Rome’s authority in Palestine. He was simply saying that the purpose of His first coming was to reveal God to men and to redeem sinners, not to revolt against Rome. Finally, Messianic hopes are still very much alive after the death and resurrection of our Lord (cf. Acts 1:6f.). Our Lord’s return and the establishment of His (literal, earthly) Kingdom on earth constitute much of the subject matter of the New Testament.

177 “Still more interesting is the near certainty that Barabbas was also called Jesus. Some of the very oldest versions of the New Testament, for example the ancient Syriac and Armenian versions, call him Jesus Barabbas, and both Origen and Jerome knew of that reading, and felt it might be correct. It is a curious thing that twice Pilate refers to Jesus who is called Christ (verses 17 and 22), as if to distinguish Him from some other Jesus. Jesus was a common name; it is the same name as Joshua. And the dramatic shout of the crowd most likely was: “Not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Barabbas.” Barclay, Matthew, II, p. 399.

178 France suggests, as do many others, that the crowds were merely ‘rabble’ assembled for such an occasion, to give the appearance of popular support for the verdict of the Sanhedrin: “Much is sometimes made of the fickleness of the Jerusalem crowd which could welcome Jesus with hosannas, and a few days later clamour for his death. But there is no reason to suppose they were the same people. It was the Passover pilgrims who welcomed Jesus, but what pilgrim worth his salt would be hanging around the governor’s palace early on the morning of the great day of the festival when there was so much to be prepared? Besides, the narrow street outside the ‘praetorium,’ where the trial was held, would not allow a very large crowd to gather, only a small fraction of the thousands in Jerusalem that weekend. It is hardly likely that the Jewish leaders, who had planned the arrest and trial of Jesus so carefully, left the composition of the crowd to chance: ‘rent-a-crowd’ is not a purely modern technique.” France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire, pp. 152-153.

Such a view does not seem to me to fit the facts. There was ‘a multitude’ assembled at Jesus’ arrest (Matthew 26:47,55), multitudes at His trial (Matthew 27:20,24), and a large crowd at His crucifixion (Luke 23:48). Could such ‘rabble’ constitute a multitude? Would a shrewd politician like Pilate not sense that these ‘rabble’ were just a ploy?

Let us recall that the Jewish leaders felt that they could not deal with Jesus as they would like so long as public sentiment was in Jesus’ favor (Matthew 21:26,46). As a division among the masses began to grow concerning Jesus (John 7:40-41) the scribes and Pharisees become bolder in their attempts to arrest Jesus (John 7:32,45). After our Lord’s triumphal entry (John 12:1-19), the Messiah hopes of the masses were again aroused, but when Jesus clearly spoke of His death (John 12:32) the crowds were again disillusioned. The last verses of John 12 seem to indicate a much broader rejection of Jesus than ever before. While in Mark 4:12 the passage in Isaiah 6 was quoted to show that Israel’s leaders had rejected the Messiah, John applies it to the nation at large. Jesus was rejected by His nation. While the rejection of some may have been more passive than that of others, Jesus’ death had widespread approval. Pilate had rightly assessed the strength of Jesus’ opponents.

179 “The severity of this form of punishment is seen in certain incidental references. Thus Josephus tells us that a certain Jew, son of Ananias, was brought before Albinus and “flayed to the bone with scourges’ (Bell. vi. 304). Eusebius narrates that certain martyrs at the time of Polycarp “were torn by scourges down to deep-seated veins and arteries, so that the hidden contents of the recesses of their bodies, their entrails and organs, were exposed to sight” (HE, iv. 15,4). Small wonder that men not infrequently died as a result of this torture (cf. the passages from Cicero cited by Godet).” Morris, John, p. 790, fn. 2.

180 “Pilate may be using the words in a somewhat contemptuous manner. The expression need mean no more than “Here is the accused,” but it is likely that John saw more in it than that. Jesus is THE man, and in this dramatic scene the supreme governing authority gives expression to this truth. Some suggest that John may intend an allusion to “the Son of man.” It is impossible to imagine Pilate using exactly this form of words. It is not at all unlikely, however, that John intends “the man” to evoke memories of Jesus’ favorite self-designation.” Ibid., p. 793.

181 I must point out that Jesus in no way questioned the fact that Pilate, as a part of a divinely ordained government, had the authority to mete out capital punishment. Jesus’ words support the right of government to execute criminals.

182 Bible students do not agree as to who this one is who must bear greater responsibility than Pilate. This person must have delivered Jesus over to Pilate and also must have done so without divine authority (verse 11). I would suppose that this best refers to Judas, and not Caiaphas, the high priest.

183 “When they said this, they used their most telling argument. He did not want the Emperor Tiberious, now on the island of Capri ill with loathsome diseases, filled with suspicions and full of ill-will and revenge, to hear that he had sided with a prisoner in a case of laese majestas. The punishment meted out for any officer of the Empire on such charge was confiscation of property, removal from office, torture by banishment, or something even worse. Pilate was sure that the Jewish Sanhedrin would like to send such a report to the Caesar. He quailed before the clear threat.” J.W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), p. 591.

Everett Harrison quotes Ethelbert Stauffer concerning the expression, ‘Caesar’s friend’: “The expression “Caesar’s friend” was a technical term. This title was an honor reserved for loyal senators, prominent knights, and notorious administrators. It assured its holder a brilliant career.” Everett Harrison, A Short life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 215.

184 “The opponents of our Lord, unable to find a way of action for themselves on their own lines, fell in with the Sadducean policy of Caiaphas—a policy which, however hateful to themselves, yet made itself dominant by proving itself alone efficacious. There is this additional tragedy, then, in the final close—that the Pharisees, for the sake of slaying the Lord, foreswore the creed which had been their glory and their life, and allowed themselves to be found crying in Pilate’s Hall, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’” H. S. Holland, The Philosophy of Faith and the Fourth Gospel (1920), p. 192, as quoted by Harrison, A Short life of Christ, p. 215.

185 Cf. footnote 1 above.

186 “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.” Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 592.

Related Topics: Atonement, Christology

38. The Death of Deaths

(Matt. 27:32-56; Mark 15:24-41; Luke 23:26-49; John 19:17-37)


While most Christians have at least some appreciation of the theological implications of the death of Christ, few of us have grasped the apologetic impact of the crucifixion. I have always felt that the crucifixion of Christ was a time of triumph for the crowds, and of agony for those who were true followers of our Lord. In my mind, it was not until the resurrection of our Lord that men and women began to be convinced as to the truth of our Lord’s teaching and claims.

As I have studied the Gospel accounts more carefully, I have found that the events of the crucifixion made a tremendous impact upon those who witnessed the death of our Savior. Even before the resurrection of our Lord, a scoffing soldier was convinced of our Lord’s innocence, a hardened criminal turned to the dying Jesus and sought his soul’s salvation, and a hostile crowd began to entertain serious misgivings about their part in the crucifixion.

As we turn our thoughts to the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ, let us attempt to determine what it was about this event that set it apart from every other death and what changed the minds of many of those present who were previously convinced that Jesus was a malefactor who needed to be blotted out of Jewish history.

The Sufferings of the Savior

No more cruel and inhumane method of execution has ever been devised by man than that of crucifixion. Modern technology may have perfected the art of killing more people faster, but there was no harder way to die than upon a Roman cross.187

Crucifixion was not only conceived of as a fitting penalty for those guilty of heinous crimes, but as an excellent deterrent for any who might consider such acts against society. It was a death that was both painful and public, punitive and preventative.

Normally the crucifixion process was prolonged to up to two or three days. It would typically begin by a preliminary scourging, such as that suffered by our Lord (Matthew 27:26). We are not told how many stripes were meted out, but on the end of the whip were attached small pieces of bone or metal which would tear open the flesh of the victim. Many were unconscious before this ordeal ended; some even died.

If the criminal survived his scourging, he was forced to carry his own cross to the place of the crucifixion by the longest possible route. This served to humiliate the wrongdoer, and to caution those who witnessed his punishment. Once at the site of the execution, the criminal would be fixed to across, of which there were several varieties.188 It was not necessary to raise the individual to any great height, but only that his feet not touch the ground. Commonly, the victim bore a sign depicting the offense for which he was executed. He would carry this around his neck as he made his way to the place of death and the placard would then be fixed to the cross.

The precise cause of death of the one crucified is not known with any degree of certainty. Shock, exposure, starvation, heart failure, and suffocation may all have combined to slowly snuff out the life of the sufferer.

If for some reason the life of the victim lingered longer than the executioners desired, there was a simple and common189 solution. A large wooden mallet was used to break the legs of the dying man and his death would quickly ensue. It seems as though this made it impossible for the person to enhance his breathing by using his legs to relieve the pressure on his diaphragm. If this was the case, the person would quickly suffocate as he could no longer breathe.

Ancient Jewish writings document that some of the women of Jerusalem, out of compassion for the sufferer, prepared a mixture of myrrh and wine.190 This drug would serve to dull the senses of the dying man and ease some of the pain. Our Lord refused to drink any of this drugged wine (Mark 15:23) as He would drink to the full the cup of God’s wrath and the consequences of sin as meted out on the cross.

The physical torture of the cross was only exceeded by the spiritual agony of our Lord’s death. There on the cross He suffered the rejection of men. Golgotha was located close to Jerusalem and probably near a main thoroughfare (John 19:20), along which many would pass. Matthew informs us that many of these passers-by ‘hurled abuse’ at Jesus (Matthew 27:39-40). It is significant that these passers-by were not unaware of the teaching of our Lord. “You who destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40).

The Jewish religious leaders were perhaps the most aggressive in their rejection of Jesus. It is interesting to note that they chose to mock Him, indirectly. Their words of insult were addressed more to the crowds, than to Jesus. “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross and we shall believe in Him. He trusts in God, let Him deliver Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him for He said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:42-43).

The soldiers, too, joined in this chorus of scoffers (Luke 23:36-37). While they may have known or cared little about the teaching of Jesus, His conduct on the cross did not match their Roman mentality of macho which they thought should be personified in a king. Even the two thieves joined in with their own reproaches (Matthew 27:44).

The jeering of these unbelievers was not, in my estimation, the most painful part of Jesus’ rejection by man. A certain rejection is implied by the apparent absence of those disciples in whom Jesus had invested so much of Himself. It would seem that only John was at the foot of the cross.

