John’s Gospel has been called the “maverick” Gospel because its portrayal of Jesus is done in a manner quite distinctive from that of Mark, Matthew and Luke. For John, Jesus is the revelation of God’s love for the world, the “word made flesh” whose death is an act of friendship love, a sign of God’s total embrace of humanity and the final triumph over evil.
John’s passion account is read each year as the centerpiece of the Good Friday liturgy. His portrayal of the passion, with its masterful blend of suffering and triumph, fits well into the spirit of the Paschal Triduum.
When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was an olive grove, and he and his disciples went into it. Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples.
So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” “I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.) Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
The opening scene of John’s account sets the mood for the entire passion story. On one level, it is a tale of terror–betrayal by a friend, a violent nighttime arrest of an innocent person, the abuse of power by armed authorities. This is a chilling scene — very familiar and very contemporary for Christians in many parts of the world.
But there is another level to this scene–Jesus freely choosing to place himself before his enemies; the overwhelming authority of his sacred person hurling the powers of darkness to the ground; Jesus in command even at the moment of his arrest.
So it is with John’s entire passion story: the tragedy of violent death is overwhelmed by the power of redemptive love. For John, Jesus is the Word made flesh, sent to reveal the abiding love of God for the world. The most compelling statement of that love is, paradoxically, the death of Jesus. In giving his life “for his friends” (15:13)–the most noble of human actions–Jesus reveals God’s overwhelming love for the world. From the perspective of faith, the death of Jesus is a word of life.
John’s passion begins abruptly in comparison to the Synoptic gospels. There is no reference to the plot against Jesus, no anointing at Bethany and no account of the last supper, nor does Jesus pray his anguished prayer in Gethsamene before the moment of the arrest. To some degree John has taken care of these events or their equivalents earlier in his Gospel. Once Jesus has completed his long farewell discourse with the disciples (chs. 13-17), he leads them across the Kidron valley to a garden and the drama of the passion will begin (18:1).
John’s account does not flinch before the terrible reality of death. It first appears in the guise of Judas, the disciple who betrays Jesus. In John’s perspective, “Satan”–the very personification of evil–induces Judas to betray Jesus (13:2). Allied with Judas are Roman soldiers (only John mentions this) and guards from the priests and the Pharisees (18:3). The whole spectrum of power is arrayed against Jesus: Jew and Gentile; secular and religious.
But this phalanx of oppressive and even demonic power does not make Jesus a helpless victim. Earlier in the Gospel, the Johannine Jesus had stated his freedom in the face of death: “This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father.” (10:17-18).
Jesus confronts the powers with his sacred name: “I am”–the divine name which Jesus the Word reveals to the world. In the face of this, the powers of death wilt and fall to the ground–not once but twice. Jesus, not death, is in command here. He lets his disciples leave (18:8 – they do not flee as in Mark and Matthew’s accounts) and he restrains Peter from any violence on his behalf.
Jesus will freely and willingly “drink the cup” of the passion because in so doing he fulfills his mission of revealing God’s love for the world.
Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him and brought him first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it would be good if one man died for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple were following Jesus. Because this disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside at the door. The other disciple, who was known to the high priest, came back, spoke to the girl on duty there and brought Peter in. “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” the girl at the door asked Peter. He replied, “I am not.” It was cold, and the servants and officials stood around a fire they had made to keep warm. Peter also was standing with them, warming himself. Meanwhile, the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. “I have spoken openly to the world,” Jesus replied. “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” When Jesus said this, one of the officials nearby struck him in the face. “Is this the way you answer the high priest?” he demanded. “If I said something wrong,” Jesus replied, “testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?” Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest. As Simon Peter stood warming himself, he was asked, “You are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it, saying, “I am not.” One of the high priest’s servants, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, challenged him, “Didn’t I see you with him in the olive grove?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment a rooster began to crow.
The scene now changes from the Garden across the Kidron valley to the courtyard of the High Priest. In John’s version of the story Jesus is taken first to Annas, the father-in-law of the reigning high priest Caiaphas. Presumably Annas who had been deposed by the Romans remained a powerful figure. Jesus will be interrogated by the religious authorities in preparation for his formal trial before Pilate.
But for John the deeper motif of this scene remains one of contrasts: between Jesus and his opponents and between Jesus and Peter.
As in the arrest scene Jesus boldly confronts his opponents. In words reminiscent of chapter 8 of the Gospel, John presents Jesus as the embodiment of “truth”–the ultimate truth of God’s love for the world. Jesus has openly proclaimed this truth in his words and actions (18:20). In John’s theology, truth has an inherently “public” character. Those who speak the truth or seek to discover it, are not afraid to come into the light (3:19-21) but those whose lives are built on falsehood or who shy from the truth prefer to live in darkness and to operate in secret. Thus Judas and his armed band had come to arrest Jesus in the darkness (ironically, carrying lanterns and torches…18:3). And so, too, the High Priest fails to recognize the Truth of God that stands before him bound as a prisoner.
