The King of Suffering

I remember two workbenches from childhood. The first was my father’s in the garage of our home. He kept all the surfaces clean and every tool and container in its place. The second workbench was my grandfather’s in his cellar. At first glance, it appeared to be entirely disorganized, a jumbled mess of all sorts of things. Even so, from my grandfather’s perspective everything was exactly where he it should be. If he needed a tool, he knew where to get it, no matter how cluttered the workbench appeared to be. Grandpa was the king of his castle including his workbench, even if it looked out of control.

When we read about the crucifixion of Christ, we see a similar situation, but on a far grander scale. At first glance, the trial and crucifixion appear to be a jumbled mess of political corruption, religious confusion, and haphazard cruelty. Yet despite this surface appearance, Jesus was in full control of everything that transpired. Though the hordes of hell wreaked havoc on the Son of God, a greater purpose prevailed. The Son of God, in harmony with the will of God the Father, was working out a master plan which would defeat the power of your sin, death and hell forever. Every detail of his crucifixion was exactly as it should have been according to the purposes of God, and as a result the truth about Jesus triumphed through his suffering.

Even in the most helpless of positions – that of a convicted, crucified criminal – Jesus remained King. He was not king merely in a theoretical or theological sense, but in a historical and actual sense. He reigned over all that took place in his trial and crucifixion.

Pilate unknowingly announced the truth, that Jesus was King.

When Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified, he prepared a formal statement of his crime. Following customary procedures, he prepared a sign stating the reason for the crucifixion of the criminal, who was Jesus in this case. Someone would carry this sign before Jesus on the way to the site of crucifixion outside the city and then the soldiers would affix this sign to the cross for all to see. On this sign Pilate wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). But why did he write this?

First, Pilate was not concerned with learning the truth about Jesus (John 18:37-38). Neither was he interested in announcing the truth about Jesus to the world. At the same time, Pilate was also convinced that Jesus was not a political threat to the Roman government (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). Knowing this, he would have had no strong reason to accuse Jesus of being a king as though he had been a political threat to Rome. He did not believe that Jesus was guilty of such a crime. Furthermore, the same Jewish leaders who had coerced Pilate to crucify Jesus also pressured him to change the way he worded his accusation of Jesus (John 19:20-21).

Despite all these contradictory factors, Pilate chose to make a public announcement that Jesus was the King of the Jews. From his perspective, he did this as a final act of revenge against the Jews who had arm-twisted him into crucifying Jesus. By identifying Jesus with Nazareth, his childhood home, Pilate provoked the Jews because they viewed people from Nazareth with disgust (John 1:46). For this reason, they despised the idea that anyone from Nazareth would be a leader over them.

Furthermore, by calling Jesus “the King of the Jews,” Pilate cleverly called Jesus a king instead of accusing him of claiming to be a king or attempting to become a king. Noting this insinuation and finding it offensive, the Jewish leaders lobbied Pilate to change his wording. Despite their pressure, Pilate curtly refused (John 19:22). He had given them what they wanted by crucifying Jesus. By presenting Jesus to everyone as “from Nazareth” and “the King of the Jews,” he was getting a little revenge for himself. But even in his sarcasm he inadvertently spoke the truth.

This development is remarkable because of a previous conversation between Pilate and Jesus. Pilate had “said to him, ‘Are you a king then?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say rightly that I am a king.’” Notice how Jesus never claimed directly to Pilate that he was a king. He framed the conversation in such a way that Pilate said this about Jesus himself. So without giving orders (as Roman officers would do) and without political gamesmanship (like Jewish leaders would do), Jesus exercised his power in a wise and humble manner.

The result of Christ’s superior power and authority was that Pilate voluntarily and unknowingly spoke the truth about Jesus, both to Jesus in private and to the world at large. What’s more, he did so in all three primary languages of that time and place. This demonstrates the remarkable power and authority of Jesus – that even in his trial, suffering and death, his adversaries spoke the truth about him, even when they didn’t want to do so and even though they didn’t try to do so. Getting your political opponents to speak the truth about you is no easy task, but Jesus did so in a masterful way.

Roman soldiers unknowingly fulfilled multiple Old Testament prophecies.

In addition to Pilate declaring Jesus as a king (a most unlikely development indeed), John records at least six ways that this crucifixion fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. These details show that the OT not only prophesied that Jesus would die as the substitute for our sins, but it did so with incredible accuracy about the details of how this would happen.

