Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)
As we read our text for this Lord’s Day we should note that in addition to this being the Word of the Living God, given by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, this is also eyewitness testimony from the apostle John, as he says in verse 35. As we have seen, it is John’s practice to refer to himself in third person, and we know he was present at the crucifixion as we saw a few weeks ago he was there with Jesus’ mother and the other women. But it is the last thing John says in verse 35 that I really want to press upon your minds as we dive into this section of Scripture. John tells us the purpose that he gives us this testimony, it is the purpose of him writing this whole book and including precisely the things he has included – and that is – “that you also may believe.” That is the purpose of this Scripture – that you also may believe. If there be an unbeliever here today or one who has not believed, that hears my voice, we pray and hope that upon this testimony you also may believe what John has seen and believed and what we also have come to believe. And for those of us who already believe in the Lord Jesus and love Him, this passage too is for us also to believe. Upon the testimony of the apostle John, which here is the Word of God, our faith also ought to be built up, strengthened, and nourished. What we believe, may we believe even more. What we believe, may we continue to believe and may we keep on believing it. What we believe, may we believe more deeply and more accurately. There are things about this text of Holy Scripture that I studied and learned this past week that I did not know before – not new or different doctrine – but details about the Scriptural fulfillments of death of Christ – and learning this new things greatly nourished and increased my faith in what I already believed all the more. It was not learning that was a cold intellectual exercise, but it was a type of learning that grew the heart so to speak. A learning that warmed the fires of faith. That is the purpose of this Word of God. And that is what I pray for each one of you today.
He Died a Criminal (v. 31)
Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.
So here we see that it was the day of Preparation, meaning preparation for the Sabbath, as they do not want the bodies to remain the cross on the Sabbath, and this was the Sabbath of Passover week, so it had a special importance to them. Often times the Romans would leave the bodies of those crucified on their crosses until they died, which could take days. But if they had a reason to get the bodies down sooner then they would break the legs of the one on the cross. When the legs were broken, the one on the cross could no longer hold himself up with his legs, and would die much quicker of suffocation. They would have to push or hold themselves up to get air, otherwise by the way they were hanging they could not get air. So breaking the legs kept them from being able to push themselves up for air, so they would die much quicker. This is why the Jews ask that their legs be broken – so they could die and take them down before the Sabbath. So why do they not want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath? Certainly it would have been a disgraceful thing and they would not have wanted dead bodies handled and buried on the Sabbath, or even still up on the cross at that time on the Sabbath of Passover week.
But I believe there are more significant reasons why they wanted the bodies taken down, and greater implications from there that they were certainly not aware of what they were doing. In fact, they had a law about this.
“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.
Now, whether or not the Jews had this law in mind when they requested the bodies be taken down and were consciously seeking to keep this law, I don’t know. Whatever it was they were thinking of at the time, this is the law that they fulfilled. Of course Jesus had committed no actual crime, let alone any crime punishable by death, as we saw over and over again during his trial. But nevertheless, we are reminded that though Jesus was the innocent, righteous, and holy one, He was yet crucified, hanged on a tree, and put to death as if He was a criminal, indeed He was put to death as a criminal for the real criminals, for all the crimes of His people. Indeed all the crimes of His people were laid upon Him so that He could carry out the taking of the punishment for those very crimes, so that we might go free. He indeed was hanged on a tree and bore that curse, that we might be set free. As Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree…’”
Jesus was crucified and treated as a criminal so that we might be treated as if we were always righteous.
This is a bit of a side note here, but when I think about them taking Jesus’ body down the same day I can’t help thinking about Psalm 16. Psalm 16:10 says that “you will not let your holy one see corruption.” Now, the apostles in the book of Acts, apply that verse to the Resurrection of Jesus. Amen. But I can’t help but see it here as well. Because often, when the Romans would leave people on the cross until they died, it could take days. And often what would happen is that vultures would come and eat the flesh of these dead and rotting people on the cross. It was hideous. So in having Him taken down that day, even here God would not let His holy one see corruption.
He Died a Passover Lamb (v. 32-33, 36)
So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs… For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.”
So the soldiers go to break the legs of those on the cross, they get to Jesus and He has already died, and so they do not break His legs. Here again we see that Jesus is the one who gave up His Spirit. He is the one who laid down His life of His own accord, and once He had suffered all that He was to suffer, He declared all to be finished and breathed His last. He did not remain on the cross after accomplishing all only to suffer needlessly. All of His suffering was precisely what needed to be suffered for our salvation.
