This passage concerning the piercing of Christ’s side after his death is recorded only by this evangelist.
I. Observe the superstition of the Jews, which occasioned it (John 19:31): Because it was the preparation for the sabbath, and that sabbath day, because it fell in the passover-week, was a high day, that they might show a veneration for the sabbath, they would not have the dead bodies to remain on the crosses on the sabbath-day, but besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, which would be a certain, but cruel dispatch, and that then they might be buried out of sight. Note here, 1. The esteem they would be thought to have for the approaching sabbath, because it was one of the days of unleavened bread, and (some reckon) the day of the offering of the first-fruits. Every sabbath day is a holy day, and a good day, but this was a high day, megale hemera—a great day. Passover sabbaths are high days; sacrament-days, supper-days, communion-days are high days, and there ought to be more than ordinary preparation for them, that these may be high days indeed to us, as the days of heaven. 2. The reproach which they reckoned it would be to that day if the dead bodies should be left hanging on the crosses. Dead bodies were not to be left at any time (Deut. 21:23); yet, in this case, the Jews would have left the Roman custom to take place, had it not been an extraordinary day; and, many strangers from all parts being then at Jerusalem, it would have been an offence to them; nor could they well bear the sight of Christ’s crucified body, for, unless their consciences were quite seared, when the heat of their rage was a little over, they would upbraid them. 3. Their petition to Pilate, that their bodies, now as good as dead, might be dispatched; not by strangling or beheading them, which would have been a compassionate hastening of them out of their misery, like the coup de grace (as the French call it) to those that are broken upon the wheel, the stroke of mercy, but by the breaking of their legs, which would carry them off in the most exquisite pain. Note, (1.) The tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. (2.) The pretended sanctity of hypocrites is abominable. These Jews would be thought to bear a great regard for the sabbath, and yet had not regard to justice and righteousness; they made no conscience of bringing an innocent and excellent person to the cross, and yet scrupled letting a dead body hang upon the cross.
II. The dispatching of the two thieves that were crucified with him, John 19:32. Pilate was still gratifying the Jews, and gave orders as they desired; and the soldiers came, hardened against all impressions of pity, and broke the legs of the two thieves, which, no doubt, extorted from them hideous outcries, and made them die according to the bloody disposition of Nero, so as to feel themselves die. One of these thieves was a penitent, and had received from Christ an assurance that he should shortly be with him in paradise, and yet died in the same pain and misery that the other thief did; for all things come alike to all. Many go to heaven that have bands in their death, and die in the bitterness of their soul. The extremity of dying agonies is no obstruction to the living comforts that wait for holy souls on the other side death. Christ died, and went to paradise, but appointed a guard to convey him thither. This is the order of going to heaven—Christ, the first-fruits and forerunner, afterwards those that are Christ’s.
III. The trial that was made whether Christ was dead or no, and the putting of it out of doubt.
1. They supposed him to be dead, and therefore did not break his legs, John 19:33. Observe here, (1.) That Jesus died in less time than persons crucified ordinarily did. The structure of his body, perhaps, being extraordinarily fine and tender, was the sooner broken by pain; or, rather, it was to show that he laid down his life of himself, and could die when he pleased, though his hands were nailed. Though he yielded to death, yet he was not conquered. (2.) That his enemies were satisfied he was really dead. The Jews, who stood by to see the execution effectually done, would not have omitted this piece of cruelty, if they had not been sure he was got out of the reach of it. (3.) Whatever devices are in men’s hearts, the counsel of the Lord shall stand. It was fully designed to break his legs, but, God’s counsel being otherwise, see how it was prevented.
2. Because they would be sure he was dead they made such an experiment as would put it past dispute. One of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, aiming at his heart, and forthwith came there out blood and water, John 19:34.
(1.) The soldier hereby designed to decide the question whether he was dead or no, and by this honourable wound in his side to supersede the ignominious method of dispatch they took with the other two. Tradition says that this soldier’s name was Longinus, and that, having some distemper in his eyes, he was immediately cured of it, by some drops of blood that flowed out of Christ’s side falling on them: significant enough, if we had any good authority for the story.
(2.) But God had a further design herein, which was,
[1.] To give an evidence of the truth of his death, in order to the proof of his resurrection. If he was only in a trance or swoon, his resurrection was a sham; but, by this experiment, he was certainly dead, for this spear broke up the very fountains of life, and, according to all the law and course of nature, it was impossible a human body should survive such a wound as this in the vitals, and such an evacuation thence.
[2.] To give an illustration of the design of his death. There was much of mystery in it, and its being solemnly attested (John 19:35) intimates there was something miraculous in it, that the blood and water should come out distinct and separate from the same wound; at least it was very significant; this same apostle refers to it as a very considerable thing, 1 John 5:6, 8.
