The Theology of John’s Passion
Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Narrative Form
In John’s Passion, Jesus dies a death which is substitutionary, penal, and propitiatory--a death which fully expends the wrath of God so it might not afflict his people.
In recent years, many students of Scripture have become more interested in the intricacy and import of Biblical narratives. At the same time, some of them seem to have become less certain about the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), which is a curious development, since John’s Passion narrative teaches PSA with great beauty and specificity, as I’ll seek to show below.
Jesus’ Death is Substitutionary
As we pick up the story in John 18, the stage is set. Jesus has recently been anointed in anticipation of his burial, and the Pharisees are about to make their final move in their plan to dispose of Jesus (12.9+). Jesus’ death thus looms large on the horizon.
For John, however, Jesus’ is no normal death. It is a death Jesus chooses to die, and one he dies on behalf of others. Consider by way of illustration the events of 18.1–9. Jesus is well aware of Judas’ plan to betray him (13.1–11); nevertheless, after supper, he descends into the darkness of the Kidron valley--a place whose very name signifies darkness, where he can easily be captured, unprotected by the presence of ‘the crowds’.
Not long afterwards, Judas and his soldiers arrive. The soldiers don’t appear to recognise Jesus. Jesus could easily conceal his identity and slip away into the night. Instead, however, Jesus approaches the soldiers, identifies himself as the ‘criminal’ they’ve come to arrest, and allows his disciples to escape unharmed. ‘I am he!’, Jesus says. ‘If it is me you seek, then let these other men go!’--a request to which the soldiers consent and in the absence of which Jesus’ disciples might have been crucified along with him.
John hasn’t recorded these events for the sake of historical completeness; he wants us to interpret Jesus’ death in light of them. In the Kidron valley, Jesus puts himself in harm’s way, as he will also do at Calvary. No-one will ‘take’ Jesus’ life from him; he will lay it down ‘of his own accord’ (10.18). Jesus thus surrenders himself for the sake of others (‘on behalf of his friends’); he is led away captive so others might go free, ultimately to be slain so others might live (3.16).
True, that Jesus dies in order to preserve the lives of twelve then-unknown Israelites may seem a rather trivial picture of an event as epic as the crucifixion. But, as Peter Leithart has helpfully pointed out,Jesus’ disciples are not random bystanders; they are men whom Jesus has chosen as pillars of his earthly kingdom, whom Jesus has specifically promised to keep and protect (cp. 18.9 w. 6.39). If Jesus’ disciples are slain, Jesus’ kingdom will not stand. It will prove to have been founded on the word of a man who is unable to keep his promises (and, worse still, unable to accomplish his Father’s will).
The Scope of Substitution
John doesn’t portray Jesus’ sacrifice as a sacrifice for Jesus’ disciples alone. In John 18.13, when Caiaphas re-enters the narrative, John reminds us of an important piece of information, viz.,
Caiaphas was the one who had said,…One man should die for the people!
John doesn’t repeat himself for no reason; he wants to teach us about the scope of Jesus’ death. Caiaphas’s statement can be understood in at least a couple of ways. First, it can be taken at face value. Caiaphas wants to dispose of Jesus in order to spare his people, Israel.
Earlier in John’s Gospel, the authorities identified Jesus as a man with the potential to stir up Israel against the Romans (an event with disastrous potential: 11.48–52). In response, Caiaphas decided it was better for one man die on behalf of the people than for the whole nation to perish, and the plot to dispose of Jesus was thus born (11.53). Here in John 18, that plot comes to fruition. Per Caiaphas’s statement, Jesus will be slain, and will spare not only the lives of his disciples, but of all Israel.
Yet Caiaphas’s statement also hints at a deeper reality. Yes, Jesus will die ‘for his people’ insofar as his death will preserve their place within the empire, but it will also meet a deeper need. Israel’s ultimate problem is not her vassalage to Rome; it is her bondage to sin (8.34), from which Jesus has come to release her. Just as Moses came to free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s yoke and let them live as YHWH’s son (Exod. 4.22–23), so Jesus has come to free his people from the bondage of sin and let them live as ‘sons of God’ (cp. 8.45), which will require him to serve as Israel’s substitutionary lamb (1.29). For John, then, Jesus dies on behalf of--and as a substitute for--not only his followers, but all Israel.
