The gospel of John (and only the fourth gospel) records that governor Pontius Pilate ordered the legs of those being crucified, including Jesus, to be broken (John 19:31-37). This was one of the few blows involved in crucifixion that was not commanded in derision.
Bruce J. Malina (b. 1933) and Richard L. Rohrbaugh (b. 1936) explain:
Breaking the legs of a runaway slave or a fugitive was punishment; for a crucified person it was a favor, since it enabled the person to suffocate rather quickly. Here we are told that the soldiers found Jesus dead already, and therefore did not break his legs. (Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, 272)While the other two condemned men needed their legs broken to speed their demise, Jesus’ limbs were left in tact as he was found already dead (John 19:33). Instead, a soldier jabbed Jesus’ side with spear (John 19:34).
But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out. (John 19:34 NASB)Colin G. Kruse (b. 1938) relays:
Instead of breaking his legs, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear. Presumably, the spear thrust was to ensure that Jesus was dead, but the spear penetrated quite a away, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (Kruse, The Gospel According to John: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries) , 371)John sees the incident as corresponding to Old Testament passages in both Psalms (Psalm 34:20) and Zechariah (Zechariah 12:10). For the evangelist, this connection is further evidence for belief (John 19:35-37).
Frederick Dale Bruner (b. 1932) summarizes:
The piercing and the Witnesses (John 19:31-37) underline how Jesus’ postmortem treatment, particularly his pierced side (form which come flowing blood and water, attested by very trustworthy witnesses), remarkably fulfills both the words of ancient Scriptures and the very promises of Jesus himself (e.g., Exodus 12:46; Psalm 34:20; Zechariah 12:10; and John 4:10, 6:53, 55; 7:37-39). (Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 1095)Johannes Beutler (b. 1933) critiques, “In spite of considerable differences in wording, the looking upon the pierced side of Jesus is considered to be foretold by scripture, in this case Zechariah 12:10. (R. Alan Culpepper [b. 1946] and C. Clifton Black [b. 1955], Exploring the Gospel of John: in honor of D. Moody Smith [b.1931], 149).”
Leon Morris (1914-2006) adds that there is an allusion to Passover:
This appears to be a reference to the requirement that the bones of the Passover victim should not be broken (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12). It would seem that John means us to think that Jesus’ death was the real Passover sacrifice (cf. the similar view of Paul, I Corinthians 5:7). (Morris, The Gospel According to John (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 686)Perhaps more important than any prophetic fulfillment is the fact that the post-mortem spear thrust establishes that Jesus died. To have resurrection, one must demonstrate proof of death. Craig L. Blomberg (b. 1955) elucidates:
The unusual speed of his death is almost certainly related to the severe flogging he had previously received (John 19:1). So, instead of breaking his legs, one of the soldiers thrusts a spear into his side (John 19:34). In a world without modern medical techniques for determining the exact moment of death, this may have been the easiest way to ensure Jesus had no spark of life left in him as the authorities prepared to take his body off the cross...Commentators and physicians alike have debated the medical significance of the outflow of water and blood. What first-century readers would have recognized was John’s emphasis on the complete and genuine death of Jesus. (Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel: Issues & Commentary, 255)F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) adds:
This was sufficient answer to those forms of docetism current when he wrote which held that the Christ did not really die. The persistence of this view is reflected in the statement in the Qur’ān that ‘they did not kill him, neither did they crucify him; it only seemed to be so’. (Bruce, The Gospel of John: Introduction, Exposition, Notes, 376)The blow generates a peculiar reaction - the excretion of both blood and water (John 19:34). Apologists point to this detail as the definitive biblical verse which demonstrates that Jesus did indeed die.
Rick Cornish (b. 1950) writes:
The release of “blood and water” as described by eyewitnesses (John 19:34) is exactly what medical science expects when a person dies under these conditions. Severe shock accelerated the heart rate leading to heart failure, depositing fluid in the membrane around the heart and lungs. So he was probably dead when the soldier speared Him in the side, piercing His rib cage, lung, and heart. If He was still alive, the spear thrust would have killed Him. (Cornish, 5 Minute Apologist: Maximum Truth in Minimum Time, 151)D.A. Carson (b. 1946) explicates:
The verb enyxen (‘pierced’) could in itself suggest nothing more than a ‘stab’ to see if Jesus was alive, but the rest of the verse shows that there was significant penetration: the wound brought a sudden flow of blood and water. Medical experts disagree on what was pierced. The two most common theories are these: (a) The spear pierced Jesus’ heart , and the blood from the heart mingled with the fluid from the periocardial sac to produce the ‘flow of blood and water’. (b) By contrast, it has been argued that fluid from the pericardial sac could not so readily escape from the body by such a wound; it would fill up the chest cavity, filling the space around the lung and then oozing into the lung itself through the wound the spear made. In tests performed on cadavers, it has been shown that where a chest has been severely injured but without penetration, hemorrhagic fluid, up to two litres of it, gathers between the pleura lining the rib cage and the lining of the lung. This separates, the clearer serum at the top, the deep red layer at the bottom. If the chest cavity were then pierced at the bottom, both layers would flow out...However the medical experts work this out, there can be little doubt that the Evangelist is emphasizing Jesus’ death, his death as a man, his death beyond any shadow of doubt. (Carson, The Gospel according to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 623)Jesus’ humanity is on full display as there is nothing less divine than death. Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) writes:
One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, a thrust doubtless aimed at Jesus’ heart to be sure of his death (Quintilian 35-100], Declamationes maiores 6.9, “and at once there came out blood and water” (John 19:34b). The reference to the discharge of blood and water would be heard by Mediterranean readers as a testimony to the real humanity of the crucified one. Several parallels confirm the point. First, the Iliad 5.340-41 says that from a goddess, wounded with a lance, “blood-water” alone issued forth instead of blood and water, because gods who neither eat bread nor drink wine have no blood. Second, Plutarch [45-120], Moralia 180e, has Alexander the Great [356-323 BCE] tell those who regarded him as a god, “This is blood, as you can seem and not blood-water, such as flows in the holy gods.” Third IV Maccabees 9:20 tells how, at the martyrdom of the eldest of the seven brothers, not only blood but also blood-water flowed from his body onto the instrument of torture. His was a truly human death. Moreover, it is significant that Irenaeus [130-202] (Against Heresies 3.22.2) interprets the flow of blood and water from Jesus’ side, along with his hunger and thirst and physical fatigue, as a sign of his humanity. (Talbert, Reading John: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, 254)How important is it to you that Jesus was fully human? Why do you think the evangelist went to such great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus actually died? Do the connections between the piercing of Jesus and the Old Testament bolster your faith? Is there any symbolic significance to the event?
