Although the world may deny the reality of sin—and thus the need for salvation—as Christians, we face the reality of our own sin on a daily basis. We have come to Christ because we understand our need to be saved from God’s judgment. Sadly, though, too many of us are still tempted to address our sin in ungodly, unbiblical, and even, well, sinful ways. Like our first father Adam, we try to hide from God, foolishly thinking we can cover up our own sin—and herein lies the great gospel irony. Instead of us running away from God and covering up our sin, God promises that when we run to him and uncover it—that is, confess it—he receives us and covers our sin in the blood of his Son. This is why Jesus died.
He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed (Isa. 53:5).
So rather than play hide-and-seek with God when we sin, let us run to him and plunge into the fountain of Jesus’ blood, that we may be cleansed from all our sin. This is the glorious point of John 19:31–37: Jesus died on the cross as our Passover Lamb to open a fountain of cleansing from sin, so that all who believe in him may have eternal life.
A Reasonable Request (John 19:31)
Behold Jesus on the cross (John 19:16–27). With his last breath he declared “It is finished” and gave up his spirit (19:30). Yet, not knowing that Jesus had died, the Jews (or rather, their leaders) asked Pilate to hurry the deaths of the crucified criminals by breaking their legs. Contrary to how it may sound to our contemporary ears, their request is not only reasonable, but it is also merciful (whether intentional or not). By all accounts, death by crucifixion was excruciating. Those who managed to survive the brutality of the torture up to this point eventually died of asphyxiation as fluid slowly filled their lungs. They struggled to survive, living breath by breath as they pushed up from their nail-pierced ankles for one more gasp. Once their legs were broken, however, and they could no longer push themselves up, they died quickly.
The Jews had other, more pressing reasons for their request, however. The Sabbath was about to begin, and this raised two dilemmas. According to the Law of Moses, a criminal who was hung on a tree was not to remain overnight. He was to be buried that same day, “for a hanged man is cursed by God,” and to leave him hanging on a tree would defile the land (Deut. 21:22–23). Additionally, once the Sabbath arrived, the Jews would not be able to bring the bodies down from their crosses because they could do no work. Consequently, since it was the day of Preparation for the Sabbath during the Passover week,1 the Jews made a reasonable request that the criminals’ legs be broken. It is this reasonable request that provides the setting for the apostle John’s eyewitness account.
An Eyewitness Account (John 19:32–35)
Clearly, Pilate granted the Jews’ request. In verse 32, John testifies to the common practice of crurifragium, the breaking of the crucified criminals’ legs. To hasten their deaths, the soldiers break the legs of one criminal, then the other “who had been crucified with him” (v. 32). When they came to Jesus, however, “they saw that he was already dead,” so there was no need to break his legs (v. 33). Instead, to verify his death, one of the soldiers picked up a spear and pierced Jesus’ side; immediately, blood and water flowed out (v. 34). Although medical experts disagree as to what organs were pierced, that is beside the point. At issue is not specific human anatomy but the death of Jesus, which was now verified by the Roman soldiers.
Because John had been there all along, he serves as an eyewitness to Jesus’ death. He was there when Jesus, while hanging on the cross, asked him to care for his mother as his own (v. 27). He was there in the final moments of Jesus’ life when he said “It is finished” and gave up his spirit (vv. 28–29). And he was there when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side and blood and water flowed out (v. 34). So, John’s “testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth” (v. 35; cf. 21:24).
But he is no mere eyewitness. John admits to having an evangelistic agenda: “That you also may believe” (v. 35). Having been with Jesus during his public ministry and having witnessed his life, teaching, miracles, and now his death, John believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God. He has recorded the account of Jesus’ death in great detail that we too may believe. This is, after all, the burden of John’s Gospel: to present the evidence for Jesus’ Sonship, that those who believe may have eternal life in him (20:31). Richard Lucas argues that the key to unlocking John’s Gospel is understanding how John interweaves the three themes of evidence (testimony), faith (belief), and life.2 John admits to hand-selecting his material as evidence that Jesus is the promised anointed king of Israel, so that through faith in him, we may have eternal life.
But in order to have eternal life, we must believe that Jesus, the God-man, really died on the cross. Why must we believe in the death of Christ in order to have life in Christ? Or to ask the question another way, how does the death of Jesus on a Roman cross provide hope of eternal life? Well, ever since Adam sinned, we’ve known that all sin deserves the death penalty (Gen. 2:15). Everyone dies (1 Cor. 15:22). Because we are all born united with Adam—having inherited his sin, guilt, and corruption—we therefore deserve God’s punishment for our sin: death (Rom. 5:12–21). On the cross, however, Jesus died and it was he who received God’s just penalty for sin upon himself.