Jesus’ Death is Penal
If Caiaphas’s statement in ch. 18 concerns the substitutionary aspect of Jesus’ death, then the chief priests’ statement (in ch. 19) concerns its legal aspect. ‘We have a law’, the chief priests say (Caiaphas included), ‘and, because of that law, Jesus ought to die!’.
As before, the chief priests’ statement can be understood in at least a couple of ways. First, it can be taken at face value. The Jews do indeed have a law: they have a body of oral tradition, for which Jesus has shown little regard. He has performed miracles on the Sabbath (when he could easily have waited until the next day), and has restored a blind man’s sight by means of a ‘paste’, which some Jewish authorities would have deemed ‘work’. Given the Jews’ law, then, Jesus has to die. He will thus die a death reserved for the law’s transgressors and associated with the law’s curse (Deut. 21.23) and yet Jesus himself will be innocent of sin.
The chief priests’ statement is also true in a deeper sense, which turns on a different sense of the word ‘law’. Given the requirements of Mosaic law, if Jesus wants to redeem his people, he must be ready to lose his life. God does not acquit the guilty (Exod. 23), and atonement comes ‘at the cost of a life’ (בנפש) (Lev. 17.11). If Jesus’ people are to be acquitted, a penalty must be paid. As the chief priests say, then, Jesus’ death will take place κατα τον νομον, i.e., in accord with one of the foundational principles of the Mosaic law, with the law’s just demands.
Jesus’ Death is the Death Others Deserve
Suppose, then, what I’ve said is correct--i.e., suppose John portrays Jesus’ death as both substitutionary and penal. The question remains, In what sense is Jesus’ death appropriate? Isn’t it simply a miscarriage of justice? To answer these questions, we need to consider the nature of the charges against Jesus.
When Pilate asks the priests why they want Jesus hung, they don’t talk about their traditions (Sabbaths, etc.); they give Pilate an answer which they hope will arouse his concerns--‘because Jesus has made himself out to be the Son of God!’ (19.5). The truth of the matter, however, is the exact opposite. It is not Jesus who has acquired ideas above his station; it is the chief priests--mere men who have exalted their traditions above the law of God, hired helpers who have assumed the role of Israel’s Shepherd (10.10+). For John, then, Jesus’ death is a penalty which Jesus’ accusers deserve to pay.
It is also, remarkably, a penalty which Pilate deserves to pay. Recall by way of illustration the tenets of Exodus 23:
Do not endorse a false report. Do not assist a wicked man when a malicious testimony is involved. Do not side with the multitudes when evil is involved, nor follow the many when injustice is involved… Have nothing to do with a false charge, and do not put to death an innocent or honest person, for I, YHWH, will not acquit the wicked.
Pilate contravenes these standards at every point: he sides with the multitude, condemns an innocent man, acquits a known criminal, and endorses a false charge (18.30). Consequently, Jesus’ death is a penalty which Pilate should pay. In Mosaic law, a man who brings false charges against an innocent party must bear the consequences of those charges (Deut. 19.18+). As a man who condemns Jesus to death, then, Pilate is worthy of the death penalty, i.e., of the death Jesus dies.
In light of these considerations, John’s Passion is an exquisite enactment of the theology of the crucifixion. Jesus is assigned a penalty which would have been borne by his disciples and should have been borne by his enemies (the priests and Pilate); at the same time, Pilate treats an innocent man as if he is guilty and allows a guilty man to go free. It is Isaiah 53 and 2 Corinthians 5.21 in narrative form: God makes him who knows no sin to be sin on behalf of those who are estranged from him. Indeed, when Isaiah’s servant is said to be reckoned guilty ‘along with the transgressors’, the transfer of guilt (or perhaps more accurately the replication of guilt) is precisely what is envisaged: a righteous servant is ‘numbered/reckoned among the criminals’. As the Jewish commentator Rashi says in his exposition of Isaiah 53.12, ‘[The righteous one] suffers as if he has sinned and transgressed’ (סבל יסורין כאלו חטא ופשע).
