[K:NWTS 5/2 (Sep 1990) 21-31]

Witnesses to the King

John 19:17-42

James T. Dennison, Jr.

Our Reformed confessions describe the saving work of our Mediator, Jesus Christ, as that of a prophet, priest and king. The Larger Catechism of the Westminster Assembly is a fine example of our Calvinistic tradition when it states: "Our Mediator was called Christ because he was anointed with the Holy Ghost above measure; and so set apart and fully furnished with all authority and ability to execute the offices of prophet, priest and king of his church in the estate both of his humiliation and exaltation." Had they wished the authors of the confession might have cited our text in support of that threefold aspect. The prophetic function is evident here in the fulfillment Christ's death brings to the Old Testament Scriptures—our dying Lord proclaims by his crucifixion that he is the very Word of God—exegeting in his death the meaning of the former revelation. Count the fulfillment passages in 19:17-42—vss. 24,28,36,37. The priestly role is surely obvious as we see our Savior nailed to the gory tree. Upon the altar—this wooden crossbar—our suffering Savior offers himself—priest and victim—intercessor and sacrifice.

But ironically, it is not so much the priestly or prophetic aspect of the work of Christ which John highlights in his narrative of the crucifixion. Rather it is the kingly role of Christ as the dying Savior which dominates John's account of our Lord's final hours.

King and Kingdom in John

I say ironic because John's gospel does not feature the kingdom of God; nor does he focus upon Christ's claim to be the coming king—until chapter 18. Whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke from the very beginning of their gospels describe Jesus proclaiming the imminence of the kingdom of heaven—the miracles of Christ as signs of the kingdom breaking-in to history—the parables (which are completely absent from John's gospel)—as parables of the kingdom, John only mentions the words "king" and "kingdom" six times prior to chapter 18. The kingdom of God and the kingship of Christ are written boldly over the first three gospels. But John's gospel is remarkable for few references to this theme—until chapter 18; and then, in the short space of two chapters, the words "king" and "kingdom" literally explode on the page. The arrest and trial of Jesus before Pilate is full of regal language: "my kingdom is not of this world" (18:36); "so you are a king?" (18:37); "shall I crucify your king?" (19:15); "we have no king but Caesar" (19:15). Sixteen times in two chapters, the Greek words for king and kingdom appear.

For seventeen chapters, the words "king" and "kingdom" are virtually non-existent in John. Come now to the climax of this gospel and the words jump out at us. In fact, for the trial and crucifixion narrative, it would seem that kingship is more important in John's gospel than for Matthew, Mark and Luke. And so when we read John's passion narrative—that is, his account of Christ's trial and death—we need to remember that unlike Matthew, Mark and Luke, the kingship of Christ and the kingdom of Christ are of central importance.

John certainly doesn't want us to miss this theme during the scourging of Christ (19:1-3). Jesus is given a crown—he is given a royal robe—he is given royal homage—"Hail, King of the Jews." In this mock coronation, Jesus submits to ridicule and injustice. But if the 19th chapter begins with a mock coronation, it continues with the presentation of the king to his royal subjects. In verse 5, Jesus is led out in royal garb to receive the acclamation of his subjects. When they roundly reject him, the royal procession begins. It is the coronation route—a road lined with onlookers—shouting, clamoring, crying out—pressing for a closer look at the man who would be king—at the king who shoulders his cross—at the king who trudges the weary steps to his throne—indeed, the king who carries his throne upon his back—carries his throne outside the gate—outside the wall to Golgotha. And there—outside the wall—the royal procession ends; the enthronement of the king begins. He mounts his throne, affixed by nails and spikes; he takes up his place in royal ceremony, betwixt two thieves; he has placarded above his head in three languages for all to read, his royal title: "King of the Jews." What kind of king is this?!!

A King in Shame?

