Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. (John 19:34 NIV)
Over two decades ago, when I was a young pastor, I remember distinctly choosing my very first series of sermons to preach on: the Gospel of John. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my home church, The Life Christian Church, had decided to study John for its first trimester this year in 2021. Likewise, I was privileged to lead my TLCC Scripture Study LIFE group on Wednesday evenings through the gospel chapter by chapter from February to June with some very eager Bible students. I was pleasantly surprised because this gave me the opportunity to come back to this portion of Scripture and "read the Bible again for the first time" as Marcus Borg would say.
When I preached through John the first time, my standard commentaries back then were the likes of Leon Morris, Don Carson, F. F. Bruce and Merrill Tenney (in the EBC first edition). The first thing you will notice is that the commentaries today are thicker and longer. Among the best commentaries recommended by Don Carson in his latest (2013) New Testament Commentary Survey are J. Ramsay Michaels' at about 1000 pages and Craig Keener's at about 1600 pages (in two volumes total). At church, Pastor Terry Smith was using Frederick Dale Bruner's commentary at about 1200 pages. My colleague, Max Lee at North Park Seminary, recommended Marianne Meye Thompson which was the most recent of the bunch but the shortest at about 500 pages.
It was in one of our Bible studies, that someone asked what is the meaning of the "flow of blood and water" in Jn. 19:34? We didn't really have time to address it then so I have taken the time to address it here on my blog with a view towards examining what the various commentaries have to say.
Of course, the context is the death of Jesus on the cross. He had already died upon uttering the final words, "It is finished." The Jews of the day in honoring Jewish custom asked Pilate to remove the bodies of the men from their crosses before the Sabbath which was even a special Sabbath for Passover week. In order to do this, the Romans would often break the legs of the victims to hasten their demise. They called this procedure crurifragium. After breaking the legs of the two men beside Jesus, they came upon him only to observe that he was already dead and therefore did not need to have his legs broken and then we have our verse in question. It is important to note that this flow of blood and water was unusual in some sense and must have had great meaning for John for he immediately writes: "The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true" (John 19:35 NIV). Western readers tend to focus on the materialistic aspects of the scene. The NIV Study Bible, for example, comments that the flow of blood and water is: "The result of the spear piercing the pericardium (the sac that surrounds the heart) and the heart itself." But isn't John's statement more than an observation of anatomy and physiology?
Here come the commentaries! Of the recent ones mentioned, Keener's is the earliest published in 2003. He argues on the basis of the powerful use of and imagery of water in the gospel of John, that the water symbolizes the gift of the Holy Spirit promised in Jn. 7:37-39:
It is a bit ironic that at least on this particular passage (Jn. 19:34), the best and fullest commentary of the four happens to be Bruner's. Don Carson rather pan's his work as "uneven" and exegetically weak (in his NTCS). And he does have some rather extreme translations like:
So, what is the meaning of the flow of blood and water in Jn. 19:34? In my estimation, it makes sense to tie this to 1 Jn. 4 and John's emphasis on the real humanity and real death of Jesus on the cross. But the fourth gospel is also a spiritual gospel and the most theological of all. From the beginning, we hear Jesus say "Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days." (Jn. 2:19) referring to his body. The blood and water must also signify something else. The blood most certainly symbolizes his death and the water most probably the Holy Spirit á la Keener. The sacramental interpretation fits nicely and neatly (communion and baptism) but nothing in the context would necessarily trigger such an association.