Of Blood & Water

Golgota - Mihaly Munkacsy 1884Over 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.” [1] 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.”[2]  Hippolytus also noted that “streams which flow not from dead bodies flowed forth from Him.”[3] 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. [4] 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”. [5]Jerome, writing in the 4th and 5th centuries, described the blood and water as the “twin emblems of baptism and martyrdom.” [6] 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. [7] 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).

[1] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible in One Volume, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), p. 1622.
[2] Location 78414 (Origen, “Against Celsus”, Chapter 36).
[3] Location 94724 (The Extant Works and Fragments of Hippolytus, “Fragments of Discourse and Homilies”).
[4] Location 488643 (Life & Works of Rufinus, “A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed”).
[5] Location 545344 (The Catechetical Lectures of S. Cyril, Archbishop of Jerusalem, Lecture 13, “On the words, Crucified and Buried”).
[6] Location 530455 (The Letters of St. Jerome, Letter 69, “To Oceanus”)
[7] Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p.199.

“That You May Believe”

Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles smallWorking our way through the apostle John’s testimony of the life of Christ the last few weeks, we’ve been seeing example after example of Jesus calling on people to believe in Him based on the evidence presented. He didn’t ask people to blindly accept this incredible story of God lovingly, mercifully reaching out to mankind in spite of our rejection of Him. Unlike the ravings of a lunatic claiming to be someone he’s clearly not, Jesus’ claims to be God were backed up with demonstrations of supernatural power.

Looking at the 13th through 15th chapters of John today, we read 3 more examples of Jesus appealing to evidence. John records Jesus telling His disciples that one of them would betray Him, and saying, “I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He.” [John 13:19] In the next chapter, He tells them of His eventual ascension and return to God the Father. Again he says, “now I have told you before it comes to pass, that when it comes to pass, you may believe.” [14:29] In both instances, He is telling them what will happen, and calling their attention to it, so that when it does come to pass, they will understand the significance of it. Another aspect here is that the Old Testament law had 2 tests regarding prophecy. If a prophet made specific prophecies that did not occur, then he was to be considered a false prophet and be put to death. [Deuteronomy 18:20-22] And if a prophet performed some sign or wonder to accompany his words, but his teaching was such as to lead the Israelites away from God to chase after other gods, then they were to not follow his teaching, even with the evidence of supernatural power accompanying it. In fact, they were to put him to death as well. [Deut. 13:1-4] False prophets were not taken lightly. Yet Jesus is effectively telling them, “Don’t believe me if I don’t pass the test. But when I do, believe.”

In chapter 15, Jesus is telling His disciples that the world will hate and persecute them because of Him, for the world hated Him first. Then He tells them, “If I had not done among them the works which no one did, they would not have sin; but now they have both seen and hated Me and My Father as well.” [John 15:24] Clearly, He is appealing to the nature of His miracles as condemning evidence against those who saw His works and rejected Him. These were not some parlor tricks or the cunning work of some traveling charlatan. These were genuine miracles – alterations of our material reality that are impossible without God, the author of this reality. But perhaps you might question the originality of His miracles. Doesn’t the Old Testament describe people like Moses and Elijah and other prophets also performing great signs? Didn’t Elijah even raise the dead?[1 Kings 17:17-24] How could Jesus say that no one else had done the works He did? Here’s the difference. The prophets were performing those miracles as agents of God, in His name, and only by His power. Jesus performed His miracles directly, not as appeals to God to act on His behalf, for He is God.

John wrote down for us another insight into the evidential nature of biblical faith when he recorded Jesus telling them, “you will bear witness also, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” [John 15:27] Why did Jesus want the disciples to be His witnesses to the world? Was it their eloquence? Their charisma? Their political connections? Their respected positions in society? Their education? These might all be attractive and useful qualities for someone wanting to start a worldwide movement. What mattered to Jesus was the same thing that matters in court: that an eyewitness actually be at the scene that he testifies about. And this is why it was these men – these dirty, poor, “unlearned” men – that were to be His witnesses. They had been eyewitnesses from the beginning, and could truthfully report what had happened.

In the end, we believe Christ’s story, not because it is comforting (though Jesus is our comfort), but because it is true. This has always been the emphasis in Christianity, and with good reason. If it’s not true, then why believe it? If it’s not true, then, as the apostle Paul himself would say, “we are of all men most to be pitied.” [1 Cor. 15:19]

The Case of Lazarus

Raising of Lazarus - Bonnat 1857Let’s continue last month’s series looking at the evidential nature of faith presented in the Bible. What evidence did Jesus present to people to recognize the truth of His claims to be God? In the 11th and 12th chapters of John’s eyewitness testimony, we read of one Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, two sisters who had been following Jesus. The sisters sent word to Jesus that this close friend was sick [11:3], yet Jesus says that “this sickness is not unto death, … but that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” John then makes an interesting sequence of statements in the next few verses. He tells us specifically that Jesus loved Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in verse 5, but that when Jesus heard Lazarus was sick, “He stayed then 2 days longer in the place where He was.” [11:6] That doesn’t seem very loving at first glance. Indeed, when He finally does arrive, Lazarus has already been dead and in the tomb for 4 days. Others have been there consoling the sisters, but not Jesus. Martha and Mary, in separate conversations with Jesus on His arrival, both tell Him that “if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” [11:21, 32] There was probably some frustration on their part, having seen what Jesus had done for others, and wondering what could possibly have kept Him from arriving in time to heal their dear brother. Others, too, were asking why this man who had healed the blind couldn’t also have healed Lazarus. Valid question. John records the reason Jesus gave to His disciples on the journey there: “Lazarus is dead, and I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe; but let us go to him.” [11:15]

