Studies in John (Lesson 14: Golgotha)
I. The Day of Atonement and the Climax of History
So far, in our journey through the tabernacle, there is only one place we have not been; and that one place is so holy that only the High Priest could enter it, and only once a year, bringing sacrificial blood for his own sins and the sins of the people. This is the Holy of Holies, a room behind the veil which separated it from the Holy Place, in which was the Ark of the Covenant and the Mercy Seat, covered with solid gold. This is where God's glory and presence specifically dwelt, in the days before the Temple, and, as the furniture in the room suggests, it was only because of divine mercy that the Holy God could even dwell among his people; and furthermore, it was only because of the divine covenant that he had made with them.
The one time a year that the High Priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies was the Day of Atonement; and, if the Holy of Holies was the very pinnacle of the Tabernacle arrangement, so the Day of Atonement was the pinnacle of the Jewish year, and the highest expression of the symbolic intent of the Mosaic sacrificial system. Our most detailed description of the Day of Atonement comes from Leviticus 16. There, we read that this was a day of solemn holiness, when all the people would afflict themselves in sorrow for their sins. But the affliction would soon turn to joy: for in that day, God would forgive their sins, on the basis of sacrificial blood.
The most telling ceremony of the day was the sacrifice of the two goats. The High Priest would lay his hands upon the head of one goat, and confess all the sins of the people upon it; then, he would kill the other goat, and send the first goat away into the wilderness, never to be seen again. Finally, he would take blood from the goat (after taking blood from a sacrificed bull, for his own sins), and place it upon the Mercy Seat in the Holy of Holies, together with incense from the altar of incense.
The events of this day were perhaps the clearest picture we have of Christ's sacrifice anywhere in the Old Testament. Just as the one goat was killed, so Christ shed his blood for the sins of his people. Just as the other goat had the people's sins placed upon it and was driven away to the wilderness, so Christ took our sins upon him, and carried them far away. Just as the blood of the sacrifices and the incense covered the Mercy Seat of God's presence, so that the priest did not die, so Christ's blood and high-priestly plea for us cover God's righteous anger against our sins, so that we might enter his presence without falling under his wrath. And finally, just as this sacrifice was only for those who afflicted themselves because of their sins, so Christ's self-sacrifice is only for those who are afflicted over their sin, and repentant. In today's lesson, we have the staggering privilege of observing, not just the typical Day of Atonement, but its true fulfillment, when Jesus Christ, the spotless Lamb of God, shed his own blood, took it behind the veil into God's very presence, satisfied God's just wrath against our sins, and permanently tore down the veil, having secured an eternal way into the very presence of God, even for the most sinful of men!
If we merely say that the sacrificial death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the central event and purpose of John's gospel, we are vastly minimizing its importance. The very reason that God created the world in the first place; the reason for the formation of man, God's image-bearer; the reason for man's fall; the reason for all of history; the only reason you and I even exist and will forever, either in the eternal joy of God's presence or the eternal torment of God's holy wrath â€“ the reason for all created things throughout all of time is nothing other than this event, the perfect and inexhaustible self-display of the character of God in Jesus Christ, the â€œLamb slain from the foundation of the worldâ€ (Revelation 13:8). The only eternal joy we have is the true knowledge of God; and the only place where we can see God so clearly that all of eternity will only reveal new wonders is the cross of Calvary. Oh, let us feast our eyes upon this place, as long as God leaves us in this fallen world! What is your trouble? I can promise you that the answer resides on Mount Calvary, where Jesus shed his precious blood.
II.Jesus is Arrested in the Garden (John 18:1-11)
After the last supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples, he went out with them into the Garden of Gethsemane. Although John does not record it, this is a time of deep and bitter agony for Jesus, a time when, knowing that he was about to undergo the most horrible ordeal ever encountered by mankind, taking upon himself the abominable filth of our sins and suffering for them the unmitigated wrath of the Holy God, he poured out his heart to God in unspeakable anguish (cf. Mark 14:32-42). But oh, let us be grateful that his resolve was firm, that he never ceased to follow the Father's will to perfection, and that, â€œhaving loved us, he loved us to the endâ€ (John 13:1)!
