John 19 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Enemies and Friends Attend to Jesus' Body
John finds the events immediately following Jesus' death to be highly significant. He begins with Pilate and the Jewish opponents (v. 31), then the soldiers (vv. 32-37) and finally Jesus' friends (vv. 38-42). This is the same sequence he followed in the previous section (cf. vv. 19-27). The opponents are still trying to discredit Jesus even after his death; the soldiers unwittingly produce a witness to Jesus through their actions, as do Jesus' friends. The striking new feature is the witness of Jesus himself. The way in which he died was a witness to the truth about himself (see comment on v. 30), but now, even after he has died, his body produces a witness both to the truth about his identity and to the truth about what his death has accomplished (vv. 34-37).
His body also bears witness in another way, which is emphasized by John. For when the soldiers find Jesus dead one of them stabs him to be sure he is dead, and out comes a sudden flow of blood and water (v. 34). The word pierce (nysso) can be used of either a jab or a deep stab. Medical explanations of this flow of blood and water differ according to the depth of the wound. One theory is that the scourging produced "a bloody accumulation" in the chest, which separated into layers as he hung on the cross, with the heavier blood on the bottom. The wound from the spear entered below the level of separation, so the liquid came out first red and then more clear (Sava 1960). The other main theory is that Jesus was stabbed in the heart, so the blood came from the heart while the water came from the pericardial sac around the heart (Edwards, Gabel and Hosmer 1986:1463).
There have been many suggestions over the centuries for the significance of this flow (cf. Westcott 1908:2:328-33), and John may see a very complex web of associations. It is possible, in the light of later rabbinic thought, that the flow of blood and water mingled together is yet another allusion to Jesus as a Passover sacrifice. The blood of a sacrifice had to flow at the moment of death so it could be sprinkled (m. Pesahim 5:5, 8). Thus, this description may suggest that Jesus was a valid sacrifice (cf. Ford 1969; Brown 1970:951).
Jesus used both blood and water as important symbols in his teaching, and this gives us guidance for their import here. Water has been associated with cleansing (1:26, 31, 33; 2:6; 13:5), the new birth (3:5) and the Spirit (7:38-39). The reference to living water in chapter 4 is probably a comprehensive image for the Spirit, revelation and salvation (see comment on 4:10). Blood has referred to Jesus' sacrificial death, which brings life to the world (6:53-56). From these associations it would seem that in this flow of blood and water "John saw a symbol of the fact that from the Crucified there proceed those living streams by which men are quickened and the church lives" (Barrett 1978:557; cf. Dodd 1953:428; Schnackenburg 1982:294).
The fact that water symbolizes purification, the Spirit and the new birth provides a connection with baptism. The fact that blood symbolizes the sacrificial death of Christ, which gives life to the world, provides a connection with the Eucharist. These are "the ideas which underlie the two Sacraments" (Westcott 1908:2:320) and thus support the allusion to the sacraments that Christians have found here throughout the centuries (cf. Hoskyns 1940b:635-38).
As with the unbroken bones, so with the piercing: it is not only rich in symbolism but also a fulfillment of Scripture (v. 37). The passage cited is Zechariah 12:10, in which God says, "They will look on me, the one they have pierced." Here God seems to be identified with the leader of his people, a shepherd who is raised up by God (11:16) and yet will be struck by the sword (13:7). This passage, therefore, picks up the theme of the Good Shepherd who is one with God, laying down his life. Again, Jesus' identity and his fulfillment of God's will is conveyed through the replication of a Scriptural pattern.
The piercing is the point of interest for John (Barrett 1978:557), but perhaps there is also significance in those who look upon the pierced one. In Zechariah, the ones who look at him are "the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem" upon whom God has poured out "a spirit of grace and supplication" (Zech 12:10). Accordingly, they do not look upon him in fear, but rather "they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son" (Zech 12:10). Given the focus in the Passion account on the salvation Jesus has accomplished, perhaps "the salvation aspect is to the fore here also. Naturally the obverse of judgment for those who persist in looking on the Redeemer in unbelief is not excluded" (Beasley-Murray 1987:355; cf. Schnackenburg 1982:292-94). If this is the case, then this echo of Scripture speaks not only of Jesus' identity and work, but also of the fruit of that work as he is lifted up and draws all to himself (Jn 12:32). Indeed, the next scene shows us the first two examples of this fruit.
Between John's description of these events and their fulfillment in Scripture, there is a parenthetical comment on the truthfulness of his witness to the flow of blood and water: 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 (v. 35). This could be John's own statement of the trustworthiness of his testimony, but it is not like the other comments he has added to his account (for example, 2:22; 6:64, 71; 12:6, 16, 33; 18:9, 32; cf. Schnackenburg 1982:291). Instead, it reads very much like the testimony of the later disciples at the end of the Gospel: "This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true" (21:24). Possibly, then, verse 35 was added by John's disciples to underscore his witness to the death of Jesus. They might have added this because there were members of the community at a later stage, as reflected in the letters, moving in a Gnostic, or proto-Gnostic direction. Much of the argument against these views centered on the nature and significance of Jesus' death (cf. Whitacre 1982:121-51). Since these false teachers claimed to be true to the Johannine tradition, this note could have been added, perhaps originally only in the margin, "underlining the key text of the Gospel that belies this claim by the later opponents" (Whitacre 1982:213 n. 217).
