Gospel of John: Witness to Death


According to Jo-Ann A. Brant, Jesus’s crucifixion and burial are described in seven movements, in John’s gospel.

  1. Crucifixion, John 19:16-18
  2. Contention concerning the inscription above Jesus’s cross, John 19:19-22
  3. Casting lots over Jesus’s clothing, John 19:23-25
  4. Committing of John and Mary the mother of Jesus to each other, John 19:25-27
  5. Christ’s spirit commended into God’s hands, John 19:28-30
  6. Cut of the Centurion’s spear, John 19:31-37
  7. Consignment of Christ to the tomb, John 19:38-42

What -really- happened?

  • Did Jesus merely faint from exhaustion on the cross?
  • Did Jesus secretly take, or was given a drug that made him only appear to die?
  • Was Pilate bribed to let Jesus be taken down from the cross while he was yet alive?

Swoon theories are like urban myths. When examined, the actual facts disprove the myth, but the myth keeps getting repeated. So, the writers of the gospels—and especially John—were careful to document the reality of Jesus’ s physical death and his physical resurrection.


Six Proofs of Death

1) Curtain Torn

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.

Matthew 27:51 (NRSV)
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

Remember that at 12 noon this oppressive darkness descended and lasted for about three hours. Then at 3 p.m. the darkness lifted, just in time for the priests to finish sacrificing the Passover lambs, and for the regular rotation to tend to the incense and the show bread in the Holy Place. At that moment when Jesus gave up his spirit, a powerful earthquake shook, causing rocks to split open, an act of God.

This same phenomenon was reported in three other ancient sources: Josephus, Tacitus, and the Talmud, which all mention the splitting of the lintel over the temple entrance.

Josephus also corroborates the temple curtain torn in two from top to bottom, recording that many believed this was by God’s hand as a warning of the coming destruction in 70 A.D. Considering how active the temple courts were at this time of day, this possibly accounts for the many priests who became believers in the first weeks after Pentecost.

At sixty feet long, twenty feet high and as thick as a man’s palm is wide, it took three hundred priests to move the temple curtain. Its purpose was to separate sinful people from the holy presence of God. The Holy of Holies was considered the most sacred place on the whole earth because it was here that God had chosen to personally dwell among God’s people, making God’s throne the mercy seat atop the Ark of the Covenant.

Yom Kippur

The most important day of the year for those of Jewish faith was (and remains) the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, when God accepted the symbolic shedding of animals’ blood as atonement for the sins of all the people, and gave everyone a new beginning.

Only once a year could one person, the high priest, enter into the Holy of Holies and only after he had been ritually purified and was holding in his hands a bowl of blood from the sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the nation. He went in with a rope tied around his ankle in case he displeased God and died on the spot, so that someone could drag out his body.

Holy God could not be approached by unholiness.

The writer of Hebrews explained the significance of the torn curtain. When Jesus’ physical body went through the agony of death, that tearing of life from him was signified in the tearing of the curtain, making the way open between people and God.

Once a year blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat, the atonement cover of the Ark, symbolizing God’s willingness to accept a substitute for the penalty of sin.

But what Jesus did was not symbolic. What he did was for real. All of sin was transferred onto Jesus, who was taken outside the city gate to be crucified. He took the penalty of sin, but also the guilt of sin. Jesus then literally became the way for you and me to enter into the original Holy of Holies in heaven to stand before God cleansed completely from sin. Because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness of sins.

The high priest had to repeat the ritual of the Day of Atonement year after year, but the Lord Jesus Christ came to finish the work nobody else could do. He offered up himself and died, once and for all, for the sins of the world.

In heaven, in the original Holy of Holies, Jesus entered the throne room of God as the true High Priest for all humankind. But also as the true sacrificial lamb. It was his own blood that was carried into the holiest place before God. And this time when this priest brought this blood, it accomplished for all time what God wanted to accomplish.

2) Tombs Opened

The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Matthew 27:53-53 (NRSV)
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

Earthquakes often symbolized the judgment of God.

