The Twenty-fourth Sunday After Trinity
"It Is Finished"
St. John 19:16b-42
Relief workers who have served in the poorest places have a message for well-intentioned people back in the rich world: Keep your pants on. It’s a rather jolting fashion statement, but the poor will cast away clothing they do not see as suited to their way of dress. They’ll wear a caftan in tatters rather than a pair of gently used, hand-me-down Levis.
In Bible times, folks were less fastidious. So it is that we see Roman soldiers divvying up the clothes of a Jewish rabbi named Jesus, who has no further need of them.
The story of Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate ended with the governor handing Him over for crucifixion. As we resume, He is led away, reflecting the Jewish custom of conducting an execution outside the city walls. He is bound for Golgotha, the Place of the Skull.
Despite those loincloths you see in the paintings by the masters, one who was to be crucified was stripped naked to intensify his shame. Four soldiers gather up Jesus’ clothing, which probably consisted of a head covering, belt, sandals, robe and tunic, or undergarment. If the tunic had been made of pieces stitched together, they would have divided it – fair is fair – but because it was one woven piece they gambled for it.
St. John leaves nothing open to interpretation. They left the tunic intact, he tells us plainly, “that the Scripture might be fulfilled.”
He is referring to Psalm 22, of which we will hear a good deal more. For the moment, suffice it to say that both the evangelist and his earliest readers were thinking in a Jewish way, which is to say in a context soaked in the Old Testament.
And in the Old Testament, clothing is about more than covering, about more than fashion.
In 1 Kings 11, we find the prophet Ahijah rending his new garment into 12 pieces. He gives 10 to Jeroboam and keeps two for himself, signifying the division of Solomon’s kingdom into the 10 tribes of the North and the two of the South (vv. 29-31).
In the same vein, David tears Saul’s cloak at En-Gedi, pointing toward Saul’s loss of his throne and David’s assuming it (1 Samuel 24). And when the prophet Samuel, having declared the end of Saul’s reign, turns to leave, Saul grabs his robe and it tears.
This provokes from Samuel the prophecy that as his robe has been torn God will tear the kingdom out of Saul’s hands and present it to one more worthy. With this background in mine, it is not hard to see in the Lord Jesus’ undivided garment a picture of His united kingdom.
Had not God said to David, “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.” The immediate reference was to David’s son Solomon. But now David’s greater Son has come, and it’s time to rethink things from start to finish.
There’s a difference between a sermon and a theology lecture, and I do try to keep it firmly in mind. I’m going to skate close to the edge today, and I want to tell you why.
As Jesus has walked through John’s narrative toward His passion and now into it, the evangelist has ratcheted up his references to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scriptures. Why?
As we have observed, the Jews will have a hard time indeed swallowing the idea of a crucified Messiah. Way back in Deuteronomy, God told them that he who hangs on a tree is accursed. Could the long-awaited Anointed One meet such a fate as this? May it never be!
And yet that is exactly what God has planned. Last Sunday, as we looked in on Jesus’ trial before Pilate, we saw that in fact it was Pilate, not the Lord, who stood trial. The only power Pilate wielded was that given him from above.
In the passage before us today, John lays out the various ways in which Jesus’ crucifixion satisfies the many Old Testament prophecies concerning His death. In the end, He cannot be accursed, for the grave cannot contain Him.
Harking back to words set down centuries before, John demonstrates that Jesus – and specifically His death, burial and resurrection – was fulfilling the plan God had conceived before the foundation of the world.
We must learn this lesson well to avoid the error of the pagans of John’s day and of our own. The story of Jesus’ passion is not one of a political action gone horribly wrong, ending with the execution of a charismatic provocateur.
Nor is it – and it’s vital that we understand this – a set of botched initiatives that fell woefully short of success but God redeemed in the end, deriving good from bad.
The passion story is instead an account of events unfolding precisely as God had determined they would. When Jesus utters those famous words, “It is finished,” He is telling us from His cross that He has accomplished those works the Father had prepared beforehand for Him to walk in.
On that cross He has found His greatest glory . . . in His perfect submission to His Father’s will for the redemption of mankind. If we grasp how those ancient prophecies are now fulfilled we will see the glory of the cross and the grandeur of the God who ordained it.
Now, in both Matthew and Mark Jesus recites on the cross at least the opening line of Psalm 22, the psalm most quoted in the New Testament. The synoptic gospels cast Jesus as the righteous sufferer in that lament of David – both in his forsakenness at God’s abandonment and in his trust in God for deliverance and vindication. The Psalmist begins:
“My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? Why are You so far from helping Me, and from the words of My groaning? O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; and in the night season, and am not silent” (vv. 1-2).
The psalm moves from this utter rejection through righteous suffering to celebration of Yahweh, concluding: “All the prosperous of the earth shall eat and worship; all those who go down to the dust shall bow before Him, even he who cannot keep himself alive. A posterity shall serve Him. It will be recounted of the Lord to the next generation, they will come and declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that He has done this” (vv. 29-31)
Along the way, David points to the dividing of garments: “They divide My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots” (v. 18).
We hear of the sufferer’s thirst: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and My tongue clings to My jaws; You have brought Me to the dust of death” (v. 15).
And to the cruel treatment at the hands of his tormentors:“For dogs have surrounded Me; the congregation of the wicked has enclosed Me. They pierced My hands and My feet” (v. 16).
