After more than 4 chapters of the Last Discourse John resumes the narrative of the Passion of Jesus. The general outline of chapters 18 and 19 is very similar to the general outline of the final night and crucifixion in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke; see The Shape of the Gospel Story: The Synoptic Gospels). The arrest in the Garden, the trial before the high priest, the interwoven story of Peter's denial, the trial before Pilate, the crucifixion, death, and burial of Jesus all appear in John and the Synoptics. There are significant differences, both in the details and in the "slant" given to certain parts of the narrative. Some of the differences will be explained below. Many of them reflect part of the unique purpose and perspective that John has developed throughout his gospel.
John 18:1-12 - The Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus
John moves very quickly into the betrayal and arrest of Jesus. He says nothing of the Gethsemane experience of Jesus struggling in prayer, sweating the great drops of blood. It would not have fit in with John's picture of Jesus resolutely headed toward the cross in full, unquestioning obedience to the Father's will. In fact, Jesus appears in total control throughout the betrayal and arrest. The soldiers had to be there because that is the way the event unfolded. But to hear John tell it, it is almost as if Jesus turned himself over to them in his timing rather than theirs.
Verse 1 states that the disciples and Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley to a place where there was a garden. John does not mention its name, Gethsemane, which means "oil press." All the gospels imply that Jesus intended to spend the night in Jerusalem rather than returning to Bethany where he had been staying. This probably reflects the fact that it was the night of the Passover. The Jews of Jesus' time interpreted Deuteronomy 16:7 to mean that everyone coming to Jerusalem for the Passover had to spend the night in the city. There were so many pilgrims in the city that the old city proper could not house them all. The Rabbis extended the "city limits" for that night to the outlying areas, including the oil gardens on the west slope of the Mount of Olives, clear to Bethphage, but not to Bethany.
The Kidron Valley was the small valley separating the Mount of Olives on the east from the temple mount on its west. It was a dry valley through most of the year, but during the rainy winter season there was a flowing stream running down the valley. A few scholars believe that John had the 1 Kings 2 story of David fleeing from Absalom in mind when he mentioned the Kidron Valley. However, there is no evidence that John drew or thought about any of the phrases from 1 Kings 2 that might have fit Jesus' circumstances.
Verse 2 explains how it was that Judas was able to find Jesus there. Jesus had gathered there many times with his disciples; Judas knew the place to look for Jesus. Verse 3 presents a different picture than that found in the Synoptics. Many of the English versions simply state that Judas came with a detachment of soldiers. The Greek is quite clear that it was a Roman cohort as the NASB correctly translates it. The Synoptic Gospels make no mention of the Romans being involved in Jesus' arrest, and there is considerable debate among scholars whether John is historically correct.
A cohort was a detachment of 600 Roman soldiers, which would have been a much larger group than Matthew and Mark implied were involved in arresting Jesus. It is unlikely that Judas would have been put in charge of the cohort and unlikely that they would have gone to the garden under the command of the priests or Pharisees. However, there were enough Roman soldiers in Jerusalem at that time that a cohort could have been called to investigate the leader of a possible rebellion.
John places more emphasis on the Romans in the trial of Jesus than the Synoptic gospels do. In a very literal sense [the army of] "the ruler of this world" has come to Jesus and "has nothing (no power) over him" just as Jesus had said in John 14:30. John also mentions the "officers" of the chief priests. These were probably the Levitical "temple guard" who served as temple security agents or policemen. Thus John emphasizes more than any other gospel the military power that is brought to arrest Jesus.
That makes John's point in verse 4 all the more impressive. After the forces had come Jesus took charge of the situation by stepping forward and asking, "Whom are you looking for?"
Verse 6 notes that "they" (the whole cohort?) stepped back and fell to the ground. The description of their reaction fits the descriptions in the Old Testament of people's reaction to theophanies - appearances of God. That is precisely John's point. Only John states that Jesus identified himself by saying, "I am he," in verses 5, 6, and 8. The Greek for "I am he," is the familiar ego eimi, I AM. Even the arresting cohort of Roman soldiers recognized Jesus' divine claim and fell down before him. He has to tell the army to go ahead and arrest him!
John presents Jesus being in such control that in verse 8 he commands the arresting party to let the disciples go. According to the Synoptic gospels the disciples ran away in fright when Jesus was arrested. John wants us to know that even as he was being arrested Jesus himself took care of the safety of his disciples. Verse 9 states that Jesus' care for his disciples fulfilled what he had said earlier about not losing any of them. There is no quote in John's gospel (or the Synoptics) that directly fits this saying. However, it is consistent in a general way with John 6:39; 10:28; and 17:12.
