Jesus' Last Words

John’s passion narrative presents 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 (John 18:1-19:42).

Psalm 23
"Psalm 23," John August Swanson. Used by permission from the artist. Image © by John August Swanson.  Artwork held in the Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

March 29, 2018

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Commentary on John 19:23-30

John’s passion narrative presents 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 (John 18:1-19:42).

To do this, John develops the drama 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 thus presents Jesus’ passion as a five-act play.

Act Four sends both Jesus and audiences to the cross. Act Three confirmed Jesus to be the gift of truth given by God to the world who resolutely sacrifices himself to fulfill his mission. Act Four presents the completion of that mission which results from the revelation of truth and Pilate’s inability to stand for it. Jesus’ crucifixion is presented in seven scenes, framed by introductory verses of character and setting (John 19:16b-17) and concluding verses of reflection upon the action (19:35-37). The scenes narrate the inscription (verses 18-22), the seamless tunic (verses 23-24), the interaction between Jesus, his mother, and the Beloved Disciple (verses 25-27), the death of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit (verses 28-30), and the piercing of Jesus’ side (verses 31-34).

Today’s passage, John 19:23-30, makes up the three central scenes. Jesus was crucified at Golgotha and Pilate declared his final, ironic, proclamation of Jesus as King in the inscription on the sign over his head (19:22; see 18:39; 19:14, 15). A brief second scene of scripture fulfillment follows as the soldiers unwittingly take part in God’s plan by not dividing Jesus’ tunic.

In a moment of profound dramatic irony, the third scene shows Jesus’ last breaths on the cross establishing the church, as symbolized by that garment that cannot be torn apart. Jesus is not alone with his enemies, but is surrounded by some of his own, including his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary Magdalene, and the disciple he loved. Jesus’ mother and the Beloved Disciple come together “because of that hour” (verse 27). Thus, standing at the center of this Act, the first to believe (Jesus’ mother at the wedding in Cana; John 2:1-12) and the beloved model disciple are given to each other by Jesus to establish a new community in faith and love. Even on the cross, Jesus’ primary concern is for his own as he forms a family to nurture the children of God.

The earthly life and ministry of Jesus the Son of Man ends in the fourth scene when he declares, “it is finished” — the affirmation that all has been brought to completion and perfection. The fulfillment language of the passion narrative reaches its peak here. Only after the acknowledgment of his glorification and completion of his mission, can he go. Jesus bowed his head and “handed over the spirit” (verse 30).

As the fifth scene commences, Jesus’ side is pierced to confirm his death on the Day of Preparation, the day of the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb (verses 31-34; see John 19:14), and a flow of mingled blood and water is witnessed from his side. Christian reflection upon this scene has long seen the symbolic “gifts” that Jesus hands over to the nascent church in his death. The concluding remarks of this fourth Act indicate that the new community of the children of God (see John 1:12) begins its own mission of faith and witness through the testimony of the Beloved Disciple who is joined in a new community with the mother of Jesus (19:35).

In John’s Gospel, God exalts Jesus through his crucifixion. Remember, John teaches that God so loved the world that he handed over his only Son (3:16). This handing over, in all its irony of apparent scandal, is an incredible act of love. Further articulation of this self-gift in love was presented in the last discourse as Jesus the Son given to the world loves his own to the end (John 13:1). The glory of God and God’s glorification of Jesus lies in this gift of the Son that begins with the incarnation (John 1:1-18), but is not complete until he is lifted up on the cross and hands over his spirit, “It is finished” (John 19:30).

Although Jesus is fully in control of his destiny throughout the passion account, the reality that he is the Christ and Son of God by being the Son of Man who is lifted up on a cross to die for others is affirmed. The culminating “hour” of Jesus’ mission shows Jesus going forward to his paradoxical destiny of glorification through crucifixion caring for the disciples God has given him. He ensures their safety before speaking openly about his identity in front of both the Jewish and Roman authorities. He stands accused of insurrection, of making himself a king. Indeed he is, but Jesus is not a political Messiah who revels in victory. Rather, 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 loss (John 1:12-18; 3:16-17; 18:33-38; 19:30).

This new covenantal relationship is built on faith — the faith of Jesus the Christ who, as the Good Shepherd (10:1-21), lays down his life for his own, and the faith of human beings who go forth in this world in courage by living a life formed by that same sacrificial service. That loss, however, is not the end of the story. God’s plan continues to defy human expectations — for there is always the hope of the empty tomb.


Holy God,

When facing death, Jesus thought of his mother, Mary, and commended her to the disciple whom he loved. Inspire us by this act of care within community, so we can live with one another in holy love. Amen.


Go to dark Gethsemane   ELW 347, H82 171, UMH 290, NCH 219
Amazing grace   ELW 779, H82 671, UMH 378, NCH 547, 548


Love bade me welcome, David Hurd