Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

235. Not a bone broken (John 19:31-34)*

The centurion at Golgotha had never witnessed a crucifixion like it. Against the background of earthquake and unnatural darkness this Jesus of Nazareth, instead of mouthing imprecations or self-pity, had concerned himself all the time with others round about him, and had ended with prayer and praise to the God of Israel. Meantime the centurion's own soldiers cowered in fear, terrified by the fantastic happenings in the world of nature around them. It is little wonder that these men, for whom Jesus had prayed, concluded that he was the Son of God.

It was written in the prophets that, "though Israel be not gathered" God would yet be glorified in His Messiah when he became became "a light to the Gentiles" (ls.49 :3,5,6). Here already at the cross were the foreshadowings of such a work.

Awe-inspiring event and O. T. prophecy

Meantime Jews, who earlier had stood around fascinated by the grisly spectacle of crucified men, took themselves off to their homes in fear, "beating their breasts", as one awe-inspiring omen after another shook their nerves and harrowed their consciences. Zechariah had prophesied: "They shall look upon Me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for an only son" (12 :10). Already that scripture was having its token fulfilment, a pale foretaste of the bitter remorse which will one day baptize Israel in sorrow when they see this crucified Jesus glorious in their midst.

In the temple, the like things were happening. At the very time that Jesus died, they began to slay the Passover lambs in the court round the altar of burnt-offering. The law of the Passover had said that the lambs must be killed "between the two evenings" (Ex.12 :6mg), a phrase which traditionally was interpreted to mean between mid-afternoon and sunset (cp.Matthew 14 :15,23, at the previous Passover). On this particular Passover, because of the supernatural darkness, there were literally two evenings, and in that period the slaying of the lambs coincided with the death of the Lamb of God.

At the same time the veil of the temple separating off the Most Holy from the Holy Place was rent from top to bottom. The point has often been made that this symbol of "Christ's flesh" (Heb.10 :20) was destroyed by act of God—from top to bottom, and not upwards, as a man would have done it. "It pleased the Lord to bruise him: He hath put him to grief."

But perhaps the most pointed witness of all had been, and was to be, made to the rulers. These men were still desperately uneasy concerning Jesus. Even though he were now crucified, so many strange things had happened that day which his disciples would be able to turn to good account as fulfilment of Bible prophecy, that there was still the possibility of a serious situation if this dead Nazarene were to be proclaimed—with convincing Biblical force—a divine Messiah whose very rejection had been precisely according to the declared will of God in the scriptures.

A crafty plan

With the deliberate cunning of chess players the danger was not only anticipated but met by means of a brilliant device. From the Pharisees' point of view the situation required that any one of the ancient prophecies be plainly and demonstrably vitiated in the experience of the prophet of Nazareth, for then on this rock all the outlandish claims made on his behalf would immediately come to grief.

So with simulated ingenuousness and concern, and also with a studied ignoring of Passover defilement (Jn.18 :28), an official deputation sought audience with Pilate, and put their case. Passover Feast and Sabbath would begin in a matter of hours. It was needful, therefore according to their religion (Dt.21 :23), that the corpses of these crucified men be suitably disposed of as speedily as possible. Would the governor help them in their difficulty by commanding that the legs of the three men be broken so as to accelerate their deaths? There was little time to spare.

It has been argued that this breaking of the legs of crucified men was a normal practice, and that such treatment would accelerate death by throwing such a strain on the thorax as to inhibit breathing, thus causing the individual to die fairly quickly from asphyxia. The first of these points is quite unsupported by evidence. The second is not true—as may be readily established (as indeed it has been) by actual experiment.

To Pilate the request seemed harmless enough even though the usual Roman practice was to leave crucified men hanging until their bones were picked clean by carrion crows. What could he know about the typology of the Passover? What could he know about Messianic declarations that: "He (Jehovah) keepeth all his bones: not one of them is broken" (Ps.34 :20)? Neither would it occur to him to ask why, if they had scruples about leaving a body on a cross on their sabbath, they had no scruples about the murder of an innocent man on one of their Feast Days. Or did it? However, it may be that this ready acquiescence to the Pharisees' request was actually given by some lesser official, well bribed for the occasion, who was able to act in smaller matters with the governor's authority (Jn.19 :22 andMk.15 :44 support such a view).

It must have been with great satisfaction that the Jews now transmitted to the centurion the order from the fortress of Antonia that the legs of the crucified men be broken. And, reluctant though that officer was to pass this instruction to his men, the order was given.

Evil intent frustrated

What was it made the soldier detailed for this unsavoury job go first to one thief, then to the other, and last of all to Jesus in the middle? And why, although trained to obey every order explicitly, did he hesitate before that middle cross, take in at a glance that Jesus was already dead, and then lower his mallet? What moved him instead to lift his javelin and make a hard thrust into the side of that corpse?

Thus not only did it stand true that "a bone of him shall not be broken," but also the way was opened for another scripture to be fulfilled when Christ returns as the Lord of Glory: "They shall look on him (an only son) whom they pierced" (Zech.12:10).

In recording that the soldier's spear pierced Jesus in the side John may have had also the intention to remind his readers that it was by the opening of his side that the First Adam received his Bride when he awoke from a deep sleep. Or maybe the reader of this gospel is to be reminded of the enigmatic "last words of David" when the Spirit of the Lord spake concerning the Messiah, that "he that ruleth over men must be just. . . and be filled with iron and the staff of a spear" (2 Sam.23 :7).

However, John's emphasis goes markedly on the truth that not a bone of Jesus was broken. Once again the impressiveness of the literal fulfilment of prophecy must not be allowed to obscure the yet more important symbolic truth that those who belong to the Body of the Redeemed are One and Indivisible, as Jesus himself had prayed: "that they may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also be one in us."

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