And then there were those women who had played such a vital part in the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus (Matthew 27:55f.).191 They were standing nearby, agonizing over that fate of Him Whom they had loved and served. The jeering words of the crowd were nowhere on their lips, but the underlying question of the scoffers haunted their hearts. Why was Jesus on the cross? Why didn’t He come down and show Himself to be the Son of God? While they still loved Him, they, too, could not fathom the meaning of the cross.

As deeply as all of these things must have grieved our Lord, the greatest sorrow has not yet been considered. It was not the physical pain which our Lord most dreaded. Neither was it the rejection of men, even those who were His most intimate friends. It was the separation from God which caused our Lord to shrink from the shadow of the cross (Luke 22:39-44).

The words of the Psalmist perfectly conveyed the agony of soul of our Lord as the Suffering Servant: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34). As someone has rightly pointed out, here is the hell our Lord dreaded, but nevertheless experienced for us. Hell is not merely the presence of pain and suffering, but the absence of God in the midst of that pain. This is also true for those who reject Christ as their Savior: “And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power” (2 Thessalonians 1:9).

Recently, a friend of mine was preaching on the book of Daniel. He rightly stated that while God may not choose to deliver us from our fiery trials (Daniel 3:16-18), He will be with us in the midst of them (Daniel 3:25). Only once has that not been so, and that was when our Lord bore our sins upon the cross and suffered the wrath and rejection of God in our place. What agony that must have been. The back of the Father, for an eternal moment of time, was turned to the Son.

Christians have sometimes had difficulty in maintaining a balance, in the significance of both our Lord’s physical suffering and death and His spiritual suffering and death. Both are real, both necessary, and both significant.192

Some have stressed the physical sufferings of our Lord to the point where there is almost a mystical devotion to the blood of our Lord. There is a fixation upon the blood, almost distinct from a devotion to our Lord Himself. We are saved by the blood, but it is the blood of the Lamb. Others, in an effort to draw our attention to the spiritual sufferings and death of Christ, have sometimes made statements which have been viewed as heretical. They have played down the actual blood that was shed as though it were of no value. Let us hold firmly to the infinite value of both the physical and the spiritual aspects of our Lord’s sufferings and death.

The Distinctiveness of the Death of Christ

There was nothing particularly unique about the physical sufferings of our Lord upon the cross, other than the fact that He chose not to have His senses dulled by a drugged wine. His death was unique in that it was one completely undeserved, and one that was spiritual as well as physical.

But there was something about the way that Jesus died that deeply affected those who stood by. A Roman soldier, who no doubt had witnessed countless deaths by crucifixion, was compelled to praise God and to exclaim, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).

A convicted criminal who, only a short time before, was ridiculing the Lord Jesus, now penitently asks to be remembered when He comes into His Kingdom (Luke 23:42). A timid member of the Sanhedrin, who was fearful of others knowing of his faith in Christ, now has the courage to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus (John 19:38). Simon of Cyrene, father of two sons whose names were a household word to the Christian church of later days, may well have credited his conversion to the day he was compelled to bear the cross of our Lord (Mark 15:21).

But perhaps more amazing than the response of all of these men to the death of our Lord, is that of the crowds who consented to His death and then witnessed His execution. “And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts” (Luke 23:48).

Truly, this is an amazing thing! Those who initially were shouting, “Good riddance!” at the foot of the cross, left groaning, “Good grief!” There was in the death of Christ, something so unique and compelling, that even the enemies of our Lord went away deeply disturbed.

One of the distinctives of the death of Christ was the way in which Jesus dealt with His own suffering and execution. It was common for those who were being crucified to curse at the spectators and to spit upon them. I can confidently say that never before had those people beheld a Man who could look into the faces of His persecutors and then pray,193 “Father forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

Further, in the midst of His torment, our Lord persisted in placing the needs of others above His own. Seeing His mother grieving at the loss of her oldest son, Jesus instructed John to assume His responsibilities in caring for His mother (John 19:26-27).

The cry of our Lord which repeated the words of Psalm 22:1 have always troubled Christians. Why, many ask, would Jesus say such a thing as this? As already suggested, these words best convey the spiritual anguish of our Lord at the reality of being forsaken of God. More than this, our Lord, in quoting the first words of Psalm 22, identifies Himself not only with this messianic Psalm, but also as the Suffering Servant of the Old Testament Scriptures. He is the fulfillment of all of the prophecies of a Saviour Who would suffer for the sins of His people.

The real question, and that which causes me to marvel, is the failure of the crowds to recognize these words as Scripture. They took the words, “Eli, Eli” (My God, My God) to be a reference to Elijah (Matthew 27:46). Now I realize that the masses in Israel may not have possessed (nor were they able to read) the Old Testament Scriptures in the original Hebrew language. But surely the religious leaders could do so. And yet no one seemed to recognize these words as a scriptural quotation. Why?

I would suggest a couple of distressing possibilities. First of all, they may not have recognized the words of Jesus as Scripture because they were not really searching the Scriptures (cf. Matthew 21:42; 22:29; John 5:39) as they should. They were more students of the scholars than of the Scriptures. That is not far from our own day when we who study the Bible spend more time in the commentaries than in the text of God’s Word.

Another possibility is that while they may have read certain portions of Scripture, they were not intimately familiar with this text. This, in one sense, is amazing for it is one of the great Old Testament texts. On the other hand, it is easy to understand why it would not be a popular text for study and meditation.

This passage was known to be one of the ‘Servant Psalms.’ By this we mean that it was one of the Psalms which portrayed Israel’s Messiah as the One Who would come to suffer and to die for the sins of His people. The Old Testament mind found these ‘servant’ passages hard to square with those which spoke of Messiah as a victorious King (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-11). As a result, I suspect that the ‘suffering servant’ texts were neglected, while the more appealing passages were carefully explored.

We should not be surprised by this, for we have read in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel that the masses wanted to make Jesus their King after He had fed the 5,000. When Jesus spoke of the necessity of His sacrificial death, the crowds wanted no such King and ceased following Him (John 6:60,66). Israel wanted a mighty King, but not a suffering servant.

The final words of our Lord upon the cross were, perhaps, the most impressive. “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Jesus did not die with a whimper, but with a shout. And this was a cry of triumph and victory. “It is finished” is a far cry from “I am finished.” The work of redemption, the work to which He had been appointed, had been fully and finally completed.

It was not just the words which impressed the onlookers, but what attended them. Putting all of the gospel accounts together, one would seem to see this sequence of events: Jesus cried triumphantly, “It is finished!” (John 19:30), followed by “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). After this Jesus bowed His head and released His spirit (John 19:30).

Our Lord had said that He would voluntarily lay down His life for the sheep. No man would take His life; He would lay it down. He, too, would take it up again (John 10:17-18). It was much too soon for Jesus to have died (cf. Mark 15:44). The legs of the other two men had to be broken (John 19:32-33). Jesus was dead because He had fulfilled all the Scriptures. He gave up His spirit and died. No one had ever died this way before. “And when the centurion, who was standing right in front of Him, saw the way He breathed His last, he said, ‘Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).

In addition to the words and actions of our Lord at His crucifixion, there were also the miraculous events which accompanied His death. These were a divine attestation both to the identification of the Lord Jesus as the Son of God, and to the significance of His death.

There was the supernatural phenomenon of the three-hour period of darkness (Mark 15:30). John had introduced Jesus as the light of the world.

“In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:4-5).

“There was true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him” (John 1:9-11).

Jesus, the light of the world, was rejected. Men would rather live in darkness than to have their evil deeds made evident by the light. When the crowds put Jesus to death, they momentarily extinguished that light and revealed the darkness of their own souls.

The second miracle was the earthquake which occurred simultaneously with the death of our Lord. This quake split rocks and opened many tombs (Matthew 27:51-53). I believe that this miracle prepared the way for yet another sign that would occur at the resurrection. At that time many of the saints who had died were raised and they entered the holy city. This miracle opened the tombs of those who would be raised at the time of our Lord’s resurrection. Implied in this miracle was the truth that the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ was the death of death itself. He was to be the victor over the grave. When He died, death no longer held its deadly power.

Finally, we are told that the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. This veil was no mere sheet hung before the holy of holies; it was said to have been one hand in thickness.194 Nothing less than a miracle could have torn it in this way and at the precise time of our Lord’s death.

In the rending of the veil we are symbolically instructed that the death of Jesus Christ removed the barrier between man and God. The sin which separated us has been paid for by the shedding of His blood. Through His sacrifice men can freely and boldly approach God.

“Since therefore, brethren, we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22).

The Meaning of the Death of Christ

The Scriptures often point us to the cross of our Lord as an example. It is the supreme example of brotherly love (John 15:13). It is the model which God has provided for the husband who would love his wife (Ephesians 5:25-27). It is the example of godly suffering for the sake of Christ (1 Peter 2:21-25). The cross is likewise symbolic of Christian discipleship (cf. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34-36). We must not only be willing to die for our faith in Christ, but be willing to die to selfish aims and ambitions. We must be willing to share in the humiliation which the cross symbolizes (cf. Colossians 1:24; Hebrews 12:2; 13:12-13).

Evangelical Christians have sometimes avoided speaking of the cross as an example because of the emphasis which liberal theology places on this point. The error of the liberal is that he stops at the cross as an example, and does not see it also as an expiation. The cross of Calvary was the long-awaited payment in full for the sins of men. The bulls and goats which the Jews offered did not make atonement (cf. Romans 3:21-26); they only succeeded in forestalling the judgment of God until payment was made by the Messiah.

“But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things to come, He entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle, not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood, He entered the holy place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:11-12).

From the time of man’s creation the penalty for sin was death (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). From the time of man’s fall, God had promised a provision for men’s sins (Genesis 3:15). The Old Testament sacrificial system was divinely ordained to remind God’s people that ‘without the shedding of blood there was no remission of sins’ (Hebrews 9:22). While the sacrifice of animals did not remove the sins of the people, it was an expression of their faith in the provision which God Himself would provide. The Old Testament prophets often spoke of Him who was to come and achieve salvation through His sacrifice.

Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him. He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; And as for His generation, who considered That He was cut off out of the land of the living, For the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due? His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth. But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand. As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied; By His knowledge the Righteous One, My Servant, will justify the many, As He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot Him a portion with the great, And He will divide the booty with the strong; Because He poured out Himself to death, And was numbered with the transgressors; Yet He Himself bore the sin of many, And interceded for the transgressors (Isaiah 53:4-12).