Jesus’ Death Atones For and Expends Divine Wrath
Finally, then, we come to the matter of atonement. John’s Passion is laden with allusions to Israel’s sacrificial system:
As Jesus enters the city, he is greeted with the words of Psalm 118.26 (‘Hosanna!’: cp. 12.13), which anticipate the words of the next verse, viz., ‘Bind the festal sacrifice to the altar with cords!’. And, in the aftermath of his arrest, Jesus is indeed bound up like a sacrifice (per Psa. 118.27) and led into the high priest’s courtyard.
The high priest’s courtyard has a distinctly cultic feel: it is attended by a man with a bloody ear (18.10 w. Lev. 8.23!), manned by a ‘doorkeeper’ (a term employed almost exclusively in the context of the Temple), and warmed by a charcoal fire (just like Israel’s altar).
While Jesus is able to enter the high-priest’s courtyard, Peter is forced to wait at the doorway and watch from a distance, like a commoner who has brought a sacrifice to the Tabernacle.
And, on the cross, Jesus is associated with all sorts of images/symbols from Leviticus 14’s purification ritual—e.g., wood, scarlet fabric, hyssop (dipped in wine), fresh water, etc.
The text of chs. 18–21 is not merely, therefore, a journey into the high priest’s courtyard; it is a symbolic journey—a journey into the Tabernacle/Temple, where Jesus is to be sacrificed. Jesus’ death is thus framed as an act of atonement; to be more precise, it is framed as a death which averts divine wrath, since that is what Levitical acts of atonement do.The point is underlined by the time of Jesus’ death. Ch. 18’s events do not take place at any old time of year; they take place on the Eve of the Passover, which is highly significant. Prior to the Passover, YHWH decided to outpour his wrath on the Israelites in order to expend (לְכַלּוֹת) his anger against them’ (לִשְׁפֹּךְ חֲמָתִי עֲלֵיהֶם לְכַלּוֹת אַפִּי בָּהֶם) (though he later declined to do so for the sake of his reputation) (Ezek. 20.8–9). Hence, when YHWH’s angel passed over the Israelites’ blood-stained houses, YHWH’s wrath was not simply ‘averted’ in some unspecified manner; it passed over certain houses because it had been ‘expended’ on a sacrificial lamb. And, by implication, the same thing took place in the darkness of Jesus’ crucifixion. The wrath of God was expended on the Lamb of God.
Jesus’ use of imagery develops the picture further. Jesus says God has prepared him a ‘cup’ (18.11)—i.e., a vessel prophetically associated with divine wrath (e.g., Isa. 51.17, Jer. 25.15+, Hab. 2.16, etc.)—, and Jesus drinks from that cup so his people might not have to, but might instead drink from the cup of divine communion. (‘Are you able to drink the cup I will drink?...Yet the cup I drink you will drink!’) YHWH’s cup of wrath is not, therefore, merely set to one side; indeed, it cannot be (cp. Mark 14.36). Someone must drain it, and drain it right down to the dregs (compare Psa. 75.8, Isa. 51.17, Rev. 16.19). Consequently, Jesus declares his mission ‘finished’ only once he has received Jerusalem’s sour wine (19.29).Relatedly, Jesus associates YHWH’s cup of wrath with YHWH’s sword (‘Put your sword in its sheath! Am I not to drink the cup the Father has given me?’), since, once Peter’s sword is sheathed, YHWH’s is unsheathed (Zech. 13.7, Mark 14.27), not to be re-sheathed until it has been ‘satisfied with blood’ (Isa. 34.6). And satisfied with Jesus’ blood it is, since the first word Jesus says to his disciples in the aftermath of his resurrection is ‘Peace’--a word he repeats three times (20.19, 21, 26) in answer to Peter’s threefold denial of him. At the time of the crucifixion, Jesus’ relationship with his twelve disciples is left in tatters (since the majority of them have abandoned him). In the Son-light of John 20, however, the disciples’ fellowship with their Saviour is restored--their sorrow turned to ‘gladness’ (20.20) and faithlessness to ‘belief’ (20.8, 27–29). The night of judgment is over (Isa. 34). Waters may now burst forth in the wilderness. The Way may be opened wide (Isa. 35).
