Over the course of the last several posts, we’ve looked at the consistent appeal to evidence in the apostle John’s eyewitness account of the ministry of Jesus. Today, we come to the climactic scene of the crucifixion in John 19. Jesus had been arrested and tried in a kangaroo court during the dead of night in chapter 18. He had been brought before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate to ensure the death penalty can be carried out. Despite his finding Jesus innocent and offering to release Him, the chief priests, in an attempt to manipulate Pilate and curry favor with Rome, had called out Pilate as “no friend to Caesar” if he released Jesus. And so Pilate gave in to their demands, and played a part in Jesus’ plan of atonement for all mankind in the process. So Jesus was crucified Friday morning. The Jewish Sabbath started at sundown, however, and the priests wanted to make sure the bodies of Christ and two robbers didn’t remain on the crosses past sundown. But that meant accelerating the asphyxiation process that typically killed crucifixion victims. So they asked Pilate to have the victim’s legs broken so they couldn’t push up with their legs to take a breath. Asphyxiation would follow quickly instead of dragging on for hours or even days as intended with crucifixion. But John recorded a little earlier that prior to this, Jesus had cried out, “It is finished!”, bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. Therefore, when the Roman soldiers came up to Him, they found Him already dead, hence breaking the legs would be unnecessary. Nevertheless, Roman soldiers were responsible for being sure that those sentenced to death really did die (or face death themselves), so one of the soldiers took a spear and thrust it up into the side of Jesus. And here John records an interesting statement: “immediately there came out blood and water. And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe.”
Now, anybody who has ever had or even seen a bleeding injury, knows that it’s normal for blood to come out of a wound, but not water. What is John to do with this oddity? As Matthew Henry says in his commentary on this verse, “What a competent witness he was of the matters of fact. What he bore record of he saw; he was an eyewitness of it. What he saw he faithfully bore record of; he told not only the truth, but the whole truth.”  It would’ve been easy to tell most of what he saw, and leave out that puzzling detail. Indeed, down through church history, we see believers looking for how to interpret this observation. As Origen wrote in the 3rd century, “Now, in other dead bodies the blood congeals, and pure water does not flow forth.” Hippolytus also noted that “streams which flow not from dead bodies flowed forth from Him.” John Chrysostom, Theodoretus, Cyril of Jerusalem, and other Church fathers all noted the same basic observation, and theorized as to what “mystical”, symbolic intent John must have had. maybe it was symbolic of Jesus being the source of eternal life like a spring of water. In the 4th century, Rufinus offered that the water might symbolize the washing of saints and the blood the condemnation of unbelievers, or that they symbolized baptism by water and by martyrdom. He also guessed that the wound in the side might symbolize a connection with how Eve was made by removing Adam’s rib.  Cyril of Jerusalem supposed that “Jesus, who came to bestow the grace of pardon on men and women alike, was pierced in the side for women”. Jerome, writing in the 4th and 5th centuries, described the blood and water as the “twin emblems of baptism and martyrdom.”  While there may be symbolism that can be attached to this, John seems to be insisting that this is first and foremost true, literal, witness testimony. So which is it?
Now, with the advancements in medical knowledge of the last 1900 years, we know about the condition of pericardial and pleural effusion, the collection of fluid around the heart and lungs, respectively.  Now, we don’t need to try to determine some purely symbolic meaning from this text. We can see that, indeed, John was simply recording accurately exactly what he saw, even if the physical phenomenon wouldn’t be understood for centuries. But now, we are also left with a bigger question. If he would dutifully record what he couldn’t explain, emphasizing so carefully that he was speaking the truth about this evidence – and we now know it to be a legitimate and plausible explanation – doesn’t it stand to reason that he would be equally honest in the rest of his account? Perhaps we would do well to pay heed to all that John has recorded for us of the incredible life of Christ… and all that implies.
Unless noted otherwise, references to early church fathers are taken from The Complete Ante-Nicene & Nicene & Post-Nicene Church Fathers Collection, edited by Philip Schaff, (Kindle E-Book, eISBN-13:978-1-78379-372-3, by Catholic Way Publishing, 2014).
 Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1622.
 Location 78414 (Origen, “Against Celsus”, Chapter 36).
 Location 94724 (The Extant Works and Fragments of Hippolytus, “Fragments of Discourse and Homilies”).
 Location 488643 (Life & Works of Rufinus, “A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed”).
 Location 545344 (The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Lecture 13, “On the words, Crucified and Buried”).
 Location 530455 (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 69, “To Oceanus”)
 Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p.199.