In many ways, John’s account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion parallels the one found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. But I want to focus on several differences regarding what one might think to be minor details. Remember, the details matter in John, and when there’s a divergence from what we might call the normative tradition (the story as it came to be told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we may want to pay particular attention. Allow me to point out just a few of the details that are unique to John’s Gospel.
Notice that in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, when Jesus is sent to be crucified he is unable to carry his own cross, hence Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service and forced to carry it instead. But in John we read, “The soldiers took Jesus prisoner. Carrying his cross by himself, he went out to a place called Skull Place (in Aramaic, Golgotha). That’s where they crucified him” (John 19:16b-18a). Why did John emphasize that Jesus carried his own cross? Once again John seems to want us to see Jesus as the strong and dignified Son of God.
In crucifixion, the vertical portion of the cross, called the stipe, was kept at the site of the crucifixion. But victims were forced to carry the horizontal portion, a seventy-pound crossbeam, which in Latin is the petibulum, and it became the instrument of their own torture and death. In John’s Gospel, Jesus picked up the heavy crossbeam with strength and intentionality, changing it into an instrument of salvation. It’s as if Jesus was saying, “This is not only the instrument of my death but also of the fulfillment of my mission.”
Again we return to John’s text: “It was about noon on the Preparation Day for the Passover” (19:14). In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus was crucified on the first day of the Passover in the morning. But John tells us Jesus was crucified at noon on the Preparation Day, one day before the first full day of Passover. As always in John, the differing details—in this case date and time—turn out to be important.
In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Passover Seder is the Last Supper, and the lambs have been sacrificed and prepared earlier on the Day of Preparation. But in John, Jesus is crucified on the Day of Preparation. Why does John tell us that Jesus was crucified as the lambs were being slaughtered? Because he wants his readers to see Jesus as a kind of Passover lamb. In John 1:29 he has already introduced this theme when John the Baptist looks at Jesus and announces, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”
On that first Passover, the lambs were slaughtered not to take away sin but to spare the firstborn of the Israelites from death. From that time on, the lambs were slaughtered at Passover as a visible reminder of God’s deliverance of the Israelite children from death and of the Israelite people from slavery. This is part of what John wants his readers to see: Jesus, by his death, delivers us from slavery to sin, and he frees us from the fear and power of death.
How are we slaves to sin? The Apostle Paul captures it well when he writes, “I’m sold as a slave to sin. I don’t know what I’m doing, because I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do the thing that I hate” (Romans 7:14b-15). Sin seems to “own” us. But, like the death of the Passover lambs and the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, the death of Christ is intended to free us from slavery to sin.
John wants us to understand that Jesus, like the Passover lamb, liberates us from slavery and bondage. And Jesus frees us from death. There are many metaphors in the New Testament by which the apostles sought to explain the significance of Jesus’ death, but for John this idea of liberation is essential. To make further sense of it, we’ll take a closer look at John’s account of the Crucifixion in tomorrow’s post.