31. Jesus' Death and Burial (John 19:17-42)

Audio (46:44)
Thomas Eakins (American painter, 1844-1916), 'The Crucifixion' (1880), Oil on canvas, 96 x 54 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Thomas Eakins (American painter, 1844-1916), 'The Crucifixion' (1880), Oil on canvas, 96 x 54 inches, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A great deal of posturing went on between the Jewish leaders and the Roman governor. But in the end the Jewish leaders had their way, and Jesus was on his way to be crucified.

"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  Here they crucified him, and with him two others -- one on each side and Jesus in the middle." (19:16-18)

Crucifixion in the Ancient World

The cross in Jesus' time was an instrument of torture and execution, pure and simple. There wasn't a figurative use of "cross" as a "burden" or "trial" in those days. Death on the cross was shameful, excruciating, and often protracted. An ancient Greek poem describes it this way:

"Punished with limbs outstretched,
they see the stake as their fate;
they are fastened (and) nailed to it in the most bitter torment,
evil food for birds of prey and grim pickings for dogs."[811]

From the third century BC onwards there is evidence of the use of the Latin word crux as a vulgar taunt among the lower classes, found on the lips of slaves and prostitutes, the English equivalent of which might be "gallows-bird" or "hang-dog."[812] Martin Hengel affirms that the attitude of people of the ancient world was not casual or a matter of indifference. "It was an utterly offensive affair, 'obscene' in the original sense of the word."[813]

There was no "norm" for execution on the cross, though it often included flogging beforehand, the victim carrying the beam to the place of execution, being nailed to it with outstretched arms, raised up, and seated on a small wooden peg. Seneca indicates there were many variations:

"I see crosses there, not just of one kind but made in many different ways: some have their victims with head down to the ground; some impale their private parts; others stretch out their arms on the gibbet."[814]

In Jesus' day it was customary for the criminal under the sentence of death to carry his cross out to the place of execution. Typically, the cross consisted of two parts:

  1. The cross-beam or horizontal member (Latin patibulum[815]) on which the arms would be stretched out and attached. This was the part of the cross that the condemned man would typically carry to the execution site.[816] Often the cross piece was carried behind the nape of the neck like a yoke, with the condemned man's arms pulled back and hooked over it,[817] perhaps tied to it so it wouldn't fall off.
  2. The vertical post or stake (Latin stipes, staticulum) that would be sunk in the earth and remain in place at the execution site.[818] The Greek word for cross is stauros, originally "an upright pointed stake or pale," such as might be used in constructing a palisade. Later the word stauros came to refer to any part of the cross, whether the upright, or cross-piece.[819]

And so Jesus begins to carry or drag the beam from the Roman praetorium where he had been flogged, along the Via Dolorosa to his execution outside the walls. Jesus the carpenter has felled trees and fashioned many a beam, and borne them on his shoulders to a new house or remodeling project in Nazareth. But now he must carry the heavy beam on shoulders lacerated by the Roman scourge, greatly weakened from loss of blood. Seneca describes the "swelling with ugly welts on the shoulders and chest" that would result from the scourging.[820] While John doesn't relate the incident, Jesus must have staggered and fallen, unable to continue. Matthew and Luke tell us that Simon of Cyrene is seized from the crowd of onlookers and forced to carry the beam behind Jesus (Matthew 15:21; Luke 23:26).

The Place of the Skull (19:17)

Location of the Praetorium, Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.
Location of the Praetorium, Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. Larger map.

The destination of this mournful procession is outside Jerusalem:

"17  Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18  Here they crucified him, and with him two others -- one on each side and Jesus in the middle." (19:17-18)

The "place of the Skull (kranion)" is "Golgotha" in Aramaic. The term evokes the haunting specter of death. The KJV uses the term "Calvary" to describe the place, from the Vulgate's Latin word calvaria, "skull."

There is disagreement about the site of Golgotha. Scriptures indicate that it was outside the city (Hebrews 13:12) but close to it (John 19:20), probably along some public thoroughfare (Matthew 27:39), as well as being visible from afar (Mark 15:40; Luke 23:49). Two possible locations have been considered.

  1.  Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A site within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is not too far from the supposed site of Jesus' tomb. This site has the support of church tradition going back to Eusebius in the fourth century.[821] According to archeological studies in the 1960s, the location would have been well outside the city walls according to Josephus' description of the city's fortifications. Prior to the city's expansion it was a quarry into which a number of tombs had been cut.[822] This site is widely accepted as the correct site of both Golgotha and the tomb.[823]
  2. "Gordon's Calvary." A prominent, rounded, grassy hill above the so-called "Grotto of Jeremiah," northeast of the modern Damascus Gate. It sometimes called "Gordon's Calvary," after famous British General Charles George Gordon (1833-1885), an early advocate of the site. Though it has some resemblance to a skull, the "eyeholes" and rounded top are due to artificial excavations going back a couple of centuries and are not ancient.[824] This isn't likely to be the correct location.

Though we think of Golgotha as on a hill, the text doesn't tell us that. Only the ability to see it from afar suggests a hill. The exact location isn't important, however; what happened there is of vital importance.

