Sermon: Jesus Of Nazareth, Dead And Buried: John 19:31-42

Old Testament Reading: Zechariah 12:7–10; 13:1

“And the Lord will give salvation to the tents of Judah first, that the glory of the house of David and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem may not surpass that of Judah. On that day the Lord will protect the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the feeblest among them on that day shall be like David, and the house of David shall be like God, like the angel of the Lord, going before them. ‘And on that day I will seek to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem. And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, 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…’ 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.” (Zechariah 12:7–10; 13:1, ESV)

New Testament Reading: John 19:31-42

“Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced.’ After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.” (John 19:31–42, ESV)


The point of John 19:31-42 is very simple. It is that Jesus of Nazareth really died and was buried. That is the point. Jesus really experienced death. He tasted it. He was given over to it. He endured it, really and truly. So I guess we are done here, right?

No. Though the point of the passage is indeed this simple, I think it will be good for us to settle down in it for a bit, and to approach it in two stages. First of all, I would like to move through the passage to demonstrate that this is in fact John’s concern – he is concerned that you and I know and believe that Jesus of Nazareth really died, and was buried. After that, I would like for us to stand back from the text to ask the question, why is this so important to John? Why is he so concerned that we know for sure that Jesus truly died and was buried?

Jesus Of Nazareth, Dead And Buried

First of all, notice that it is John’s primary concern to demonstrate to you and I that Jesus of Nazareth really died and was buried.

We should begin by picking up with verse 30 where we read, “When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:30, ESV)

If we were to define death only in medical terms we would describe it as the  “irreversible cessation of all vital functions especially as indicated by permanent stoppage of the heart, respiration, and brain activity (at least that is what Merriam-Webster says). But notice that the biblical conception of death is more complex. It includes what was just stated, but it demands more.

When Jesus died he indeed “bowed his head”. His body gave out. His heart stopped beating; his lungs stopped processing air; the synapses in his brain stopped firing. But we are also told that he “gave up his spirit.” There is a reminder here that we humans are not merely physical beings. We are not only made up of flesh and blood, but also of soul or spirit. There is a material aspect to our being, and an immaterial. To be human is to have a body and soul – a body and spirit. And notice that Jesus was truly human. He had a human body and a human soul. When he died he “bowed his head and gave up his spirit.”

Jesus of Nazareth experienced death in full, and John presents four witnesses to testify to it.

The Roman Executioners Are Presented As Witnesses  (vs. 31-34)

In verses 31-34 John presents the Romans executioners to us as witnesses to the death of Christ. Notice that they were certain that Jesus had died. And we should remember that these soldiers were quite familiar with death. This was nothing new to them. They were professionals in their field. And so it is not hard to see why John sets them before us as witnesses to the death of Christ.

In verse 31we read, “Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.” (John 19:31, ESV)

When we read that it was “the day of Preparation” we are to understand that it was Friday, the day before the Jewish Sabbath, which under the Old Covenant, and according to the Jewish way of measuring time, began at sundown on what we call Friday night. It was common for the Jews to refer to Friday as “the day of preparation”. It was on Fridays that final preparations were made for the proper observance of the Sabbath, which, under the Old Covenant, was on Saturday (by the way, we too should make preparations for the Lord’s Day, but that is another topic for another time). The Sabbath alluded to in John 19 was no ordinary Sabbath. We are told in verse 30 that it was a “high day”. This particular Sabbath fell during the Passover week, and for that reason, among others, it was extra special. It was a “high day”.

Again, the Jewish authorities come across hypocritical. They are willing to have an innocent man killed (ironically, he is their Messiah, though they don’t see it that way), while at the same time remaining deeply concerned to keep the nuances of their law.

Deuteronomy 21:22 says, “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:22–23, ESV) It was this law that motivated the Jewish authorities to go to Pilate and to request that the three who were crucified have their legs broken and their bodies removed from the crosses and buried.

Last week I explained that a kind wedge would be placed on the cross and under the feet of the  one being crucified – their feet being nailed to it – so that the crucified one would have something to push up against, relieving the pressure from the arms and chest, enabling the person to breath. This was not an act of kindness. It was meant to prolong the life of the crucified one and to, therefore, increase suffering. It was not uncommon for condemned criminals to struggle for days on the cross. And the Roman custom was to leave criminals on the cross even after death as warning to all who passed by.

But the Jews wanted the process expedited so that their law would not be violated – especially given that it was the Sabbath, and an important one at that. The breaking of the legs of the criminals with a large mallet would make death come much more quickly.

