The Passion And Death Of Jesus In John's Gospel

John Navone SJ FAITH Magazine March-April 2004


The Continuity Of Divine Life And Love

St. John introduces his account of the passion and death of Jesus with an explicit statement that the narrative of the death of Jesus that follows is a continuation of the life that had gone before: “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them unto the end” (13:1). He portrays the events of the passion and death of Jesus as a continuation “unto the end” of a love that they had already known. It is perhaps surprising that Jesus’ gestures with bread and wine that were present in all of the synoptic accounts of the last supper are noticeably absent in John’s account.

What take their place, however, is another equally expressive and interpretative symbol of the life and death of Jesus. During the supper, says John, Jesus girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin and washed the feet of his disciples. It was common practice in Jesus’ time for a servant of the host to wash the feet of the guests as they arrived at the master’s house. Jesus, then, in washing the feet of his disciples, is taking the role of a servant at this last supper with his disciples.

“Do you know what I have done to you?” he asks them, and then goes on to explain and interpret his action to them: “For I have given you an example, which you also should do as I have done to you” (13:15). The washing of the feet is, then, a symbolic gesture expressing how he understood his relationship to them, and how they should understand their relationship to one another. Though he is their “teacher and lord,” he is among them as a servant, as one who serves. The symbol represents and interprets the life of Jesus that has gone before, and the death that awaits him the next day. It interprets the compassionate love that he is showing them “unto the end” as a love of service.

Greater Love Has No Man

The washing of the disciples’ feet, then, is closely associated in meaning with Jesus’ symbolic action with the bread and the wine in the synoptic accounts of the last supper. Taking both symbols as representative and interpretative symbols of the life and death of Jesus, expressing the meaning of that life and death and therefore the meaning of Jesus, they both speak of Jesus as living and dying for others, as giving self, of being broken and being poured out, as being servant. Interpreted in this way the death of Jesus is very much the continuation of the life of Jesus that was portrayed in both the Synoptic gospels and in John.

But John interprets the death of Jesus not only as the continuation of the life of Jesus, but also as its climax and culmination: “Greater love than this no man has, than that a man lay down his life for his friends” (15:13). By interpreting the death of Jesus as the culmination of his life, John is saying that it was in his death that Jesus was most alive, that Jesus was most alive in the giving of his life. The cross for John is a symbol not of death, but of life even in death…John can assert this paradox of life in death, of strength in weakness from two perspectives. First, in giving his life, Jesus gave not this or that, not this or that part of himself, but his whole self, his whole life. There was nothing more that he could give, no remainder left ungiven. From this perspective,then laying down one’s life for one’s friends is the greatest act of giving, the supreme act of love of which one is capable.

The Irrevocable Sacrifice

But it is also the greatest act of love from a second perspective. Giving one’s life is the final and definitive act of self-giving. It is a giving with no taking back. Short of dying for another, short of giving one’s life, an act of giving is not yet final and complete. But in giving one’s life one is not just giving all, but giving it in the most total and final way. From both perspectives John can interpret the death of Jesus as the climax and culmination of his life, as the moment when he is most alive. Loving “unto the end” means not just to the final moment, but to the very limits of which love is capable. For John, then, Jesus was not passive in his dying, and his death was not just something that was inflicted on him. As seen by John, and also by the synoptic evangelists, in hisdeath as an act of self-giving, Jesus reached that moment in his life when he was most active, most personal, most free. The death of Jesus was an act of living, not an act of dying. It was an affirmation of life even in the face of death.

That They May Have Life And Have It Abundantly

Looking back at the earlier parts of John’s Gospel from this perspective, there are several places where this same theme is at work in John’s portrait of the life of Jesus. In John’s story of the good shepherd, Jesus is portrayed as the good shepherd because when the wolf comes he does not flee like a hireling, but because the sheep are his own he lays down his life for his sheep. Moreover, he lays down his life for his sheep in order “that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:11). John’s image of Jesus as the good shepherd is a clear allusion to and interpretation of the death of Jesus, an interpretation of the meaning of that death as his self-giving love for others.

There is also in John’s Gospel a parallel to Jesus’ teaching about the first and greatest commandment, but John places it in a different setting. In his lengthy farewell address to his disciples, which John includes in his account of the last supper, Jesus leaves them with one final commandment: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (15:12). As he did when he washed their feet, he tells them that they must do as he had done. His own life is an example for and the norm of the life of discipleship.

Most of the miracle stories in John, including his version of the feeding of the multitude, are set in the context of “signs”, the context of belief and disbelief. The story of the raising of Lazarus (11:1-44), however, in addition to the sign motif, includes a strong emphasis on the love and compassion of Jesus. He first receives news of the illness of Lazarus with the message: “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” When he arrives at the scene and sees Mary and the others weeping “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled,” and “wept” so that the Jew said: “See how he loved him.” Finally, the story says that when Jesus came to the tomb he was “deeply moved again.” In the variety of motifs that run through the story, sign and glorification, resurrection and life, belief and disbelief, thenarrative puts great emphasis on the love and compassion which Jesus had for Lazarus and his two sisters. This is not exactly the same image of Jesus as when the Synoptics spoke of the compassion of Jesus, for it is a more personal love than when Jesus had “compassion for the multitude.” But in the few examples from John’s Gospel that we have considered, it is clear that there are images of Jesus that are part of the same theology of the life of Jesus which is found in the images and symbols of the Synoptics.

To Love Is To Be Born Of God

In the midst of an exhortation to his disciples to love one another, an exhortation which echoes the commandment which Jesus gave to his disciples in his farewell discourse, John reflects on the reason for this commandment, on why it is that “by this all will know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another” (13:35). John expresses the reason as follows: “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God. For God is love…No man has ever seen God: if we love one another, God abides in use, and his love is perfected in us” (1 Jn. 4:7-8; 12). The reason which John gives why they should love one another is because they who love are born of God and know God, and the reason for this isthat God is love.

If God is love, as John says, then the more that one loves the more that one is born of God and knows God, the more that one can be of God and be the revelation of God’s active presence in history. In John’s understanding of the incarnation, it was the life and love of Jesus that was the unique incarnation of the life and love of God in human history. The incarnation (1:14) and the sonship of Jesus (1:18) enable us to find in him the revelation of God (1:18).

The Cross As A Symbol Of Life

John’s kenotic image of Jesus interprets his life as one of self-giving love, the revelation of Love Itself. Jesus’ death is the final and supreme act of his love, revealing the way to the knowledge of God. In John’s image of God, moreover, it is clear why in the Synoptic gospels the first and greatest commandment is always the commandment to love, and why John echoes this in the final commandment which Jesus gives his disciples, and why Paul singled out love as the greatest of the spiritual gifts.

The death of Jesus is portrayed in Christian faith and hope as an act of life, as an affirmation of life in the face of death, and the cross of Jesus are symbols not of death, but of an unquenchable and invincible life that this world can neither give nor take away from us. The cross of Jesus represents the beginning of a new life, a new creation that culminates in the resurrection of the just. The self-giving and life-giving love of the crucified and risen Christ constitutes the paschal mystery, the central mystery of the Body of Christ, the Temple of his Spirit.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2004