Death of Christ: Fact or Fiction?
There was a shout of victory from the cross just before Christ “gave up His spirit.”
It was not the moan of a defeated martyr, nor the sigh of a patient resignation. Jesus triumphantly accomplished the work He was sent by His Father to fulfil, and when He completed it shouted, “Finished!” “Done!” “Complete!” Then He bowed His head and “gave up His spirit.” Jesus’ work of redemption was finished.
Jesus in that moment summoned death to serve Him. John does not say, “He died,” but that “He gave up His spirit.” John is emphasizing the voluntary nature of the act. Augustine said it correctly; “He gave up His life because He willed it, when He willed it, and as He willed it.” You and I cannot say that about our own deaths.
In John 19:31-37 we have the perspective of an eyewitness to the death of Jesus. The apostle John carefully observed something unusual at the crucifixion. These are facts that made such a deep impression on him as he watched the crucifixion take place. The legs of Jesus were not broken as was the case of the other two men crucified that day, and in His case a Roman soldier seeing that He was already dead, thrust a spear into His side and out flowed water and blood.
JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED ON THE DAY OF PREPARATION
It was the day of preparation for the Passover (v. 31), so the Jewish leaders took steps to have all three bodies of the dead removed from the crosses before sundown when the Passover observation would begin. On the afternoon of the crucifixion of Jesus, the people of Israel were busy with their preparations in advance before the Sabbath began in the evening at 6 p.m. when no buying, slaying of the lambs, cooking the food, cleaning, etc., could take place. At sundown when the first star appeared on the horizon, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the Passover meal would commence.
It therefore was of absolute urgency that the Jewish authorities get the bodies buried before the Sabbath would begin as the sun went down. “So that the bodies might not remain on the crosses on the Sabbath (for the Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away” (John 19:31).
The Old Testament Scriptures made it clear that the land would be defiled if a body was hanging all night on a tree (Deut. 21:22-23; Joshua 8:29). Such defilement would be even worse on the Sabbath, God forbid on the Passover!
The crucifixion was an exceedingly painful, and an unusually slow death. No vital organ of the body was directly affected. Even after death the Roman custom was to leave the bodies of crucified criminals on their crosses as a public example to the community at large. The Jewish leaders had to get permission from Pilate before removing the bodies.
“Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead” (Mark 15:44).
The Roman governor gave permission for the legs to be broken to hasten the death of the victims. To accomplish this the soldier placed a crushing blow to the leg with a heavy iron sledgehammer or mall. This horrible jolt to the body would hasten death, which would otherwise be delayed by several hours or even days.
An archaeological find of a crucifixion skeletal remains revealed that a single blow had shattered the lower legs. The smashing of the lower leg bones was called in Latin the crurifragium. It caused the victim to die rather quickly from shock, loss of blood, and mainly the inability of the person to breathe because the chest cavity would then bear the total pressure of the body’s weight after the legs were broken.
The only way a crucified man could obtain a full lung of air was to raise himself by means of pushing his legs to ease the tension on his arms and chest muscles. Once his legs were broken, he could not possibly raise himself to get air and there would be a grater constriction of the chest, and he would eventually suffocate.
THE FIRST PROOF THAT JESUS WAS DEAD
These Roman soldiers were trained executioners who would make no mistake about a criminal’s death. Pilate ordered the legs broken and they would not dare disobey him unless absolutely sure that Christ was already dead. These hardened Roman soldiers were the first witnesses to Christ’s death.
Jesus had already died so His legs were not broken.
Clearly the eyewitness states that Jesus was dead because when the soldiers came to break His legs to hasten His death, they saw that He was already dead and there was no need to break them (v. 33). John saw them, “coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.” Jesus “was already dead” is in the perfect tense, “having died and was now dead.”
God’s perfect Passover Lamb
As the sun went down over Jerusalem, the day Christ died, John recalled that God’s perfect Lamb fulfilled all of the important Old Testament Scriptures. Jesus as the true Passover lamb, that God provided, did not have any of His bones broken (Ex. 12:46; Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20).
The slaying of the Passover lambs was taking place in the Temple at this very moment when the Lamb of God was dying on the tree. The Pascal supper would take place in a few hours in Jewish homes across the land just as it had for centuries.