Numerous theories have been extended regarding the symbolic significance of the combination of blood and water that oozes from Jesus (John 19:34).
Urban C. Von Wahlde (b. 1941) connects the water to the “living water” that Jesus offers earlier in the gospel (John 7:37-39):
For the author of John 19:34, the fact that the blood of Jesus issued forth in addition to water is very important. Could it be that John 19 is a complement and a development of the thought of John 7:37-39? If the Fourth Gospel is more interested in theology than in narrative niceties, then we have an explanation. (Tom Thatcher [b. 1967], What We Have Heard From the Beginning: The Past, Present and Future of Johannine Studies, 348)Robert Kysar (b. 1934) responds:
The search for the symbolic meaning of the two liquids has not been...easy. The primary question is whether or not the two are symbolic of the sacraments, and that seems clearly not to be the case. Water functions elsewhere in this gospel to symbolize the Spirit (e.g., John 7:39) and the revelation of God (e.g. Revelation 4:10ff.), While that might be the sense of water here, this verse is not intended as a fulfillment of John 7:39)...The blood might stand for the benefits of Jesus’ death flowing out from the cross, chief among them the gift of the Spirit. I John 5:6-8 seems to be an interpretation of this passage, but that does not mean that the sense of the verse in the epistle is necessarily the sense the evangelist had in mind. All in all two observations are called for: (1) The primary point to be established by this verse is the reality of Jesus’ death...(2) John may also have wanted to hint at the outpouring of the benefits of the crucifixion for the believer. (Kysar, John (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament), 291-292)Jo-Ann A. Brant (b. 1956) goes back further in time and sees a link to the Passover:
One of the soldiers with his lance pierced the side, and to his surprise, and surely to that of the first audience, out came a flow of blood and water (John 19:34). This issue of fluid invites investigation of its surplus of symbolic meaning and ironic significance. The soldier, who seems to imitate the humiliation of a defeated combative enemy is showered with life-giving elements. Mary Coloe points out that this is temple imagery. Jesus dies at the same time as the blood from the Passover lamb flows from the temple. The water signifies that Jesus is the eschatalogical temple from which the water of the spirit of life flows. (Brant, John (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 254)Gary M. Burge (b. 1952) also sees an association with Passover:
Just as with the many other events on this day, John no doubt sees symbolism that goes beyond the surface meaning of piercing. Most evangelicals are reluctant to see sacramental symbolism here (such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the images of water and blood) although this has been a common view from the earliest centuries. More promising is the view that sees Passover symbolism at work. John may be making the point that the crucified Jesus qualifies as a Passover victim. He notes, for instance, that Jesus’ legs are not broken, likely because it was illegal for any Passover sacrifice to have broken bones. The lamb must be a perfect sacrifice. In case we miss this subtle point, John even alludes to the Passover requirement in Exodus 12:46 at the end of the paragraph, “Not one of his bones will be broken” (John 19:36; see also Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20). (Burge, John (The NIV Application Commentary), 506)Scot McKnight (b. 1953) supplements:
It is difficult to know...what to make of the “water and blood” of the crucifixion of Jesus (John 19:34; cf. I John5:6-9), but it is safe to think that the language functions as either an antic-docetic notation or a symbol for purification. Along similar lines, it is clear that John finds it important that Jesus dies at the same time as do the Pesah victims at the temple (John 18:29, 39, 19:14), but it is not altogether clear what kind of atonement theology he finds in such a connection. If Jesus is the Passover victim, ingested at some personal level for his followers, it would mean he is the center of the celebration and that in which they participate in order to memorialize the redemption. It would also mean he would be the protector from the wrath of the slaying angel of YHWH. (McKnight, Jesus And His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus, And Atonement Theory, 369)Andreas J. Köstenberger (b. 1957) posits that as his blood and water spill, Jesus’ very nature is on display:
Perhaps “blood and water”...points to Jesus’ two natures, human and divine. The parallel I John 5:6-8 refers to spirit, water, and blood; Jesus gave up his spirit when he died (John 19:30), leaving behind blood and water. (Köstenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 552)N.T. Wright (b. 1948) concludes:
Of course, at this moment of all moments, none of this is simply told for the sake of historical detail, vital though that is (the Word really did become flesh, not a phantom!). John has left us in no doubt that all these details, too, though from one point of view ‘accidental’ (nobody could have guessed what the soldiers might do next), were all to be seen as heaven-sent signs of what it all meant. We only have to think back through the gospel, to all the occasions where water and blood are mentioned, to realize that again and again they point to Jesus as the source of life, cleansing and purification. All these themes come together at this moment. (Wright, John for Everyone: Chapters 11-21, 135)Is there symbolic significance to the blood and water which emanates from Jesus? What does the crucifixion mean to you?
“But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed.” - Isaiah 53:5 NASB