Commentary on John 19:31-42
The references to the day of Preparation and the Sabbath connoted the holiness of these days on the Jewish calendar.
It was imperative that this business be completed so that the bodies of the dead might not condemn the land (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). However, for the fourth evangelist the parallels with the Passover Lamb are irresistible. Jesus becomes the new Passover Lamb and so removes the sins of the world. While the original Passover Lamb led to the liberation of a people from bondage, the new Passover Lamb liberates the world from sin.
We have here competing forms of piety and both types of piety are zealous. On the one hand, there is the piety of tradition, the respect and the love for the old. Often it is not piety at all but comfort and fear of change. This piety places its deity in a box. There are no surprises. The second opens itself up to revelation, to God acting in a new way for a new day. This form of piety expects change; it embraces change. It is not that one is correct and one is incorrect. Knowing when one is appropriate and one is not constitutes the real problem. When our concern for tradition or love of novelty exceeds our concern for human beings, then our motives, if not also our actions, are inappropriate.
Pilate orders that their legs be broken so that they might die sooner. Jesus is already dead at this point. One of the soldiers pierced Jesus in the side to make sure that he was dead. Blood and water flowed from Jesus’ side. The blood of Jesus “shall never lose its power.” The blood symbolized the sacrificial death of Jesus on behalf of sinful humanity. He did not seem to die. He actually suffered and died on our behalf. This topic would become a major topic of debate within Johannine Christianity: did Jesus die or die he merely seem to die? Much of 1, 2, and 3 John concerns this very detail and its implications for the ongoing life of the community. The Gospel of John joins Paul (1 Corinthians 10:16) and Mark 14:24 in asserting and affirming the death of Jesus as a means toward grace.
The water from Jesus’ side reminds us that water is crucial for human existence. This passage echoes earlier passages in John. In John 4 Jesus speaks of himself as living water that shall become “a well of water springing up to life eternal” (verse 14). In John 7:38, Jesus says, “The one who believes in me, as the Scripture says, ‘From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living waters.’” Jesus embodies eternal life, symbolized by the water that flowed from his side. Thus, the death of Jesus reminds us that true salvation incorporates both the body and the spirit.
Again we note the concern to note the fulfillment of Scripture. This connoted the importance for Johannine Christianity to show that the signs of the messiahship of Jesus were there. Some people simply refused to acknowledge it. Sometimes in life we do good, not amazing, but still good. What is amazing is that someone else gets mad! And they are not mad because we did anything wrong, but because it was indeed good and they did not do it!
Reflections on John 19:38-42
Joseph of Arimathea is a secret disciple. When it seems as if the movement has been squashed into the sands of history, he comes out of the closet of his fears. Often fear presents itself as prudence or caution in order to gain respectability. It hides behind tradition. It warns that the devil one knows is better than the devil one does not know. It proclaims no gospel and warns that anarchy and innovation are two sides of the same coin.
Caution is good, but when our fears govern our actions we have lost before we have even begun to act. Fear is like farmland depleted of its nutrients. The same crop has grown there for so long that eventually the land has lost its ability to produce. Today our fears take many forms: ethnicity, socioeconomic status, human sexuality, political persuasion. Our fears keep us from seeing other human beings as human beings. They keep us from living our faith.
Nicodemus, on the other hand, represents the life of faith. In the first instance (John 3:1-2), Nicodemus came by night to meet with Jesus. Obviously, a person of his status meeting an itinerant Galilean preacher openly would have caused heads to turn at every level of Judean society. Nicodemus has been moved, but he is still reluctant to be seen with Jesus. The second time Nicodemus appears (John 7:50-51) he not only publicly speaks up for Jesus, he does so before his contemporaries.
At the very least, it is obvious that Nicodemus wants his peers to treat Jesus fairly according to the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 1:16-17). In the third instance, Nicodemus provides for a (very expensive) proper burial for Jesus. The amount of spices used to prepare Jesus for burial implied that Jesus had a royal status. Nicodemus’ faith grows in each instance from inquirer, to advocate, to disciple. This is true faith, not mere belief.
Faith is not a one and done enterprise. It must grow and develop. If it does not, it will become stale and meaningless. If Nicodemus had not taken the first step and gone to Jesus by night, the subsequent steps would have been much more difficult for him. We are no different. If we do not live what we say we believe, our faith cannot grow and develop and become stronger as we go along our Christian journey.
The linen clothes symbolized purity. For example, the high priest wore linen on Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:4; Ezekiel 10:1-8). Angels also appeared in linen dress (e.g., Daniel 10:5-6). Thus, this image connoted the purity of Jesus and that he had been given a proper Jewish burial. His body was placed in a tomb that had never been used, i.e., if the tomb is empty there can be no confusion whose body is missing. It also enabled them to bury Jesus on the day of Preparation, a holy day in the Jewish calendar.