The Death of Jesus
Series: The Gospel of John
Nobody likes when someone is fake, but how do you know who people really are? Actions speak louder than words, and the action of Jesus that most clearly reveals who he is is his death.
I had a good conversation with one of my neighbors recently about fakeness. Philadelphians sometimes get a reputation for being mean, and while there may be some truth to that, one thing I generally appreciate about Philadelphians is you often know where you stand with them. They tell it like it is, in other words, and my neighbor is a great example of this. I talked with her about the 3 years I lived in Texas, and a challenge there actually was that everyone was nice, but a lot of it was fake as you got to know people. How do you know who people really are? As the saying goes, actions speak louder than words. Throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus has also revealed his identity through his actions: He turned water into wine, fed 5000 people with a few loaves and fish, walked on water, gave sight to the blind, healed the sick, raised the dead, and more. But the final act that really revealed Jesus’ identity was his death. If you really want to know who Jesus is, you must know this. Jesus’ death reveals Jesus’ identity in at least 5 ways: The cross, the fulfilled scriptures, the new family, the water and the blood, and the burial.
Now Pilate has handed Jesus over to be crucified, and our passage begins with the soldiers taking Jesus and him going out from Pilate’s headquarters, bearing his own cross. This was likely the horizontal piece of the cross, which would then have been nailed to the vertical piece. Jesus was, then, carrying a piece of wood to the place where he would be offered as a sacrifice. For readers familiar with the Old Testament, as at least some of John’s audience would have been, it’s hard not to think of the story of Isaac. Isaac was the son of Abraham, and Abraham was a man God revealed himself to and who God made the father of the Israelite nation. He promised Abraham that in his offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed, but then he commanded Abraham to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to him. And on the way to being sacrificed, Isaac carried the wood for the altar on which he was to be sacrificed. Even an ancient Jewish commentator on that passage compared Isaac’s carrying of the wood to the way a criminal carries his cross on the way to his crucifixion. Jesus’ carrying of his cross reveals that he was the ultimate offspring of Abraham, the true and better Isaac, who carried this wood on his back to be sacrificed for us.
Viewed through the lenses of Scripture, we can see that. But don’t miss that through the eyes of the world, this is a most shameful position for Jesus to be in. Imagine him publicly walking through the main streets to go outside the city to this place of the skull, bearing a symbol of shame on his back. Crucifixion was the worst way to be executed in the Roman Empire, reserved for the worst of its criminals. For a Roman citizen to be crucified, the emperor himself would have to approve it. Yet here is Jesus, the truly righteous one, bearing a cross, and going out from the city of Jerusalem, being visibly excluded from his own people. Elsewhere Jesus tells us that if anyone would come after him, he too must deny himself, take up his own cross daily, and follow Jesus. The path Jesus takes here is the path we all must take: To be willing to be shamed in the eyes of the world, to be willing to be excluded and even killed for our teaching or actions in the name of Jesus. Often in my years as a Christian when I’d hear Jesus say things like that, I’d think to myself, “Right, I must be willing to, but I probably won’t have to.” Don’t tell yourself that. Certainly some are persecuted more than others and in America it seems unlikely right now that you’d have to give your life for saying what Jesus said and living like Jesus lived, but you will experience exclusion and shame in some measure if you are simply willing to be open and honest about what the Bible teaches and live in accordance with it. So don’t be surprised when it happens. Don’t try to avoid it. Count the cost of following Jesus.
Sure enough, when he arrives at the place of the skull, Golgotha, in Latin called Calvary, from their word for skull, they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. When Isaac carried the wood to the place where he was to be sacrificed, God provided a ram to be sacrificed in his place, so that Isaac could survive. Here there is no ram for Jesus, though; he was the ram. There was no substitute for Jesus; he was the substitute for us. So he was nailed to, and lifted up on, this cross, along with two others. Now not only does Jesus face the pain of carrying the cross and the shame and exclusion that came with it; he experiences the physical pain of crucifixion: Nails through his hands and feet, and then the pain of having to hold yourself up just so you can continue breathing. How does this reveal who Jesus was? Well throughout the Old Testament there are various predictions of a suffering servant, who would suffer for the sins of the people. We’re even told in Isaiah 53 that he would be numbered with the transgressors, and here we see Jesus suffering for the sins of the people alongside two genuine transgressors. It’s also how he said he was going to die: In John 12, he said that he would be lifted up from the earth, and so here, on the cross, he is lifted up. His words are proven true, and he is shown to be the prophesied suffering servant.
