The Soldiers' Actions Provide Further Witness to Jesus (19:32-37)
The soldiers break the legs of the other two men being crucified, perhaps working in toward Jesus from the two sides (v. 32; Bruce 1983:375). When they come to Jesus they find him already dead and therefore do not break his legs (v. 33). In this way, although the opponents attempted to further discredit Jesus, they unwittingly bear witness to what he has accomplished. Jesus has drunk the cup of God's wrath and indeed has become accursed (cf. vv. 28-29; Gal 3:13). But as the Lamb of God, Jesus has taken away the sin of the world. The opponents' attempt to have Jesus' legs broken ends up drawing attention to the fact that they were not broken. Thus, another pattern of Scripture is echoed: Not one of his bones will be broken (v. 36). The allusion is to the Passover lamb (Ex 12:46; Num 9:12) and to King David as the righteous sufferer (Ps 34:20), thereby continuing the juxtaposition of themes that John has emphasized in his account of the Passion. In this way, the body of Jesus continues to bear witness to his identity and his accomplishment even after he has died.
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).
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.