Commentary on John 19:23-30
As the moment of Jesus’ death approaches in this short passage, we find two notes about how Jesus is fulfilling Scripture through these events. This may seem to be a story about human sin, cruelty, and injustice. However, beneath it all God is at work as the Son completes the mission for which the Father sent him into the world. Between these two comments about Scripture’s fulfillment rests the central element in this pericope. There we see the community gathered by the cross of Jesus, a reflection of our own gatherings on this holy day.
In a Gospel where there often seem to be multiple layers of meaning, the note about Jesus’ seamless tunic has prompted several suggestions. The word anothen (“from the top”) also figures prominently in Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus concerning the birth necessary for seeing the Kingdom of God (John 3:3) and with Pilate concerning where true power comes from (19:11). So, some have suggested that the tunic is a symbol of God’s saving work through Jesus’ whole ministry and now through his death. It is all of one piece, woven with grace and truth from above.
Others have noted that the unified tunic corresponds to other singular images in John: one shepherd, one flock, one vine, one untorn net of fish. So, perhaps the untorn tunic points to the united community drawn by Father to the Son. The comment about Jesus’ tunic, unique to John, may carry another message. The soldiers, minions of this world’s empire, are unwilling to damage a simple undergarment, even while they are destroying Jesus’ body on the cross.1 The irony highlights the grace shown by Jesus giving his life for the sake of a world such as this.
John portrays the cross as the place where Jesus forms his new community. Jesus’ statements of “here is your son” and “here is your mother” are echoes of phrases we heard earlier from Pilate, “here is the man” and “here is your king” (19:5, 14).2 Pilate used such wording to mock and abuse both Jesus and the Jewish crowds. In contrast, with similar words Jesus is creating a new loving community. Jesus refers to his followers as his family also in Matthew 12:49 and Mark 3:34. However, John places the declaration about this new family specifically, and significantly, at the cross.
In verse 27, we are told that the Beloved Disciple took Jesus’ mother into his own home “from that hour.” There are two things to note about this verse. First, the idiom translated by NRSV as “into his own home” is eis ta idia, the same phrase that described Jesus’ ministry in 1:11—“He came to what was his own (eis ta idia), and his own people did not accept him.” Now, at the cross, this brokenness and rejection is answered by a community of love focused on and formed by Jesus.
Second, as Francis Moloney has suggested, we ought to understand the phrase “from that hour” not only in terms of chronology but of causation.3 This new community can exist only because of “that hour,” the hour of the cross which in John’s Gospel is also the hour of Jesus’ glorification. What is happening at the cross is new creation. Alan Culpepper has helpfully suggested that John does not present Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for atonement, but rather offers us an ecclesiology of the cross.4 In this image of the nascent church gathered at the foot of the dying Jesus, and in the love of the Beloved Disciple caring for Jesus’ mother, we see a bit of what it means that we are “marked with the cross of Christ forever.”
Scripture is declared fulfilled again in Jesus’ thirst and the cheap wine offered to him on a hyssop branch, another detail rich in symbolic possibility. Hyssop was specified for use in purification rites for leprosy (Leviticus 14:4, 6, 49, 51-52) and as a symbol of purification from sin more generally (Psalm 51:7). But it was also used in the Passover marking of the doors of God’s people for deliverance (Exodus 12:22). By itself, the mention of hyssop might not be sufficient to make this connection to Passover, but we should remember that in John’s account Jesus is being crucified on the day of preparation for Passover, as the Passover lambs are being slaughtered.
Jesus is the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29), but in John’s Gospel sin is primarily a lack of belief in the Son as sent from the Father. The Passover lamb is not a sacrifice for atonement. Rather, it is a reenactment of God’s rescue from slavery, in which blood is used to mark God’s people. So here, it is the cross of Jesus that marks God’s people because here Jesus’ love is revealed fully. Through the cross Jesus draws people to faith (12:32), and thereby sets people free from slavery to sin.
With all things accomplished, Jesus declares “It is finished.” This is not a cry of despair and failure (for Jesus to say “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would be theologically impossible in John’s story). Rather it is a declaration that the mission has been completed. In verse 30 we read that he “gave up” or “handed over” (paradidomi) his spirit. This final act answers others whose “handing over” was malevolent. Judas “handed over”(NRSV “betrayed”) Jesus to the authorities (18:2, 5). The authorities “handed over” Jesus to Pilate (18:30). Pilate “handed over” Jesus to be crucified (19:16). But no one takes Jesus’ life from him (10:18). In the end, he willingly gives his life. He “hands it over” as the culmination of his entire ministry done out of love.
- Marianne Meye Thompson, John. A Commentary. The New Testament Library (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), 399.
- Thompson, 400.
- Francis J. Moloney, Glory Not Dishonor. Reading John 13-21 (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998), 144-145.
- R. Alan Culpepper, The Gospel and Letters of John. Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 234.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
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.
Love bade me welcome, David Hurd