Gospel of John: His Last Breath


According to Jo-Ann A. Brant, Jesus’s crucifixion and burial are described in seven movements, in John’s gospel.

  1. Crucifixion, John 19:16-18
  2. Contention concerning the inscription above Jesus’s cross, John 19:19-22
  3. Casting lots over Jesus’s clothing, John 19:23-25
  4. Committing of John and Mary the mother of Jesus to each other, John 19:25-27
  5. Christ’s spirit commended into God’s hands, John 19:28-30
  6. Cut of the Centurion’s spear, John 19:31-37
  7. Consignment of Christ to the tomb, John 19:38-42

We now come to the moment when Jesus breathed his last, though much happens during these next three hours.

The Fourth Saying of the Cross

The other gospels tell us darkness advanced from the sixth to the ninth hours, from 12pm to 3pm. Some have surmised there might have been an eclipse. Others posit a dust storm, which might have come with the earthquake about to happen. Some researchers feel these geological factors indicate an exact day of Jesus’s death.

In that darkness there must also have been stillness, with only the sounds of the dying men’s ragged breath. Finally, Jesus cried out in Aramaic,

Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which by interpretation, “My God, my God, into what did you forsake me?”

Mark 15:34

Oddly, some who were standing near enough to hear Jesus speak said Listen, he is calling out for Elijah. Were they mocking Jesus? Purposefully twisting his words—making “Eloi” become “Elias,” the Hebrew pronunciation of Elijah’s name? Or, did they hear Elijah’s name on Jesus’s lips because of Malachi’s prophecy?

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

Malachi 4:5 (NRSV)

Did they wonder, with the darkness, and the King of the Judeans dying on the cross, that perhaps the Day of Judgment was immanent? It was also Passover, and all would leave a cup and a plate for Elijah at their Passover Seder.

Jesus had cried out the first line of Psalm 22, and much has been made over what Jesus might have meant. In what seems to be a relatively new teaching, put forward in the 20th century by such scholars as Eberhard Jüngel, and Jürgen Moltmann (who wrote The Crucified God in 1973), God the Father did indeed abandon God the Son, which caused them both unimaginable pain.

God’s abandonment, according to this teaching, was necessary as Jesus became the world’s sin, and God the Father, according to the Prophet Habakkuk, could not look upon such corruption. The doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, it is felt, requires this utter separation of the Father from the Son in order for Jesus’s sacrificial death to be complete. When the “threeness” of God is emphasized, this teaching can work.

Others put forward a different teaching. They point out the scriptural literacy of the people in Jesus’s day, who would have had the Psalms memorized. By crying out this first line in his great duress, Jesus was signaling the prophetic nature of this Psalm, being fulfilled in that very hour.

Psalm 22 Prophecies Fulfilled at the Cross

  • Verses 6-8 Jesus mocked and scorned, particularly with the taunt to look to God for rescue.
  • Verses 14-15 A graphic depiction of death by crucifixion—in particular the great thirst that Jesus would speak of next.
  • Verse 18 Jesus’s clothes had been divided, and lots cast for them.

This teaching continues by saying Jesus was also indicating a kinship with David’s experience, who had written these lyrics a thousand years before. Jesus felt utterly alone, that God was far off, leaving Jesus to his fate, just as David felt surrounded by his enemies with no hope of rescue. Yet both David and Jesus continued to hope nonetheless. The turning point in the Psalm, if this is what Jesus meant, says

[God] did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried to him.

Psalm 22:24 (NRSV)

This teaching stands upon the “oneness” of the trinity.

The Fifth Saying of the Cross

A little more time passed.

Afterward, Jesus knowing this: that already everything had been accomplished in order that the [sacred] writing would be fulfilled, he says, “I thirst.”

John 19:28

One of those who had been standing close enough to hear Jesus speak now ran to get a sponge, for a jar of oxos, the inexpensive vinegary wine that was all common folk could afford, was standing nearby. He soaked the sponge with it, then using a stalk of hyssop, lifted it to Jesus’s lips. The blood-red wine dripping from the hyssop did not miss John’s notice. At Passover, every family was to paint the lintels of their doorposts with hyssop dipped in the blood of the Paschal Lamb. All those symbols were present here.

The man now stepped back and the rest urged him to leave Jesus alone, Let us see if Elijah will come to save him, they said, to take him down.

The Sixth Saying of the Cross

But as soon as Jesus had received this drink from a kind stranger, he said

It has been accomplished

John 19:30
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

The same words God spoke at the completion of creation, now Jesus spoke in the darkness, his breath now entering the deep and pronouncing the truth that would be revealed through those who put their faith in him, the restoring of humankind to God, then to each other, and finally to the earth.

Just as Jesus could touch a leper and rather than become unclean, the power would flow through him to make the leper whole, so now in a cosmic supernatural way, within Jesus mixed both the corruption of the sins of the world, and the furnace of God’s cleansing wrath. When the wrath was spent and the corruption consumed, when the payment had been met and sinners redeemed, when evil was crushed and Christ became victor, he would pass through death itself.

The Seventh Saying of the Cross

John remembered Jesus bowing his head in that moment. Luke, who must have had Mary the mother of Jesus by his side when he wrote his account, added these last words of Jesus, cried out in a loud voice,

Father into your hands I commit my spirit.

Luke 23:46

And what breath was left in Jesus after these words now expired.

For those who have sat with someone in the last hours of that person’s life know this final release of breath is a profoundly distressing moment. For the one this breath enlivened is no more, and their still body is now a mere likeness, a wax figure of the one who once was, who only moments ago was.

How could the universe acknowledge such a passing? How could heaven?


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