Not only that, but on the cross there is an inscription that further reveals and affirms Jesus’ true identity. Pilate wrote on there in three different languages, “King of the Jews.” He probably did that to spite the Jews, not because of any actual faith in him. But nonetheless, he refused to remove it, and by God’s providence, he wrote what was true of Jesus: He was truly the king of the Jews, the Jewish Messiah, or to use the Greek term, the Christ. And his throne, the high position to which he was lifted, where that affirmation of him was finally made clearly for all the world to see, was on a cross. The suffering servant and the Christ are one in the same. Jesus is the truly good and merciful king, who died for his rebellious subjects. He is the true King of the Jews, and yet this inscription is written not only in Aramaic, the language of the Jews of that day, but in Greek, the language of the people, and in Latin, the language of the Roman officials, foreshadowing that one day this Christ who was now crucified, would be confessed as Lord by people from all nations.
So the cross reveals Jesus’ identity in that his carrying of the cross reveals him to be the true and better Isaac, the substitutionary sacrifice for us, the shame and suffering of the cross reveals him to be the prophesied suffering servant, and the inscription reveals him to be the true Christ, the king of the Jews, who one day will rule over all the nations. Next we have the fulfilled scriptures.
The fulfilled Scriptures
Once they crucify Jesus, they end up divvying up his garments and casting lots for his tunic, which was not easily dividable. John tells us this was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” There are a few interesting features of this scripture quotation. It comes from Psalm 22, which isn’t obviously a prediction of something in the future. It’s written by King David, seemingly about himself. At that time, he was the king of the Jews, and yet here he wrote of sufferings that as far as we know, he never experienced in his lifetime. We don’t have a story of men dividing his garments and casting lots for his clothing. But we do have this description, from David, of the king of the Jews suffering in that way. Somehow, however, the Jews of Jesus’ day did not expect the Christ, the promised king of the Jews, to suffer. They expected him to come in and be victorious over the Romans. Even in John 6, people try to come and take Jesus to make him king, without having to go through the cross. The Jews of Jesus’ day expected a suffering servant and a conquering king, but it never occurred to them that those would be the same person, even though David himself, Israel’s greatest conquering king, suffered, wrote openly of his sufferings, and even seems to write of sufferings he never personally experienced.
So Jesus’ death doesn’t merely fulfill a prediction; it fulfills an office, a type, a role. Just as we saw him as the true and better Isaac, so he is true and better David, the conquering king who conquers through the suffering and shame of the cross. Mind you that David wrote the words of Psalm 22 500-1000 years before Jesus was born, and yet down to the detail, we see them fulfilled in Jesus’ death. They divide his garments; they cast lots for his tunic. That’s not the only Scripture he fulfills, though. In verse 28, we read that Jesus said, “I thirst” in order to fulfill the Scriptures. Here the reference is likely to Psalm 69, another psalm of David, where he describes his suffering including people giving him sour wine to drink. So here, they put a sponge of sour wine on a hyssop branch and hold it up to his mouth. Once again, down to the details, Jesus fulfills the sufferings of the Christ. Here was the one who earlier in the Gospel of John offered a woman living water. He told her that if anyone drinks the water he gives, they will never be thirsty again. In chapter 7 he called whoever was thirsty to come to him and drink, and said that whoever believes in him will have springs of living water flowing out of them. But now on our behalf, he thirsts, and receives nothing but sour wine to drink.
When he had received the wine in verse 30 we read that he said, “It is finished,” bowed his head, and gave up his spirit. No one took his life from him; he laid it down when he had finished his work. What was it that Jesus finished? He revealed the glory of God in his teaching, his character, and the miracles he worked. He called his own out of the world, they followed him, and he has lost none of all that the Father gave to him. He taught them, he prayed for them, and now he has offered himself for them. He loved them to the end, he fulfilled the scriptures regarding his life and death, and he obeyed the charge he received from his father. Ultimately, he finished the work of our salvation. From the beginning, for man to receive eternal life, God required personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience. This was signified to the first man in the command to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, along with the curse that in the day he eats of it, he would surely die. He ate of it, and so the curse of death was handed down, and he was removed from the garden, that he might not eat from the tree of life, and live forever. So now for anyone to receive eternal life, not only does God require personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience, but God requires a sacrifice for sin, to pay the penalty of death that our sin incurred. Now here is Jesus, completing his obedience by obeying the Father’s charge to go to the cross, and here is Jesus, offering the sacrifice for sin, paying the penalty that we deserve. So he truly can say, “It is finished,” and breathe his last.
