SESSION TWENTY-FIVE: JESUS IS CRUCIFIED (JOHN 19)
INTRO: Describe a time when something "ended" for you (relationship, death, divorce, career)? How did you feel?
- Why do the Jewish leaders clamor for Jesus to be crucified? What does Pilate's fearful response to that charge show about him? How might this conversation with Jesus in 18:33-37 have influenced him?
- According to the sign on Jesus' cross, for what "official" reason was he crucified? What meaning does this title have for Pilate (18"33-37)? For the soldiers (19:2-3)? For chief priests (19:14-15)?
- Why did secret believer, Joseph and Nicodemus, risk public exposure to bury Jesus?
- Some say Jesus did not really die, but revived in the tomb. How do John 19:1,18, 32-34 and 40 disprove this idea?
- When have you made a decision based upon fear or ambition (or both), rather than do what is right? How do you feel about that now?
- How would you explain the need for the crucifixion to someone else? How is Jesus' death real to you?
TAKEAWAY: What is your greatest takeaway from this story? What specific life changes do you need to make? How will you hold yourself accountable?
COMMENTARY: JESUS IS CRUCIFIED (JOHN 19)
Everybody likes a good thriller of a story. It’s the stuff that makes Hollywood Hollywood. And political thrillers are particularly popular, whether it’s the hour-by-hour sequence of “24” or the inside espionage of “House of Cards” or the intrigue of shows like Veep, Madam Secretary, Designated Survivor or The West Wing.
In many ways, this first century story, laid out in the closing verses of John 18 and the entire chapter of John 19, is a HOUSE OF CARDS. In this highly political tale we’ll get a sneak peak behind the curtains at first century politics, the power of Rome and the craftiness of the Jewish religious elite. We’ll quickly discover how fragile everything really is...like a house of cards...susceptible to collapse.
Once again, John’s portrayal of the sentencing of Jesus is vivid and dynamic. He relates details the other gospel writers overlook, details that give us clues into what’s really happening.
And, as mentioned, this is a POLITICAL drama. It’s a tale between worldviews, theological assumptions, and oppositional values. John is going to unwrap this story with the skill of a master writer. It’s a political thriller. It’s a murder mystery. It’s an epic drama. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster. Let’s pull back the curtain and look at the PLAYERS involved.
THE JEWISH LEADERS
In the first century, the Jews were subjects of Rome. And the Roman way was to allow its subjects to self-govern themselves as long as they caused no trouble to the PEACE OF ROME (the Pax Romana). Unfortunately, the Jews were uncooperative, stubborn subjects. They had a reputation for fighting Roman soldiers, pushing Rome’s buttons, opposing Roman ways and resisting Roman rule. It’s why Rome had a clear presence in Palestine, especially at the Passover when over a million Jews swelled Jerusalem to a fever pitch.
The Jews enjoyed a lot of latitude politically and religiously, however the one thing they couldn’t do was carry out a death penalty. That’s because the Jews had lost that right due to previous bloody coups, insurrections and mass killings.
The irony, as we’ll see later in the book of Acts, is the Jewish leaders had no problem going around this prohibition. In fact, Rome, it seemed, often looked the other way. They readily stoned Stephen. And Saul (also known as Paul) went on a witch hunt to slaughter Christian Jews.
So what’s happening here?
The Jewish leaders want to take this to a new political level. They could’ve easily disposed of Jesus if they wanted to do so, but they also knew a quiet execution of a popular rabbi could backfire. They could be blamed for the dirty deed. They needed a higher accomplice. They needed a stronger ally. The needed somebody like Pilate to pull the trigger, push the button or deliver the lethal drug.
The Jews executed by stoning. Remember the woman caught in adultery? But a crucifixion was better optics. Jews viewed crucifixion with disgust. Only the worst of the worst were crucified. The Jewish leaders knew their people would support their decision to hand over Jesus to Pilate if there was good reason. And the biggest charge was theological: Jesus was claiming to be God.
