Saturday, March 17, 2018
Salvation in Focus-John 19:17-30
One of the techniques that makes a good motion picture is the use of multiple camera angles/positions to convey different emotions or call a viewer's attention to different aspects of a scene. For instance, a wide-angle shot might be used to help an audience take in a landscape or a complicated battle scene and as much information as possible. A close-up shot does the opposite to draw attention to a single movement, prop, person, or feature. These and other perspectives help immerse viewers into what is happening to gain a better understanding of what is taking place and fully appreciate its meaning.
Capable authors are also able to provide similar perspectives of different scenes that they describe/report—even in the Bible and especially in its most important episodes. One such episode is the Passion of Jesus Christ. How is anyone supposed to adequately capture such an integral event? Thankfully, inspired by the Holy Spirit, John allows us to view the scene from all angles in the account he offers in John 19:17-30.
After observing these different perspectives of the crucifixion spectacle, we will gain a more complete understanding of to what lengths Jesus went to finish the work for which he was sent—something most completely informed by sophisticated literary camerawork that is found in this passage.
John opens the scene with a wide-angle shot. This perspective allows for a bird’s eye view of the location, the crowd surrounding Jesus, and a clear shot of the inscription fixed to the top of the beams. By this time, Jesus would have received the verberatio (the most severe of the beatings administered under Roman law). From this perspective, one can see Jesus, having been stripped naked and having received a series of whips with a gruesome instrument of torture, “bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha” (19:17). Even the verbs used in this description draw attention to the heaviness of the cross Jesus carried. According to tradition, the condemned man would carry his cross to the site of crucifixion where a small foundation would have already been staked into the ground.
This particular site was “out” of the city as Jewish custom prescribed and was aptly named “the Skull” (Latin equivalent is Calvary) for its ominous and macabre features that resembled a human head. Perhaps this was a familiar spot for these kinds of executions, familiar even to Jesus throughout His life and ministry.
It was at this spot that “they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between…” (19:18). In ancient times, crucifixion was synonymous with horror and shame, a death inflicted on slaves, bandits, prisoners of war, and revolutionaries. Josephus even called it “the most pitiable of deaths.” Cicero described it as “that cruel and disgusting penalty” as victims were made a public spectacle, often being affixed to these cross beams in unusual configurations until vultures would devour the corpse. So gross was this specific program of execution that it was prohibited for a Roman Citizen unless the emperor Himself sanctioned it.
This was what Jesus was willing to go through for sinners everywhere. Once, the long journey to Golgotha was complete, Jesus would have lied on His back and had His arms and legs outstretched and nailed to the beams. This apparatus of torture was then raised. Once in the air, the victim could hang in the hot sun for hours, even days. To breath, the condemned would have to push with the legs and pull with the arms to keep air flowing into the chest cavity. This would incite agonizing muscle spasms. However, this painful pressure kept the victim from asphyxiation (the inevitable cause of death).
From above the cross you will also notice that Jesus is not alone. He is joined by two other criminals, fulfilling the prophecy that “he was numbered with the transgressors” and treated as any guilty criminal (although totally innocent) (Isa. 52:12).
Also from above the cross one is able to clearly read the label that Pilate attached on the top of this crude instrument, “Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, ‘Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews” (19:19). This notice served to indicate that Jesus was ultimately condemned for the charge of treason (claiming to be a king—i.e. the first charge brought against Him). However, this is not the only message Pilate sent with this inscription. In fact, this inscription, is one last jab at the Jews that pressured Pilate’s hand—a jab written in such a way that no matter who you were, you could understand it.
“Therefore many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and in Greek. So the Chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, ‘Do not write, ‘the King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am king of the Jews’…” (19:20-21). The Jews did not want to claim Jesus as King. In fact, they even denied God and claimed allegiance to Caesar to avoid this (see verse 15)!
However, the outrage of the Jews meant very little to Pilate. With newfound resolve, Pilate determines to keep the inscription as is to humiliate those who humiliated him earlier (see 19:1-15). He says, “what I have written I have written” (19:22). In Pilate’s mind, if the Jews did have their own king, it would be the kind of king seen here, a king that He believed was easily tortured and killed. Once again, this is an example of Pilate speaking well above what he knew, for Jesus was and is indeed the King of the Jews, even of the world!
It is not a pretty picture from above the cross. However, things don’t look much better from beneath the cross in verses 23-25a.
The scene shifts and we are taken beneath the cross and are shown, as though through a hand-held camera, what is taking place around its base. From beneath the cross the scene is very different, “the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, a part to every soldier and also the tunic;…” (19:23a). It was common practice for executioners to divvy-out the clothes and personal belongings of the condemned. Each of the four executioners received a piece of Jesus’ property (including perhaps a belt, sandals, head-covering, and outer garment).
However, when it came time to decide who received the tunic (the undergarment), things became more complicated, “now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece. So they said to one another, ‘Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be’…” (19:23b-24). Not wanting to ruin the integrity of a perfectly good tunic (which was one large and intricately woven piece of cloth), the soldiers gamble for it. After all, ripping a perfectly adequate tunic into several pieces would have been barbaric!
However, another more important reason for gambling away the tunic was “to fulfill the Scripture: ‘They divided My outer garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.’…”(19:24-25a). This quotation comes from one of David’s prophetic Psalms (Psalm 22:18) in which the author is afflicted by both physical distress and the mockery of his opponents. Apparently, David uses the symbolism of an execution scene in which the executioners gamble for personal belongings to add emphasis to the degree of despair and abandonment that was felt by him. This is not lost on Jesus’ present predicament.
