Lifted Up on High
Last week we saw the fateful decision of the Jewish leaders to accept Caesar and reject Jesus. This was in effect the end of the Jewish nation. No longer do the physical descendants of Abraham through Jacob have any exclusive privilege with God. The way was being prepared for a new understanding of God’s people. As we remember in John 3:16, God was opening the doors to anyone and everyone who believes in His Son Jesus Christ. These are the true children of the promise, the children of Abraham.
It is interesting to note the Roman custom of adoption here. When a man adopted a son, the natural father would present him to the adoptive father three times. After each of the first two presentations, the son was returned to the natural father. But when he was presented and accepted the third time, he was for ever adopted into the new family. The old family had no further claim, and the adopted son had privilege even the natural sons of the adoptive father did not have. The adopted son could not be disinherited.
Whereas we must be careful not to bind God to human customs and laws, it is interesting to note that Paul alludes in both Romans and Galatians that we have received this adoption (Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:5). This is a privilege God has bestowed upon us by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus. To those who believe, the gates of the Kingdom of God are open wide.
In an ironic way, the Jewish state ended with a threefold rejection of Jesus. Three times Pilate had presented Jesus to them as King of the Jews. Three times they had rejected him. The fact it happened three times indicates that their rejection was willful and complete. They had become un-adopted. Or in another sense, they were adopted by Caesar. They were now the children of Rome instead of God. The Devil was their new father.
A relationship of almost two thousand years had come to an end. It is indeed sad that a nation of people who had been given so much more than all of the other nations would come to sad end. But we must also remember that the “whosoever will” applies to people of Israelite descent as well as to the Gentile nations. But now the ground was level and fair. It was to be an election of grace rather than race.
Exposition of the Text
John 19:16. We covered this verse last week. Pilate turned Jesus over to their will that He might be crucified. The verb “handed over” (Greek παραδίδωμι) is the same verb which describes Judas’ action in betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities as well as the Jewish authorities turning over Jesus to Pilate. Now in a sense, Pilate has to be seen as betraying Jesus to the will of the Jewish people. The Governor was responsible as a patron to the people he governed to enforce the law fairly. It was his responsibility by the Roman law he knew and the Law of God which he did not know to protect the innocent from false prosecution. Three times he had rendered a not guilty verdict. And yet, he allowed Jesus to be turned over to be crucified. And if we wanted to be honest about it, we all have betrayed Jesus to the cross because of our sin, the Jewish leaders and the crowd stood for all the Jews, and Pilate for all the Gentiles. None of our hands would be clean from the shedding of Jesus blood were it not that it is by the supreme act of God’s grace that this very betrayal would become the basis of our salvation. He did not go to the cross to put us on a guilt trip but to free us from our guilt.
It must be remembered that faith in Jesus and repentance toward God is necessary for our being set free. This is not a carte blanche acquittal for us. It is for the “whosoever will” not just the “whosoever.” Those who reject Jesus after the cross are even more guilty than either the Jewish leaders and people, or Pilate. Those who reject the gospel are in the worst danger of all. They have no excuse for sin whose excuse is not Jesus death for our sin. The Gospel then is the message of eternal life and reward to those who believe and eternal death and punishment to those who reject. The Bible presents no middle ground. It is win all or lose all.
It says they took Jesus. But we must remember that He went willingly.
John 19:17. The Gospel of John does not mention Jesus’ fainting under the weight of the cross. This may have to do with the people to whom John was writing the Gospel. Perhaps some of them saw Jesus as the unfortunate victim of the anger of men and religious intolerance, much as people today think. In fact even in times of human weakness, Jesus is actually in complete control of the situation. We saw this at the woman at the well and at Jesus appearance before Pilate. Even in the moment of supreme human weakness where He cries “I’m thirsty! (John 19:28), it was said that he did this to fulfill Scripture. John does not deny that Jesus is fully human. After all, it is John who makes the powerful declaration that “The Word was made flesh” (John 1:14). But John wants us to know that Jesus is more than a mere man. He is God’s Son.
So John simply refers that Jesus bore His own cross. Simon of Cyrene helped the physically weakened Jesus carry the cross part of the way to Golgotha. But no one could ever carry that cross in a spiritual sense. Only Jesus could bear that cross of curse for us. We are instead asked to bear our own cross, not His. And this cross is just a reflection of the Master’s cross. We cannot save anyone. Our bearing our own cross for Jesus’ sake can only point to Calvary where Jesus suffered and died for us.
