The Crucifixion of Jesus, John 19

The Crucifixion: John 19:17-37

What is the doctrine of the death of Christ? By doctrine, I mean the systematic theological application of this act. Many know facts surrounding the work of Christ, but few could tell what it means.

Typically, the crucifixion is not interpreted. I bet that most could tell me the problems with the swoon theory, the Muslim view, the Jehovah’s Witness view of the crucifixion etc. Most could give a defense for the inerrancy of Scripture because of the fulfillments of prophecy. It is also likely that most could give an explanation, with a little research, to see how Jesus prophetically fulfills those prophecies in a typological way.  It is also likely that most Christians could give a response to the movie the Passion of the Christ. Iconoclast and emotional experientialist alike get worked up about the drama.

The problem is that none of these are explanations of what the crucifixion means. John calls his readers to believe something. Notice in John 19:35-37, that the  call is to believe the testimony. This ties in with the intended result of the John’s writing, look at 20:30-31. The point is, Jesus’ death calls you to believe. Let’s not be modest. The things listed above are not things to be trusted, they are things to be understood, emotionally dwelt upon, or believed in the sense of agreeing that they are true. None of them are the object of salvation. None of them are the doctrine of the crucifixion. Jesus Calls you to believe. The question is: Believe what?

We believe, in the sense that we trust, in promises. The thing held out to you is the death of Jesus on your behalf. Jesus died in your place, thus he promised forgiveness and new life to those who believe! So, our question is: what is the meaning of this doctrine? What are we to believe? We cannot answer it in apologetics, prophecy, or manipulative emotional response. It is only answered by the scripture. That is where we turn now.

The Crucifixion of Jesus means that God legally substituted Jesus’ death for yours. The word legal is the most important idea here. Jesus’ salvation is a legal salvation. Sin is breaking the law, and especially the Law broken by Adam. This leads us to see how Jesus legally substituted for you.

  1. He Kept the Law
  2. He was Cursed by the Law
  3. He Called you to Believe

1.  Jesus kept the Law

Jesus is righteous. He never sinned. In fact, because he was God, though temptations came from the outside, he was incapable of sin. This is the first component of the doctrine of the crucifixion.  

Look at verses 25b-27. Jesus kept the law in providing a caretaker for his mother. Remember the 5th commandment. It calls to honor mothers and fathers. There is a lot that could be said about this because it is per synecdoche. The point is that he was keeping the law.

Jesus also kept the law as regards his conscience. Jesus knew from the beginning who he was and what he had come to do. Take a look at Luke 2:48-49, John 10:18, 14:10, Phil 2:7-9. In these we see Jesus in childhood, adulthood, and in pre-incarnation. Jesus had a mission, and he knew it. To disobey that mission would have been a grave sin. In fact this is what the Devil tried to bring about when he tempted him to bypass the cross in order to enter his kingdom, Matthew 4. So, Jesus’ righteousness is shown here in his death on behalf of His people.

Now, obedience to the law implies that Jesus kept the law on our behalf, but it also means that the act of crucifixion was obedience itself! This is really the most important clue to figuring out the meaning of the crucifixion. If Jesus died at the hands of the Law, yet was being obedient, then He is not a criminal, even though he is being treated as one by men and the Father.

This lead to the doctrine of Infinite merit for infinite guilt. You see, crimes in the Bible, such as stealing, lies, gossip, murder, etc, are all against your fellow man. But, they are also against God in the sense that they break His Law. When men sin against men, they are punished, or sometimes not punished, but only shunned or frowned upon in the Bible. However, when men sin against God the guilt is infinite because he is infinitely holy. Therefore, Jesus paid an infinite penalty for you.

Did you know that the Church did not figure this doctrine out for nearly a thousand years after Jesus died? Anselm the Archbishop of Canterbury (d.1109) first elaborated this doctrine in his Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man) in 1097. He was not the first to deal with the issue, but the first to get that the infinite guilt of man before God required infinite merit on behalf of the mediator, Jesus Christ.

This is why men need Jesus. You probably know that the section of the WCF, on the Covenant with Adam, says that “The chasm between man and God was so great…” The confession sets up the infinite merit for infinite guilt doctrine here.  

Anselm said,

“For it was fitting that, just as death entered into the human race by man’s disobedience, so should life be restored by man’s obedience. And, that, just as the sin that was the cause of our damnation had its beginning from woman, so the author of our justice and salvation should be born from woman. And, that the devil conquered man through persuading him to taste from the tree [ligni], should be conquered by man through the passion he endured on the tree [ligni]. (S., p. 51)”

You are not just guilty in the sense that you need a slap on the wrist, but you need infinite present judgment and punishment for eternity, because the crime that Adam committed on your behalf, and the sins you actually commit require God’s infinite justice. That is why it is so important that Jesus was sinless.

2. Cursed as a Criminal by the Law

God showed his legal punishment for sin while Jesus was on the cross. This section begins with a satire of Pontius Pilate, comparing him to Jesus. Look at how in verses 15-16, and 19-22, Pilate tries to save his bacon while Jesus gives his own life for the sake of his people. The heavenly king gave his life for the servants, and this earthly king served his own life by killing a man!

