This is part 2 in the series “When Jesus Gave Birth.” You can find the introduction here.
Both the piercing of Christ side and the flow of blood and water (John 19:34) are unique to John’s gospel and it’s clear from the testimony which follows it (19:35) he sees in them great significance.
Three times he swears to these events. (1) “He who has seen has borne witness” (2) “and his witness is true” (3) “and he knows that he is telling the truth…”
His summary, “so that you also may believe,” foreshadows the very purpose of his gospel, as summarized in John 20:31. “But these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ…”
So striking is this testimony it has been called, “the most solemn protestation of accuracy to be found in the whole work.” No where does John make a more passionate and personal claim.
The piercing and flow are important to John. EXCEPTIONALLY IMPORTANT.
What significance does the witness perceive?
No shortage of valuable incites have been offered but the following three views are most popular today.
1. Real Human Death.
John says the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side because when they came to hasten his death by breaking his legs they unexpectedly found him already dead. The piercing is thus the soilders way of answering the question, “Has Jesus truly died?”
But for John the question of Jesus real death was just as important. It appears John is actively countering a claim made by false teachers that Jesus only appeared to have a body (1 John 4:2, 2 John 7) and/or to have died. And indeed some studies have shown a natural explanation for the release of blood and water.
As to a further meaning, John cites two scriptural fulfillments of this scene (19:36-37). The first of which says not a bone of his will be broken and alludes to the Passover lamb (Exodus 12:46; Num. 9:12; Psalm 34:20). The actual piercing and flow, however, are not specially related to this allusion. Instead it’s the unfulfilled intention to break Jesus’ legs which is its referent.
2. Release of the Spirit.
Water is an essential core symbol of the Gospel of John. We find it connected with baptism (1:26, 31, 33, 3:23), purification (2:6), tradition (4, cultic healing (5:7) and cleansing (13:5). John contrasts these earthly waters of purification with Christ’s offer of “living water” which he explicitly connects with the Holy Spirit (7:37-39).
And the flow in John 19:34 is specifically the fulfillment of Jesus cry in 7:37 that ‘rivers of living water would flow from within.’ There, Jesus alludes to the water from the rock in the Exodus account (Exodus 17:1-7). Here in 19:34 the flow alludes in like manner to the later day fountain for “sin and uncleanness” in Zachariah and Ezekiel flowing from Jerusalem and the temple. John’s second scriptural citation “they shall look on the one they have pierced” in Zachariah 12:10 fully supports this conclusion.
3. Symbols of the Sacraments.
To a lesser extent, interpreters continue to debate the merits of a sacramental symbolism, particularly the Eucharist/Communion and baptism, in the flow of blood and water. Water has indeed been associated with baptism in the Gospel of John (John 1:33,35) and blood with consuming Jesus’ body (John 6:53-56).
What confuses those who argue for a sacramental symbolism is the order in which the elements appear. They neither match the historical occurrence of baptism and death in the life of Jesus or correspond to the spiritual practice in life of a believer. Most scholars conclude that if John is making a reference to the sacraments it secondary at best and thus not the author’s primary objective.
As great as these interpretations may be they do not exclude the possibility that an allusion to the creation of Eve is also at work. This allusion, if present, would not replace or even overshadow these well attested meanings. But like the allusion to the Exodus (17:1-7), which scholars by and large recognize, it brings them into greater focus.
In my next post I’ll offer some criteria by which we can objectively deterimine if John 19:34 is indeed and allusion to the creation of Eve (Genesis 2:21-22).