“HE WHO SAW IT HAS BORNE WITNESS”
1. Isaac Watts’ song “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” is considered by many to be the finest hymn in English church history.
a. Watts was born to parents who were committed “Dissenters” – non-Anglicans – at a time in England when it was a treasonous offense. They were bitterly persecuted for it. In fact, about the time Isaac prematurely arrived, his father was arrested. His mother reportedly nursed her newborn while seated on a stone outside the prison.
b. Isaac, the oldest of nine children, was a brilliant boy who started learning Latin at age four, and Greek and Hebrew soon after. When he finished grammar school, a wealthy benefactor offered to send him to Oxford, the leading university of the time. That would have required Isaac to become Anglican, though, so he declined and enrolled in a lesser known independent academy.
c. After his early graduation from college, Isaac returned home. It was during that time that he became discouraged about the dismal quality of the singing at church. He complained to his father and, after a heated discussion, Isaac’s father challenged him to write a song himself.
d. He did, and even though he was barely out of school, in the two years that followed he blessed the world with meaningful hymns of faith that are still sung more than three centuries later – songs like “We’re Marching to Zion” and “Joy to the World” as well as this one.
e. Isaac Watts went on to accomplish amazing things. In addition to his preaching and his 600 hymns, we wrote 52 other works, including a book on logic widely used in universities, and books on grammar, astronomy, philosophy, and geography. But it cost him. He used himself up in service to the Lord.
f. This song, originally titled “Crucifixion to the World, by the Cross of Christ,” explains why: when he surveyed the cross he concluded that it was worth the best he had to give.
(Sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”)
2. John’s unique survey of the cross is recorded in John 19:17-37. It is the priceless word-painting of an eye-witness.
a. Verse 35 says, “He who saw it has borne witness – his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth – that you also may believe.”
b. It is thought- provoking to observe that John, who alone of all the disciples witnessed the crucifixion itself, says the least about it.
c. He was not understating the significance of the cross. After all, John is the writer who has noted so often Jesus’ attention to “his hour” when he would be “glorified” (13:1; 12:23, 27).
d. He was carefully recording the aspects of the story which show most clearly the difference between belief and unbelief – and call for belief.
e. The details John mentions which are not in the other accounts are in some way especially helpful in reinforcing belief.
i. He did not record the mockery by the crowd, or the conversation of the two criminals, or the darkness, or the comment of the centurion.
ii. But look at the details that are uniquely his. As John surveyed the cross, what was there about the scene which stayed with him as an eyewitness? And, what do these details mean to believers?
3. The first thing that stands out is Pilate’s writing of the inscription in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek, and putting it on the cross. (v. 19, 20)
a. The other writers all mention that an inscription of the charge against him was fixed to the cross, but only John indicates that Pilate wrote it, and that he wrote it in all three languages.
i. A statement of the charge for which a criminal was being executed was used to warn onlookers of the fate of such evil-doers.
ii. In this case, Pilate was also using it to make a sarcastic thrust at the Jews, as if to say, “If this is the King of the Jews, what must the rest of them be?”
iii. The chief priests wanted it to say, “He claimed to be...,” but the same Pilate who just a while earlier had weakly delivered him over to them now obstinately refused to change the wording.
b. John, looking back on it, could see the implications in this which were not apparent at the time it happened.
i. That inscription was an unknowing announcement that what was to happen on that cross was for all people everywhere. (cf. Heb. 2:9; 1 Tim. 2:4; etc.)
ii. Aramaic was the form of Hebrew commonly spoken by the Jewish people at the time. Latin was the official language of imperial Rome. Greek was the language of everyday life throughout the empire. The news of what Jesus was doing was going to be spoken of in all nations – and it was going to change the world.
iii. Pilate’s inscription, and his refusal to change it, unwittingly served to underscore the fact that Jesus’ kingship is final and unalterable. He was soon to be exalted to the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (cf. Eph. 1:20-23)
4. The second thing that stands out in John’s account is the contrast between the two groups of people who were near the cross. (v. 23-25)
a. On the one hand, there are the soldiers. The other accounts note that the soldiers divided the garments among themselves by casting lots, but John offers the detail that shines the light most clearly on their callous indifference.
i. Jesus had a long inner garment which was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom. It was too valuable to be cut up.
ii. John says that’s why the soldiers, who were unable to see any meaning in the suffering right in front of them, were able to come up with a way to parcel out the garment without tearing it.