The timing of the death of Jesus at the very hour when the Passover lambs were being slain stuck in the mind of this eyewitness. These things were being done because it was “the day of the preparation” of the Passover celebrating the time when God delivered the people from their slavery in Egypt. Centuries earlier in Egypt the blood of the lamb was spread on the doorposts and lintel of the house over every Jewish home. That night when the angel of death visited every home in Egypt wherever he saw the blood he would “pass over” and spare the first-born (Exodus 12:12-13).
The astounding thing that John pondered was the fact that not a bone of Jesus was broken proving that He was the Passover Lamb that God provided that afternoon. Not one bone of the Passover lamb was broken. God slew His own lamb and made provision in the blood of Jesus so that when the judgment of God comes on us, He will see the blood of His Son and pass over us. Jesus, as God’s perfect lamb died in our place. His blood covers all our sins. The angel of judgment will “pass over” all who trust in God’s Lamb to atone for their sins.
THE SECOND PROOF THAT JESUS WAS DEAD
To make doubly sure that Jesus was dead, or out of one last act of hate, a Roman soldier picked up a spear and thrust it deeply into the side of Jesus (vv. 32-34). Beyond a doubt Jesus was dead. There was no point in breaking his legs. The only reason the legs of Jesus were not broken was that He was already dead. A real man with a real human body, with real human blood, died on the cross that afternoon.
The apostle John tells us he watched the horrible scene as, “One of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water” (John 19:34).
No simple pricking is in the mind of the eyewitness. He sees the infliction of a wound intended to kill someone. No doubt, the soldier wanted to make doubly sure that Jesus was dead and certify to the centurion and Pilate that He was dead. “If you are not already dead, this will finish you off,” was no doubt his intent.
The wound made in Jesus’ side was a large one and John witnessed “blood and water” flowing out of it. His purpose for stating what he saw was to certify the real death of Jesus. Barclay says, “To John it was the final, unanswerable proof that Jesus was a real man with a real body.” It was the testimony of an eyewitness, testifying in simple language the simple facts the death of his friend.
The gash would be large enough to permit the open hand to be thrust into it. The important thing on the heart of John, years later as he wrote down his testimony, was that he could certify as an eyewitness that Jesus died. He saw the bloody evidence before his own eyes.
Moreover, it had the hand of God all over it, “that the Scriptures might be fulfilled” (John 19:36).
God intervened and the Scriptures were fulfilled
The author tells us that this act was the fulfillment of Jewish Scriptures. Prophecy was fulfilled that afternoon in a most unusual manner. One Scripture said the Saviour's bones must not be broken, and another said his body must be pierced. The Roman soldiers would have done exactly the opposite that afternoon. They came to break the legs of Jesus as they had the other men. Moreover, they had no intention of piercing the side of Jesus with the spear. To John’s utter amazement that is exactly what the soldiers did that afternoon.
Why was this so important in the mind of John?
God intervened and caused it to happen just as His Word had said it would centuries before. God overruled the circumstances and caused it to happen according to His will. The enemy was unconsciously executing God’s counsels. A sovereign God was in control at Calvary. The soldiers had received instructions to break the legs of Christ, but this had not been done. The soldiers had not received order to pierce the Saviour's side, but this the soldier did.
C. H. Spurgeon said, “That our Lord’s bones should remain unbroken, and yet that He should be pierced, seemed a very unlikely thing; but it was carried out.” The purpose of God had to be fulfilled. In case of the typical Passover lamb, not one of its bones was broken. Moreover, with the divine protection of a righteous man guaranteed that God “protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken” (Ps. 34:20). Jesus was the only perfect righteous man. He was without sin.
A fountain was opened at Calvary
Another prophecy was fulfilled that day. “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10). A little later the prophet wrote: “In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity” (13:1).
The blood of Jesus is the only cure for our sin problem. The blood of Jesus Christ purges us of every sin when we trust Him as our Savior. Jesus died in our place. His blood cleanses us of all sin and the judgment of God is turned away and will pass over all who trust in Him.
“For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement” (Leviticus 17:11).