John's spotlight falls upon the royal figure fixed on the tree. If the old rugged cross is the emblem of suffering and shame, John highlights the humiliation of our Lord's crucifixion. Crucifixion was for criminals. In the Roman empire, it was felons, murderers and rebels who were executed on crosses. This is the gospel of the Son of God. John's gospel begins with those familiar majestic words—"In the beginning was the Word...." The Word of God nailed to a gibbet? John's gospel contains those wonderful "I AM" passages: "I am the bread of life" (6:48); "I am the light of the world" (8:12); "I am the resurrection and the life" (11:25). The "I AM" hung on a cross!? Jesus seems to be the passive victim of the hostile forces around him—Judas, the soldiers, the Sanhedrin, Pilate, the mob. Jesus seems to be under the control of others. But remember, this Jesus has said throughout this gospel—"My hour is not yet come." "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19). "As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness so shall the Son of Man be lifted up" (3:14). "When you lift up the Son of Man you will know I am he" (8:28). "The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep...he lays it down of his own initiative and takes it up again of his own initiative" (10:11,18). "If I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto myself" (12:32).

Is this a Jesus controlled by others? the passive victim of circumstances? "You would have no authority over me unless it had been given to you from above" (19:11). These are not the words of a passive victim are they? These are the words of one sovereignly in charge—one who goes to the cross deliberately because he chooses to go to the cross. This is the one whose very self-identification causes the Roman soldiers to fall to the ground (19:6). This is the one who tells his disciples to put up their swords because he must drink the cup that the Father has given him (19:11). This is the one who takes up his own cross (did you notice, John doesn't tell us about Simon the Cyrene)—Jesus takes up his cross because he knows what he must do to save his people—to redeem his lambs—to deliver his sheep from their sins. This is the King—truly Jesus is the King! And John writes to us that we may know, believe, love this royal Jesus—this King of Kings and Lord of Lords—this divine Son of God who endures the shame—this Word of the Father who submits to the humiliation of a criminal's death. Jesus is content to die the death of a criminal—to submit to the degradation of the cross. On the place of the skull, at the hill of death, the One who is "Life" hands over his spirit to the power of the grave.

The One who has been cruelly mocked and scourged, hangs from the nails gladly. The One who has been rejected, spit upon, cursed by his own people, lays his arms to the wood and feels his hands split with spikes. The One who has marched his coronation route to the throne room called Golgotha, hangs between heaven and earth, content—yes he is content with jeers and derision and scorn and death.

A Glorious King

What a king this is! What a glorious king this is! A king who is willing to endure the shame of his subjects. A king who is content to enter into the humiliation of rejection—who bears the reproach of his own outside the wall. A king who rules through servanthood—serves his sheep by laying down his life for them—serves the accursed by taking the sting of the serpent's poison in their place that in looking to him they might be saved; serves those subject to death—yea dying all the day long—serves the dying by tasting death himself. This king is a royal Lord—a regal Son—at whose feet we may fall and confess—"My Lord and My God and My King!"

Here is a king to love because he first loved us. Here is a king to worship and adore because he is declared to be the Son of God in power. Here is a king to bear witness to because he has borne witness to the Father and his witness is true. The witness of John is the witness to the Word—the Son of God. And this witness has been recorded so that we may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and believing have life in his name. Witness—testimony: words we use routinely in evangelical circles. To witness to Christ as Lord and Savior; to bear our testimony to the might acts of salvation done by God in Christ Jesus.

John's crucifixion narrative is his witness to the enthronement of the king; the beloved disciple presents the crucifixion as the glorification of the Christ, the King of Israel. The cross is the royal throne of Jesus and on this royal throne, Christ is affixed between two others. They are not two thieves in John; not two malefactors—simply two "others" (19:18); and in the middle—Jesus; in the center—Jesus.

At Gabbatha—the center is Jesus. At Golgotha—the center is Jesus. From Gabbatha, the place of judgment, to Golgotha, the place of execution—the center is Jesus. No Simon of Cyrene in John's gospel. Jesus takes up his own cross. This royal figure shoulders his own cross like the sovereign ruler he is. The sovereign, royal Jesus shoulders his own cross because he is learning to identify with his royal subjects as burden bearer.

