Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

227. A Seamless Robe (John 19:23-25; Matt. 27:35,36; Mark 15:24; Luke 23:34)*

When the grim business of crucifixion had been concluded—Jesus first, then the two thieves—the quaternion of soldiers settled down (Gen. 37 :25) to the more congenial ploy of sharing out their perquisites-the garments of Jesus and the others. From each victim there would be five items of clothing-head-dress, sandals, robe, girdle and chiton or shirt. The chiton of Jesus was evidently specially good, so this was set on one side until, with the ubiquitous dice, they had gambled for the other four articles.

"Now the coat was without seam, woven from the top throughout." Josephus (Ant. 3.7.4) uses almost identical phraseology to describe the linen garment of the high priest. Chiton is the normal word for the robe of a priest. Was this garment blue or white (Ex. 39:22,27; Lk.9:29)?

"They said therefore among themselves, Let us not rend it, but cast lots for it, whose it shall be." Contrast the decision of the angels of God regarding the veil of the temple (Mt. 27:51).

It was strange indeed that these soldiers should contemplate even for a moment the rending of any of the victim's clothing, for what use could a mere fragment of a garment be?

Symbolic meaning

But again the symbolic mind of the evangelist looked beyond the mere outward form of events. The double meaning here is underlined with the otherwise quite superfluous phrase: "These things therefore the soldiers did." John saw in this trivial incident a happening of far-reaching significance. In the first place, these Roman soldiers, all unknown to themselves, were fulfilling an inspired Scripture written hundreds of years earlier about this very thing. "They parted my garments among them, and for my vesture they did cast lots" (Ps. 22 :18). Down to the very last detail the accuracy of the prophecy was established.

If that 22nd Psalm had any application to the life and experience of David-and such application is by no means free from difficulty —it must belong to the time of Absalom's rebellion. In that case these words about "parting my garments" were probably used originally in a symbolic sense for the avid greed with which the rebels settled down 10 apportion among themselves the various lucrative honours and dignities which hitherto had belonged to the king himself.

In a similar fashion, John may have seen a symbolic fulfilment alongside the literal, in the application of the Psalm to Jesus. Men who had rebelled against the authority of Jesus and had compassed his death did so because they regarded Jerusalem as "their place" and the Jews as "their nation" (Jn. 11:48). "This is the heir: come, let us kill him, and the inheritance shall be ours." And Pilate and Herod had connived at this fell work because each had deemed himself to be "King of the Jews." They all insisted on having for themselves what was Christ's by right.

But John must surely have seen even more than this. Here in symbol was the very truth which many a time Jesus had been at pains to enunciate for the benefit of his disciples: "and there shall be one flock, and one shepherd;" "Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me, that they may be one, as we are . . . Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee; that they also may be one in us" (Jn. 10:16; 17:11,20,21). And it is plain that by contrast John saw only the opposite kind of experience as possible for those estranged from Christ: "So there was a division among the people because of him." "Then said the Pharisees. . . but others . . . And there was a division among them . . . There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings" (Jn. 7:43; 9:16; 10:19).

All these things were impressively symbolized in two simple facts: at the trial of Jesus the high priest rent his garments, but from the cross Jesus looked down and saw his own priestly garment preserved whole and free from any tear. There is a sad sad irony about the rending of his robe which has gone on since that time. Even to the present day he looks down from his work as priest beside the heavenly throne (Zech. 6 :13) at the blithe indifference with which his brethren rend that which was intended to be without even a seam.

A speculation

There is an interesting and perhaps not altogether unprofitable speculation as to what happened to the clothes of Jesus that day. No Bible support for this idea is forthcoming, yet it has a certain inherent probability about it.

The scene is readily imagined: the Roman soldiers sitting close to the crosses and busy with their dice. Standing nearby (by special permission doubtless), the group of faithful women, and John with them. Their thoughts as they saw the garments of their Lord being light-heartedly gambled for may well be imagined. Probably one of them (his mother? cp. 1 Sam. 2:19) had made that seamless robe with her own hands. And now it and the rest were to be sold for the price of a drink in some tavern in the city! In these circumstances it would be strange indeed if one of the group did not come across to the soldiers and quickly do a deal for what they had just shared out. (Those who read the NT in Greek may like to ponder the force of the men . . . de in Jn. 19:24 end, 25).

Now a further consideration. When Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples as a normal clothed person. Is it an altogether irrelevant and irreverent question to ask: Where did he get his clothes from? A possible answer is, of course, that one of the angels brought them from heaven. But another answer, not impossible, is that those garments acquired from the soldiers were hurried away for laundering, and at the end of that day of anxiety and sorrow someone who was present when Jesus was laid in the tomb of Joseph brought them, now sweet and clean and free from the dust, blood and sweat which had soiled them, saying: "Lay these by his side. He will surely need them before long."

But this is only a guess.

Perhaps Zechariah's prophecy about the "filthy garments" of Joshua-Jesus calls for a literal, as well as a figurative, fulfilment (3:3, 5)

Previous Index Next