The place where Jesus died is called “Skull Place” (Κρανίου Τόπον in Greek). There isn’t any agreement where Jesus was actually crucified. The Catholics hold to one hill and the Protestants generally think a place called Gordon’s Calvary is tha actual place because the hillside there resembles a human skull. But we do tend to see Jesus hanging from a high hill on a high cross, way above eye level. But this is not how the Romans crucified their victims.
Roman crucifixion was an “in-your-face” punishment. It was not only meant to be an extremely painful and slow death physically. It was also meant to be an absolute humiliation of the victim. The victim was crucified in a very public place usually along the side of the road where many would pass by and could see the horrible suffering of the victim just a few feet away. The victim was close enough to look in the eye. This leads me to believe he was crucified at the side of the road near the gate of the city, probably before the skull-shaped hill called Gordon’s Calvary.
One can only imagine how horrible death by crucifixion was. Think about the flies swarming an biting that you can’t swat. Perhaps there was a raven or two taking a peck at you. Imagine the sunburn on the naked flesh. Imagine the pain and struggle for every breath as you had to push your feet against the nails to hold yourself upright to breath. These all drive you to madness. The onlookers add to your misery by casting insults at you or spitting on you. They taunt you and you are helpless to fight back. And if any mercy is shown, it isn’t the drink of bitter vinegar to allay your searing thirst. It is that you hung there on the day before the Sabbath and someone broke your legs so that you would die quicker.
So was the experience of crucifixion. The fact those who were crucified swore and acted like wild beasts only acted to make the crowds taunts greater. Surely this person on the cross was guilty, a mere animal who is getting what he deserves. Little sympathy was offered to the victim. One would be afraid to lest they suffer the same fate. In fact, the purpose of crucifixion was a warning to behave or else.
But Jesus was in control of Himself, even on the cross. He heart the taunts. He felt the pain. Depending on how one understands how Jesus quoted Psalm 22:1, the only complaint offered was one of feeling forsaken by God. (I think we must read all of Psalm 22, especially Psalm 22:24 which clearly states that God did not turn His face from Jesus). And John does not mention this quotation. Jesus is Lord of the cross. So composed was He on the cross that a Roman Centurion who had seen many crucifixions was led to say “Surely this man was the Son of God Mark 15:39).
John is also quiet about all the taunting. We know from the other Gospels about this, but John centers in on what Jesus did for us there. The details, the blood and gore, he leaves out. This isn’t what is ultimately important. Jesus is already looking beyond the cross.
John 19:18. John simply mentions that Jesus was crucified. And instead of providing more detail, he says that there we two others crucified with Him, one on each side. I think again, John leaves them out to keep the focus on Jesus. Seeing that John was the only eyewitness among the disciples, it does make me wonder why he did not mention the conversion of one of the two thieves as Luke did (Luke 23:39-43). I guess I will just have to wait to see John.
John 19:19. John mentions that Pilate himself wrote the placard that was placed above Jesus’ head. Those who passed by would know the crime for which the accused was dying, a reminder not to do likewise. One would wonder if Pilate directly inscribed the placard or dictated it to one of his servants. One would wonder how much knowledge of Hebrew Pilate would have had. Either way, It was Pilate who decided what was to be put there. This verse also would indicate that Pilate placed it over Jesus’ head himself as well. But there is no indication that Pilate was physically present at the scene of crucifixion. Perhaps then it is best to think that Pilate dictated the charges and ordered their placement over the cross. The Greek uses and interesting verb tense to describe the writing (the Greek Perfect Participle γεγραμμένον). This tells us that Pilate wrote this charge with the intention of not making any changes. This seems to indicate that Pilate was aware that the Jews would object to what he wrote, and wrote it in spite of what they would think about it. This was therefore an intentional act, not just an oversight of a man who was often accused of being insensitive to the customs and ways of the Jewish people.
The title was not just a placard of guilt, but also a proclamation of God’s truth. Truly Jesus is the King of the Jews. Seeing how much Pilate had been moved by Jesus, was he trying to say this in a more personal sense rather than doing it to aggravate the Jews by using a piece of passive aggression.
