St. John on the Cross

“There they crucified Him” (John 19.18)

When it comes to the Gospel accounts of the cross it easy to preach what is not in the text. Most often (and due recently in no small part to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ) we are compelled to detail the physical anguish of crucifixion, depicting the pain and envisioning the terror. And having successfully horrified congregations into submission we appeal passionately that if Jesus endured so much pain for us, how can we not live for him?

Such treatment is strangely inconsistent with how the Gospel writers deal with the Cross. In every case they simply say, “They crucified him” (Mt 27.35; Mk 15.25; Lk 23.33; Jn 19.18). No elaboration. No explanation. Granted, the Gospel audiences would have been familiar with crucifixion and perhaps needed no explanation. But, it is glaringly obvious that the Gospel writers cared more about who was being killed and not necessarily how. John Broadus commented, “Let us beware of spending too much thought upon the surrounding and physical conditions of our Lord’s death. The great matter is that ‘he died for our sins,’ ‘tasted death for every man’” (Matthew, 576).

Take John’s account. There were two other men enduring the same physical pain as Jesus, but John barely mentions them (19.18). And we are not called to worship them. So, it cannot simply be the physical pain that distinguished Jesus, because it didn’t. In fact, the two flanking derelicts outlasted Jesus (v32). John doesn’t even mention Simon of Cyrene, who carried Jesus’ cross part of the way to Golgotha. Clearly in John’s view is the man on the cross, not the cross under the man.

What did John want his readers to know about this man? How much pain he suffered or why and how he suffered it? Certainly the latter.

Jesus is a King (19.19-21). This has been John’s main interest since chapter 18. Repeatedly have we read the words of kingship (18.33, 36, 37, 39, 19.3, 12, 14, 15) and now three times in vv19-21. Make no mistake about it: the man on the cross is a King. Arthur Russell captures this well in an 1851 hymn:

O Jesus, we adore Thee,
Upon the cross, our King!
We bow our hearts before Thee,
Thy gracious Name we sing.
That Name hath brought salvation,
That Name in life our stay,
Our peace, our consolation,
When life shall fade away.

What kind of King is he?

Jesus is a humble King (19.22-25a). Drawing our attention to Psalm 22 (something the Gospel writers dare not avoid), John impressed the humility of this King.

Jesus went outside the city to the place of public humiliation (v17; cf. Heb 13.11-14). The sin offering was never allowed to stink up the town, but its carcass was burned outside the camp (cf. Ex 29; Lev 4, 9, 16). Sin would not be a part of the community any longer.

Jesus hung naked (the soldiers are throwing dice for his clothes) before all the world to see. In nakedness we sinned in Adam, and in nakedness are we redeemed in Christ. The second Adam did not run and hide, however. He made sure “they shall look on him whom they pierced” (19.37; cf. Zech 12.10).

Jesus is a compassionate King (19.25b-27). John recorded something the Synoptics do not. He had a front row seat to this interchange between Jesus, his mother and himself. While suffering miserably on the cross, barely able to speak, with all eyes affixed on him, Jesus remains concerned for his mother and John (cf. 13.1). If Jesus concerned himself more with others while hanging nakedly and humiliatingly on the cross, how much more does he do so as the Risen Lord? The King takes care of his own (cf. 1 Pt 5.6-7).

Jesus is a sacrificial King (19.28-30). If the cross is about one thing it is about substitutionary atonement. With one Greek word John explained all of redemptive history: “It is accomplished” (Gk. tetelestai) (vv28, 30). Jesus successfully caused a functional (not ontological) breach in the Godhead. Jesus would not give up until every ounce of God’s anger against the sin of his elect was diverted from them to him. The Father promised to unleash every bit of his fury (the eternal experience of hell) and Jesus resolved to take it. So, it was not the physical pain that took Jesus’ life. It was when the Father “turned his face away.”

These kingly attributes are glorious in themselves. Yet, the gospel is that Jesus was these things for us! Jesus said to the Father, “Father, I would rather you forsake me than to forsake Barry Maxwell. Whatever it will take to keep Barry Maxwell and his other vagrant friends from all of history (i.e. “those you’ve given me”) from going to hell is what I’ll do. Turn your face from me so that you can smile on them.”

We cannot help but become fervent worshipers as we contemplate the cross. John Bunyan said it best in Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners: “. . . I was made to see, both again, and again, and again, that day, that God and my soul were friends by this blood; yea, I saw that the justice of God and my sinful soul could embrace and kiss each other through this blood. This was a good day to me; I hope I shall not forget it.” And so the pilgrim progresses.

3 thoughts on “St. John on the Cross

  1. Thanks, Steve. As Luther implied, Scripture is a lion to be unleashed, not tamed. The cross has a power all its own and we need only unlock the door of its cage.

  2. To think of My Lord as a Humble King is what makes me understand that if I am His child I also wear a crown and must act accordingly. Therefore I must make my self of no reputation. At the same time that I keep my self equal with common man, I must still abstain from common things that the base man falls prey to. I can then be a leader and Sheppard. This is the only way that I can serve God and man simultaneously.

    To understand the point of separation of Christ from his father, shows us another example of the depth of the sacrifice that Jesus made at calvary. It is so much more that even the great sacrifice a soldier makes by putting his life on the line for his country. Because even this is honored by God for Jesus said… No greater love is this, that a man lay down his life for a friend.

    When Abraham went up upon the Mountain to sacrifice Isaac, by faith Abraham knew that he would by some miracle return with his boy yet alive. Even if God would some how resurrect him. That is why he raised his hand to slay his son as a sacrifice to God. But God did not allow him to follow through with his intent. Instead God sacrificed His Son Jesus on that mountain for all of man kind, Not just by the spilling of his sons blood on the alter but he took every horrid atrocity man ever thought of and placed them on his Son and then sent them to hell so that we could sit at our royal position at the Table of God. Not because we deserved it but because Jesus deserves it and the heroic rescue that Jesus made in our behalf would never be allowed to have been accomplished in vain. And so we are welcomed and therefore we sup together at Gods table in the presence of our enemies.

    All that I can say is ..
    Thank God,


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