The fact that it is a new tomb is emphasized by John (v. 41). Some think John's point is that Jesus would not be brought into contact with corruption (Westcott 1908:2:324), or that there would be no question of mistaken identity when the tomb was empty (Chrysostom In John 85.4; Brown 1970:959). John may have been conscious of these notions, but it would seem the main point is simply that a new tomb is a token of appropriate honor given to a king. It may also tie in with the theme of the creation of the new community: Jesus has reordered the lives of his mother and the Beloved Disciple (vv. 26-27), in keeping with the new order of relationships of those who are united to him (cf. Mt 12:46-50 par. Mk 3:31-35 par. Lk 8:19-21). Jesus has no ancestral tomb but rather has begun a new family of those born from above who will never die (11:26).
Indeed, in this story we see this family gaining two new members. For the two men who bury Jesus had not publicly associated with him before. Joseph of Arimathea was indeed a disciple, but he was so secretly because he feared the Jews (v. 38). And Nicodemus, though not actually called a "disciple," nevertheless had visited Jesus at night (v. 39) and had affirmed at that time that Jesus was a teacher come from God (3:2). Thus, these are two of the people referred to earlier, who were secret believers, "for they loved praise from men more than praise from God" (12:42-43). Now, at Jesus' death, they are no longer under this condemnation; they have passed from hiding in the darkness to coming into the light.
From the Synoptics we learn that Joseph was a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who was looking for the coming of the kingdom and who had not consented to the Sanhedrin's condemnation of Jesus (Mt 27:57; Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50-51). Nicodemus, who is not mentioned in the Synoptics, was also a member of the Sanhedrin (Jn 3:1) and, presumably, was wealthy, given the amount of spice he provides for Jesus' burial (v. 39). John A. T. Robinson considers Nicodemus to be from a well-established family of Jerusalem, while Joseph is "the nouveau riche country cousin with his brand-new tomb [cf. v. 41; Mt 27:60], which may suggest the lack of an established family mausoleum in the city" (1985:287). In any case, these are both men of power, privilege and wealth. Although Joseph, and presumably Nicodemus, had dissented from the vote, as members of the Sanhedrin they were indeed those who pierced Jesus and now they are looking upon him and mourning (see comment on v. 37). Jesus has been lifted up and is now beginning to draw all people to himself (12:32), beginning with these hidden disciples, who were members of the very group that insisted on Jesus' death.
It is ironic that these two men come out of hiding and clearly associate themselves with Jesus at his death, since they would have thought his movement had come to an end. They had nothing to gain and everything to lose. This action makes the extent of their dissent evident to their fellow Jewish leaders. Their request for the body was also a very courageous act. The Romans would often leave the body on the cross for days, though they might allow the family to take down the body for burial. They would not do this, however, in the case of treason (Beasley-Murray 1987:358). Thus, Joseph had no claims on the body and, depending on how Pilate viewed the case, would have been putting himself in considerable danger. But Pilate had clearly said three times that Jesus was innocent, which may account for his allowing Joseph to take the body. In addition, by allowing Jesus to have a decent burial Pilate would be able to further annoy the Jewish leadership.
The men did not have time to give Jesus a proper burial, which would include washing the body, anointing it with oil and then clothing and wrapping it (Brown 1994:2:1261). Instead, the seventy-five pounds of spices, which were probably in granular or powder form, could be packed under and around the body and in the strips of linen with which they wrapped the body. This would offset the smell of decay and help preserve the body until it could be properly attended to after the sabbath (v. 42; Robinson 1985:282-83). The meaning of the word for strips of linen (othoniois) is unclear. There does not seem to be evidence that Jews wrapped corpses in strips, as Egyptian mummies were wrapped (Brown 1994:2:1265), and the Synoptics say a single sheet was the main covering (Mt 27:59 par. Mk 15:46 par. Lk 23:53). Upon his being raised from the dead, Lazarus came out with "his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face" (11:44), but the word for "strips of linen" (keiria) in that verse is not the same word used here (othonion). Though the plural is used here, it may refer to a single sheet (cf. Brown 1994:2:1265) or be used generically for "grave clothes" (Robinson 1985:291). Thus, it is not clear how exactly they wrapped the body.The action taken by Joseph and Nicodemus signals a change in their own discipleship as they clearly break with the rest of the Jewish leadership. By handling the body they have made themselves ritually unclean and are thus disqualified from participating in the feast. According to some accounts of the dating (see comment on 18:28; 19:14), this means they would miss the Passover itself, in which case Christ has replaced the Passover for them in keeping with John's focus on Jesus as the Lamb of God and the fulfillment of the Jewish feasts in general.