The fact that Christ was the only one among the three crucified who was already dead and did not have his legs broken shows us once again the uniqueness of Christ’s death. In His living, in His suffering, and in His dying He stands out above all others. There is a reason the Roman centurion looked upon Christ and said that “Truly this was the Son of God.”
So why were the legs of Christ not broken, when Pilate had given the order to go ahead and break the legs? Well Christ was already dead, but as it says in verse 36, it was that the Scripture might be fulfilled, and then it is quoted, “Not one of his bones will be broken.” So of course we ask, what Scripture?
It is just one small verse of instruction that is found in both Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12. Both of these verses contain instruction for Israel for the keeping of Passover. I’ll read from the Numbers passage, which says, in speaking of the Passover lamb, “They shall leave none of it until the morning, nor break any of its bones; according to all the statute for the Passover they shall keep it.” So the Lamb they were to eat for Passover, whose blood they were to paint on their doorpost, they were not to leave any of it until morning, even in the continuing observance of Passover for Israel. Jesus is not left until morning on the cross, is He? And then as we saw quoted by John, they were not to break any of its bones. So in order to fulfill the Scripture about instructions for how to handle the Passover lamb, Jesus dies and gives up His Spirit before the soldiers come to break His legs, and none of the bones in His body are broken.
The Apostle John is clearly showing us that this Jesus, who was crucified during Passover week, Whose blood is spread over us and covers us from death and the wrath of God, Who was not left until morning, whose bones were not broken, is our Passover Lamb. John is showing us that when we behold Christ and Him Crucified, this is one of the ways that we are to behold Him, as our Passover Lamb – as the one who covers and shelters us from death because He died and shed His blood for us. We are to behold Him as the one who protects us and shelters us from the wrath of God that is justly poured out on our sin, because Jesus took our sin upon Himself to endure that wrath for us. We are to behold Him as the only one who can save us and the only one who covers us. There was no other way to be saved from the coming judgment and death in the Exodus but to be covered by the blood of the Passover Lamb. Likewise there is no other way to be saved from wrath of God and the flames of hell and death than for us today than to be covered by the blood of the Passover Lamb.
There are some who may think that there may be another way to be saved from death and wrath. Maybe their own blood, or the blood of another, or another animal…but it is only the blood of the Passover Lamb that will do. There are some who very much like the idea of Jesus shedding His blood for our sins. They have no problem with the historical facts of the death of Christ. They have no problem that many people believe upon the Lord Jesus. They might even be very grateful that they were raised in a Christian home. They like the blood on the doorpost of all the other doors that they see, but not their own. But that won’t do. The blood on your neighbor’s door, or your parents door, won’t do. You yourself must be covered by the blood. It is by faith that Christ must apprehended by each one.
And indeed should one come under the blood of Jesus, there be no doubt that He will be saved. The blood of Christ our Passover Lamb is powerful and effective to save that it matters not how much you sin you have that needs to be covered or how many fears may entertain your mind, if you are but covered by the blood.
Now let me ask this: how did John know that this Scripture from Exodus and Numbers was being fulfilled when Jesus’ legs were not broken? How did He know? Because none of those passages, or anywhere else is there an explicitly prophesy that says the Messiah, in order to be our Passover Lamb, will not have his legs broken when the others do. These are instructions for how to keep the Passover that John says is fulfilled by Christ not having His legs broken. One of the things that this shows us is the typological worldview of the Bible. To faithfully read and interpret the Exodus, or anything or event in the Old Testament, as a Christian is indeed to recognize it as true, accurate, inspired, historical fact, but it is not just that, it is to understand it as that and also as typological. It is to see all of those things about Christ. To see and know God is to see and know Him revealed in the Word of God, the Son of God, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ.
Christ is our Passover Lamb, as the Apostle Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 5:7.
But there is yet another passage as well that is fulfilled in Christ’s legs not being broken. It’s in Psalm 34. Psalm 34:19-20, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.”
Jesus’ legs were not broken, in order to fulfill the Scripture. And this is something that we as the Church are to perpetually sing about when we sing Psalm 34 (v.20). We are to sing about the strong bones of Jesus Christ. And that His bones were unbroken that ours may be restored.
I can’t help but think as well that the unbroken bones of Christ also show us the unbroken strength of Christ under the weight of sin. How He had the manly strength to endure the great suffering He went through on our behalf. All others would’ve been crushed under the weight and burden of the cross, unable to bear it. All others would’ve had sin diseased deep in their bones to weaken them so that they would not be able to endure the suffering. But Christ was pure, righteous, and without sin, that His bones would be strong to save. You see, the Bible sets forth a worldview that teaches that sin makes us weak, and particularly makes our bones weak. Psalm 38:3 says, “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin.” Proverbs 14:30 says that “envy makes the bones rot.”
