They crucified Jesus – and with him two others, ‘on the side and on the side’. But in the middle/centre Jesus(19.18). He is central. In his account of Jesus’ trial and death John shows no interest in others. In the story of Jesus we have come to “my hour”, “my glory”. Of course we cannot ignore the horrendous brutality and cruelty of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion, his unspeakable agony, suffering and humiliation. But this is not John’s emphasis. He wants us to dwell on Jesus’ supremacy. He is indeed ‘in the centre’. As R.E.Brown says in his Anchor Commentary on John’s Gospel, John’s desire is “to continue the theme that Jesus went to his death as sole master of his destiny”. Jesus is central in the story of his trial and death. He is in control of everything. With quiet dignity he submits to all the evil horrors of this climax to his mission on earth. In it all he is indeed the King.
Never mind the others!
In John’s account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion all the other participants pale into insignificance. In his strength, dignity and authority Jesus stands alone.
a) Pilate. Pilate may think he has power and authority (19.10/11), but Jesus puts him down with the comment that Pilate is actually totally dependent. He has no power in himself or even in his office. His authority comes “from above” – Jesus uses the same word as in John 3.3 and 7. The new birth is indeed a birth ‘from above’. What Pilate does is under the controlling hand of the Father in heaven above. In Jesus’ trial Pilate shows himself to be terribly weak, unable to stand up for any sense of justice and truth that he might have had. Frightened of Caesar he surrenders in weakness to the threats of the Jewish authorities and crowds. He is shown to be just a little man under the over-arching power of Rome, easily manipulated by those he claims to rule over.
b) The High-priests. While Pilate claimed political power, the high-priests strutted through Jerusalem with religious authority. But in Jesus’ trial their actual weakness is revealed. They have no power to condemn Jesus to death. Without Pilate’s agreement they cannot get rid of Jesus. Their frustration is clear. And in order to achieve their ends they shock us by disclaiming their faith in God as King and also their supposed expectation of a messianic King. “We have no king but Caesar”, they declared (19.15) – what a sadly negative credal statement! Just imagine a baptismal candidate confessing their faith in such terms! And yet these words come from the mouth of Israel’s leaders, the very high-priests themselves.
c) Simon of Cyrene. All the three other Gospels tell of Simon of Cyrene being dragooned into carrying the cross for Jesus. After the tortures of the previous days they show how Jesus no longer had the strength to carry the cross for himself. But John makes no mention of Simon at all. He wants to show the dignified strength of Jesus, not the agonies of his suffering or any weakness. So John says that Jesus carried the cross for himself (19.17). This was of course true for at least part of the way to Golgotha. But John doesn’t want to have anyone else competing for centre-stage.
d) Two others. Just in passing John mentions that two others were also crucified with Jesus. However, he underlines the fact that they were ‘on the side and on the side, but Jesus in the centre’. The clear emphasis remains on Jesus himself. The two others were peripheral. John does not even mention that they were brigands and makes no mention of what they said while being crucified with Jesus. Jesus alone holds the limelight.
Jesus is the King.
Almost immediately at the outset of Jesus’ trial before Pilate the question of his kingship takes centre-stage. Pilate asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (18.33). From Jesus’ answer that his kingdom is not from this world Pilate then says, ‘You are a king then’ (18.37). Is this a somewhat cynical statement or a surprised question? Jesus carefully does not confirm that he is indeed King, but rather puts it back onto Pilate with the statement that ‘You say I am a king’.
Jesus’ claim to be king meets with cruel mockery by the Roman soldiers. They dressed him in mock regalia with a crown of thorns on his head. In our modern world too, violently cruel humiliation of others can provide a corrupted sense of ‘fun’. It is politically correct to think only of the fundamental good in human nature, but actually in reality there is also a deeply evil side to our human nature.
So Jesus is crucified on the basis of his kingship. Pilate therefore has it written on the cross ” Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. The chief-priests objected, but Pilate insisted (19.19-22). So this proclamation of Jesus as the King of Israel reached out to the multitudes. John points out that the crucifixion took place near the city, so it was read by crowds of people. And John underlines the fact that it was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. This will have enabled everyone to understand. So the Gospel of Jesus as King reached out to ordinary Jews, hellenistic Jews and Latin- or Greek-speaking Gentiles. Throughout his Gospel John has been showing how Jesus is God’s redeeming messiah not only for Jews, but also Gentiles of all ethnic backgrounds. Now even on the cross Jesus’ hour has come and his glory is clearly manifest to all people. He is the king of the Jews, the king of Israel, the king over all peoples, the King of kings. We are called to worship him as our king too.
There is a clear order in John’s account of the crucifixion (19.17-30). After the over-arching statement that Jesus is central, it begins with the emphasis that Jesus is king (19.19-22) and then proceeds to the soldiers dividing his clothes between them “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled” (19.23/24). We are then told how Jesus lovingly makes arrangements for his mother Mary to be joined to John as mother and son (19.25-27). Jesus’ kingship has loving care for others at its heart. This is followed by John again emphasizing the fulfilment of Scripture in Jesus’ call that he is thirsty. The huge importance of the biblical Scriptures is thus written in Bold – and the consequent challenge to us to let the Bible mould our life and thought.
Finally then Jesus bowed his head and “gave up his spirit”. With these words John shows that even in his death Jesus is in control. His spirit is not taken from him – he himself gives up his spirit. We can only bow before him and offer him our total allegiance as our king.
Tetelestai – it is complete (19.30).
This Greek verb signifies more than just that Jesus’ suffering on our behalf has come to an end. It means that the whole purpose of Jesus’ life and death is now complete. His life, his teachings, his miracles, his demonstrations of love, his model of personal relationships all were leading up to their climax in his sacrificial death for us and for our salvation. Now Jesus can declare triumphantly that it is all complete. Now we can be united with him by faith in his gift of new resurrection life which is ‘life abundant’. This life begins with Jesus in this world, it enters into new life here on earth in his resurrection and continues on into eternal life with him in his ascension back to the glorious presence of the Father. That is the good news according to John’s Gospel – life, indeed eternal life, in oneness with Jesus and through him with the Father in glory. So Jesus can bow his head and gloriously cry out “Tetelestai” – it is complete.
Now it is our job not only to worship the king for ourselves and rejoice in this glorious good news. We are now called to proclaim his kingship to all peoples everywhere – in Aramaic, Latin, Greek or any other language! Hindus, Muslims, Jews, nominal Christians, Buddhists, atheists and any other background – they all should hear our wonderful good news of Jesus. Let the brilliantly good news of Jesus be proclaimed throughout the world!