31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: "Not one of his bones will be broken," 37 and, as another scripture says, "They will look on the one they have pierced."
One weird habit that I have while I am studying the Bible or biblical sources is that I need to have background noise, so I usually turn on the television to accomplish that for me. Generally I don’t watch the television and I often don’t even pay attention to what is actually on, I just need the noise. Today, though, as I type this I’m watching a show on the history channel on so-called prophets like Nostradamus and Edgar Cayce. Those who really embrace these men as true prophets marvel over how well their prophecies "correspond" with exact points and events from history. They must have seen the future argue these proponents, because what they write about clearly happened at certain events that were still in the future for them. Critics, however, argue that these are not at all precise prophecies. They are things that are so vague that they could be about virtually anything. One expert compared what the proponents of these prophets do to someone who finds an arrow already shot into a wall and then paints a target around it. When the prophecies of these men like Nostradamus are carefully examined, two things become very clear. One is that their prophecies are generally so vague that they could be about almost anyone at any time. The other thing is that the proponents never really talk about the things that these prophets predicted that didn’t come true. Shoot enough arrows into a tree and you’re bound to hit a squirrel every now and again.
That is one of the things that is so striking when it comes to the over three hundred predictions in the Old Testament concerning the Messiah. They’re not vague. They could not just be applied to anyone. They talked of his nature, from where he would come, what he would be like, and what he would accomplish. They were so specific that many Jews began to believe that there must be at least two Messiahs. They just could not see how some Messianic passages could be reconciled with others. After the life of Christ, though, disciples of Jesus like John were able to look back and see the stunning truth. All of these predictions did find fulfillment in Jesus. The Christ really was just one person. It is to this marvelous truth that John points again and again throughout his Gospel. He didn’t just hear about these things. He is not just inventing clever stories. He was there as an eyewitness to these things. He stands witness to and seems indelibly impressed by the realization that all of the prophecies did indeed come to pass in the life of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
The normal circumstances of a Roman crucifixion were intentional brutality. The average crucifixion would last hours and usually days as the person on the cross died slowly and painfully, usually from asphyxiation. The pain was so horrible and terrifying that our word "excruciating" comes from the pain endured on a roman cross. The victim would be hung on the cross with his hands outstretched and his feet affixed to the vertical beam, making breathing a difficulty. Only by lifting oneself up by pushing up with the legs could someone get a breath. Eventually, at least in many crucifixions, a large mallet or the butt of a spear would be used to shatter the shin bones of the sufferer. Once that had happened, suffocation would take place in a few painful minutes as they would no longer be able to push themselves up with their legs to breathe.
John tells us that this day was a special day. The next day was not just a Sabbath, but a special Sabbath and according to Jewish law, "If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance" (Deut. 21:22-23). The Jewish leaders were concerned about the bodies of these men defiling the land on the eve of special Sabbath and so they requested that Pilate have these men killed quickly so as to avoid that situation. Pilate, not wishing to incur any unnecessary problems, granted their request. One thing is sure though, he certainly wasn’t in the routine of letting men get down from the cross alive. If there was one thing that the Romans did well, it was putting people to death. Roman soldiers certainly weren’t going to let someone escape death on the cross at the risk of their own death if that ever happened.
When they came to Jesus, though, he was already dead. He had chosen to give up his spirit. Breaking his legs was simply not necessary. He was dead. The soldiers knew it. John was right there and he saw it clearly. One of the soldiers, presumably to ensure that he wasn’t faking, plunged his sword in to Jesus’ side.
Sometimes when we are a witness to traumatic events, it can be easy to wonder why we had to be there. Why did we have to see that? If John was ever tempted to wonder that, by the time he writes his Gospel, he certainly knows why he was there, why no one bothered to harass or arrest him. It was so that he could serve as an eyewitness to Jesus’ death and the circumstances surrounding it. Clearly, John sees two remarkable things regarding the moments of and immediately following Jesus’ death.
The first that we will consider is what John actually mentions secondly. What happened to Jesus was certainly a strange turn of events that were, at the very least, unusual. It was very common that someone dying on a cross would have his leg bones broken to finish off the job, but it was very rare to be pierced in the manner that Jesus was. In those two strange events, occurring together, John sees a remarkable fulfillment of Scripture, showing once again that God is in control throughout this entire terrifying scene. History wasn’t happening to Jesus. Jesus was happening to history. In the fact that Jesus’ bones were not broken, John has in mind Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12, connecting the death of Jesus to the proper preparation of the Passover Lamb. Once again, John has depicted Jesus as the true Passover Lamb. Truly the words of Numbers that referenced the Passover Lamb find their fulfillment, in John’s eyes, in the events surrounding Jesus’ death, "They must not leave any of it till morning or break any of its bones. When they celebrate the Passover, they must follow all the regulations." The other strange event surrounding the condition of Jesus’ body was the fact that he was pierced. John sees, in this unusual event a fulfillment of Zechariah 12:10, "And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son." How could it be that the Scriptures could indicate God Himself being pierced while being looked at as a firstborn son. This is how, says John, take a look at the pierced Son of God on the cross.
The second area where John sees deep symbolism is in what happened when that spear penetrated Jesus’ side. John, we must be clear, is not inventing symbolism and creating events to connect to Jesus’ death. He is describing what he witnessed and attaching the proper symbolic meaning to those actual events. The spear, John informs us, brought a sudden flow of blood and water. John sees such significant symbolism in this moment that he swears that he saw it and verifies it as true. Many creative ideas have been put forth for the meaning that John sees in this event, but I don’t believe that we need to look any further than the way that John has used these terms in his Gospel.
The only time that John specifically refers to blood in his Gospel is 6:53-56 when Jesus speaks of the need to benefit from the sacrifice of his life, using the Jewish figure of speech of drinking his blood. He speaks of water much more often, but usually in reference to the spiritual life giving symbolism of water. John’s point in all of this is that when Jesus was pierced, real blood and water (actually a clear substance in the body that was referred to as water in John’s day) came flowing out, it flowed from his death. Benefit and life flowed from the very death of Jesus. Just as the first Adam had life taken from his side (Gen. 2:22), so life flowed from the side of the true Adam. In him was life (Jn. 1:4).
One thing that John seems to have had a special knack for was seeing God at work in everything. He took time to see the significance of God at work in even the little things. How are you at doing that? Do you ever, through prayer and contemplation, look for God at work in the little things in your life. If you don’t, you just might be missing some of His best work.