The death Christ died was a fulfillment of all the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Messiah Who would come to suffer and die for the salvation of His people. From the outset of His public ministry, the Lord Jesus came as the Savior of men, the one sacrifice Who would bring salvation to men. As John the Baptist proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Throughout His earthly life, it was the cross that was His ultimate and compelling destiny.195

The work of Christ upon the cross can be partially summarized by three terms: redemption, reconciliation and propitiation. Redemption is the work of Christ focused on the problem of sin. We are bought back from our enslavement to sin by the blood of Christ. Satan can rightfully demand our allegiance until the price of sin has been paid. Reconciliation heals the broken relationship between the sinner and God. Once sin was dealt with, there was no barrier between a man and God. Propitiation deals with the problem of the righteous anger of God aroused by sin. Divine wrath could only be appeased by the demands of justice being met. The death of Christ satisfied the holiness of God.196

The death of Jesus Christ is the touchstone of the Christian faith. It is not enough merely to believe that Jesus Christ was a good man, even the Son of God. One must trust in His work upon the cross as the sole basis and assurance of his acceptance before God and eternal life with Him.

The death of Christ is unique in a number of ways. It perfectly fulfilled countless Old Testament prophecies which described it in minute detail.197 It was unique also because it fulfilled the many predictions our Lord made about His death throughout His earthly ministry. It was unique because no man has ever died like Jesus Christ did. It also was distinctive in that it alone bore the testimony of divine attestation through the miracles which accompanied it.

Perhaps no words better catch the significance of Christ’s crucifixion than those of the apostle Paul: “Behold then the kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22).198 On the one hand we must marvel at the love of God which sent our Lord to the cross to die for those who would have Him put to death. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). There is no greater love than that which we see demonstrated on the cross of Calvary.

And yet we must also marvel at the immensity of the payment that was made by our Lord. On the cross we see not only the measure of the love of God, but also of divine judgment. For any who would think that God might wink at sin, let him consider the price that was paid, and by God Himself in the person of the Son. If God did not hesitate to punish His own Son with such severity, what kind of punishment do you and I deserve?

My friend, you cannot come to the cross of our Lord without making a choice. Either you will choose to trust in Christ as your salvation, or you must reject Him and bear the wrath which He bore for you. You must say, as did those who put Him to death, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 27:25).

The cross leaves no room for neutrality. You must trust in Him or take your place among His enemies. May God enable you to look to Him for your salvation.

187 “Klauaner, the Jewish writer, writing of crucifixion says, ‘Crucifixion is the most terrible and cruel death which man has ever devised for taking vengeance on his fellow-men.’ Cicero called it ‘the most cruel and the most horrible torture.’ Tactitus called it ‘a torture only fit for slaves.’ It originated in Persia; and its origin came from the fact that the earth was considered to be sacred to Ormuzd the god, and the criminal was lifted up from it that he might not defile the earth, which was the god’s property. From Persia crucifixion passed to Carthage in North Africa; and it was then from Carthage that Rome learned it, although the Romans kept it exclusively for rebels, runaway slaves, and the lowest type of criminal. It was indeed a punishment which it was illegal to inflict on a Roman citizen.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1963), II, pp. 401-402.

“Goguel quotes A. Reville’s description: “It represented the acme of the torturer’s art: atrocious physical sufferings, length of torment, ignominy, the effect on the crowd gathered to witness the long agony of the crucified. Nothing could be more horrible than the sight of this living body, breathing, seeing, hearing, still able to feel, and yet reduced to the state of a corpse by forced immobility and absolute helplessness. We cannot even say that the crucified person writhed in agony, for it was impossible for him to move. Stripped of his clothing, unable even to brush away the flies which fell upon his wounded flesh, already lacerated by the preliminary scourging, exposed to the insults and curses of people who can always find some sickening pleasure in sight of the tortures of others, a feeling which is increased and not diminished by the sight of pain—the cross represented miserable humanity reduced to the last degree of impotence, suffering, and degradation. The penalty of crucifixion combined all that the most ardent tormentor could desire: torture, the pillory, degradation, and certain death, distilled slowly drop by drop. It was an ideal form of torture” (The Life of Jesus, London, 1958, pp. 535f.).” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 805-806, fn. 44.

188 “There were four forms of the cross used for this ghastly punishment: a plain stake to which the victim was nailed; the Tau cross with the transom below the top—the traditional type on which Jesus was crucified; the crux commnissa, or Greek cross, with four arms of equal length; St. Andrew’s cross, consisting of two beams obliquely crossed.” J.W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1939), p. 596.

189 “Plummer cites from Lactantius: “His executioners did not think it necessary to break His bones, as was their prevailing custom.” If this is accurate, the horror of broken legs was habitually added to that of crucifixion.” Morris, John, p. 818, fn. 84

190 “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 bitter in soul. And it has also been taught: The noble women in Jerusalem used to donate and bring it.’” (Ioncino edn., pp. 279f.) Ibid., p. 814, fn. 72.

191 Matthew 27:55f.; Mark 15:40f.; Luke 23:49; John 19:25f.

“Mark and Matthew mention by name three of a group of women who were ‘looking on afar off.’ They both mention Mary Magdalene, and omit the mother of Jesus. The woman called by John his mother’s sister seems to be the woman named ‘Salome’ by Mark and the ‘mother of Zebedee’s children’ by Matthew; while Mary the wife of Cleophas would appear to be identical with ‘Mary the mother of James and Joses’ in the Synoptic narratives. Such an identification cannot, however, be regarded as certain.” R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), p. 215.

192 “John describes the horror that was crucifixion in a single word. As in the case of the scourging, he simply mentions the fact and passes on. Popular piety, both Protestant and Catholic, has often tended to make a great deal of the sufferings of Jesus, to reflect on what was done and to dwell on the anguish He suffered. None of the Gospels does this. The Evangelists record the fact and let it go at that. The death of Jesus for men was their concern. They make no attempt to play on the heartstrings of their readers.” Morris, John, pp. 805-806.

“It may be a challengeable opinion, but I think the Church of God has suffered more than it knows by pictures of the crucifying of Jesus; and sometimes by very honest and well-intentioned sermons, trying to describe the matter on the physical side. I am not denying the tragedy and the pain of it physically, but the physical suffering of Jesus was nothing compared to the deeper fact of that cross.” Ibid., p. 806, fn. 45. Here Morris is quoting Morgan.

193 The imperfect tense used of our Lord’s prayer implies that our Lord repeatedly asked God’s forgiveness for His persecutors.

194 “This veil, which was the thickness of a palm breadth, was sixty feet long and thirty broad, and separated the Holy and Most Holy Places. Various attempts have been made to explain this strange phenomenon on naturalistic grounds, such as the earthquake, or as Jerome’s comment on the Gospel according to the Hebrews, by the fall of the huge lintel of the Temple broken by the earthquake. But this veil was of such tough fabric and so woven that it could not have been rent in twain by an earthquake or the falling of a lintel. Matthew connects the phenomenon directly with the death of Jesus, calling attention to the fact that it was rent ‘from top to bottom’ by God’s hand, throwing open thus the Most Holy Place to all men.” Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels, p. 604.

195 E.g. Matthew 21:33-41; Mark 2:20; 8:31; 9:31; 10:33,45; 14:8,24; Luke 9:31; 13:33; John 10:11, etc.

196 Here I would urge you to read J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press,, 1975), pp. 161ff.

197 I will suggest just a few Scriptures to be compared:

    Old Testament Prophecy

    New Testament Fulfillment

    Isaiah 53:7
    Isaiah 53:5
    Isaiah 50:6
    Psalm 22:7,8
    Psalm 109:24,25
    Psalm 22:16
    Isaiah 53:12
    Isaiah 53:12
    Psalm 38:11
    Psalm 109:25
    Psalm 22:17
    Psalm 22:18
    Psalm 69:21
    Psalm 69:21
    Psalm 34:20
    Zechariah 12:10

    Matthew 27:12-19
    Matthew 27:26
    Matthew 26:67
    Matthew 27:31
    John 19:17; Luke 23:26
    Luke 23:33 (cf. John 20:25)
    Matthew 27:38
    Luke 23:34
    Luke 23:49
    Matthew 27:39
    Luke 23:35
    John 19:23,24
    John 19:28
    Matthew 27:34
    John 19:33
    John 19:34

198 I realize these are taken out of context, but they nevertheless apply to our Lord’s death on the cross.

Related Topics: Christology, Atonement

39. The Burial and Resurrection of Christ

(John 19:38-20:31; Matt. 27:57-28:15; Mark 15:42-16:18; Luke 23:50-24:43)


One of my friends, Craig Baynham, tells the story of an uncle who one day was leisurely driving his convertible in the mountains. He had his top down, his radio turned up loud, and was enjoying to the full the beauties of the winding mountain road on which he was driving. So intent was he on the scenery, and so deafened by the blaring of his radio, he failed to notice the driver behind him becoming more and more impatient.

Finally the road presented sufficient room for the furious driver to pass. A blast of the horn and a shake of the fist (even a few not-so-well chosen words) were not sufficient to appease the anger of the hostile motorist. Forcing the uncle’s car to the side of the road he proceeded to verbally vent his frustration. Craig’s uncle, who had been oblivious to the whole matter until now, proceeded to apologize for the inconvenience he had caused. But no apology was sufficient.

“Your apology is not enough. I’m going to pick you up out of that car and beat you to a bloody pulp,” the man finally threatened. As the motorist began to close in on him, the uncle quickly removed a 45-caliber revolver from under the seat and aimed it point blank at his attacker. With only a moment’s hesitation the aggressor blurted out, “I accept your apology.” And with this he returned to his car and went his way.