Penal Substitutionary Atonement is not a theological construct which has to be imported into John’s Gospel; it is hard-baked into the details of his Passion. Just as prophets like Ezekiel and Hosea act out their prophecies, so too does Jesus. He descends into the darkness of the Kidron valley, where he hands himself over to Jerusalem’s authorities in order to allow his disciples to escape. He is led away, first to a priestly courtyard and later to a legal court. He is tried by representatives of the Jewish and Gentile worlds who deserve to die the very death he will die. He is unjustly condemned, acknowledged as innocent by even his judge. And then, as the wrath-filled Passover skies begin to darken, a known criminal is released while he, the Son of God, dies alone, at which point the silence of the Sabbath overtakes the land.
Yet, in the silence between John 19 and 20, the God of heaven speaks, and, on the first day of the next week, God raises Jesus from the dead. Jesus ascends into the heavenly realms, where he atones for his disciples’ sins, and returns to Jerusalem to speak words of peace to them. Fellowship is restored, despondency turned to hope, and defeat to glorious victory.
By means of the logic and symbolism of these events, John portrays Jesus’ death as a sacrifice which is voluntary, substitutionary, and penal, and in which God’s wrath against his enemies is expended.
Cp. in particular Leithart’s 2016 paper delivered at the Wilken Colloquium, Baylor University, March 26th 2016, which can be viewed here.
That the role of the Passover lamb is substitionary is abundantly clear. Consider, by way of illustration, the events of the first Passover. YHWH’s destroyer visits each and every house in Egypt, and, unless a lamb has been slain in the firstborn’s place, the firstborn of the house is slain. The Passover lamb thus serves as a substitute: YHWH accepts the death of the lamb instead of the death of the firstborn (Exod. 12.1–13). To put the point another way, either a lamb dies or a firstborn son dies. The same state of affairs is reflected in the next chapter. ‘Each firstborn donkey is to be redeemed at the cost of a lamb (בְּשֶׂה)’, Moses says. If you do not redeem it, you must break its neck’ (Exod. 13.13–16). Again, then, either a firstborn must die or a lamb must die in its place, as the sacrificial system makes clear: atonement comes ‘at the expense of life’ (בנפש) (Lev. 17.11).
Note also how the scene of Jesus’ arrest is referred to simply as ‘the place’ (τοπος: 18.2)---a term commonly employed to denote the location of the Tabernacle in Greek translations of the OT (cp. 11.48 w. Deut. 12.5, 14, 26, etc.).
By way of demonstration, one need only consider the practical effects of atonement. When a sin is not atoned for by the Levitical system, a sinner has to ‘bear his own guilt’--that is to say, he has to suffer the divinely-ordained consequences of his actions (Lev. 5.1). By contrast, when sin *is* atoned for, YHWH’s wrath is ‘satisfied’ in some way. Consider, for instance, Korah’s rebellion. YHWH sends a plague against the Israelites, which spreads through the congregation like fire through a cornfield. Aaron the high priest runs into the midst of the assembly and offers incense to YHWH as an atonement for the people’s sin, and the plague (a manifestation of YHWH’s anger) is assuaged (Num. 11.33, 16.46+). The figure of Aaron thus functions as a barrier between YHWH and the Israelites, which is why the day of Atonement’s events are framed against the backdrop of the events of Leviticus 9, where fire comes forth from the presence of YHWH and consumes Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 9.24, 10.1+, 16.1). YHWH is a fire, the nature of which is to consume, and the purpose of the Levites’ ministry is to shield Israel from its dangers.
Note the specificity of Jesus’ language. The Hebrew Bible refers to one and only one vessel as ‘this cup’, namely ‘this cup of the wine of wrath’ which Jeremiah sends to the nations of the earth (Jer. 25.15). Hence, when Jesus says, ‘Let this cup pass from me’, the referent of his statement is clear.
Hi James. You mentioned on Twitter that you could send me your paper on the atonement. I had mentioned I was a 'fan' of N T Wright's point of view on this. Thanks! email@example.com