The Gospel of John: The Robe!

“When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” So the soldiers did these things,” (John 19:23-24)

The Robe is a 1942 historical novel about the  Crucifixion of Jesus, written by Lloyd C. Douglas. The book was one of the best-selling titles of the 1940s. It entered the New York Times Best Seller list in October 1942, four weeks later rose to No. 1, and held the position for nearly a year. The Robe remained on the list for another two years, returning several other times over the next several years including when the film adaptation  (featuring actor Richard Burton in an early role) was released in 1953.

According to Newsweek Magazine, Lloyd C. Douglas began his literary career after leaving the ministry at the age of 52. All of his novels, essays, and short stories relied on his spiritual background for thematic and creative inspiration. At the height of his popularity, Douglas was receiving on average 100 letters a week from fans.

One of those letters provided the inspiration for The Robe. Hazel McCann, a department store clerk from Ohio, wrote to Douglas asking what he thought had happened to Christ’s garments after the crucifixion. Douglas immediately began working on a novel based on this concept, sending each chapter to McCann as he finished it. Douglas and McCann finally met in 1941, and it was to her that Douglas dedicated the book.

I recall as a child that the movie version of Douglas’ book would be annually shown on network television, usually on or near Easter Sunday. My impression from the film was that the depiction of Jesus’ robe was that it contained an almost spiritual or mystical quality to it affecting each one who even touched it.

Today’s text refers to Jesus robe and a tunic. While John 19:23 refers to several garments which belonged to Jesus, and for which the soldiers divided among themselves, His tunic is given special attention by the Apostle John.

The IVP Background New Testament Commentary explains that, “Roman law as later codified in their legal Digests granted the soldiers the right to the clothes the executed man was wearing; it was customary to execute the condemned man naked. The basic unit of the Roman army was the contubernium, composed of eight soldiers who shared a tent; half-units of four soldiers each were sometimes assigned to special tasks, such as execution quads.”

Another commentator states that, “All the Synoptists (Matthew, Mark and Luke) relate the parting of the garments. The four pieces to be divided would be, the head-gear, the sandals, the girdle, and the tallith or square outer garment with fringes. Delitzsch thus describes the dress of our Lord: “On His head He wore a white sudar, fastened under the chin and hanging down from the shoulders behind. Over the tunic which covered the body to the hands and feet, a blue tallith with the blue and white fringes on the four ends, so thrown over and gathered together that the gray, red-striped undergarment was scarcely noticeable, except when the sandalshod feet came into view.”

Jesus’ tunic (χιτών; chiton) was an undergarment which was worn next to the skin. Clothes then were handmade and comparatively expensive to today’s manufactured clothing. The tunic became something the soldiers gambled for in order to not damage or ruin it.

However, as with everything which happens in life there was more to be seen than meets the eye. To begin with, when Jesus’ clothing was being divided among the soldiers and gambled for, it prompts the question as to exactly what garment Jesus was wearing while on the cross. The answer is that Jesus was naked while He hung on the cross. This was a further example of His humiliation on the sinner’s behalf.

Additionally, the dividing of Jesus’ garments, and the casting of lots for one soldier to win ownership of Jesus’ tunic, was a fulfillment of Scripture. While the soldiers were certainly not aware of this specific prophecy, those familiar with the Scriptures, then and now, should have been and should be. The prophecy occurs in Psalm 22:18.

Dr. John MacArthur explains, “In the psalm, David, beset by physical distress and mockery by his opponents, used the symbolism of the common practice in an execution scene in which the executioner divided the victim’s clothes to portray the depth of his trouble. It is notable that David precisely described a form of execution that he had never seen. The passage was typologically prophetic of Jesus, David’s heir to the messianic throne (see Matt. 27:46Mark 15:34).”

John Calvin comments, “Let us also learn that Christ was stripped of His garments that He might clothe us with righteousness; that His naked body was exposed to the insults of men that we may appear in glory before the judgment seat of God.”

May God’s truth and grace reside here.

Soli deo Gloria!


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