You have made it to the PINNACLE of John’s Gospel! If the Book of John were a novel, this would be the point where you simply CAN’T put it down and MUST stay up all night to find out what happens. So let’s dive back in!
Just a reminder of where we are at: The religious leaders and Jewish crowd have just demanded to let go of a terrorist, Barabbas, in order to move ahead with the plan to murder Jesus. Not a super good look for the people of God.
Read (or re-read) verses 1-16. As you read, make note of the political implications between all this back and forth between Pilate, the Jewish leaders, and Jesus. While Jesus was very clear in chapter 19 that HIS kingdom is one that is not of this world…the other two parties in this…party…were VERY much concerned with the kingdoms they were representing and establishing right here on earth. As you read, also keep in mind that we have the benefit of hindsight. (#2020vision) The characters depicted in this chapter do not have the benefit of knowing what is about to happen in 3 days and beyond. How does that perspective shift your understanding of their actions and motivations? We (hopefully) KNOW through the evidence of the resurrection and the power of the Holy Spirit in our own lives that Jesus WAS IN FACT ALL that he was claiming to be.
Let’s take a closer look at some of these characters in order to understand their motivations, and hopefully learn from their mistakes.
Pilate. Who was he and what was he about? Pilate was a ROMAN official. He was not Jewish. He didn’t worship in the temple and he had no relationship with Yahweh, the God of the Jews. He was tasked, by Caesar, to be the governor of all of Judea. He governed not only the Jews, but also the Gentiles (samaritans and other non-Jewish people) Meaning…his goal, his success, his job security and power, rested in his ability to keep ORDER between these very very different people groups. He was middle-management in the Roman Empire. His goal was to point people to the power and sovereignty of Caesar. In fact, there are reports of Pilate erecting images of Caesar in a manner of worship in an attempt to remind the Jews of their place. The Jews had been through this kind of treatment before. They were no strangers to exile and being subjected secular rule. It didn’t go well for Pilate. Although many historical accounts depict Pilate as cruel, strict, and authoritarian, he’s also depicted as being a bit wishy-washy and never knowing how far to go in establishing his authority. That tends to happen when you are just trying to keep order between 2 very different sides.
This side of Pilate was quite evident while reading through John’s account of the events of Jesus’ death sentence. Pilate seems to be doing ANYTHING he can in order to skirt responsibility. He does NOT want Jesus’ blood on his hands. Do you think it’s because there was a spark in Pilate that believed what Jesus was saying? Or do you think it’s because he knew that if he gave one group of people what they wanted, it would in turn, infuriate another group of people? Honest question. It might be both. While we may never know the fullness of Pilate’s motivation, John is clear about one thing. Pilate was afraid. Afraid of being on the opposite side of God, or afraid of being on the opposite side of an angry mob? But afraid none the less. As we’ve learned before, fear is a powerful motivator.
So what finally changed for Pilate? What made him decide to go ahead with the crucifixion? Put simply, the Jewish leaders knew the right button to push. They manipulated his fear and called into question his allegiance to Caesar. “If you release this man you are ‘no friend of Caesar.” While he may have been afraid of God or an angry mob…he was DEFINITELY afraid of retribution from the Roman Empire.
I’m sure in the political and cultural climate of the past few years, you’ve found yourself in a situation similar to Pilate’s. Hopefully you haven’t been in the position of deciding the life or death of an innocent man at the hands of an angry mob…. BUT, you probably have found yourself in the middle between 2 very angry sides who are very much inclined to hold on to their earthly power. How have you handled it? Have you picked a side? Have you joined the mob? Have you simply done what is required in order to maintain order? Have you appeased both sides? Or have you stood by your convictions, refused to listen to the voices hell-bent on earthly power and division? Have you recognized a third way? God’s way, where Jesus sits on the throne here and now, and for all eternity?
Now, let’s take a look at the Jewish leaders and their mob. The people of God. The city on a hill. The kingdom of priests. The Holy Nation. You know…those people yelling, “Crucify him!!!” What has become of them? How are these many of the same people who were laying palm branches at Jesus’ feet just a few short chapters ago? How did we get from “Hosanna!” to “Crucify him!” so quickly? This is a profound question and one I hope you wrestle with this week. Because…why it is easy to wave our condescending fingers at these people for their ignorance and cruelty, this sequence of events had played out in our lives multiple times. What’s the saying? When you point the finger at someone else, there’s 3 other fingers pointing right back at you? Yeah. Go ahead, point the finger to make sure it’s true. I’ll wait.
