John 18-19 - The road of suffering

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

Four Passions

Now we shall move on to discuss the Passion as it is presented by the fourth evangelist. A detailed comparison with the three other Gospel accounts of the Passion shows that the crux of the Passion is very similar in all four. Even so, they all have their own emphases and details.

Mark, the writer of the oldest Gospel, has laid the foundation on his own sources and premises. None of his successors have mechanically copied the work of their predecessor; instead, they all have added details and emphases of their own. This goes to show that they have all been in contact with real and solid traditional knowledge of the events.

As mentioned before, John knew his predecessors, at least Mark. John did not think that it was his duty to repeat in detail what the others had recounted. He leaves out some surprisingly important sequences. Among these are, in addition to the institution of the Holy Communion mentioned earlier, the prayer battle in Gethsemane and the council meeting. He has placed all these three significant events elsewhere in his Gospel, as brief references.

He is now telling us what he deems relevant. It will include new, detailed information from important sources. We can see the first of these facts even in the scene in which Jesus was arrested. Only John tells us that the disciple who drew his sword was Peter and that the name of the wounded servant was Malchus.

It is the greatness of Jesus that highlights the Passion in the Gospel of John. Earlier, he wrote about Jesus’s humanity – his sorrow and his distress. Now the Son of God is going to his death unshaken. The captors draw back and fall down. Pilate is afraid, but the Son of Man knows in advance every step of his Passion.

Jesus is arrested 18:1-14

John does not tell us about the prayer battle in Gethsemane, nor does he even mention the name of the garden. Earlier in John’s Gospel, there is a passage in which Jesus is fighting a battle similar to those described in the Synoptics (John 12:23-33). In John, the important word that is there from the Synoptics is this: the Father gave to the Son the cup that he would drink. The cup that Jesus petitions to be removed from him (Mark. 14:36) reminds us of the passage in the Book of Jeremiah, “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it.” It was Jesus’s mission to drink the cup of God’s wrath for the sins of the whole world and, in doing so, to take away its sin.

Everyone who has been about outside at night will understand Judas’s relevance. Even with the light of the Passover full moon, it would be hard to spot the right man from among a dozen of men on the run. A failed attempt might have caused an upheaval in the religiously volatile Jerusalem in the morning. Peter’s sword fighting act may also have been an attempt to get a quick escape amid all the commotion. Jesus expressly will not use this opportunity; he seeks to fulfil the task the Father has given him.

Jesus does not try to avoid his captors but faces them bravely. His answer to their question is the equivocal, “I am he”, characteristic of this Gospel. The issue at stake now is the revelation of God, and thus the captors move backwards, terrified, and barely have the courage to carry out their task.

John is very well aware of the who-is-who among the priests during the time of Jesus’s death. Annas had been the high priest (AD 6-15), but the Romans had arranged him to be removed from office. Now several of his relatives held the office. When the people wanted to take Jesus to the actual decision-maker, they went first to Annas. Only after that did they go to Caiaphas, who was in office in AD 18-37.

Peter denies Jesus 18:15-18

John omits the escape of the disciples, and the only reason for this may be the fact that he expected his readers to know it. The mysterious “other disciple”, who is probably the same as “the disciple whom Jesus loved”, enters, both in a concrete as well as a figurative sense, through doors which do not open to Peter. The Passion that is now being unfolded is based on an extremely well informed bearer of tradition; the acquaintance of the high priest knows much about what took place behind the scenes, and the one who had dinner next to Jesus has seen everything up close.

The nights are cold in the Judean mountains in April. Seldom has a charcoal fire given so little warmth and refuge as now for Peter who denied his faith even at the gate when the gatekeeper spoke to him.

"His own people did not receive him..." 18:19-24

From what we have read so far in the Gospel, we have already learnt that the people were blind to the light God had sent to the world. This can be seen in the short account that John gives in place of the Synoptic stories describing the council meeting. Annas, representing the Chosen People, is blind to the truth and incapable of making the right judgement. As a consequence, Jesus is beaten, and he is taken bound to Caiaphas. We get the impression from John’s story that Jesus was kept imprisoned there for the rest of the night.

John’ account is compatible with the stories in the Synoptics, above all with Luke’s story. When Jesus or his apostles met some Pharisees, there were often heated discussions. Still, the disputes showed that at least there existed some lines of communication between them. The situation is completely different with the Sadducees, who represent the temple priesthood. Apparently, it would have been quite out of the question for a Sadducee to invite Jesus to have dinner with him in his house, like Pharisee Simon did (Luke 7:36-50). When the Sadducees or the high priests turned up, they would, at best, show their contempt (Mark 12:18-27). It is they who are implicated in the shedding of both Jesus’s and his disciples’ blood.