We aren’t, then, still waiting for our salvation to be accomplished. It is finished! We aren’t still waiting for the scriptures that prophesied a savior to be fulfilled; Jesus has fulfilled them! Consider two ways of thinking about eternal life using an illustration I got from another pastor named Kevin DeYoung. Let’s compare it to a long jump: Say God says you must jump 30 feet to receive eternal life. The way most people think about salvation, then, is that all of us need to do our best, and God will do the rest. The closer you get, the better your chances. So there are people who do humanitarian work, they’re really close and almost definitely will receive eternal life. If you’ve seen the TV show “The Good Place,” that’s the basic idea promoted there. Then there are some really bad people out there who don’t do their best: Racists, serial killers, child abusers, etc., and God probably sends them to hell. But of course, everyone assumes they aren’t one of them, and that since they’re doing their best, God will do the rest and give them eternal life even though they didn’t quite jump 30 feet. That’s totally wrong according to the Bible, though, and it doesn’t provide real and lasting comfort to those who believe it, because deep down you know you haven’t tried your best, and you haven’t jumped 30 feet. As long as you’re trying to be saved in that way, the work is never finished, and you can never rest.
The problem we have, though, according to the Bible, is not so much that we’re trying our best, but just can’t quite get there. The problem we have is that we’re all running in the other direction. The problem we have is that God is on the other end of the 30-foot jump, and we hate him, so we’re trying our best to get away from him. Here’s how salvation actually works, then: God comes to us. He traverses the 30 feet by becoming human in Jesus, then Jesus jumps the 30 feet for us, in our place, says “It is finished,” and then looks at us and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” “Whoever thirsts, let him come to me and drink, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” That’s why we describe faith in Jesus as receiving and resting upon him alone for salvation. Becoming a Christian, exercising faith upon Christ, is not saying, “I’m going to start doing better.” That implies that salvation is still your work, and you’re just trusting Jesus to help you do it. But Jesus finished the work! So the moment you believe in him, you receive eternal life. The moment you believe in him, you receive the gold medal for the 30 foot jump, not because you jumped it, but because he did. Perhaps you consider yourself a follower of Jesus, perhaps you’re trying to live like him, perhaps you’re trying to live a better life. But have you received and rested upon Jesus and His finished work for your salvation? Receive and rest upon him today. His death fulfilled the Scriptures, and finished everything necessary for your salvation. You wake up every day with work to do, but the most important work of your life is already finished.
In the middle of Jesus finishing the fulfillment of these scriptures, though, he entrusts his mother to John, and in this we see him forming a new family.
The new family
So in verse 25 we read that Jesus’ mother, Mary, stood by with other women when he was being crucified, and Jesus, at a time when it would be natural for anyone to be thinking primarily of themselves and their own pain, thinks instead of his mother, and in order to provide for her ongoing care, something God commands children to do for their parents in their old age in the command to honor mother and father, Jesus entrusts her to John, the disciple he loved. Here we see that personal, perfect, and perpetual obedience God requires. Jesus honored his mother and father even at the hour of his death and worst pain. Not only that, but he is fulfilling his own word about his death. Jesus said he would die by being lifted up, and he was. He also said that through his death he would gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. It’s noteworthy even in verse 26, that when he speaks to his mother, he addresses her as woman, not as mother. Through his death, he’s creating a new family that transcends his natural family. It doesn’t abolish his natural family; he still honors his mother uniquely and provides for her care in obedience to the 5th commandment. But the more important relation to him is now not as a son to a mother but as a savior to one of the children of God, who he is now gathering to another child of God, John. He is the Christ who came to gather the children of God into one new family, where we are brother and sister, father and mother, not by biological descent, but by the unity we have in Christ.
That means where we have elderly members in our church, we have a role to play in caring for them; it’s not just their children’s job. Certainly their children should honor them, and we all should honor our parents by caring for them in their old age, but for those who do not have children, for those whose children passed before them, or whose children simply refuse to care for them, the church should actually come together to care for them. That’s our family. For those of us who are older, when we see younger people come into the church who are new to the city, that’s your family now. That’s your son or daughter or your little brother or sister; take them under your wing and help them learn how to walk with Jesus here. When we see people baptized and added to the membership of the church, that’s a new member of our family. Get to know them, invite them into your life, and consider how you can help them toward greater maturity in Christ and good works. When you know someone in your church has no one to spend a holiday with, invite them to spend it with you. They’re your family now. When someone doesn’t have a place to live, invite them to live with you. They’re your family now. Jesus reveals that he is the Christ who came to gather into one the children of God scattered abroad by the new family he forms. He then reveals it in the water and the blood.
