Good Friday reflection

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It is finished! Powerful chapter on the crucifixion from Roy Millar’s beautiful and rich devotional commentary, Come and See.

Finished! 

19:17-22 He went out, bearing his cross, to the place called ‘The Place of a Skull’, which is called in Hebrew, ‘Golgotha’, where they crucified him, and with him two others, on either side one, and Jesus in the middle. Pilate wrote a title also, and put it on the cross. There was written, ‘JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ Therefore many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek.  

The chief priests of the Jews therefore said to Pilate, ‘Don’t write, “The King of the Jews,” but, “he said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’”’  

Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’ 

John is very economical in his description of the events of the crucifixion, which again indicates that the accounts in the other Gospels were widely known. He selected incidents that focus on the identity of Jesus and the purpose of His life and death, and those that connect these crucial events with the previous Scriptures. Thus John described the journey to the place of crucifixion in a few words: ‘He went out, bearing his cross’. It was indeed His cross, for Jesus, as the suffering Son of Man, had voluntarily chosen this path to glory. John retained the Hebrew word Golgotha, perhaps as a reminder that Jesus travelled there as the Jewish Messiah. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was subsequently built on this site.  

John simply stated the facts of the crucifixion without its brutal details. Other sources reveal that it was designed to inflict prolonged and extreme suffering and humiliation, partly as a warning to others. What John does highlight is that Jesus did not suffer alone, but was crucified between two other people. The other Gospels document the contrasting ways in which each of these two men regarded Jesus, having been brutally thrust into His company. One man recognised who Jesus was and responded in faith. The other saw only a weak and helpless victim of the power of Rome and continued to ridicule Him, in company with the religious leaders, passers-by and soldiers. The world was thus united in contempt for the Lord of glory.

The words placarded on the cross described the crime for which Jesus was accused and for which He was being executed. Pilate had presented Jesus to the religious leaders with the words, ‘Behold, your King!’ The chief priests had exerted maximum pressure on Pilate with their statement, ‘We have no king but Caesar!’ Perhaps he was now reinforcing the symbolism of washing his hands during the trial and indicating to the Jewish leaders that they, rather then he, were responsible for the execution of Jesus.

The notice was written in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. One possible version of the Hebrew script, illustrated in a painting by Fra Angelico (1434 ce), would have resulted in an acronym for the ineffable covenant name of God. If this was the case, the inscription would have caused the greatest possible offence to the Jewish leaders. Pilate may have been unaware of the significance of the particular wording, but the possibility is intriguing. Pilate took the opportunity to reassert his superior position by refusing to alter the inscription. Thus the words, ‘What I have written, I have written’, corresponded to John’s assertion that all the details of the crucifixion were to fulfil the (written) Scriptures. The use of the three languages emphasises that Jesus died not only as the King of the Jews but also as the Lamb of God for the sin of the world, including the other sheep that were not of the Jewish fold.

19:23-24 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took his garments and made four parts, to every soldier a part; and also the coat. Now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout. Then they said to one another, ‘Let’s not tear it, but cast lots for it to decide whose it will be,’ that the Scripture might be fulfilled, which says, ‘They parted my garments amongst them. For my cloak they cast lots.’ Therefore the soldiers did these things. 

It appears that four soldiers were responsible for each crucifixion and that they were entitled to keep the bloodstained clothes which in this case comprised five items, one of which was a long, closely woven garment worn close to the skin (a chiton). The chiton was considered to be of greatest value, so they cast lots for it. John emphasised that the soldiers’ actions were in order to fulfil Scripture. Of course, they would have been innocent of this fact and were simply following the usual practice. God weaves His tapestry from such unlikely materials, thereby revealing His glory. 

19:25-27 But standing by Jesus’ cross were his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Therefore when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’ From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home. 

Four women followed the grim procession to Golgotha, remaining faithful to the end. The beloved disciple, assumed to be the apostle John, accompanied them but there is no indication that any other male disciples were present. The religious leaders who mocked Jesus had no concern for those who, in quiet and dignified sorrow, watched Him suffer. There are obvious parallels in the modern world where religious fanatics still trample on the followers of Jesus, and even crucify them in imitation of His suffering. 