As the first representative of humanity, Adam introduced sin into the world. To save humanity, we needed another human representative—one who would be faithful and without sin in order to undo Adam’s sin. So, as the last Adam, Jesus took on our flesh and blood, living the life of perfect obedience that God requires of every person. As our representative, Jesus went to the cross and paid the penalty of death for sin that we all owe (Heb. 2:14–15). John reports Jesus’ death in great detail to show us how Jesus saves us by his death. But to understand how Jesus’ death saves us, he offers two scriptural explanations.
Two Scriptural Explanations (John 19:36–37)
First, all who believe in Jesus have eternal life because Jesus died on the cross as our Passover Lamb (v. 36). Like Israel’s Passover lamb, not one of Jesus’ bones was broken (v. 36). In preparation of Israel’s rescue from slavery and before the final judgment plague against Egypt—the killing of the firstborn—the Lord instituted the Passover (Exod. 12). All who trusted Yahweh to rescue them were to take an unblemished lamb and kill it (Exod. 12:5–6). They were then to take the blood of the Passover lamb and apply it to the doorposts of their houses (Exod. 12:7), so that when the Lord passed through the land of Egypt in judgment, he would pass over the houses where he saw blood on the doorposts (Exod. 12:12–13). But in making their preparations, they were not to break any of the bones of the Passover lamb (Exod. 12:46; cf. Num. 9:12).
As promised, the Lord passed over the homes of those who, in faith, applied the blood of the Passover lamb to their doorposts. After this, Israel was to eat this Passover meal every year to remember their deliverance and to teach their children of the Lord’s salvation. But this annual memorial was only a shadow that pointed forward to the fulfillment in a once-for-all sacrifice of the unblemished and unbroken Passover Lamb who would put an end to all sacrifices, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). By testifying that not a bone of Jesus’ body was broken (v. 36), John indicates that Jesus is our Passover Lamb (1 Cor. 5:7; cf. Ps. 34:20). As with Israel’s Passover lamb, so also with Jesus. God’s judgment against our sin—namely, the death penalty—passed over us and fell instead on Jesus. Now, all who believe in Jesus are passed over in judgment because our Passover Lamb’s blood has been applied to us directly.
As our Passover Lamb, Jesus was nailed to the cross, condemned as a criminal. He received the death penalty we deserve. Thus Jesus’ death was both penal and substitutionary. But Jesus’ death was also propitiatory. God would not be just if he simply passed over sin. In his death on the cross, Jesus is the Passover Lamb who absorbs God’s wrath on behalf of all repentant sinners. So, by putting Jesus forward as a propitiation for sin, God is both just in punishing sin and forgiving sin (Rom. 3:21–26). This is good news indeed! And it is confirmed in the next scriptural explanation.
Second, all who believe in Jesus have eternal life because Jesus died on the cross to open a fountain of cleansing from sin (v. 37). Citing Zechariah 12:10, John adds, “And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced.’” Zechariah 12 announces God’s salvation as beginning in Jerusalem. Although Jerusalem would be besieged by the nations on that day, the Lord strengthens the clans of Judah (Zech. 12:5–6), bringing them salvation (Zech. 12:7–8) and destroying “all the nations that come against Jerusalem” (Zech. 12:9). Then God will spiritually renew his people who had gathered in Jerusalem in victory, pouring out “a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy” (Zech. 12:10). But this spiritual renewal will lead to great mourning for one whom they have killed. Surprisingly, the one whom they pierce is none other than Yahweh himself: “When they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zech. 12:10; italics mine).
In Zechariah 11, God announced judgment on Israel’s shepherds because they neglected God’s sheep and led them to slaughter. Therefore, Yahweh himself became their shepherd (Zech. 11:7); and in Zechariah 13, Yahweh provided Israel with “my shepherd,” but the shepherd was struck and the people scattered (Zech. 13:7). If in Zechariah 12:10, it is the Lord’s shepherd who is pierced, then he is so closely associated with Yahweh that it is as if they had pierced him personally. The Lord who redeems Jerusalem and Judah, then, provides them with a shepherd whom they pierce (Zech. 12:10); but because of their spiritual renewal, they grieve over their sin and rebellion in killing the Lord’s shepherd. All hope is not lost, however, for “on that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness” (Zech. 13:1).
