John 19:17-27, Crucified and Reigning

[April 3, 2011] In the previous verses Jesus stood before His enemies with authority, the Revealer (Prophet) and King and Priest executing the will of heaven unbeknownst to those plotting and scheming around Him. In an irony of enormous proportions, His enemies obtain their will against Him while He reigns victorious over them. This is the Gospel according to John.

His Cross (John 19:17-18)

Pilate delivers Him over to them that He might be crucified, and He takes up the cross Himself, the means of His victory over “the ruler of this world” and His own glorification and the glorification of those whom the Father has given Him. This is His “hour.”

Unlike in Matthew, Luke and Mark, Jesus carries the cross without assistance (John makes no mention of Simon of Cyrene). Though in John’s gospel He is the Lamb of God, He is never a victim in the hands of others. He is the sacrifice but He is also the High Priest offering up this sacrifice.

He is brought to the Place of the Skull, the place of death, and there He is crucified between to others, in the center. The order of John’s narration differs from the Synoptic gospels to draw attention to this centrality. The others, who relate this fact, emphasize that He was crucified alongside criminals, in the center between them. Here, however, their character is not related while attention is drawn to the geometry. He is placed in the middle, and at the foot of the four arms of the cross are four soldiers and beyond them four women and the beloved disciple. Above all this is the “title” (John does not call it the “indictment”) of His kingship in the languages of the world.

The historic event is horrible—three men being tortured to death and their bodies dishonored—but the image of it that John has drawn interprets it in terms of Jesus’ victory over powers far greater than the powers that men think that they can control. Spiritually, Jesus is at the cosmic center, conquering His enemies in the place of death (the “Skull”), that ultimate conqueror of men. There Jesus overcomes Death, and in doing so, overcomes the enemy of man (i.e., the human being).

His Kingship (19:19-22)

Pilates places Jesus’ title (titlos) above Him, “The King of the Jews.” Matthew calls it the “accusation” (aitia), while Luke and Mark refer to it as the “inscription” (epigraphē). For John, however, it is unambiguously His title. The chief priests even objected to its boldness, seeing that “many of the Jews” could read it, for it was “near the city” and written in three languages. But Pilate, whatever his reasons may have been (in 19:7-15 Pilate became frightened of the gods), wanted it to say what it said.

The title “King of the Jews” is equivalent to the “King of Israel.” The later is the title used among the Jews themselves (Nathaniel uses it in 1:49 and the crowds in 12:13), the former among the Jews when speaking to Gentiles and among the Gentiles themselves. The title announced who Jesus was in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, for the Jews, the Romans and the cosmopolitan world of the empire, as if to announce itself not only to the people of the world but to the gods who govern them. For John too, the warfare in which Jesus was engaged and through which He would be victorious was conducted not only—or even primarily—in the realm of human affairs but in the heavenlies, among gods and angels and cosmic powers.

The irony of course is that Jesus appeared to be suffering an ignominious defeat. Even Pilate, if he was trying to placate the genius of Caesar over against the local deities (see 19:7-15), certainly thought he could was bringing Jesus to defeat, even if he also thought the gods were probably manipulating him and he was being played by one against the other.

Yet was intended for shame, was actually an announcement of truth. Jesus really was the King of Israel and even as they crucified Him He was reigning and conquering His enemies. Not only was He the King of Israel at that moment, the greater David whose hands are stained from war, but as the King of Israel He was the King of the Kingdom of God overcoming the ruler of the world, and with him all the kingdoms of the world. “Now is the judgment of this world (kosmos); now shall the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth”—on the cross—“will draw all to Myself” (12:31-32). Not only would He draw all men (this word is not in the original text) but all absolutely. He would restore the creation itself, “the things in the heavens and the things on the earth” (see Ephesians 1:10).

That Jesus is in the center between two others, on the four arms of the cross, with the four soldiers beneath Him and the four women before Him, speaks symbolically of the four directions and the four corners of the earth, that is, of the cosmic reach of His dominion.

His Clothing (19:23-24)

In a reversal of the clothing of Adam and Eve (who were clothed to hide their shame), Jesus was stripped naked on the cross, and the garments that He wore among the children of Adam is divided among the four soldiers, men of violence under the orders of others and who were thus representative of what is the masculine element under the reign of sin: agency, yes, but reduced to forcefulness because of its enslavement to the powers (archons). Though His clothes were taken from Him, Jesus—the sinless One—approaches the shame of the cross by shedding the covering of human shame. Having no shame, He “despised the shame” of the cross (Hebrews 12:1). Naked on the tree of the cross He conquered by this tree in contrast to Adam, also naked, who was defeated by a tree. When Jesus rises, He will be clothed again, not on account of shame, but with a seamless garment of glory in anticipation of His wedding.