By recording these details, John set out to show that the death of Jesus clearly fulfilled Old Testament expectations, proving that Jesus was the true Messiah sent from God. He makes this purpose clear by saying, “That the Scripture might be fulfilled,” and, “Therefore the soldiers did these things” (John 19:24). Later he said, “All things were now accomplished,” and, “That the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 19:28). Again he said, “These things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled … and again another Scripture” (John 19:36). Knowing this, here are the six clear OT allusions:

Carrying His Own Cross

John points out that the Romans made Jesus bear his own cross to the crucifixion site (John 19:17). Technically, this probably refers to the customary practice of the criminal carrying the cross member of his cross, which would be attached to the main beam of the cross on site. Whatever the case, this detail provided a clear allusion to the way that Abraham made his son Isaac carry the wood for his own burnt offering in the OT over 2,000 years before (Gen 22:6). This OT story carried rich significance, foreshadowing the future death of the Messiah. Though God had instructed Abraham to offer up his promised, miraculous son Isaac as a sacrifice, he intervened and provided a ram instead. This was when Abraham said, “My son, God will provide for himself the lamb” (Gen 22:8).

When you couple this with how John the Baptist introduced Jesus at the beginning of John’s Gospel, you understand the significance of this allusion. He declared, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29), and again, “Behold the Lamb of God!” (John 1:36). This emphasis increases when you understand that Jesus ascended to the cross at the time of the Passover sacrifice, as God’s ultimate sacrifice for the sins of the world. In fact, evidence suggests that the near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham occurred on or near the same hill as Golgotha, where Jesus was about to be crucified (John 19:17-18).

Casting Lots for His Robe

John reports to us that the Roman soldiers cast lots (which is like rolling dice) to decide who would keep the purple robe they had thrown on Jesus after his beating (John 19:24). It was customary for the Roman executioner to get the personal items of the prisoner at the execution – just as soldiers would receive their share of the spoils after a battle.

In this case, there appears to have been four soldiers assigned to Jesus’ crucifixion. They would have distributed the customary Jewish clothing of Jesus four ways, one receiving his belt, one his sandals, one his head covering, and one his outer garment. This left one piece remaining, the purple robe they had thrown on him at his beating. Since this was a seamless garment that would serve no purpose or hold no value if it were cut into four pieces, they decided to cast lots to decide who would get this fifth and final piece.

In doing this, these men had no intention of fulfilling an ancient prophecy, nor did they know that such a prophecy existed. But 1,000 years before, King David had foretold this coming event which the Messiah would experience. He said, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psa 22:18).

Being Thirsty

John then tells us that Jesus said, “I thirst!” (John 19:28). This explanation fulfilled another statement from David in the same Psalm, which says, “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue clings to my jaws” (Psa 22:15). While this is a not a “direct quotation” fulfillment, it alludes to what Psalm 22 says about the Messiah in a summary way. In fact, if you read Psalm 22 in its entirety, you will find many other details prophesied about the future death of the Messiah. Also, this is not a direct prophecy which the Roman soldiers fulfilled themselves; but then again, it is. Why? Because the severe dehydration which Jesus endured was caused by the way the soldiers had treated him.

Drinking a Sour Drink

When the Roman soldiers heard Jesus say, “I thirst,” they gave him something to drink. But you should not confuse this with another drink. According to Mark 15:23, some people offered him “wine mixed with myrrh” as he made his way to crucifixion site. That drink would have acted as a pain-killer and remarkably Jesus refused to drink it. This “sour wine” offered by the soldiers was something different. It was a cheap vinegar beverage that soldiers would drink (John 19:29).[1] Unlike the pain-killer before, this drink functioned as an antidepressant intended to increase the alertness of Jesus, prolonging his life, suffering, and sensitivity to pain. What makes this even more remarkable is that he willingly received it, having rejected the pain-killer before (John 19:30).

Beyond these fascinating details, we should also know that this act by the Roman soldiers fulfilled yet another OT prophecy. Psalm 69:21 prophesied, some 1,000 years before, that the Messiah would receive a drink like this. It says, “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” Just as when the guards distributed Christ’s clothes, they once again had no idea that they were fulfilling an OT prophecy. Yet once again, Christ’s authority over his own crucifixion shines through.

Avoiding Broken Bones

John describes yet another fascinating aspect of Christ’s crucifixion, rich with prophetic significance. According to Old Testament Jewish law, they were not permitted to allow a criminal’s dead body to remain exposed after sunset (Deut 21:23). Following this protocol was especially important on this occasion because it was the Day of Preparation, the most significant day of the Passover festival. In light of this, the Jewish religious leaders asked Pilate to authorize the soldiers to break the criminal’s legs (John 19:31).

Without this request, the soldiers would have left the criminals to suffer on the cross into the night. But by breaking their legs, the soldiers would prevent the criminals from “pushing up” from their feet to gasp for more air – thus prolonging their lives and extending their suffering. Pilate obliged this request and the soldiers made their rounds. When they arrived at Jesus, they were surprised because Jesus had already died. He had died earlier than expected, so therefore they did not need to break his legs. John points out that this detail reflected directly back on what David had said in an OT psalm, “He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Psa 34:20).