Peter denies Jesus again 18:25-27

At the door, Peter had got rid of the servant woman by a short remark. A much more awkward situation arises by the charcoal fire, amid the men standing by. The situation is getting dangerous, when a relative of the previously wounded Malchus recognizes Peter. Peter denies Jesus, and a rooster crows, but John does not say that Peter would have burst into tears.

The issue of his denial is revisited in the last chapter of John’s Gospel and, if possible, in an even more touching way.

Pilate questions Jesus 18:28-38

The Romans had granted the Jews an extensive autonomy but kept the most important decisions for themselves. Among these was also the right to condemn a person to death. For this reason, Jesus had to be delivered over to the Roman governor for judgement.

Pontius Pilate held office in AD 26-36. What was apparently behind his appointment was the ruthlessly anti-Semitic policy pursued by the praetorian prefect Sejanus. The contemporary Jewish sources describe Pilate as a heavy-handed official who often deliberately offended the Jews. In the end, his butchery went so far that his nearest superior, the Syrian legate Vitellius, removed him from office and sent him to Rome to answer for his acts. Apparently, he committed suicide there in the year 39. During the events of the Passion, Pilate was in a precarious situation because of some mistakes he had made, and it is possible that his supporter, Sejanus, had already been executed (in AD 31). The Jews were experts in utilizing the little political leeway they still had under the Roman power. These facts will help us understand, why the Gospels describe the Roman governor as being hesitant; he could not afford any new mistakes.

The strategy that the Jews used was explicit and very understandable historically. The Romans were not interested in condemning anyone to death for not observing the Sabbath. In order to get rid of Jesus, he had to be exposed as someone trying to become king. So, standing in the palace courtyard – apparently it was the palace of Herod – there were two groups of people who despised each other deeply. The Jews needed Pilate but did not want to enter the building. “The houses of the Gentiles are unclean”, was the common Jewish teaching. There might be something in them (especially pictures of false gods) that would defile a Jew and require maybe a seven-day isolation before the Jew was clean again. Nobody wanted that before the Passover. So the representatives of God’s people, concerned about their cleanness, had to wait outside for Pilate in order to have the Son of God condemned to death – the situation is horrendous, and no doubt John himself has noticed it, too.

Pilate is not willing to deal with the issue. When he finally sees to it, his demeanour is full of contempt for the Jews. The issue at stake is Jesus’s kingship. Jesus does not give a plain answer to Pilate, neither in the Synoptics (see Mark 15:2) nor in the Gospel of John. The words are deliberately equivocal, particularly in John’s Gospel: Jesus is not an earthly king but, still, he is the Christ, King, sent to the world by God. He did not come to seek power but to bring truth to the world. Although a governor and a judge, Pilate has to face the same question of life and death as everyone else. Life and death, darkness and light, blindness or openness to God’s truth. He asks, “Truth – what is it?” Pilate was not one of those who “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God”.

Pilate’s words concerning truth are surprisingly current. During that time, there were philosophical doctrines which maintained that there are no definite answers in the life of a human being. The world was viewed with scepticism, and the existence of a timeless truth binding everyone was denied (particularly by the sceptics).

The biggest doctrinal challenge Christianity faces in our time is this: the foundation of Christianity is that God and his Gospel is the final and absolute truth, but the western thinking of today relativizes all these truths – there is an abundance of truths, held by various groups. Thus we are gradually formulating a totally new kind of Christianity, which is and is not true, and in which everyone forms his own God and his own way of life, and in which beautiful candlelight and emotional experiences take the place of doctrinal matters. This state of affairs is not a threat to all individual branches of the Christian faith but to its very root. But who would understand this and sound the alarm that God’s Word who became flesh is the Truth above all truths.

Jesus is sentenced to death 18:38-19:16

The Passover feast was very important to the Jews, and the core of it was the Passover meal. It was a good work to invite to the Passover dinner someone who otherwise would not have had a chance to eat it. Among those were the prisoners. Apart from the Gospels, there is no knowledge of any actual cases of prisoners having been pardoned at Passover. Even so, this segment of the Passion is very well compatible with other known segments.

Referring to Barabbas, John uses the word ‘robber’, Mark tells us that he had committed murder in the insurrection (Mark 15:7). These pieces of information are mutually compatible: a man who, from the Jewish point of view, was a freedom fighter, was a mere terrorist and a robber in the eyes of the Romans. John omits the fact that Barabbas was really released instead of Jesus. Pilate chooses his own way in trying to solve the situation. The harsh scourging of Jesus goes beyond our understanding. It is undoubtedly as a result of this whipping that Jesus died on the cross in just a few hours. Loss of blood after the beatings and the heat at noon caused Jesus to perish quickly.