They Crucified Him (19:18)

The Gospel writers don't dwell on the gruesome execution, they say simply "they crucified him," Greek stauroō, "nail to the cross, crucify."[825] Hegel says,

"In Roman times not only was it the rule to nail the victim by both hands and feet, but that the flogging which was a stereotyped part of the punishment would make the blood flow in streams."[826]

It is certain that Jesus' hands and feet were nailed to the cross,[827] though the nails did not usually kill the condemned person. These wounds bled little. Most of the blood loss would be from the scourging administered before the crucifixion. That Jesus died within six hours on the cross is a testimony to the severity of the scourging administered by Pilate's soldiers before he was sent to Golgotha.

Death would come only slowly to most of the crucified, usually only after several days. Death resulted either from shock or "a painful process of asphyxiation as the muscles used in breathing suffered increasing fatigue."[828] Imagine your body hanging from the arms for days at a time. To take a breath you'd have to raise your chest by pulling on your arms and pushing with your legs. Eventually, slowly, a condemned man became too weak to breathe.

Along with the Criminals (19:18)

"Here they crucified him, and with him two others -- one on each side and Jesus in the middle." (19:18)

Jesus is crucified alongside common criminals.[829] Jesus has suffered the final shame, something we might equate with death in the electric chair or gas chamber. Paul writes, "He humbled himself and became obedient to death -- even death on a cross!" (Philippians 2:8). The writer of Hebrews says, he "endured the cross, scorning its shame" (Hebrews 12:2). He did it for us. Eight centuries before, Isaiah had prophesied of the Suffering Servant,

"He poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors." (Isaiah 53:12)

James and John had asked for the places at his right and at his left -- in his glory (Mark 10:37). But as Jesus is "glorified" in death, at his left and right are robbers, common thieves (Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27). And now he makes intercession for the transgressors. Luke tells us that one of these thieves came to faith on the cross (Luke 23:39-43).

Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (19:19-22)

Carson tells us that it was the custom for the crime for which a person was sentenced to crucifixion to be written on a table or placard and hung around his neck or carried before him on the way to the place of execution. Then it was often fastened to the cross.[830] The purpose of the placard was to publicize to the populace that this kind of crime will result in such a punishment.

"19  Pilate had a notice[831] 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.'" (19:19-22)

The placard tells the reason for Jesus' crucifixion for the world to see. He is the King of the Jews, and for this he has been crucified. He is the king the Jewish leaders rejected, but remains the King, the Messiah, nevertheless.

The chief priests don't like the inscription, since it implies that this Jesus was the king of the Jews. They want the wording softened to Jesus' claim only. But Pilate refuses. He is angry that he has been manipulated into this crucifixion, and wants to rub it in that he is crucifying the Jew's king to humiliate them, knowing that it will anger the leaders.

But it is part of Jesus' glory. The King who dies for the sins of his people, lifted up, glorified, ready to draw all to himself.

The Soldiers Divide Jesus' Garments (19:23-24)

While in the Praetorium, Jesus had been dressed in the mocking clothes of royalty, he comes to Golgotha in his own clothing. It was the custom that the soldiers would be given the clothing of the crucified.

"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 which said, 'They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.' So this is what the soldiers did." (19:23-24)

John mentions this incident because it clearly fulfills Scripture (Psalm 22:18), underscoring the fact that Jesus' death is not a tragic martyrdom, but that it was prophesied long ago and takes place according to God's plan.

It is likely that Jesus was crucified completely naked -- considered extremely shameful to the Jews -- which seems to have been the normal practice of Roman crucifixion.[832] Indeed, that is the way he is depicted in an early portrayal of the crucified Jesus,[833] though later depictions portray Jesus with a loincloth.

The four soldiers on the crucifixion detail divide up his clothing. But Jesus' seamless chitōn, a long garment worn next to the skin, would be ruined if divided, so they cast lots for it. Apparently, such a garment was not really a luxury item, for it could be woven by a craftsman with no exceptional skill.[834]

The prophetic Psalm 22 gives us some idea of what Jesus felt:

"I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted away within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth;
you lay me in the dust of death.
Dogs have surrounded me;
a band of evil men has encircled me,
they have pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing
. Psalm 22:14-18

O Lord, what have we done to humiliate you so?

Q1. (John 19:23-24; Psalm 22:14-18) In what ways did Jesus fulfill Psalm 22:14-18? What does the Psalms passage tell us about how Jesus felt on the cross?

Woman, Behold Your Son (19:25-27)

Now we come to the third of the Seven Last Words of Christ on the cross.[835]

 "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 his mother, 'Dear woman, here is your son,' 27  and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' From that time on, this disciple took her into his home." (19:25-27)

Jesus' Mother at the Foot of the Cross

James J. Tissot, 'Mater Dolorosa, Sorrowful Mother' (1889-1896), opaque watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Mater Dolorosa, Sorrowful Mother' (1889-1896), opaque watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Of the four gospel writers, John is the only one who records Mary's presence at the cross. But it would be expected that Jesus' mother be in Jerusalem at Passover -- after all, we read, "Every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover" (Luke 2:41). Probably, after Joseph's death -- presumed to have taken place before Jesus began his ministry -- Mary would come up to Jerusalem for the Feast with friends and relatives.

