The Crucifixion (John 19:16b-42)

Our text for last Sunday ended with ominous words: “Then [Pilate] handed him over to them to be crucified.” With any other person in that time and circumstance, those would have been the climactic words of failure, elimination, and despair. The Gospel of John does not hear them that way of Jesus.

John is about to tell the crucifixion story as he had participated in it. He was, insofar as we can be sure, the only one of the apostles present as the Romans put the Son of Man to death.

Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home (19:25b-27).
Notwithstanding the possibility that Jesus’ aunt (i.e., “his mother’s sister”) may well be the woman Matthew identifies as “the mother of the sons of Zebedee” (Matt. 27:56) – thus making our writer John a cousin to Jesus – family is redefined for us in this scene. Although Jesus had sisters and brothers in the flesh, his final wish for his mother as expressed here was that she henceforth should be under the protection and care of “the disciple whom he loved” (i.e., John). Spiritual family is often closer and more important than genetic family. People who share faith in Jesus and a conviction about how life priorities are to be judged play a more significant role in many a person’s life than blood-kin who are unbelievers or whose take on life runs counter to Christian discipleship.

John is standing with Mary and her friends at the crucifixion site. He is trying to sort out his own issues about all that is going on. At the same time, he is also trying to keep the women from collapsing from their grief or running afoul of the gruff-looking execution squad in charge of the scene. He does not make us privy to all that was running through his head that day. Some sixty years later, however, he writes of it in terms of a clear triumph in the midst of what looked to all the word that day to be an utter tragedy.

“His Hour” Had Come

From the early pages of this Gospel, we are given to understand that its events are proceeding at a pace and in the manner destined to achieve some divinely ordained goal. As early as the beginning of his signs at the wedding in Cana, Jesus was saying, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4b; cf. 7:6, 30; 8:20). At this point, all of John’s readers have figured out what that term means. Everything about the presence of the Word in flesh was preamble to his death and resurrection.

Ironically, the words at the Cana wedding were spoken to his mother; now she is with him in his hour of glorification. Jesus addresses her here in exactly the same way he did that day; to address her with the word “Woman” was neither disrespectful nor impolite in either setting but fully deferential to this person he loved.

If we pause a moment to look back to John 2, we see now what likely was not clear at first reading. The guest is really host at the marriage feast – that foreshadows his own with his bride, the church. That the wine has run out makes us aware of the emptiness of the religious forms so dominant when Jesus came on the scene (cf. Mark 2:22). The Messiah had come to bring fresh wine, to package it in new wineskins, and to declare an abundance that would prove inexhaustible to those who would come to his table.

In these unfolding events of his hour of glorification, Jesus’ prayer would be answered:

Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So no, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed (John 17:1-5).
Do you see the reference to “finishing (Gk, teleiosas, from teleioo = bring to fulfillment, reach the goal) the work” here? We certainly should not miss this claim in today’s text:

After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (19:28-30).
The word “finished” in verses 28 and 30 is from a related word (Gk, tetelestai, from teleo = bring to an end, complete) that points to something very significant. The event that brought Jesus’ life to an end is the same one that brought it to its goal. His death was not a defeat. Through John’s reflective eyes, it was what brought everything about Jesus’ ministry to fulfillment.[1]

Missing the Point

The temptation for preachers in dealing with a crucifixion text from any of the Gospels is to explore the horrible physical events associated with this form of death. Thus the sermons that have been preached to explore the medical details of how one died on a cross. Crucifixion did not affect a vital organ, and so a person typically did not die quickly. He suffered excruciating physical pain over what must have seemed interminable hours – until death from blood loss, dehydration, and suffocation put an end to it.

Please don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I do not minimize his physical pain or suffering for a moment. But physical suffering does not set him apart. To the contrary, one could argue that it is what united him more deeply with the human experience of God’s people. Indeed, the writer of Hebrews 2:14 argues that very point.

What sets Jesus apart is the spiritual agony he endured in this setting. As his body was undergoing death (i.e., separation of spirit from body), so was his soul experiencing death (i.e., separation from the Father). It was his voluntary act of substituting himself for us to “taste of hell” in that separation that secures our redemption. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

“It Is Finished!”

As one writer has expressed it, John’s account of what happened that day is “a masterpiece of restraint.”

So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’ ” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,

“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
And that is what the soldiers did. . . . After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (19:16b-30).
The words could be spoken in a thousand settings and would have a different meaning in each one. A painter lays down his brush. A farmer with the planting done leaves the field. A woman in labor for hours sees her baby. A prisoner leaves jail after serving his sentence. A couple watches as their house burns to the ground. A father comforts his child while the final stitch is placed in his knee. The words may have been the same in each case, but how different the meaning!