The moral to this story is that the introduction of one unexpected element can completely change one’s perspective on a situation. That, in my mind, is precisely what occurred early on that Easter morning nearly 2,000 years ago. In the mind of the Jewish religious leaders, the crucifixion of Christ had once and for all dissolved the popular movement that centered about Jesus the Nazarene, which so threatened their position of leadership in the nation Israel.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ overruled the verdict of the Sanhedrin that Jesus was a malefactor who must be removed. When He rose triumphant from the dead, the claims and teachings of our Lord were undeniably validated. This event revitalized the feeble faith of the disciples and became the heart of the message which the apostles began to preach. It forced the enemies of the cross to face their responsibility for rejecting God’s Messiah and to reconsider the person and work of Jesus Christ.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead not only demonstrated the truth of His teaching, but the value of His death. It proved Him to be the Son of God. It transformed discouraged and disbelieving disciples into fearless preachers of the gospel. Those who shrank back from suffering were now gladly willing to suffer and die for the cause of Christ. One new element transformed the course of history. That element was the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave.

The importance of the resurrection can hardly be overstated. We should recall that our Lord had publicly staked His credibility on one final and conclusive sign to the nation, the sign of the prophet, Jonah.

“Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’” (Matthew 12:38-40).

The effectiveness of our Lord’s entire ministry hung upon His ability to rise from the grave. And lest we think of this only as a theoretical and historical issue, we must also recognize how crucial the resurrection of our Lord is to Christians today. It is an essential part of the gospel message that men must believe in order to be saved: “… if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9).

The resurrection is also the cornerstone of the Christian faith and our assurance of life beyond the grave: “… if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, your faith also is vain … and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:14,17).

Let us give careful attention to this matter of our Lord’s burial and resurrection.

The Burial of Jesus

In several ways the burial of our Lord prepared the way for His resurrection. It may seem needless to say, but the burial of our Lord testifies to the reality of His death. Skeptics and unbelievers have sometimes advocated a ‘swoon theory’199 which explains away the resurrection as merely the physical recovery of a dying Christ. Our Lord, they tell us, was not really dead, but merely unconscious. In the cool of the tomb, Jesus revived and went His way, limping from recorded history. The evidence against such a theory is too extensive to recount.

The death of Jesus was undisputed by everyone who witnessed His crucifixion.200 The Roman soldiers, who were experts in this field, were satisfied.201 Not only had they witnessed the unusual dismissal of His own spirit, but a spear was thrust into the side of our Lord, piercing the vital organs, probably including both His lungs and His heart. In addition, blood and water issued forth, which medically verified that death had already occurred.202 Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepared the corpse, which would have revealed the normal evidences of death.203 The women planned to return at a later time to further prepare the body (Luke 23:55-56). There was not one glimmer of hope that life remained in our Lord’s body.

Matthew’s account of our Lord’s burial includes some very interesting detail, not mentioned by the other gospels. The request made of Pilate by the chief priests and Pharisees is most revealing:

“Now on the next day, which is the one after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, lest the disciples come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first. Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard, go, make it as secure as you know how.’ And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone” (Matthew 27:62-66).

First of all, this petition reflects a lingering uneasiness concerning the person of Jesus Christ and the power He possessed. Why would they still be wary, unless the way our Lord died evidenced a most unusual happening, the end of which was not yet in sight? (Cf. Luke 23:48.) Further, it indicates how aware the Jewish leaders were of our Lord’s teaching. They knew that He had staked His entire ministry on His ability to rise from the grave (Matthew 12:38-40; 27:63).

Finally, the religious leaders unwittingly fulfilled the purpose of God by taking extreme security measures at the grave site. So long as the corpse was at hand, Christ could be shown to be only a self-deceived fanatic by His failure to rise from the dead. It would at least be possible for some of the disciples of Jesus to remove His body and claim He had risen. Pilate, who had to this point gone along with their requests, told them to use whatever means were necessary to provide maximum security. In their zeal to protect Jesus’ body from theft, the enemies of our Lord provided irrefutable evidence to the miraculous resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.

The precautions taken by the Jewish and Roman leaders at the grave site of our Lord were something akin to the actions of Elijah at the contest on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18:33-35). Three times Elijah commanded the altar to be drenched with water, making a fire humanly impossible to kindle. And yet this only heightened the effect on those who beheld the fire from heaven which consumed the wood, the sacrifice, the water, and the stones (1 Kings 18:38).

I cannot pass by the burial of our Lord without several observations concerning the people who took part in the burial of the Savior. First, I must reluctantly acknowledge that none of the eleven disciples were there to claim the body of Jesus, as John the Baptist’s disciples had done (Mark 6:29). Their absence at the foot of the cross and at the graveside was conspicuous.

It was two members of the Sanhedrin, the council which condemned our Lord, who cooperated in the burial of the Lord. Neither of these two were known to be courageous or bold in their faith (John 19:38-39), but their love of Jesus outweighed their fear of their colleagues or of Rome. Joseph of Arimathea provided the tomb, while Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes, spices customarily used in the preparation of the body for burial. Due to the lateness of the hour, things were done somewhat hastily (Luke 23:54-56; John 19:42), and the final preparations would be made after the Sabbath.

Once again we find the women who ministered to our Lord, unashamed of their love for Him. As many have observed, they were the last to leave our Lord at His death and the first to return to find Him alive. The fact that our Lord first revealed Himself to Mary Magdalene must have been both a reward for her deep love and devotion, and a rebuke to the unbelief of the men who were His closest friends.

I must say that the more prominent role that is assigned to men in Scripture is no evidence of either greater spirituality or devotion to our Lord, nor is it any evidence of the rewards which we will receive from Him. It is not the magnitude of the task which brings about the commendation of the Savior, but the motive for our service (cf. Matthew 10:40-42; 25:40). These women surely loved their Lord!

The Resurrection of Our Lord

The Events of the Resurrection

As each of the gospel writers presents the resurrection from a different perspective, and with a different purpose,204 one cannot easily blend every event into a sequence205 that is completely satisfactory. This is no reflection on the accuracy of each account,206 but the product of our own lack of information.

Our Lord, unwitnessed by mortal eyes, was literally, physically raised to new life from the dead. This was not merely the restoration of life, the rejoining of soul and body, but a transformation whereby Jesus was both similar to His old self, and yet strangely different as well. His body still bore the marks of His crucifixion, and Mary was able to recognize Him by His voice (John 20:16). He no longer was limited by objects, such as locked doors, grave clothes, or tombstones, but could pass through solid objects (cf. John 20:19).

After the resurrection, an earthquake occurred, which was instrumental in the angel’s removal of the stone, covering the tomb. As others have commented, this was not for the benefit of our Lord (so that He could get out), but for the disciples, so they could look in and be convinced of His resurrection. Mary Magdalene arrived at the tomb first, saw that it was empty, concluded that the body had been moved,207 and reported this to Peter and John.

Following the sequence of events as outlined by John, Mary Magdalene first arrived at the tomb, found the stone already rolled away, and concluded that someone had removed the body of Jesus (John 20:1-2). On hearing her report, Peter and John208 ran out to the tomb. John, being the younger, arrived first and looking in from outside, could see the linen wrappings lying inside. Peter, undaunted by the thought of entering a tomb, barged in for a closer look, followed by John (John 20:4-8).

While Peter’s response is not recorded, John says of himself that he believed.209 If John did truly believe Jesus had been raised from the dead it would be due to the evidence inside the tomb, and not that contained in Scripture, “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9).

John also must have kept his conclusions to himself, for faith does not seem to come to the disciples until our Lord appeared to them (John 20:19ff.). The disciples had refused to accept the report of the women, both concerning the angelic messenger and his words, and of seeing the risen Christ (Mark 16:9-11,14; Luke 24:11;22-24).

The evidence inside the tomb was compelling. The stone was rolled away, the guards were missing, the body, likewise was gone. But strangely the evidence was not one which pointed to theft. Had the body been stolen, the thieves would surely not have taken the time to unwrap the body there. The wrappings were neatly arranged, not flung aside in haste. Perhaps they were not unwrapped at all, but simply collapsed, like a cocoon, since our Lord could have simply passed through them as He later did the bolted door of the Upper Room (John 20:19).

Not yet seeing the Lord, the disciples simply went home to await further developments. If they believed the body to be stolen, surely they grasped the fact that they would be the prime suspects, and might expect a visit from the authorities.

Mary lingered at the tomb. Here was the place where she had last seen His body. When she looked into the tomb, she beheld not only the place where the body had once lain and the grave clothes, but also two angels. It seems that she did not recognize them as such and mechanically answered their query as to why she continued to weep (John 20:13).

In what to me is the most moving scene of the entire New Testament, Mary is now confronted by a third Person, Whom she does not yet recognize as her Lord. “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?’ Supposing Him to be one of those who had removed the body, she replied, ‘Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away’” (John 20:15). And then, in the one word reply, ‘Mary,’ she recognized the voice of the One Whom she most dearly loved. Tears of sorrow became those of joy. She grasped Him so as never again to be separated from Him. It was not that Jesus couldn’t be touched (cf. John 20:25), but that men could not cling to Him so as to keep Him from returning to the Father. He was alive, but He must shortly go.

“Stop clinging to Me; for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren, and say to them, I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God” (John 20:17).

With great joy Mary departed to share her good news with the disciples. What a disappointment their unbelief must have been to her. At least she and the other women knew He was alive (Luke 24:10-11).

The Evidence for the Resurrection

Evidences for the actual, historical, physical resurrection of our Lord on the third day are not wanting. Several lines of evidence will be mentioned.

First of all, there was the empty tomb. This in spite of the fact that the greatest security efforts were taken. An armed guard was on constant duty, realizing the consequences of failing to do their task well. A great stone (Mark 16:4) lay outside the tomb, making a clandestine entry or escape impossible. And on this stone was placed the seal of Rome, threatening death to any who would defy Rome’s authority by breaking it.

To any grave robber, there was no great value attached to this body, surely not so great as to challenge Rome to steal it. There were plenty of other bodies available at much less risk. To the enemies of Christ, there was no reason to steal the body. Their cause was strengthened by its presence under Roman guard. And for the disciples, there was no desire to steal the body. For them, the matter was as dead as the Lord Whom they had followed. What could be gained by taking His body? Who would wish to pursue the cause of a dead Messiah?210

We must not overlook the testimony of the guards themselves (Matthew 28:11-15). They witnessed the earthquake which the angel employed to remove the stone. They beheld the radiant appearance of the angel and trembled in his presence. They knew that Jesus’ body was not taken, but transformed. And surely they could not have known who ‘took’ the body if they were really sleeping when it happened (cf. Matthew 28:13). The religious leaders feebly tried to cover up this incident.

