John 19:1-16: Unwilling or unable to release Jesus, Pilate has him flogged. According to the story, Pilate has not found him guilty of anything, yet he punishes him nonetheless. The punishment includes mocking Jesus. He is dressed in a purple robe and given a crown of thorns. For John, this is an unwitting acknowledgement that Jesus really is king, though a very different kind of king from the emperor. Pilate shuttles back and forth between his palace and the courtyard where Jewish leaders are wanting to move Jesus' execution to its conclusion. Pilate’s dilemma is real. He would like not to make a decision about Jesus but is being forced into it. John uses Pilate to illustrate that, in view of the incarnation, there can be no neutral ground. (People’s New Testament Commentary). There are moments in our lives when we need to make decisions about life and faith, when neutrality is not a live possibility. Pilate wavers, trying to avoid decision. Jesus is decisive in following through on his mission. The charge leveled by the Jewish leaders in verse 7 is bound to make Pilate nervous. Claiming to be the Son of God is not just a religious claim but a counter claim to the claim of the emperors.
Pilate asks Jesus where he comes from, another way of asking where he gets his authority. Jesus does not answer and Pilate tries to assert his power. Jesus' response is simply to relativize Pilate’s power. Pilate’s power comes from the emperor, but there is an even greater power, the power of God. It is part of John’s polemic against the Jewish authorities who have banished the Jewish followers of Jesus that John tries to give the Jewish authorities in the story the greater blame.
The political side of the charges against Jesus are emphasized in verse 12. One who claims to be king is setting himself against the emperor. In the end, Pilate is willing to see Jesus crucified as a subversive rather than try and find out the deeper truth about him. Religious and political authorities conspire against Jesus, leading to his death. It is interesting that John includes so much detail here, when he also pictures Jesus as knowingly and willingly giving up his life. For John, it seems that the death of Jesus will both be a way that Jesus “glorifies” (reveals) God and a result of political and religious machinations. To have Jewish leaders pledge fealty to the Roman emperor would have been seen as deeply ironic and tragic (verse 15).
John 19:16-30: Having been convicted, Jesus is handed over to be crucified. John makes a point of saying that Jesus carried his cross by himself, there is no Simon of Cyrene here. The charge against Jesus was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Only John has the three languages, probably a reflection on the community for which he is writing and a theological symbol emphasizing Jesus is a universal “king.” Inadvertently, Pilate testifies to the truth about Jesus with this three-language inscription. John has Jesus’ mother and three other woman standing near the cross, along with “the disciple whom he loved.” Jesus’ first words from the cross are to his mother. There is no crying out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” For John, Jesus knows just what he is doing and knows that his death is a part of “glorifying/revealing” God. Jesus thirst is both a realistic portrayal of a human desire, and also symbolic – Jesus thirst was for God and fulfilling God’s purposes. “It is finished” – this word from Jesus is found only in John and again fits his understanding of Jesus death as a self-giving in order to reveal something significant about God. The language here is calm compared to the other gospels where Jesus last utterance is a loud cry.
John 19:31-37: Jesus has accomplished his work, given his final sign. His death is confirmed by Roman authorities by his side being pierced. For John, this is as it had to have been. The blood and water which pour from Jesus’ side can be symbolic of baptism and communion – practices which were no doubt a part of the Johannine Jesus community. They may also be symbolic of Jesus as living water and as the giver of life through his death.
John 19:38-42: Joseph of Arimathea is a character in all four gospels. He is responsible for Jesus’ burial in each of them. Here he is joined by Nicodemus who we last encountered in chapter 7. They lay Jesus in a tomb near the garden where he had been crucified.
Note on the Significance of the Death of Jesus (repeated, with small changes): All of the gospels report that Jesus was executed by the Roman authorities. “There is no more certain fact in history that the execution of Jesus by the Roman occupational forces in Jerusalem at a Passover festival ca. 30 CE” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). It seems almost as sure that certain of the Jewish leaders at the time collaborated in his execution. John sometimes casts the blame more widely, but, again, this reflects the dispute between synagogue Jews and Christian Jews in John’s own time more than the historical reality of Jesus’ time. During the time of Jesus, there had been an uneasy peace established between Rome and Jerusalem, and some had a stake in maintaining that peace. If Jesus was seen as a threat to that, and he certainly seems to have been, then that threat needed to be taken care of. Historically, then, this is why Jesus died. But the Christian church and Christian faith has been almost unanimous in saying that the death of Jesus had a deeper meaning, a theological and religious significance. We will encounter this again and again as we read through the New Testament. What is this theological/religious significance?
“For all his followers, Jesus’ death was a terrible, unexpected surprise that shattered their hopes” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). But the death of Jesus was not the end of the story. They later experienced Jesus as alive and vindicated by God. Their later experience forced them to reevaluate and reinterpret Jesus’ death. Somehow even his death must be significant. Even here God must have been at work in some way. A variety of interpretations of the significance of Jesus' death are offered in the New Testament and in the history of Christian theology (theologically these are referred to as “atonement theories”). “The meaning of Jesus’ death was understood in a variety of ways: as an expression of Jesus’/God’s love, as the means of God’s forgiveness, as an atoning sacrifice, as an act of sealing or eschatologically renewing God’s covenant with his people, as redemptive liberation from slavery or ransom from captivity, and in numerous other concepts and images that express the saving act of God in the death of Jesus” (The People’s New Testament Commentary, 164). There are those in the Christian community of faith who argue that there is only one appropriate way to understand the theological/religious significance of the death of Jesus. It is probably fair to say that substitutionary atonement is the only way that many or even most contemporary Christians understand faith in the sacrificial and salvific death of Jesus…. It is not just that Jesus offered his life in atonement for sin, but that God demanded it as a condition for our forgiveness. (Crossan and Borg, The Last Week, 101). Crossan and Borg wonder if there are better metaphors for understanding God and thus for understanding the significance of the death of Jesus. Jesus may be said to have sacrificed his life “for his passion, namely, for his advocacy of the kingdom of God” (The Last Week, 154), but this is a different kind of sacrifice than one required by God so that God might forgive. Walter Wink, in his brilliant book on “the son of man” traditions in the Bible and particularly in the New Testament (The Human Being) writes perceptively about the significance of the death of Jesus and about the theories of his death in the history of Christian theology. Of most views of the significance of Jesus’ death, Wink writes, “All these views share the presupposition that God had Jesus killed in order to redeem the world. None of them makes realistic sense of the fact that Jesus was executed by the religious and political establishment.” (105) Wink then rehearses many of the traditional theories and ends up with the following: There is truth in most of these atonement theories…. The point is that no religious experience can be made normative for all people. God reaches out to us in love wherever we are and instigates what leads us to wholeness. Each response if divinely tailored to meet our situations…. The virtue of multiple images of the atonement in the New Testament is that each communicates some aspect of forgiveness and new life, without a single model being elevated as exclusively correct. Atonement theories are need-specific remedies for the spiritual afflictions that assail us. (110-111)
All of this is to say that the bottom line New Testament affirmation is that the death of Jesus, a brutal execution at the hands of legitimate authorities, has significance for our lives and our relationship to God. Just what that significance is remains open to a rich variety of interpretations, and that is perhaps as it should be. We will encounter more interpretations as we move through the New Testament. Rather than argue that there is only one true way to understand the meaning of Jesus death for our lives we would do well to listen to others as they share their understandings. Such conversations have the potential to contribute a great deal to our own formation as disciples of Jesus – this Jesus who trusted God even when he felt God’s absence.