The irony is Pilate knew this was a political ploy. It’s why he’s eventually sympathetic to Jesus, not wanting to crucify him, but only punish him with a scourging. But we’ll hold that part of story until later.
There was a segment of the Jewish people that hated Jesus. They didn’t like his message. They preferred an alternative lifestyle. They had a different theology and interpretation. Others didn’t like his style. They didn’t like his parables. They thought his miracles were too flashy. They wished Jesus acted more like a rabbi. Still others didn’t like his results. He was pulling people away from them. He was building a big church. He hung around whores, drunks, women, Roman tax collectors, political zealots, smelly fishermen and other riff raff.
People hating somebody’s message, style or results. Sounds like America today.
But hate can easily become hysteria. And that’s what happened with the Jews and their leaders. Their initial dislike created hate. Their hatred created hysteria. Their hysteria created paranoia and insanity. It was so bad they refused to enter Pilate’s house for fear it would make them unclean for the Passover. They created lies (that Jesus was a king) and manipulated laws (such as holding a trial by night) to crucify Jesus. In their minds, the end result certainly justified the means.
Consequently, the Jewish leaders created the mob that wanted Jesus dead. “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Pilate is an interesting contrast and contradiction. He knows the Jews were lying about Jesus but scoffs at knowing “what is true.” He knew Jesus was innocent of the charges and yet still condemns him. He knew Jesus did not deserve death and still issued his crucifixion.
Perhaps the real question is WHY was Pilate, a Roman, the acting governor of Palestine? That answer begins in 4 B.C. when Herod the Great died. Although a deeply troubled, evil and paranoid “king of the Jews,” Herod was friendly with Rome. At his death, his will divided Palestine among his three sons: Antipas (Galilee, Peraea), Philip (Batanea, Auranitis, Tracheonitis) and Archelaus (Idumaea, Judaea and Samaria). Archelaus was only 18 years old and proved a poor ruler. He was a tyrant, in fact. It got so bad the Jews asked Rome to replace him with a governor. These Judean and Samaritan Jews were counting on Rome to incorporate them into the larger region of Syria and, thus, leave them alone to rule themselves. But that didn’t happen.
Instead Rome saw Palestine as a troubled land in need of Roman authority. It needed military support to quell some of the insurrections. Due to is smaller nature, Rome employed a procurator in AD 6 to administrate and control the region. His job was pretty simple. Visit annually. Hear cases and complaints. Oversee taxation.
Between AD 24 and 35, Pilate held this procurator’s position. His reputation as an administrator was solid and good...on paper, that is. In reality, Pilate proved a failure. He was unsympathetic to Jewish concerns. He visited Jerusalem with a military force that proudly bore the “graven image” of the Emperor on their standards. When the Jews kindly asked him not to do this, he rounded them up in an amphitheater in Caesarea and threatened to kill them. The Jews said fine, “Kill us.” But Pilate blinked. He knew the optics of slaughtering Jews would backfire. So he relented and had his military forces remove the emperor’s image from their standards.
In yet another incident, Jerusalem’s water supply was inadequate and Pilate set out to build a new aqueduct. But he needed money to do it, so he stole it from the Temple Treasury (several millions of dollars). When the people caught wind of the deed, they rioted. So Pilate sent in his troops, this time in plain clothes and concealed weapons. On signal, they clubbed and killed as many Jews as possible.
Another time, Pilate ordered his shields to bear the name of Tiberius Caesar, emperor of Rome, who was regarded as Divine and a god. Pilate proudly displayed the shields inside Jerusalem whenever he stayed inside the city. Even Pilate’s friends encouraged him not to do this, but he did it anyway. The Jews reported Pilate to the Emperor, who ordered Pilate to remove the shields, disgracing Pilate.
Consequently, the Jewish leaders and Pilate were not exactly on good speaking terms. In fact, they pretty much hated each other. But with Jesus, politically, the Sanhedrin knew they needed Pilate on their side. And like any good politician they blackmailed Pilate: “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend.” Pilate knew he was on a short leash with the emperor and such a charge would finish him.