Once and only once have those words been spoken with everyone involved and eternity in the balance. In the words of Marcus Dods from his Footsteps in the Path of Life:

The purpose of God in the history of man was accomplished when Jesus breathed his last upon the cross. The cry “It is finished” was not the mere gasp of a worn-out life; it was not the cry of satisfaction with which a career of pain and sorrow is terminated; it was the deliberate utterance of a clear consciousness on the part of God’s appointed Revealer that now all had been done that could be done to make God known to man and to identify him with men. God’s purpose had ever been one and indivisible – declared to men in various ways, a hint here, a broad light there, now by a gleam of insight in the mind of a prophet, now by a deed or heroism in king or leader, through rude contrivances and through the tenderest of human affections and the highest human thoughts. God had been making men ever more and more sensible that his one purpose was to come closer and closer into fellowship with him, and to draw them into a perfect harmony with him. Forgiveness and deliverance from sin were provided for them, knowledge of God’s law and will, thus they might learn to know and to serve him – all these were secured when Jesus cried, “It is finished.”[2]
I began this sermon with a comment to the effect that Pilate’s act of delivering someone over to be crucified typically would have been “the climactic words of failure, elimination, and despair” for that person. Not with Jesus! Even more than the Synoptic writers, John tells the story of the crucifixion not as failure but as identification, not as elimination but as revelation, and certainly not as despair but as hope for eternal life.

Go back again to an early section of this Gospel. “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up that whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). “Verse 14 says, in a reversal of the old gravitational principle, whatever goes down must come up. The Son of man descends from heaven. He must be raised aloft if anyone is to believe in him.”[3] It was by the cross and resurrection that he was lifted up. Without either, it could not be the case today that we have eternal life. Without either, God’s purpose for creatures in his own image and likeness would be un-finished.

It is finished! We know the identity of the one whom prophets of old had anticipated as the Servant-Redeemer of Yahweh. “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

It is finished! In his death, resurrection, and ascension, he has been made King of kings. Even though he surely meant it to mock the Jewish leaders who had forced his hand in putting Jesus to death, he would not change the title he had written over his head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” But the fact that his title was written in all the major languages of the Mediterranean (i.e., Greek, Latin, and Aramaic) prefigured his bringing in the “other sheep” who were not of the Jewish fold (cf. John 10:16).

It is finished! Even though Jesus and his disciples had celebrated Passover the night before and even though Passover lambs had been slain already, John clearly means for us to see this crucifixion scene as the ultimate Passover sacrifice. Although the legs of the two others put on crosses that day were broken to hasten their death before the Sabbath began, Jesus’ legs were not broken. No lamb could be offered to God as a sacrifice that had broken legs (19:31-33). We need nothing further as a sacrifice, for Jesus has died for us – the Lamb of God to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29).

“It is finished” is our signal that God has succeeded in accomplishing everything he designed to do in the life of his Son. In Jesus Christ God himself was at work demonstrating his love for us, revealing his will for our lives, and bringing about a reconciliation that needs no supplement. Jesus’ victory is the basis of our security. My confidence in God and the assurance of my salvation cannot be anchored in my religious performance. “It is finished.” What was needed to satisfy God ought to satisfy us as well. This is the good news of the gospel.[4]

This is an event of glory, splendor, and triumph. Jesus is the Victor – not a victim – in this scene. How else can you hear his “It is finished!” except as a victor’s cry?

This is not the moan of the defeated, nor the sigh of patient resignation. It is the triumphant recognition that He has fully accomplished the work that He came to do. Then He bowed His head, a detail mentioned only by John, and possibly the touch of an eyewitness. It is perhaps worth noting that the same expression is used of going to bed: “the Son of man hath now where to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58). There is the thought of a peaceful death, the death of One who trusts His Father.[5]
What a shame if that finished work of Christ is not allowed to achieve its redemptive goal with even one of us!

[1] The NRSV’s “fulfill” in 19:28 is from teleiothe (aor. pass. subj. teleioo) and points directly to the fulfillment of Scripture. It is through Jesus’ completion (teleo) of the work God gave him to do that both Scripture and his personal commission from God were fulfilled (teleioo). John is fond of playing with words, and this word-play is more profound at a theological than linguistic level.
[2] Quoted in Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck, A Guide to Prayer (Nashville: The Upper Room, 1983), pp. 145-146.
[3] Sloyan, Gerard, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), p. 46.
[4] Gary Burge, The NIV Application Commentary: John (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 2000), p. 546.
[5] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1971), p. 815.

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