The Jews had a problem. They had successfully put Jesus, the radical young preacher, to death. It was worth it to them to disrupt their Passover Feast if it meant getting rid of their rival. No longer would He wander their countryside distracting their people with His miracles and extreme teaching. No longer would He confront them in the courts of their own Temple. Finally, after three years of this irritant, life could return to normal in Israel. Yet there was one more thing they had to do to seal the deal.
There were three dead or dying men hanging on crosses right outside the gates of Jerusalem. The Sabbath would begin at sunset. It broke the Law of God to have a dead man hanging from a tree on the Sabbath. Their bodies defiled the land. And what made it even worse was that this was no regular Sabbath. It was a high and holy day. It was Passover! So they went to Pontius Pilate and asked to have the legs of the crucified broken.
That might seem like a strange request, but in a morbid way, it actually made sense. One of the horrors of crucifixion was that it caused people to die through suffocation. As they hung by their arms, air wouldn’t flow to their lungs when they breathed. They would have to rise up on the nails in their ankles to inhale. The natural human instinct for breath would drive the condemned to keep pushing up on those wounds for hour after hour of excruciating misery. One way to quicken their death was to break their legs so they could no longer push their bodies up to breath. It was a gruesome business, but such was the world of the Roman Empire.
Pilate agreed with the religious leaders. He gave an order for his soldiers to break the legs of the men who had been crucified that day. But when the soldiers got to Jesus, He was already gone. Instead of breaking His legs, they took a spear and pierced His side. Blood and water came flowing out.
At this point in John’s Gospel, John wanted to make sure to testify that all of these things were absolutely true. He was there to see them. He was at the foot of the cross when it happened. In the days to follow, many rumors would spread about the life and death of Jesus. Many people would try to explain away that Jesus had risen from the dead. They would say that the disciples made up the resurrection…or they would say that Jesus had never really died in the first place. But John was there for the very real death of his dearest Friend. He spent three days in total misery, but then Jesus came back to life. He wanted us to believe as surely as he did. That was the whole reason he wrote his book.
John also wanted to point out how God continued to fulfill Scripture though His Son in His death. Do you remember the ancient story of the Passover? The Egyptian Pharaoh refused to set God’s people free from murderous oppression. The Lord sent plague after plague, but still he refused. Finally, God came with His most terrible judgment. The Pharaoh refused to release God’s treasured possession, so God was going to take the greatest treasure of the Egyptian people. He was going to take the lives of their firstborn sons. The Pharaoh had been ordering the murder of the sons of Israel for a generation. Now that judgment was coming back on him and his people.
In order to protect the sons of the Israelites, he gave them careful instructions. They were to sacrifice a spotless lamb and have it as a meal. Then they were to take its blood and put it along the doorposts of their homes. As the angel of the Lord came to Egypt, he would pass by the homes protected by the blood. Here are a few of God’s instructions to His people about the lamb: “‘It must be eaten inside one house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones. The whole community of Israel must celebrate it’” (Exodus 12:46-47).
Jesus was the Passover Lamb, and His blood was to become the protection of His people. All of these events that took place far in the distant past were a picture of what God was going to do in Christ. And just as the people were not to break the legs of the first Passover lamb, the legs of the Great Passover Lamb were not to be broken.
There another verse in the Old Testament that foretold the piercing of Jesus’ side. In the book of Zechariah, God said: “‘And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on Me, the One they have pierced, and they will mourn for Him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for Him as one grieves for a firstborn son.’” (Zech. 12:10).
John and all of Christ’s followers believed passionately that everything that happened in Christ was an outflow of what God had done in the Old Testament. God had ordained every moment of Christ’s life and death and resurrection. He had also ordained every aspect of the life of His holy people so they would show the way to the Savior of humankind. As the disciples considered the life of Jesus in the years to come, they found imprints of Jesus in verse after verse from their Holy Scripture. God put them there thousands of years ahead of time to give confidence to those who heard the Gospel. Jesus was the One the Bible had been pointing to all along.