John 21:20-25. John

21:20 Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”) 21 When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” 

22 Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.” 23 Because of this, the rumor spread among the believers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?”

24 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true.

25 Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. 

Comparing ourselves to other Christians is never a good idea. “What about him?… what about the disciple who has been closest to you, the one in whom you confided, the one called ‘the beloved’?” Peter does not get a straight answer. Instead, he is to direct his attention to Jesus alone (σύ μοι ἀκολούθει) and not concern himself with whatever blessings God confers on John. So discipleship is not about comparisons or ‘fair’ treatment. It is firstly about loyalty to Jesus. Yes, we walk the pathway of discipleship with others– and we are to love them as Jesus would– but ultimately our allegiance is to Jesus alone.

I am challenged to consider my own discipleship. I want to be following Jesus alone– not competing or comparing myself with others. I am a Christian because Jesus has called me to follow him, regardless of what happens to me or to others. This conclusion to John’s gospel calls me to a life of discipleship, irrespective of whether that results in a comfortable life or a difficult life.

Secondarily, this closing section to John’s gospel also serves to answer the popular myth that John would not die before Jesus returned in glory to rule (v23). Of course, it was nothing more than a myth; but the need for such a clarification implies that, at the time of publication, John had indeed died. The editors of this gospel use this final postscript to dispel that false expectation and, at the same time, ensure that  John’s testimony is not discredited.

Implied in verse 23, but now confirmed in v24-25, the gospel’s editors (“we”) now make their presence known. They have taken John’s testimony and ‘published’ it this final form of a gospel.Who are these editors? They are likely a group of ‘teacher/elders’ at Ephesus, the location of John’s later ministry. No doubt their work was superintended by God to ensure that this gospel expressed the inspired word of God, for all people, for all time.

Dear God, I thank you for John’s gospel; that by it you have revealed and continue to reveal yourself to all kinds of people. Thank you for this self-disclosure that allows me to know you truly. Please change me to be more like Jesus as I continue to be nourished by your word. Amen.

John 21:15-19. Peter

John 21:15    When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16    Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17    The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.

18 Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” 19 Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!”

The attention given to Peter by the fishing narrative now sharpens as Jesus and Peter go for a walk along the beach together after breakfast. This is a one-on-one conversation directed towards reconciliation, commissioning and discipleship.

The threefold challenge to Peter looks as if it were designed to parallel his threefold denial, despite his proclaimed loyalty (Mt 26:31-33). 

There are subtle differences in the wording of Jesus’ three questions.  There is great debate over the nuances that agape and philo bring to our understanding of the word ‘love’. Linguists tell us that agape love is characteristic of God’s selfless love while philo love has more of a ‘brotherly affection’ aspect to it. But we should be wary of this over-simplification. Imagine the frustration of the Eskimo trying to explain to us the nuances of their many different words for ‘snow’. In the end, the non-Eskimo should at least understand that it is snowing and cold outside. Similarly, we should be wary of placing too greater weight on the subtleties of Jesus’ word choice. 

However, given that there must be some distinction between agape and philo love, Jesus’ three questions to Peter seem to successively lower the bar. The first question asks Peter to compare his love to the other disciples: it his love really greater than theirs? Peter replies that he loves Jesus with brotherly love (philo).

Jesus’ second question only asks Peter if his love has the qualities of agape. Peter replies again that he loves Jesus with philo. 

Jesus’ third question seems to grant Peter his concession. Does Peter love (philo) him as a brother? Yes, replies Peter. He loves him as a brother.

Giving too much attention the nuances of love in v15-17 takes away from the obvious intent of this conversation. It’s really about discipleship. Jesus’ point is that Peter’s love for him is to impel him to tend his flock. Three times Jesus calls Peter to feed and tend to his lambs. In the same way, my love for Jesus (whatever its qualities and characteristics) moves me to tend Jesus’ flock. The role of ‘assistant junior shepherd’ carries with it great honour, not because of the quality of the sheep but because of the status of their owner. Love for Jesus expresses itself in care for his flock.

