Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

236. Blood and Water (John 19:34)

Of all the arresting and intensely significant happenings at Golgotha none seems to have been so eloquent to John the eyewitness as that flow of blood and water soaking into mother earth at the foot of the cross. Concerning this especially he felt impelled to give his own personal guarantee of truth: "And he that saw it bear witness, and his witness is true " I saw it with my own eyes!

John's story of the crucifixion has already given evidence of its mystical interpretation of many an otherwise insignificant detail. And here his distinctive use of two words for "true" (19 :35) shows that once again his symbolic mind is busy enriching his readers' appreciation of the momentous happening of that Day. Any doubt on that score is set at rest by the emphatic way in which John makes allusion to this very thing in his First Epistle: "This is he that came by water and blood, even Jesus Christ; not by water only, but by water and blood. And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one" (1 John 5 :6,8). Clearly, like so much else in John's First Epistle, this reference to water and blood looks back to the gospel narrative for its meaning. But what meaning?

It is plain that in the gospel, just as John the Baptist at the outset proclaimed Jesus as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world", so in the consummation of that work John the Evangelist asserted the same glorious truth by his testimony to blood and water from "the riven side."

It has often been asserted that Jesus died of a broken heart—not in the modern figurative sense of the term, but in its most completely literal sense, namely, through rupture of the wall of the heart. This could well have been the cumulative result of the terrific emotional strain to which Jesus had been subjected and the long drawn-out physical ordeal of the past twenty-four hours.

But John was not concerned with the physiological facts. Of far greater importance in his eyes were the spiritual truths that such facts proclaim. Why then did he insist so strenuously on the witness of the water ana' the blood? What is their witness? And for what reason did he omit to expound it? Is it because he considered the meaning to be already sufficiently obvious, or is it because the ideas that cluster round these pregnant symbols of Christ are too many and too profound to be capable of adequate exposistion?

Perhaps a brief review may be attempted of some of the main ideas which associate themselves easily and naturally with the blood and water from the side of Jesus.

They are often linked in Scripture with the opposing principles of flesh and Spirit, the human and the divine in Jesus. "To them gave he power to become sons of God . . . which were born, not of blood . but of God" (Jn.1 :12,13). "Flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee but my Father which is in heaven" (Mt.16 :17). In contrast with these: "But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life" (Jn.4 :14).
Blood and water and hyssop were the symbols associated with the inauguration of the Mosiac Covenant at Sinai (Heb. 9:19). Here, in John 19:34,29, are the same three symbols, now signifying the bringing in of a New Covenant: "This is my blood of the New Covenant." "As for thee also, by the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water (i.e. from the grave)" (Zech. 9:11). It may be asked: Why should these particular symbols be elements of ratification of God's Covenants? Because:
They are Covenants with sinners—people afflicted with moral leprosy, the incurable disease. Blood, water and hyssop again combine for the cleansing of God's lepers (Lev. 14 :6,7). In that day when Jesus died on the cross there was "a fountain opened . . for sin and for uncleanness" (Zech.13 :1). And this follows immediately after: "they shall look upon me whom they have pierced . . (Zech. 12 :10), words quoted in John's account.
Yet another symbol finds eloquent reinforcement and fulfilment in the piercing of the side of Jesus: "Behold I will stand before thee there upon the rock in Horeb; and thou shalt smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that my people may drink" (Ex. 17 :6). It was with allusion to this that Jesus cried out in the temple court on the very day of the Feast ot Tebernacles which celebrated the giving of water in the wilderness: "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and he that believeth on me, let him drink, as the scripture hath said, Out of his belly (I.e. from the Messiah, typified by the smitten rock) shall flow rivers of living water" (Jn 7:37,38).

On another , occasion Moses was commanded to give the people water by speaking to the rock (at Kadesh, this time). Instead he smote it twice. In this particular place (Numbers 20) the Jewish Targum of Jonathan elaborates the story remarkably, telling that when Moses first struck the rock it dripped blood, and at the second blow water gushed forth! Undue emphasis should not be placed on this uninspired elaboration of Numbers 20, but its insight is certainly remarkable.
But the most immediate and satisfactory interpretation of the water and blood is to be found in the Lord's own words: "Except a man be born of water and the spirit he cannot see the kingdom of God" (Jn. 3 :5). "Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day" (6:53,54).

Here is plain anticipation of the two sacraments Jesus instituted —sacraments which are not really two, but one, for the meaning is fundamentally the same. Baptism, a birth out of spiritual water, is the beginning of a man's life in Christ; by this means he is identified with the one whom he acknowledges as Saviour, Master, Lord. The Bread and Wine are the outward tokens of the grace and power by which that New Life, begun in baptism, may be maintained and matured. Hence John is able to say with palpable truth: "This is the One who comes in the water and in the blood"-that is, in baptism which begins the life in Christ, and in the Communion which maintains the life in Christ. "Not in the water only," John persists, putting his case negatively as well as positively, "but in the water and in the blood." Baptism by itself will achieve nothing. Its work must be consolidated and nourished by a sharing of the fulness of Christ through the life that he can impart.

Not content with this emphasis, John underlines yet again: "And it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth, for there are three that bear witness, in the earth, the Spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one." Probably here the Spirit which bears witness (called in 5:9: "the witness of God") is the inspired unfolding of the work and teaching of Jesus which John has set out in his accompanying gospel. In other words John is here asserting that the Gospel he has written is not his own but the Holy Spirit's. With these words should be compared the challenging claim that John deliberately joined on to his narrative of the stabbing of his Lord: "And he that hath seen it hath borne witness (here in this gospel), and his witness is true: and he (the risen Lord) knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe."

Thus the Spirit (in the gospel), and the water (of baptism), and the blood of Christ shed on the cross and symbolized in the wine of the sacrament do agree in one. They tell the same story. They insist on the same Truth. They are one. Christ is the body, soul, and spirit of then-all.

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