Jesus’ attitude was very different from the mockers. He who had said ‘Father, forgive them’ in relation to the soldiers, and ‘today you will be with me in Paradise’ to the dying thief, now looked at His mother with compassion and concern, and committed her to the care of His faithful disciple with the words, ‘Behold, your son … Behold, your mother’. At the marriage in Cana, Jesus had indicated a new relationship with Mary. As far as we know, Mary’s other sons did not yet believe in Jesus. He had previously described His disciples in this way: ‘Behold, my mother and my brothers!’ Mary was His mother in a double sense, both as His birth mother and as His disciple, so Jesus entrusted Mary to the care of His spiritual brother John. After Jesus ascended, Mary was with the other disciples in the Upper Room, now including her other sons who had previously been among the sceptics but who now believed that Jesus was the Son of God.

19:28-30 After this, Jesus, seeing that all things were now finished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, ‘I am thirsty.’ Now a vessel full of vinegar was set there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop, and held it at his mouth. When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, ‘It is finished.’ He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit. 

John does not describe the three hours of darkness and the other phenomena that Matthew had already recorded in detail, but we can safely assume that his readers were conversant with this information and that they would have known that it was now the ninth hour (3pm). This corresponded with the time of the evening sacrifice in the Temple. Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty’, because He was fully human and, by this stage, He would certainly have been experiencing a raging physical thirst.  

Jesus, as a Jewish man, would have been very familiar with Psalm 22, and the words would have been a natural way to describe His distress. The psalm was originally a poetic way in which David expressed his own painful experiences and his inner turmoil, but it was also prophetic of the suffering of the Messiah. Jesus was not simply ticking off items that were necessary in order to fulfil biblical prophecy, but He would have been aware of the many detailed connections with His crucifixion, including the intense thirst that He experienced. There was a double significance, for He also thirsted to drink the cup that His Father had given Him.

The soldiers only understood the physical component of His thirst, and they offered Him hyssop soaked in sour wine; in so doing they also were unwittingly fulfilling Scripture. Hyssop had been used to apply the blood of the Passover lamb to the lintels and doorposts of the Israelites’ houses in Egypt, in order to protect the firstborn sons from death. Jesus, the true Passover Lamb, was slain to deliver His people from death and from slavery to sin. Hyssop was also used to sprinkle water in situations of ritual uncleanness, and David recognised that this symbolised the need for cleansing of the heart. Jesus shed His blood for our forgiveness, to deliver us from the penalty and the power of sin, and also to cleanse us from its shame and pollution.

The climax had now arrived, emphasised by the triple use of the same Greek word root (teleo), once translated ‘fulfilled’, and twice translated ‘finished’. Jesus cried out and released His spirit to the Father. This statement has several connections and applications. Firstly, it applied to Jesus in a very personal way. He had lived His life in perfect trust and obedience to His Father and now surrendered that life to Him in an ultimate act of obedience. By so doing, Jesus fulfilled the description by John the Baptist, for He offered Himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  

In the second place, it marked the completion of the long journey that had begun in Eden with the promise of the seed of the woman who would bruise the serpent’s head. That journey had continued through the Patriarchs and the prophets of Israel and had remained intact, notwithstanding the repeated disloyalty and failure of the covenant people. Now the story of salvation history had successfully reached its goal in the suffering of the Messiah. He shouted in triumph over the powers of darkness that He had decisively defeated. This paralleled the events at the Red Sea, and marked the beginning of a new Exodus into freedom and covenant relationship with God for all who would follow Him. 

Finally, in draining the bitter cup of suffering, Jesus now looked forward to drinking the sweet fruit of the vine, along with His redeemed followers, in His Father’s Kingdom. The cross was a climax in the story, but not the final one. In John’s vision in the book of Revelation he records similar words from the throne of God: ‘It is done! I have become the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. I will give freely to him who is thirsty from the spring of the water of life.’ Jesus’ suffering, thirst and experience of abandonment will have this final outcome for all His people. The ultimate goal will have been reached, when God will once again be present among His people and everything will be made new.  

John was an eyewitness of the crucifixion and he alone recorded this cry. That declaration of completion set in motion a series of events that Matthew and Mark recorded. The great curtain that concealed the Most Holy Place in the Temple was torn from top to bottom, an earthquake shook the district and a number of deceased saints were raised to life. 

Three rabbis referred to events that happened during the year of Jesus’ crucifixion and forty years before the destruction of the Temple. The heavy doors swung open, the western lamp was extinguished and from that time the sacrifices lost their efficacy. One of the rabbis lamented that these events were portents of the coming destruction of the Temple: ‘Temple. O Temple, why do you grieve? I know that they will come to destroy you, for the prophet Zechariah had foretold of you, “Open your doors O Lebanon, that the fire may devour your cedars.”’  