The King's Witnesses: Placard

And about the cross, witnesses—witnesses to the king. This gospel full of "witness" concludes with witnesses to the dying king. Even at the cross, there are witnesses to the king. Witnesses—those who bear testimony. Even at the hour of crucifixion there are witnesses who testify. I want you to notice the witnesses present at the crucifixion in John's account. There is the trilingual placard Pilate erects upon the cross. There are the soldiers gambling for Jesus' clothes, testifying of their own greed, the naked shame of Christ and the fulfillment of the Scriptures. There is the mother of Jesus and the other women together with the beloved disciple standing at the foot of the cross. On that Black Friday, at the place of the Skull, notice the witnesses gathered about the cross. Above the cross is a placard—a mute witness—testifying graphically—trilingual letters carefully constructed in Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The speechless witness of the placard above the bloody head of Jesus is—"This is the King!" The placard is the witness of Pilate. He who had mocked and scorned Jesus as King now proclaims him King. In three languages, proclaims him King—in the language of the nations, declares his royal claim. Latin—increasingly the language spoken from Great Britain to Africa—from the border of Scotland to the frontier of Arabia. Latin, at the hour of the crucifixion, the language of a vast empire whose iron placard read SPQR—"for the senate and people of Rome." But this dying figure would conquer Rome. This sacred head now wounded would live when the Roman imperium had become dust. This is the true King. Sovereignly declared to be the Savior-king of the world—Greek, Roman, Hebrew. "And I when I am lifted up will draw all men unto myself" Even the placard witnesses that Greek, Roman, Jew are coming to this dying Savior.


The second group of witnesses are huddled at the foot of the cross. They are the spoilers—the victors to whom the spoils belong.

They are gambling—gambling for part of the material possessions of the victim. By Roman law, it is their right. He certainly can't take it with him, so let us take it from him. Hovering like vultures to the carrion, they divide what little he had—his clothes. At the hour of his death, no earthly thing is left to him—not even a garment to cover his nakedness. Stripped, disrobed—Jesus is robbed of all dignity—left naked to his shame—while his seamless robe becomes the object of a raffle. The witness of the seamless robe is the witness to the Lord bearing our shame—every human dignity removed from him, he bears our disgrace upon the tree.


There is another group at the foot of the cross. These have not gathered out of greed, but out of grief. The mother of Jesus is there, her sister, the wife of Clopas, Mary Magdalene and the author of our gospel. These eye-witnesses are gathered by the cross—watching, waiting, mourning. They do not speak—they only stand and wait. They are silent—but Jesus speaks. "Woman behold thy son; [son] behold thy mother" (19:26,27). This is the woman to whom he had spoken at Cana of Galilee—"Woman what have I to do with thee; my hour is not yet come" (2:4). Now his hour has come—"Woman behold thy son." On the occasion of his first public act—the miracle at Cana—Jesus says, "Woman." And now, on the occasion of his last public act, Jesus says, "Woman." When the water becomes wine, Jesus' mother is there. When the blood becomes water, Jesus' mother is there. Except for John, his disciples have forsaken him—but his mother is there. His own family is absent—his brothers and sisters have abandoned him—but his mother is there. From the cross, Jesus addresses his mother. From the cross, Jesus addresses his 'brother'. From the cross, Jesus does a new thing—creates a new family. These are not born of blood nor of the will of man, rather these are the new born of the family of God. At the cross, about the cross—mother and son—the family of faith—those who are not ashamed of the cross of Jesus, but stand and wait and believe—gaze in faith upon their dying Lord—stand under the blood—the blood which satisfies—the blood which atones—the blood which reconciles—the blood which speaks peace.

Paschal Tokens

There are two other silent witnesses—rich in reminiscence—witnesses whose presence casts our minds back along the corridors of time to a ghetto—a ghetto in Egypt. The night is dark in this ghetto—the streets are vacant—the veil of night hangs like a weight—like a shroud upon the land of Goshen. There is blood on each doorpost here. Each doorpost and across the lintel has been smeared with lamb's blood daubed with a branch of hyssop. Hyssop—the blood on the door—a lamb, dead and lifeless. Not a bone broken in this lamb—not a blemish in this lamb—a spotless lamb, complete, whole, unbroken. On the day when the Passover lambs were slain in the temple, the Lamb of God is slain outside the wall. At the hour when the Passover lambs are sacrificed, the Passover of God is crucified for us. The witness of the hyssop, the witness of the unbroken legs, is the testimony of the end of the Passover. The lamb whose blood marks the uprights of the cross—this lamb is God's final Passover offering. Yes, he is the Father's offering so that death may pass over those ransomed by the Son. "It is finished." Finished all the types and shadows—finished every sacrificial lamb—finished every Passover victim. This is the last lamb—this is the final and ultimate ransom—this is the eschatological Passover. And now, we go free. Because of Jesus, God's lamb—God's Passover lamb—because of Jesus, we go free. Death passes on to him that it may pass over us.

