Him Whom They Pierced
It was the custom of the Romans to leave bodies on crosses so that all would see and fear. Occasionally an exception would be made. This was the case here. According to the Law, bodies were not to be left after nightfall but to be buried, lest the land be polluted (Deuteronomy 21:23). This was especially the case when the next day was a Sabbath, and even more especially the case when that Sabbath was a “high day,” like the Sabbath of Passover week. The breaking of the legs made it so that the criminal could not use his feet to push himself up to get air into his lungs, which hanging down with outstretched arms made difficult due to the constricting of the chest. The effect was the hastening of death. The two unfortunate convicts on each side of Jesus endured this horror while Jesus did not as he was already dead. One of the soldiers was apparently skeptical and pierced Jesus’ side to be sure – and out flowed blood and water.
This is a contested passage. Throughout the history of the Church, Catholics have seen the water and blood as representing baptism and the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper). Protestants deny such associations and assert the passage either indicates that Jesus experienced a real death, or that new life comes from Jesus’ sacrifice as the blood washes away our sins while the water represents the indwelling Spirit (John 7:38-39). I am fine with either but find another ancient interpretation – that as Adam’s wife came from his side, so does our Lord’s Bride, the Church, flow from his through the water and blood – to be quite beautiful. The fact that the soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs is mentioned by John as fulfilling prophecy. Psalm 34:20 makes explicit reference to this, but the regulations for celebrating the Passover in the Law are even more impressive. None of the bones of the Passover lamb were to be broken; moreover, it was not to be left until morning but eaten that night, just as Jesus was not left on the cross but interred (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12). The early Church insisted that the celebration of the Passover with all of its regulations was a foreshadowing of the true Passover Lamb who, like a lamb, was sacrificed over that feast making our liberation from Egypt (sin) possible, beginning our journey to the Promised Land (heaven). In doing so, they were following the Apostle’s lead in 1 Corinthians 5:7.
John closes this passage asserting that he was an eye-witness and is writing the truth – so that we may believe. That’s the purpose of the gospels – not to give us information, not to tell a wonderful story – but to share the good news about Jesus Christ that we may be saved.