Unwilling to tear His tunic, the soldiers cast lots for it, for it was “seamless, woven from the top throughout.” Thus they fulfilled the words of King David which John quotes in 19:24. The words come from Psalm 22, the opening words of which John does not repeat. Nevertheless, a connection is made to this psalm, and to David who purportedly wrote it.

The seamless tunic calls to our mind other associations and meanings. Exodus 28:32 speaks of the seamless tunic of Aaron, woven of fine linen, which he was to wear when he ministered in the sanctuary as the high priest. It too was not to be torn. But this high priestly garment was stripped from Jesus as He made Himself the sacrifice upon the altar of the cross. In dying He emptied Himself of everything, even His most holy body, soul and spirit.

This single garment, which Jesus wore underneath the others, gave unity to the four parts of His garment that was divided among the soldiers. This is symbolic on a number of levels. Jesus was clothed with the anointing Spirit (the same Spirit which now anoints the church which is His body) represented by the seamless tunic (the church too is seamless on account of the unity of the Spirit). This anointing—though not the coinherence of the Spirit—was stripped from Jesus as He approached the cross. The outer garments speak of His deportment in the world, His conduct and “walk” among men and women.

His Mother (19:25-27)

Standing by the cross were four women. Unlike the four soldiers, they do not prepare the sacrifice. Together with the disciple whom Jesus loved (the author of the gospel), however, they represent the friendly witnesses of Jesus’ dying and death. Like with the garments of Jesus, there is the four and the one. The women, while four, are united in that three of the four are named Mary. This is also reflected in the four stories—the wedding of Cana, the Samaritan woman, the anointing of Jesus and Mary at the tomb—Mary is the name of the woman in the first, third and fourth stories. The second woman—in 19:25 and in John 4—is unnamed. The name Mary refers to the bitterness of suffering (Ruth 1:20). I think John mentions another anonymous woman in chapter 8, an adulteress, and in 18:16-17. The bride in 3:29 and the mother in 16:21 are also significant. The story of Lazarus is about Mary and Martha, making the proportion of the gospel that concerns women in particular rather high.

That women (apart from the beloved disciple) are the ones most faithful to Jesus and who seem in most sympathy with Him is interesting. Not only is it interesting from a social point of view—the status of women was elevated by the Gospel, whether married women, widows or those who chose celibacy (the de-married and “virgins,” women who chose not to be under the “rule” of their father or a husband). It is also interesting from a symbolic point of view. They represent the feminine in contrast to the masculine, the internal versus the external, and the communal versus the agential. They thus embody the corporate people of God, especially from the point of view of their interior life. They also represent that emotional affection and attachment to Jesus which Jesus seems to encourage and indeed desire and appreciate so much.

This is not to pit one against the other, as if the feminine were superior to the masculine (or vice versa). The characteristics or tendencies that are represented are embodied in everyone and men and women indeed need to cultivate both. Nevertheless, in this context, the attention paid to the feminine should not be overlooked.

The mention of the four women is connected to Jesus’ exchange with His mother and the beloved disciple in verses 26-27. There Jesus addresses His mother as “Woman,” as He did in Cana in 2:4, recalling perhaps Eve who was called the “mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20). The Protestant reader of the Gospel according to John should not minimize the mother of Jesus here or in Cana. For like the seamless tunic, as the actual mother of Jesus she represents both Israel and the church in a real way. Aside from her obvious role as the Temple of the Son of God—and more than the Temple for the divine humanity of the Son of God drew entirely from her humanity for its substance—in the Gospel according to Luke she represents the faithful remnant of Israel and epitomizes the history of God’s work in Israel. In John she represents the church, and the Holy Spirit that makes the church the bride of Christ. In representing the Holy Spirit, the feminine principle of the Godhead, she also represents the Wisdom of God, the divine Immanence in the creation, the face of the creation in which God sees His own reflection, that which fills the form of the Logos and together with the Logos brings forth life.