Then there was the evidence inside the tomb.211 The grave clothes were neatly arranged, and not scattered about. This evidenced a calm and orderly event, not a hasty theft. Perhaps the wrappings were simply collapsed, rather than unrolled, evidence of the fact that Jesus simply passed through His burial shroud. John may well have been saying that his belief was the sole result of the evidence inside that empty tomb, without any grasp of the biblical necessity for such an event, and before he had even seen the Lord Jesus raised and alive. And inside the tomb were the angelic messengers who assured those who came that they had come to the right tomb, but that Jesus had already been raised, just as He promised.

Then, too, there was the earthquake which shook Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death and opened the graves of the believing dead (Matthew 27:51-53). After our Lord’s resurrection, these resurrected saints appeared to many in Jerusalem. I would conjecture that these Old Testament saints were the first fruits of our Lord’s resurrection power. I believe that they appeared in Jerusalem during the 40 days of our Lord’s sojourn on earth, and then, with Jesus, ascended to Heaven.

There was, as well, the eye-witness appearances of our Lord to various groups or individuals after His resurrection. He appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20:14-17), and to the women who had come to the tomb (Matthew 28:9-10). Jesus also appeared to Peter and to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). He also revealed Himself to the disciples, once in the absence of Thomas (John 20:19-25), and then with him present (John 20:26-29). In all, over 500 witnesses could be named who had seen our Lord risen from the dead. And Paul made this claim at a time when many of those witnesses were still alive and able to verify the claims of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).

One of the most convincing evidences of the resurrection is the dramatic change in the lives of the disciples. Before the resurrection, they were a forlorn and defeated group of men. Afterward, they were men who fearlessly proclaimed the gospel, even in the face of great opposition and danger (cf. Acts 2-5).

The Significance of the Resurrection

(1) The empty tomb conclusively established the credibility of our Lord Jesus Christ and His teaching. Throughout His ministry, our Lord was challenged to prove Himself to His skeptics. Many signs and wonders had been accomplished by the Lord Jesus, but His opponents persisted in their unbelief. At last, Jesus refused to grant further signs other than one final demonstration of His power, that of His resurrection from the grave (Matthew 12:33-40). When our Lord arose from the dead, it was His last sign to Israel as to His divine power and authority. His resurrection was the dominant theme of apostolic preaching.212

(2) The resurrection went beyond attesting to the integrity of Jesus in assuring men of His identity as the Son of God. “Who was declared with power to be the Son of God by the resurrection from the dead …” (Romans 1:4). It was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God which was the basis for Jesus’ condemnation by the Jewish Sanhedrin (Luke 22:70; John 19:7). The resurrection was God’s way of publicly overruling the verdict of the Sanhedrin and testifying that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God, even as He claimed.

(3) The resurrection demonstrated our Lord’s ability to save. “He who was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification” (Romans 4:25). Throughout His earthly life and ministry, Jesus had spoken of Himself as the One Who had come ‘to seek and to save that which was lost.’213 While the cross demonstrates the love of our Lord and His willingness to save men, the empty tomb reveals the power of our Lord and His ability to save.214 Warfield likens the Christ’s resurrection to His healing of the paralytic in Mark chapter two. If Christ can make a paralytic walk, can He not also forgive sins?

(4) The fact of the resurrection confronts the Christian with the necessity of godly living. Throughout Scripture we are exhorted to make our practice conform to our position. In the sixth chapter of Romans, Paul shows the folly of the Christian continuing to live in sin. We cannot claim to have died to sin in Jesus Christ without endeavoring to cease living in sin. We cannot profess to have been raised to new life in Christ without some evidence of a newness of life in our daily walk (Romans 6:1-11).

(5) Closely related to our last point, the resurrection provides the Christian with a measure of the power which is at work in him to enable him to live the Christian life. “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who indwells you” (Romans 8:11). God supplies the ability to do whatever He commands. The resurrection is the measure of the power which is at work in us.

(6) The empty tomb firmly roots our spiritual destiny in the soil of history. Many recent theologians have attempted to convince us that it really does not matter whether or not the tomb was really empty, that it is only our resurrection faith which counts.215 The New Testament writers refuse to speak of a faith ungrounded in history. In fact, our faith stands or falls on the historicity of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-19).

Furthermore, our Lord promised His followers that the Holy Spirit would convict men of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:3). The basis for the Spirit’s conviction concerning the righteousness of Christ was the fact of His resurrection and ascension: “And concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me” (John 16:10).

The fact that Christianity is subject to factual and historical verification opens the door for Christian apologetics. The facts bear out that Christianity at its roots is both supernatural and historical. Men need not take leaps of faith, for faith can and must be rooted in fact. While apologetics can never convince men of the truth (cf. Luke 16:31), historical facts concerning Christ’s resurrection do provide the Holy Spirit with a basis for convicting men of the truths of the gospel.

Finally, the fact of a risen Savior assures the Christian of a hope which lives beyond the grave. In the words of the apostle Paul, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).216


The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ has much to say to the unbeliever. It demands that the claims of One Who cannot be held captive by death must be taken seriously. Have you carefully considered the claims of this Jesus Who yet lives, 2000 years beyond His crucifixion?

Also, the resurrection of Christ is a warning to those who die apart from a saving faith in the work of the Savior. Some today welcome death as the only viable solution to a world of pain, frustration and seeming futility. May I remind you that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead means that death does not end it all for the unsaved. Paul tells us that Christ’s resurrection from the dead assures all men of resurrection from physical death: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).217

The frightening reality is that those who have not come to faith in Christ must spend an eternity apart from Him in judgment (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Death is not the end for the non-Christian. Everyone will be raised from physical death, and those who have not believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of men must face judgment beyond the grave: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once, and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

There is yet another danger for the unbeliever, and that is to equate intellectual understanding and academic assent with saving faith. You may say, “I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God Who gave His life to save sinners.” That is not enough, for James tells us that the demons also believe (James 2:19).

The difference between academic belief and saving faith is this: The unbeliever acknowledges the facts of the gospel without adhering to the Savior. The true Christian believes that Christ died for sinners and rose again from the dead. But he goes the extra step from belief in a concept to a commitment to Christ. The Christian says with sincerity Christ died on the cross, and I with (in) Him. Christ rose from the dead, and with Him, so did I (Romans 6:1-11; Colossians 2:8-15). Salvation is trusting in the work of Christ as the sole basis of your eternal salvation. It rests upon historic facts, but goes from these facts to personal faith in the person and work of Christ on the cross. His death was to bear the penalty of sinners. His resurrection was for the justification of sinners. Are you resting in His work alone?

Finally, there is admonition and instruction for true believers in the Lord Jesus from this passage. Do you see how devastating and debilitating unbelief is? How fruitless and frustrating for the disciples of our Lord when they doubted His presence and power among them.

I do not really believe that the disciples conceived of our Lord as forever gone. They probably would have expressed a hope of seeing Him again in the resurrection, much as Martha did at the death of Lazarus (John 11:24). What disabled the disciples was that they felt that they would no longer experience His presence and power at the present, in the midst of their activities and ministries. The resurrection dealt with this in a mighty way.

But isn’t the problem of the disciples essentially the same problem which you and I face? Don’t we often refuse to believe that Jesus Christ is alive and well and working in and among us right now? Isn’t it true that we often think of Jesus as coming in the ‘sweet bye and bye’ rather than working mightily in our midst? It is the assurance of Jesus’ power and presence among us now which gives us assurance and confidence that we labor not alone.

199 For a devastating analysis of this theory, see “The Resurrection—A Historical Fact” by B. B. Warfield. Selected Shorter Writings of Benjamin B. Warfield -I. Ed. by John Meeter (Nutley, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1970), pp. 183-184. This volume contains two very persuasive articles concerning the historicity of the resurrection (pp. 178-192) and the fundamental importance of the doctrine of the resurrection (pp. 193-202).

200 “What thoughts concerning the Dead Christ filled the minds of Joseph of Arimathaea, of Nicodemus, and of the other disciples of Jesus, as well as of the Apostles and of the pious women? They believed Him to be dead, and they did not expect Him to rise again from the dead—at least, in our accepted sense of it. Of this there is abundant evidence from the moment of His Death, in the burial spices brought by Nicodemus, in those prepared by the women (both of which were intended as against corruption), in the sorrow of the women at the empty tomb, in their supposition that the Body had been removed, in the perplexity and bearing of the Apostles, in the doubts of so many, and indeed in the express statement: ‘For as yet they knew not the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead.’” Alford Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, American Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), II, p. 623.

201 Cf. John 19:33.

202 Tasker quotes John Lyle Cameron: “The soldier was a Roman: he would be well trained, proficient, and would know his duty. He would know which part of the body to pierce in order that he might obtain a speedily fatal result or ensure that the victim was undeniably dead. He would thrust through the left side of the chest a little below the centre. Here he would penetrate the heart and the great blood vessels at their origin, and also the lung on the side. The soldier, standing below our crucified Lord as He hung on the cross, would thrust upwards under the left ribs. The broad, clean cutting, two-edged spearhead would enter the left side of the upper abdomen, would open the greatly distended stomach, would pierce the diaphragm, would cut, wide open, the heart and great blood vessels, arteries and veins now fully distended with blood, a considerable proportion of all the blood in the body, and would lacerate the lung. The wound would be large enough to permit the open hand to be thrust into it. Blood from the greatly engorged veins, pulmonary vessel and dilated right side of the heart, together with water from the acutely dilated stomach, would flow forth in abundance.” R.V.G. Tasker, The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), pp. 212-213.

203 John 19:38-41. I find it difficult to follow Edersheim at this point, where he suggests that none of the normal evidences of death would accompany His expiration. This is on the premise that Scripture prophecies that corruption will not occur in our Lord’s body. See Life and Times, II, p. 615.

204 “St. Matthew describes the impression of the full evidence of that Easter morning on friend and foe, and then hurries us from the Jerusalem stained with Christ’s Blood back to the sweet Lake and the blessed Mount where first He spake. It is, as if he longed to realise the Risen Christ in the scenes where he had learned to know Him. St Mark, who is much more brief, gives not only a mere summary, but if one might use the expression, tells it as from the bosom of the Jerusalem family, from the house of his mother Mary. St. Luke seems to have made most full inquiry as to all the facts of the Resurrection, and his narrative might almost be inscribed: ‘Easter Day in Jerusalem.’ St. John paints such scenes—during the whole forty days, whether in Jerusalem or Galilee—as were most significant and teachful of this threefold lesson of his Gospels: that Jesus was the Christ, that He was the Son of God, and that, believing, we have life in His Name.” Edersheim, Life and Times, II, p. 622.