The water and the blood
We read in verse 31 that since it was the day of preparation, the day before the Sabbath, the Jews didn’t want to leave the bodies hanging on the crosses. So they asked that their legs be broken, which would have prevented them from holding themselves up to continue breathing. The soldiers oblige and start with the criminals on the outside before coming to Jesus and realizing he’s dead. So they don’t strike him, but instead pierce his side with a spear, and water and blood flows out. This is significant for a few reasons. First, it fulfills more Scripture: So we read that it fulfilled the Scriptures that not one of his bones be broken, and that they will look on him whom they have pierced. The requirement that not a bone be broken was a biblical requirement of the sacrificial lamb in the Passover. Jesus’ death is taking place right around the Passover, and John the Baptist already identified him as the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. So here, Jesus’ death reveals that he is the lamb of God, whose sacrifice takes away our sins.
The piercing of his side is part of the fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10, where God says they will look on him, on him whom they have pierced. So in a way mysterious at that time, God was going to be pierced. Again, Jesus’ death again reveals his identity: He is God the Son, come in the flesh, who was pierced. So scripture continues to be fulfilled, but we’ve talked about how Jesus fulfills scripture in his death. What about the water and the blood? There’s no scripture that seems to fulfill; so why does John even tell us about it? On the one hand, it shows that Jesus was truly human, and truly dead, but on the other, there is a rich symbolism to water and blood throughout the Gospel of John. Water symbolizes eternal life; blood, on the other hand, obviously symbolizes death. So what the water and blood coming out of Jesus together shows us, is that eternal life comes to us through the death of Jesus. He is the one in whom was life, and the way that life gets to us is he willingly lays down his life, that we might live. He thirsts on the cross, so that we might drink from the rivers of living water. Where else are you looking for satisfaction? All who are thirsty, come to him and drink.
And finally, his burial reveals something of who he is.
Our passage today concludes with the story of Jesus’ burial. In verse 38 we read of Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews. Throughout John, it’s a definite negative character trait to be a secret disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews. John describes such people as those who love the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God (John 12:43). But here it seems that Joseph of Arimathea comes out of hiding and does something public that would identify him as a disciple of Jesus. He asks Pilate for the body of Jesus in order to bury Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. Then we read in verse 39 that Nicodemus also came to help with the burial. Nicodemus, John reminds us, had come to Jesus by night earlier, which was in secret. Later in John, he appears again as a pharisee still, but then standing up for Jesus a bit, without publicly identifying with Jesus. It seems, then, that he was another who had perhaps become a disciple of Jesus, but did not make it public for fear of the Jews. Now here, like Joseph of Arimathea, he engages in the public act of burying Jesus. He brings aloe and myrrh, a common part of the burial ritual at the time, designed to mitigate the smell and slow the process of a rotting corpse.
It’s hard to know exactly what John wants us to take away from this, but I’m inclined to see in it a foreshadowing of how Jesus’ death will empower those who are truly his disciples to be his disciples publicly. In a sense, here, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus “take sides” with a dead man, who died a shameful death as a convicted criminal. Yet they take up their cross, and go to him outside the city, to honor him with burial. In his burial, then, we are meant to see that Jesus is one who can work this change in even those of us who are naturally timid. We’ll see the same change in Peter when he is restored, after having denied Jesus three times, and throughout the history of the early church once they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift they were able to receive because Jesus died for them. This is the change Jesus now works in those who come to him by faith. He empowers you to go public, which you do first by being publicly baptized and publicly identifying with a particular church of Jesus Christ, and then by being ready always to give an answer for the hope that is in you. If you want to learn more about how to do that in this church, sign up for the baptism and membership class coming up.
Finally, I’ll close by noting the place of Jesus’ burial. He was buried in a new tomb, in a garden where no one had been laid. The first man, Adam, was formed from the dirt of the ground, and given a garden as his first home. When he sinned against God, the curse pronounced on him was that he was dust, and to dust he would now return, only he was removed from the garden and never buried in it. Now here is Jesus, the new Adam, who has suffered the death Adam incurred, and who has returned to the ground, only he was buried in a garden, in anticipation of rising from the dead, as a new Adam, and the head of a new humanity. Three days later he did just that. He is the true and better Isaac, who carried the wood for his sacrifice, to be sacrificed as our substitute. He is the true king of the Jews, and one day people from every tribe and language will bow their knees and confess that he is Lord. He fulfilled the scriptures as both the suffering servant and the conquering king. He fulfilled all that was necessary for our salvation, and so finished the work. By his death, he gathered the children of God scattered abroad into a new family. By the blood that he poured out, living water now flows to whoever comes to him and drinks. And he was buried to be risen again, the head of a new creation. So receive and rest upon him and his finished work for your salvation, come to him and drink, take up your cross and follow him, love the new family of which he’s made you a part, and come out of hiding to identify with Jesus publicly.