…when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. John 19:33-34 (NIVUK)
Crucifixions tended to take a long time, which was no problem to the Romans, as they liked to leave the bodies of those crucified exposed for quite some time to serve as a warning to others. The trouble was time was running out for the Jewish leaders. This was the day of Preparation and the crucifixion of Jesus had to be done and dusted by sunset so that they could go ahead and observe the Sabbath. So, these leaders asked for Pilate’s intervention to speed up Jesus’s death and have him taken down in good time.
The soldiers had a solution for this situation. A heavy hammer was used to crush the bones of the victim’s legs. This would make it impossible for someone being crucified to push their body up from their legs to facilitate the breathing process, and death would result in a short space of time. However, when the soldiers came to Jesus it was apparent that he was already dead and so there was no need to break his legs.
To make absolutely sure that Jesus was dead, one of the soldiers thrust a spear into his side and out gushed both blood and water. Much has been made of the significance of this event with all sorts of fanciful ideas put forward, and it does seem that John highlights this occurrence for a reason.
As John was writing his eyewitness account of these events, heretical views were being spread about Jesus. One of these was known as Docetism: Jesus didn’t have a real or natural body, only a phantom or celestial one, and therefore his sufferings were not real but only apparent. Another heretical view claimed that while Jesus may have been flesh and blood, he didn’t actually die, but simply swooned on the cross, only to be revived by the cool temperature in the tomb.
Throughout his gospel, John employs several signs to demonstrate who Jesus is, and here, at Jesus’s death, John gives us another sign. This account of the spear thrust into Jesus’s side is a sign that Jesus was flesh and blood and that he died. It deals a death blow to both Docetism and the ‘swoon theory’, and in this one action two prophecies in the Old Testament scriptures were fulfilled: the Messiah’s bones would not be broken
(Psalm 34:20) and he would be pierced
This Good Friday let’s take time to reflect on this sign that John gives us as evidence that Jesus, who was both fully divine and fully human, died for us, securing our salvation.
Father, thank you for the cross; thank you for Jesus’s death opening the way to salvation, and thank you for the eyewitness accounts that strengthen our faith and our trust in him. In Jesus’s name, we pray.
Have a good week reflecting on Jesus’s death for each one of us.