TEXT: John 18:1-19:42
When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)
Earlier in the Gospel According to Saint John—in the 12th chapter—Jesus said: “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” (John 12:32) To us, it seems obvious that he was speaking about his crucifixion; but that is the insight of history.
“Lifted up” meant something quite different to his disciples. They pictured a victory parade and coronation festivities for the messianic King. That’s why they were so offended whenever Jesus raised the subject of his impending death. They didn’t want to hear about that. Instead, the disciples wanted to talk about the seating arrangements for the Big Day.
Well, the Big Day did come—but it was Good Friday. Preceded a few days earlier by a procession of palm branches and hosannas upon his entry to Jerusalem, Jesus’ crucifixion apparently caught the disciples by surprise. Jesus, however, had always known what lay ahead. He would indeed be crowned as King—but with a tiara of thorns. And his throne would be a wooden cross.
Theologians sometimes speak of the “two states” of Christ in his earthly ministry: first, the state of humiliation (that is, from birth to death); and second, the state of exaltation (that is, resurrection, ascension, and present reign). But, to me, it seems that those nice, tidy distinctions get blurred in all the action of Holy Week and Easter.
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” Does this not sound more like the ascension than the crucifixion? Especially when he says, “lifted up from the earth”?
But the next verse makes plain Jesus’ point. John writes: “He said this to indicate the kind of death he was going to die.” (v. 33)
And you know, Jesus used this phrase—“lifted up”—a couple of times before in John’s Gospel. To Nicodemus, he said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (3:14) Again, in chapter eight, we read: “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I am he.” (8:28)
Far from his death demonstrating the failure of his messianic Kingship, or even thinking of it in terms of a mere prelude to glory, Jesus claims his cross as his throne—as the centre of his royal ministry.
Not only at the resurrection, then, but also at the cross, Jesus says his Messianic glory and office will be made apparent. It is from that throne that he will draw all people to himself. It is as a sacrificial substitute on behalf of his people that the King establishes his throne forever.
Today, many in the church seem to want to repudiate that language of “sacrifice”—and yet, without it, it seems to me that Christ’s death loses its saving significance. It then becomes nothing more than just another tragic end of a good person. But surely, that is not the gospel message!
Many empires have been raised on the sacrifices of brave soldiers, and many kingdoms have been preserved by the shedding of blood, but this cross is the one place where the King makes himself the sole sacrificial offering for the good of his entire commonwealth, so that no more will need to be offered except for the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Not only at Easter, then, do we see Christ’s glory. On Good Friday, we begin to see his glory even amidst his suffering. Our Saviour is not first a victim and then a victor. He conquers sin and death precisely by offering himself as the only effective and final sacrifice. That is exactly how he becomes King!
He is not first a prophet and a priest, and then a king. He is a king in the very act of being “lifted up”—enthroned—upon a cross. In other words, his sacrificial death is not something he performed on his way to or as a necessary prerequisite of his coronation as the King of kings and Lord of lords. No. It was his coronation.
The suffering of Christ was not accidental to his kingly reign, nor was his glory absent in his cross. Here, we are introduced to a different kind of glory, a different kind of king, and a different kind of kingdom. It is a glory that can only be recognized in the redemptive suffering of a King who gives his life for his subjects in order to make them co-heirs with him of everything he possesses. It is a kingdom whose weakness is mightier than all the powerful empires of planet Earth.
Enthroned upon a cross, wearing a crown of thorns, dying between two criminals. This is a king like no other!
And who are the people who belong to his kingdom? They are the poor and the broken, the outcast and the needy. They are the ones who would be expelled from all other kingdoms, except the Kingdom of God. Jesus does not separate himself from his people and their suffering. On the contrary, he makes himself one with his people, embracing them in their suffering.
Jesus fulfills—beyond all expectation—his responsibilities as King: to be mindful of his people, to tend to their needs, and to protect them, drawing them into the fullness of life. He does so, not by force or defence, not with legions of armies or protective barricades, but by laying down his own life.
His Kingdom reigns in our hearts. In the face of our own poverty and brokenness, our own personal struggle and heartache, Jesus our King remains one with us, infusing us with his life-giving presence.
And what does he ask of us? Only that we will allow his Kingdom to flourish in our own hearts, and in our Church, and throughout our world.
By the grace of God, may it be so—for us, and in us. Amen.