(1) Barclay observed, “No picture so shows the indifference of the world to Christ. There on the Cross Jesus was dying in agony; and there at the foot of the Cross the soldiers threw their dice as if it did not matter.” (John, Vol. 2, p. 254)
(2) That is the hardness of heart that a life of sin produces. We all need to be careful not to let the deceitfulness of sin do that to us. (cf. Heb. 3:13)
iii. John saw, though, that the providence of God was still overruling the situation. The soldiers were unknowingly fulfilling the prediction of Psalm 22:18.
b. On the other hand, there is the courageous love of the women who were still there standing by him.
i. Their identity can be suggested by comparing the accounts: there was Mary his mother; her sister, who appears to have been Salome, the mother of the sons of Zebedee; Mary the wife of Clopas and the mother of James and Joseph; and Mary Magdalene.
ii. Each of the writers states the fact that they were there caring, as they had been there serving throughout the Lord’s ministry.
iii. But John adds the meaningful detail that they were “standing by the cross of Jesus” (v. 25).
(1) They had courageously taken their stand nearby as a declaration of their loyalty, even when that loyalty seemed futile.
(2) “By these women the chief qualities of belief – loyalty, gratitude, and love – were exemplified.” (Tenney, The Gospel of Belief, p. 270)
(3) May these qualities of belief be in us, too!
5. The third part of the story that stands out in John is the mention of the three words of Jesus which represent his thought and action in the last hour of his earthly life.
a. First there is his word of loving concern for his mother. (v. 26-27)
i. Notice that it says he saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved – John himself.
ii. Even in that dark hour, he was aware. He not only recognized their presence, he recognized their needs – hers to be cared for, and his to do something to help. He saw to it that his mother was provided for.
iii. This “marked the discharge of his human obligations. Even at the cross, with the destiny of His person and calling at stake, He was not unmindful of His duty to His family.” (Tenney, p. 267)
b. Then, it is John who records his word of human need. (v. 28-29)
i. Notice again that he was aware of what was happening: “knowing that all was now finished...”
ii. The Lord said, “I thirst.”
(1) It was an expression of his deep participation in human suffering, of his sharing in all human woe.
(2) Someone observed, “He who had offered to all men the water of life, died thirsty.”
iii. They offered him the cheap, sour wine the common soldiers drank. Even this fulfilled what Psalm 69:21 foreshadowed.
c. Finally, there is the word of victory which was spoken by Jesus. (v. 30)
i. “It is finished” was not the last gasp of a defeated martyr, but the shout of a triumphant victor who was conscious that he had finished his work. (cf. 17:4)
ii. When John says he “bowed his head,” he used a word that elsewhere refers to having nowhere to “lay his head” (cf. Matt. 8:20; Lk. 9:58). The only place Jesus found to lay his head was on the cross!
iii. That he “gave up his spirit” suggests voluntary action. As the good shepherd and as the friend with the greatest love, he was laying down his life (Jn. 10:11; 15:13).
6. The fourth part of the action of the cross which is unique to these account is the piercing of the side of Jesus when he had already died. (v. 31-37)
a. John explains how Pilate came to be asked that the legs of the three crucified men might be broken.
i. The same religious authorities who had bribed and lied and manipulated to get Jesus on the cross now wanted him down in a hurry so as not to have the presence of a body mar the Sabbath of the Passover Feast.
ii. Breaking the legs of a crucified man hastened death by making it impossible for the victim to lift himself up enough to breathe. That’s what they asked of Pilate.
iii. Both the hypocrisy and the cruelty this involved were shocking in their ugliness – and they still are.
b. When the soldiers came to Jesus, though, they saw that he was already dead.
i. They broke none of his bones; they were fully able to recognize that there was no need.
ii. Instead, one of the soldiers took his spear and pierced the side of the crucified Jesus. Perhaps he did it out of cruelty; perhaps he did it just to be absolutely sure.
iii. John, the eyewitness, says, “and at once there came out blood and water.” It was important evidence of his death. This could not have happened if he had only seemed to die.
c. Two lines of thought from the scriptures were fulfilled in this.
i. As the Passover lamb was to have no bones broken (Ex. 12:46), the Christ who is our Passover was offered with no bones broken.
ii. And, as the prophet Zechariah had predicted, they looked upon the descendant of David whom they had pierced (Zech. 12:10).
iii. Both that he had died and how he had died emphasized that this was an extraordinary event.
7. There are the four details which are unique to John’s eyewitness account of what happened on the cross as Jesus appeared once for all to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (cf. Heb. 9:26)
a. Each one of these lines of thought offers its own powerful reason to believe that Jesus actually laid down his life for us all.
b. It is interesting that it is also John who later mentions the scars of this suffering upon the body of the living Christ, as if to say that his sacrifice still mattered but that it was over.
i. When he appeared to the ten disciples who were together on the evening of his resurrection, he showed them his hands and his side (20:20).
ii. Thomas said he would never believe unless he saw in his hands the mark of the nails and placed his hand into his side. He was immediately convinced when the Lord gave him the opportunity to do exactly that (20:25, 27)!
iii. Each of us must decide how those scars will effect us.
8. As a result of what John has written, we may be sure that:
“There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.” – William Cowper