by Ed Gallagher
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.John 10:11
As in all of the Gospels, the death of Jesus forms a major part of John’s Gospel. The crucifixion seems as unsurprising to Jesus as it is shocking to his own disciples. This Gospel assumes its readers are already familiar with the basic story (cf. 2:22), so readers are supposed to pick up on the subtle hints throughout the story that escape the notice of the disciples. Probably because the author does not feel it necessary to relate details mentioned in the other Gospels, he highlights certain details about Jesus’ death that give this account a distinctive feel.
Jesus on His Death
Jesus did not make it easy on people to anticipate his coming death. He did not talk about it openly. The ones who plotted his death knew it was coming, but none of his followers did. Mostly he talks about leaving and going to the Father. Rarely John’s Gospel makes clear that Jesus is speaking about his death (12:33), but he talks about it in very cryptic terms—
Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days.John 2:19; cf. 3:14; 8:28; 12:32
He is more open in the Good Shepherd discourse (10:11, 15, 17-18), but how would those words have been understood by his followers or others? He does mention his anointing for burial (12:7-8).
The Departure of Jesus
Jesus frequently mentions that he will be departing, and these announcements frequently confuse people. The first time occurs in the temple (7:28) at the Feast of Booths (7:2), when Jesus says…
I am only with you for a short time. Then I’m going to the one who sent me. You will look for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.John 7:33–34
“The Jews” guess that maybe he means he’s going to another country (vv. 35–36). Jesus makes this same sort of statement at 8:21, and here “the Jews” think he might commit suicide (v. 22). The other occasion where Jesus mentions his departure is during his Farewell Discourse with his disciples alone. He had told “the Jews” that they could not follow him (7:34; 8:21), and now he tells the same thing to his apostles (13:33, 36), which saddens them (14:1; 16:6). These statements do not mention his death, just his return “to the one who sent me” (7:33; 16:5), or to the Father (14:28; 16:28; cf. 17:11, 13). At one point the disciples claim to have figured out what Jesus means (16:25–30), but Jesus casts doubt on their understanding (vv. 31–33). Peter’s actions with his sword (18:10–11) show that he hasn’t grasped the truth of 18:36.
The departure of Jesus is related to his “hour” or “time.” In early chapters of the Gospel, Jesus’ hour has not yet arrived (2:4; 7:6; cf. 4:21, 23; 5:25, 28), so that his opponents could not harm him (7:30; 8:20), but at the final Passover, his hour has arrived—his hour for glorification (12:23), the hour for which he was sent (12:27), the hour to return to the Father (13:1).
These statements look beyond the crucifixion to the ascension, as we see at 13:1 and 20:17, when after the Resurrection Jesus is still talking about returning to his Father. But the crucifixion is an essential part of this departure, the aspect of “the hour” from which Jesus might have wanted to be saved (12:27).
This Gospel represents the crucifixion of Jesus as playing an essential element in his glorification. The arrival of “the hour” signals the moment of glorification (12:23; cf. 13:31). Of course, the Resurrection and ascension are also major parts of this glorification, and Jesus prays for a return to the eternal glory that he had enjoyed with the Father (17:5), a prayer that will be answered only after the ascension (see 12:16; cf. 7:39 and 16:7). But the death of Jesus is also part of Jesus’ glorification, just as Peter will glorify God through his own death (21:19).
Jesus says a few times that he must be “lifted up.” The first time is when he is talking to Nicodemus, and he compares the Son of Man to the bronze serpent that saved the Israelites (3:14; cf. Num 21: 4–9). The term “lifted up” does not appear in the Numbers passage; it rather recalls the language that Isaiah uses to introduce the Suffering Servant (Isa 52:13), who also is “lifted up” or “exalted.” Jesus is using this “lifted up” or “exaltation” language in reference to his death on a cross, at which point he is lifted up from the earth (quite literally). If we had any doubt, the Gospel clarifies it for us: at 12:32–33, Jesus says again that he will be “lifted up,” and the narrator comments that Jesus spoke about his own death (cf. also 8:28).
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.John 12:32–33
None of the Gospels offer much in the way of reflections on the theological meaning of Jesus’ death, that is, how the death of the Messiah serves God’s purposes. Those issues receive more attention in Acts and Paul’s letters (e.g. Rom 3:21–26; Gal 3:10–14). Mark (10:45) and Matthew (20:28) both record Jesus’ statement that he would “give his life as a ransom for many.” John’s Gospel contains no such explicit explanation of the significance of Jesus’ death, but it does provide some clues as to why Jesus needed to die. John the Baptist describes Jesus as “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29; cf. v. 36). He does not explicitly link the removal of sin to Jesus’ death, but the metaphor of Jesus being a lamb seems to indicate a sacrifice whereby sins would be removed, on analogy with the Old Testament sacrifices (cf. Lev 4:32-35). It may be significant in this regard that the crucifixion occurred at the time of Passover (John 19:14).
Jesus says that his death (= his exaltation) will endow believers with eternal life (John 3:14-15; cf. 6:51). The death of Jesus fulfills several passages of Scripture:
- Isaiah 22:18 (John 19:24)
- Psalm 69:21 (John 19:28)
- Exodus 12:46 (John 19:36)
- Zechariah 12:10 (John 19:37).
And the crucifixion also marks the moment of Jesus’ defeat of the evil powers (John 12:31; 14:30; cf. 16:33; 1 John 5:4).
Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.John 12:31
The death of Jesus came as a shock to his followers, but it was necessary in order to defeat his enemies, establish his kingdom, remove sins, and grant life. Through his death Jesus displayed his ultimate faithfulness, thereby both receiving glory and bestowing glory on the Father (17:1).
Questions for Discussion
Why did the Roman authorities have Jesus crucified? See 18:28–19:22.
Why did the Jewish leaders want Jesus killed? See 11:47–53; 18:19–24.
What does Jesus say about who killed him? See 10:11–18; 19:11.
What does Jesus mean about the Son of Man being “lifted up” (3:14; 8:28; 12:32-33)? What does the term “lifted up” describe? Why does he use the term “lifted up” in this way?
What does the death of Jesus accomplish, according to the Gospel of John? See 1:29; 3:14-15; 6:51; 12:31.