Pilate knew the truth. It’s probably why he scoffed at the idea. “What is truth?” he retorted to Jesus in their first meeting. Truth had only gotten Pilate in trouble. Truth was hard to know and even harder to live. Pilate preferred the lie in the end.
In the end, Pilate is known for his political maneuvers. First, he tried to have someone else shoulder the responsibility and told the Jews to judge Jesus by their own laws. Then he tried to escape being involved in the charade. As part of the Passover, a prisoner was pardoned. He took the worst thug and thief he had—a brute named Barabbas—and gave the Jews a choice: Jesus or Barabbas. The Jews surprised him and said, “We’ll take Barabbas. Crucify Jesus!”
Next Pilate moved to compromise. He thought a good old-fashioned Roman scourging would appease these Jews. He then produced the bloodied scourged Jesus to the Jews and asked “Shall I crucify your king?” He thought the people would be sympathetic and call it off. They didn’t. So Pilate washed his hands of the matter, signed the death warrant, and sent Jesus to the cross.
In the end, Pilate’s pride did him in. He was contemptible to the Jews, too proud to concern himself with Jewish squabbles, religion and culture. Nevertheless, Pilate was also spiritually curious. He wanted to know where Jesus came from and when Jesus told him his kingdom was not of this earth, it intrigued him. His superstitions also played a role. If Jesus was truly the Son of God, could he anger the gods by crucifying an heir. It’s why Pilate tried to avoid the situation.
By the world’s standards, Pilate was highly successful. He was a governor for Rome with a lot of power and prestige. At one point he informed Jesus that he has the power to either free or crucify him, but Jesus told Pilate that’s not true. “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above,” said Jesus to Pilate, “There the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin (John 19:11).”
In verse 20 we see Pilate’s response: he did all he could to set Jesus free.
A third player in this political thriller are the soldiers who carried out the crucifixion of Jesus. Evidently these Roman soldiers overheard Pilate and Jesus’s conversation about his “kingdom.” They fashioned a crown of thorns and clothed him in a purple robe (a color of royalty) and chanted “Hail, king of the Jews!” They also slapped, spit upon and scourged him...then crucified Jesus.
Let’s read how John describes this event and their involvement in John 19:16-24:
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. So the soldiers took charge of Jesus. 17 Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle. 19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. 20 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. 21 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.” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.” 23 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. 24 “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 that said, “They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” So this is what the soldiers did.
These henchmen for Rome were simply doing their job. But they picked up on something that we dare not overlook: Jesus was a “king of the Jews.” At first they mocked this idea (with a crown of thorns and purple robe), but as the day wore on and they got an intimate look at WHO this JESUS really was, some of them changed their tune. Maybe He IS the King of the Jews. Consequently, they tended to his thirst and respected his mother’s presence. Luke 23:47 records that one centurion, upon witnessing Jesus die, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.”
One man got the message about Jesus. But, in general, these Roman soldiers gazed upon the “King”—not just of the Jews—but of all Kings for all time and MISSED it. They were too busy doing their job to think about what their job was actually doing. They even stole every last stitch of clothes Jesus owned, then gambled for his underwear. Jesus was crucified completely naked, exposed to be shamed.
THE WOMEN AT THE CROSS
The most terrible death in the first century was by crucifixion. Cicero declared it was “the most cruel and horrifying death.” Tacitus said it was “despicable.” Originally a Persian form of execution, later picked up by the Greeks, the Romans perfected it. But Rome only used it in the provinces and, initially, only for slaves and eventually the worst of the worst criminals. No Roman would be crucified.
Every crucifixion was preceded by scourging, which was just as terrifying and painful. Often the scourged was left barely able to stand, let alone walk. It was not uncommon for soldiers to employ strong and innocent bystanders to carry the cross beam for the condemned. An African named Simon (from Cyrene in eastern Libya) in town for Passover got that job for Jesus. Mark 15:21 says he’s the father of Alexander and Rufus, which suggest they were known Christians at the time of Mark’s writing. Church tradition says they became missionaries.
