(Sermon on St John 19:17-30, broadcast on the Lutheran Chapel Service and delivered at Zion Lutheran Church, Morgan, MN, 18 Apr 14)
Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.
19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”
22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”
23 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.
24 “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”
This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said,
“They divided my garments among them
and cast lots for my clothing.”
So this is what the soldiers did.
25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.
28 Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
If we were so inclined, we could go through our Lord’s Passion with our Old Testaments open, and find a prophecy, whether in words or in actions, for literally each and every last detail. Everything Jesus said, did, saw, or felt, everything He experienced or went through, was foretold in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. We will see that again today as we turn our hearts to St. John chapter 19, and ponder again everything Jesus went through for our sakes, and how completely and perfectly it was all foretold, for the assurance of our faith and our comfort and strengthening.
Our text begins with Jesus carrying His own cross to the place of His execution. Here, as He is hoisted on the shameful deadly cross, He fulfills His own word, from St. John 12:32, that “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to Myself.” He also fulfills the shadow cast by the bronze serpent on the pole, that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Recall the story from Numbers 21 – whoever was bitten and looked to the bronze snake, lived. We look to Christ, hanging there on the cross for us, and we live. He is crucified between two others, malefactors or criminals, St. Luke calls them. This fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in 53:12 of his book, that, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” Jesus is on that middle cross because it should have been your cross. He’s dying the slow, agonizing death you should have died. He took on Himself the unimaginable agony of experiencing death forever in hell, so that you never would. How great is the love of our God!
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross, which proclaimed Jesus to be the King of the Jews. St. John notes that many of the Jews read this sign. This is yet another testimony that Jesus is the Son of God and the only Savior. He is the eternal King that the Jews were expecting, based on Psalm 72, Psalm 45, Psalm 89, Psalm 8, to name just a few instances from only one book, the book of Psalms. Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Micah, to pick just a few names almost at random, also tell of what this King would be – and here He is. The sign over Christ’s head proclaims the truth: this Man hanging on the cross is the eternal King and Deliverer that they had been promised – yet His suffering and death don’t look very glorious or powerful at all. In this, and in the Jews’ reaction to Christ, there is a warning for us. Let us not turn away from the sufferings of Christ, nor think that He is altogether too insignificant or unpowerful of a Savior. Whether from boredom or despair, let no one think that this Jesus of Nazareth is lacking in any way as God’s appointed Deliverer. Pilate’s sign, which he wrote mainly to get back at the Jews and irritate them after they railroaded him into killing Christ, still stands true. This Jesus of Nazareth is the King of the Jews, for not all who are Israel according to the flesh, are Israel. God’s people now are those who trust in His Son.
The Roman soldiers passing the time below Jesus’ cross also fulfill a prophecy. They amuse themselves by throwing dice for Jesus’ clothing. The Romans customarily used knuckle bones from butchered animals as dice, or as counters in gambling, but throwing dice is the modern equivalent. Imagine being a condemned criminal crucified on a cross, looking down and seeing the soldiers who hung you there dividing up your clothing as if you’re already dead. Few things could bring home with more finality the irreducible fact that you’re going to die now. You won’t be needing those any more. The soldiers viewed this as part of their pay, one of the perks of boring duty, but there’s far more than that going on here. St. John explicitly draws our attention to Psalm 22, which says that, “They divided My garments among them and cast lots for My clothing.” With each throw of the dice, the Roman soldiers are unwittingly fulfilling prophecy. In fact, this – not any other reason, not their own profit or amusement, not the custom of the time – is the real reason they gamble for His clothes: because the Word of God said that they would. Therefore we see how God’s Word creates reality. It determines the course of history and guides events, even so small as four soldiers playing dice for Jesus’ clothing. God’s Word never fails. Its promises and its prophecies are always true, and will always be true to all eternity. Not one of them has ever fallen to the ground, so that you can be sure your sins are forgiven and heaven truly is yours when you leave this world.
The seamless garment that Christ wore reminds us of the garment of His righteousness that by faith in Him we all wear. All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus have put on Christ, St. Paul says, and thus we are clothed not just in Jesus’ garment, but in Jesus Himself as our righteousness before God. There is no seams in it because it was woven all of a piece by Christ – He made it complete and perfect all on His own. His garment of perfect holiness becomes the white robe of righteousness we wear in heaven before the Father’s throne. This is the garment dipped in blood worn by the One who treads the winepress of God’s wrath alone, in Isaiah 63. It’s His own blood, because the shedding of His blood was the result of the wrath of God, and also of His mercy. God did not want us sinners to die, so He provided the means for us to be free of our sin – by trusting in the blood of His only Son, shed for us. That painful scene, that gory yet very welcome sight, is what holds our eyes and our hearts this Good Friday.
After He commends His blessed Mother to St. John’s keeping – an event which shows His love and mercy, which misses no one, not even the most forgotten and overlooked – our Gospel says, “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.” This was in fulfillment of Psalm 69, in which Christ says through the mouth of David that He will be given gall and vinegar for His thirst, which parches His throat, and also Psalm 22, which describes Christ’s tongue sticking to the roof of His mouth from thirst – an eerie level of detail, and one that can only be accounted for by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Once again, we see that not even one of His words falls to the ground unfulfilled. Every last detail is completed, so that you don’t have to wonder, “Was Jesus really the Christ? Did He really do everything necessary for me to be forgiven?” The answer is yes!
Earlier, in the upper room with His disciples shortly after the Last Supper, where Christ instituted His blessed Sacrament to nourish His people until His return, Jesus had promised very strongly that He would not partake of the “fruit of the vine”, that is, wine, until He drank it anew with His disciples in heaven – which includes us. Here we see Him keeping His word, even in such a seemingly small matter as this. Jesus accepts the wine vinegar, which is made from wine but is not the same product. This small sip is enough to wet His lips and moisten His mouth, so He can cry out, “It is finished!”
This phrase – one word in the original Greek – was scrawled by merchants at the bottom of their bills: “Paid in Full.” No better description of Jesus’ atonement can be given than that. All sin has been paid in full – those sins for which your conscience torments you, as well as those of which you are scarcely aware, and those which you may even, heaven forbid, be indifferent to or over which you shrug. All sin of all people of all time was loaded onto Christ, and He bore the punishment for us all. Because of Him your sins are gone. You do not need to give God anything else; in fact, anything you try and give God on your own, apart from faith, will only serve to undercut that great gift. Let the great gift be what it is: nothing less than the complete blood-price for your sins, fully and freely given. Your sin was so great that it took nothing less than the death of God’s Son to atone for it, but the death of the God-man is infinitely great and precious in God’s sight, so that your sins truly are paid for. It is for this reason that Christ took on human flesh, and God became man. It is for this reason that He gasped and cried out and died. It is for this reason that He was anointed with the Spirit, which He then handed back in the moment of His death, only to send Him afresh into our hearts and renew the face of the earth. God has forgiven the offense of all the earth in a single day. Thanks be to God. Amen.