John 19:31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 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. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” 37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.”
All the details recorded in this gospel are the work of an eye-witness. The other apostles had all fled but John was present at the cross to the bitter end (Jn 19:26). And now his testimony is verified: Jesus is demonstrated to be dead through the grizzly work of the soldiers. The reported flow of blood and water from Jesus’ side as the soldier spears him is offered as proof of death.
The veracity of this evidence is often debated. Some claim that if Jesus was already dead and his heart had stopped beating, there would be no blood pressure and therefore no flow of blood. However, this does not account for the action of gravity nor the likely build up of pressure in the chest cavity— either from the build up of fluid in the pericardium resulting from hypovolemic shock during his flogging or from Jesus’ lungs filling with fluid during suffocation on the cross. Likely John was also referring to the well known separation of blood and serum after death. Regardless of medical science, in the gospel the observation serves to verify three things: the soldiers concluded Jesus had been dead for some time, it explains why Jesus’ legs were not broken, and why John concluded Jesus was ‘very dead’.
John reflects on two Old Testament prophecies in connection with these details. The first (v36), that none of Jesus’ bones were broken, seems to recall Psalm 34:20 which is set as a reflection on David’s escape from Abimelek (1 Sam 21:1-13). Somewhat confusingly, the Psalm tells of David’s deliverance and protection by God— which seems not to be Jesus’ experience at all. Perhaps the ‘no broken bones’ is instead a reference to the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12)— Jesus’ experience is shown to be the fulfilment of the Passover Lamb: sacrificed for salvation, but no bones are broken.
The second Old Testament reference, “They will look on the one they have pierced,” quotes Zech 12:10-12. In Zechariah, surrounded by fierce armies and outnumbered with no chance of survival, God moves Israel to grieve and mourn their sin. They do so as they look upon “me, the one whom they have pierced”. On that day of mourning, God wins deliverance for his people, even as they mourn like the renowned weeping of a town on the plains of Meggido. John is saying that, on the cross, even as Jesus is mourned by his disciples, God is wins a great victory.
Lord Jesus Christ, thank you that, against all expectation and appearances, your death on the cross has won the greatest victory of all. Thank for John’s testimony and courage, along with the women, who stayed with you to the end. Amen.