The burial of Jesus. 19:31-42


John continues with the passion narrative, recording the death of Jesus the man, his piercing, his removal from the cross and burial.

The passage

v31. It was the day of preparation before the Sabbath, a high Sabbath because it coincided with the Passover celebrations. Evening was fast approaching with the Sabbath beginning at Rather than despoil the Sabbath, the Jewish authorities requested that the execution be hastened by breaking the legs of the crucified so that they would die quickly from asphyxiation, enabling their bodies to be removed.

v32-34. The two criminals are visibly alive and so their legs are broken, but Jesus is visibly dead and so one of the soldiers makes sure by driving a spear into his heart. Although much is often made of the flow of blood and water, it is likely John is simply making the point that Jesus did die and that his death was a human death, not the death of some spiritual or divine being feigning humanity.

v35. The writer of the gospel now confirms that the events of the crucifixion were witnessed by the "beloved disciple", John the apostle, whose testimony is the source of this gospel. The purpose of his testimony, of the whole ministry of Jesus, not just his passion, is so that we might have faith in Christ for life eternal.

v36-37. The writer shows how the non-breaking of Jesus' legs and the spearing of his side, fulfills scripture. The first quote may derive from Exodus 21:46, or Numbers 9:12, or even Psalm 34:20. It is likely that the writer has in mind the symbolism of the Exodus and the Passover lamb, but Jesus is also the righteous man who comes under the care of God. The second quote, Zechariah 12:10, concerns the Lord's stricken shepherd, set upon in the sight of all the people. In John, those who look on are not so much the crowd or the soldiers, but those who look through the eyes of the beloved disciple, those who look in faith upon the pierced saviour.

v38. Joseph of Arimathea, who had kept his support for Jesus hidden, steps into the limelight and organizes, with Pilate's permission, the collection and burial of Jesus' body. The normal practice was to let vultures dispose of the body, so again we see, in Pilate's actions, his obvious belief that Jesus was innocent. Joseph sets out to bury Jesus with honour and dignity.

v39. Nicodemus joins Joseph in collecting Jesus and brings with him powdered spices suitable for laying out the body; over thirty kilos (100 Roman pounds) in weight. The amount is excessive, but great-ones of the past were buried with large quantities of spices, so the point being made is that Jesus deserves at least the same respect.

v40. Joseph and Nicodemus, and likely other helpers, take the body of Jesus and prepare it for burial. The body is anointed with essential oils and wrapped in lengths of linen material. It is most likely that strips of material, as in Egyption mummification, were not used. Probably two lengths of sheeting were used with possibly the feet bound and a small towel placed over the face. The powdered spices were probably used as a bed for the body to lay on and for burning incense.



v41-42. All the gospels tell us it is a new tomb, Matthew that it is cut out of stone and implies it is owned by Joseph. John tells us that it is near to where Jesus was crucified and that the tomb is in a garden. The authorities would be pleased that the disciples didn't attempt to bury a convicted criminal in a general cemetery, while the gospel writers obviously consider the site a proper resting place for the Son of God.

Blood and water

The medico's tell us that the flogging Jesus endured most likely caused hemorrhagic fluid to build up in the space between his ribs and the lung. The spear thrust below the lung, evacuated this fluid first, which was then followed by a flow of blood. At a first reading it seems that John makes a big point about this flow of blood and water, but the point he is making is that Jesus died and he died in a way testified by scripture: they gambled over his clothing, no bones were broken and he was pierced.

Many a sermon has been preached on the symbolism of the flow of blood and water. From saint Chrysostom till today the flow is symbolically linked to the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. C.H. Dodd, one of the foremost interpreters of John's gospel, runs a different symbolic line, arguing that the flow of blood and water is the pivotal sign of the flow of life that comes to believers through the death of Christ. The trouble is, does John really make this symbolic connection?

John's point is probably a very simple one; Jesus died the death of a real human person. He wasn't some spiritual apparition, a divine being pretending to be human. Nor was he not quite dead, able to revive in the tomb and wander around for forty days until his wounds got the better of him. No, he died the death of a real flesh and blood human person.

On the death of Jesus the real man, rests our eternal salvation. We have to wait for Paul the apostle to explain how this link works, but essential to it working is the actual death of a flesh and blood saviour. Jesus dies the death of a real person so that real persons like us don't have to face eternal death.


Discuss the symbolic meaning of the flow of blood and water put forward by C.H. Dodd. Gather evidence fore and against his position.

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