Nicodemus and Joseph

But who is this that comes for the body? Who is this that stands in the shadows waiting the moment of death? Waits, then makes his way quietly through the streets to the great hall of Pilate—to the Praetorium—to the room where the king was condemned—into that room ventures Joseph of Arimathaea to ask for the body of Jesus. No one had stood in that room hours before to ask for the life of Jesus; no, the Son of Man must go as it is written of him. But this secret disciple—this timid, fearful, secret disciple boldly enters Pilate's hall of judgment to ask for the body of his Master. Pilate has been granting requests on this day—"Crucify him" and he consents; "break his legs" and he consents; "may I take his body" and Pilate consents. It is only a corpse to Pilate, but Joseph has come as a witness that even the death of Jesus claims his loyalty. A new tomb—his own new tomb—the resting place for his king.

Beside him stands Nicodemus. As the night begins to fall, Nicodemus and Joseph take the body of Jesus and prepare it for the grave. Darkness begins to fall, and Nicodemus stands in the darkness wrapping the body of Jesus. Nicodemus—who first came to Jesus at night—under the black cover of night—Nicodemus first came to see Jesus—the light of the world. And on that first night, he listened to the light talk about a new birth—a birth in water and spirit—a second generation—a regeneration. And now, in the dark of night, Nicodemus pours on the spices, on to the body of Jesus cocooned in linen folds, Nicodemus pours hundreds of dollars worth of spices. What lavish embalming—what extravagant devotion to this dying Savior. Two pallbearers witness to Jesus even as the darkness of night falls upon the tomb. Their witness is the testimony of loyalty and devotion. However timid, however fearful, the witness of Joseph and Nicodemus at the cross is the witness of devotion. Nicodemus who first came to Jesus by night searching—seeking—Nicodemus now, as night falls about him, knows this is his Lord. At the beginning of the gospel—Nicodemus, in the night, meets the light of the world. At the end of the gospel, Nicodemus, in the night, possesses the light of the world. Joseph's tomb belongs to his Lord; Nicodemus's wealth and spices are lavished upon his Lord. Both Joseph and Nicodemus will hear the glad tidings three days later—the darkness is gone. Light and immortality have burst from the grave. The Light of the World is risen—in him, Nicodemus—no more darkness; in him, Joseph—no more death.

The Witness of Jesus

But as those gathered at the cross witness to Christ, even so Christ reciprocally in his passion witnesses to us. Testifies of the reality of death—dying in our place—substituting his death for ours as a king lays down his life for his subjects. Testifies of the humiliation and shame experienced on our behalf. Did not Adam and Eve recoil in shame at their nakedness after the fall? This last Adam takes our naked shame that we may be clothed with the robes of his righteousness—justified by the covering God himself provides. Testifies of that barren longing—that thirst of heart and soul—cries out "I thirst"—that we may never thirst again. "Whoever drinks of the water I give will never thirst again" (4:14). Testifies in giving up the ghost—handing over his spirit—witnesses that those belonging to his Father will never die. "Whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die; for I go to my Father and your Father that where I am there you may be also." Testifies in going to the grave—witnesses that the tomb cannot conquer him. "Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up" (2:19). "Whosoever believeth on me has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day" (6:40). In his passion Jesus testifies that he enters into our condition so that we may enter into his glory.

From every angle, the crucifixion narrative in John focuses upon Jesus. Every circumstance, every movement, every character dramatically points to Christ. John wants his readers to understand that even in his death—this is the gospel of the Son of God. Even at the hour of his humiliation—Jesus has come to the moment of his glory. We—you and I—the readers of this gospel—we have beheld his glory; glory as of the only begotten of the Father full of grace and truth. From the cross, the church receives the witness of the fullness of the glory—the glory of her King—the glory of her dying Lord—the glory of a Lamb offered once and for all so that death may pass over and we may live. It is finished for him that we may begin to experience and testify to the glory of the Son of God—the glory of our prophet, priest, yea, the glory of our king—verily our King of Kings and Lord of Lords!!

Westminster Theological Seminary in California
Escondido, California