Verse 32: “So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:32–34, ESV)

Why Jesus died so quickly, we do not know.

Was it due to the spiritual torment that he endured on the cross? He bore our sins. He saved us from the wrath of God. The Father forsook him as he served as the substitute for all who believe upon him. Perhaps it was the extreme spiritual suffering which contributed to Christ’s body giving out so quickly.

Or perhaps it was due to the double flogging that he endured. He was beaten once before he was condemned to die. Remember, it was after this first flogging that Pilate brought him before the Jewish authorities hoping they would be satisfied with that punishment so that he could release him, but the insisted upon his crucifixion.  It was after this that Jesus was condemned to dies and handed over to the executioners. It was then that he would have been flogged in a much more brutal way, as was the custom for criminals condemned to die by way of crucifixion. Maybe it was because he was beaten, not once, but twice.

The point is that the soldiers knew he was dead. And to make sure they thrust a spear into his side. Were he alive he would have certainly responded to this prod, but instead we are simply told that from his side flowed water and blood.

Students of the Bible have long wondered about the significance of this.

All agree that it certainly proved he was dead.  D.A. Carson notes that,

“Medical experts disagree on what was pierced. The two most common theories are these: (a) The spear pierced Jesus’ heart, and the blood from the heart mingled with the fluid from the [peri-cardial] sac to produce the ‘flow of blood and water’. (b) By contrast, it has been argued that fluid from the [peri-cardial] sac could not so readily escape from the body by such a wound; it would fill up the chest cavity, filling the space around the lung and then oozing into the lung itself through the wound the spear made. [But] it has been shown that where a chest has been severely injured but without penetration, (hem-or-rhag-ic) fluid, up to two liters of it, gathers between the pleura lining the rib cage and the lining of the lung. This separates, the clearer serum at the top, the deep red layer at the bottom. If the chest cavity were then pierced at the bottom, both layers would flow out. However the medical experts work this out, there can be little doubt that the Evangelist is emphasizing Jesus’ death, his death as a man, his death beyond any shadow of doubt.”

That the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side proved his death is certain. What is often debated is if there is some symbolic significance to the blood and water.

Some believe that the water represents the waters of baptism, whereas the blood represent the wine of the Lord’s Supper. The thought here is that when the water and the blood flowed from Christ’s side it symbolically pointed to and sanctioned the two sacraments that Christ gave to his church – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I find this to be a bit of stretch.

Other believe that the water and the blood symbolize the cleansing of sins and atonement respectively. The hymn, “Rock of Ages”, goes in that direction, doesn’t it?

“Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.”

It is the blood which saves from wrath. Christ has atoned for sins.  He has made propitiation through his shed blood. And the water symbolizes the cleansing, or purification that we have in Christ. The “water and the blood” then are, therefore, a “double cure”. They “save from wrath and make [us] pure.”

I would say that it is hard to know for sure what exactly John had in mind here as if we cold say the water symbolizes this particular thing, whereas the blood symbolizes that. It cannot be denied, however, that both water and blood are loaded with symbolism in John’s Gospel, and in the rest of scripture. It seems to me that there is something symbolical going on here, as the hymn “Rock of Ages” suggests. In my opinion, I would be most reasonable to point to the Zechariah 12 and 13 passage that we read together at the beginning. John explicitly tells us that Jesus’ side was pierced in fulfillment to the scriptures. He had Zechariah 12:10 in mind. And it is in 13:1that we read “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.” (Zechariah 13:1, ESV) If John had something symbolic in mind as he mentioned the blood and water flowing from Jesus’ side, this would seem be the most natural direction to go, given the context. Perhaps John saw here a fulfillment to the promised “fountain of cleansing” of Zechariah 13:1.

What is unmistakably clear is that Jesus really died.  The Romans soldiers – the professional executioners – were sure of it, and so John presents them to us as witnesses.

John Himself Is A Witnesses  (vs. 35)

Notice, secondly, that John himself is also a witness.

In verse 35 we read, “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe.” (John 19:35, ESV)

Who is John referring to here? It is most natural, I think, and most in keeping with the way that John refers to himself throughout his Gospel, to understand John to be referring to himself. Remember that he mentions himself in his Gospel numerous times, but never by name.

And so it is right to think that John is the one who saw it. He is the one bearing witness. He is the one who testifies and promises to be telling the truth about the death of Christ. Why? So that you and I may believe.

