When Jesus hung on the cross, Roman soldiers “pierced his side with a spear” (John 19:34). And something entirely unexpected happened. Jesus did not just bleed. Water and blood flowed from his side.
This event so impressed the early Christians that about sixty years later, John records this event and emphasized that “He who saw it has borne witness” (John 19:35). John needs his readers to know that an eyewitness saw it happen. And he emphasizes: “His testimony is true, and he knows he is telling the truth.”
Why did John (likely himself the eyewitness) so strongly remember this event sixty years in his past and want his readers to know about it for perpetuity?
John answers, “So that you also may believe.” Along with the unbroken bones of Jesus, blood and water flowing from the side of Jesus bring about belief.
And John repeats this epochal moment of salvation in history elsewhere. He writes in 1 John: “This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth” (1 John 5:6).
And here he makes the claim that the Spirit testifies to the blood and water of Christ. The apostolic preaching of John included the message of blood and water flowing from Christ’s side. And the Spirit testified to the veracity of his preaching.
So not only did an eyewitness see the blood and water, but the Spirit testifies of them. For John, this event provides a key event for the sake of our faith.
In what way?
Oscar Cullman provides a compelling argument for what the symbols of blood and water point to, which I will paraphrase and expand on here (Cullmann 1953: 114-116).
Blood indicates death. And Jesus has elsewhere defined what his bloody death means. He explains that his blood represents the blood of the new covenant poured out for the forgiveness of sins and memorialized at the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:17–23). So the blood represents Christ’s blood poured out for us in the New Covenant and partaken of in the Lord’s Supper.
If the blood signals the reality of the Lord’s Supper, then what about the water? Water refers to baptism which signifies the Spirit’s renewal, regeneration, and cleansing of the faithful. Jesus already tied the water to the Spirit in John 3:5: “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
And only after Jesus dies and rises can the Spirit come (John 20:22). Hence, this moment on the cross highlights the blood since it points to the memorial meal of Christ’s blood and the water since the Spirit follows the water from his side to regenerate the people of God.
The blood and water are not only realities (res) but also, according to John, “signs” (John 20:30). Signs point to things. A stop sign points to the requirement to stop. In the Gospel of John, the signs of blood and water point to the institutions of baptism and the supper. And these two institutions themselves further evoke the realities of the cross.
Small wonder then that John repeated the blood and water twice in Scripture and preached it as part of the apostolic kerygma. These two signs sum up the good news of Jesus Christ. He died for us and gives us the Spirit, which we celebrate in the supper and confirm in baptism.
Mark Matthias says
I think this one, Wyatt, is a bit of a stretch. If I wanted to write an essay on this subject I would start with passages like Matthew 3:15, where that righteousness was Jewish and only the Jews would have recognized it for what it was worth…”Micvah”, cf John 1:25 showing the extreme importance of water rites, which of course was a necessity in the Mosaic era. How many times can we compare the metaphoric use of water, wind, air, breath, etc. with the activity and person of the HS? Quite a lot…Ezekiel 36:25-27; and I notice John 3:5 follows John 3:3 in which one becomes spiritual so that in verse 5 he may receive the HS, without which no way to enter heaven. A person can receive water baptism and not have his heart into the event as would be required in Rom. 10:9, and so on. 1 Corinthians 1:17, cf Acts 19:1… One cannot receive the HS and not have his heart in it. I would do a quick 20 pages but you know how Word Press is.
Wyatt, thank you for that. You are right on track. There is a great significance to the event of water and blood flowing from the side of Christ. Let me ask you to consider another possibility. In Hebrews 9:19 the writer explains how the Israelites, having been brought out of Egypt and taken up into Sinai to meet their God, receive His law, accept His covenant and become His peculiar people, …were sprinkled, not only with the “blood” of calves, but the blood was mixed with water. It seems to be understood that when sprinkling occurred with the hyssop, that the process was accommodated by mixing the blood with water although not so stated in Exodus 24. Blood and water are recognizable and identifiable symbols of God’s salvation down through the centuries of time by many examples, whereas “blood” is well known, but the “water” less known nevertheless is there (the flood, Red Sea, Naaman’s leprosy, John the Baptist). Blood and water, recognizable components and identifiable elements in God’s plan of salvation. For good reason to the observer; No blood (don’t believe that God became flesh) – no salvation. No water baptism (refuse to render obedience to the command that unites one with Christ being baptized “into” Christ), —no salvation (Gal. 2:27). Any “preaching” of “a” gospel that is devoid of these identifiable characteristics of salvation is not the same as “the word of the truth of the gospel” of Jesus Christ (II Jn. 1:7; I Pet. 3:21; John 3:5).
If Jesus calls sinners out of sin and into a life of obedience, shouldn’t it start with a simple act of obedient faith.
“By faith Abraham……..obeyed” (Hebrews 11:8)
“But they have not all obeyed the gospel…” (Rom. 10:16).
Those who have been baptized have “obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine that was delivered” unto them (death, burial and resurrection), and thereafter are servants of Christ rather than servants of sin.
Rafael Reyes says
I see the relation between blood and water.
Water cleanse the dirt of our spiritual life.
Blood takes us to have a relationship with God.
Both combined allowed us to experience his presence.
I never thought about this before.
Nathalie Russell says
I went to Medugorje many years ago and had an amazing experience, most notably I went to confession after 20 years of avoiding the church. When I returned to the States and attended Mass at my local church I was so filled with love for Jesus that upon receiving communion as I knelt and began to pray I was transported to what I thought was a washing machine! Gushing water, I was surrounded by and could hear the water gushing…followed by gushing blood which again I was “in it” and the loud gushing and I knew it was blood. This, of course, truly frightened me. I was not well versed with regards to Catholic teachings or the Bible and kept silent for a very long time…I thought perhaps God was angry with me because of the sins I had confessed in Medugorje. But I was wrong, and now know this was truly a gift. I share this with all of you because I have a feeling someone needs to hear this…don’t know who but this is my testimony and I stand by it and so does Jesus. Amen.