John 19:20. This verse indicates that Jesus was crucified in the way the Romans usually did. The place was near the city but just outside. Millions of visitors from all over the world were there for Passover. The streets were busy. And within sight of the merchants buying and selling in the shops as well as the bleating of lambs waiting to be slaughtered for Passover, Jesus suffered and died. And to make sure that everyone could read the accusation, it was written in three languages. Probably few of the Jews from around the world and even few Gentiles there could have read the Latin. This was done to let people know that it was Rome who ruled the world and executed justice. And few outside Palestine and Syria knew Aramaic. But the whole Empire spoke Greek, al least among the cultured. And the Jews who came from Greek speaking areas and who were largely merchants, knew Greek. God working either actively or passively though Pilate wanted the whole world to know that Jesus of Nazareth is King of the Jews.
There is some difference in the wording on the placard in the Gospels, but all say “The King of the Jews”.
John 19:21. Pilate probably wasn’t surprised when the Jews began to complain about what he had written. “Jesus of Nazareth, THE King of the Jews” does not sound like an accusation. It is more a statement of who Jesus is rather than the crime Jesus was alleged to have committed, treason against Rome. In fact the Jewish leaders suggestion that it should say “That one said, I am King of the Jews” is closer to the accusation one would expect. The Greek verb (ἔλεγον, were saying) indicates that this was an ongoing grumbling among the Jews that finally got to Pilate’s ears. This grumbling probably started in some of the Jews muttering among themselves and probably then led to some sort of request for Pilate to change the charge.
This request was not a polite one. In fact the Greek (μὴ γράφε) is an imperative. They were trying to give Pilate orders. They were openly challenging both Pilate’s judgment and authority. Who was in charge here? I would think that Pilate who was not in the practice of taking orders from his subjects would have taken very kindly to this. But to tell the truth, the only person in control was Jesus Himself.
John 19:22. Pilate’s response to the Jews is short and to the point. The Greek word for writing here, γέγραφα, is in the same perfect tense as before. It indicates whether for good or ill to the Jews, Pilate was not about to change what he had written. And I think it was more than just a reaction to the insulting approach of the Jews. By using the perfect form γεγραμμένον (written) in verse 19, it showed Pilate’s resolve to use that exact title before the Jews complained, knowing that they would. The only question I feel was whether Pilate did this of his own free will, having been influenced by Jesus, or whether God simply used Pilate. At any rate, the inscription is exactly right as written. Jesus was not guilty of a crime. He truly is King, always has been King, and always shall be King.
John 19:23 Part of the wages the soldiers received for having to do the disagreeable task of executing people was that they got to share in the possessions of the victim. In this case, Jesus’ only possessions he had on this earth were the clothes on his back. Here is the King of the Universe, who owns the cattle on ten thousand hills being reduced to the poverty of only owning what He wore. How poor He became for us! The Word made flesh came to be born not in the mansion of Herod which overlooked the sleepy town of Bethlehem, and not even in the inn of that sleepy little town, but in a manger or cave among the lambs. He did not come to acquire wealth through the ministry as some of the religious leaders had done in Jesus’ day as some have always done even to this day. Jesus never used his power to help himself but always to the benefit of others. He refused to turn the stones into bread but relied on the provision of the Father alone. Even when he was exhausted to the point of extreme danger to Himself, he saw the need of a poor Samaritan woman to be greater than His.
Here is Jesus, now stripped of the only possessions He had, meager though they were-- 0nly some common garments and a nice woven undergarment How great His love that brought Him to this point for such unworthy sinners!
As I have stated before, one wonders if the soldiers would have been interested in dividing bloody rags. This indicates to me that Jesus flogging was probably not as severe as some accounts have it. If he were whipped with a whip with embedded nails, glass, and bone, he would have bled severely. That blood would have clotted to His clothes, rendering them worthless to the soldiers. They would have had to rip them off His body and with it strips of skin. Who would want them? And if indeed his clothes were bloody rags, it would further indicate how low Jesus had come as far as possessions in this world.