Her son is in trouble -- arrested, tried, condemned, and now dying. Surely, Mary's place is close to her son. And so Simeon's prophecy given at Jesus' dedication comes to pass:

"And a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:35b)

She is near him now, but her heart is broken. She is consoled by friends.

The Identity of the Other Women

Just who are these friends? Verse 25 seems to include Mary plus three other women.[836] These are probably the same women who appear in the Synoptic Gospels. In addition to Mary, Jesus' mother, the women at the cross are:

Mary Magdalene who is mentioned consistently in all three gospels.

Mary (the wife) of Clopas, who seems to correspond easily to "Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses (Joseph)" (Mark 15:40; Matthew 27:56). She is probably "the other Mary" who was with Mary Magdalene at the tomb Friday night and on Sunday morning (Matthew 27:61; 28:1).[837]

The third woman, Jesus' mother's sister, may well be Salome, who is the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee.[838] Then James and John would be Jesus' cousins. This would make sense. James and John are part of Jesus' inner circle with Peter. It also explains why their mother might presume to ask that her sons sit on Jesus' right and left in his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-21). She had been rebuked by Jesus on that occasion, but here she is at the foot of the cross consoling Mary, Jesus' mother, her sister.

They are there with "the disciple whom he loved," probably John the disciple identified as the author of the Gospel of John (John 21:24).

Woman, Here Is Your Son

James J. Tissot, 'Sabat Mater (Woman Behold your Son)' (1886-1894), opaque watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Sabat Mater (Woman Behold your Son)' (1886-1894), opaque watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

"26b He said to his mother, 'Dear woman, here is your son,' 27 and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' From that time on, this disciple took her into his home." (John 19:26b-27)

Jesus' Third Word from the cross to this small band of faithful friends huddled below is fascinating for all it implies.

First, Jesus addresses his mother not as "Mother," but as "woman," translated appropriately as "dear woman" by the NIV. We might sense a coldness in the term as used in our culture, but in Jesus' culture it was perfectly proper for a man to address a woman this way -- but still strange for a son to a mother.[839] The reason for this more formal address is probably that Jesus intends his words to be understood as a formal testamentary disposition under Jewish family law.[840]

As Mary's firstborn, Jesus is legally responsible for her welfare to ensure that she has a place to live and food to eat during her widowhood. Jesus entrusts his mother to John's care and John takes this commission seriously:

"From that time on, this disciple took her into his home."[841] (John 19:27b)

Q2. (John 19:26-27) What is Jesus' mother Mary feeling at the cross? Why does Jesus give John responsibility to care for his mother? What does this say about Jesus' values?

I Am Thirsty (19:28-30a)

Now we hear Jesus utter the fifth of the Seven Last Words from the cross.

 "28  Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, 'I am thirsty.' 29  A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips. 30  When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.'" (19:28-30a)

The Roman soldier pushes a sponge on a reed up to Jesusí lips. James J. Tissot, 'I Thirst' (1886-1894), opaque watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, New York.
The Roman soldier pushes a sponge on a reed up to Jesus' lips. James J. Tissot, 'I Thirst' (1886-1894), opaque watercolor, Brooklyn Museum, New York.

It has become hard for Jesus to even get a breath. Hung from his arms, he must pull himself up each time he wants to breathe. His shoulders ache, his mouth is parched. He is exhausted. And yet he does not want to die without a final word. He asks for something to drink to wet his lips for this final effort.

The Fulfillment of Scripture

 "Knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled...." (John 19:28a)

What Scripture was fulfilled here? A psalm of lamentation, written by David, seems to have been fulfilled literally in Jesus:

"They put gall[842] in my food
and gave me vinegar[843] for my thirst." (Psalm 69:21)

Offering of Wine Vinegar (Posca)

Jesus had been offered bitter wine just before being crucified, perhaps as an intoxicant to dull the pain (Matthew 27:34; Mark 15:23). Now he is offered something to quench his thirst after hanging on the cross for some time.

"A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips." (John 19:29)

Wine vinegar (oxos) doesn't have any alcohol left, but is sour wine that has turned to vinegar. What is a container of wine vinegar doing on Golgotha that day? It is posca, a drink popular with soldiers of the Roman army, made by diluting sour wine vinegar with water. It was inexpensive, considered more thirst quenching than water alone, prevented scurvy, killed harmful bacteria in the water, and the vinegary taste made bad smelling water more palatable. All over the empire, posca was the soldier's drink of choice. The soldiers had brought posca to sustain them during their crucifixion duty. They weren't getting drunk on it, just using it to quench their own thirst.

The Sponge

When Jesus indicates his thirst, the soldiers use a sponge to give him posca. Sponges were part of a Roman soldier's kit, widely used in ancient times to line and pad a soldier's helmet. Soldiers also used sponges as drinking vessels.[844] A soldier wasn't required to share his drink with the criminals under his care. But on this occasion a soldier has seen Jesus dying unlike any other criminal he had ever seen. No cursing, no blaming, no anger. Perhaps it had impressed the soldier with something like Peter's words:

"'He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.'
When they hurled their insults at him,
he did not retaliate;
when he suffered, he made no threats.
Instead, he entrusted himself
to him who judges justly." (1 Peter 2:22-23)

Peter concludes this passage with something, however, that the soldier did not yet know, echoing the words of the Suffering Servant passage of Isaiah 53:

"He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed." (1 Peter 2:24)

The posca offered by a soldier on his sponge that day is an act of mercy to the One who is bringing God's mercy to all humankind.