Only John mentions the names of Peter and Malchus in the incident of cutting off the right ear of a high priest's servant. The purpose of mentioning these details is uncertain. However, John has a clear purpose for mentioning the event itself. Luke saw it as an opportunity to point to Jesus as a compassionate healer and is the only gospel to state that Jesus healed poor Malchus' ear.
John, however, uses the event to allow Jesus to rebuke Peter for resorting to weapons instead of the will of the Father. Shall I not drink the cup which my Father has given me? For John Jesus' arrest was not a matter of superior force seizing the Master. It was a matter of Jesus obeying the Father. So John can finally say, ironically, in verse 12 that the cohort, the commander, and the temple police (all 600+ of them) arrested Jesus and bound him.
John 18:13-27 - The Jewish Trial and Peter's Denial
It is difficult to determine for certain exactly what Jews "tried" Jesus and when and where these "trials" took place. John is the only gospel to mention a role of Annas in the trial. John also separated Peter's denial of Jesus into two parts that he placed before and after Jesus' trial before the high priest. Matthew and Mark portray the Sanhedrin as playing a significant role in Jesus' trial while John makes no mention of the Sanhedrin's role on that night.
John begins the interweaving of Jesus' Jewish trial and Peter's denials by stating that Jesus was brought before Annas. Annas had been installed as high priest in AD 6, but was deposed in AD 15. His family was wealthy and influential (also noted for their greed) and five of his sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas served as high priests. Caiaphas became high priest in AD 18 and served until AD 36 or 37. Thus he was the priest at the time of Jesus' crucifixion, as John notes in verse 13. Verse 14 is a parenthetical reminder of John 11:50. John's point in repeating Caiaphas' statement is to remind his readers that the arrest and death of Jesus will provide salvation for the people. After narrating Peter's first denial, John returns to Jesus' trial in verse 19.
John states that the high priest began to interrogate Jesus. Based on verse 13 one could assume that it was Caiaphas doing the questioning. However, verse 24 concludes the section by stating that Annas sent Jesus to Caiaphas. Perhaps the best way to put the material from all the gospels together is to assume that Annas did preliminary questioning to determine a strategy. Later Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin would follow that strategy in their attempt to get Jesus to perjure himself. John apparently called Annas the high priest in verse 19 in the same way we often refer to former presidents and governors without using the word "former."
Jesus' response in verse 20 is worded in such a way that it is a defense of the Christian faith to Gentile readers. This Jesus was not something in the corner of the Roman Empire that no one had ever heard of. There were many witnesses to what he had said and done.
Verse 21 is more specifically addressed to Annas and essentially requests a formal trial. Though the written documents that we have are later than Jesus' time, it appears that Jewish legal procedure did not permit an accused person's testimony to be used against him. Why do you question me? then really means, "I do not have to answer these questions because you are not following correct legal procedure."
The rebuke of Annas was followed by a request for a trial - Question those who have heard what I said to them. At that point one of the temple police slapped Jesus. No motivation is given; it may have been an effort to intimidate Jesus into cooperation. If so it did not work. The officer's question appealed to Exodus 22:28 which forbid insulting or saying anything wrong to a leader of the people. Jesus responded neither in anger nor fear. He asked for evidence that his reply to Annas had been negative. He was aware that Exodus 22:28 did not apply to what he had done. Jesus remained in control of himself and to that degree in control of the situation. He was confident in his innocence just as he had been in John 8:46.
We have no way of knowing how long the interrogation by Annas took place. However, John has accomplished his goal in describing the Jewish trial. Jesus was innocent; the legal procedure used was incorrect, and Jesus remained in control of the situation throughout. Having established those perspectives, John mentions that Annas sent Jesus on to Caiaphas, but no further mention of the procedures of the Jewish trial are described.
It is possible that John also has in mind presenting Jesus as a model of how the believers of his (and our) time should respond when under trial and/or attack. Quiet composure, awareness of correct interpretation of the Bible, and willingness to deal with evidence should also characterize the Christian response to accusation and insults.
The contrast between the appropriate way to respond to insults and abuse is clearly portrayed by the contrast between Jesus' response to Annas and Peter's response to mere comments that he was connected to Jesus. John strengthens the sense of contrast by breaking the story of Peter's denial into two sections and putting them before and after Jesus' appearance before Annas. The contrast appears twice.