John also tells the story of Peter’s denial. Here the contrast is between the fearless public witness that Jesus gives before his captors and the weakness of the disciple who denies his discipleship when confronted with the question of a maidservant. Peter had boldly affirmed that he would lay down his life for Jesus and insisted that he would follow Jesus wherever he would go (13:36-38). But he had underestimated the power of darkness and the cost of discipleship. In the crisis of the passion he fails.
But the Gospel does not abandon Peter. He will witness the empty tomb and ponders its meaning (20:6-9) and finally, in the exquisite story of the breakfast on the shore of the lake (ch, 21), the Risen Christ will heal Peter’s broken discipleship with a threefold confession of love and entrust him with the mission of serving the community.
John also introduces a new element into this story. Peter is able to enter the courtyard because of “another disciple” known to the High Priest (20:15). This is most likely the “beloved disciple”–that mysterious figure in John’s Gospel who represents authentic discipleship. He, along with the Mother of Jesus, will be the witnesses to Jesus’ death (19:26,35-36).
John’s sense of contrast and irony continue to add deep levels of meaning to the passion story: truth and falsehood, strength and weakness are revealed in the crisis moment of suffering.
Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled. Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.
The trial of Jesus by the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate dominates the Johannine passion story. The evangelist organizes the trial into a series of vignettes, alternately staged inside the praetorium and outside in full view of the crowds. The scenes mount in intensity, beginning with Pilate’s seemingly bored discussion with the religious leaders, through his increasing mystification with his prisoner, and climaxing with his attempt to free Jesus that is rejected by the crowd.
John once again injects irony into his narrative. In the first scene the religious leaders are concerned with maintaining ritual purity but they are engaged in handing over the Son of God to the Romans. They are concerned to be ready for the feast of Passover (18:28) yet the true Passover Lamb is about to be sacrificed. Their jousting with the Roman procurator about legal rights leads ironically to Jesus being crucified–the very manner of death which the Johannine Jesus had predicted he would undergo, being “lifted up” for the life of the world (see 3:14-15; 12:32-33).
A potent symbol of the whole trial is that of kingship, a theme that emerges as Pilate begins to interrogate Jesus (18:33-38). Pilate represents political might symbolized in the emperor’s crown. But Jesus’ sovereignty is not “of this world,” that is, it represents a very different sort of power–one that gives life. As the prologue of the Gospel had already proclaimed in poetic fashion (1:1-18) Jesus came into the world to proclaim the ultimate truth of God’s love–those who hear the voice of Jesus know God’s truth and live it out in their lives (8:47). The truth of God’s love–and not brute, oppressive force–is the source of Jesus’ power. Pilate, like the religious leaders, is incapable of recognizing this truth (18:37).
Even though he cannot understand Jesus, Pilate is convinced of his innocence and he goes outside to inform the leaders of his decision. To assuage them, he offers to release Jesus as a gesture on the occasion of the Passover (18:39). But the “Jews” demand that Barabbas be released instead. The Gospel simply notes that Barabbas was a “revolutionary” (18:40). Is John’s irony at work again? Does the evangelist imply for the reader that the crowds are blind to the fact that the most profound revolution is the one inaugurated by Jesus himself? [Note that at this point John has subtly moved from identifying Jesus’ opponents as the religious leaders to calling them in generic fashion, “the Jews”–the Christian reader must be careful not to draw the conclusion that all Jews are somehow guilty for the death of Jesus. This cannot be John’s point: Mary, the Beloved Disciple, and Jesus himself were Jews!]
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they struck him in the face. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Jews insisted, We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “ Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
The motif of Kingship intensifies in the concluding scenes. When the crowd selects Barabbas to be freed, Pilate has Jesus scourged (19:1-3). The soldiers perform a cruel coronation parody: after being beaten, Jesus is crowned with thorns, robed in purple and offered mock homage: “Hail, King of the Jews!”. The mockery is punctuated with further violence as the soldiers strike him “repeatedly”.
All of this prepares for the bizarre scene that follows as Pilate leads his beaten prisoner, robed in his mock royal trappings out to the crowds. Pilate hopes this will quench their desire to have Jesus destroyed.
For Pilate and the characters in the drama, this is a complete humiliation of this royal pretender. Jesus is a buffoon, without power or following, garbed in mock symbols of royalty. But for the reader of the Gospel there is another truth. Jesus truly is “king”; he is God’s royal Son. What is being mocked here is not Jesus but any crown whose power is based on violence and falsehood. Pilate presents Jesus as a pitiful “man” but the eye of faith knows that this human being is the Word made flesh, the “Son of Man” who came down from heaven to reveal God’s love for the world.
Again irony courses through John’s narrative: Jesus must die, his opponents shout, “because he made himself the Son of God” (19:7). John’s Gospel has proclaimed that Jesus will die precisely because he is God’s Son who gives his life for the world.
Stung by the crowd’s rejection of Jesus and still seeking a way to release this mysterious prisoner, Pilate again interrogates Jesus. Pilate’s claim to power is brushed aside: the only power is that which God gives (19:11).