For Peter this role will ultimately cost him his life. That is the intent of Jesus’ words in v18-19. To ‘stretch out your hands’ and ‘be led where you do not want to go’ refers to Peter’s own crucifixion, some 30 years hence, under Emperor Nero. Tradition has it that Peter was crucified upside down, at his request, so that he would not have the likeness of Jesus. On a hill outside Rome, Bramante’s Tempietto marks the place of this gruesome death.

But even knowing that he will die a martyr’s death, Peter is not to focus on this. Instead, his focus is to be on following Jesus. Even in his absence, Peter is to be Jesus’ disciple: “Follow me!” Jesus last call to Peter is the same as his first (cf Jn 21:22): be my disciple. Imitate me and do as I show you. Ultimately, this is the force of John’s entire gospel. The testimony to Jesus as Lord and Christ over 20 chapters is now all drawn together for the believer: as Peter, so should the reader give themselves, without reserve, to following Jesus.

Lord Jesus, please grant me such grace that I should be your ‘assistant junior shepherd’ serving your flock. Whatever and wherever this flock may be, they are yours. And this gives the job inestimable worth. Thank you so much for such a privilege. Now please also grant me your Spirit’s enabling for the job so I don’t mess it up. Amen.

 

John 21:1-14. Fishing

John 21:1 Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee.  It happened this way:  2 Simon Peter, Thomas (also known as Didymus ), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together.  3 “I’m going out to fish,” Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you.” So they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realise that it was Jesus.

5 He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” 

“No,” they answered. 

6 He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish.

7 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, “It is the Lord,” he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.  8 The other disciples followed in the boat, towing the net full of fish, for they were not far from shore, about a hundred yards. 9 When they landed, they saw a fire of burning coals there with fish on it, and some bread. 

10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish you have just caught.” 11 So Simon Peter climbed back into the boat and dragged the net ashore. It was full of large fish, 153, but even with so many the net was not torn.  12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” None of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.  13 Jesus came, took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time Jesus appeared to his disciples after he was raised from the dead.

The purpose statement at the end of the previous chapter would have been a fitting conclusion to John’s gospel, but chapter 21 provides an epilogue with three interactions: the fishing expedition, Peter’s commissioning, and John’s future. The effect of the epilogue is to show that the narrative of Jesus’ rule and the growth of his kingdom continues, now with the apostles taking centre stage.

It seems that after Jesus’ resurrection the disciples stayed in Jerusalem for 8 days, allowing for two Sunday resurrection appearances in the locked room. Following the instruction of Jesus (cf Mt 26:32, 28:6-10) they then went north to Galilee for this third appearance (v14), and ultimately his ascension. 

The narrative of the fishing expedition is unusual in a number of ways, and yet entirely consistent with the gospel accounts of Jesus. The reason for the fishing expedition is not given: perhaps the disciples were hungry, or unsure what to do while waiting for Jesus, or just glad to be back ‘at home’ by the lake. Peter invites the others to come along to fish. The list of names catches our attention— only the Galilee locals are named and only 8 are in the boat. Thomas is promoted in the order, probably reflecting his increased stature after the events of Jn 20:26-28. Further, the apparently diminished recognition of John and James as merely “the sons of Zebedee” seems curious. Their names would usually be grouped with Peter’s as part of the ‘inner circle’. 

The miraculous catch of fish echoes that of Luke 5:5-7. While the pattern is similar, significant ‘fishing details’ suggest different occasions— the number of fish and boats would seem important to fisherman retelling the story. Although both pericopes focus on Peter, and both conclude with a form of ‘commissioning’, Peter’s actions and response to Jesus are notable points of differentiation.

So what is the point of this part of the narrative? It seems so ordinary. Some guys go fishing. They meet Jesus on the beach. They share breakfast. It seems that the very ‘ordinariness’ of these post-resurrection events tell us something important. Jesus is familiar. He is physical such that he shares breakfast and goes for a walk along the beach. He participates in conversations, not merely barking out commands as he hurriedly departs this earth. The resurrected Jesus engages with his disciples around real events and in common ways, thereby surpassing ‘proof of life’ meetings in Jerusalem and moving forward into the next phase of ministry through his apostles. John’s epilogue draws the reader onwards: Jesus’ mission continues in daily life, with ordinary people. With me.

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that you are resurrected and ascended, and yet your work continues. Thank you that you journey with your people in such familiar ways as they carry on your mission. Please keep me aware of your daily presence with me, in the person of your Spirit and in the doing of your will. Amen.