John makes a point of specifying the hyssop plant, a small bush with blue flowers and highly aromatic leaves,[845] whereas the Synoptic Gospels refer to it as a "stick" (NIV, NRSV) or "reed" (KJV, RSV).[846] Hyssop was used to sprinkle blood on the doorposts and lintels on the first Passover (Exodus 12:22). It was associated with purification and sacrifices in the tabernacle (Leviticus 14:4, 6; Numbers 19:6, 18). No doubt John had this in mind when he recorded this.

Receiving the Posca

John tells us that Jesus actually drank some of the vinegary posca from the sponge.[847]

"When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30)

For a few seconds, at least, Jesus sucks the posca from the sponge. He doesn't drink long enough to slake what must have been moderate to severe dehydration from loss of blood, exposure to the elements, and the necessity of gasping for breath through his mouth. The end is near. So he drinks only enough to moisten his parched throat so that his last words of triumph might be heard across the expanse of Golgotha.

It Is Finished (19:30)

John records the sixth of the Seven Last Words of Christ from the cross.

"When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (19:30)

"It is finished." The word is teleō, "to complete an activity or process, bring to an end, finish, complete something."[848] It is part of a word group that derives from the same Greek root, telos, which means "end" -- primarily a termination point, then by extension, the end to which all things relate, the aim, the purpose.[849] We find a related verb in John's Gospel -- teleioō, "to complete an activity, complete, bring to an end, finish, accomplish."[850] When we look back at these two verbs in John's Gospel we begin to see the importance of Jesus' sixth word at the cross.

"'My food,' said Jesus, 'is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish (teleioō) his work.'" (4:34)

"The very work that the Father has given me to finish (teleioō), and which I am doing, testifies that the Father has sent me." (5:36)

"I have brought you glory on earth by completing (teleioō) the work you gave me to do." (17:4)

"Later, knowing that all was now completed (teleō), and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled (teleioō), Jesus said, 'I am thirsty.'" (19:28)

What mission has Jesus completed? Why did he come? The beginning chapters of John's Gospel reveal his mission. Jesus came to:

  • Bring eternal life: "In him was life, and that life was the light of men." (1:4)
  • Bring grace and truth: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (1:14)
  • Reveal the Father and the Father's glory: "No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known." (1:18)
  • Die as a sacrifice for our sins. "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (1:29)

Jesus has done what he has been sent to do. He has taught truth using the very words of the Father. He has revealed the glory of the Father through his miracles. He has words of eternal life. He has borne the sins of all the world upon him on the cross. And now it is finished. The verb form is tetelestai in the perfect tense, that is, a tense that emphasizes the present and ongoing result of a completed action.

In the last couple of centuries, scholars have found thousands of papyrus scraps, many of them mundane commercial documents in which we find this word. Moulton and Milligan pored over many of these receipts and contracts to better understand New Testament Greek. They observed that receipts are often introduced by the phrase tetelestai, usually written in an abbreviated manner indicating that the bill had been paid in full.[851] The obligation has been completed. The debt has been paid off. Tetelestai -- it is finished.

Christ's redemption is finished and complete forever. As the writer of Hebrews put it:

"[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself." (Hebrews 9:26)

It is finished! It is complete!

A Cry of Victory

It is clear from Matthew and Mark that just before Jesus breathes his last, he "cried out again in a loud voice" (Matthew 27:50, cf. Mark 15:37). John gives us the content of this loud cry: "It is finished!"

Those who are defeated go out with a whimper, but the victor announces his victory loudly and broadly: "It is finished!" The victory shout of Jesus echoes across the hills and valleys of Jerusalem and Judea, and to the world beyond. It is finished!

The Announcement of Obedience Fulfilled

It is a cry of accomplishment, but it is also an announcement of obedience fulfilled. This shout began in the painful will of the Father -- the cup, the baptism, the suffering, the cross. "It is finished" announces the full obedience of the One who, though equal with God:

"... Made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death
-- even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him
   to the highest place
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."
(Philippians 2:7-11)

The ability to say, "It is finished" to the Father's commission is not the beginning of some kind of "glory road," but the end. It is the final culmination of a life of obedience, humility, and suffering that now ushers in a new era.

Q3. (John 19:30) When Jesus says, "It is finished," what does he mean? What mission(s) had the Father given him. In what way did he complete them?

The Soldiers Pierce Jesus Side (19:31-34)

The normal Roman practice was to leave the body of those crucified to be eaten by vultures. However, the next day was a special Sabbath.

"Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down." (19:31)

Because it was the day before Sabbath -- a special Sabbath[852] at that, the one occurring during the Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread and because the second paschal day was devoted to the very important sheaf offering (Leviticus 23:11) -- the Jewish leaders asked that the bodies be taken down so they wouldn't cause desecration according to the Pentateuch:

"If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree,  you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance." (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

Pilate, granted their request, for not to do so would enflame them unnecessarily.