And to the preservation of his bones: “I can count all My bones. They look and stare at Me” (v. 17).
The Psalmist David lived about a thousand years before Christ. The God who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow will not let a little thing like a millennium abort divinely inspired prophecy. We should by now be getting the sense that God is not making up the script on the fly.
The second overt statement of the fulfillment of Scripture occurs in reference to the Lord’s thirst and echoes Psalm 69, another lament about the righteous sufferer which also flowed from David’s pen: “They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (v. 21).
A terrible thirst was one of the horrific aspects of crucifixion. What do we see before us but Him who is the living water, who said, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink,” desperate for a drink?
But John’s intent is not merely to trigger in his readers a remembered snatch of verse from here and another from there; he is evoking in us an understanding that the Hebrew Scriptures in their entirety are fulfilled in the Messiah, the Christ.
For what does Jesus thirst? For living water for His people. For justice in His creation. For truth and righteousness and mercy and love. For the promised shalom of the eternal Sabbath.
Beloved in the Lord, these should be the things for which we thirst as well. I listen hour after hour to the debates of the presidential candidates in both parties and I hear none of this. Each of them wants us to know he has the best plan for putting more jam on our bread.
It’s true we live in a material world and I am not condemning politicians for focusing on material matters; we must have highways and warplanes and mail service. I am saying that if you and I and all who call upon the name of the Lord do not make the Lord’s priorities our priorities we’ll soon be standing in the rubble of this material world piled up to our ears.
“Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matthew 6:33 KJV). “These things” are what we eat and drink and wear.
Every now and then I indulge myself with a little fantasy of how I would answer some of the questions in those presidential debates. I would probably quote that verse from the Sermon on the Mount a few dozen times and in no time at all I wouldn’t even be on the stage for the undercard debate; I’d be under it.
But the notion that the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man are separate spheres has this nation and virtually all of the First World in its grip and the jaws of the vice grow ever tighter. If we belong to the Lord we live in His realm today, and if we look away from the righteousness He prescribes we do so at our peril.
But John hasn’t finished with his fulfillment motif. The concern for removing the bodies on the crosses derives from the admonition in Deuteronomy (21:22-23) against leaving them hanging overnight lest they defile the land. This is a special concern during Passover.
The mention of blood and water coming from the Lord’s side when a soldier pierces Him with a spear may allude to the account in Exodus 17 of Moses striking the rock to produce water. Jesus is the living water.
References to hyssop, unbroken bones and mingled blood stir images of the Passover and point to Jesus as the Passover lamb.
The Passover symbolism is even more striking in the insistent way John relates that Jesus suffered no broken bones, neither in his legs as did those crucified with Him nor when the soldier’s spear pierced His side.
The evangelist is merging two sets of Scripture. The first is from Psalm 34(:20), describing God’s care for the righteous man: “He guards all his bones; not one of them is broken.” The other is from Exodus 12(:46): "In one house it shall be eaten; you shall not carry any of the flesh outside the house, nor shall you break one of its bones.”
And from Numbers 9(:12): “`They shall leave none of it until morning, nor break one of its bones. According to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it.”
Both refer, of course, to the Passover lamb, whose owner could break no bones because the intact animal pictured the unity of the family and of the worshiping covenant community. The identification of the righteous sufferer with the Passover lamb is plain in Jewish writings outside the Scriptures (cf. Jubilees 49:13).
The very culmination of the passion narrative in Jerusalem at the Passover joins the Lord’s sacrificial death to that celebration, which marked God’s deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. Jesus is the “lamb of God” who takes away the sins of the world, of whom John the Baptist, the final Old Testament prophet, testified.
Early on in this series, we looked at John the Evangelist’s replacement theme, his portrayal of Jesus as the One who fulfills various Jewish festivals and institutions. We see Him here as the fulfillment of the Passover; the Father who once rescued His people from slavery to the Egyptians is now saving them from slavery to sin. In both cases, a lamb must die.
Yet Jesus consummates as well the typology we have found in David’s psalms of lament. He is at the same time the righteous sufferer whom God will protect.
Finally, the Roman soldiers unwittingly fulfill Old Testament prophecy a second time when they “look on Him whom they pierced.” We look back here to Zechariah 12(:10): "And I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on Me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for Him as one grieves for a firstborn.”
In the case of this fulfillment, a reversal is in view. Those who look in faith on this One who has been pierced will not mourn but will find salvation. And who is the first to do so? The evangelist himself:“And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.”
John may have in mind as well the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53, He who was “pierced for our transgressions” (ESV) and “crushed” and “caused to suffer.”
The Zechariah passage reminds us that Yahweh acts through His divinely appointed representative and so to pierce Him is to pierce Yahweh Himself. The “only son” and “firstborn” are figures John has already applied to Jesus.
In Acts 2, Luke relies on this same passage to show mourning at the cross of Christ as the beginning of repentance in response to the gospel that leads to redemption.
And the intervention of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea to claim the Lord’s body harks back to Isaiah 53(:9) as well: “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death . . .” (ESV).
And now, at last, we can look forward to the Easter story. And as we do, we may remember that our Lord’s death was no less a part of God’s eternal plan than His resurrection. To Him be the glory. Amen.