Neither the Jews (who knew this Psalm) nor the Romans (who did not know this Psalm) intended to fulfill this Scripture, and yet they did. But there is another way that this detail fulfilled Scripture as well. According to Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12, God forbade Jewish people from breaking the bones of their sacrificial Passover lambs. As the perfect Lamb of God, Jesus would fulfill this requirement himself – thanks to the unwitting request of the Jewish religious leaders.

Being Pierced

A sixth OT fulfillment appears in John 19:34. About this detail, John writes that the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side after finding him dead. He also reports that “blood and water came out.” “Some medical theories have argued that instead of the side being punctured the upper pericardial sac was pierced, which resulted in the separated blood and water flowing out.[2] Others have suggested that the separated mixture filled the lungs and rib cage and then the lower membrane containing the separated mixture was punctured.[3] [4] Whichever is the case, this detail proves two very important facts.

First, this detail proves that Jesus was indeed a real human being with a real physical body. Not long after the ministry of Jesus, false teachers began circulating the idea that Jesus was just an apparition, nothing more than a ghost or spirit being who looked like a person but wasn’t. This theory enabled people to explain the prevailing view of eye witnesses that Jesus had died, been buried, and risen again. However, if Jesus had no real physical body, then blood and water would not have come out from his side.

Second, this detail proves that Jesus had genuinely died. Again, not long after the ministry of Jesus, false teachers promoted the idea that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. While they accepted that Jesus had a real, physical body and was a human being like you and me, they rejected the report of eye witnesses that Jesus had resurrected from the dead. They taught (as Islam teaches today) that Jesus merely swooned or fainted in exhaustion, or perhaps he fell into a coma. But for blood and water to come out from Christ’s side like this indicated that Jesus had genuinely died. If you puncture the side of a human being – regardless of whether you puncture slightly or deeply – you will draw blood but not water. Blood and water coming out are symptoms of a dead person, not a living one.[5]

Finally, though this detail reveals two important facts about the person and work of Jesus Christ, it also does something else: it fulfills yet another OT prophecy, this one from the book of Zechariah (Zech 12:10). This prophecy says, “They will look on me whom they pierced.” And so, once again, the Roman soldiers (along with so many inhabitants of the city of Jerusalem that day) fulfilled yet another prophecy according to the purpose of God.

Looking back over these six fulfillments of OT prophecy, it is noteworthy that John highlights prophecies from Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Psalms and Zechariah. For at least two reasons.
First, these prophecies not only span thousands of years (from Moses to David to Zechariah), but they also span the various kinds of OT Scripture – the Torah (the Law), the Nevi’im (the Prophets), and the Ketuvim (the Writings), demonstrating Christ’s fulfillment of the entire OT.

Second, by showing prophetic fulfillments from the Torah (esp. Genesis, Exodus and Numbers), John points out that the Torah foretold and supports the truth about Jesus as the Messiah from God. While Jewish people revere the Torah, they especially disregard the Nevi’im – which is why the prophecy from Zechariah would not interest them. However, the truth about Jesus does not come from the Nevi’im alone, but from the entire OT, including the Torah, as John clearly demonstrates.

Having reported these details and having linked them to OT prophecies, John tells us that he is reporting things which he knows are hard to believe. Even so, he is giving these unbelievable details to us to that we will believe on Jesus as the Savior from God who came to take away our sins (John 19:35).

What makes these details hard to believe? At face value, any one of these details could have occurred without much surprise. There are at least three factors that make these details astounding.

  • First, these details fulfill prophecies that span thousands of years.
  • Second these (and many other) OT prophecies all happened at once in the same crucifixion account for Jesus. No other prophet or self-proclaimed Messiah in the history of the world can claim such a numerous collection of OT or ancient, historical fulfillments.
  • Third, these fulfillments happened apart from the direct intervention or control of Jesus in that moment. After all, he was dying on the cross in a helpless, cruel way.

This third factor is especially important. Jesus did not arrange for himself to carry his cross, nor did he choose the hill on which he would die. He did not instruct the soldiers to cast lots for his robe, bring about his dehydration, offer him vinegar to drink, refrain from breaking his bones, or puncture his side. The Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers consorted to do these things on their own with no desire to obey him or respect him in any way. As far as they were concerned, he was a public enemy and heinous criminal with no authority whatsoever. At the very least, he was nothing more than a helpless victim who said almost nothing. Yet without coercion, without commands, and without a public display of authority and power, Jesus exercised complete authority over the details of that day.

As the divine Son of God, Jesus himself was the source of OT prophecies. Together, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as the one, same God – provided us with OT Scripture, and in this way, the details of Christ’s crucifixion happened according to his own decree. Consider the way that some of these prophecies are worded, with Jesus himself as the subject saying what would happen to him from a first-person perspective:

  • “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue clings to my jaws” (Psa 22:15).
  • “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Psa 22:18).
  • “For my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psa 69:21).
  • “They will look on me whom they pierced” (Zech 12:10).