The Scriptures Testify To The Death Of Christ (vs. 36 and 37)

Notice, thirdly, that the scriptures are set before us as testimony to Christ’s death.

Obviously I am not saying that scriptures some how witnessed Christ’s death in the way that the Romans and John did. No, I mean that John sets the Old Testament scriptures, which were written long before the birth of Christ, before us as evidence.

In verse 36 we read, “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken.’ And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced.’” (John 19:36–37, ESV)

When we read in verse 36, “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled”, we are to understand that the Old Testament scriptures, which were written hundreds, and in some instances, a thousand years or more before the birth of Christ, contain prophesies, predictions and promises concerning the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Think about that for a moment. These things were foretold. They were declared long before they happened. And John has made it a point to set a number of these scripture passages before our eyes as a testimony concerning the death of Christ, so that we might believe.

Specifically, he notes how the fact that the soldiers did not need to break the legs of Jesus served to fulfill the scripture, “not one of his bones will be broken.”

When looking for the Old Testament reference we can go in two directions. One, we can see this as a reference to Psalm 34, which is a Psalm that speaks of the way that God preserves the righteous and protests his servants from the wicked. Ultimately it is a Psalm about the Righteous One, and the Servant of God, who is Christ. In verse 20 of Psalm 34 we are told that “[God] keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.” (Psalm 34:20, ESV) So, perhaps John had that passage in mind.

This phrase “not one of his bones will be broken” might also be meant to remind us of the laws in the Old Testament which give instruction concerning the proper observance of the Passover, and the proper handling of the Passover lamb. I am thinking here of Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12. The later says, “They shall leave none of [the Passover lamb] until the morning, nor break any of its bones; according to all the statute for the Passover they shall keep it.” (Numbers 9:12, ESV)

I really do not see why would need to choose between Psalm 34:20 or the laws concerning the Passover lamb. John’s concern is that we would see Jesus as God’s righteous servant who is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who was to die for us. His death was foreordained, promised, and prefigured – that is the point. And the events that transpired at his crucifixion – even the small details – were in fulfillment to these prophesies of old.

Notice that John also mentions that the scriptures was fulfilled which says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” This is a reference certainly a reference to Zechariah 12:10 which we have already mentioned.

So much could be said about Zechariah 12 and 13 (and also Psalm 34 and the typological nature of the Passover lamb). For now I simply want to draw your attention to the main idea. Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, not because he failed his mission, but because to accomplished it. He died, not as a victim, but as the victor. He was not put to death, he was submissive to the point of death. The death of Jesus Christ was not man’s idea, it was God’s. His death was in fulfillment to scriptures written long ago. And for this reason John sets the Old Testament scriptures before us so that they might testify to the necessity of the death of the Christ.

Joseph Of Aramathea And Nicodemus Testify His Death (vs. 38-42)

Notice, fourthly, that Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus also testify to the death of Christ.

I think these two serve as powerful witnesses, especially to the non-believing Jews who may have called into question the authenticity of the death and resurrection of Christ.

Both of these men were members of the Sanhedrin. They were powerful men, well respected amongst the Jews. Think of our Senators as a modern day comparison.

We don’t know much about Joseph of Aramathea. All four Gospels make mention of the fact that he went to Pilate to ask permission to take Jesus from the cross to give him a proper burial. When all the information is gathered about him he is portrayed as a good and righteous man who was looking for the kingdom of God. He had not consented to the decision to crucify Jesus. He is called by Matthew and John a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews. Mark says that he “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.” (Mark 15:43, ESV) Indeed, it was a bold move.

Nicodemus we know. He appeared for the first time in John 3 where he is found coming to Jesus at night to ask questions of him. By the end of chapter 3 he disappears back into the night, and we are left wondering what will happen to this inquisitive one. Now we know. He emerges from the shadows and steps into the light, identifying with Jesus in his death.

Think of the power of their testimony, especially amongst the Jewish people. They possessed power and prestige. They were well respected individuals. And they, though they were formally numbered amongst the religious leaders of Israel, believed upon Jesus and were willing to identify with him in his death.

Their testimony concerning the reality of his death would have been most persuasive. After all, they took him off of the cross. They handled his body in a most direct way, wrapping him with cloths and 75 pounds of spices. They buried him in a new tomb located in a nearby garden.

Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus had nothing to gain and everything to loose. But after investigating Jesus’ claims, they believed upon him. They risked much to use the power of their position to go to Pilate, to request the body of Jesus, and to give him a proper burial, when no one else could or would.

