Commentary on John 18:1—19:42
John’s story of Jesus’ life and ministry is quite unique compared to the Synoptic accounts.
Here in the Passion Narrative, which narrates Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial, some unique details stand out. Many of these details match criteria for a “noble death” in ancient Greco Roman literature.
Jesus dies in an act of his own volition. In contrast to the Synoptic Gethsemane scenes (in Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; see also 12.27-28) Jesus does not ask to escape his death (see John 12:27-28). In John, Jesus moves systematically and knowingly toward his hour. Rather than letting Judas’ kiss betray him, Jesus identifies himself and approaches the arresting party. His statement, ego eimi, literally means “I am” and recalls God’s self-designation to Israel (see Exodus 3:14; Isaiah 41:4; 43:10; 46:4). John’s characterization of Jesus as God in flesh continues even through his arrest, trial, crucifixion, and burial. Jesus is not a tragic victim in John; he is the ideal hero.
Jesus embraces his own suffering for the benefit of others. Jesus’ death is meaningful not only because he dies willingly but because his death results in good of the world. John 18:14 reminds the reader of the earlier statement of Caiaphas, the high priest, “it is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (11:50). Although in the story’s sociopolitical context the statement reflects Roman threats to Jewish religious freedom, on another level, the statement goes further.
As the Evangelist tells us, “Jesus was about to die … not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (John 11:51-52). Jesus’ claim one chapter earlier, “I am the Good Shepherd,” shows that his life and death will be for the benefit of the “sheep” who follow him (10:10-11). Drawing on images from Israel’s scriptures, John characterizes Jesus as a genuine caretaker who, like God, promises to seek Israel out, to gather Israel, and provide for them (Ezekiel 34:11-14; Numbers 27:16-17). In quite the mixed metaphor, John presents Jesus as the shepherd who cares for the sheep even at the cost of his own life, the gate to safety and provision (see also 10:9), and the Lamb of God, whose death “takes away the sin of the world” (1:29).
The lamb of God
John uniquely calls Jesus “the Lamb of God,” a title that recalls the Paschal Lamb and links Jesus’s ministry and death with the context of Passover (see details in 19:29, 36 that support this connection). John also connects Jesus’ death with the celebration of Passover by arranging the narrative timeline so that Jesus is crucified on the day of Preparation for the Passover (in contrast to the Synoptics which portray the Last Supper as a Passover meal; see Matthew 26:17-35; Mark 14:12-31; Luke 22:7-23).
The parallel is vivid — Jesus hangs on the cross at the same time that the Paschal lambs are being slaughtered at the temple. However, the Paschal sacrifice was not for the atoning of individual sins; rather, it was a remembrance of God freeing the Israelite people from slavery in Egypt. John’s reference to taking away the sin of the world here is better understood in terms of Jesus’ incarnation, life, and death defeating the powers opposed to God and bringing abundant life.
Although “sin” is a topic in the Gospel, it is usually a designation for unbelief, the barrier to God’s liberative purpose. Jesus’ death should be interpreted in light of this backdrop that emphasizes the good news that God is on the side of the oppressed, God suffers with humanity, and God’s power will ultimately bring freedom and justice.
Prophetic voices for Good Friday
As I reflect on Good Friday, on God coming to earth in flesh and suffering with humanity, I cannot help but recall significant suffering in my own modern American context: the lynching tree and the ongoing and grossly dismissed assault on black bodies currently plaguing our country. In many ways, the oppression of the lynching tree, the sin of racism and violence by white Americans, lives on in the murder of black individuals by white civilians and police officers. Two prophetic voices, James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas, are worth listening to, particularly on Good Friday.
Cone powerfully pairs the cross and the lynching tree, looking to the cultural imagination of black artists and authors who connect Jesus’ experience of suffering with their own lived experiences of oppression. For Cone, Good Friday is good news for those who experience suffering, for those who are oppressed. The Gospel of the crucified God is not good news for anyone comfortable with their power or privilege.
Douglas digs in further to the systemic issues, noting the cultural propensity in American history to protect whiteness and to fear black bodies. She reflects on the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer as a vivid example of the depths of the problem. She boldly asks, where is God’s justice in such a circumstance? She boldly claims hope in the midst of despair. She argues that on Good Friday, God overcame the evil of the cross, so the historical evil against black bodies will not prevail.
James Cone and Kelly Brown Douglas remind us that God is on the side of the oppressed and call out the sin in the systems that perpetuate this violence and the sin of those who respond with ambivalence.
1. Cone, James H. 2013. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Paperback ed. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books.
2. Douglas, Kelly Brown. 2015. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.