From above you see the horror of torture and mockery. From below you see the shame of indifference. However, our third perspective pans beside the cross where something very different is happening.
In contrast to those who are indifferent to the man hanging 7ft. above them are those who loved Jesus, “but standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene…” (19:25b). This proves the theory of many historical scholars who say that loved ones were allowed for a period to come close enough to the place of execution to speak with the condemned. This small bunch is an unfortunate representation of followers compared to the thousands of people who cheered for Him upon His entrance into Jerusalem a week earlier. It is also a pitiful showing of support when one considers that twelve men had served alongside Him for three years! In Jesus’ darkest moment, He was largely abandoned. However, this does not keep Jesus from looking out for others.
When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, ‘Woman, Behold your Son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ from that hour the disciple took her into his own household…” (19:26-27). This kind gesture is the one shred of humanity we are given in this description of Calvary. Jesus’ mother, most likely widowed and in her fifties, was at this point totally dependent on Jesus for her livelihood. Therefore, to look out for her beyond His death, Jesus bestows her to John (the disciple whom He loved) so that she might continue to be taken care of.
In this small moment, Jesus reveals His totally others-centered mentality. Even in a moment when He could have saved His breaths for Himself, He spends some of His final moments looking out for those who cannot look out for themselves. This is grace under pressure and it is a moment capture beside the cross. However, this is not the last perspective given of the cross in this passage.
Close Up and Push-19:28-30
The final perspective the reader witnesses is a close up on Jesus Himself in verses 28-30. Once zoomed in we witness “Jesus, knowing that all things had already been accomplished to fulfill the Scripture,” say, “‘I am thirsty.’ A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge fill of sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth…” (19:29). John lets us know that at this point the “to-do list” has been completed. However, this was no ordinary to-do list. The items on this list included things like: be betrayed by one of your own, hand yourself over to the authorities, be tried in a circus court, be interrogated by an unbeliever, be condemned to die, be beaten within an inch of your life, carry a cross beam outside of town, lay down to have your hands and feet nailed, be raised up, hand over your clothes to be gambled away, take on the sin of the world! All this Jesus accomplished and more to fulfill all that the prophets said about the Messiah. Following this revelation, sour wine is offered to the God-man.
This sour wine, or vinegar as it is called in other translations, was a cheap drink used by soldiers to quench their thirst. It differs from the “wine mixed with myrrh” Jesus refused on the way to the cross (see Mark 15:23). The “wine mixed with Myrrh” was a sedative while the vinegar Jesus received prolonged life and hydrated (for lack of a better analogy, think of an electrolyte-rich drink like Gatorade). Jesus was not about speeding up His death or making it easier for Himself. He wanted to remain alive until the job was done.
By 19:30, the job was done. “Therefore, when Jesus had received the sour wine, He said, ‘It is finished!’ and He bowed His head and gave up His spirit” (19:30). Existing as one word in the original language (tetelestai), this word isno cry of defeat; nor is it merely an announcement of imminent death. The verb describes carrying out a task and fulfilling one’s obligations. Here, Jesus had accomplished atonement for sin, having taken on the sin of the world and the punishment along with it. Here, Jesus had accomplished His God given mission to redeem the world, standing in the place of sinners in order to bring them to God in right relationship. Here, Jesus glorified God, answering the call upon Him and executing His ministry without fail. Here, Jesus demonstrated the greatest love of all, laying down His life for others. Here Jesus completed the job He came to do. “It is finished”! And with this pronouncement Jesus “gave up His spirit.”
This final act prior to His death settles once and for all who is responsible for Jesus’ fate. Though anti-Semites want to slap blame on the Jews for handing Him over and others want to find Pilate and the Roman government guilty for actually performing the execution, this verse makes it abundantly clear. No one took Jesus’ life. He, because of His own authority, gave it up of His own accord (see John 10:17-18) in this final act of obedience (see John 8:29; 14:31).
It is still finished today! This is the good news—that because Jesus went through the horrors we saw in these four perspectives of the cross, we do not have to. This is the good news—that because sin has already been punished through Jesus, we can apprehend the grace of God and not His wrath demonstrated in this passage. This is the good news—that because Jesus stood in our place, we can stand in right relationship with God. This is the good news—that because Jesus was faithful to the end, we through faith can find no end. Because Jesus said “it is finished” we can say “we are not finished” in this world in which we live. This is the truth that these perspectives, angles, descriptions all work together to communicate to us today.
Do you know that “it is finished”? Have you apprehended in faith all that is to be gained because of what Jesus accomplished on Golgotha 200 years ago?
Poem by S.W. Gandy:
He hell in hell laid low;
Made sin, he sin o’erthrew
Bowed to the grace, destroyed it so,
And death, by dying, slew.
Have you forgotten, O’ Christian that “it is finished”? Do you find yourself doubting that you are really saved, that you have to add something to what Jesus has accomplished, or believe you are still somehow guilty and at risk of receiving punishment for your iniquities.
The beauty about Jesus’ terse statement is that it portrays His death as a once-for-all kind of event. Christ died once, for all sin. His completed act is as present today as it was when John wrote these incredible words! Let them reverberate in your mind and resonate in your heart. It is finished, and because it is finished, you, believer, are not! Praise God!