"The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other." (19:31)

A crucified man was hanging by his arms, so each breath was an act that would require pulling on his arms and pushing up with his feet so that his lungs expand enough to fill with air. Eventually, slowly, a condemned man became too weak to breathe. But death could be hastened by breaking the criminal's legs. No longer able to push up without excruciating pain, the criminal would quickly die of asphyxiation.

It was common throughout the Roman empire, if a quick death were sought, to smash[853] the legs with an iron club, an act called in Latin crurifragium.

"33  But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34  Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water." (19:33-34)

To verify that Jesus was indeed dead, one of the soldiers pierces[854] his side[855] with his spear.[856] When he does so, blood and water sudden flow out, indicating to the soldier that Jesus is already dead. What this indicates physiologically is debated. It may have been from fluid gathering around the heart and lungs. Theologians have tried to show the water and blood had some kind of symbolic meaning (such as of baptism and the Lord's Supper), but none of these are convincing to me. This detail has been memorialized in some lines of the old hymn, "Rock of Ages:

"... Let the water and the blood
from thy riven side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure."[857]

The significance for us is the assurance that Jesus actually died. He did not just appear to die; he actually died. Thus the resurrection is a full-blown miracle, not a fortunate resuscitation.

Eyewitness Testimony (19:35-37)

At this point John, or perhaps an editor, verifies that this account is given by an eyewitness and is thus reliable.

"35  The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36  These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: 'Not one of his bones will be broken,' 37  and, as another scripture says, 'They will look on the one they have pierced.'" (19:35-37)

Verses 36 and 37 refer to several Old Testament passages:

"[The Passover lamb] must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones." (Exodus 12:46; cf. Numbers 9:12a)

"He protects all [a righteous man's] bones,
not one of them will be broken." (Psalm 34:20)

"And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son." (Zechariah 12:10)

Q4. (John 19:31-37) Why do you think Jesus died in such a relatively short time? What does the water and blood flowing from Jesus' side indicate? How did it fulfill Scripture?

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus Step Forward (19:38-39a)

It is over. Jesus has breathed his last. Now his friends and disciples work quickly to see to an honorable burial before nightfall and the Sabbath that begins Friday night at sundown.

As mentioned, the normal Roman practice was to leave the carcasses of executed criminals on their crosses for weeks. In other times,  the bodies of executed criminals were handed over to the next of kin -- except in the case of those convicted of sedition.[858] However, leaving bodies on the crosses offended Jewish sensibilities and law (Deuteronomy 21:22-23), so the Jews would normally bury crucified criminals in a special burial site.[859] Criminals would not be allowed a proper burial in a family tomb.

"Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate's permission,[860] he came and took the body away." (19:38)

Joseph of Arimathea is a highly-placed friend who cares deeply for Jesus. He is from the town of Arimathea, just north of Jerusalem.[861] He is a "prominent member" of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43) who hadn't gone along with the plot against Jesus (Luke 23:50-51). We don't know if he has ever talked to Jesus one-on-one. He is a "secret"[862] disciple (19:38), one who is "waiting[863] for the Kingdom of God" (Luke 23:51). But he is a believer; he is a disciple. Often, secret believers burrow deeper in a time of crisis, but sometimes they rise to the occasion to do what is required.

Joseph chooses this moment to make his allegiance clear at whatever personal risk to his reputation and his future. Joseph requests Jesus' body to be given to him for burial, and because of his position, Pilate both receives him and grants his request. Mark notes that "he went boldly[864]" (Mark 15:43)

"He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night." (19:39a)

Joseph of Arimathea is joined in this act of mercy by Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin. He had originally come to Jesus by night to learn from him (3:1-10). Later, he had publicly questioned the Sanhedrin's prejudicial condemnation of Jesus without a hearing (7:50-52), and is probably suspected now of being a sympathizer.

Both Joseph and Nicodemus are wealthy men. Joseph of Arimathea owns a private tomb, newly hewn out of rock in a garden near Golgotha (Matthew 27:60). In this family tomb, never used, Joseph makes a place for the Master. For his part, Nicodemus purchases expensive preparations for the burial.

Jesus' Body Is Prepared for Burial (19:38-40)

"39b Nicodemus brought a mixture[865] of myrrh[866] and aloes[867], about seventy-five pounds.[868] 40  Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs." (19:38-40)

Myrrh and aloes were used to reduce the smell of the decaying body. Seventy-five pounds suggests a quantity that might be used at a royal burial. The compound was inserted in the wrappings as they wrapped each limb and the body with linen.

The Synoptic Gospels tell us that some female disciples accompanied the men bearing the body to the tomb, so they knew the location (Luke 23:55). Marshall observes, "It is improbable in eastern conditions that women would have come afterwards to perform rites on a body that had not already had some kind of anointing to preserve it."[869] The women brought additional spices to complete the body's preparation on Sunday morning.