First, the opening of his side was significant. When we would protest our sincerity, we wish there were a window in our hearts, that the thoughts and intents of them might be visible to all. Through this window, opened in Christ’s side, you may look into his heart, and see love flaming there, love strong as death; see our names written there. Some make it an allusion to the opening of Adam’s side in innocency. When Christ, the second Adam, was fallen into a deep sleep upon the cross, then was his side opened, and out of it was his church taken, which he espoused to himself. See Eph. 5:30, 32. Our devout poet, Mr. George Herbert, in his poem called The Bag, very affectingly brings in our Saviour, when his side was pierced, thus speaking to his disciples:
If ye have any thing to send, or write (I have no bag, but here is room), Unto my Father’s hands and sight (Believe me) it shall safely come. That I shall mind what you impart, Look, you may put it very near my heart; Or, if hereafter any of my friends Will use me in this kind, the door Shall still be open; what he sends I will present, and somewhat more, Not to his hurt. Sighs will convey Any thing to me. Hark, Despair, away. Secondly, The blood and water that flowed out of it were significant. 1. They signified the two great benefits which all believers partake of through Christ-justification and sanctification; blood for remission, water for regeneration; blood for atonement, water for purification. Blood and water were used very much under the law. Guilt contracted must be expiated by blood; stains contracted must be done away by the water of purification. These two must always go together. You are sanctified, you are justified, 1 Cor. 6:11. Christ has joined them together, and we must not think to put them asunder. They both flowed from the pierced side of our Redeemer. To Christ crucified we owe both merit for our justification, and Spirit and grace for our sanctification; and we have as much need of the latter as of the former, 1 Cor. 1:30. 2. They signified the two great ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s supper, by which those benefits are represented, sealed, and applied, to believers; they both owe their institution and efficacy to Christ. It is not the water in the font that will be to us the washing of regeneration, but the water out of the side of Christ; not the blood of the grape that will pacify the conscience and refresh the soul, but the blood out of the side of Christ. Now was the rock smitten (1 Cor. 10:4), now was the fountain opened (Zech. 13:1), now were the wells of salvation digged, Isa. 12:3. Here is the river, the streams whereof make glad the city of our God.
IV. The attestation of the truth of this by an eye-witness (John 19:35), the evangelist himself. Observe,
1. What a competent witness he was of the matters of fact. (1.) What he bore record of he saw; he had it not by hearsay, nor was it only his own conjecture, but he was an eyewitness of it; it is what we have seen and looked upon (1 John 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:16), and had perfect understanding of, Luke 1:3. (2.) What he saw he faithfully bore record of; as a faithful witness, he told not only the truth, but the whole truth; and did not only attest it by word of mouth, but left it upon record in writing, in perpetuam rei memoriam—for a perpetual memorial. (3.) His record is undoubtedly true; for he wrote not only from his own personal knowledge and observation, but from the dictates of the Spirit of truth, that leads into all truth. (4.) He had himself a full assurance of the truth of what he wrote, and did not persuade others to believe that which he did not believe himself: He knows that he saith true. (5.) He therefore witnessed these things, that we might believe; he did not record them merely for his own satisfaction or the private use of his friends, but made them public to the world; not to please the curious nor entertain the ingenious, but to draw men to believe the gospel in order to their eternal welfare.
2. What care he showed in this particular instance. That we may be well assured of the truth of Christ’s death, he saw his heart’s blood, his life’s blood, let out; and also of the benefits that flow to us from his death, signified by the blood and water which came out of his side. Let this silence the fears of weak Christians, and encourage their hopes, iniquity shall not be their ruin, for there came both water and blood out of Christ’s pierced side, both to justify and sanctify them; and if you ask, How can we be sure of this? You may be sure, for he that saw it bore record.
V. The accomplishment of the scripture in all this (John 19:36): That the scripture might be fulfilled, and so both the honour of the Old Testament preserved and the truth of the New Testament confirmed. Here are two instances of it together:—
1. The scripture was fulfilled in the preserving of his legs from being broken; therein that word was fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken. (1.) There was a promise of this made indeed to all the righteous, but principally pointing at Jesus Christ the righteous (Ps. 34:20): He keepeth all his bones, not one of them is broken. And David, in spirit, says, All my bones shall say, Lord, who is like unto thee? Ps. 35:10. (2.) There was a type of this in the paschal lamb, which seems to be specially referred to here (Exod. 12:46): Neither shall you break a bone thereof; and it is repeated (Num. 9:12), You shall not break any bone of it; for which law the will of the law-maker is the reason, but the antitype must answer the type. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us, 1 Cor. 5:7. He is the Lamb of God (John 1:29), and, as the true passover, his bones were kept unbroken. This commandment was given concerning his bones, when dead, as of Joseph’s, Heb. 11:22. (3.) There was a significancy in it; the strength of the body is in the bones. The Hebrew word for the bones signifies the strength, and therefore not a bone of Christ must be broken, to show that though he be crucified in weakness his strength to save is not at all broken. Sin breaks our bones, as it broke David’s (Ps. 51:8); but it did not break Christ’s bones; he stood firm under the burden, mighty to save.
2. The scripture was fulfilled in the piercing of his side (John 19:37): They shall look on me whom they had pierced; so it is written, Zech. 12:10. And there the same that pours out the Spirit of grace, and can be no less than the God of the holy prophets, says, They shall look upon me, which is here applied to Christ, They shall look upon him. (1.) It is here implied that the Messiah shall be pierced; and here it had a more full accomplishment than in the piercing of his hands and feet; he was pierced by the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, wounded in the house of his friends, as it follows, Zech. 13:6. (2.) It is promised that when the Spirit is poured out they shall look on him and mourn. This was in part fulfilled when many of those that were his betrayers and murderers were pricked to the heart, and brought to believe in him; it will be further fulfilled, in mercy, when all Israel shall be saved; and, in wrath, when those who persisted in their infidelity shall see him whom they have pierced, and wail because of him, Rev. 1:7. But it is applicable to us all. We have all been guilty of piercing the Lord Jesus, and are all concerned with suitable affections to look on him.