K: JNWTS 30 (May 2015): 13-18

The Nakedness of Our Lord

John 19: 23-24

Robert Van Kooten

As you might expect, these last few verses of the gospel of John describing Jesus’ death on the cross are some of the most interpreted and thought about verses in all of church history. If you were to obtain the various commentaries on John’s gospel, you would find the verses 23-24 of chapter 19 are subject to a plethora of interpretations. Therefore, to help you understand the message of our text, I want to first make you aware of some of those interpretations so that you can better understand what the inspired writer wants you to know about our Lord. Let us first consider the two points in our text with which everyone agrees.

Two Points of Agreement

First: The Soldiers. Nearly all interpreters agree that the mention of the soldiers two times brackets our text and sets the verses apart as a separate unit of John 19. The unit begins in verse 23 stating when the soldiers crucified Jesus and concludes in verse 24 with so the soldiers did these things. The soldiers, therefore, begin and conclude the unit, separating the event from the rest of the chapter.

Second: Psalm 22:18. All interpretations agree in recognizing the significance of the direct quote of Psalm 22 in verse 24. The other three gospels tell us that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes by the casting of lots. But John is the only gospel writer who records the quote from Psalm 22:18.  John quotes word for word the Greek version of the Old Testament (called the Septuagint) as if the inspired gospel writer took it right from the Septuagint instead of the original Hebrew.

All interpreters agree on these two points.

Disagreement: One Garment or Two

What is not agreed upon, however, is what this all means and more specifically how we are to interpret these verses. Much of the discussion about these two verses centers on whether Jesus wore one garment or two. The other three gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) speak of only one garment and thus some interpreters try to apply that one garment to John’s account as well. They point out that the end of verse 24 is a direct quote from Psalm 22:18. This means the genre of the Psalm quoted is poetry and should be interpreted according to the rule of poetic interpretation: what is A and what is more than A, B. The ‘A what’s more B’ rule implies that the biblical author is making a point about the garment in the first line and elaborating upon the same piece of clothing on the second line. Hence, in the first line, when the psalmist writes they have divided up my garments among them, he is embellishing the point in the second line. How did they divide the garments among them? The second line answers and for my clothing they cast lots. This means, according to the poetic interpretation rule, the garment in the first line and the clothing in the second line are referring to the same piece of clothing. Therefore, these interpreters conclude that John is indicating, as the other gospels, that there was only one garment.

Yet if the poetry in the Psalm is referring to one garment, why then does the gospel writer of John uniquely record in this context that there were two pieces of clothing? In verse 23, we are told that the outer clothing of Jesus was divided up into four because there are four soldiers and each one takes a piece. In verse 24, we are told that the soldiers take the inner garment—the tunic, which is seamless and woven into one piece—and they draw lots to see who would receive it. Why does the gospel writer of John uniquely record the detail of the second piece of clothing that no other gospel writer records?  That is the question we seek to answer in this sermon because when the gospel writer of John includes the second garment, he has something more he wants us to know and understand about our Lord. Therefore, since we have now settled on the fact that the text clearly states there were two garments, it is important for you to understand how these two garments have been interpreted in church history.  

The Symbolic Interpretation

One of the oldest interpretations as to why John records two garments goes way back to the time of Cyprian (†258 A.D.). In this interpretation, people have viewed the two garments symbolically. This would seem to indicate that the gospel writer of John has included two garments because he is indirectly making a point that is made in the other three gospels. According to this symbolic interpretation, the first piece of clothing divided up into four, represents the four corners of the earth: north, south, east and west. This symbolically means that the news of Jesus Christ who died on the cross for sinners would be proclaimed to the four corners of the earth. In this symbolic interpretation, John is telling us the first garment was divided up into four pieces to symbolize what the apostles and the church would later do: preach the gospel of Jesus’ death on the cross to the four corners of the earth. Thus, what is taught specifically in the other three gospels concerning the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ being proclaimed to the ends of the earth, is here being implied in John’s gospel as well.