As the falsely accused criminal and the supposedly helpless victim on that day, being led “as a lamb to the slaughter,” Jesus was in fact the King over his own suffering, whose word from thousands of years before the rebellious Jewish nation and the ignorant Roman officials obeyed against their will and knowledge (Isa 53:7). In this most remarkable way, we see that Jesus is the Son of God, the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.

Jesus died freely by his own sovereign, gracious choice.

In the way that John records the crucifixion of Jesus, we learn at least one more important detail that reveals him as King. He died by his own free choice. The Roman soldiers led Jesus away to his crucifixion and he offered no resistance (John 19:16). In the same compliant manner, he carried his own cross and went out of the city without coercion (John 19:17). This demonstrates his gracious choice to die for you and me. No one made him do it. He did it because of his own goodness, kindness and mercy.

Furthermore, Jesus chose his moment of death (John 19:30). Though he was suffering at the hands of the Roman soldiers in the cruelest of ways, he exercised his authority over life and death by choosing the moment of his departure, just as an artist places the last stroke of ink on her painting or a business man clicks “send” in an email providing his completed financial report, closing the books officially on a new fiscal year. He did not die earlier, though his torturous experiences could have caused him to do so. Nor did he die any later than necessary.

As I have already pointed out, the soldiers gave Jesus vinegar wine to drink for the purpose of keeping him alive and preventing him from dying. Remarkably, Jesus received this drink. Knowing this, you would expect that he remained alive for a while longer. Yet despite this measure to prolong his suffering, Jesus chose differently.

To illustrate the significance of this moment, I will give you a “sneak peek” at the Greek language of John 18-19. In John 18:2 and 18:5, John tells us that Judas betrayed Jesus Jewish authorities. This word betrayed is paradidomi, which means “to hand over.” It appears again in John 18:30 to describe how the Jewish authorities “delivered up” Jesus to Pilate. Then in John 19:16, the word appears again when Pilate “delivered” Jesus back to the Jews and to the Roman soldiers for crucifixion. So then, here is the timeline of events. Judas handed over Jesus to the Jewish authorities. The Jewish authorities handed Jesus over to Pilate. Then Pilate handed over Jesus to the Jewish authorities and Roman soldiers.

To this point, it seems that Jesus is nothing more than a helpless victim being pushed off from one group to the next. But on the cross, as he suffered excruciating pain and drank vinegar which would keep him alive, he cried out with authority, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). Then he bowed his head and “gave up” his spirit. Can you guess what the word for “gave up” is? It is paradidomi, “handed over.”

Though everyone else had handed him over that day, in the end, he was the one who handed over his spirit to die. In this way, it is appropriate to say – as you could say of no other person – that Jesus did not succumb to death, but death succumbed to Jesus. John would go on to write more about this point in the book of Revelation. He writes that Jesus said to him on the Island of Patmos, “I am he who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev 1:18). (Hades is the unseen realm beyond the curtain of death.)

The way that Jesus died, under his own authority and according to his own power over life and death, we discover that no other prophet can claim to be the Son of God and the Savior of our sins. When you know these things, you should respond in one of two ways.

First, you should turn away from whatever else and whoever else you are trusting to get you to God, to resolve your sins, and to give you confidence of life after death. You should set those other beliefs aside and turn to Jesus alone as Savior. Just as Pilate announced on the sign over Jesus’ cross, Jesus is the King of the Jews – but he is the King of the Jews to all nations, whatever your language, ethnicity, and culture may be.

Second, if you have believed on Jesus as your God and Savior already, then this eye witness report from the apostle John should encourage your heart. Perhaps you face doubts about your faith when you hear the sarcastic questions that secular humanism throws your way, or you experience ostracization and persecution from your relatives and friends who practice other religions. Perhaps you are afraid to die, or perhaps you wonder whether God is truly in control of the many difficult details that happen in your daily life?

Whatever your condition or difficulty may be, rest assured that your Savior, Jesus Christ, is the King not only of his own suffering, but he is the King over your suffering as well. He holds the keys to life and death and kings and other earthly authorities carry out his will, even though they are unaware and even when they are resistant to him. When you see the authority of Christ in his moment of suffering, then you see the one and only Son of God whom you can and must worship and believe with all your heart.
[1] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 620.

[2] Cf. P. Barbet, A Doctor at Calvary (Garden City: Kennedy/Doubleday, 1953); Carson, John, 623. Cf. also W. Edwards, et al., “On the Physical Death of Jesus,” Journal of the American Medical Association 25.11 (1986): 1455-63.

[3] Cf. A. Sava, “The Wounds of Christ,” CBQ 19 (1957): 343-6.

[4] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12-21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 274-5.

[5] Borchert, John 12-21, 277.

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