John 20:30-31. Signs with purpose

30 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe  that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John now steps forward to draw his resurrection narrative to a close and make explicit the nature of his gospel. He has selectively organised his gospel around a series of ‘signs’, evident especially in chapters 2-12. Such ‘signs’ included turning water into wine, healings, feeding large crowds and even raising Lazarus. In that portion of the book John employed a particular pattern: Jesus performs some miraculous sign, which sparks a controversy or conflict of some kind, leading to further explanation and revelation as to Jesus’ identity and mission. The later section of John’s gospel, chapters 13-20, focussed on Jesus’ greatest and most compelling sign— his death and resurrection. This was told in much greater depth and detail as the climax of the book.

Now John wants his reader to know that his singular purpose in narrating these signs was to commend belief in Jesus. This belief has particular content; namely, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God. These two terms would seem to be synonyms to contemporary Jewish readers. The Messiah was widely understood to be the greater son of David, a divinely anointed King of Israel who would rule over a time of national renewal without end (for example, see 2 Sam 7:11-14 etc). Similarly, the ‘Son of God’ was a royal term, referring to God’s anointed, who would be exalted to a universal reign over all the nations (for example, see Psalm 2). John’s attribution of these names to Jesus, and others like them (see John 1:40-51), not only drew on the depths of Old Testament imagery, but also added richer and new significance to them.

John’s account of Jesus as ‘the Son of God’ is one such term which was extended in its significance. Jesus is revealed as uniquely the Son of God, with a relationship to the Father extending to his personal divinity (eg John 1:1-2, 18; 10:30 etc). Jesus is also singularly God’s Son in his likeness to his Father, in his nature, his authority, and in the works he does.

Embracing this belief about Jesus has powerful effect. The one who believes has ‘life’ in his name. The life to which John refers is undoubtedly ‘the life of the Age’ — usually translated as ‘eternal life’. This has been a theme throughout (John 1:4; 3:15-16, 35-36; 4:13-14 etc). It is life lived in the new kingdom, in relationship with God, under the rule of his Messiah, without ending, and of an order revealed in the resurrection of Jesus himself. It is a life not deserved or merited, given only ‘in the name’ and on account of Jesus.

Dear God. Once again I am overwhelmed by your grace towards me. Thank you for granting me to believe in your Son, the Messiah, that I may share his life of the new age. Please enrich this faith in me that I might live increasingly in the present as I will for eternity. Amen.

John 20:24-29. Believing Thomas

John 20:24    Now Thomas (also known as Didymus ), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” 

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

26 A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” 

29 Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

I confess that Thomas is one of Jesus’ disciples whom I admire most. John’s gospel portrays him as a hard-headed, practical and honest man. When Jesus had said that he was committed to going up to Jerusalem, into the angry heart of Jewish opposition, Thomas grasps what’s going on and says to the rest of the disciples, “Let’s go too, so that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16).

At the Last Supper, Jesus tells his disciples that he is going to his Father to prepare a place for them, concluding by saying, “And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas replied, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5-6). It’s as if he’s saying, “Just give it to us straight and clear.” He is a realist; a practical, ‘don’t beat around the bush’ kind of guy. And that’s why he’s a good man to see interacting with the resurrected Jesus.

The first thing that Thomas does when he hears about the resurrection of Jesus is take the position of a fair-minded skeptic. He effectively says, “If you want me to believe this, you’re going to have to give me good grounds for belief.” Mary and some women, others of the Twelve and the community of Jesus’ followers, are reporting that they have seen Jesus himself. Thomas wants to verify that these experiences are not dreams or hallucinations. Further, he wants to verify it actually is the very same Jesus who was brutally executed on the cross, and that it is physically him— resurrected in bodily humanity. So he declares his threshold for evidence: he must see the nail marks in his hands and feel the spear wound in his side (v25).

I am grateful for Thomas. If a man has come back from the dead, I want it verified. There must be reasonable grounds for belief; hard evidence. He already had secondary evidence— the testimony of several others of the Jesus community, whom he knew and trusted. But he wanted primary evidence.

