Good Friday

Where Rome and the world are self-serving, God is not

Black and white photo of a cross
Black and white photo of a cross, via Unsplash

March 29, 2024

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Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

The Gospel of John’s passion narrative helpfully reminds us that different voices in the New Testament speak about the death of Jesus differently. A close comparison with the other Gospels shows that John’s narrative differs from them in many ways:

  • There is no prayer in the garden, nor do the disciples fall asleep.
  • A lengthy dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is introduced.
  • Simon of Cyrene does not carry Jesus’ cross; rather, Jesus carries the cross himself.
  • Jesus is crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover.
  • Jesus speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple from the cross.

These and many other differences generate a distinctive perspective that expands our own reflections on the passion narrative.

Contextualizing John’s narrative

Context is everything. To better grasp the significance of characters’ words and actions in the passion narrative, it is helpful to look at how John contextualizes them. Three contexts are at play: Jerusalem, the world, and Passover.


Jerusalem was the capital of the Roman province of Judea. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus journeys to Jerusalem once. In the Gospel of John, Jesus travels to Jerusalem three times (2:13; 5:1; 11:55). This shifts attention away from Galilee and locates much of Jesus’ ministry in the heart of regional and empirical power.

The governor of Judea was Pontius Pilate, appointed by Rome. Pilate, in turn, appointed the high priest. The Roman governor was dependent on the cooperation of local leaders to maintain stability in the region, effectively making the Temple leaders allies of Rome; yet the Temple leaders also were dependent on and subordinate to Rome.1

The tensions created by this complex relationship play out dramatically in the exchanges between Pilate and the Temple leaders, each manipulating the other while the crowds are swept along by the loudest voices. Their finger-pointing strategies are both familiar and a cautionary tale. In contrast, Jesus is portrayed as guileless (18:4–8, 20–21, 22–23), in control of his destiny (18:11, 32–37; 19:17, 30), and concerned for those in his care (18:8–9; 19:25b–27).

The world

The events in Jerusalem take place within a broader context, which John calls “the world” (18:20, 36, 37). Jesus is not “of the world” (18:36), yet the world came into being through him (1:9–10). The world is described as a place where evil has free rein (3:19–20). Notably, Jesus prays to God not to take those entrusted to him “out of the world” but “to protect them from the evil one” who rules the world (17:15).

Yet while we remain in the world, it can be a challenge to discern evil when faced with fear, instability, and moral complexity. This struggle is illustrated by Simon Peter, who declares he will lay down his life for Jesus, only to deny association with him (13:37–38; 18:10–11, 15–18, 25–27). Yet there is equal opportunity to move from a position of ambiguity toward truth, as illustrated by Nicodemus (19:39).

Jesus declares that he was born into the world to testify to the truth (18:37; see also 19:30)—that is, that God loves the world without reservation (3:16–17). Jesus’ presence in the world is testimony to this love: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9; see also 13:34–35). When Pilate asks (rhetorically), “What is truth?” the irony is profound: Pilate cannot see truth even when he is looking it straight in the face.


In the Synoptic Gospels, the movement of the narrative is toward a single Passover: a culminating event. In John there are three Passovers (2:13–25; chapter 6; chapters 13–19), and Passover imagery is employed throughout the Gospel to describe the significance of Jesus. Notably, Jesus’ final supper with the disciples is not a Passover meal, but a meal the evening before the day of preparation for the Passover (13:1; 18:28; 19:42). As a result, Jesus’ crucifixion coincides with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Temple.

Earlier, John the Baptist says of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin [singular] of the world” (1:29; see also 1:36). At the crucifixion, we learn that, like the Passover lamb, none of Jesus’ bones are broken (Exodus 12:46; John 19:32–33; see also John 19:36).

Further, John specifies that the vinegar offered to Jesus is lifted up on a branch of hyssop (19:29); in Exodus 12:22, a bundle of hyssop is dipped in the blood of the lamb and sprinkled on the doorposts of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt to protect them from the angel of death (Exodus 12:11–13). The Passover lamb is not a sin offering, but effects liberation from bondage (“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” [John 8:32]).

Context within context within context

If we layer the three contexts, one on top of another, the interplay between them illuminates key aspects of John’s passion narrative. Passover, a festival that celebrates the liberation of the enslaved Israelites, draws attention to ways in which the Roman province of Judea is in bondage to Rome. While the province is self-governing to a degree, it is Rome that possesses power over life and death. Its interests will always be self-serving because its goal is self-preservation.

If we layer over this “the world,” the “sin of the world” represents another layer of bondage. Under the power of “sin,” the world rejects God’s unconditional love for the world by condemning the one whom God has sent into the world to testify to God’s love. It is also demonstrated when we fail to demonstrate love for one another. “Sin” is not a matter of degree, but of inclination; one could even say loyalty. Where Rome and the world are self-serving, God is not.

Turning to Jesus’ crucifixion, it is worth noting that John never speaks of it in terms of death—only ever “the kind of death” Jesus was to endure (12:33). For John, the crucifixion signals the moment when Jesus will be “lifted up” (also, “glorified” [12:33–34]) and ascend to God (13:1). This ironic twist reveals what appears to be the triumph of the world to be, in fact, the triumph of God, whose love continues to pour into the world through the presence of the Spirit and the community of faith.


  1. Warren Carter, John and Empire: Initial Explorations (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 290–91.