Jesus Is Laid in a Garden Tomb (19:41-42)

"41  At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden[870], and in the garden a new tomb[871], in which no one had ever been laid. 42  Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there." (19:41-42)

Like the location of Golgotha (see above), the location of the garden tomb has also been disputed. While tourists to Jerusalem are sometimes shown a site elsewhere, there is strong evidence that the tomb now covered by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the correct location of Jesus' burial, not far from Golgotha, also found within this ancient church.[872]

It is not a natural cave, but one which has been "hewn in rock" (Luke 23:53).[873] It is found in a garden. Green describes the type of tomb alluded to in this passage:

"... Fashioned by quarrying into the side of a rock face. Such a tomb might have included a forecourt before a cave, the mouth of which could be covered by a large, disk-shaped stone set in a groove cut in the rock beneath. The entrance would lead into the burial chamber with a stone step and central pit of sufficient height to allow persons to stand in order to prepare a corpse for internment on one of the stone benches carved into the rock along the sides of the chamber.... The body was placed on a sand-covered stone bench; after a twelve-month period of decomposition, the bones were collected and placed in an ossuary."[874]

Tombs of this type might contain 8 niches (3 on each side, two on the end), or 13 niches (4 on each side, 3 at the end, and one on each side of the entrance).[875]

That Jesus is buried in a brand new tomb reflects the great esteem in which Joseph holds Jesus. It also counteracts any suggestion that when Jesus' body is missing on resurrection morning that the women mistake it for another burial.

Q5. (John 19:38-42) Who were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus? Was it good that they were "secret disciples"? What risk did they incur by participating in Jesus' burial? Why is the burial account important to Jesus' story? To our understanding of who Jesus is?

Lessons for Disciples

John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

It's hard to know what more to say about Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. The lessons are many, and as you meditate on it you are overwhelmed with the utter sadness that Jesus' family and close friends must have felt. But it was an indispensible part of Jesus' journey.

Here are just some of the lessons we disciples can glean from this account.

  1. Jesus had been brutally beaten, so he died relatively quickly on the cross. He did this for you and me (19:33)
  2. The placard over Jesus' cross declared his true title, "King of the Jews." He was openly the suffering Messiah (19:19-21).
  3. Jesus' death fulfilled a number of Old Testament passages, one after another. John seems to refer specifically to Psalm 22:18; Psalm 69:7; Exodus 12:46; Psalm 34:20; Zechariah 12:10; but many others were also fulfilled.
  4. Even as he is dying an excruciating death, Jesus' compassion for his mother shows through. Responsibility for our families must be a high value for us disciples (19:26-27).
  5. Jesus said, "It is finished," and completed his mission. We, too, must complete the tasks that the Father has given us with the same dogged persistence as our Master (19:30).
  6. Jesus truly died. This has been questioned by modern unbelievers who have supposed that he just fainted and then revived in the tomb. The soldiers who dealt in death knew he was dead, but verified it by inflicting what would have been a mortal wound had he still been alive. The Docetists believed that Jesus only seemed to be human. But John makes it clear that the "Word became flesh" (1:14) and truly died the death of a human.
  7. The redemptive significance of Jesus death is only touched on in John's Gospel, referring to Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world"(1:29). The doctrine of redemption is developed primarily in the preaching of the early church (Book of Acts), and in the letters of Paul, Peter, and John. John later says, for example: "The blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7b), and "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2).
  8. There is a time for us to publicly identify ourselves with Jesus, even though fear might have prevented it in the past. Both Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus put their lives and reputations on the line as they assist Jesus (19:38-39).
  9. Everything we have is to be put at Jesus' disposal. Joseph is wealthy and has a brand new tomb. He is honored for Jesus to be placed there. Nicodemus no doubt paid for expensive burial ointments out of his own finances. So did the women. Even in death, his disciples bestow on him an extravagant love. Our possessions are to be used for our Lord's glory.
  10. Jesus' death and burial are carefully documented. Jesus was actually dead. Jesus' disciples are sure of it. They have seen the soldiers finally pierce his side so that water and blood run out (John 19:33-34). They have handled his lifeless corpse. They have anointed it and wrapped it carefully and laid it in a tomb blocked by a heavy stone. The Gospel writers give us this detail so that we can know with certainty that Jesus' resurrection is no error, no mistaken identity, no fluke. The resurrection is one of the central Christian beliefs and it is solid.


Father, it grieves me anew as I recall in detail my Lord's suffering for me. Thank you for my salvation, that my sins were on him and have been forgiven. Help my life to be so purified that it might in some small way be worthy of the Son of God. In Jesus' mighty name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS." (John 19:19, NIV)

"This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said, 'They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.'" (John 19:24, NIV)

"When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, 'Dear woman, here is your son,' and to the disciple, 'Here is your mother.' From that time on, this disciple took her into his home." (John 19:26-27, NIV)

"When he had received the drink, Jesus said, 'It is finished.' With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:30, NIV)

"When they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water." (John 19:33-34, NIV)

"These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: 'Not one of his bones will be broken,'  and, as another scripture says, 'They will look on the one they have pierced.'" (John 19:36-37, NIV)

"At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there." (John 19:41-42, NIV)

End Notes

[811] Psuedo-Manetho, Apotelesmatica 4:198ff, cited by Martin Hengel, (translator John Bowden), Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross (German edition 1976; English edition: Fortress Press/SCM Press, 1977), p. 9.

[812] Hengel, Crucifixion, pp. 9-10.

[813] Hengel, Crucifixion, p. 22.

