Crucifixion is among the most violent and humiliating forms of death imaginable. It was designed that way – to inflict levels of pain that took the victim to the limits of endurance, and to expose them to extreme degradation and mockery, until death finally, and mercifully intervened.
All of the accounts of Jesus crucifixion in the New Testament gospels contain details that confirm what we would have already guessed from other sources that describe this form of political execution. Jesus suffered; physically, emotionally, and for someone whose faith in God seemed to be unshakeable, no doubt spiritually as well. Although the gospels refuse to claim that Jesus’ suffering was unique, and nowhere state that it is the suffering itself which brings salvation (claims that are regrettably all too often seen and heard in contemporary Christian piety) they clearly refer to aspects of the torment that Jesus endured in his last hours.
So, in John’s gospel, Jesus is hit by one of the temple police. Pilate, in the middle of his interrogation of Jesus, has him flogged. The soldiers in a parody of an enthronement ceremony, put a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe over his shoulders. They too hit him in the face and Pilate eventually hands Jesus over to the dreadful fate of crucifixion, what the Roman orator Cicero had earlier called ‘the most cruel and disgusting penalty’.
What is utterly extraordinary about John’s narrative (so extraordinary that one hesitates to call it a ‘passion’ narrative) is that Jesus seems to take everything that happens to him in his stride. Far from being a victim, Jesus is seen to be the one in control of his own fate and destiny. There is a lovely detail at the end of the trial scene with Pilate. Throughout the trial, Jesus has refused to answer Pilate’s question. Instead he has apparently ridiculed the Roman Governor, made him look foolish, forced him into a corner in which he must ask questions of himself, rather than Jesus: ‘What is truth?’ (18: 38). In the end Pilate seems to admit defeat, and we are told in 19: 13 that ‘he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench’. The scene works at two levels because the words could also mean ‘he sat Jesus down on the judge’s bench’. John wants us to consider the possibility that it is actually Pilate who is on trial and that the accused one has become the judge!
This sense of Jesus taking control is reinforced in the verses that follow. John is specific in stating that Jesus carried the cross ‘by himself’ (19: 17) thereby contradicting the account of Simon of Cyrene in the other gospels. On the cross itself, Jesus seems strong enough to be able to hold a conversation with his mother and the beloved disciple (19: 26-27). The only reason he asks for a drink is in order to fulfil scripture, (19:28). Finally, his final words from the cross constitute a cry of triumph: ‘It is accomplished’. There is no evidence here of a cry of dereliction. Far from feeling abandoned by God, Jesus knows that everything is happening as it should.
In some ways this is a deeply problematic presentation of Jesus. In these closing chapters John seems intent on removing traces of suffering (the word never appears in his gospel) and humanity from Jesus. No wonder that this gospel was a favourite text of those early Christians who were so convinced of Jesus’ divinity that they struggled to believe that he was really a human being at all.
Yet, as we have seen at every stage so far in this journey through John, the reasons for his different emphasis, perhaps even for his deliberate alteration of the gospel tradition and historical facts, have much to teach us.
John’s gospel is essentially an attempt to tell the story of Jesus in such a way as to answer the universal question – how do we know what God is like? (this is always a much more interesting question than ‘does God exist?). John gives his answer in the opening verses (the Prologue of 1: 1-18). We know what God is like because God’s word takes flesh and dwells among us. This means when we look at Jesus, we see what God is like in the only way that would ever be possible for a human being. We see what God is like when God is a human being.
With this knowledge, the reader of the gospel is therefore invited to look at all the things that Jesus does, and listen to all the things that Jesus said, and to draw the conclusion that these are the things that God does and says. Yet, although this is true of every episode in the gospel, there is one point in particular, one special location, one moment in time, when God is revealed to be this kind of God. It is the place of glorification, the place of new life and hope, the place where we look and can say: ‘there is God’.
The great scandal of John’s gospel is that the cross is that place. In his death, Jesus completes his great work of revelation. If you ask why are there no exorcism stories in John, the answer is that the cross reveals that ‘the ruler of this world will be driven out’ (12: 31). If you want to know why John does not have a story of the transfiguration or ascension, it is because the lifting up of the Son of man on the cross constitutes his ultimate glorification and exaltation (3: 13-14). Even Pentecost might be happening on the cross. The Greek of John 19: 30 actually reads that Jesus bowed his head and ‘gave over the Spirit’.
In short, John takes the story of a suffering servant, and turns it into an account of the victorious Son of God, and does so before he gets to the events of Easter Sunday.
What do we learn? Well, perhaps John gives us all a new way of thinking about the death of Jesus. Recent debates among evangelical Christians have revolved around the appropriate ways of understanding Jesus’ death as atonement. Whatever position you take in that debate, the fact is that in focussing on atonement, we interpret the cross in terms that ask about what it does for us. How, exactly, are my sins forgiven by the death of Jesus?
But John is either ignorant or dismissive of such ideas. The nearest he comes to endorsing them is when he changes the date of the crucifixion altogether in order to have Jesus die at the same time as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered (19: 31). Instead, John invites us to think about the death of Jesus as a moment of revelation in which the key question is: what does this death tell us about God? Is this really what God is like? Is it really true that by looking at the dying body of a first century Jewish teacher we see, in a definitive way, something of God’s own identity, intentions and purposes?
If we ask them seriously, these kinds of questions can be so deeply difficult and disturbing that we try to evade them, not least by emphasising Jesus’ divine identity to the extent that any real appreciation of his humanity is dissipated. This heretical tendency (in the early church it was known as ‘docetism’ – a word deriving from the idea that Jesus only ‘appeared’ to be human, but wasn’t really) continues to thrive in the church. The real humanity of Jesus evaporates in the heat of our worship songs, our fervent prayers, our unreflective theology and our reluctance to take seriously the extraordinary claim that this gospel makes. For in the end the great truth of Christian faith is not the idea that this man was God walking around on the earth, but that God reveals himself in the crucified body of this man.