I’ve had the privilege to take a course on Johannine Literature this semester at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (the phrase “Johannine Literature” is a fancy way of saying “the stuff John wrote”). The material we’re learning includes the Gospel of John, 1-3 John, and Revelation. I’ve learned a great deal already, and hope that some of what I’ve learned can be helpful to you.
We recently translated John 19:16b-22 from Greek to English. You may have heard me say before that -for lots of reasons we won’t go into here – I’m not a huge fan of explicitly mentioning original languages from the pulpit (I once heard a professor say that doing so is like explaining how a clock works when someone asks you the time). Most English translations of the Bible are extremely well done, and you don’t need to know Greek or Hebrew to be an excellent student of Scripture. However, there is real value in reading Scripture in the original languages, and there’s a reason pastors and theologians work hard to receive training in them. There are unique nuances that inevitably get lost in translation from one language to the next – and I suspect that one of them occurs in John 19:17. Specifically, the phrase translated by the English Standard Version – “carrying his own cross” – deserves some attention.
Literally, this phrase can be translated “carrying the cross on himself”. In the grammatical world, “himself” is called a reflexive pronoun. But when this reflexive pronoun is in the dative case in Greek, it can imply location. In other words, the emphasis of John 19:17 might not be whose cross Jesus is carrying (possession). Rather, the emphasis is on where it’s being carried (location). Yes, Jesus is carrying “his own” cross. But it’s also important to note where he’s carrying it: “on himself”.
This point becomes more prominent when you consider who’s missing from John’s account of the crucifixion: Simon of Cyrene. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include a detail about Simon carrying Jesus’s cross for at least part of the trip to Golgotha, but John doesn’t! This doesn’t mean that John’s account contradicts the other gospels; it’s simply a detail he chose not to include. John is writing his own book, in his own style, for his own reasons (inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course). As an author, John is allowed to be selective in what he includes, excludes, and stresses to get his point across.
So why does John not include Simon of Cyrene? Why does he stress Jesus carrying the cross “on himself”? I’d suggest that John is emphasizing Jesus’s agency in the crucifixion. Jesus is in control of the whole situation – from his predictions before he ever reached Jerusalem, to his triumphal entry into the city, to Judas’s betrayal, to the confrontation in the Garden of Gethsemane, to his “trial” before Pilate, to the trek up the mountain, and to mounting the cross itself. Jesus is no helpless victim; he is a willing sacrifice. The Greek may emphasize this. Simon of Cyrene’s absence from John’s account may emphasize this as well.
Other than being interesting, why should this matter to you?
First of all, a lot of bad theology arises when we set the Father and Son against each other (or Father vs. Spirit, Son vs. Spirit, etc.). Some suggest that Jesus’s death is an example of “divine child abuse”; after all, “How can God be a good Father if he forced his Son to suffer such a brutal death?!?” But Jesus was not “forced” to the cross by anyone. He carried the cross “on himself”. He died voluntarily, in perfect alignment with and obedience to the Father.
And second, we all simply need to be reminded that Jesus carried the cross “on himself” for you. John’s emphasis on Jesus as the active agent in the story of his own crucifixion ought to – over, and over, and over again – give us pause. Being in such control of his situation, Jesus knew exactly what would happen to him at Golgotha (crucifixions were not uncommon in the ancient world; for all we know, Jesus had passed by other peoples’ crosses while traveling) . Being fully human, Jesus did not get a pass from any of the pain associated with such a violent execution. But he did it for sinners. He did it for you. He did it for me.
Do you need to know Hebrew and Greek to be a good student of Scripture? Nah. If you do know it (or know enough of it to be dangerous), is it tempting to overly split hairs and show off? Yes. But are there times when studying the original languages can bear fruit? Absolutely. And maybe – just maybe – John 19:17 is one of those times.
Jesus carried the cross on himself. He went to Golgotha voluntarily. And he did it for you.