To Peter's credit, although the other disciples fled, Peter and another disciple followed Jesus as the soldiers brought him to the high priest's house. Though the tradition that he was John the son of Zebedee has been very influential, the other disciple is not named. Whoever he was he had access to the courtyard of the high priest. That may be the meaning of he was known to (or by) the high priest (v. 16). The connections of the other disciple allowed Peter to enter the courtyard.
At this point there is a significant difference in the order of events in John. Mark and Luke both say that Peter was sitting at the fire and warming himself before the girl questioned him about knowing Jesus. In John 18:17 the girl is the doorkeeper, and she raises the question of Peter's relationship with Jesus at the door. In John Peter denied Jesus in order to get in and warm himself by the fire.
Regardless of which order might have been historically most accurate, John shows keen insight into many of Jesus' disciples at this point. For many comfort, convenience, and acceptance by social peers is more important than faithfulness to Christ. Though few of us would admit such unholy priorities, our choices give us away. John ironically wrote that in the midst of the people about to put Jesus to death, Peter was standing with them and warming himself.
The second scene, described in verses 25-28, makes it clear that Jesus' prophecy in John 13:38 had come true. Peter did deny a relationship with Jesus three times before the crowing of the cock. John does not mention Peter's cursing or his bitter weeping when he realized what he had done. John's emphasis is on Jesus, not on Peter. Jesus had come through his "trial" with Annas with flying colors. Peter had failed miserably, but even in his failure he fulfilled what Jesus had said about him. John is ready for the next stage in Jesus' stately journey to the cross.
John 18:28-40 - The Trial Before Pilate
John 18:28-19:16 describes Jesus' trial before Pilate. John 18:28-40 describes the interchange (it is hardly fair to call it interrogation) between Jesus and Pilate. John 19:1-16 brings the Jews into the picture and the negotiations, beatings, and sentencing are described.
Early the next morning Jesus was taken from Caiaphas to the praetorium. The Greek word describing the time was used by Romans for the last watch of the night, 3 - 6 am. Roman customs indicate that administrators did most of their work very early in the morning. The Emperor Vespacian tried to have his deskwork finished by the time the sun was fully up. Thus it was necessary to get to Pilate quickly, before he wrapped up his day's administrative agenda.
The location of the praetorium has been the subject of interesting debate in the twentieth century. The word praetorium was used to refer to the official residence of the ranking Roman officer in an administrative area. The regular residence of the Roman governor of Palestine was in Caesarea (see Acts 23:33-35). However, because of the potential for political tension during the Jewish Festivals the governor customarily came to Jerusalem during the Passover season. Where he stayed would be the praetorium.
Based on the writings of two first century Jewish authors the governor had generally been thought to have stayed in Herod's palace on the west side of Jerusalem. However, archaeological discoveries have caused many scholars to believe the temporary praetorium of Jerusalem was in the Antonia fortress. The Antonia was built just north of the temple area and apparently had stairs that descended from the fortress wall into the temple compound. A Roman cohort was garrisoned there overlooking the temple area and was on special alert during Jewish Festivals. Acts 21:31-37 describes the Romans rescuing Paul and taking him up the stairs to safety. Archaeologists have found some of the paving stones of the courtyard of the Antonia. There is even scratched into the rock a Roman game of chance board. Many scholars now believe the Fortress of Antonia housed the praetorium and that Jesus was tried before Pilate there.
Ironically John also notes that the Jews who took Jesus to the Roman governor would not enter the praetorium for fear of defiling themselves. In contrast to Jesus' sanctification of himself to the task of God's will, the Jews are more concerned with ceremonial purity than the moral issue of murder. They are a tragic example of what happens when we lose sight of God's intention for us stated in Micah 6:8 to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him.
John's comment that they did not want to defile themselves to be able to eat the Passover raises another historical problem and theological point. Verse 28 clearly assumes that Passover was the coming evening, not the previous evening. The Synoptic gospels state that Jesus' last night with the disciples was the evening of the Passover with the ritual Passover meal. Thus John and the Synoptics are one day different in their calendar of when Jesus died (see The Synoptic Problem).
There are many explanations of the historical problem but John's theological point is important. By John's calendar Jesus died on the cross at the same hour the Passover lambs were being slain in the Temple court. Or, as John might have put it, while the Passover lambs were being killed in the temple court the true Passover Lamb was being slain to take away the sins of the world (see John 1:29).
