The Passion of Christ according to John

This is the third of three Lenten Talks given by Fr Stuart.

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On Good Friday we will hear John’s account of the Passion. If we compare it to the Palm Sunday Passion we will realise that the portrayal of Jesus is different. Jesus is shown to be more aware of his pre-existence with the Father, and that he will share in the Father’s glory once more through death (John 17:5). In John’s Gospel Christ is far less passive. He is not a weak victim, since he freely chooses to lay down his life with the conviction that he will take it up again (10:17-18). The struggle with Satan is also without suspense, as the prince of this world has no power over Jesus (14:3), for Christ has already conquered the world (16:33). Jesus is aware of people’s thoughts and purposes (2:25 “he could tell what a man had in him”), and so he chose Judas knowing he would betray him (6:70-71), and knowing this sends him off to commit his act of betrayal (13:27-30) after the Last Supper.

Now the hour has come

In John’s Gospel this phrase is used at the wedding feast at Cana (2:5) and then again in reference to his death (12:23, 17:1). From this we can clearly identify that Christ’s death is the central moment of his life – his moment of glory (or rather the resumption of his glory). We note that when things are darkest Christ declares that he has been glorified (night had fallen 13:30-31). We might have associated glory with resurrection, but it is clear in John that the glory of Jesus begins in his suffering and death. There are also Eucharistic resonances in the hour of Cana and the hour of Christ’s passion (water – wine – blood).

The Garden and the Arrest

This divine knowledge of Jesus (18:5 – “knowing everything that was going to happen to him”) means that it comes as no surprise that Judas should arrive with those who wished to arrest him. Jesus confidently approaches his enemies, who have come in the dark bearing torches. The Light of the World is rejected (1:5.9), so they have to find substitutes. His enemies fall to the ground when Jesus declares who he is: I AM – their Lord and God (not “I am he” 18:6). There is no description of Jesus kneeling asking to take the cup away. This troubled debate takes place earlier in John soon after he arrives in Jerusalem. But he cannot say “Father, save me from this hour (12:27), since the Father and he are one (10:30), and “it was for this very reason – to die – that [he has] come to this hour” (12: 27), and so in Gethsemane he is committed to drinking the cup that the Father has given him (18:11).

The Trials

In John there is no formal procedure before Caiaphas, but a police interrogation before Annas, Caiaphas’ father in law. Jesus is more confident, and answers back, which results in him being slapped. Meanwhile, at a charcoal fire outside Peter denies knowing Jesus. John cleverly unites the denial with the subsequent forgiving of Peter through reference to the type of fire (21:9). In contrast, the beloved disciple remains faithful in John’s Gospel. In John’s Gospel Jesus is so self-assured that it is really his accusers who are on trial, not Jesus. This also applies to Pilate, who is afraid, and is told he has no authority over Jesus.

The Cross

“Woman this is your son… This is your mother” (Jn 19: 25-27)

Pope emeritus Benedict points out that this event relates to a number of realities. The beloved disciple takes Christ’s mother into his home; Christ’s mother is not left alone. But a new mother is also given to the disciple, a mother to care for him, and by extension to care for all disciples. The word “woman” is also important, as it links the wedding feast of Cana to the cross, pointing out that the first miracle anticipated the definitive wedding feast, at which the Lord gives us the new wine of the covenant. “What had merely been a prophetic sign [Cana] now becomes a reality [Cross].”[1] The Church has continued its reflections upon the description of Mary as Woman in this passage, recognising her as the new Eve, as Christ is the new Adam (see St Paul’s letters), and also as typology for the whole Church, as bride and mother, just as the beloved disciple becomes a symbol for all disciples. “On the basis of the ‘corporate personality model’ – in keeping with biblical thought – the early Church had no difficulty in recognizing in the Woman, on the one hand, Mary herself, and on the other hand, the Church, the bride and mother, in which the mystery of Mary spreads out into history.”[2]

“After this, Jesus, having known that already all was finished.” (19:28 in the Jerusalem bible this is translated as: “Jesus knew”). With this phrase we conclude the section of John known by some scholars as “The Book of Glory”, with its themes of divine knowing and glory. The Book begins in 13:1, “Before the feast of the Passover, Jesus, having known that the hour had come for him to pass from this world to the Father…” “Jesus, having known” is an awkward grammatical structure and so is sometimes translated as “having become aware,” or simply “knew”, but this phrase is not about Jesus realising or learning something. Rather John is pointing to Christ’s divinity, as for John, “whatever… Jesus does or says flows from what he saw with the Father before his incarnation, and indeed, before the world began (5:19; 8:28; 17:5).[3]