So these are the four witness concerning the death of Jesus: The Roman soldiers, John himself, the scriptures, and Joseph and Nicodemus together.

Why Does It Matter That Jesus Truly Died?

But the question remains, why does it matter that Jesus died? Why is John so concerned to demonstrate it to us? 

Well, for one, it obviously sets up the resurrection narrative which follows. You cannot have a true resurrection without a true death. You must first establish the death, and then resurrection.

But I think there is more to it than this. If John were only interested in setting the stage for the resurrection he could have said, “he bowed his head and gave up his spirit”, and left it at that. But instead he belabors the point. He seeks to persuade us of the fact that Christ really died.

Perhaps one reason for this emphasis upon the real and true death of Christ was to combat early heresies concerning the nature of Christ. Docetism was not fully formed and mature by the time that John wrote this Gospel, but there were likely forms of it in infancy stages. The Docetists, while believing that Jesus was divine, refused to believe that he was truly human. The word Docetist comes from a greek word meaning “to seem”, and that’s a nice summery of their view. They believed that Jesus Christ only seemed to be human, but that he was not truly.

John clearly addresses the problem of Docetism in 1 John 4:2-3 when he writes, “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.” (1 John 4:2–3, ESV)

But notice something about John’s account of the crucifixion in John 19. When Jesus was on the cross, who did he address? He addressed John and his mother – the woman who gave birth to him! Also, we are told that Jesus was thirsty. When he died he bowed his head and gave up his spirit, as a human would in death. And finally when the spear was thrust into his side, he bleed. Clearly Jesus was God and man, divine and human, united together in one person.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:1,14, ESV)

But here is the most important reason for the emphasis upon the death of Christ. If he did not die, then our faith is useless. Here is how Paul puts it: “And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14, ESV) You say, but Paul says “if Christ has not been raised, then our… faith is in vain.” Yes! But he must first truly die if he is to truly rise.

And why would our faith be vain or empty or useless if Jesus Christ did not die and then raise from the dead on the third day?

Brothers and sisters, the Christian faith is not, first of all, about ethical teaching.

It is not, first of all, about morality.

It is not, first of all, about showing you how to have a happier and more satisfying life.

If it were primarily about those things, or anything of the sort, then why would Christ need to die?  Why would Paul tell us that if he did not die and rise our faith is vain? Why would John labor to demonstrate his death to us? If the faith were fundamentally and foundationally about ethics or morality – showing you how to have a happier and more fulfilling life – then there is no reason for Jesus to die. He would only need to teach! If the main question answered by the Christian faith is what would Jesus do? then he need only to live and teach and serve as our example! His death would be unnecessary.

But his death and resurrection were necessary. He came to die. And he came to die so that through death he might put death to death. That is the central thing to understand. Death is a power. It is an enemy. It has dominion over us because of sin. And it is death that Christ came to conquer, by his death and resurrection.


Last week I was struck during the catechism teaching. Every Sunday we have our children come to the front and we introduce the catechism question and answer that will be covered in the home for that week. But last week I was struck by it in a unique way. Here is what we taught our children, (some of them being very small).

Q. 22. What is the misery of that estate whereunto man fell?

A. All mankind, by their fall lost [Adam fall and ours] communion with God, are under His wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever. (Gen. 3:8,24; Eph. 2:3; Gal. 3:10; Rom. 6:23; Matt. 25:41-46; Ps. 9:17)

As I was listening to this question being introduced I thought to myself, man, this would seem so strange to a non-Christian, or to Christians who have been brought up in a gospel-light, or Jesus-light, or doctrine-light tradition. Who teaches this sort of thing to their little ones? The answer: we do. Why? Because we know that the good news of Jesus Christ makes no sense whatsoever unless it is understood against the backdrop of the bad news of Genesis 3. The good news makes no sense at all unless it given after the bad. The covent of grace which Christ kept can be understood only against the backdrop of the covent of works, which Adam broke. To understand the gospel, we must first understand the law. To say to someone, Jesus died for sins, repent and believe upon him for your salvation! sounds very absurd unless we also explain who Jesus was, why he had to die, and what he in fact saves us from.

The misery of man’s state after the fall is that we have indeed lost communion with God, we are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever. This is our condition. And this is why Jesus died. He truly died to undo and reverse all of that for those who call out upon his name.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23, ESV)

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