Verse 29 introduces Pilate as if all the readers would know him. He was prefect, governor, of Palestine from AD 26-36 when he was recalled because of the trouble his harshness to the Jews caused. The picture of Pilate painted in the gospels is far more favorable to him than that given by other historical documents. John has compressed the dialogue in verses 29-32 so that all that remains is the Jews' desire for Pilate to carry out the death sentence. We do not discover their charges until Pilate questions Jesus in verse 33.
Verse 31 acknowledges that the Sanhedrin did not have authority to execute a capital punishment. That did not inhibit the Jews' execution of Stephen in Acts 7. One might wonder if the Jewish hatred of Jesus was so strong that they wanted the Romans to execute so that it would be by crucifixion. That way, according to Deuteronomy 21:23, Jesus would be considered accursed by God, in addition to being dead.
There are two foci in Pilate's conversation with Jesus found in verses 33-38a. The first is Jesus' kingship, which is mentioned six times. Nathanael had confessed Jesus as king in John 1:49. Except for the comment that people wanted to make him king in John 6:15, there is no further mention of the title until the Triumphal Entry. Now Jesus as King becomes a major theme for John in chapters 18 and 19.
The other focal point is truth. Jesus states in verse 37 that he has come into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice. The word "hears" could also be translated "obeys." With this sentence Jesus has turned the tables on Pilate. The prefect is no longer interrogating; he is being interrogated. His plaintive question, "What is truth?" shows how pitiful he is in the presence of the King of Kings.
Verses 38-40 further demonstrate how much in control Jesus is and little in control Pilate is. Pilate, the Roman governor who is supposed to be deciding the case, is reduced to negotiating with the Jews for Jesus' life.
John very briefly mentions Barabbas and the choice that the Jews made to request his release instead of Jesus. The custom mentioned in verse 39 has no clear evidence outside the gospel accounts. There is no record of the Roman government granting amnesty to prisoners in the conquered territories. However, Roman history does indicate that the Empire made special concessions to the Jews not made to any other peoples. It is possible that on certain Jewish festivals, such as Passover, a prisoner would be released to improve Roman-Jewish relations.
It is interesting that John does not say that Barabbas was released. Pilate offered to release Jesus, but the Jews asked for Barabbas to be released. John then commented that Barabbas was a robber. The word used for robber was commonly used in first century Palestine for roving brigands who were involved in terrorist activity against the Roman government. Unfortunately, many of these brigands pillaged, robbed, and raped Jews as well as Romans. They became outlaws under the guise of being freedom fighters. The perversion of the Jews was so great in John's mind that they chose a Barabbas instead of Jesus.
John 19:1-16 - The Sentencing of Jesus
John now unfolds a series of brief scenes revealing the beating, mocking, and sentencing of Jesus. Verse 1 states that Pilate had Jesus scourged. The Romans had three degrees of physical punishment with whips. Beating was used a corrective punishment. Flogging was a more severe punishment. Scourging was the most terrible form of beating and it was a part of the process leading to crucifixion.
The fact that Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged shows that he had made up his mind to crucify Jesus even though the conversation about it continued. Following the scourging, when the victim was so weakened that he could not resist at all the soldiers began mocking. Using a crown of thorns and a purple robe they made fun of the charge that Jesus was the King of the Jews.
Pilate then offered to turn Jesus back to the Jews, saying, "I find no guilt in him." Three times (18:38; 19:4 and 6) Pilate stated that he found no reason to charge Jesus. John emphasizes this repeated affirmation of Jesus' innocence. However, the Jewish response was to call for Jesus' crucifixion.
Verse 6 is the first time the word "crucify" appears in John's gospel. Pilate attempted to push the responsibility for the decision back onto the Jews. Their response in verse 7 reveals their true reason for seeking Jesus' death. He made himself the Son of God. From the Jewish perspective that was blasphemy, was obviously false, and merited death. From Pilate's perspective Jesus' claim also communicated divinity, but that was a claim Pilate took seriously.
John's comment in verse 8 is typically ironic. Pilate was even more afraid. The Jews were making Pilate more and more agitated, but Jesus remained calm. John makes the point even more powerfully in verses 10 and 11. Pilate tries to threaten Jesus with his authority and Jesus calmly tells Pilate that he has no authority. Verse 11 is a powerful political statement in John's time. In a time when the Roman emperor was intensifying the persecution of Christians, in a time when John himself may have been severely persecuted, it was important that Christians understand that Rome had no authority except what was given to them [by God]. Instead of responding with violence or threats Pilate is threatened by Jesus' calm authority. The Greek text of verse 12 says that he kept trying to release to Jesus.