(Jn 28-30) “I thirst” – “so putting a sponge soaked in vinegar on a hyssop stick they held it up to his mouth.” In Mark/Matthew a Jewish bystander offers the vinegar-soaked sponge on a reed in mockery. In Luke Roman soldiers offer the wine in mockery at an earlier stage in the crucifixion. In John, the soldiers offer the vinegary wine in response to Christ’s request for a drink – “I am thirsty”, so the mockery is not attached to the act. Here the focus is on the thirst and on the stick conveying the sponge; a hyssop stick. Real hyssop does not grow in Palestine, but the hyssop associated with the Passovers and sprinkling is thought by most to be Syrian marjoram, a shrub that grows to the height of about three feet, with a relatively large stem and branches with leaves that are highly absorptive and therefore useful for sprinkling (Lev 14:4-7; Num 19:18, Ps 50). However, it would seem unlikely that the hyssop branch could support the weight of a soaked sponge. Therefore the addition of the reference to hyssop is a theological statement, referring to Passover. Just as the Israelites daubed the doorposts of their houses with hyssop soaked in the blood of the lamb (Ex 12:22), so now the true Lamb is being sacrificed on the cross for our salvation, for our Passover from death to life. The reader is prepared for this understanding of Jesus from the outset, given John the Baptist’s description at the beginning of the Gospel: “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (Jn 1:29). Other passages that suggest Jesus’ role of the lamb of sacrifice in the Johannine Passion Narrative are 19:14, where Jesus is judged and condemned to death at noon, the very hour when the slaughter of lambs for the Passover began in the Temple area, and 19:33,36 where the fact the Jesus’ bones are not broken fulfils the Scripture relating to not braking the bones of the paschal lamb (Ex 12:10).

The crucified Christ is pierced with a lance and blood and water flow (Jn 19:34). Although John’s Gospel emphasises the divinity of Christ, the reference to blood and water does not have that purpose. (There was a pagan myth that said that in the gods blood and water flowed through their veins, but John would not have used this in reference to Christ).[4] In the preaching and teaching of the Church, the blood and water have been linked to the sacraments of Eucharist and Baptism, to the pouring out of divine love. The blood also relates back to the paschal lamb theme, and the water can be seen as an expansion of the theme of Christ as the living water: From within him shall flow rivers of living water (Jn 7:37-38 (see also Exodus and the water from the rock; and Ezek 47 and the water flowing from the Temple in Jerusalem – Christ as rock and Temple). The one who said he was thirsty now gives to us to drink:

“If any man is thirsty, let him come to me! Let the man come and drink who believes in me. As scripture says, ‘From his breast shall flow fountains of water’. He was speaking of the Spirit which those who believed in him were to receive. (Jn 7:37-38).” So the blood and water relates to life in the Spirit, to the Sacraments, to life in Christ.

Comparative Study – The Burial

In the Gospel accounts there is a shift away from the stark description of Christ’s burial in Mark. Already in Matthew the linen is “clean white” and the tomb is “new”. However, no synoptic Gospel suggests the use of spices on Jesus’ corpse in the manner described in John’s Gospel. Joseph of Arimathaea does the same as he does in the synoptics in requesting and taking away the body of Jesus, but Nicodemus appears in John’s account, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. Thus, in John’s account “Jesus receives an honourable burial.”[5] An honourable burial for the Jews at the time involved washing, anointing with oil and/or placing spices within the wrappings of the body, and wrapping it in cloth. His anointing had already taken place at Bethany (Jn 12:7, cf. Mk 14:8, Mt 26:12). The spices were used to preserve the body and to disguise the smell of decay. And so Nicodemus honours Christ, but yet does not realise Christ’s victory over death. It would be for Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:1), the other women and the disciples to witness Christ’s glory – his Easter glory, his triumph, and the cause for our hope.



 [1] Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2: Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (London/San Francisco: CTS/Ignatius, 2011), 221. Back

 [2] Ibid., 222.

 [3] Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Passion Narratives (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1994), 1070.

 [4] Raymond Brown, The Death of the Messiah, 1179.

 [5] Ibid., 1258.