Look also at the place where Jesus was taken in verse 17. Golgotha, meaning, “the skull” is not just something out of a corny horror movie, which is meant to add a sense of danger. There was a certain connotation to this rock formation that looks like a human skull just outside of Jerusalem. This stone was called “Adam’s skull.”

“There was a tradition current among the Jews that the skull of Adam, after having been confided by Noah to his son Shem, and by the latter to Melchisedech, was finally deposited at the place called, for that reason, Golgotha.”[1]

Adam the first sinner was the reason Jesus had to come. The symbolism though, was a slap in the face to Jesus. It was enumerating the first sinner with Jesus. Jesus is being treated as a criminal.

Next, in verse 18, the two thieves are placed next to Jesus. The point is that the he was not being treated as a martyr, but being treated as a criminal. Matthew Henry said on this point, if the Jesus were crucified with Peter and John on either side, then it would have been an honor. Rather, the sheep were scattered from the shepherd, Matt 26:31.Jesus was enumerated with criminals. It was guilt by association.

Now, this teaches another shade of the meaning of the crucifixion. Jesus was treated as a criminal. Now, most of the time, we say, “Jesus paid the “price” for salvation.” Really we should say that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins.  What is the difference?  The difference is that price is an accounting term, and penalty refers more to a legal penalty. If you have a debt, then you can pay it back by money. Someone else can pay your debt easily. The problem is, you cannot pay someone else’s legal debt. Justice must be served on the one who committed it.

You are lawbreakers. You are legally guilty, not just in debt. Debt carries the idea that you can pay back your debt by work. Roman Catholics believe that Adam had a super extra grace which put him at a blank slate of righteousness before God. So, when he sinned, he fell into debt. This needs to be purged (purgated) from him and his posterity by grace. This was called the Donum Superadditum. AKA the super-added-donut. The cross does not decisively deliver the Christian from sin, but only helps them along to pay off the debt. This is where the other Roman sacraments come from historically. These are ways of purging debt.

Well, in the crucifixion we see Jesus treated as a criminal, not as one who is in debt. God would not accept a substitution other than this infinitely meritorious one on the cross because the criminality of it was against an infinite God. You are not in debt, you are criminals.

Notice that Jesus said “it is finished!” in verse 30. You have probably heard that the word tetelestai means to “pay in full.” Well that is again this idea of finances, not legal penalty. The issue is that Jesus did not pay a financial penalty, but a legal one. This is clear from the context, and from Paul, Rom 10:4, Gal 3:13.

What this says to you is that Jesus died for the sake of your legal penalty. God thus declares you not guilty because another has suffered your penalty.

Imagine you are brought into the court of God and held to account for murder. The mother of the man you killed is sitting in the courtroom. The charges are read, and the judge finds you not guilty. Imagine the feeling of the mother of the victim. She would cry out for justice! The Judge may be satisfied with his decision, but the law and the mother are not satisfied. That is injustice. God is totally just, so what would bring justice in God’s courtroom is your death for the murder at the hands of the stae, and at God’s hands in hell for eternity. This would satisfy the law, satisfy the victim mother, and satisfy God’s justice.

Now multiply that guilt by infinity. God is the infinite victim against whom you have sinned. He condemns you as infinitely guilty.  He cries out for your infinite death! You have no way to pay this penalty other than by taking the sentence.

Yet God himself took on flesh and died for you to satisfy your legal penalty. Jesus took that infinite sentence upon him. He was declared guilty, and you were declared just! This is why John calls you to believe. This is the meaning of the cross. Jesus died for your legal penalty.

3. He Calls you to Believe

We looked at the meaning of the crucifixion. It is not just emotion, apologetic, prophetic fulfillment, or historic fact, but it is salvation accomplished. We are after the meaning of the crucifixion, and found two things so far. Jesus paid an infinite penalty (Cur Deus Homo), and a legal penalty (Donum Superadditum). Here we deal with the response motivated by the legal justification hel out to you in the death of Jesus. What you need is to be declared not guilty, and John tells you that it is found by trust that Jesus is your savior!

Verse 35 says, “And he who has seen has testified, and his testimony is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.” Here John speaks in the scholarly third person.  He says to the reader, I wrote these things, I was the one testifying this to you. The purpose of this is that you may believe! The response the reader comes to is trust that Jesus was that long awaited savior.

Verse 37 says “they shall look upon him whom they pierced,” the word to look upon carries the same idea as believe. It calls you to trust that Jesus is your savior. This is subjective, meaning that it means something to you. John is not telling you to believe that Jesus is just the savior, but he takes it a step further. He wants you to believe that Jesus is your savior.

Look upon Jesus. He is your savior. What is the doctrine of the death of Christ? It is an infinitely righteous God taking on flesh, by taking the legal penalty of an infinitely criminal people, he satisfied the infinitely just God. Jesus’ crucifixion reconciled you to God.   

Ben Rochester, March 26, 2010


Herman Bavink, Reformed Dogmatics vol. 3, pp 337-417

Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo 1097 a.d.