Verses 12-16 present another Johannine irony. In response to Pilate's continued efforts to release Jesus the Jews turned to political upmanship. If you release this man you are no friend of Caesar. Pilate wouldn't have been in Jerusalem if it hadn't been for the constant threat of rebellion against Caesar posed by these Jews. Now they tell him he is no friend of Caesar!
To make matters worse, in their frenzy in verse 15 the Jews declare, We have no king except Caesar. This is Johannine irony at its height. The Jews who taught that God created gentiles to provide fuel for the fires of hell declare their total allegiance to Caesar. The Jews, whose ferocious antagonism forced the Romans in Palestine to make numerous religious exceptions to their normal occupation policies, claim Caesar to be their king.
Perhaps the greatest, and saddest, irony was that the Jews claimed God to be their rightful king and prayed every worship service for God to establish His kingdom in their time. They claimed Caesar as their king instead of God. In the process of trying to have Jesus executed for blasphemy they became so carried away with their hatred that they spoke the ultimate blasphemy. They turned away from God to the chief symbol of this world opposed to God to try to protect God.
There is an important lesson in this. God does not need human protection. He wants our obedience. All too often when we think we are defending God we are only defending our idea of God. The more correct and secure our understanding of God is, the more at ease we will be to let God be God and to know that He can survive blasphemy. When our attitudes, actions, and words to defend God end up denying obedience to God we have brought dishonor to Him ourselves.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to speak to you through His Word and for the Holy Spirit to make the Scripture alive and full of meaning to you that day.
First Day: Read the notes on John 18:1-19:16a. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you.
2. Select a truth for which you see a specific and personal application for your own life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Do you understand how Jesus was able to stay focused on the Father's will throughout the terrifying arrest and trial? Write a brief prayer asking God to help you remember the priority of obedience regardless of the cost.
Second Day: Read John 19:16-42. Now focus in on John 19:16-25.
1. What were the languages in which the inscription on the cross was written? Why do you think these languages were used?
2. How would John have understood the meaning of the inscription on the cross? Why did the Jews try to change it?
3. In verse 24 John quotes Psalm 22:18. Read Psalm 22 and list the phrases that especially seem to describe Jesus' and the crucifixion. Does the Psalm speak any words of hope? If so, what are they?
Third Day: Read John 19:16-42. Focus in on John 19:25-30.
1. Describe in your own words what Jesus did for his mother in these verses? What lessons do you think we can draw from his action?
2. Verse 29 seems to fulfill Psalm 69:21. Read Psalm 69 and list verses or phrases that seem to apply especially to Jesus at his death.
3. How does John show Jesus being in control even at the point of his death? What did Jesus mean when he said, "It is finished?"
Fourth Day: Read John 19:16-40. Focus on John 19:31-37.
1. Why were the men's legs broken?
2. Some scholars believe John had theological ideas in mind in verse 34 when blood and water are said to flow from Jesus' side. In light of John 4 and 7:37-39 what might the water flowing from Jesus' side communicate?
3. Verse 37 quotes from Zechariah 12:10 which states that a Spirit of grace and supplication will be poured out so that they will look at the one they have pierced. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to pour a Spirit of grace upon you while you consider the role you and your sins played in Jesus' death.
Fifth Day: Read John 19:16-42. Now focus on John 19:38-42.
1. Read Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; Luke 23: 50-53; and John 19:38-42. List as many things about Joseph of Arimathea as you can find.
2. John is the only gospel to mention that Nicodemus assisted in Jesus' burial. Read John 3:1-10 and 7:50. Why do you think John mentioned Nicodemus here in chapter 19? Are there any implications for our lives?
3. Matthew states that Joseph of Arimathea gave Jesus his own tomb. Given the importance of burial in Jewish culture that was a very significant gift. What might be a comparable gift in our culture? What can you give Jesus of equal worth?
Sixth Day: Read John 20:1-31. Focus in on John 20:1-10.
1. What differences between Peter and the other disciple do verses 1-10 describe?
2. How do you think you would have responded if you had gone to Jesus' tomb early that first Easter and discovered the stone had been removed?
3. Verse 8 states that the other disciple saw and believed. What does it mean to you to believe in the resurrection of Jesus? How important is it? See if I Corinthians 15 helps you answer.