205 For one proposed sequence, cf. J.W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), pp. 611-612.

206 “No doubt there are difficulties connected with the resurrection narratives. The order in which the appearances occurred, for example, is not so clear as to be undisputed. It should not disturb us that the various Evangelists introduce variety in details, for this is true of their records of the ministry as a whole. Broadus rightly says, “The sacred writers do not treat their Lord’s resurrection as a doubtful point, needing to be established by their statements, but as an unquestionable fact.” What Sabatier wrote about the variations in the three accounts of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord (Acts 9:22-26) applies equally well to the resurrection narratives. “It is obvious to any unprejudiced mind that they were undesiged…. They are discrepancies of precisely the sort that one always finds existing in the most faithful repetitions of the same narrative…. They cannot in any way affect the reality of the event in question.” A Short Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 241. (Harrison’s footnotes are deleted above.)

207 It is common to suppose that Mary concluded the body of Jesus had been stolen by grave robbers. I do not think that the text necessarily lends support to this. If the burial took place late on Friday afternoon, it was done somewhat quickly, due to the fact that the Sabbath was about to begin (John 19:42; 20:1). The preparation of the body was not complete, and would be finished on Sunday (Luke 23:55-56; 24:1). Since the burial was conducted by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus somewhat hastily, Mary might well have thought ‘they’ (cf. John 20:2,13) had moved (not stolen) the Lord’s body. Since the women were seemingly unaware of the precautions taken at the request of the religious leaders, it would also be possible to assume that either the Romans or the Jews moved the body of Jesus. Notice that Mary asked Jesus (whom she mistook for the groundskeeper of the graveyard) if He had moved the body (John 20:15).

208 It is generally believed that John is the second party who accompanied Peter, but specifically not stated in the text. This would be natural for John, as the author, to omit.

209 I have difficulty determining just what it was that John ‘believed.’ In some ways I am inclined to think he only believed Mary’s report that Jesus’ body was missing. Verse 9 could easily support this, along with the other gospel accounts which tell us that the disciples refused to believe the words of the women until they personally saw Jesus (Mark 16:11; Luke 24:11; cf. also John 20:20). If John truly believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead, then he did so without any predisposition to do so, and solely on the evidence before him in that empty tomb. If this be the case, Warfield’s words are particularly appropriate when he writes, “That empty grave is alone enough to found all Christianity upon.” “The Resurrection—A Historical Fact,” Selected Shorter Writings, I, p. 190.

210 “No one will so stultify himself in this age as to seriously contend that the disciples stole the body. Not only is it certain that they could not possibly have summoned courage to make the attempt, but the very idea of Christianity owing its life to such an act is worse than absurd. Imagine, if one can, this band of disheartened disciples assembled and coolly plotting to conquer the world to themselves by proclaiming what must have been seen to be the absurd promise of everlasting life through One who had himself died—had died and had not risen again. Imagine them not expecting a resurrection nor dreaming of its possibility, determining to steal the body of their dead Lord, pretend that he had risen, and then, to found on their falsehood a system of the most marvelous truth—on this act of rapine a system of the most perfect morals. Imagine the body stolen and brought into their midst—who can think they could be stirred up to noble endeavor by the sight?” Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Resurrection: A Historical Fact,” Selected Shorter Writings -I, p. 188.

211 Matthew 28:6; Mark 16:5-6; Luke 24:12; John 20:4-8.

212 Cf. Acts 2:22-36; 3:12-26; 4:10; 5:30, etc.

213 Luke 19:10; Mark 10:45; John 10:10-11; etc.

214 “That he died manifests his love, and his willingness to save. That he rose again manifests his power, and his ability to save. We are not saved by a dead Christ who undertook but could not perform, and who lies there still, under the Syrian sky, another martyr of impotent love. If we are to be saved at all, it must be by one who did not merely pass to death in our behalf, but who passed through death. If the penalty was fully paid by him, it can not have broken him, it must needs have broken upon him. Had he not emerged from the tomb, all our hopes, all our salvation would be lying dead with him unto this day.” Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Resurrection of Christ—A Fundamental Doctrine,” Selected Shorter Writings -I, p. 200.

215 Warfield summarizes the views of Harnack (The History of Dogma): “It can indeed, never be necessary to have faith in a fact; religious belief must not hang on history and must be independent of all facts, which would hold good apart from that belief. Whether Christ rose from the dead cannot, therefore, be of moment to the Christian; all that is of any significance is the religious conviction that he was “not swallowed up in death, but passed through suffering and death to glory, that is, to life, power, and honor.” Faith has nothing to do with knowledge of the form in which Jesus lives, but only with the conviction that he is the living Lord…. Christianity is not built on the rock of fact in any case, he tells us; it is a castle in the air, adjusting itself readily, as it floats over the rough surface of solid earth, to all sorts of inequalities and changes of ground, and is best entered by disengaging ourselves from the soil and soaring lightly into its higher precincts. No doubt the professed purpose of this new determination of the relation of Christianity to fact is to render Christianity forever unassailable from the point of view of historical science; if it is independent of all details of history it cannot be wounded through the critical reconstruction of the historical events which accompanied its origin.” Selected Shorter Writing -I, p. 1194-5.

216 1 Corinthians 6:14; 15:20f.; 2 Corinthians 4:14.

217 Cf. John 5:28-29; Revelation 20:4-5,12-15.

Related Topics: Resurrection

40. The Duties of Discipleship (John 21:1-25)


I have a friend who devised a very clever escape plan for his getaway the day of his marriage. He was married in a southern city which had only one major highway entering and leaving town. He and his bride let the cars follow them right into the middle of a tunnel. A friend was there by prearrangement, who blocked the tunnel with his car, frustrating the attempt of the others to follow any further.

My friend and his bride laughed all the way to their honeymoon hotel. After a leisurely dinner, they returned to their suite, only to discover that all of their friends had somehow found them, even some 60 or 70 miles from their hometown. Someone had gone to the effort to call every hotel along that highway and see if my friend had made reservations for that night. The ‘friends’ blessed the newlywed couple with their presence long into the night.

If I were to capsulize a description of that situation in only one word, I think it would have to be the word ‘frustrating.’ Few Christians would even consider such a description as ‘frustrating’ for that forty day period during which our Lord manifested Himself alive218 to His disciples. We would probably think of such captions as ‘glorious,’ ‘transforming,’ ‘joyous,’ or the like. And, to a limited extent, those would be accurate characterizations of this unique period of time.

We are inclined to have our thinking shaped by the account in Luke 24, where our Lord appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and as a result of their encounter they said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while He was speaking to us on the road, while He was explaining the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

This is true enough. But would you not have found it frustrating to have had our Lord disappear just at the moment you recognized Him to be the risen Lord? While those forty days had their thrilling moments, I doubt that any of the disciples would have wanted them to continue indefinitely. The reason is that there was no intimacy, no deep and abiding fellowship between our Lord and the disciples during this time.

Let me seek to demonstrate what I have said. When Mary, the first person to see the resurrected Lord, beheld Him, she clung to Him desperately. She longed for a return to the relationship she had known with Him before His death. But Jesus put her off somewhat with the words, “Stop clinging to Me; for I have not yet ascended to the Father; …” (John 20:17).

Our Lord’s post-resurrection relationship to the disciples could never simply be a return to things as they once were. Our Lord’s death, burial and resurrection brought about a new state of affairs, a new kind of relationship with His disciples. Neither Mary nor the others could have things as they once were.

Our Lord’s sojourn of forty days on earth after His release from the bonds of death was not a period of continual and intimate contact with the disciples. Jesus suddenly appeared, but only to depart just as quickly. The appearance of our Lord to the seven who were fishing on the lake was only His third appearance to the disciples as a group (John 21:14). The little time our Lord spent with the disciples was not sufficient to satisfy their deep longings for more intimate and leisurely fellowship as they had once experienced it.

The somewhat distant relationship between the Savior and His disciples was not without purpose. As Jesus had told Mary, it was necessary for Him to ascend to the Father. Had Jesus spent lengthy hours in close relationship with His disciples, His ascension would have been only begrudgingly accepted. As it worked out, the followers of our Lord found, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, that even in His physical absence there was a deeper and stronger intimacy than ever before. The forty day period thus fulfilled its purpose of convincing the disciples that He had truly been raised from the dead. But this purpose was achieved without working against the ascension of our Lord and His ongoing relationship with His followers through the Holy Spirit.

Jesus and the Catch of Fish

Our passage in John chapter 21 reveals the frustration of the disciples better than any other. It was in response to the dismay of the disciples that our Lord came to them and clarified the nature of discipleship in the light of His completed work on the cross.

Put yourself in the disciples’ place for a moment. Jesus had called you to be a disciple, and you had left all to follow Him (Matthew 19:27). You had hoped for the promised Kingdom to be immediately established by the Lord (cf. Acts 1:6). You had even hoped for a prominent place in that Kingdom (cf. Matthew 20:20-21). Instead, He was put to death. Three days later Jesus was raised from the dead which was demonstrated by many convincing proofs (Acts 1:3), appeared to you and many others. In some of these appearances Jesus explained from the Scriptures that His death was necessary to forgive the sins of those who believe.

The questions in your mind, if you are thinking as the disciples were, would be numerous. What is going to happen next? Is the Kingdom to begin now? What is the nature of discipleship? What does the Lord want me to do now? If I were to go out and preach, what would my message be? If I am not to preach, what shall I do?

It was out of this frustration, I believe, that Peter decided to go fishing. What else was there to do? Several of the other disciples must have felt the same way. Going fishing surely was better than sitting around wondering what to do next.

Some have criticized this fishing venture as though it evidenced a lack of faith. They suppose that Peter and the others were toying with a return to their former occupation, and giving up full-time service. Peter and the others, due to their lack of direction, were simply trying to use their time profitably until the Lord gave them guidance as to what direction their lives and ministry might take.219

In those days men usually fished at night, but after a long night of effort, there were no fish caught. Our Lord, unrecognized by the disciples laboring in the boat, stood on shore about 100 yards distant and called to them, “Children, you do not have any fish220 do you?”221 (John 21:5). They had to admit that they were empty-handed. The Savior authoritatively instructed them to cast their nets to the other side of the ship, promising an abundance of fish (verse 6). Without question they obeyed, still unaware of the identity of the One giving the instructions.