And yet, Mary is only a woman, a woman the suffering of whose Son caused a sword to pierce through her own soul (Luke 2:35). It is in seeing these two things together that gives us access to the reality of the divine in the humble things of daily life, to the mystery that is in the life of the church. Why after all should angels be interested in us, if they are? They were interested in Mary when outwardly there was nothing of significance that warranted humanity’s attention.

“Jesus, seeing His mother and the disciple whom He loved standing by, said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son.’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother.’” By these words, John was made the son of Mary and Mary became his mother. What are we to make of this? In the context of the Gospel according to John, when the Holy Spirit is breathed into the disciples on the evening of the resurrection, Jesus Himself came to dwell in them, and they in Him. As He dwells completely in the Holy Spirit, even in all of His humanity and human history of death and resurrection, so through the Holy Spirit does He come to dwell in His entirely in us— divinity and humanity, in His human body, soul and spirit, with all His history. He dwells in us to such an extent that His mother becomes our mother, and we become her sons. The disciple John represents all believers in this respect, and in this respect, Mary represents both Israel (Luke) and the church (see John 16:21). In Jesus, with Jesus in us, we—the church—are related to Israel as He Himself through Mary is. We are thus heirs of the promises, even though we be Gentiles (though the fulfillment of those promises will differ for the Jews and for the church). But the church also gives us birth (Galatians 4:19 and 4:26-28), the (feminine) grace of God giving life to the (masculine) seed of the Word.

John goes on to say that “from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” John, the beloved disciple, not the apostle, the brother of James and son of Zebedee, was probably a resident of Jerusalem and perhaps even hosted the Last Supper. He took Mary, who was probably a widow, into his own home. Jesus was obviously very close to this disciple.

On a symbolic level, John speaks of “that hour” which suggests the hour of the cross. Our union with Jesus begins from that hour, which is also the hour of His glorification. The hour speaks of the whole ordeal of death and resurrection.

The disciple taking the “woman” into his home seems to echo Wisdom 8:9 and after, where Solomon takes Lady Wisdom into his home to share his life, where he can then “resides in kinship with Wisdom.” He says, “I could never possess Wisdom unless God gave her to me,” which also echoes our text. While the divine Wisdom is immanent in the creation itself to which the divine Word has given form, in the church the both the Word and Wisdom of God become incarnate in a way that is different than the former immanence. For apart from the incarnation of the Son of God (whose incarnation embodied the Father and the Son), the creation was not itself divine. But after the resurrection, the divinization of the creation began, beginning with the body of Jesus, the Firstborn of all creation. That process continues in the church.

While the body of Jesus is divine because it is the body of the divine hypostasis, its essence is still human. The divine hypostasis has two natures, one natural (the divine) and one assumed (the human). Yet because the hypostasis is one, the divine nature becomes incarnate and the human nature is divinized (though emptied until the cross). Likewise, when we partake in the glory of the Son of God through the Holy Spirit, our body remains human because that is its essence but we, in our human hypostasis begin to partake of another essence, that of the divine, so that our human nature is—like Christ’s own—divinized.

Nevertheless, such can only happen because our human nature has passed through the judgment of death in the death of the cross.

Mary and John were both real people, suffering and struggling in the midst of the divine mysteries in which they were involved. What is amazing is that this recounting in the Gospel according to John—when we look beneath the surface—invites us into the same involvement. Our own lives become redolent with divine meaning of which we cannot begin to grasp.

Interrupted

Some of the points I have brought out here I have gained from reading Bruno Barnhart’s The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center (New York: Paulist Press, 1993).

John’s account of the crucifixion is for the most part without parallel in Matthew, Luke and Mark. He does not speak of the miracle of the darkness and does not divide the time at noon. I have attempted to honor John’s gospel by following his own story.  

We stop at this point to pick up again next week. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is a whole and we need to keep that in mind. Richard Bauckham brings out an interesting fact. The name Jesus written in Hebrew and the words “Lamb of God” in Hebrew both have the same numerical value: 391. The words of Exodus 12:46 refer to the Passover lamb and they are quoted in John 19:36. The number of words between the first reference to Jesus in the narration of the crucifixion and the words quoted in 19:36, connecting the name of Jesus to the Passover lamb, is 391 (page 276 of Richard Bauckham’s The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple: Narrative, History, and Theology in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009). This is obviously not magic, and not likely a fortuitous accident, so it was probably a deliberate construction on the part of John. It is a further clue to the integrity and wholeness of our text and the meaning for which we should look in it.

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