Christian tradition has long identified Jesus’ willing acceptance of the mounting conspiracy against him as his “passion,” and John’s telling of these events spans John 18–19.
Further, Jesus’ suffering, even to the point of the sacrifice of his life, is foundational for understanding him as the Christ. And yet, in the Jewish tradition from which the Gospels arose, messiahs do not get crucified.
The expectations for a king like David who establishes a sovereign nation, or a prophet like Moses who brings about an eschatological in-breaking of God’s reign, do not allow for the scandal of capital execution as a criminal. Thus, the earliest Christians had to struggle with this fact both to make sense of their experience of Jesus, as well as to form their identity as a community of believers. The preservation and telling of this story must, therefore, have had its beginnings in the earliest development of the church. But if this is the story of a traditional messiah-king, it is the most stunning political failure in the history of the world. Something else must be going on.
Each evangelist gives his own theological perspective, but they present the same essential plotlines: an arrest, a Jewish trial process, a Roman trial, a crucifixion, and burial. Jesus is the promised heir of the Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7), but his messiahship is only fully realized also in terms of the Sinai covenant (Exodus 1-35). That covenant, put in place by God through Moses following the Israelite Exodus from Egypt, gave the Ten Commandments and the ensuing Torah as a gift that guides the people in right relationship with God and with one another.
The Torah also provided sacrifice as the means for atonement and reconciliation with God. The Passion Narratives present Jesus as the Son of God and Son of Man who is the Christ, not by coming down from the cross and living as an earthly king in splendor, but by remaining on the cross to become the one ultimate redeeming sacrifice that atones for all sin for all time.
Biblical scholars have long observed the characteristics of ancient Greco-Roman drama in the Gospel of John. The evangelist employs these techniques for several reasons, including the reality that his good news would most often be shared by oral story-telling. He sets the stage for storytellers who act out these verbal cues to facilitate the full impact of the message.
John 18-19 develops across five geographical locations: the garden across the Kidron valley (18:1-11); the house of Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest (18:12-27); the Roman praetorium (18:28-19:16a); Golgotha, the Place of the Skull (19:16b-37); and the new garden of Jesus’ burial (19:38-42). As Jesus moves to each new location, the narrator describes the place, as well as the characters and activity that will be involved there. John therefore presents his understanding of Jesus’ passion as a five-act play.
Act Four sends audiences directly to the cross with Jesus. This is a powerful component on the narrative level, with Jesus resolutely seeing his mission to its fulfillment. Likewise several disciples remain with Jesus, and audiences learn more about what it means to abide with Jesus. Act Three confirms Jesus to be the gift of truth given by God to the world who must sacrifice himself to fulfill his mission. Here, Act Four presents the completion of that mission through the revelation of truth and Pilate’s inability to stand on its behalf.
The crucifixion of Jesus is presented in seven scenes, framed by introductory verses of character and setting (John 19:16b-17) and concluding verses of reflection upon the consequences of the action (19:35-37). The scenes themselves narrate the inscription (verses 18-22), the seamless tunic (verses 23-24), Jesus’ interaction with his mother and the Beloved Disciple (verses 25-27), Jesus’ death and the gift of the Spirit (verses 28-30), and piercing Jesus’ side (verses 31-34).
Today’s passage, John 16b–22, consists of the introduction and first scene and proceeds directly from the decision that concludes the Roman trial. Unlike the Synoptic Gospels, which narrate Simon of Cyrene carrying the cross for the faltering Jesus (Mark 15:21; Matthew 27:33; Luke 23:26), John carefully asserts in the introduction that Jesus still has the wherewithal to carry the cross himself to Golgotha (19:17; see also Mark 15:22; Matthew 27:33). Little is said about this journey as the new location and the crucifixion itself is the focus.
The first scene indicates that, like the Synoptics, Jesus is crucified between two others. Nonetheless, he remains the focus and has no interaction with them. Nailing Jesus to the cross is not detailed, but Pilate’s inscription is. “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” is posted for all to see in the relevant languages for that part of the Empire. In protest, the Jewish leadership asks that Pilate qualify the title to indicate that kingship was a claim and not a reality, but Pilate is finished and declares that this writing will be his final, however ironic, proclamation of Jesus as King (John 19:22; see also 18:39; 19:14, 15).
In John’s Gospel, the cross is presented as Jesus’ most significant human experience (contrary to typical Christian understanding). God exalts Jesus in this “lifting up” on the cross. This same phenomenon of circumventing human expectation appears in the evangelist’s use of the term “glory” across the Gospel.
The glory of God, and the means by which Jesus is glorified (through his crucifixion), flow from the evangelist’s understanding of revelation. Remember, John teaches that God so loved the world that he handed over his only Son (John 3:16). This handing over, in all its irony of apparent scandal, is an incredible act of love. He is a covenantal Messiah whose kingdom is not of this earth, who is the gift of truth that fulfills the promises of God’s prior covenants and puts in place a new covenant open to all humankind by his very loss (John 1:12-18; 3:16-17; 18:33-38; 19:30).
God of honor and celebration,
Together we cry, “Hosanna!” to your son, who rode willingly and bravely into Jerusalem. Hear us as we celebrate your anointed one, Jesus Christ. Amen.
My song is love unknown ELW 343, H82 458, NCH 222 All glory, laud, and honor ELW 344, H82 154, 155, UMH 280, NCH 216, 217 At the name of Jesus ELW 416, H82 435, UMH 168
Hosanna to the Son of David, Luc Jakobs