“A Bone of Him Shall Not Be Broken”
From the March / April 1994 issue of The Concordia Lutheran
“A Bone of Him Shall Not Be Broken”
“When they came to Jesus and saw that He was dead already, they brake not His legs… that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘A bone of Him shall not be broken.” –John 19:33 and 36
How significant this precious text of God’s Word should be to us Christians as we meditate upon the great passion of our Savior and His vicarious atonement for the sins of the world! And yet, many who read in the Gospels the passion history of Jesus’ suffer-ing and death tend to gloss over the pertinent event recorded in our text as a mere “detail” of something that “just happened” and thus miss its striking importance. Indeed, though St. John alone reports it in his Gospel by inspiration of the Holy Ghost, he states precisely why he does so, namely, “that ye might believe.” In this case, what the soldiers did NOT do is just as significant as what they did.
We note in the context (v. 31) that the Jews, in their fastidious effort to observe the outward ceremonies of the Law (while flagrantly transgressing its substance), demanded of Pilate that the victims of crucifixion on Calvary’s hill be unceremoniously “dispatched” so that their bodies could be removed from sight before the onset of the Sabbath. Not only was the Sabbath itself “an high day” for the Jews, but the Sabbath at the time of Passover was especially important to them. No matter that they had murdered the very Son of God, the promised Messiah, by their hatred of Him, by their evil plotting, their false witness, their blasphemy, their envious bloodthirst, and their screaming cries for His crucifixion — they were more concerned that the mere presence of dead bodies (and particularly the corpses of executed criminals) would defile them and make them unworthy to eat the Passover (Deuteronomy 21:23), even though there was a clear-cut exception made by God Himself in Numbers 9:6-9! And, while the Romans generally preferred to let the victims hang on their crosses for even days at a time to die a slow and torturous death and, at the same time, to serve as a deterrent example to the people passing by, the Jews’ request to hurry the process was often granted as a political gesture of good will. Thus the soldiers assigned to the execution detail would, on special orders, take clubs and literally beat the victims to death, deliberately breaking their legs and other bones to inflict fatal trauma and hasten their end. Upon Pilate’s authorization, the grizzly task was carried out as the soldiers on duty began with the “malefactors” crucified with Jesus, both of whom were apparently still alive on their crosses as the shadows began to lengthen on Good Friday afternoon.
“But when they came to Jesus, and saw that He was dead already, they brake not His legs.” The fact that they “saw” that Jesus was dead is of no small importance, for these men were experienced execu-tioners who recognized by sight the difference between a living person and a cadaver. And, even if, as scoffers claim, their “trained eyes” had somehow deceived them, their commander, the centu-rion, was present when Jesus died (Matthew 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47), witnessed how He expired, and spoke of Him in the past tense! Add to that the sure punishment of death for dereliction of duty that all of them would have faced if Jesus’ body had been released alive to Joseph of Arimathea!! They had absolutely no vested interest in neglecting the battering of Jesus’ body, if indeed He had been alive. But they dispensed with the breaking of His legs because He “was dead already” (v. 33). And just to make sure, “one of the soldiers with a spear pierced His side”–whether with a shallow probing “prick” to check for any reaction (as some surmise), or whether with a deep plunge into Jesus’ body (as Thomas’ post-Easter examination of the wound seems to indicate, John 20:25 & 27), the result was the same– “forthwith came there out blood and water”, forensic evidence that true death had occurred. They saw it; their commander assured Pilate of it (Mark 15:44-45); John knew it and testified to the fact by inspiration of God. And, instead of rushing Him off for medical treatment, Jesus’ friends buried Him! There was no need to “break His legs”. The objective evidence of Jesus’ real death –factual, forensic and circumstantial– is overwhelming!