So when Jesus again enters the locked room where Jesus’ disciples are meeting, he offers himself to Thomas as evidence of the first order. And he pairs this with a call to set aside doubt and believe.

When Thomas replies, “My Lord and my God!” (v28) we hear his conclusion— although we’re not told whether he did poke his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side or the scars in his hands. Instead we learn that he had the courage to move from skepticism to belief. He changed from Doubting Thomas to Believing Thomas. 

And Thomas’ belief is a fully Christian belief. He already believed a lot of other things (good things) about Jesus. A good man? Yes. A worker of miracles? Yes. A prophet and a teacher? Sure. But now Thomas moves to a genuinely Christian belief: “You are my Lord and my God.” He now affirms and declares that Jesus is fully divine, and therefore possessing all authority. Even Satan knows that Jesus is divine but he opposes his rule. Contrastingly, Thomas’ fully Christian belief embraces Jesus as both God and Lord– the Ruler with complete personal authority in his life.

Have you ever wondered what happened to Thomas? The New Testament records that Thomas remained active with the other apostles for the early part of the book of Acts, but after that there is no mention of him. What did he do next? Some documents of the early church tell us that Thomas left Jerusalem for the East, likely traveling as far as India. There is good evidence that, all along the western coast of India, he continued to testify to Jesus and established there a small but robust Christian church. But opposition arose, and eventually Thomas was martyred for his faith*.

So Thomas is the apostle for the contemporary evidentialist. He becomes fully convinced of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, makes the first fully Christian confession of Jesus’ Lordship and Divinity, and then gives his life to declaring this truth to the ends of the earth.

My Lord and my God, please enrich my faith and grant me courage so that– well convinced of your gospel– I might declare this truth to the ends of the earth (or wherever you might direct me to go!). Amen.

 

*(C.L. Blomberg, “Thomas”, International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Ed. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988) Vol IV, 842; J.L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol 1 (San Francisco: Harper, 1984) 29-30.)

John 20:19-23. Peace and mission

John 20:19    On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord. 

21 Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

John’s narrative moves from fear to peace. Fear led Peter to denial. Fear moved the crowd to call for crucifixion. Despite their fears, two disciples risked asking Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ body. Mary feared Jesus’ body had been moved or stolen. Jesus’ disciples were in a locked room for fear of the authorities. But now Jesus stands among his followers with a greeting of ‘Peace.’ Confusion is replaced by comfort and joy. Although the greeting of peace is in the common form, on the lips of Jesus after his resurrection it takes on heightened significance. He gives his peace; not as the world gives (cf Jn 14:27). This is shalom, the restoration of God’s goodness and the defeat of chaos and death.

Jesus here not only demonstrates his victory over death, showing his hands and side to prove that it really is him, he also commissions his disciples. Just as the Father sent the Son, now the Son sends his disciples: we are “co-missioned”, doing God’s work together with him (cf Jn 17:18).

Jesus breathing on his disciples and saying, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’ seems to me to be a proleptic action— a symbolic dramatisation of what will happen at Pentecost (about 7 weeks hence). No visible signs immediately follow; no speaking in tongues, no works of power. The Spirit has not yet come because Jesus has not yet ascended to his Father. Instead, Jesus acts prophetically to indicate the means by which the mission will proceed.

The giving of the Spirit in verse 22 must be connected with verse 23. The giving of the Spirit gives authority to the disciples to do as Jesus has been doing, for he has been exercising the authority of the Father to forgive sins (much to the chagrin of the Pharisees!). The verbs in v23 are in the passive which further implies that it is God who is acting through his people. The apostles– for now they have been formally commissioned by Jesus in Jn 20:21 — exercise this ministry now too. The implication of these words is that the ‘sending’ was in some way to fulfil the commission which Jesus had received from the Father.

This ministry of ‘forgiving sins’ is best understood as being exercised through the preaching of the gospel, although it is not immediately apparent here. Those who do not respond to the preaching of the gospel are left in their sins. The sins that the are forgiven are forgiven on the basis of the gospel.

Dear God, knowing your peace, please empower me to do what you want in this world. May you forgive many people their sins as they hear the gospel, even through me. Amen.

John 20:11-18. Surprise

John 20:11  Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. 13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.”