Sin weakens and rots the bones. But for the righteous, not one of their bones is broken. Christ’s bones were not broken. Christ was and is the righteous one. Even in bearing the sins of the world, Christ was strong to save. He is not one who was compromised with sin or weakness. He had the strength necessary to save. He was strong to save with unbroken strength those who are weak and have disease ridden and rotting weak bones from our sin.
Christ is not a weak savior or pushover. He is strong to save. While we have weak and rotting bones from our sin, Christ’s bones are strong and unbroken. This is just the Savior that we need – One who is strong when we are weak. He is a strong Savior for weak sinners. Christ is not a strong one who crushes those who are weak, or shames those who are nothing. He is one who uses His strength for the good of others. He is one who comes to weak and rotten sinners and He heals all our disease. He gives strength and life to rotting bones. Indeed, He gives life and flesh and sinew and strength to dead bones. He takes dead bones and makes them live. So, do not think that you must be strong first, in order to come to Christ. Do not think that you have to carry your own weight first before you come to Christ. Do not think that your stinking bones from the rot of your sin must be got rid of before coming to Christ. Just come to Christ. That’s why we come to Him in the first place. Because we are weak, because we are rotting away in death, because we are stinking sinners – where else do such ones have to go but to Him? And what grace of all grace that such a strong and righteous one does not cast such ones away who come to Him. He likes to make dead bones live and rotting bones strong.
And this is the beauty of the death and resurrection of Christ: it does not matter how deep seeded the rot of sin is in our bones. Jesus rose from the dead. There are no bones so rotten that that sin cannot be driven out and bone restored. Jesus makes life out of death and worlds out of nothing. He can surely make disease into health. Many weak sinners have to come to Christ and have been made strong to mortify the flesh and live unto God, and walk boldly into the mouth of a lions’ den for the sake of Christ.
Maybe you are indeed a Christian here today who is trusting in Christ, but you find yourself very weak and timid in the Christian life. I am not encouraging you to stay weak, nor am I encouraging you to be strong by your own power. I am encouraging all who are weak to come to Jesus Christ for Jesus Christ makes weak people strong in Him. So you’ve come to Him in your weakness, depending on His strength, but you still find yourself pretty weak. One thing the Bible tells us is that the reason for that could be unconfessed sin. David says in Psalm 34:3, “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away…” He is referring to the silence of unconfessed sin. Confess your sins. Christ will not cast you away for confessing your sins, it is what He wants, so that we can be forgiven our sins, and made strong.
Men, I want you to be as strong and bold as 10,000 lions. That is so desperately what our society needs is strong and fearless men to do what is right. And that means that you can’t cover up your sins and keep them around. We must expose them through confessing our sins to God and the appropriate parties involved so that what is weakening and softening us might be drawn out from our bones, so that we can have the strength to stand, the strength to fight, and the strength to lead as God has called us to do.
There is great strength, joy, confidence, and manliness in being a people who have our sins forgiven and who walk with a clear conscience before God and man. Such a people have overcome the world.
As we think about the bones of Christ being preserved and unbroken even in death, I can’t help but point you to think about the way the Bible talks about the bones of the dead. I believe there is something here that informs how treat the burial of the bodies of the dead. We see for example the Patriarchs in the Old Testament giving instructions for where and how to bury their bones. And here Jesus’ bones are preserved to be laid in the tomb. Certainly we are not to make an idol out of the bones or bodies of the dead, nevertheless care of the body and proper burial comes from a Christian worldview. We’ve talked about before how this is in contrast with the pagan practice of burning the body. The proper care of the body to be laid in the grave and all the details of how we think through that and work that out come from our belief in resurrection. Certainly God will have no problem resurrecting scattered ashes on resurrection day. Nevertheless there is a care we are to have.
The bones of the righteous shall not be broken. The LORD keeps them as we read in Ps. 34:20. This is Christ, and it is also all those in Christ on Resurrection Day when God restores whatever injuries we received in Jesus’ name. On that day when Christ comes to raise us out of the grave, every rot, deformity, and injury will be healed. Every broken bone – restored. There are no injuries, rot, or decay that cannot and will not be undone and restored with a little resurrection. Psalm 34:20, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” That Christ, and that is us in Christ. God delivers us out of all of our afflictions, and ultimately that will happen when He delivers us out of the grave in resurrection. And God keeps our bones, that not one of them may be broken – and this is true because when we rise again, whatever has been broken, will be restored never to break again. Resurrection makes what is broken, unbroken. Amen.