Healing Lazarus so he didn’t die at that time would’ve been a good result by human standards. But Jesus had in mind a far better result – raising Lazarus from the dead. He waited until there was no question about it. In fact, when he orders the stone to be removed from the entrance of the cave where Lazarus had been buried, Martha, ever the down-to-earth sister, points out that “there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” [11:39] Yet, when Jesus called Lazarus, he came out of the tomb, still bound in burial cloths. [11:45] Now, we need to stop and remember that this wasn’t an age of coroners and hospitals and funeral homes, and a whole chain of people that took care of the nitty-gritty reality of death for you. The family and friends gathered with Mary and Martha had likely helped prepare the body for burial, move the dead body to the tomb, and close up the tomb with this large stone. If you personally place a dead body in a tomb, or you watch it being placed in the tomb while there grieving with the family graveside, and then someone comes and  somehow makes that same, very dead man live again, you can’t deny that something incredible has just happened, and that He who brought your friend back to life is worth your undivided attention! John tells us that’s exactly what happened. “Many therefore of the Jews, who had come to Mary and beheld what He had done, believed in Him.” [11:46] Those present saw the evidence, recognized the validity of the evidence, and hence, the validity of Jesus’ claim to be God, and accepted that claim to be true.

John chapter 12 then tells how Jesus came back to Bethany, where Lazarus was, and John mentions that “Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Jesus.” Interestingly, he records that “the great multitude therefore of the Jews learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might see Lazarus whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests took counsel that they might put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away, and were believing in Jesus.” [12:9-11] Here again, we see the clear role of evidence. A living man that people saw die is tough to explain away. People had heard about Jesus healing people of different sicknesses, but this was a whole other level of miracle. And so they came to see for themselves this dead man now living. And now, people who hadn’t seen the actual event, but had talked to the once dead man, and the family members who had buried him, and the witnesses who had seen him raised up again – now these people were believing in Jesus as well. Hence, the chief priests’ idea to dispose of the evidence (i.e. Lazarus)  before this Jesus thing got out of hand. Yet trying to squash this or hush it up was like trying to unring a bell. As President John Adams said, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”[1] The resurrection of Lazarus was an especially stubborn fact that unfortunately proved to be a stumbling block for the chief priests who despised Jesus. Don’t let it be a stumbling block for you.

[1] John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770, from The Works of John Adams, Vol 1, (Boston, Little, Brown & Co., 1856).

“Now I See”

Christ healing the blind man - Eustache le SuerThe last month, I’ve been looking at the evidential nature of faith shown in the Bible. Contrary to popular claims of Christianity being a “blind faith” Jesus routinely backed up his claims with proof. Let’s look at one person’s journey to belief as recorded in the Bible.

The apostle John describes a time that Jesus and his disciples passed a man begging who had been born blind. The Jews thought this must be punishment because of something his parents had done, or some sin he had somehow committed in the womb. So they asked Jesus which explanation for the man being born blind was correct. Jesus responded that it was neither, but rather “that the works of God might be displayed in him.” [John 9:3] He then healed the man, and John records that the neighbors who had previously seen this man begging debated whether this was the same beggar who had been blind, or someone who simply looked like him. John notes that the man had to keep insisting that it really was him. This always strikes me as a somewhat comical situation, though probably frustrating for the man. The people very reasonably asked him how he can see now, and he told them the man called Jesus healed him. They brought him to the Pharisees, the religious scholars of the time, and some of them decided that because Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath (the day of rest under the law), He must not be from God. And yet some of them appealed to the evidence at hand, saying, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” [9:16] When they asked the formerly blind man who he thought Jesus was, he said “a prophet.” They didn’t like this answer, so they called the man’s parents to testify whether this was really their son who had been born blind, and how he was able to see now. [9:19] His parents confirmed that the formerly blind man was indeed their son, and that he was born blind, but they didn’t know how he could see now. Out of fear of opposing the chief priests, they deferred to their son, saying “He is of age, ask him.” So the priests interrogated him again, saying, “Give glory to God, we know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” While it may have been a bit of a leading question, the beggar took it in stride and replied, “Whether He is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see.” [9:25]

I encourage everyone to read the full passage, as the rest of the beggar’s exchange with the priests is actually pretty comical, but I want to focus here on the importance placed on evidence and reasoning throughout this story and many other biblical accounts. This whole proceeding is being conducted like a trial, with a panel of judges, witnesses being called, and testimony given and examined (if a bit hostilely). People on both sides of the issue are looking to determine the facts of what actually happened before they decide who to believe. And the beggar admits what he doesn’t know while being confident in what he does know. Moreover, as the interrogation of the beggar proceeds, he tells the priests, “Since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, He could do nothing.” [9:32-33] Although the priests didn’t take being lectured by a beggar very well (they threw him out of the synagogue), he rightly recognized the significance of the miracle Jesus performed on him. Afterwards, John tells us that Jesus heard they had thrown him out. He sought him out, and asked him if he believed in the Son of Man (the title Jesus most commonly used of Himself, referring back to the vision of the prophet Daniel). [Daniel 7:13-14] The beggar asked who this was, that he might believe in Him. When Jesus told him that “you have both seen Him, and He is the one talking with you,” the beggar’s response is both honest and reasonable. He said, “Lord, I believe,” and worshiped Jesus. [John 9:38] When John tells us that the beggar worshiped Jesus, that’s not spoken lightly. Even the lowliest Jewish beggar would grasp the serious consequences of worshiping anyone other than God. Yet, he did just that, because Jesus’ answer explained the evidence.  Jesus had done for him what no human could do, and when Jesus explained that He was no ordinary human, but none other than God Incarnate, the pieces fell into place, and the man believed. Like the beggar, we are all born spiritually blind. And like him, only Jesus can open our eyes. The question is, how will you respond to Him?