Another rabbi said, ‘It [the Temple] is called Lebanon, because it whitens Israel’s sins.’ Truly, the old order was finished and would soon disappear.

19:31-37 Therefore the Jews, because it was the Preparation Day, so that the bodies wouldn’t remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a special one), asked of Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Therefore the soldiers came, and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who was crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was already dead, they didn’t break his legs. However one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. He who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, that you may believe. For these things happened that the Scripture might be fulfilled, ‘A bone of him will not be broken.’ Again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they pierced.’ 

For the third time John referred to the Jewish leaders’ concern about the fact that the crucifixion was on a day when they needed to prepare for Passover, also described as a high day of Sabbath. John made a clear connection between the slaying of the Passover Lamb and the suffering and death of Jesus. The apostle Paul wrote that ‘Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed in our place’.Jesus was crucified both on the day of Passover and on the day of preparation for Passover. 

Once again, the Jewish leaders emerged in their true colours. The breaking of legs would shorten the duration of the ordeal. The brutal intervention would not actually cause sudden death and was only requested in order to avoid ritual contamination on the ensuing holy day. Having disposed of Jesus, this was their only remaining concern. 

John emphasised that he was writing as a first-hand witness of what took place. He also provided an interpretation of what he saw, although this may have been on the basis of a subsequent reflection rather than an immediate revelation. He connected the two events with two scriptures, one a historical incident and the other a written prophecy. Prophecy can take the form of words or actions, as we have seen in the life and writings of David. 

The first connection was with the Passover lamb. The Israelites who were about to escape from bondage in Egypt were instructed to roast the lamb and to preserve its bones intact. Unlike the other two victims, Jesus’ legs were not broken, and John understood the significance of this fact. He had heard John the Baptist proclaim, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God’, and now he saw this identity graphically enacted in the suffering of Jesus. The Israelites had been instructed to eat the lamb just before the Exodus from Egypt. The blood of the lamb had been instrumental in saving them from slavery and death. As Jesus contemplated His imminent death on the cross, He said, ‘Now is the judgement of this world. Now the prince of this world will be cast out.’

The flesh of the lamb nourished the Israelites as they commenced their journey to the Promised Land. Jesus said, ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me, and I in him.’

The second connection was with the daily morning and evening sacrifices in the Temple. The book of Exodus reveals that these two sacrifices were required to make it possible for the Lord to continue to dwell among His people. When Jesus was crucified, He offered Himself for the sins of the world, just as John the Baptist had revealed. A lamb was offered in the Temple at the third hour (9 am) when Jesus was nailed to the cross. Jesus declared that His work on the cross was complete and committed His spirit to His Father’s care at the ninth hour (3 pm), approximately the time when the second lamb was being offered. 

Jesus died as the Passover Lamb, thus setting us free (redeeming us) from bondage to sin and death. As the burnt offering, He removed the guilt and uncleanness of sin that separated us from God. When Jesus died, the veil of the Temple was torn apart from top to bottom, opening the new and living way into God’s presence.

The apostle John witnessed the piercing of Jesus’ side and the outflowing of blood and water. Blood symbolises life, poured out for our redemption and for the forgiveness of sins. The prophet Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be pierced for our transgressions. Jesus subsequently showed His pierced hands and side to Thomas as evidence of the truth of who He was and of what He had done. Water speaks of cleansing and also functions as a symbol for the Holy Spirit, as is the case throughout John’s Gospel. The Holy Spirit would be given on the basis of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

The prophet Zechariah spoke of a time, yet to come, when the people of Israel will recognise the identity of the Messiah, whom they pierced. This will result in national repentance and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon them, and in unprecedented blessing for the world.

Check back on Sunday for a fantastic reflection on the empty tomb from Shaun Lambert!

(Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash)

  • Roy Millar

    Roy has been married to Rosemary for 49 years. They have three children and seven grandchildren. He was a surgeon, retiring twenty years ago in order to have more time for Bible study and teaching, which had long been major features of his life.

  • Come and See

    Roy Millar

    Come and See walks us through John’s Gospel from beginning to end. Spread across fifty-two concise and accessible chapters that match the fifty-two weeks of the year, this perceptive commentary helps us see Jesus through John’s contemporary eyes and challenges us to say ‘yes’ to Jesus’ invitation to follow Him today.