After this, knowing that all things had already been completed, Jesus, in order to complete the Scripture, said, "I am thirsty." A jar full of sour wine was standing there; so they put a sponge full of the sour wine upon a branch of hyssop and brought it up to His mouth.
- John 19:28-29
Now storytellers have to make selections. They can't just tell every little detail that happened. They have to pick the most salient details. So any story the evangelists bother to tell they probably tell for a reason. Despite our perennial interest in the gory details, they give us very little by way of the physical aspects of Jesus' passion and death. Yet John bothers to mention that Jesus declares his thirst from the cross. He was probably also tired, hungry, short of breath and in agonizing pain. But they don't tell us about this. They do, however, tell us he was thirsty. Or, should I say, he tells us he is thirsty.
Why does John bother to tell us this? What is the significance of Jesus' declaration of his thirst?
Well, it probably won't surprise you that, since we are dealing with John's Gospel, there's probably some subtle (and not-so-subtle) symbolism going on here. The interpretative problem here is not so much whether there is a symbolic gesture here but which symbolic gesture is the key to understanding the passage. There are a number of possible symbolic connections to other Johannine themes and Old Testament motifs. Perhaps all of these are operating at some level. However, some prioritizing judgments probably need to be made to interpret the passage coherently. Let me just note some of the symbolic possibilities of some key elements of the passage for you to consider in your own wrestling with the text.
First of all, there is the rather obvious reference to Jesus doing this so that the Scriptures being fulfilled (technically "completed," but more on that next week). But what Scripture is fulfilled by Jesus saying he is thirsty? He does not appear to be directly quoting any specific verse.
There are two standard options given by interpreters. The first is that there is a reference being made here to Psalm 69:22, "for my thirst they gave to me vinegar to drink." That gets the language of "thirst" in play as well as the reference to "vinegar," which is what Jesus drinks. The second is that the dry mouth of Psalm 22:16 is being echoed here. Given the detail, the former is probably more likely. But the latter cannot be ruled given the significance of Psalm 22 throughout the passion narratives of all four Gospels and early Christian preaching. Perhaps John is playing off both. Whatever Scripture is being alluded to here, the point is that the mode of Jesus' death is a fulfillment of Scripture. That means it is not an accident. Jesus didn't just have a bad weekend in Jerusalem. Nor was it even a bad thing which God later made into something good, as we so often speak of evils in our lives. Rather, Jesus was knowingly and willingly fulfilling the plan of God in his death.
Second, there is the opening line that Jesus says this knowing that everything had been completed. Now this taps into a larger theme in John concerning Jesus' knowledge of his mission. The last events of his life are introduced by a similar reference to Jesus knowing that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father (13:1). Later, Jesus is said to know all the things that were about to happen to him as he initiates the arrest sequence (18:4). Earlier in the gospel of John there is much talk of Jesus' knowledge of the Father and of the Father's will for him. This theme reaches its apex here, were Jesus is said to know that the things which he was sent to do have taken place. They are completed.
Noting this thematic connection is important because it seems to imply that Jesus says he is thirsty in order to "wrap things up" so to speak. The declaration of his thirst is not intended as window into his experience on the cross, but rather as a witness to his own freedom and purposiveness. Jesus is Lord even in his death. Regnum crucis: he reigns from the cross. "I lay down my life ... no one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down" (10:17b-18a).
Third, there is what he is given to drink in response to his thirst. The vinegar bit seems clearly linked to the Scriptural fulfillment, and it is shared with some other gospel writers. But John makes a major change from the synoptics by indicating that the vinegar was not given to Jesus via a "reed" but on a "branch of hyssop." This change should catch our attention. The possibility of a symbolic connection here is hard to miss, for hyssop appears throughout the Old Testament, most significantly in Exodus 12:22 in conjunction with the Passover Lamb. Now we don't want to make a theological mountain out of a textual molehill, but this symbolic reading is validated by the repeated references to the Passover Lamb through the book of John (cf. 1:29; 19:14; 19:33, 36). So it is reasonable to suggest that John is narratively presenting Jesus as the true Passover Lamb, even as he has been presented as the true King and true Priest earlier in the passion narrative.
Fourth and finally, there is the significance of thirst itself. John loves to talk about thirsting, drinking, pouring, etc. It is a very liquid gospel. And not just passing references to water baptism and changing water into wine, but whole discourses playing off thirsting and drinking, such as Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman (John 4), the streams of living water that flow from those that come to him (John 7:37-38), and the cup which Jesus is resolved to drink (18:11). Thirsting and drinking are intimately connected with what Jesus was sent to give to us and give up for us. He thirsts as the one who gives us drink. He takes our bitter cup (and takes it away!), and gives us his fresh, living waters, which flow from his side. Blessed is he who hungers and thirsts for righteousness, for he shall be filled.
Are there some interpretative possibilities that I have neglected to mention?
Do you find some of these interpretative possibilities more plausible than the others?
Is there any one aspect mentioned above that you think is the key for understanding this word from the cross?