John 19:28–42: The Death of Jesus, Jesus’ Side is Pierced, Jesus is Buried
As this section begins Jesus is on the cross, literally doing the work He came here to do: taking on the punishment for my (and others’) sins. In fact, he’s just about completed the work:
After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (verses 28–30)
Jesus has now died, but frankly, nobody expects him to be dead yet. One of the reasons crucifixion was such a horrible way to die is that it took so long: a person would be up there for days. They’d be hanging from their arms in that awkward (and painful) position so that they couldn’t breathe; then they’d push themselves up by their feet, nailed below, so that they could breathe for a bit; but the pain from that would be too great and they’d lower themselves again; the cycle would start all over. It was a long, slow process of suffocating, out in the elements.
I mention those gruesome details because it explains the next part: the next day was to be a special “high day” Sabbath, because it was the Sabbath of the Passover week. For this reason the Jews don’t want these men being crucified while the Passover is being celebrated, so they ask Pilate to break the crucified men’s legs. The idea is that this will speed their deaths: since they’ll no longer be able to raise themselves up they’ll suffocate quicker, and be dead (and taken down) before the Sabbath. (I think it’s just Jesus and the other two men who were crucified with him; I don’t get the impression from John that others are also currently being crucified.)
Pilate apparently agrees, since soldiers come to break the legs of the two men who were crucified with Jesus, but when they come to Jesus they find that he’s already dead, so they don’t break his legs. One of the soldiers, however, pierces Jesus’ side with a spear, and blood and water come out. I’m thinking he pierced Jesus’ side as a kind of test, to ensure he really was dead, but John doesn’t mention the soldier’s motive.
Once Jesus is dead a man named Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate to request Jesus’ body for burial. Nicodemus is also with him (whom we met in Chapter 3; see the posts on 3:1–15 and 3:16–21). Verses 38–42 describe their preparation of Jesus’ body; it’s not a full burial, just some of the initial steps taken in burying someone in those days, with plans to finish the process after the Sabbath.
A lot of the things that are happening in the passage itself are somewhat straightforward (if we ignore the fact that Jesus’ death is the most important event ever to have taken place in history). John is giving us the facts about the actions that take place.
What I found more interesting to think about were the context of the Old Testament Scriptures John quotes and/or alludes to, that reinforce how tied together the Old and New Testaments are. Having Jesus die on the cross wasn’t God’s Plan B, since He wasn’t able to save us through the Law, it was always Plan A, and you therefore see Jesus all through the Old Testament.
That reference in verse 28 to fulfilling the Scripture is a reference to Psalm 69, a psalm which the New Testament often applies to Jesus (and which I just blogged about). As mentioned in that post, it’s easy to apply almost the entire psalm to Jesus’ unjust suffering, except for the end of the psalm where David calls upon God to judge the ones who are persecuting him (David). Here on the cross Jesus is doing the opposite: taking on the sins of the world in order to save the world from being judged by God for those sins.
The Old Testament Prophecies
John indicates that these actions were also prophesied in the Old Testament:
For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (verses 36–37)
There are two pieces to this: prophecies about the Messiah’s bones not being broken, and God referring to Himself as the one who’s pierced.
His Bones Won’t be Broken
He keeps all his bones;
not one of them is broken.
Psalm 34 a very upbeat psalm in which David talks about the fact that the LORD is good, and He will save His people. To Jesus’ followers, that wouldn’t have seemed applicable at this particular moment, but when John wrote his Gospel, and looked back on this moment, he would have seen how God was saving His people, through this exact event.
We could also look back to the rules for the Passover, in which God forbid His people from breaking the bones of the passover lamb (Exodus 34:20, and again in Numbers 9:12). Given that the passover lamb was a foretaste of Jesus’ work on the cross—He is often referred to as the “Passover Lamb” or just the “Lamb” in the New Testament—we can see how these two things go together.
The One Who Was Pierced
The second quotation is from Zechariah 12:10:
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. (the LORD speaking; emphasis added)
That quotation is from a larger passage/prophecy from Zechariah. Now… whenever I’m blogging about a New Testament passage that quotes the Old Testament I’m trying to get in the habit of going back and blogging about the Old Testament passage first (if I haven’t already), to properly capture the context of what the New Testament writer is trying to convey. In this case, however, I didn’t feel confident going back and blogging about a particular passage from Zechariah in isolation. (I don’t mind taking a psalm in isolation, but not a prophecy ripped from the middle of the prophet’s book.)
That being said, I’d put the verse John is quoting in the context of Zechariah 12:1–13:6. When Zechariah wrote his book [many of] the Israelites had returned from their captivity in Babylon but they were still under Babylonian rule, and as near as I can tell this passage is a prophecy about “the nations” sieging Jerusalem, and God protecting His people and turning the attack back against those siegers. A good highlight is this section:
“On that day the LORD will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the LORD, going before them. And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.” (Zechariah 12:8–9, God speaking)
And then there is a long passage in which God talks about pouring His blessings on His people, among which is the verse John quotes:
“And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn. On that day the mourning in Jerusalem will be as great as the mourning for Hadad-rimmon in the plain of Megiddo. The land shall mourn, …
“On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness.
“And on that day, declares the LORD of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more. And also I will remove from the land the prophets and the spirit of uncleanness. And if anyone again prophesies, his father and mother who bore him will say to him, ‘You shall not live, for you speak lies in the name of the LORD.’ And his father and mother who bore him shall pierce him through when he prophesies.
“On that day every prophet will be ashamed of his vision when he prophesies. He will not put on a hairy cloak in order to deceive, but he will say, ‘I am no prophet, I am a worker of the soil, for a man sold me in my youth.’ And if one asks him, ‘What are these wounds on your back?’ he will say, ‘The wounds I received in the house of my friends.’”
(Zechariah 12:10–13:6, emphasis added, some text elided)
This is a prophecy about the LORD blessing His people, and it’s pretty obvious how that prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus:
- God has poured out “a spirit of grace” to His people: in the book of Acts the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, and He has been with us ever since, because of the work Jesus did in redeeming us
- As already stated, Jesus is the one who was pierced
- The disciples did mourn for Jesus, and weep bitterly
- Even “the land” mourned, when darkness fell while Jesus was on the cross
- Because of Jesus’ work, we have been cleansed from our sin and uncleanness
These are things that have already been accomplished. Zechariah also mentions cutting off idols from the land and a cessation of all false prophecy, and those haven’t yet been accomplished, but they will, and the reason they can be accomplished is, again, the work Jesus did on the cross.