Yet not only does this interpretation symbolically look at the first garment, it also interprets symbolically the second seamless garment. If the first garment was divided into four, then there must be something to the second garment in verse 24 that was not divided. Therefore, the second garment which is described at the end of verse 23 as a seamless tunic woven in one piece from top to bottom and was not divided, represents the unity of the church. As the first garment was divided into four and spoke of the gospel going to the four corners of the earth, so the second garment which is not divided and represents the unity of the church. As this tunic is not divided by the Roman soldiers, so it is true of the church of Jesus Christ that no power, no army can divide it. This means that the church, which is made up of people all nations and all languages from the four corners of the earth, will be united together and become one body that will not be divided, just like the seamless garment of Jesus. Thus, the seamless garment reminds us that no military power, no Roman soldier try as he might, can ever break apart the church united in Jesus Christ and destroy it.

Now all of this is true isn’t it? The gospel about Jesus Christ and his death on the cross will be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. That message of the church is unified and no one, no power, can ever destroy it or break it apart. All of this is taught in other parts of Scripture. But is that what the gospel writer of John wants us to know from the seamless tunic? I do not believe so.

The High Priest Interpretation

Another interpretation in church history concerning the seamless tunic has to do with Jesus’ office as high priest. In the Old Testament, the high priest of the temple wore a seamless tunic as he went into the Holy of Holies to make the sacrifice on behalf of the people of God. This high priest interpretation says that John specifically mentions the seamless undergarment in verse 24 because he wants us to connect it with Jesus as our great high priest. This is just as the previous unit where in verse 21 Pilate puts the sign on the cross above Jesus’ head that said Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews—connecting him with his kingly office in that John 19 unit. Now, in this next unit of verses, he is connecting Jesus with his high priestly office. After all, when Jesus dies on the cross and his blood is spilled, he becomes the high priest of God’s people forevermore. And so this interpretation concludes that the reason why John includes the second garment—the seamless tunic—is to identify Jesus as our great high priest! 

Now it is true that Jesus is our great high priest. Other Scripture passages tell us that Jesus is our high priest forever. However, the only problem with that interpretation is that our catechism doctrine also tells us that Jesus fulfilled three offices—the offices of prophet, priest and king. And if that is what John is doing, connecting these sections of Jesus’ death on the cross with his threefold offices, then why does he mention the king and the high priestly office in John 19, but he does not mention his prophetic office?

‘The Robe’ Interpretation

All of these interpretations makes you wonder if we should just leave it to the portrayal given in the 1953 Hollywood movie The Robe which portrays a Roman soldier searching for this second seamless tunic mentioned in John’s gospel because there must be something magical about it. The search for the tunic proceeds because it is thought to have magical healing powers. Yet, we know that the Bible does not tell us there is anything magical about Jesus’ garment and if we were to find it, it would not have healing powers. 

However, if we are going to reject all these interpretations, we must then ask ourselves how are we going to interpret these verses? What was the inspired author John thinking when he added the second garment?

The Key: Psalm 22:18

The key to understanding these verses is found in the Psalm that is quoted in verse 24. The quote from this Psalm and its heading tells us that King David wrote it. The situation described by David in this Psalm is a scenario where he is surrounded by his enemies. He feels abandoned by God, just as Jesus was abandoned on the cross. You can read the words of David in the Psalm and you can think of them being fulfilled by the Lord Jesus as he hung on the cross. Note these verses:

1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

     Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,

      and by night, but I find no rest.

6 But I am a worm and not a man,

     scorned by mankind and despised by the people.

7 All who see me mock me;

     they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;

8 “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him

        let him rescue him, for he delights in him!”

12 Many bulls encompass me;

       strong bulls of Bashan surround me;

13 they open wide their mouths at me,

       like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,

      and all my bones are out of joint;

      my heart is like wax;

      it is melted within my breast;

15 my strength is dried up like a potsherd,

      and my tongue sticks to my jaws;

      you lay me in the dust of death.

16  For dogs encompass me;

        a company of evildoers encircles me;

        they have pierced my hands and feet—

17  I can count all my bones—

      they stare and gloat over me;

18  they divide my garments among them,

       and for my clothing they cast lots.

Do you understand what David is describing in the Psalm? He is describing his humiliation at the hands of his enemies. His enemies have surrounded him! They are mocking him! God has ordained his enemies to have their way with him. Taking his garments and leaving him naked and exposed is all part of the humiliation that he feels, as if God has abandoned him. And as the gospel writer of John gazes upon our Lord hanging upon the cross, the first thing that comes to his mind is not the gospel going to the four corners of the earth and the unity of the church; nor does he think about Jesus as our great high priest or that there will be something magical about the garment that will later give healing powers to people. What comes to his mind as he is inspired by the Holy Spirit is Psalm 22, the Psalm of humiliation. What comes to mind is the humiliation that Israel’s King David experienced and now as he hangs on the cross, our own Lord’s humiliation.

