In chapter 19 of his gospel, John tells of standing near Jesus’ cross, hearing his words, and accepting his charge to care for his mother Mary. This heartbreaking scene ends with the Roman soldiers being ordered to take down the bodies of the crucified men. Ordinarily they would have been left to suffer longer, but because of the coming Jewish holy day, they were taken down before sundown, with their deaths being first assured. For the thieves with Jesus, this meant their legs were broken so that they would asphyxiate quickly. However, John records that when they saw Jesus was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of them pierced his side with a spear, and out came a flow of blood and water.
How did the soldiers know that Jesus was dead? Probably they knew it was very likely by his inert form and lack of struggle to breathe. Crucifixion victims usually labored visibly to breathe until death because of partial suspension from their arms. However, the soldiers were not content to deal in high probabilities. They wanted to make 100% sure of their victim as quickly and efficiently as possible. Thus, they made the spear thrust to Jesus’ side (undoubtedly the left side, with the spear going for Jesus’ heart).
At this point, John’s mention of water coming with blood from the chest wound has an important message for us. It gives us medical and legal proof that Jesus was really dead.
This conclusion comes from the fact that the heart and both lungs have potential spaces around them, lined by a smooth membrane to ease the friction of the constant motion of these organs. These normally closed spaces are called the pleural and pericardial sacs or cavities. As long as the heart is working normally, pumping blood and keeping the blood pressure at a normal level, these spaces remain closed. However, when the heart fails, a watery fluid may build up in these spaces.
As a pathologist performing autopsies, I have often witnessed the opening of a dead person’s body to disclose a large volume (up to about a gallon) of watery fluid inside the chest. Postmortem blood also tends to be sluggish and remains separate from this watery fluid. Thus, John’s observation (and the actions of the Romans as well) corroborate the fact that Jesus was really dead – and assured death is needed before an assured resurrection.
The recently fashionable “swoon theory” of Jesus’ death maintains that Jesus never really died but merely fainted and then revived later in the tomb. However, it must be remembered that the Romans were renowned for their cruelty and thoroughness in executions. It is hard to believe that they would have allowed anyone thought to be a rival king or enemy of Caesar to survive crucifixion. Even so, given the importance of Jesus’ resurrection, John is not content to merely say that Jesus was crucified; he takes care to record this small detail of eyewitness testimony for us. John recognizes its legal significance, and he takes his stand as a courtroom witness:
“The man who saw it (the blood and water) has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe (John 19:35, NIV). In effect, John provides us with a legal death certificate for Jesus so that both his death and resurrection may be firmly established.
In his book Miracles, C. S. Lewis observes that miracles are only the retelling in capital letters of what the created order tells us in small letters regarding the nature and power of God. Furthermore, the Resurrection is the Grand Miracle, the central one that gives final meaning to all the other ones. Only the power that created and animated the human body on Day 6 of the world is able to restore that life, and did so before many witnesses. It is no wonder that skeptics hate and distort the Resurrection, just as they do to the Creation account. Praise be to the Holy Spirit, who has preserved even the small links in the chain of eyewitness testimony to the Resurrection, and firmly grounded our blessed hope in Jesus.
This was published as an article in the March/April 2013 Think and Believe.
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