When Pilate once again pleads with the crowd on behalf of Jesus, they threaten to accuse him of disloyalty to Caesar (19:12). Once more irony drips from the words: “Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar”–just so, the reader of the Gospel can say. Jesus is a king and the nature of his kingship is diametrically opposed to the abusive power that takes life from the innocent.
The scene ends with the crowds demanding Jesus be crucified. The symbolism is very strong. Pilate leads Jesus out and sits on the judgment seat. “Behold your king,” he says to taunt the crowds, but they reply: “we have no king but Caesar.” From the perspective of John’s Gospel, Pilate is right and the Jerusalem crowds could make no more terrible choice.
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). Here they crucified him, and with him two others–one on each side and Jesus in the middle. Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.” This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” So this is what the soldiers did. Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home. Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
The climax of the passion comes on Golgotha where Jesus is crucified. John’s emphasis on the triumphant initiative of Jesus even in the darkest moment of the passion continues. There is no Simon of Cyrene impounded to carry the cross; the Johannine Jesus takes it up himself.
The moment of crucifixion is an enthronement: Jesus is crucified, surrounded by an improbable retinue of two others who die in the same way. Over the cross emblazoned in Hebrew, Latin and Greek is the title: “Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews.” Even though the chief priests protest, Pilate is adamant–this will be the title of the Crucified Jesus.
Using the haunting symbolism of the bronze serpent from the story of Moses in Number 14:21 (see John 3:14), John’s Gospel presented the crucifixion as a “lifting up”–not just the lifting up of the crucified body of Jesus in the torment of death, but through that death, a “lifting up” that is a triumphant exaltation as the Word Made Flesh completes his mission of love and returns to the Father (13:1).
John fills this climactic scene with other potent symbols. The seamless tunic of Jesus (reminiscent of the high priest’s garment? or of the unity Jesus came to create?) is not torn (19:23-24). At the brink of death, Jesus “thirsts,” recalling his words to Peter in the garden: “Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me?” (18:11).
One other final action involves the mother of Jesus and his beloved disciple (19:25-27). The precise meaning of this incident is difficult to determine. Does it mean that the beloved disciple is now a member of Jesus’ household or community (“Son, behold your mother”)? Does the mother of Jesus symbolize Judaism and now she “gives birth” to a new community symbolized by Jesus’ disciple, while at the same time, the Christian community must be respectful of its parentage in Judaism? Or does the Mother of Jesus represent that great faith of Israel whose pangs of childbirth are now complete in the community of faith that begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus (see this image used in Jesus’ farewell discourse, 16:21-22).
So often John’s Gospel tantalizes the reader and does not dictate which range of meaning one must draw from the text.
John describes the death of Jesus in brief and bold strokes. Jesus’ final words are: “It is finished” (19:30). They ring with Johannine spirit. The Greek verb used here, teleo, connotes “completion,” “arriving at the intended goal,” Jesus had set out to do the will of the Father, to love his own “until the end” (13:1, the same root word, telos, is used). Bowing his head in a graceful and composed manner, Jesus the Word made Flesh, hands over his life spirit to God. There is a magnificent sense of serenity and strength as the Johannine Jesus meets death. His death is no play acting (John will make that point in the spear thrust that follows) but the terror of death has been defused by love.
John 19: 31-42
Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
John’s passion story concludes with two brutal acts in the ritual of crucifixion that are given entirely new meaning by the Gospel.
The executioners come to break the legs of the crucified in order to hasten death before the Sabbath eve begins. But they do not break Jesus’ legs; unwittingly they fulfill the words of Scripture in reference to the passover lamb (see, for example, Exodus 12:46). In the testimony of the Baptist earlier in the Gospel, Jesus is the “lamb of God” who has come to take away the sins of the world (1:29,36).
To make sure Jesus is dead, one of the soldiers drives a lance into his side. Blood and water stream from the body of Jesus. Once again, a brutal act takes on new meaning in the eye of the Gospel. The Gospel cites Zechariah 12:10, a haunting text that speaks of the inhabitants of Jerusalem repenting and receiving God’s forgiveness when they look on one “whom they have pierced.” Water and blood have rich meaning in John’s Gospel. In chapter 7 Jesus used the symbol of water to refer to the Spirit that would course into the world through his life-giving death (see 7:37-39). And in the bread of life discourse, Jesus had spoken of his blood that gives life to those who partake of it (6:53,54,55-56).
All of these signs confirm the redemptive power of Jesus’ death in John’s Gospel and for this reason the evangelist emphasizes the decisive testimony of the “witness” at the cross (19:35)–presumably the Beloved Disciple who was the key link between the original community of Jesus and the Johannine church.
The finale is reached as Jesus’ crucified body is taken from the cross for burial. Already the effects of Jesus’ mission are evident. Joseph of Arimathea who out of fear had been a disciple only in secret now takes courage and comes to claim the body. He is joined by Nicodemus, a Pharisee who had first come to Jesus “at night” (3:1) and whose faith had been tentative (7:50-52). He brings an enormous amount of spices–enough for a royal burial!
Both men lay aside their fear and openly pay homage to the crucified Jesus. Those in the darkness are now coming out into the light. God’s Word of love has triumphed over death.