But that is not the only reason why the soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs. John says that “these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled.” From the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Gabriel announced to Joseph the Savior’s conception by the Holy Ghost in his virgin wife (v. 22) to Jesus’ rebuke of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus after His resurrection (Luke 24:25-27), the holy, inspired record of Jesus’ brief visible sojourn here on earth stresses throughout His perfect fulfillment of all the prophe-cies concerning the promised Messiah. And even those prophecies which spoke of events, circumstances and deeds played out by others were fulfilled to the letter (from the journey of the Wise Men and Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s babies to the piercing of Jesus’ hands, feet and side, and His burial in the tomb of wealthy Joseph of Arimathea). How foolishly, yea, how brazenly and wickedly, the critics of the Holy Scriptures scoff at their inerrancy and authority when, time and time again with perfect consistency, “the words which the Holy Ghost teacheth” (I Cor. 2:13) vindicate themselves against any and every challenge! To any objective examiner, the critics indeed take on the appearance and character of clowns, jugglers and contortionists for all the “mental gymnastics” to which they resort and all the “off-the-wall” assumptions they make to discredit the verbally inspired Word of God! What proud know-nothings they are, “men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth” as St. Paul describes them in I Timothy 6:3-5!
Nevertheless, all of these things impact upon the chief reason why not a bone of the Lord Jesus was broken, and why the evangel-ist John reports this “detail” in his Gospel account, namely, “that ye might believe.” Believe what in particular? John expands on this reason in chapter 20, verse 31, saying “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His Name.” For the key to the importance of Jesus’ bones not having been broken, we go back to Exodus chapter 12, where the Lord through Moses instructed the Children of Israel concerning the Passover, particularly concerning the Passover lamb that was to be sacrificed, prepared, and eaten by the people– the lamb whose blood, painted on the doorframes of their houses, would save them from the Angel of Death. Do you remember the description of that lamb? –“Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year; …and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses wherein they shall eat it. …And when He seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.”
Not only is the promised Messiah described in specific prophe-cies of the Old Testament as “a lamb” (in Isaiah 53 for example), but in the New Testament, in John 1:29, Jesus is called “the Lamb of God” by John the Baptist; and thereafter this precious imagery is repeated, not in a vague sentimental manner but with specific reference to the Old Testament Passover as a type of Christ, who was the true sacrificial Lamb slain vicariously to deliver sinners from death. Take, for example, I Peter 1:18-19, where the Apostle says, “Ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things…but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.” And the Apostle Paul clearly identifies the Passover Lamb as a type of Christ in His vicarious atonement, leaving nothing to inference or to our deduction, saying in I Corinthians 5:7, “For even Christ, our Passover, is sacrificed for us.” Why? The writer to the Hebrews answers, “That through death He might…deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage,” that is, to deliver from slavery to sin, death and the devil poor sinners who, through fear of the “wages of sin” because of their iniquities, were in perpetual spiritual bondage and had nothing to look forward to but everlasting death in hell!
The seemingly insignificant fact that not a bone of the Lord Jesus was broken seals to us the assurance that He is without doubt “the Christ, the Son of God,” (John 20:31), the true Passover Lamb slain for sinners, and that, as such, His blood “cleanseth us from all sin.” (I John 1:7) Witness this, first of all, in the description of how the Passover lamb was to be handled according to the Lord’s directive in Exodus 12:46– “In one house shall it be eaten; thou shalt not carry forth ought of the flesh abroad out of the house; neither shall ye break a bone thereof.” And in Numbers 9:12 we read the same– “They shall leave none of it unto the morning, nor break any bone of it.” Moreover, as we noted before, even these statements were prophetic of “Christ, our Passover” as David writes of Him in Psalm 34:20, “He keepeth all His bones: not one of them is broken.” …And even Pilate’s heathen soldiers, who knew nothing of these prophecies in the Old Testament, were compelled to comply with them in spite of their orders, “that the Scripture should be fulfilled, ‘A bone of Him shall not be broken.'”
What a wonderful, iron-clad testimony to the authority and reliability of God’s Word! And what a reassuring and comforting evidence for our faith in the all-sufficient vicarious atonement of our Savior, the Lamb of God, for whose sake God reconciled the world unto Himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them (II Corinthians 5:19)! “They brake not His legs,” John reminds us, “that the Scripture should be fulfilled” (v. 36) AND “that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through His Name.” (20:31)
Here we have a firm foundation,
here the refuge of the lost:
Christ’s the Rock of our salvation,
His the Name of which we boast:
LAMB OF GOD, for sinners wounded,
Sacrifice to cancel guilt!
None shall ever be confounded
who on Him their hope have built!
L.H. 153, 4