When the nets became so full of fish that they could not be lifted on board, John, always the first to perceive the true nature of things before Peter,222 said to his companion, “It is the Lord” (verse 7).

Peter, true to his character, put on an outer garment223 and plunged into the water, not willing to delay his meeting with the Lord. The others, more sensibly, waited the few moments it took to beach the ship. It is evident from Peter’s intense desire to be with His Lord, that the Savior had already met privately with Peter over the matter of his denials, and that full forgiveness and restoration had been given (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:5).

On shore, the large catch of fish was sorted and counted.224 Jesus had a meal prepared for the seven, which He shared with them. The disciples puzzled over this appearance, and yet they knew for certain that it was, indeed, the Lord (verse 12).

A few have dared to suggest that this event is the same as that recorded in Luke chapter five. While there are many reasons for rejecting such a suggestion, there is certainly a relationship between the two, as well as marked differences.225 The correspondence seems to be this: Luke’s account in chapter five of his gospel describes the incident whereby Jesus called His disciples to leave their employment and follow Him to become ‘fishers of men’ (Luke 5:10-11). The incident recorded by John is our Lord’s reaffirmation of that call, after His death, burial and resurrection.

The disciples faced a puzzling dilemma after the resurrection: What is implied by our discipleship now? Shall we return to our old occupations? If not, what is our task? In answer to this dilemma, our Lord reassured His followers that they were to understand one aspect of discipleship as that of continuing what Jesus had begun and what they had been formerly called to do, the seeking of men with the good news of the gospel.

This miraculous event did more than reaffirm the calling of the disciples to be ‘fishers of men.’ It also assured them that their Lord would be present with them in this endeavor, though not in His former physical manifestation. It promised them divine guidance and power to accomplish the task of the evangelization of the world.

Jesus’ death and resurrection did not change the calling of the disciples to be seekers after the souls of men. But this was not enough. In the remaining verses, the Lord informed His followers of yet another duty of discipleship.

Jesus and Peter: Love’s Obligation

It is not enough merely to evangelize men. Discipleship begins with salvation, but it blossoms into a continuing process of growth and service. Our Lord informed His disciples through Peter that we must not only seek men’s souls, but we must shepherd them also. And so we move from the well-known occupation of the fisherman, to that of the shepherd.

Most commentators seem to view verses 15-23 as a kind of public restoration of Peter to leadership by our Lord.226 That, to me, does not seem to be the case. I am not certain that Peter ever really ceased to be a leader among men. It was he who suggested this fishing expedition and the others gladly followed. Neither do I believe that Jesus’ three-fold question was put to Peter before the eyes and ears of the other six. Notice verse 20: “Peter, turning around, saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them; the one who also had leaned back on His breast at the supper …” You see, all must agree that at some point in this conversation Jesus and Peter left the others. I would suggest that it was at the outset. There is nothing in verse 15 which implies the place of the conversation, only the time. The reason that John alone records this event may be that he followed behind closely enough to overhear the conversation.

The correspondence between the three-fold question of the Lord and the three-fold denial of Peter is difficult not to see.227 Jesus began by asking Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me more than these?”228 (verse 15).

Peter had boasted of his love for the Lord before his denial, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). Peter had then claimed that his love for the Lord surpassed that of any other. It is at this point that Jesus pressed Peter for a response.

Peter affirmed his love for the Lord Jesus, but with two notable exceptions. First, he did not make any comparisons between his love and that of the others. Second, he did not dare to speak of his love with as lofty a term229 as that employed by the Savior. He does love the Lord. As God knows his heart, there is great affection there. But his brash self-confidence has been eroded away by his denials.

Accepting this answer on face value, the Lord commissions Peter with the second duty of a disciple—that of tending the flock: “Tend My lambs” (verse 15).

Now, a second time, Jesus poses the question to Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” (verse 16).

The comparison of Peter’s love to that of the others is no longer involved. Only the intensity of Peter’s love is queried. Peter’s answer was the same: “Yes, Lord; You know that I love You” (verse 16).

With only slight variation,230 Jesus responded, “Shepherd My sheep” (verse 16).

It was the third question which grieved Peter deeply: “Simon, son of John, do you love Me?” (verse 17).

There are two things about this question which would have grieved Peter. First of all, it was asked for the third time. The correspondence between these three questions and his three-fold denial is unmistakable. The question is asked specifically in the light of Peter’s denial of his Lord. The second cause of grief would be in the change of words employed. Jesus had previously used the word agape (or more precisely, the verb agapao) in the first two questions. Peter had answered using the less intense term phileo. In the third question, Jesus dropped the stronger term He had previously employed and adopted the weaker term with which Peter had twice responded. The outcome of this would seem to be that Jesus had progressively lowered the quality of love concerning which he is questioning Peter. The force of this might be paraphrased in this way:

Question 1: Peter, do you deeply love Me, even above all the others?

Question 2: Peter, do you deeply love Me?

Question 3: Peter, do you at least have a genuine affection for Me?

The scholars have greatly differed over the implications of the change of the Greek terms for love. But let me say this to those of you who are students of the Greek language and still remain single. If you were to become very interested in a particular young woman, you would have intense interest and concern over what Greek term she would use to describe her affection for you. A ‘phileo’ love for you would not be nearly as meaningful in your mind, as an ‘agape’ love would be.

Peter again must appeal to our Lord’s omniscience. “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love (phileo) You” (verse 17).

With this, Peter’s commission is once more repeated: “Tend My sheep” (verse 17).

One might be inclined to consider our Lord’s questioning a bit severe in the light of Peter’s previous repentance and restoration. I believe that there are several purposes served in this interchange. First Peter is reminded of the folly of self-confidence. Second, our Lord’s purpose was not to work up feelings of guilt, but of humility. No one can shepherd the flock rightly without humility.231 Third, Peter is reminded that the measure of one’s love for Christ is not measured by the confessions of their lips, but by the conduct of their lives. Peter’s love will be evidenced by His care of God’s sheep. Finally, this three-fold question is also a three-fold commission, assuring Peter that in spite of His fall, God has a significant work for him to do.

Finally, the three-fold commission gives the task of Peter a distinct note of solemnity. This work of shepherding the flock is one that will be done at great personal sacrifice. This is made clear in the following verses: “Truly, truly, … Follow Me!” (John 21:18-19).

In Peter’s younger days he did as he pleased. In his later years, he would become subject to the will of others. In particular, John spelled out that these words of Jesus were a prediction that Peter would die the martyr’s death (verse 19). Following Jesus would mean, for Peter, walking in His steps, even to death.232 No wonder our Lord’s commission was given in such a serious manner.

Peter could not help but see John, who was following them at a distance (verse 20). Peter wondered if his fate was that common to the other disciples. What about John? Would he also be called upon to die the martyr’s death (verse 21)? Our Lord informed Peter that this was not for Peter to concern himself with. His sole obligation was to follow His Lord in the path which was ordained for him.

Some who heard the report of the Lord’s response to Peter were inclined to take His words to mean that John would not die (verse 23). But our Lord had only said that whether John lived or died, it was not Peter’s concern. (I suspect that the real point of interest was whether or not our Lord was committing Himself to return before John died.)


This portion of Scripture makes a unique contribution to the gospels by underscoring the duty of the disciples from the other side of the cross. What should Peter do? What should any disciple do? Jesus’ answer was two-fold. First, we must follow Jesus in seeking the salvation of men (evangelism). Second, we must shepherd the souls of those who are saved (pastoring, shepherding).

I believe these two imperatives are not directed only at Peter or the seven disciples present, but are the general commands of our Lord as stated in the great commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Further, it would seem that while our Lord commands every disciple to follow Him in seeking and shepherding the souls of men, He wants us to know that our individual paths may differ. It is not the disciple’s concern to trouble himself about the individual calling of other disciples. That is a matter between a disciple and his Lord.

John, and his brother James, beautifully exemplify the sovereignty of God in His individual purpose for His disciples. Of the apostles, James died first (Acts 12:2), and John last. James left no written record for ages to come. John wrote five books. As brothers, both of these men had identical backgrounds and influences. Both were included, with Peter, in the inner circle of our Lord. We cannot hope to scrutinize the reasons for James’ ‘untimely’ death, but we must reckon it to be in the Master’s plan.

I am interested by the struggle evidenced in the commentaries over the fact that John seems to have two conclusions. Some have questioned the authenticity and value of the last chapter. To my mind, the answer is all too obvious. John closed his book the same way many preachers (hopefully, I am included here) conclude their sermons—one aimed at the unbeliever, the other at the Christian. John 20:30-31 is the conclusion of the apostle for the one who has not yet reached a decision of faith in Christ as his Savior. To this person, he writes,

“Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”

But John’s gospel has clear implications for the disciple of our Lord as well. Chapter 21 confronts the disciple of our Lord with the duties of discipleship: seeking and shepherding. For these readers, John concludes with an emphasis on the reliability of these accounts, and of the vast number of incidents which could have been included in such an account.

In addition, John, in these last verses, clearly identifies himself as the author for his readers benefit.

“This is the disciple who bears witness of these things, and wrote these things; and we know that his witness is true. And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books which were written” (John 21:24-25).

In Peter’s commission by our Lord we are reminded again of God’s ability to use even our sins to bring about our good and His glory (Romans 8:28). Past sins, once forgiven, should not hinder us from future service. While Peter should have been strengthened and humbled by his three-fold denial of the Lord, he should also be encouraged by his three-fold commission.

This chapter says much to every Christian about the matter of servanthood.

(1) True discipleship is evidenced by servanthood—that is, expressing, indeed continuing, the servanthood of our Lord, even in His absence. Follow me!

(2) Servanthood is rooted in and motivated by our love for Jesus Christ.

(3) Servanthood involves evangelism and shepherding. It seeks both to save the lost and to strengthen the believers.

(4) Servanthood involves self-sacrifice, even unto death.

(5) Servanthood concentrates on God’s will for us, and does not compare our calling with that of others.