By citing this text from Zechariah, John highlights that Jesus’ death on the cross—his piercing that caused blood and water to flow from his side—opens a fountain of forgiveness for those who mourn over their sin. Jesus is God’s beloved Son, the faithful shepherd whom Yahweh provided to shepherd his people. When those who are God’s sheep look upon him whom they have pierced, they grieve over their sin, because it was their sin that put him there. But when others look on him whom they have pierced, when he returns on that last day, they “will wail on account of him,” for he will come in judgment (Rev. 1:7). Both will look on him whom they pierced, and both will mourn. One will be saved, and the other will be condemned. The death of Jesus on the cross divides humanity for all eternity.
A Fountain of Cleansing
How do you deal with your sin? We can try to cleanse ourselves by doing good works or by turning over a new leaf, but our sin remains. The more we try to cleanse ourselves, the dirtier we become. Or we can just try to hide from God, like Adam and Eve, but the Lord knows where to find us. Similarly, we may try to cover up our sin. We can rationalize it, downplay it, or even deny it outright. But unless our conscience is totally seared, our guilt remains; we can become so weighed down by it that we fall into despair.
Yet John reminds us that the blood that flowed from Jesus’ pierced side is a fountain of cleansing from sin to all who believe in Jesus. This is good news for you. Come, believe in Jesus and bathe in this fountain. He will cleanse you from all your sins. Look upon the cross and see the Savior hanging there. By faith in Jesus, confess your sin and ask God to forgive you on the basis of Jesus’ blood.
The fountain is always open; and whenever you may sin, Christian, you can come again and plunge in. Instead of running from God, run to him and wash in the cleansing fountain opened up to us by Jesus’ death on the cross. The very thing you’re trying to do in covering up your sin, God offers to do for you by covering it in Jesus’ blood. So confess your sins, knowing that God will forgive you in Christ. Confess also to those you have sinned against, because the God who made peace with you through the blood of his Son makes peace between brothers and sisters through that same blood.
The good news of Jesus’ death on the cross as our Passover Lamb, whose blood opened a fountain of cleansing from sin, is so glorious and God-glorifying that we will sing of it for all eternity. We have “washed [our] robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14). And together, with all the angelic hosts, we will sing of Jesus:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev. 5:9)
Until that day, though, we continue to look upon Jesus on the cross, not just for our salvation as the Passover lamb, and not just for our continual forgiveness as our cleansing fountain, but also for our perseverance. So until that day, let us remember Jesus’ death on the cross, proclaiming him as our Passover Lamb and inviting all to cleanse in the fountain of forgiveness whenever we gather as a church. Until that day, let us meditate on Jesus’ death as we sit down together at the Lord’s Table, remembering his human body (bread) broken for us and his blood (wine) spilled for us for the forgiveness of sin. Until that day, let us sing of Jesus’ sacrifice, as so many have done before us and as we will all do for all eternity. Until that day, let us sing “Rock of Ages” by Augustus Toplady:
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee; Let the water and the blood, From Thy riven side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Save me from its guilt and power.
Or “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” by Fannie Crosby:
Jesus, keep me near the cross, There is a precious fountain; Free to all, a healing stream, Flows from Calv’ry’s mountain.
But perhaps no hymn captures the truths of John 19:31–37 better than William Cowper’s “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood”:
There is a fountain filled with blood Drawn from Immanuel’s veins; And sinners, plunged beneath that flood . . . Lose all their guilty stains. The dying thief rejoiced to see That fountain in his day; And there may I, though vile as he . . . Wash all my sins away. Dear dying Lamb, Thy precious blood Shall never lose its pow’r, Till all the ransomed Church of God . . . Be saved, to sin no more. E’er since by faith I saw the stream Thy flowing wounds supply, Redeeming love has been my theme . . . And shall be till I die. When this poor lisping, stamm’ring tongue Lies silent in the grave, Then in a nobler, sweeter song . . . I’ll sing Thy pow’r to save.
Jesus died on the cross as a part of God’s eternal plan to reconcile all things in his beloved Son. Jesus’ death was not an accident; it was not a hoax; it was a voluntary, saving act. Because Jesus died on the cross, all who believe in him are passed over in judgment and cleansed from sin, because Jesus is our Passover Lamb who opened a fountain of forgiveness, filled with the blood that flowed from his side. So, come, plunge beneath that flood and lose all your guilty stains.
Juan Sanchez (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas. Juan also serves as a council member of the Gospel Coalition, cofounder and president of Coalición, assistant professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and president of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. He has authored numerous books, including 1 Peter for You and Seven Dangers Facing Your Church