“The Tragic and Triumphant Cross Leading to Hope for Us All”
“Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. (He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, ‘None of his bones shall be broken’. And again another passage of scripture says, ‘They will look on the one whom they have pierced’.” (John 19:31-37)
Each of the gospel writers expresses the meaning of Jesus’ death through signs that accompany his death. Here the unbroken bones of Jesus and the blood and water that flow from his side express truths about his death that are important for understanding its significance. John emphasizes that an eyewitness has testified to the truth of these realities and that they are preserved in the gospel “so that you may believe”.
First, John carefully notes that the legs of the criminals were broken, while the legs of Jesus were not. The purpose of fracturing the legs was to hasten the death of the crucified victims, so that the bodies could be removed from the cross before the Sabbath began at sundown. With legs broken it was impossible for the victims to pull themselves up on the cross to breathe. But since Jesus was already dead, they did not break his legs. John’s interest here is not only practical, but he clearly wants to relate Jesus’ crucifixion to the feast of Passover. The passage quoted is from Exodus 12:46 which commands that none of the bones of the Passover Lamb were to be broken. Jesus is that sacrificed lamb who fulfills the ancient Passover and brings salvation to all who believe in him.
Second, John calls attention to the side of Jesus from which blood and water flow when he is pierced with a spear. Whether this eyewitnessed phenomenon was natural or miraculous, clearly John’s concern was over the meaning of this event for our understanding of Christ’s death. Throughout the Scriptures, both water and blood represent life. Blood is the sacred principle of life and blood poured out sacrificially sealed covenants and atoned for sins. Water is life’s most basic necessity and living water represents new life in God’s Spirit. The pierced side of Jesus declares that the reality of the cross does not end in death, but in a flow of life that comes from death. That stream of life includes the sacramental life of Christ’s church, the water of baptism and the blood of Eucharist. Those who look upon “the one whom they have pierced” are all those through the ages who recognize the significance of Christ’s death on the cross.
“The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” is the title by which Jesus is introduced at the beginning of John’s gospel. At the cross the full significance of this title can be understood. Jesus is the Passover Lamb who was crucified on the day the lambs were slaughtered in the temple of Jerusalem. He is the new paschal sacrifice which brings liberation and atonement to all who put their trust in him.
In what ways has Jesus set you free from bondage? Do you live as a slave or as a free person?
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me. You are my atonement sacrifice to set me free from the effects of sin and death. Help me to live confidently and victoriously in you.