[814] Seneca, Dialogue 6 (De consolatione ad Marciam) 20.3. Cited by Hengel, p. 25.

[815] Latin patibulum also refers to a bar for closing a door or a sail yardarm (Brown, Death 2:913).

[816] The Roman playwright Platus (c. 254-184 BC) refers to carrying the patibulum in some of his plays (Miles Gloriosus, Acts 2, 4; Mostellaria 56-67; Carbonaria, fragment 1. However, the references aren't completely clear.

[817] Brown, Death 2:913.

[818] Johannes Schneider, saturos, ktl., TDNT 7:572-584, esp. 573.

[819] Stauros, BAGD 764-765. TDNT 7:572. The Jehovah's Witness' contention that Jesus died on an impaling stake shows a narrowness in interpreting the ancient evidence. While men were impaled on impaling stakes in ancient times, it is clear that Jesus is nailed to the cross and left to die. The shape of the stauros varied greatly. It could be a single upright post, or with a cross-piece added, either to the top in a T shape (L. crux commissa), or with intersecting beams of equal length ( L. crux immissa).

[820] Seneca, Epistle 101 to Lucilius, quoted in Hengel, pp. 30-31.

[821] Eusebius, Vita Constantini iii.26.

[822] Joel B. Green, "Death of Jesus," DJG, pp. 146-163, in particular, p. 150.

[823] Urban C. von Wahlde ("Archaeology and John's Gospel," in Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 576-582) lays out the most recent archaeological information supporting this location.

[824] David F. Payne, "Golgotha," ISBE 2:523-524. Edersheim, Life and Times 2:585-586, describes it and suggests that this was the actual location.

[825] Stauroō, BAGD 765.

[826] Hengel, Crucifixion, pp. 31-32.

[827] "Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself!" Luke 24:39; also John 20:25; Acts 2:23; Colossians 2:14.

[828] Green, DJG, p. 147.

[829] Luke 23:33 -- kakourgos, "criminal, evil-doer, one who commits gross misdeeds and serious crimes" (BAGD 398). Matthew 27:38; Mark 15:27 -- lēstēs, "robber, highwayman, bandit" (BDAG 594, 1). Luke's account tells us that one of these put his faith in Christ (Luke 23:40-43).

[830] Carson, John, p. 610.

[831] "Notice" (NIV), "inscription" (NRSV, ESV), "title" (KJV) is titlos, "inscription, notice" (BDAG 1009). The technical Roman term titulus, "a placard or notice." Used for a bill or notice of sale affixed to a house (Vincent's Word Studies).

[832] Artemidorus Daldianus, Oneirokritika 2:53 (second century).

[833] A tiny second century carving on a jasper gem (Brown, Death 2:947).

[834] Brown (Death 2:956) cites H. Th. Braun, Fleur bleue, Revue des industries du lin (1951), pp. 21-28, 45-53.

[835] The Seven Last Words are: (1) "Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34); (2) "This day you will be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43; (3) "Woman, behold your son" (John 19:26-27); (4) "My God, why have You forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34); (5) "I thirst" (John 19:28); (6) "It is finished" (John 19:30); and "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46). I've written a book that details each of these words: Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross (JesusWalk, 2009). http:www.jesuswalk.com/books/7-last-words.htm

[836] Some commentators see this as two or three women, but these explanations of the sentence don't make as much sense.

[837] An early church tradition mentioned by Chrysostom (347-407 AD) identifies Alphaeus, the father of an apostle named James (Matthew 10:3), with this Clopas, father of "James the Less," though this is uncertain. A.W. Fortune, "Alphaeus," ISBE 1:100. Tradition also sees this Alphaeus / Clopas as the brother of St. Joseph (Eusebius, Church History, 3.11.2; cf. "Clopas," ISBE 1:724). See also R. Laird Harris, "James (2)," ISBE 2:958-959.

[838] See Kathleen E. Corley, "Salome," ISBE 4:286; Beasley-Murray, John, p. 348.

[839] Brown, Death of the Messiah, p. 1020. He notes that the word is not found elsewhere for a son addressing his mother (citing P. Benoit, Jesus and the Gospel (Herder, 1973), p. 86).

[840] Beasley-Murray, John, p. 349. We see somewhat similar formula-like language in the Book of Tobit, part of the Apocrypha that appears in Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican Bibles. When Tobit is engaged to Sarah, Tobit is told: "Take your kinswoman; from now on you are her brother and she is your sister. She is given to you from today and forever" (Tobit 7:11, NRSV).

[841] While the bulk of church tradition considers Mary's grave to have been in the Valley of Kidron near Jerusalem some later sources write that she died in Ephesus where John was residing (Barnabas Meistermann, "Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary," The Catholic Encyclopedia (vol. 14; Robert Appleton Company, 1912)).

[842] "Gall" (Hebrew rōʾsh, Greek Septuagint cholē) probably refers to a Babylonian plant name which originally meant "head" of some kind of plant. It comes to mean "poison" and "poisonous" and occurs twelve times in the OT. In Psalm 69:21 it is used figuratively as "bitter herbs" (TWOT #2098).

[843] Vinegar (Hebrew ḥōmeṣ) comes from ḥāmēṣ, "be sour, be leavened" (TWOT #679b).

