The Rylands Papyrus (P52) is considered to be the earliest surviving fragment of a portion of the New Testament. It is from John 18, with verses 31–33 on the front and verses 37–38 on the back. The dating of this manuscript is between 100 – 150 a.d. If this date is correct, it makes this fragment only several decades older than the date of John’s original.
“This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 18:32 ESV).
The scene this papyrus depicts is Jesus before Governor Pilate. Pilate told the leaders of the Sanhedrin who brought Jesus to him that he was to be tried by their own law. According to Jewish law, the punishment for blasphemy was stoning (cf. Lev 24:16). However, the Romans had refused to allow capital punishment to be rendered by local authorities. The Jewish leaders respond to Pilate that it isn’t lawful for them to put someone to death according to Roman law. The Sanhedrin wanted Jesus dead. Stoning wasn’t permitted. So they needed to get him convicted of treason according to Roman law since his “violation” of Jewish law would not be enough to satisfy their blood-thirst.
This is a significant. The death penalty in Jewish law is stoning. The death penalty in Roman law was the most horrific, brutal method imaginable: crucifixion.
Jesus knew how he was going to die…
and it wasn’t by stoning.
John, in verse 32, is hearkening back to Jesus’ own prediction of how he was to die. In John 12, Jesus says,
“Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:31–32).
John adds his commentary about the meaning of “lifted up from the earth” by saying, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33), a statement almost identical to John 18:32. Jesus makes a similar allusion in chapter 3:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14–15).
Jesus knew that he was going to die by being “lifted up” on a cross and not by stoning. Jesus was lifted up on a tree which, according to Deuteronomy 21:23, meant far more than that his life was simply extinguished. It signified that he was cursed.
Paul, in Galatians, notes this connection:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3:13–14).
Jesus knew that he was going to die on a cross. He knew that he was going to be lifted up on a tree. He knew that those who were “lifted up” and “hung on a tree” are cursed.
Jesus became a curse…
So that “whoever believes in him” (John 3:15) will receive the promised blessing of Abraham to the world and that God the Holy Spirit will come to those who have faith in Jesus.
We can have life…because of his death.
We can be blessed…because he was cursed.