But instead of Jesus' agony, John chooses to record for us Jesus' mighty, divine power, even in this moment of greatest weakness. All the might of Rome, all the rage of the Jewish leaders, and all the bitter deceit of treachery come out against this lone and deeply distressed man â€“ and yet, with a simple word, â€œI am he,â€ all that ferocious power melts away into terror and helplessness. In a sense, Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the Jews all crucified Jesus; but ultimately, it was God alone who could have done this thing. No mere creature can lift his hand against the almighty God unless it is by God's very decree (see Acts 4:27-28). Ultimately, this was nothing other than Jesus' own self-sacrifice. This is God himself willingly offering up his own eternal life for his miserable creatures. No one takes the Son's life from him â€“ he lays it down of his own accord (John 10:17-18).
How great is the contrast between Jesus and all mankind at this point: Jesus displays infinite power and infinite humility, which work together to accomplish an infinite victory â€“ but when we look elsewhere, we see only the Jews, full of pride and rage against God, whom they profess to serve; we see the Roman soldiers, cruel and proud, refusing even to acknowledge the existence of the true God; we see the apostate Judas, with a heart full of the most vile treachery; we see impetuous Peter, lashing out in kind against the enemies of Christ and reliant on his own strength, which will soon fail him and leave him so powerless that he despicably denies â€“ not once, but three times â€“ the Lord whom he loves. And reader, if you do not see yourself as one of these men, either a hypocritical professor still under the authority of Satan; a blaspheming pagan; a treacherous apostate; or a true Christian whose own strength is too weak to perform the slightest good, then you are certainly self-deceived. Oh how wretched we all are, and oh how brightly the glory of Jesus shines against the black backdrop of our own helpless souls!
III. Jesus Before the High Priest (John 18:12-27)
Now, Jesus is led before Annas, the father-in-law to Caiaphas, the high priest. Once again we are reminded that, as wicked and ill-motivated as the actions of these men were, they were still carrying out God's purpose; for this Caiaphas is the one who unwittingly prophesied that Jesus would give his life for the sins of the people (John 11:49-53). What a mockery of justice this court was! No one is able to testify of any evil that Jesus has done, even though all people know the words he has said and the works he has performed, for he has taught openly, and has not changed any of his doctrine from the beginning of his public ministry until now. But without any legitimate reason, and, no doubt, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 69:4, â€œThey hated me without a cause,â€ the court dealt an unwarranted blow to an uncondemned man, and then sent him to Pilate, the Roman Proconsul, so that they might seek against him the death sentence. A cursory reading of the synoptic gospels reveals a multitude of further ways in which Jesus' trial was against the law and certainly against justice â€“ but so it had to be, for, if he would be a spotless Lamb and a satisfactory sacrifice, there must be no cause of death found in him; rather, every cause for his death should be sought in us sinners, even as every cause of our life is found in this unjustly condemned man alone!
And, in the midst of this unjust trial and undeserved shame and mockery, Jesus is likewise dealt the bitter blow of denial from his own beloved disciple, one of those for whom he was suffering this reproach. Oh, how deep is Jesus' love! Knowing how we would turn our backs on him, in our craven weakness, even after having known the depths of his love and free favor, he was still resolute to die in our place. When we denied him, he still loved us, and gave himself for us â€“ for we too, just as Peter, have at times trusted in our own strength and turned our back on our Lord. But Jesus, unchanging forever, loves us none the less, but rather hastens to restore us and bring us back to him. How faithful is our Great Shepherd, and how safe in his care may we foolish sheep rest!