The scourging was accompanied by the soldiers’ resentful mocking. An expensive and royal purple robe is brought forth. A crown of thorns is twisted together. The soldiers who served in Palestine were mainly enlisted in Syria, and they were sure to be enemies of the Jews. When these people now get hold of the king of the Jews, their sadistic gloating brings out the worst in the human nature.

John’s account gives us the impression that Pilate used the scourging and mockery as a means of trying to release Jesus. Now he brings Jesus for all to see. Surely this man can no longer be of danger to anyone? The tortured King is confronted by the rage of his own people, and it is only now that Pilate hears the real accusation: this man has made himself the Son of God. Frightened, he asks Jesus what his true origin is but is left without an answer. Nothing will help Pilate anymore; he had let himself be driven into a too difficult situation. At this stage of his career in public office, he could no longer afford any complaints that he had released a man who was trying to become king. The Jews deny their Messiah and, instead of Jesus, choose the emperor whom they hate. So it is that the greatest miscarriage of justice in history takes place.

According to Mark (15:25), Jesus was crucified at the third hour or, as we would say, at about 9 a.m. According to John, it was the sixth hour (about noon). The small discrepancy between the evangelists just shows that every writer of the Passion had their own sources and did not have to content themselves with mechanically repeating their predecessors.

Jesus is crucified 19:16-27

In a few simple sentences John tells about Jesus’s path to Golgotha and about his crucifixion. In a vile retaliation against the Jewish leaders whom he despised, Pilate has an inscription made on the cross. “The King of the Jews” – this is the cause for the death sentence. To all passers-by it was a reminder of who were the real rulers of the nation. The Jews would have preferred, “I am King of the Jews”. But Pilate wanted to make clear that what happened to the King of the Jews would happen to all Jewish kings.

At the cross, the powers of evil seem to run rampant. As the Son, nailed on the cross, will not be needing his garments anymore, they are divided by casting lots before his very eyes. And yet it is this offensive act, that reveals, that the events are going according to the grand plan of God. The words of Psalm 22:18 are now fulfilled, and that means that also the joyful latter words of the Psalm 22 are going to be fulfilled.

Standing by the cross is a witness, Jesus’s dearest disciple. Jesus entrusts his mother to his care. Was it because he was Jesus’s cousin? Indeed, Matthew (27:56) mentions that the mother of the sons of Zebedee was at the cross, and John mentions that the sister of Jesus’s mother was among the few women there (19:25). Whatever the case, the fourth Gospel is based on solid Christian tradition.

Jesus dies 19:28-37

John maintains his manner of writing until the end; he does not tell about the darkness, or about Jesus’s desperate cry, or about his agony in prayer. Still, Jesus is suffering as a real human being and not as an absent spiritual being, like some people taught even at John’s time. The One dying on the cross is the King, whose power has not been broken in the infernal torments. When the mission given by the Father is completed, Jesus gives his life.

Under the Law of Moses, anyone who had been hung on a tree had to be buried before the sunset, in order that the person, cursed by God, would not defile the holy land. As the Jews asked Pilate that the bodies might be taken down, it was not because of compassion for those suffering on the cross, but that they might celebrate the Passover undefiled. In this situation, the appalling crurifragium, the breaking of the legs, caused internal bleeding and a quick death.

Coming to Jesus, the experts only needed to glance at him on the cross to notice that there was no longer any need for the use their heavy sledgehammer. The King of the Jews was as dead as a human being could be. His death was secured by a precise spear stroke. Blood and water poured out of the pierced side. After decades of controversy, doctors have apparently reached some kind of agreement that this is possible, if the person died only a moment ago.

What does John mean, when he says that blood and water came out of Jesus’s side? There is no good explanation. Maybe he wanted to say that now rivers of living water flow out of him (7:38). Maybe he wants to refer to baptism with its element of water and to the Holy Communion which is related to blood. Maybe he is just telling about an extraordinary event that had a strong impression on the witness who was standing by the cross. This witness is the one who, in one way of another, is behind the Gospel of John.

Jesus gives his life but not as a victim of pointless violence. Also, at the moment of his death, something happens which shows that everything took place according to God’s plan. The spear piercing and the wounds from the nails fulfil Zechariah 12:10. Another quote from the Bible is related to a topic very important to John: Jesus is the Passover lamb instituted by God. Like the Jewish Passover (Exodus 12) once took the enslaved people from slavery to freedom, so also the Lamb of God, who is sacrificed for our sins, will take sinners from darkness to light.

Jesus is buried 19:38-42

All the Gospels mention that Joseph of Arimathea buried Jesus. John adds to his company a man who earlier dared to come to see Jesus only by night but who later, in his own way, had the courage to defend Jesus in the council meeting. They act in great haste. The Jews used to wash the dead body, but not one of the Gospel writers mentions any of this. Instead, the men had a huge amount of expensive ointment – 30 kilos. Jesus received a royal burial in no time at all.