THE THIRD PROOF THAT JESUS WAS DEAD
“Pilate wondered if He was dead by this time, and summoning the centurion, he questioned him as to whether He was already dead. And ascertaining this from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph” (Mark 15:44-45).
Pilate certified from the centurion that Jesus was dead. Pilate had clear evidence that there was no life in Jesus’ body.
Then friends took Him down from the cross and gave Him a proper Jewish burial.
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there (John 19:38-42).
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus “wrapped that incorruptible body in spices, for it is to be fragrant for evermore to all His people as the death like which there is no other,” observed F. W. Grant.
SOME ABIDING PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS
The whole Gospel of John is centred on the death of Jesus Christ. Without the certainty of His death there can be no resurrection. He is either dead, or He is alive.
We cannot escape the evidence that Jesus Christ died on the cross and was buried the same day in Jerusalem.
The eyewitness testimony is clear. The death of Christ was no figment of the imagination. The explicit details are not a fraud inflicted on humanity. Jesus Christ died on the cross and was buried in a Jewish tomb according to the custom of the Jewish people.
Jesus Christ is the Passover Lamb God provided for His people.
Not a bone of the Passover lamb must be broken in the preparation of the meal. Jesus Christ is the perfect fulfillment of the greater Lamb of God who takes away the sins of all who will believe on Him.
It is only the precious blood of Jesus that will cleanse you and me of all our sins and guilt.
There is a fountain filled with blood
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood
Lose all their guilty stains.
The Roman soldiers, swift to get the crucifixion over with, were unwittingly agents for fulfilling Christ’s promise to the penitent thief, “Today you shall be with Me in paradise.”
The dying thief rejoiced to see
That fountain in his day
And there may I, as vile as he,
Wash all my sins away.
John saw the “blood and the water” come out of the side of Jesus (v. 34). William Cowper applied it to his own sinful heart and wrote:
E’ver since by faith I saw the stream
Thy flowing wounds supply,
Redeeming love has been my theme
And shall be till I die.
Our sin debt was paid in full when Jesus shouted, “It is finished!”
“It is finished!” (John 19:31) The debt is paid in full! Jesus paid in full the righteous demands of a holy law. He paid our debt in full. Only the blood of the Lamb of God can take away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29, 35-36; Heb. 9:24-28; Jn. 3:14; 8:28; 12:32; Matt. 20:17-19; Jn. 10:11-18). Jesus voluntarily made an end to our sin and our guilt. He accomplished what the Father had sent Him to do. Our atonement had been completed with that victorious shout.
And this is still the hope of every guilty sinner today. The same Lamb of God and His shed blood shall never lose its power to cleanse and save. We are saved by the death of Christ alone. Have you by faith spread the blood of Jesus over the doorpost of your heart?
Dear dying Lamb,
Thy precious blood
Shall never lose its power,
Till all the ransomed church of God
Be saved to sin no more.
The One who was slain as the Lamb of God will one day return as our Judge.
Revelation 1:7 reads, “Behold, He is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see Him, even those who pierced Him; and all the tribes of the earth will mourn over Him. So it is to be. Amen.”
Jesus Christ will return to judge the deeds of every person who has ever lived. One day we will each one stand before Him. People in the future will look on the pierced One. The prophet Zechariah tells us it was Yahweh who is pierced, and the piercing is mortal. Those who pierced Him shall mourn as one mourns for an only son, his firstborn.
Some of those present at the crucifixion were convicted of their horrible sin (Luke 23:48). Those who had been crying, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” were overcome with the proofs of the superhuman exaltation of Jesus. They left the scene “continuing to beat their breasts” and lamenting over the crucified One after they had permitted Him to be crucified.
Can you imagine spending eternity lamenting the decision you made to reject Jesus Christ as your sacrifice for sin? Everyone who rejects Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God who takes away their sins will continue to beat their breasts because they rejected Him.
How will you spend eternity? Will it be in worship to the Lamb who sits on the throne? Or will you spend eternity in hell? Those are the only two choices available. Neutral you cannot be with Christ.
One day the whole universe will stand before Him in judgment. It will then be too late to decide what you will do with the death of Jesus. Have you put your faith in the blood that flowed from that wounded side?