IV.Jesus Before Pilate (John 18:28-40)
Now, Jesus is tried before Pilate, the Roman judge; and Pilate, having questioned Jesus, finds no fault in him, and certainly no cause of death. Jesus is no threat to Rome's earthly kingdom, at this time â€“ in fact, he is the one that gave to Caesar, and by extension to Pilate, political authority in the first place, as we will read a little later (John 19:11). Jesus is indeed a king, but his present ministry is to testify to the truth, and his kingdom, although powerfully at work in changing the hearts and lives of men, is not yet a kingdom with a political presence in this world. And Pilate, although apparently blinded to the truth and disillusioned, at least recognizes that there is no cause for Jesus to be punished, but that he has been delivered up merely because of the envy of the Jewish leaders (see Matthew 27:18). So once again, Jesus is clearly determined to be faultless, and is condemned for no wrong of his own, but rather, according to the justice of God, for our wrongs which were upon him. How ironic it is to note, in passing, that the Jews who were carrying out the most evil action in all of history attempted to do it in such a way as not to be defiled. How deceptive is false religion! Men who are deeply wicked may soothe their consciences with the meaningless and impotent observances of an outward form of religion; but when they deny its true power, and pour forth from their evil hearts only wickedness and shame, their religion is shown to be worthless indeed (see II Timothy 3:5). How many of us can love the world more than Jesus in every way, throughout every day of our lives, and think that we will be accepted before God because of such outwardly religious actions as regular church attendance, or a childhood profession of faith which never grew up into a vibrant love for Christ? If we are so blind, then how are we any different from these foolish priests?
V.Jesus Scourged and Condemned to Die (John 19:1-15)
And thus it is that a just man is finally condemned, first, by the Jewish leaders who hate him because he is from God; and then by a weak and timid Roman ruler, who fears a riot among the people. Initially, Pilate tries in various ways to avoid this unjust condemnation of a righteous man: first, he attempts to release him according to the yearly custom, but the people demand instead that a murderous seditionist be released; and so we see, once again, that God uses the wicked actions of all the people involved to display his true intent â€“ for in this act, the chief of sinners is freed from condemnation because Jesus has taken his place. What a beautiful picture of how Christ was delivered up to death so that we, who deserve his punishment, might be released!
Then, Pilate tries to satisfy the hatred of the people with a vicious, bloody scourging. This will ultimately be ineffective to accomplish Pilate's intention; but it will be effective in the divine design to fulfill God's will and prophecy: â€œby his stripes,â€ even those bloody stripes that came from the Roman whips, â€œwe are healedâ€ (Isaiah 53:5). It is also at this time that the wicked actions of the cruel, pagan Roman soldiers serve to display God's sovereign will and design: for they put upon him a crown of thorns and a robe of purple, in bitter mockery, and bow down to him â€“ but in reality, the bitter pain and bloody work of Jesus Christ will turn to the greatest victory and most exalted kingship in all of history; and the mockery of the crowds will turn to true worship and praise, when Jesus is exalted above the heavens.
As none of Pilate's schemes to deliver Christ from crucifixion have worked, the bloodthirsty mob remaining relentless as ever, he turns to him again for questioning â€“ but this time in great fear, for the people have told him that he claims to be the Son of God, and Pilate has seen no hint of dishonesty in this man. Maybe, Pilate must wonder, he is actually telling the truth. However, in the end, although Pilate fears when he encounters the Son of God, his fear of man is greater; how many have been in the same position, willing rather to deny the One who holds their destiny in his hands than to run the risk of offending those around them! Let us be sure not to fear them who kill the body but cannot kill the soul, but rather to fear him who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell forever (Matthew 10:28)! At this point, once again, we have an indication that, behind all the unjust actions of men, God's sovereign will is holding sway â€“ for it is only God who gave Pilate the authority to crucify Jesus, and therefore, the event has occurred, ultimately, by God's sovereign decree. Since Pilate's weak and cowardly actions are at least not in active pursuit of Christ's unjust death, his guilt is less than that of the Jews who are actively seeking Jesus' crucifixion â€“ but we should certainly not understand Jesus' statement here to mean that Pilate has no guilt at all.
Now, we are once again reminded of how the wicked actions of men, unintentionally to them, are used by God to display his own plan: for Pilate, with a sarcasm designed to display the hypocrisy of the Jews who claimed that Jesus should be crucified because Caesar was their only king, cries out to them, â€œBehold your King!â€. In his ironic rebuke of the Jews, the Father proclaims to all those watching that this man, whom they are crucifying, is indeed their King and Lord.
