Friday 30th March: John 19:13-30 – Crucifixion: King, Farce, Completion

It is uncertain at what point Maundy Thursday ends and Good Friday begins, but Jesus’ sentence under Pilate and subsequent crucifixion both happened on the latter day. Here, we shall focus on the crucifixion, although Jesus’ “trial” before Pilate (John 18:28ff.) is also crucial. Overall, Pilate is presented as indecisive, disrespectful, but easily manipulated: he struggles to decide whether to sentence Jesus or not, until the Jews who are against Jesus assert that by releasing Jesus, Pilate is “no friend of Caesar” (v.12).

Pilate’s decision is now made: he brings Jesus out for judgement. In doing so, he mocks both Jesus and the Jews: “behold your king” (v.14). In the Roman empire, the notion of kingship was sordid – even anathema.  Jesus is twice asked whether He is the king of the Jews (18:34,37). Jesus rarely answers questions head on; here, he takes an ingenious sidestep by saying that His kingdom is not of this world (18:36): “yes” and “no”. Pilate takes great delight in calling Jesus, “King of the Jews” because it vexes the Jews. Yet, their response shows how misguided their decision to have Jesus crucified is: “we do not have a king except Caesar” (v.16) is disloyal to their monotheism because they believed that only God was King, and no Caesar would have welcomed the title of king.

The scene is tragic: Jesus goes off to be crucified, carrying his own cross (v.17). Pilate, still desiring to frustrate the Jews, refuses to change the sign on the cross (v.22), written in Hebrew, Roman, and Greek for all the world to see. Jesus suffers a criminal’s death, which is totally unfitting for a supposed King – moreover, Jesus is not only King of the Jews, but King of the world.

Crucifixions, however tragic they appear to us, often featured in ancient comedy.[1] We cannot call the crucifixion comical, but there are farcical elements. Earlier, Jesus had been hit and slapped (18:22; 19:1-3), now the soldiers practically have to stop themselves fighting over his undergarment (v.24). This is one of the basest moments in Scripture – and yet, it is in fulfilment of Scripture. Psalm 22 is vital for our understanding of the crucifixion; it foreshadows Jesus’ darkest hour. In Mark 15:34, Jesus calls out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These are the opening words of Psalm 22. This comment about the division of the clothes and the casting of lots comes from the middle: v.19.

Psalm 22 ends with a celebration of what God has done (vv.27-30). John’s account does not draw attention to Jesus’ suffering like Mark’s, but Christ who hangs there in agony, fulfils Scripture. Jesus’ death signals completion: Jesus knew that “all things had been finished” (v.28), and that in his final thirst, he was completing Scripture. So, when He breathed that final breath, he could say: “it has been accomplished” (tetelestai). Jesus the King, despite being treated farcically like a criminal, fulfilled Scripture, and completed His Father’s will. This is why we can celebrate a Good Friday.

[1] Comedies usually featured slaves and the cross was mainly “a servile punishment”. For an excellent scholarly treatment, see Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (1977).

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