Have you had these dramatic 180degrees about-face moments in your life? Everything seems great. You’re full of hope and trusting in God’s promises and then BAM! Something shifts. And suddenly you find yourself staring down the cliffs of doubt and disappointment…which quickly turns to anger directed toward the one who’s in charge….God. Ever been there? Yeah. Me neither. #winkyfaceemoji
So what changed? What caused this seismic shift? My guess is that it’s the same as it was for this angry Jewish mob. Unmet expectations, mixed with a desire to hold on to power and control, sprinkled in with some fear over having our worldview shifted. The Crucify Him Casserole. Blecht! Would you say this is true for those times in your life where you’ve struggled and found yourself angry with God?
In order to live the full life Jesus promised us, we need to come to terms with a few things about our expectations of Jesus. #1 a FULL life doesn’t mean an easy life. #2 Jesus is in control. He sits on the throne. The power belongs to him. Any illusion of power, privilege, and control in our own lives is a result of putting far too much credence to the kingdoms of earth. #3 Jesus’ Kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. It SHOULD shatter our worldview. Jesus came to break chains of oppression, to flip to balance of power on it’s head and to establish HIS kingdom (which isn’t of this world) here on earth as it is in heaven.
The truth of the matter is, these religious leaders (and the mob) were singularly focused on the kingdoms of this world. While there may have been some that felt like they were doing to right thing in fighting to preserve the “purity” of the Jewish faith…most were simply concerned with maintaining their position. They clearly had settled into the level of power they had under the Romans. They knew how to manipulate Pilate. If they desired more…more freedom, more power….it was political, not spiritual. Nothing makes this point more evident than in verse 15. “‘We have no king but Caesar,’ the leading priests shouted back.” What a profoundly sad, manipulative, concession from those who were meant to represent God on earth.
So Jesus is crucified. He’s mocked. He’s deprived of the dignity of clothes. He’s strung up like a criminal. He’s suffering and he dies.
John makes a point in highlighting certain details, like the soldiers casting dice for his clothes, Jesus saying, “I’m thirsty” and being offered sour wine, Jesus being spared the broken legs but having his side pierced, etc. While these may seem like odd details to include in the half-chapter that depicts Jesus’ death, they were VERY important to John and his mission? Which is what exactly? So that we may BELIEVE and have life in his name. These details would have been exactly what the Jewish skeptic was looking for. If someone was on the fence when it comes to believing in the Messiah…if they weren’t entirely convinced by the signs and miracles and wonders, they wouldn’t be able to ignore the fulfilled prophecies. These details were IMPORTANT. God had given a roadmap to the Jewish people. They knew what to look for in the coming Messiah; these details proved John’s point.
As is the case with ALL dead people; Jesus is buried. Because he’s dead. If you’ve lost a loved one you can attest to the importance of a ceremony or burial in the process of closure. The burial is the finality. If the Gospel of John ended after chapter 19, this would have been the case for Jesus. Jesus is dead. Time to move on. Time to scatter all you disappointed disciples.
Look who shows up to the burial of Jesus: Good buddy Nicodemus! I knew he was catching on! And Nicodemus was not alone. He was with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph and Nicodemus had a few things in common. They were men of means and they were secretly disciples of Jesus. Providing Jesus with a proper burial must have come at a great personal cost to these two men. Not only did Nicodemus and Joseph spend a small fortune on spices and oils and a tomb, I would imagine that this radical act of obedience for these 2 wealthy and powerful men, cost them a lot relationally and positionally. What a beautiful picture of using your resources and position to further the kingdom of God.
PRAISE THE LORD FOR CHAPTER 20!!
Think about how different the world would be, how different your own life would be, if the Gospel of John stopped after chapter 19. Because chapter 20 starts with, “while it was still dark….” Jesus was dead. The world was the darkest it had ever been. All seemed lost. There was a profound and seemingly permanent sadness that had infiltrated the disciples and all the world. It looks as if the serpent has won.
We are in for the shock of a lifetime.
Mary Magdalene ventures to the tomb and sees that the stone has been rolled away. She runs and gets the disciples. The body is gone. The linens are there, but the body is gone. The mystery deepens. Their first assumption is that someone has stolen the body. The 2 disciples go home.