VI. Jesus' crucifixion (John 19:16-37)
We have finally arrived at the most important event, not only of John's gospel, but of all of history â€“ the crucifixion of Jesus the Messiah. There, on Golgotha, the spotless Lamb of God was numbered among the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12), because, indeed, he had our transgressions upon him. There Jesus, whose only â€œfaultâ€ was that he was the King of the Jews, died so that we might live. There the King of the world was proclaimed to be King in the most important languages of the time (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin), just as his kingship would soon be proclaimed in every tongue, and to every kindred, people, and nation (Revelation 5:9-10). There all the prophecies of God were fulfilled, prophecies related to our peace and justification, even down to the most minor detail of what would become of his garments (John 19:24; Psalm 22:18). Apart from this event, we are hopeless and helpless; because of this event, we are more than conquerors, and possessors of every blessing which it is possible to possess, far more than we could ever imagine (Romans 8:37; Ephesians 1:3; I Corinthians 2:9). Oh, let us never cease to praise God for this day in history!
We are quickly running out of time: but let us note Jesus' three sayings from the cross, which John records, before we move on. The first of these, â€œWoman, behold your son,â€ demonstrates that, as Jesus hung upon the cross, he was intentionally aware of those individuals for whom he was dying, and was actively working to secure their good. Jesus here provides for the welfare of his own mother, entrusting her to the care of his beloved disciple John, as he was about to leave (at this time, one must remember, Jesus' own brothers were not yet believers, and were probably not even in Jerusalem). In the same way, Jesus is concerned to take care of every one of his followers, and provides for their individual good, even in the smallest matters. How encouraging this should be for us! Jesus did not only die for the Church as a whole â€“ he died for every person within that Church, and he loves each one individually. The unity of the Church is precious beyond compare â€“ but so likewise is Jesus' love for each individual believer. Second, we note that Jesus intentionally fulfilled every prophecy down to the smallest detail, professing his thirst so that the prophecies of Psalm 22:15 and Psalm 69:21 might be fulfilled. And third, we recognize in Jesus' final word, â€œit is finished,â€ that there is nothing left to be done for our justification â€“ God's plan for redemption has been fully and finally completed, and we who have trusted in Jesus are secure forevermore!
Jesus is now dead; and in his death, we have the fulfillment of the last prophecies (his bones were not broken, Psalm 34:20; he was pierced, Zechariah 12:10), as well as the final picture of what his death accomplished. The blood which flowed from his pierced side was for our justification, or absolution from guilt; and the water which flowed from his pierced side was for our sanctification, or purification from sins. How firm and true is this witness: in Jesus alone is our only hope for forgiveness and restoration!
VII. Jesus' Burial (John 19:38-42)
Jesus is dead, truly dead; and the final witness to this truth is his burial in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 53:9). But the tomb cannot hold him for long â€“ soon he will rise again, the eternal Victor over sin, death, and the grave!
He breathed his last, â€“
And the beat of the rain came hard and fast,
And the lightnings writhed in the sudden blast,
And the fierce winds cried.
Is he then dead?
But no â€“
For, â€œIn him was life,â€ the beloved said,
And then, â€œBefore Abrahamâ€
(So his own words rang out long ago),
But there he hangs â€“
And bloody his lifeless, ghastly form,
And the legions of darkness around him swarm,
And they gnash on him with their death-glutting fangs,
And he is dead.
But what is this â€“ what stir, what rush?
In the pounding rain,
The rocks are split, the very heavens blush,
The temple-veil drops powerless, rent in twain â€“
And look! from their graves the godly slain
Come out, to live again.
Yes, â€œIt is done!â€
And after the storm, a breath
Kisses to life, while the demons still howl on.
His death is the death of death.
The minions of hell, that shrieked in horrid glee,
Now lift their voices in hopeless moans,
And, terror-stricken, flee.
And Sunday dawns.