14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Peter and John have left the tomb because there’s nothing more to see. It’s empty. Perhaps someone in town knows something. Maybe not. But they will be safer indoors, away from the Jewish religious leaders and Roman soldiers who conspired to kill Jesus. So the cemetery is deserted, except for Mary Magdalene. She is so distraught that she can only cry.

When Mary looks again into the tomb now she sees two angels. Their message (angels always seem to have a message) is simply to ask Mary why she is crying. They serve no other function in the narrative, other than to distract Mary while Jesus approaches. Again Mary is asked why she is crying. Again she expresses her conviction that Jesus’ body has been moved or stolen— resurrection has not entered her mind.

But then she recognises Jesus (v16). His presence proves that his body has not been stolen. Further, Mary’s embrace proves that he is bodily present: he is not a ghost or a vision. He can be grabbed, touched and embraced. Resurrection is, by definition, physical rebirth to a new order of life.

Why would Jesus say to Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father“? Clearly she was holding him. Was it something to do with the nature of his ‘freshly minted’ resurrected body? No evidence for this is given. More likely it was because Jesus had many urgent things to do before his ascension to his Father. There are bigger things in play here than affection: there is a mission at hand. Mary is given a message to relay to the disciples. Jesus has an appointment with two on the Emmaus Road, and who knows what else: action before ascension.

Just as Mary Magdalene is among the first to discover Jesus’ tomb is empty, so she is also the first to see him resurrected. We don’t know why she is afforded such significant privileges but, it seems, that’s just how it happened. Nothing about Jesus’ resurrection conforms to human expectations or to the ways we might prefer events to unfold. Instead, Jesus’ lordship is simply exercised and displayed. He is alive!

Lord, please help me to receive your resurrection as it is, rather than on my terms. Grant me faith to believe it, to trust you because of it, and to live in light of it. Amen

John 20:1-10. The scene of the crime

John 20:1    Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” 3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

How do you respond to the shock of an unprecedented event? There is nothing to prepare you, no guidelines or patterns of appropriate behaviour to fall back on. The discovery of the empty tomb is one such event. As with the cross, John’s account relies upon an accumulation of detail to convey the whole narrative.

The first detail we learn is that it is Mary Magdalene who first makes the discovery. This Mary was one of a group of women who supported Jesus and his band of disciples. She is the woman from whom Jesus exorcised seven demons (cf Luke 8:2) in her home town of Magdala, a middle class fishing village on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. She must be the source of several of the details recorded here by John, although since she was a woman, a Jewish court would not have accepted her testimony.

If one wanted to concoct a new religion based around the resurrection of its leader from the dead, a much more credible eye-witness would have been preferred. But in the wisdom of God, Mary was indeed the first to discover the empty tomb. Because the resurrection is anchored in the historical world of real events, John simply records what actually happened.

John is also an early eye-witness. Mary discovers the body of Jesus is missing. She runs to tell Peter and John— what else does one do?— perhaps because they are viewed as the communal leaders. Her assumption is not resurrection but theft. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!” John outruns Peter to the tomb, looks inside but does not enter— apparently insignificant details, but all contributing to the immediacy of the account. This was a ‘crime scene’ investigation, carefully documented.

Peter goes straight into the tomb. The facts are assessed: the tomb is indeed empty, the grave clothes are left behind (presumably with their aromatic spices) and the head cloth folded up separately. If this is the work of grave-robbers, why completely unwrap the corpse? Grave robbers are mercenaries— surely the body of a crucified man is worthless. If thieves wanted simply to identify the body as Jesus’, this task was would only require a partial unwrapping. This, too, makes no sense. There are no signs of a rushed job, of dragging the body outside, of stealth or malfeasance. Instead, Jesus is simply ‘not there.’ Matthew’s gospel includes the account of the guards placed outside the tomb, preventing any external tampering. Whatever happened, it must be an ‘inside job’.

John is first to conclude Jesus has risen. He records that this was the moment, the turning point, for his belief that Jesus was resurrected to life. He had not considered the implications of this, or its expectation embedded in Scripture. He simply believed. Further evidence would be required.