[844] Thomas F. Johnson, "Sponge," ISBE 4:605. Sponges were also carried by Roman soldiers to use the way we use toilet paper.

[845]  Hyssōpos, BDAG 104.

[846] Kalamos, "1. reed, 2. stalk, staff" (BDAG 502; Matthew 27:48; Mark 15:36). This sometimes causes confusion, our dramatic depictions of the cross usually picture Jesus elevated far above the onlookers. However, most likely his cross was much shorter. All that was necessary was to have the feet elevated high enough so they didn't touch the ground. We have some reports of the feet of crucified criminals being ravaged by dogs. A common guess is that Jesus' cross stood some 7 feet high (Brown, Death, pp. 948-949).

[847] "Received" (lambanō) carries the idea "to take into one's possession, take, acquire" (BDAG 583, 3).

[848] Teleō, BDAG 997, 1. It is part of a word group that has the idea of completion, coming to perfection.

[849] Telos, Thayer.

[850] Teleioō, BDAG 996, 1.

[851] J.H. Moulton and G. Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek Text: Illustrated edition the Papyri and Other Non-Literary Sources (Eerdmans, 1957), p. 630, under teleō.

[852] "Special Sabbath" (NIV), "Sabbath of great solemnity" (NRSV), "that Sabbath was a high day" (ESV, KJV) uses the words hēmera, "day" and megas, "large, great," here, of things, "great, sublime, important" (BDAG 624, 4b). See Appendix 7. The Chronology of Holy Week in John's Gospel.

[853] "Broken" is katagnymi, "break" (BDAG 515), from kata- + rhegnumi, "rend in pieces, crack apart."

[854] "Pierced" is nyssō, "to penetrate with a pointed instrument, ordinarily not a violent or deep piercing, prick, stab" (BDAG 682, 1). The Septuagint of Zechariah 12:12 uses ekkenteō, "pierce" (BDAG 303), also used in the quotation of this verse in verse 37 of this passage, and in Revelation 1:7.

[855] "Side" is pleura (from which we get our word "pleurisy"), "side" (BDAG 824).

[856] "Spear" is lonchē, "spear, lance" (BDAG 601). There is a fourth century legend that the soldier who pierced Jesus' side was a centurion named Longinus. The spear was the Roman pilium, a javelin about 6  feet (2 meters) long with an iron shank on a wooden shaft.

[857] Augustus M. Toplady, "Rock of Ages" (1763).

[858] See Brown, Death 2:1207-1209.

[859] Josephus, Antiquities 5.1.14; War 4.5.2; 3.8.5.

[860] "With permission" (NIV), "gave permission" (NRSV, ESV), "gave leave" (KJV)  is epitrepō, "to allow someone to do something, allow, permit" (BDAG 385, 1).

[861] Arimathea is identified with Ramathaim-zophim (1 Samuel 1:1), modern Rentis, just north of Jerusalem (Marshall, Luke, p. 879).

[862] "Secretly" is perfect passive of kryptō (from which we get our words, "crypt" and "cryptology"), "of states or conditions withdraw from sight or knowledge, hide, keep secret" (BDAG 572, 1b).

[863] "Waiting" is the Greek verb prosdechomai, "to look forward to, wait for" (BDAG 877, 2b). The word is used early in Luke's Gospel to describe godly people who don't yet participate in the Kingdom, but are eagerly awaiting it -- Simeon (2:25), Anna (2:38), etc.

[864] Tolmaō, "to show boldness or resolution in the face of danger, opposition, or a problem, dare, bring oneself to (do something)" (BDAG 1010, b).

[865] "Mixture" is migma, "mixture, compound" (BDAG 650).

[866] "Myrrh" is smyrna, "the resinous gum of the bush Balsamodendron myrrha, myrrh" (BDAG 933).

[867] Aloes is aloē, "aloes," here probably referring to the strong aromatic, quick-drying juice of the Aloe vera or Aloe succotrina" (BDAG 48).

[868] "Seventy-five pounds" (NIV, ESV), "a hundred pounds" (NRSV, KJV) is, in Greek, one hundred litra, "a (Roman) pound" (327.45 grams). An international or United States customary pound is 453.592 grams.

[869] Marshall, Luke, p. 880. He cites Josephus, Antiquities 17:199; Wars 1:673, but acknowledges that these references don't attest a second anointing.

[870] "Garden" is kēpos, "garden" (BDAG 542), also used at 18:1, 26 and Luke 13:19.

[871] "Tomb" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "sepulcher" (KJV) is mnēmeion, literally, "token of remembrance," here "grave, tomb" (BDAG 655). Also at 11:17, 31; 12:17 (of Lazarus' tomb), and 19:42; 20:1-4, 6, 8, 11ab; (of Jesus' tomb).

[872] For an authoritative overview of the issues, see Urban C. von Wahlde, "Archaeology and John's Gospel," in Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 576-585.

[873] Greek laxeutos. Marshall, Luke, p. 880, who indicates that it does not mean "built with hewn stones," as demonstrated by Deuteronomy 4:49 LXX.

[874] Green, Luke, p. 830, fn. 7.

[875] Edersheim, Life and Times 2:318.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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