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Focus Text: John 18:1-9:42
After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place, because Jesus often met there with his disciples. So Judas brought a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees, and they came there with lanterns and torches and weapons. Then Jesus, knowing all that was to happen to him, came forward and asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” They answered, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus replied, “I am he.” Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus said to them, “I am he,” they stepped back and fell to the ground. Again he asked them, “Whom are you looking for?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus answered, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it, struck the high priest’s slave, and cut off his right ear. The slave’s name was Malchus. Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?”
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him. First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.
Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.
Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.)
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.”
Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”
When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.” Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them. Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier. They also took his tunic; now the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top. So they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see who will get it.” This was to fulfill what the scripture says,
“They divided my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”
And that is what the soldiers did.
Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.
After this, when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.” A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds.They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
Scriptural Commentary on John 18:1-9:42
Each year on Good Friday we listen to John’s account of the events surrounding Jesus’ death: the trial before Pilate, the crowd’s decision, the journey to Golgotha, the crucifixion; the burial. John’s account of the crucifixion itself is comparatively brief. Yet, the first hearers of John’s gospel would have had no trouble imagining the gory details which resulted from one of the cruelest, most humiliating methods of capital punishment. Crucifixion was intentionally violent, gruesome, and public. It was generally reserved for rebels and revolutionaries—an intimidating terror used by the Romans to prevent and quell insurrection. During the highly charged atmosphere of the Passover festival, which commemorates the great act(s) of Israel’s God in liberating them from the oppression of Egypt, the Roman governor would call troops to be ready to combat insurrection from Jewish Zealots convinced that God would again deliver Israel. Thus, the inscription written above Jesus’ head—the King of the Jews—was a public reminder of the nature of his alleged crime as much as it was a mockery.
Because Christians have come to understand the cross as a rich symbol of all that God has accomplished in Jesus it is sometimes easy to forget that the symbol of our faith is (or was) also an instrument of torture and execution (it is certainly more than that, but not less). The details of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion are a reminder that Jesus did in fact receive a form of capital punishment. As ethicist Glen Stassen writes, “Christians who remember that their Lord was unjustly and cruelly given the death penalty have a hard time being enthusiastic about imposing the death penalty on others.” Stassen’s point is especially relevant in light of cases where men and women have been placed on death row or executed, only later to be found innocent. For some, the fallibility of the criminal justice system is enough to abolish the death penalty, and in recent years, several states have placed moratoriums on executions for this very reason. But what about those who are clearly not innocent? What about other forms of retributive violence or war? Stassen is right to point us to Jesus’ death as something which should lead Christians to oppose the death penalty, but in what way does Good Friday come to bear on this subject? Is it merely by analogy to the way in which Jesus died, or is there a more profound, theological truth to consider?
The Epistle to the Hebrews has as one of its central themes the nature of Jesus’ sacrifice. The author makes clear that Jesus’ death was “once for all,” the ultimate atoning sacrifice which put an end to all future sacrifice (Hebrews 9:26-28). Consider these words from Karl Barth:
On the Christian view the retributive justice of God has already found full and final expression, the expiation demanded by Him for all human transgression has already been made, the death sentence imposed on human criminals has already been executed. God gave His only Son for this very purpose. In His death he exercised judgment according to his wonderful righteousness, and He did so once and for all for the sins of all . . . . Is not the result of this just judgment mercy and forgiveness for all? Who, then, is not included? Which category of particularly great sinners is exempted from the pardon effected on the basis of the death penalty carried out at Calvary? Now that Jesus Christ has been nailed to the cross for the sins of the world, how can we still use the thought of expiation to establish the death penalty?
The Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, a student of Barth’s, also championed nonviolence which was based on a theology of the cross. For Yoder, there were numerous New Testament texts that explicitly required Christians to live nonviolently—such as the Sermon on the Mount or Romans 12. Yet, Yoder’s account of Christian nonviolence does not rely on a single text. Rather Christians renounce violence because Christ has suffered on the cross, demonstrating that God refuses to save the world through violence. Instead, God in Christ takes upon himself our violence in order that violence can come to an end.
There are plenty of practical and moral arguments against the death penalty—including its expense, its failure to deter crime, the inconsistency of its application, the possibility of executing innocents, and the violation of the sanctity of life. However, many Christians have a strong theological rationale for opposing capital punishment. We believe the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross has put an end to sacrifice. We believe that we do not need to take a life in order to bring about justice in the world—for God has already accomplished justice in Jesus and we await his return for its completion.
What happened to Jesus on Good Friday still happens today. Innocent people are convicted and killed by the state. Torture and violence are perpetrated in the name of security. Terror and brutality are used as weapons of public intimidation and fear to oppress those who long for new possibilities of freedom and justice. Retribution and vengeance still create cycles of violence. Yet, we also believe that what happened to Jesus on Good Friday was a unique event in the history of salvation—the sacrifice to end all sacrifice, the death to end death.
By Michael Burns, Duke Divinity School Intern
Quotes about The Death Penalty
The first intervention of God in Genesis, counter to the ordinary reading, is not to demand that murder be sanctioned by sacrificial killing, but to protect the life of the first murderer. Far from demanding the death penalty for murder, Yahweh saved Cain from it.
~ John Howard Yoder
The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently . . . for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.
~ Pope John Paul II, January 27, 1999, St. Louis, Missouri
Facts and Reflection about The Death Penalty
- Studies have found capital punishment to be more expensive than life imprisonment.
- FBI data shows that the 14 states without capital punishment in 2008 had homicide rates at or below the national rate.
- Over two-thirds of the countries in the world—141—have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In 2010 the overwhelming majority of all known executions took place in five countries—China, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, and the United States.
- African Americans are disproportionately represented among people condemned to death in the USA. While they make up 12 per cent of the national population, they account for more than 40 per cent of the country’s current death row inmates, and one in three of those executed since 1977.
- The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organization that is committed to exonerating wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing, and to reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice. Many of those found wrongfully convicted had spent time of death row.
- A recent poll conducted by Public Policy Polling indicated a strong majority of North Carolina residents prefer replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole.