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Tough Texts: They Will Look at the One They Pierced

“Since it was the preparation day, the Jews did not want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a special day). They requested that Pilate have the men’s legs broken and that their bodies be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man and of the other one who had been crucified with him. When they came to Jesus, they did not break his legs since they saw that he was already dead. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth. For these things happened so that the Scripture would be fulfilled: Not one of his bones will be broken. Also, another Scripture says: They will look at the one they pierced.”

“His Testimony Is True”: Historicity and the Meaningfulness of Meaning

While some medical theories about what internal injuries allowed for blood and water to emerge from Jesus’s pierced side might be plausible and even true, discussion of such things is an exercise in missing the point. As we will see from John 19:31–37, the Evangelist’s mindful highlighting of certain facts was not to offer data for an autopsy but to augment the theological significance of Jesus’s crucifixion. More than a mere historical record (but not less than one), John made explicit that his purpose in writing was to engender faith in the reader (Jn 19:35; 20:30-31; cf. 21:24-25).

This should not make us skeptical about the Gospels being reliable historical documents, for no record of the past is value-free and independent from someone’s personal testimony. Those recording history have certain beliefs about what history is and about which details are most important to note. Hence, it should be no scandal to us that John underlined certain details that seemed theologically significant to him: Jesus’s unbroken bones, his pierced side, and the mingled blood and water (vv. 33-37).

“Blood and Water Came Out”: Cues for a Thicker Reading

Perhaps the most debated portion of the passage is the significance of the blood and water in John 19:34. Once again, it was not likely that the Evangelist’s intent was to write to late first-century readers to present the precise physical cause of Jesus’s death. The description of the blood and water, along with John’s allusion to OT passages (Ex 12:46; Nm 9:12; Ps 34:20; Zch 12:10), point us not in the direction of “Jesus the Literally Brokenhearted” but toward a heartier literary reading, one that conceives of Jesus as the Passover lamb (Jn 1:29), the eschatological Temple (2:19–22), the psalmic righteous sufferer, and Yahweh himself.

Jesus the Passover Lamb

The account of Jesus’s unbroken bones, read with consideration of Exodus 12:46 and Number 9:12, makes the connection between the blood and the convention of the Passover lamb seem likely. Exodus 12 presents the original instructions for the Passover statute, and Numbers 9 is the reiteration of the command a year later when the liberated people of Israel are trekking through the wilderness. The mentioning of the hyssop in John 19:29—combined with the details about unbroken bones—suggests that the Passover was the foremost concept in the Evangelist’s mind pertaining to the emergence of blood. Additionally, Jewish law required that the priests allow the sacrificial animal’s blood to flow freely during its slaying to be conducive for sprinkling (m. Pesah. 5:3,5).

Jesus the Eschatological Temple.

Present throughout John’s Gospel leading up to John 19 are the concepts of Jesus as the true Temple (2:19-22) and as the one whose death and glorification coincide with the coming of the Spirit (7:37-39; cf. 16:7). The water coming from Jesus’s side acts in this construal as a symbolic anticipation of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (see also Jn 20:22). The description of the eschatological temple in Ezekiel 40–48 includes a miraculous, life-giving river having its source from within (47:1-12). When we take this into account with John’s statement that “the Spirit is the one who gives life” (Jn 6:63), it is not difficult to see that John likely intends for his readers to associate the emergence of water from Jesus’s side with the concept of temple. Moreover, Jesus then was not only the proper Passover lamb but also, as the true Temple, the proper place of sacrifice.

Jesus the Righteous Sufferer.

Most commentators see Psalm 34:20 either included in John’s quotation in 19:36 (cf. Ps 33:21 LXX) or as a parallel text of Exodus 12:46 and Number 9:12: “He protects all his bones; not one of them is broken.” Rather than serving as instruction about the Passover, Psalm 34 is a Davidic psalm and acrostic poem extending assurance that God will deliver the righteous sufferer (vv. 19-22). According to John, Jesus then not only fulfilled the Passover but what it meant to be a righteous sufferer. Jesus in his death delivered us not only from the bondage of sin, but he also shared in real human suffering. Likewise, Jesus is the exemplary righteous sufferer in that his resurrection provides the most concrete assurance that God does indeed deliver the righteous from death.

Jesus as Yahweh Pierced

Upon the piercing of their Yahweh, the inhabitants of Jerusalem mourned. But Zechariah 12:10 describes a spirit of grace being given to them: “Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the house of David and the residents of Jerusalem, and they will look at me whom they pierced. They will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child and weep bitterly for him as one weeps for a firstborn.”

In the OT, to look upon Yahweh means to trust in him for salvation and deliverance (see Is 45:22; cf. Ex 14:13–14; Nm 21:9). In John 19, Jesus is presented as a historical-eschatological fulfillment of the Jerusalem inhabitants’ piercing of Yahweh, the Roman soldier representing everyone who was involved in the orchestration of Jesus’s crucifixion. Furthermore, when considering Zechariah 12’s immediate context, to present Jesus as the fulfillment of this oracle is to identify him with Yahweh himself. Hence, we have in John 19:34, 37 a subtle affirmation of Jesus’ deity. To look upon Jesus’ pierced body in repentance and faith is to look to Yahweh for salvation (cf. 3:14-15; 8:28; 12:32-33). When understood according to its literary context, Zechariah 12:10 more profoundly undergirds John’s teaching that Jesus’s death brings with it the coming of the Holy Spirit. The water pouring from Jesus’s pierced side was a symbolic fulfillment of the “spirit of grace” being poured out in Zechariah 12:10.

Conclusion: “He Is Telling the Truth”

John the Evangelist is a healthy model of what it means to be a theological interpreter of the Bible. Having traced John’s acumen to interweave distinct biblical themes and categories into his presentation of the crucifixion, our efforts here will hopefully lead us to follow his example by becoming not only more competent readers of Scripture but also more literate and truthful witnesses to Jesus’s death and resurrection. To miss out on the treasures contained within these thick layers of biblical meaning is the real reason for a broken heart.