John 19:24. John does not quote a lot of fulfillment scriptures in comparison to Matthew. But they are there in strategic places. In this case, John refers to Psalm 22:18, the same Psalm which Jesus quotes from the cross in the other Gospels. John uses this verse to describe the actions of the Roman soldiers as a fulfillment of that verse. Psalm 22 is indeed a graphic psalm which remarkably describes a crucifixion hundreds of years before crucifixion came into being. John here is reminding us of the entire Psalm even as Jesus was probably doing so in his quoting of the first verse. If so, Jesus was trying to witness from the cross in quoting it rather than making a complaint to God. In a sense He was saying “Look at the Scripture! This is what is predicted of what would happen to Me. See and believe!”
I think that Psalm 22 has been badly interpreted. It is used as proof that God “turned His back on Jesus” as Jesus hung on the cross as if God’s wrath upon sin was so great that He could not bear to look upon Jesus. This left Jesus feeling forsaken of God’s presence. But I do not think this is the case at all. I have previously mentioned Psalm 22:24. The second part of the 22nd Psalm is a triumphal psalm of deliverance. How could it say that God turned His back upon Jesus and still hold to the claim in Psalm 22:24 that God did not hide His face from Him? We must look past the cross, even as Jesus did. What matters is how it ends, not it begins. In John’s gospel this is especially prominent. It is the resurrection and ascension of Jesus to where He was before. The cross and the sufferings were a necessary step that Jesus had to take to get there. As we have noticed several times earlier in our study of John, there is similarity of the gospel to the statement made in Hebrews 12:1-4. Jesus looked beyond the humiliation of the cross and made nothing of its shame. Why?—for the joy set before Him. How then should we not look beyond the bumps in our road for the joy of someday being with Jesus?
We must also remember that John 3:16 does not state” “For God was so wrathful against sin that He gave us His only-begotten Son to execute Divine vengeance upon Him instead of taking it out on us” but “For God so loved the world”. I certainly am not saying that Jesus did not pay the debt we owed for our sin or that there was no need for satisfaction before the Father, but let us look at the emphasis of Scripture. It is love which nailed Jesus to the cross, the love of the Son in obedience to His Father, and the love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who was unwilling to let us perish. If there is wrath, it is against those who reject this message of reconciliation (John 3:36).
The soldiers did not come out too well with the earthly possessions of Jesus. One of them won his tunic, but what is that? But the gifts of Christ have been lavished upon those who believe, the Holy Spirit, abundant life, and life eternal.
What can we learn from this text? We remember Jesus being lifted up for our healing as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14). And also we read in John 12:32 that if Jesus is lifted up, that he would draw all people unto Himself. John 8:28 also point to this “lifting up” as a proof of Who He is. This word can mean either “exalt on high” or “to crucify”. And whether He is seen as the first or as the least, He is Lord of it all. The cross wasn’t lifted high in a physical sense as we have seen that the cross put the victim just a little bit above the passers by. But we must proclaim this cross as the proof of God’s mightiest act. What could prove God to be God more than a stupendous miracle like the parting of the Red Sea? Everyone who witnessed such would ascribe this power to God. But a God who dies on a cross—who would think it? But this too is a demonstration of the power of God, power in weakness. John shows us that true faith is not in signs and miracles. True faith sees the miracle in what the world does and can not see. This is in no way to deny the miracles of power. But these did no good at all to children of Israel. If our faith is based on this kind of active power and blessing in our life, we are fixing to be disappointed.
In our worship today, we emphasize the Resurrected Lord in Glory more than the One who bore our sins on a cross. We risk the danger of being in the group of people who think the cross to be a scandal. We are trying to find other ways to exalt Jesus than that which Scripture portrays. But one cannot see the Lord of Glory until that person sees the power of God in the cross. We don’t want to preach about the blood. We just want to look at the Lord on high. We emphasize the “Spirit” (whatever that means) and God, and deemphasize the one Who died for us.
It isn’t popular in today’s world, but it wasn’t to the Jews and Greeks of Jesus day either. To the Greeks the preaching of the cross was foolishness and to the Jews a scandal (I Corinthians 1:23). Has it become foolishness and scandal today for us as well? What! Has God found a new way? Do we have a better way to draw people to God than Jesus? We would say “Of Course not!” with our lips. But do our actions betray us on this matter?
Let us conclude this matter with the words of the Apostle Paul: “For I determined to know any thing among you, but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2).