Finally, I am encouraged to learn that my fellowship with the Lord Jesus is not one whit inferior to that of the apostles. They could not turn back the clock to the days before the cross. They would not have wished to lengthen the period of His post-resurrection appearances. Intimate fellowship with Christ was only possible after His ascension, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. How is this fellowship experienced? Let me suggest three avenues:

(1) In the Scriptures. We come to know our Lord as He was predicted in the Old Testament, and through the eyes of four men who knew Him well in the gospels.

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write, so that our joy may be made complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

(2) In suffering. It was the apostle Paul who wrote, “… that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (Philippians 3:10, cf. also Colossians 1:24).

(3) In service. Not only is there a fellowship in suffering, but in service. We sense the closeness of our Lord when His power is released in our lives in His service (cf. Philippians 3:10).

Just as the disciples of our Lord sensed a deeper and fuller fellowship with the Lord Jesus after His ascension, so can you and I. Praise God!

218 Hendriksen outlines the post-resurrection appearances of our Lord in this way: (1) To Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9; John 20:11-18). (2) To the women (Matt. 28:9,10). (3) To Cleopas and his companion (Luke 24:13-35). (4) To Simon (Luke 24:34; 1 Cor. 15:15). (5) To the disciples except Thomas (John 20:19-23). (6) To the disciples, Thomas being present (John 20:24-29). All of these occurred in Jerusalem. After the disciples have gone to Galilee, in obedience to the instructions which they had received from the Lord, Jesus appears again: (7) To the seven at the Sea of Tiberias (21:1-14). (8) To the disciples on a “mountain” in Galilee, where Jesus made a great claim, gave the great commission, and proclaimed the great presence (28:16-20). By many commentators this appearance is identifed with Number 9. (9) To the five hundred (1 Cor. 15:6). (10) To James, the Lord’s brother (1 Cor. 15:7). Whether this took place in Galilee or in Judea is not stated. The disciples having returned to Jerusalem: (11) To the eleven on Olivet, near Jerusalem (Acts 1:4-11; cf. Luke 24:50,51). The next appearance that is specifically recorded is by the Lord from heaven: (12) To Paul, when he was on his way to Damascus (Acts 9:3-7; 22:6-10; 26:12-18; 1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8). There may have been several others. How many there were we do not know (cf. Acts 1:3). Williams Hendriksen, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953), II, p. 4.

219 Morris rightly concludes that this decision to go fishing leaves us with the impression “… of men without a purpose.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 862. Morris then quotes Lloyd: “Lloyd, however, draws the lesson that ‘when the pause comes and the vision begins to be less vivid, we are not to be idle or despondent. We are to go on with the obvious tasks of every day … How wise were these disciples who calmly went back to their fishing!” P. 862, fn. 8.

220 It is interesting to note (as does the marginal note of the New American Standard Version) that the Greek word (prosphagion) translated ‘fish’ actually refers to that which is eaten with bread, as a kind of relish. Our Lord may therefore not only be asking about their catch in general. He might be implying that they not only have failed to make a catch (and thus their living), but that neither have they been able, apart from divine guidance, to provide themselves with enough for their meal. In the marvelous catch that was to follow, Jesus provided a catch, an income, and their immediate need for a meal.

221 In the original text, the question expects a ‘no’ answer, as is indicated by the translation of the NASV.

222 Hendricksen has an interesting comparison of Peter and John. He remarks, “Peter is the man of action. He generally acts before John does. John generally understands before Peter does.” Hendricksen, John, II, p. 479.

223 Morris notes, “It is, however, not at all certain that Peter wore no clothing whatever, as the English would lead us to expect. Both LS and AG cite passages where the word means ‘without an outer garment,’ ‘dressed in one’s underwear.’ The probability here is that the word means that parts of the body normally covered were exposed so that Peter was not naked but rather ‘stripped for work’ (RSV, Barclay). This may mean that he wore a loincloth, or perhaps a sleeveless tunic which would not impede his movements.” Morris, John, pp. 864-865. Morris then goes on to quote Barrett: “Barrett draws attention to a Jewish idea that since offering a greeting was a religious act it could not be performed unless one was clothed. Thus greetings were not given in the baths, since all were naked. If the point is relevant, as seems likely, Peter wanted to be sufficiently clad when he reached the shore to give the usual religious greeting.” P. 864, fn. 19.

224 Hendriksen, in an interesting footnote, summarizes some of the fanciful interpretations of the number 153, the exact count of the fish caught that morning: “Among the strange and, for the most part, allegorical interpretations of this item of information I have found the following: a. The fish were not counted until the shore had been reached, in order to teach us that the exact number of the elect remains unknown until they have reached the shore of heaven. b. The ancients counted one hundred fifty-three varieties of fish! c. There is here a veiled reference to Matt. 13:47,48, and an indication that all kinds of people are going to be saved. d. The reference is to an important date in Church History, namely, 153 A.D. e. The total represents the sum of all the numbers from 1 to 17. Well, what of it? f. In Hebrew characters the numerical equivalent of Simon Iona is one hundred fifty-three. g. The number one hundred fifty-three represents 100 for the Gentiles, 50 for the Jews, and 3 for the Trinity.” Hendriksen, John, II, pp. 483-484, fn. 300.

As Wescott has observed, “The record of the exact number probably marks nothings more than the care with which the disciples reckoned their wonderful draught.” B. F. Wescott, The Gospel According to St. John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), reprint, p. 301.

225 “The significant differences between the circumstances of the miraculous draught of fishes at the beginning of the Lord’s ministry (Luke v. i ff.), and of this after the Resurrection, have frequently been noted. Augustine draws them out very well. The one miracle, he says, was the symbol of the Church at present, the other of the Church perfected; in the one we have good and bad, in the other good only; there Christ also is on the water, here He is on the land; there the draught is left in the boats, here it is landed on the beach; there the nets are let down as it might be, here in a special part; there the nets are rending, here they are not broken; there the boats are on the point of sinking with their load, here they are not laden; there the fish are not numbered, here the number is exactly given (‘In Joh.’ CXXII. 7). It seems impossible not to acknowledge that there is a spiritual meaning in these variations of the two narratives which consistently converge to distinct ends.” Ibid.

226 For example, Morris writes, “There can be no doubt but that Peter was under a cloud with his fellow disciples after the denial. This triple affirmation, accompanied as it was by a triple commission from Jesus, must have had the effect of giving an almost “official” sanction to his restoration to his rightful place of leadership.” Morris, John, pp. 869-870. To his credit, Morris does caution us about pressing this matter too far (p. 870).

227 “The circumstances must have reminded Peter of the scene of his denial. And if the circumstances as such did not remind him of this, what was about to happen was bound to do so. Note the following resemblances: 1. It was at a charcoal fire that Peter denied his Master (18:18). It is here at another charcoal fire (21:9) that he is asked to confess (his love for) his Master. 2. Three times Peter had denied his Master (18:17,25,27). Three times he must now own him as his Lord, whom he loves (21:15-17). 3. The prediction with reference to the denial had been introduced with the solemn double Amen (13:38; see on 1:51). The prediction which immediately followed Peter’s confession was introduced similarly (21:18). But it has been shown that the resemblance is even more pointed. In reverse order the same three ideas—1. following, 2. a cross 3. denying—occur here in 21:15-19 as in 13:36-38.” Hendriksen, John, I , p. 486.

228 It has been observed that the antecedent of ‘these’ in verse 15 is not grammatically certain. It could, therefore, refer to the fish, the ship, the nets, and so on (fishing as a way of life), or to the other disciples. It is not difficult to determine that the reference is to the other disciples, especially in the light of Peter’s previous boast (Matthew 26:33).

229 The marginal notes of the NASV indicate that two different Greek terms are employed for ‘love’ here. Jesus used the verb (agapao) in the first two questions, while Peter answered each time using the verb (phileo). Finally, Jesus employed Peter’s term in the third question. Scholars have divided as to whether or not the difference is of any interpretive significance. Some feel the change is only stylistic. I must agree with Hendriksen that the difference is of significance to our understanding of the text.

Hendriksen puts the question this way: “The question, then, is this: “Here in 21:15-17 are the two verbs agapao and phileo identical in meaning, so that the variation in their use is merely stylistic; or do the two verbs as here employed convey meanings which differ to a certain extent, and does the point of the story hinge on this difference?” Hendriksen, John, II, p. 495.

After a lengthy footnote surveying the problem, he concludes: “For the reasons indicated we believe that agapao in this story (and generally throughout the Gospels, though with varying degree of distinctness in meaning) indicates love, deep-seated, thorough-going, intelligent and purposeful, a love in which the entire personality (not only the emotions, but also the mind and the will) plays a prominent part, which is based on esteem for the object loved or else on reasons which lie wholly outside of this object; while phileo indicates (or at least tends in the direction of) spontaneous natural affection, in which the emotions play a more prominent role than either the intellect or the will.” Ibid., p. 500.

230 In the first commission, Peter was commanded to ‘tend’ (bosko) the ‘lambs’ (arnion). In the second commission he was told to ‘shepherd’ (poimaino) the ‘sheep’ (probation). To ‘tend’ emphasizes the narrower function of providing (usually pigs in the Bible) with food. To ‘shepherd” is a broader duty involving the obligation to pastor the flock, meeting all its needs.

As Trench has put it: “The distinction, notwithstanding, is very far from fanciful. Boskein the Latin ‘pas cere,’ is simply ‘to feed’ but poimainein involves much more; the whole office of the shepherd, the guiding, guarding, folding of the flock, as well as the finding of nourishment for it.” Richard Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament (Marshallton, Delaware. The National Foundation for Christian Education, n.d.), p. 80.

231 The impact of this three-fold commission on Peter’s life and ministry is reflected in 1 Peter 5:1-5.

232 “The manner of Peter’s death is related by the church fathers, as follows: Eusebius: “But Peter seems to have preached in Pontus and Galatia and Bithynia and Cappadocia and Asia to the Jews of the Dispersion, and at last, having come to Rome, he was crucified head downward, for so he himself had asked to suffer” (The Ecclesiastical History III, i). Tertullian: “At Rome Nero was the first who stained with blood this rising faith. Then is Peter girt by another when he is made fast to the cross” (Antidote for the Scorpion’s Sting XV). Cf. also Origen, Against Celsus II, xiv). Hendriksen, John, II, p. 490.

Related Topics: Christology, Evangelism, Discipleship