Jesus’ Naked Humiliation

And how was our Savior humiliated? The gospel writer of John, who wrote this after the other three gospels were written, wants you to know something more about our Lord. The other gospel writers tell you that they divided up his clothes by the casting of lots. But the gospel writer of John, in keeping with his quote from the Psalm of humiliation, wants to make something even clearer than any other gospel writer. In verse 23, we are told that they took off his clothes and cast lots for his clothing. But “this is Jesus,” you think; “they probably just took his outer clothes, and must have left the undergarment on? This is Jesus after all, the Son of God.” We do not want to think of him naked on the cross!

But this is what John inspired by Holy Spirit very carefully tells us in verses 23-24: They took his garments and divided them into four parts, one for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece  from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but casts lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This means they took the tunic off too.

Do you notice how respectfully the gospel writer tells us about Jesus’ nakedness? He wants us to know it, but he does not come out blatantly and say, “They took off his undergarment and Jesus hung on the cross naked.” He remains careful and respectful in the wording. Is it any wonder that there are so many interpretations of this text throughout church history?

But he very specifically tells us that they took the outer garment and divided it into four. And then they took the inner tunic as well and cast lots for it. And as the gospel writer of John witnessed this event inspired by the Holy Spirit, he immediately thought and wrote of the fulfillment of David’s humiliation in Psalm 22:18:

       they divide my garments among them,

       and for my clothing they cast lots.

This is not something we like to think about is it? Jesus, naked on the cross; our Savior exposed before everyone who walked by. If John would have said it more specifically, the church probably would not want to read it! If John would be more specific, the verse could be an object of scorn for the unbeliever who reads it even today!

For a believer, it is the kind of thing that you just don’t want to think about. You hear about it and you wonder if you should respond like Noah’s two sons to their father and his nakedness after the flood in Genesis 9. Not like Ham who told others of his father’s nakedness, but the two sons who turned their faces, walked backward and brought a garment to cover their father out of respect (Gen. 9: 22-23). 

We don’t want to think of this concerning Jesus. Yet we are surrounded by a world and a culture of nakedness—in the movies and on the internet, where people parade around their nakedness and expose themselves or look at the nakedness of others for entertainment. By doing so, they degrade others and themselves as human beings into objects of mockery.

We would never want to think of our Savior that way. But the inspired author very carefully makes sure that we do. Why?

The First Adam Second Adam

The Bible tells us we are born in Adam. The first Adam and his wife Eve were created in the garden naked and without shame. But when they ate of the tree, their eyes were opened and their nakedness was exposed. They knew they could not stand as naked sinners before a Holy God and they hid. God called to them. They hid in the trees; they tried to cover themselves with fig leaves because they could not stand as naked and exposed sinners before a Holy God (Gen. 3:7-9).

God had to cover them. And he covered them with animal skins (Gen. 3:21). Blood had to be shed to cover their nakedness. Blood had to be shed to cover their sins and in the Old Testament temple system it was the blood of animals. But in the New Testament temple, it is the blood of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

The gospel writer of John wants you to see that as Adam hid his nakedness in the trees, so the second Adam—Jesus Christ—was nailed to a tree. His nakedness was exposed before the world and a Holy God. He hung on the cross cursed and humiliated before the world and a Holy God so that naked sinners born in Adam could be covered and all of his people would be clothed.

Lest you think the world was in charge—lest you think that the soldiers who bracket the text are controlling the situation as they drew lots and are entertained as he was exposed, take note of the phrase that leads into the Psalm quote in verse 24: this was to fulfill the Scripture. You see, when the gospel writer of John includes the detail of the second garment, he is carefully and respectfully recording the nakedness of our Lord. Hence, in the nakedness of our Lord, John wants you to see your own nakedness and sin. He wants you to think about the fact that if Christ had not been naked and exposed and endured what Adam and every child of Adam could not bear, you would have to bear it someday before a Holy God. And without his covering of your nakedness and sin, you would be nakedly exposed to God’s eternal wrath in hell. This is the purpose of bracketing the soldiers as God ordained they fulfill the Scriptures.

The John 19:23-24 picture of your Lord is his glory. There is no darkness in our text. Look at him and know the nakedness of your Lord and see your nakedness covered. Look at him and see and know your salvation.