Lord Jesus, thank you that you are indeed the resurrected one. Please grant me such faith as to believe and such insight as to understand all the implications of this world-shaping historical event. Amen

John 19:38-42. Dead and Buried

John 19:38    Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away.  39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 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. 41 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.  42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

Out of the dark shadows of death step two men— Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. They were most probably members of the Sanhedrin and, as such, were able to use their rank to gain access to the governor. They asked to be given the body of Jesus for burial. Normally those condemned for sedition would have been cast into a common grave, but since Pilate granted the request this may suggest that he did not really accept the sedition charge.

Can one be a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus? Joseph of Arimathea is identified as such— ‘for fear of the Jewish Leaders’. With increasing venom throughout John’s gospel, the Jewish leadership sought to persecute anyone who indicated their support for Jesus. His followers were to be ‘put out of the synagogue’ (Jn 9:22; 12:42-43; 16:1-3), which amounted to ex-communication. From a religious perspective, this meant that they were cut off from the proper worship of God, and with that, the hope of salvation. From a social perspective, this meant becoming an outcast and so treated as a foreigner. Ultimately, the Jewish Leadership were using their power coercively to prevent their people receiving their Messiah. And for some this seemed to work. But now two more men step forward to demonstrate their allegiance to Jesus, by asking to give him an honourable burial.

Nicodemus had previously visited Jesus ‘at night’ (John 3:1-15). This clandestine interview is now shown to have borne fruit— he does believe. Along with Joseph, he has decided that the time has come to declare his allegiance to Jesus, who at this stage appears only to be a ‘crucified prophet’. His status as Messiah and Lord is entirely hidden by his gruesome execution. Any hope of a triumphant resurrection seems far away.

Nicodemus’ burial arrangements are not insignificant— 34kg of expensive spices are to be wrapped in with the corpse within a funerary shroud. As the decay of death proceeds, the odour will be masked (to some extent). And yet, already there is the hint of a new life. The Spirit seems to have given Nicodemus ‘birth from above’ and so he willingly seeks to honour Jesus, even in his death.

Is is possible to be a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus? It seems the answer is, “Yes, but not for long.” Joseph and Nicodemus show us that ultimately the recognition of Jesus as Lord means that we must step outside of the world’s ways. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Christians will be identified as different because we are fundamentally different— we have been ‘born from above’ (Jn 3:3-8). 

Lord Jesus, you said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Grant me such courage that I might publicly declare that you are Lord, such grace that my manner of life might declare the same, and such perseverance to keep doing so until your Return. Amen.

John 19:31-37. Verified

John 19:31    Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders 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.  32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 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. 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.” 

All the details recorded in this gospel are the work of an eye-witness. The other apostles had all fled but John was present at the cross to the bitter end (Jn 19:26). And now his testimony is verified: Jesus is demonstrated to be dead through the grizzly work of the soldiers. The reported flow of blood and water from Jesus’ side as the soldier spears him is offered as proof of death. 

The veracity of this evidence is often debated. Some claim that if Jesus was already dead and his heart had stopped beating, there would be no blood pressure and therefore no flow of blood. However, this does not account for the action of gravity nor the likely build up of pressure in the chest cavity— either from the build up of fluid in the pericardium resulting from hypovolemic shock during his flogging or from Jesus’ lungs filling with fluid during suffocation on the cross. Likely John was also referring to the well known separation of blood and serum after death. Regardless of medical science, in the gospel the observation serves to verify three things: the soldiers concluded Jesus had been dead for some time, it explains why Jesus’ legs were not broken, and why John concluded Jesus was ‘very dead’.

John reflects on two Old Testament prophecies in connection with these details. The first (v36), that none of Jesus’ bones were broken, seems to recall Psalm 34:20 which is set as a reflection on David’s escape from Abimelek (1 Sam 21:1-13). Somewhat confusingly, the Psalm tells of David’s deliverance and protection by God— which seems not to be Jesus’ experience at all. Perhaps the ‘no broken bones’ is instead a reference to the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12)— Jesus’ experience is shown to be the fulfilment of the Passover Lamb: sacrificed for salvation, but no bones are broken.

The second Old Testament reference, “They will look on the one they have pierced,” quotes Zech 12:10-12. In Zechariah, surrounded by fierce armies and outnumbered with no chance of survival, God moves Israel to grieve and mourn their sin. They do so as they look upon “me, the one whom they have pierced”. On that day of mourning, God wins deliverance for his people, even as they mourn like the renowned weeping of a town on the plains of Meggido. John is saying that, on the cross, even as Jesus is mourned by his disciples, God is wins a great victory. 

Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that, against all expectation and appearances, your death on the cross has won the greatest victory of all. Thank for John’s testimony and courage, along with the women, who stayed with you to the end. Amen.

John 19:28-30. Done

John 19:28    Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that 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.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 

Throughout John’s gospel Jesus has been focussed on doing God’s will and completing his mission (eg Jn 4:34; 17:4). Jesus has been sent for a purpose and now it is complete— finished. Yes, substitutionary atonement is won at this point of death but Jesus is focussed on completing everything written in the scriptures. 

Jesus’ thirst is not a random detail included in the text for no reason. Certainly it reminds us of Jesus’ humanity and the drawn out suffering of crucifixion. But John says that Jesus’ thirst is significant because it points to the fulfilment of Scripture. Our attention is drawn to Psalm 69:21, “They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst.” This is not a simplistic ‘proof-text’ but rather John is telling us that Jesus fulfils all that Psalm 69 was about. Jesus is the true David, the Representative Head of Israel, whose zeal for God and his righteousness ‘consumes him’ like a sacrifice (cf Jn 2:17). And yet, even in the midst of apparent abandonment and failure, God is the one who vindicates his beloved. Ultimately, God delivers the needy and all see his salvation (Ps 69:29-36).

And so, just prior to his death, Jesus declares that all is ‘done’. Salvation is won. The simplicity of this truth brings profound assurance to the Christian believer. Personal efforts, successes and godliness do not contribute to or embellish our salvation. Instead, we look back upon Jesus’ work completed on the cross and know that salvation is not so much a matter of ‘what I do’ but of ‘what he has done’. It is finished.

Lord Jesus, your self-giving sacrifice is complete. You have done it once, completely, and sufficiently for all. Please let this truth utterly transform my conscience, my will and my motivations so that grace determines all that I do. Amen.

John 19:17-27. Crucifixion details

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

19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: “Jesus of Nazareth. 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.” 

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 that said,
       “They divided my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.”
So this is what the soldiers did. 

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 her, “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’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion is economically told. Several apparently small details are recorded, telling the whole story by the parts.

Jesus is crucified as a King: that is John’s main message. Pilate has him there expediently as a ‘king’ from elsewhere— perhaps from among the gods— fearing what might happen if he does and if he does not crucify him. The charge against him is framed as an insult to the Jews. Here is your king; humiliated, tortured and executed. He is no threat to Caesar.

As ‘King of the Jews,’ the Jews have him there on the cross as a blasphemer: he claimed to be the king of Jews. Here is what happens to anyone who blasphemes God. They die under a curse. 

As ‘King of the Jews,’ God has him there on the cross as the Representative Head of all Israel. As king, Jesus embodies and sums up his people. He stands before God in their place. He is responsible for them and their sin. [Note: his resurrection triumph will also be shared with the people he represents]

So Jesus is ‘king’ in each setting: to Pilate and the Romans, to the Jews, and before God. Jesus is crucified as ‘the King of the Jews.’

And so God’s anointed is abandoned to the cross. He is covered with shame as those who look on gloat over his demise. They mock him in his vulnerability and take advantage of his weakness by making a sport of stealing his clothes. It is not merely that the event happened just as foretold by the prophets and psalmists, but that Jesus’ humiliation was complete. The king is shamed.

The garments of the condemned men usually belonged to the soldiers on duty; a small bonus for their grizzly work. They do not want to divide Jesus’ inner garment likely because it will reduce its resale value. In the casting of lots— surely a sign of distain for the executed— John sees a fulfilment of Ps 22:18. In this way, the part tells the whole. What is going on for Jesus at the very moment of his crucifixion? Psalm 22 tells the whole of it. Gambling for Jesus’ garments serves as the reference point.

Lord Jesus Christ, you experienced abandonment from your Father in a way that I could never know. You experienced the shame of my sin before the Father in a way that (thankfully) I will never fully understand. Because you are my King, my Representative Head, you have endured the justice my sin deserves. Thank you that your abandonment and shame have purchased my restoration and honour. Amen.