An interesting side note: Many times John refers to “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. In the end, it is revealed (sorry, spoilers coming) that this is referring to John, the author of this account. If you were writing a true story, an account of someone’s life, and you were a character in this narrative, how would you address yourself? I would simply identify myself by name, wouldn’t you? Why does John do this? At first, we might think it’s because John is trying to make himself sound special or more important. Maybe that’s right. Or perhaps, this IS how John sees himself. His primary identity is found in being loved by Jesus. How beautiful! Is that how you would characterize your PRIMARY identity? Maybe it should be. Jesus’ love for us should be so deeply engrained in the foundation of who we are simply “the one whom Jesus loves.”
Another, more silly, probably unimportant side note: If John, the author, is “the one whom Jesus loved” it is very interesting that he makes a point of including the detail that he “outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” John felt it necessary to include the fact that he could beat Peter in a 100 yard dash. Ha! Think there may have been a bit of competition between these two men? Perhaps I just have too strong of a competitive streak that causes me to notice these things. Either way, it’s a bit funny. I digress…
Jesus starts appearing to people. First on the list is Mary Magdalene. Interesting choice. Obviously, Mary is a woman. If you were making up a story or preparing your testimony in court, you would NEVER have your first eye-witness be a woman. Sadly, the culture of the time gave very little credibility to the testimony of a woman. However, Jesus came to usher in the kingdom of God, which is far different from the cultures of this world. By appearing first to a woman, he knew it might hurt the reliance of the coming events, but it was worth it in order to elevate the dignity and confidence of Mary and all women.
It is interesting that Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s because she’s simply not looking for him? Do you think a resurrected person looks somehow different? What changes for Mary that causes her to finally recognize Jesus? Go back and read the text to see for yourself. (it’s verse 16) Yes, Jesus calls her by name! We can ignore a lot of signs; we can explain away coincidences. However, we cannot ignore the risen Lord calling us by name!
Pause for a minute and put yourself in Mary’s shoes. God has been trying to get your attention. Perhaps he’s been asking you the same questions he asked Mary. Why are you sad? Who are you looking for? But then, he calls you…by your name. Picture it. He KNOWS you. His intimate knowledge of you makes you recognize that you also KNOW him. He’s the one you’ve been looking for. Don’t ignore the call.
Verse 19….a very pivotal moment in history. After Jesus’ crucifixion, where are the disciples? Out standing for justice? Fighting “the man”? Sticking to their convictions and following Jesus to the death? Nope. They are afraid and hiding behind locked doors. However, that’s all about to change. Suddenly, Jesus is among them. (#nolocksforJesus) He knows this must be a shock so he (supernaturally I suppose) gives them peace and proves he is Jesus by showing off his wounds. Then he BREATHES ON THEM (this was obviously pre-covid…KIDDING) and says RECEIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT. This is a big moment. It is the moment of their comissioning…and essentially ours too. They are equipped now and ready to be sent. No more fear. No more hiding. You ready?
One disciple, Thomas, who was missing at that pivotal moment, isn’t convinced. You know what? I feel ya, Thomas. I also like to see for myself sometimes. You too? I think it’s paramount to pay attention to how Jesus handles Thomas’ doubt. While he does state that blessings will be poured out on those who believe without seeing, he provides Thomas with what he needs to believe. He shows him the evidence. He points out the data. He allows Thomas to touch and see for himself. If you find yourself in a period filled with uncertainty and doubt, don’t turn away! Lean into your questions. Jesus invites you into the search and he provides the evidence. He’s not afraid of your doubts and knows what you need to believe. Ask him to provide it. He wants you to believe, but doesn’t always expect you to believe blindly. He wants you to touch and see that he is real.
Ahhhh. We have come to our theme verse for this journey through John. It only took 20 chapters to get here. Hopefully you didn’t get lost along the way. This is, in fact, the WHOLE POINT.
“The disciples saw Jesus do many other miraculous signs in addition to the ones recorded in this book. But these are written so that you may continue to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing in him you will have life by the power of his name.”
There it is. The purpose of John’s gospel. We’ve seen and heard Jesus perform miracles. He’s healed people. He’s transformed earthly objects. He’s taught thought-provoking messages. He’s raised a person from the dead. He’s fulfilled prophecies. He’s RAISED HIMSELF FROM THE DEAD. He’s released the Holy Spirit with his BREATH. What do you say? Where do you land on this whole believing spectrum? Are you convinced? Do you believe? Do you simply believe with your head or because you’ve heard about Jesus through the grapevine? Do you believe because, like Mary, the risen Lord has called you by name? Do you believe because, like Thomas, you’ve seen first hand what Jesus is capable of? Do you believe with your heart and your soul? Do you believe in such a way that you’re willing to throw off all that is holding you back and TRUST your life to this resurrected king?