Good Friday

He refuses to die by Roman design and takes control of his own life: he gave up his spirit

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Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

These two chapters can be easily divided in five parts:

  1. 18:1-11
  2. 18:12-27
  3. 18:28—19:16
  4. 19:16-37
  5. 19:38-42

In each of these sections there are some main characters apart from Jesus: Judas and Peter in the first, Peter and Annas in the second, Pilate and the Judeans in the third, the soldiers, the women at the cross and the beloved disciple in the fourth, and Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus in the fifth. All of them are playing a single role: that of confirming what had been prophesied about Jesus (see also 19:24,28,36,37). As in the rest of the gospel, everything has been carefully designed by the Master Planner and everyone has a specific role to play, including Jesus.

Prominent in this section is the expression “to fulfill.” It is used in two different ways: to refer to prophetic texts in the Hebrew scriptures (19:24,28,36) and to refer to Jesus’ predictions in the gospel (see also 18:9,32). In the first case it means to fill them with new meaning. Today we would use the expression “re-reading”, that is, reading the text again from a new perspective. In the second, it means to confirm what Jesus had predicted about himself.

In the gospel of John in general, and in these two chapters in particular, Jesus behaves not as a victim but rather as a victor.

  1. He is a commanding presence, even a divine presence (verse 5, “I am he) that makes the soldiers and the temple police fall to the ground.
  2. He does not apologize, as Paul does in Acts 23:5, for having answered disrespectfully to the high priest.
  3. He knows what kind of death he is facing so he does not ask God to spare his life, if possible, as he does in the other three gospels, but rather has the foreknowledge of what is going to happen to him.
  4. He takes away Pilate’s power by telling him that he received it from above. He is not an actor but a subject of a higher power.
  5. Finally, at the cross, he decides when he is to die. He gives up the spirit when he knows that everything is finished. He had faithfully played the part God had assigned to him and now there was nothing else to do. Death will bring an end to his human life but also to his ministry.

Two anachronistic affirmations in these chapters seem to stem from the fact that the gospel was written at least 60 years after the events had occurred:

  1. The “Jews” are really people from Judea. We would call them “Judeans.”
  2. Hebrew, Latin, and Greek were known at the time as Aramaic, Roman language, and Hellenistic language.

Of these two the most dangerous is the expression “Jews,” because it feeds into the historical antisemitism that caused the persecution and murder of millions of Jews, from antiquity until the present.

Here are some additional considerations that could lead to fruitful preaching:

  1. Betrayal and arrest (18:1-11)
  • A defiant Jesus foregoes violence and accepts his role in God’s plan. He will not allow anything or anybody, in this case Peter, to deter and deprive him from his final victory.
  • The garden that is referred to is the garden of Gethsemane, which was located across the Kidron Valley. It was a very well-known place for everyone, so Jesus has nothing to hide. In fact, he wants people to know where he is because it is part of the divine script everyone, including him, is playing.
  1. Trial before Annas (18:12-27)
  • Jesus comes into the high priest house and is followed by Peter and another disciple known to the high priest (this is mentioned twice so it must be important). We do not know who he is, but we know his part in the story: he is to bring Peter in so he can betray Jesus.
  • Between Peter’s first and last denial, Jesus is being interrogated by Annas. Again, Jesus is defiant. Not only does he defend his teaching, but he does not acknowledge the high priest’s authority, even when he is struck in the face. As in the garden, Jesus shows himself to be non-violent.
  1. Trial before Pilate (18:28—19:16)
  • It takes place in Pilate’s headquarters, the Praetorium. An interesting cat-and-mouse game takes place between Pilate and the Judeans who brought Jesus to him. They don’t want to be ritually defiled by entering a Gentile’s military compound; Pilate wants to humiliate them by reminding them who has the power.
  • Pilate comes out to bargain with the Judeans four times. He tells them to judge Jesus according to the law of Israel. They say they are not permitted to put anyone to death (I can hear Pilate saying under his breath: “Of course, I know that.”)
  • Going back inside Pilate now confronts Jesus with the question: Are you the King of the Judeans? It is now Jesus who gets testy: “Who told you that?” (I would like to imagine Jesus muttering under his breath: “because you don’t seem to have enough brains to think on your own.”)
  • After reminding Pilate that he could summon his followers to fight for him but that he refuses to do it, showing who holds the real power, Jesus forces the procurator to admit that he does not know what truth is. But the readers of the gospel know it: it is Jesus and his word. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Pilate is doomed. Jesus wins.
  • Pilate has Jesus flogged, an opportunity for the soldiers to have some fun, which they did by placing a crown of thorns on his head, dressing him in a purple robe, taking turns to address him as a King, and striking him on the face. Rape seems to be suggested in the Synoptic accounts, where it says that Jesus was undressed to put the purple robe on and then dressed again with his own clothes, but John has none of this.
  • Out of the Praetorium one more time, Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd dressed in the purple robe and tells them that they can crucify him, since he finds nothing wrong with him. Again, he is playing with the Judeans: he knows they can’t do that because it is not part of their punishment system; they don’t crucify people, they stone them.
  • Now the exchange becomes a bit more balanced. The Judeans succeed in scaring Pilate by mentioning the title Son of God. Therefore, he asks Jesus where he is from, lest he be a divine being in the guise of man, something not uncommon in Greek and Roman mythology. He then wanted to release him, but he was pressured by the Judeans who said that if he would do that he would be siding with Jesus and against the emperor. The cat was caught. He gave in. He handed Jesus over to the soldiers to be crucified, which they dutifully did, not without some enjoyment on their part (19:29, 34) as well as some disappointment (19:32-33).
  1. Crucifixion (19:16-37)
  • Making sure that Jesus’ crucifixion was properly understood in Rome, Pilate placed the inscription we already talked about and in which it was made clear that he was getting rid of an aspirant to the throne.
  • From the cross Jesus, still a commanding presence, commends his mother to the care of the disciple whom he loved (the readers of the gospel knew who he was, we do not). And then decides when he would die, right after receiving the sour wine which was supposed to alleviate the pain and extend his life. He refuses to die by Roman design and takes control of his own life: he gave up his spirit.
  1. Burial (19:38-42)
  • Two secret disciples, one for fear of the religious leaders, the other for fear of his reputation, finally overcame their predicaments and took care of Jesus’ body. Upon receiving permission from Pilate, they took the body down from the cross and prepared it according to the burial custom of the Judeans.
  • This was always done by women (see also Mark 16:1; Matthew 23:56-24:1) but in John it is done by men, another way in which this gospel is more theological than historical.


As we prepare to engage the text from our present social locations, what are some of the issues that come to mind?

  • What assumptions are we to avoid?
  • What is the concept of truth?
  • What is the concept of God?
  • What is the relationship between Jesus and God?
  • What is Jesus’ attitude towards violence? What toward power?
  • How do we prevent antisemitic readings of the gospel?
  • What is the relationship between political and military power?
  • What is the role of the army in politics?