We do need to correct one tradition about the cross and that’s its’ construction. Historically, there were three types of crosses: the Greek (X), the Latin (t) and the Roman (T). There’s little doubt that Jesus was crucified on a Roman cross. The vertical beams were already in the ground. The condemned carried their own cross beam that was attached on site.
Roman law stated a criminal had to hang until he was dead, a torture that lasted for days, even up to two weeks. Roman law also did not bury the corpse but let the dogs, vultures and other beasts consume it. Jewish law did not allow a crucified Jew to remain on a cross during Sabbath or Passover (John 19:31). And it had to be buried (by family) or disposed in Gehenna, the garbage fire outside Jerusalem. This is why the Roman soldiers break Jesus’ legs and thrust a spear into his heart. They needed him dead for the Jews, particularly the family waiting, to handle his body before Sabbath started at sundown on Friday.
And now we come to four more players in this drama that we must note. John 19:25-27 gives us one final look into the heart of Jesus:
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to her, “Woman,[b] here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
Of all the thousands that once followed Jesus, of his entourage of believers that traveled with Jesus, of his chosen disciples and closest friends, in the end only FIVE stayed through to the end: four women and John the author of this work. Peter and John Mark are gone. Thomas is doubting. Judas is hanging around somewhere. The rest of the disciples are in hiding behind locked doors.
But four women—three named Mary and her sister. But who are they? And why does John alone record this incident? To understand we must back track to a wedding in Cana. Do you remember who’s wedding it was? And why Jesus’ mother was so interested in ensuring the wine did not run out?
Here in John 19:25 (as well as Mark 15:40) we are given a list of women gathered at the cross: Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary the wife of Cleophas and mother of James the Younger and Joseph. Mary Magdalene and Salome. Mark names Salome but John tells us WHO Salome is (Mary, the mother of Jesus’, sister). Matthew 27:56 tells us Salome was Zebedee’s wife and the mother of James and John (the author of this gospel).
Suddenly this beautiful moment makes sense.
Jesus is JOHN’S cousin. They are also best friends. John is one of Jesus’ inner three disciples. In John’s gospel he always describes himself as “the disciple whom he [Jesus] loved.” And now Jesus is going to gift the care of his mother to closest kin (his cousin John). Remember, other than his mother Mary, Jesus has no family who believes in him. Later his brother James (who authors the epistle of James and pastors the Jerusalem church) will believe, but he hasn’t converted yet. Mary has no one to care for her with Jesus gone. So Jesus tells her that JOHN is now her “son” and that Mary is now John’s MOTHER.
John 19:27 says that “from that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” John cared for Jesus’ mother for the rest of her life. She was with the disciples when the church was born 50 days later on Pentecost (Acts 1:14).
The rest of John 19 describes the final moments of Jesus’ earthly life. His thirst. His final words “It is finished” (which were the exact same words, at the exact same time of 3 p.m., the Jewish High Priest was saying in the temple to end the week of Passover sacrifices). The last lamb was done. The bloody ritual was now over.
Once the soldiers mopped up the situation, finished the paper work and closed the case, Jesus’ corpse was given to a rich man named Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin and a Pharisee who asked Pilate for Jesus’ body) and Nicodemus (the same high-ranking Pharisee who visited Jesus in the middle of the night). They gave Jesus a hasty, yet proper, burial inside a newly cut tomb.
Joseph and Nicodemus were rich, respected and religious. But until this point they followed from a distance or in secret. The Sanhedrin was the group that charged Jesus and invoked his death. These two men had to be politically astute in their own regard, or else they could be next. The disciples had already figured this one out. It’s why they went into hiding. But Joseph and Nicodemus at least work together to give Jesus a burial. Otherwise, his body would’ve been thrown into the Gehenna garbage fire outside of Jerusalem.
It's another amazing story.
And its about to get even more miraculous.
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