This was an enormous earthquake:

  • Physically, for the dead were literally shaken from their graves, but also
  • Spiritually, with a force so powerful that when the earth moved the dead arose. The tomb had lost its power to hold the dead, death lost its victory.

These were real people who had only recently died because they were recognized by the current dwellers of Jerusalem. Later, these holy people entered Jerusalem after the resurrection. Since this is the sole record of what happened, we can only speculate what it means, but one thing we can know:

What Jesus did not only propitiated for sin, but opened the way for new life.

Jesus’ obedience, even to death, reordered creation so that the faithful dead could now live.

3) Centurion Testifies

Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was [the Son of God]!

Mark 15:39
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

Matthew mentioned the centurion’s terror and Luke added the centurion’s praise of God, saying, “Surely this was a righteous man.”

A centurion was a commander of a hundred men, hardened by battle, seasoned in the work of killing people. He heard Jesus’ words, saw how the Lord prayed for the centurion and his men, gently cared for those who came to be with him at the cross, listened as Jesus cried out to the Father and then purposefully gave up his spirit. He saw how Jesus died, as a conqueror loudly proclaiming “It is finished!” He experienced the darkness and earthquake, saw the tombs break open and the dead rise.

This hardened soldier’s testimony professed Jesus a good and righteous man, the Son of God—and coming from a Roman, whose emperor alone was authorized to claim sonship to divinity, this is probably the most remarkable witness of all.

4) Bones Not Broken

Therefore the Judeans, it being [the Day of] Preparation, so that the bodies not stay upon the crosses in the Sabbathfor the Sabbath was very great—they asked Pilate that they break their legs and bear them away. So, the soldiers came and indeed broke the legs of the first, and the next one crucified together with him. But upon coming to Jesus, they observed and perceived he having already died, did not break his legs.

John 19:31-33
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

Deuteronomy indicated how bad it would be to leave a body hanging on a tree overnight. Since it took two to three days to die on a cross, the temple authorities wanted to hasten the process so those crucified could be buried before the Sabbath the following day.

Iron mallets would have been used to crush the lower leg bones. The shock of pain and injury and the internal bleeding alone would have hastened death, but the main purpose was to prevent the person from pushing themselves up to open their lungs for breathing. This would guarantee their suffocation in just a matter of minutes.

Since Jesus was already dead, there was no reason to expend the effort in crushing his lower legs.

5) Side Pierced

But rather, one of the soldiers with his spear pierced a side, and straight out came blood and water.

John 19:34
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

Remember that before he was crucified Jesus was flogged. Many people died from flogging because of the severe trauma to the body, causing a great deal of blood loss and what is called hypovolemic shock, where the heart starts beating rapidly because there is so little blood left in the body. With the heart beating so fast, fluid would begin to collect around the heart and lungs. When the soldier pierced Jesus’s side, his spear went through Jesus’s lung and heart, causing this flow of both water and blood.

There is no reason for John, who was not a physician, to understand what he saw, but his eyewitness account can be verified by the medical community today as genuine.

For the Roman soldiers, this was the confirmation that Jesus was truly dead, there was no doubt in their minds. If a prisoner were ever to escape, the soldiers responsible were put to death themselves. So, they had a huge incentive to make sure every one of their crucified prisoners was indeed very dead.

For John, the fact of Jesus’s death held crucial spiritual import,

And the one who has beheld this has witnessed [to it], and true of him is the testimony, so that one has perceived that he speaks truthfully, in order that you all might believe.

John 19:35

The key was in this shedding of both blood and water:

Of Blood: Sin may be forgiven, but the Hebrew Scriptures explain that sin’s penalty of death must still be dealt with. Sin keeps every person from drawing near to God because there can be no fellowship between holy God and sin.

The only way to deal with sin was by the giving of a life. Leviticus states that the life of the flesh is in the blood. Only blood could atone, or pay the penalty of, sin.

It is not as though God needed this shedding of blood. No. It is that people need it. The horror of sin could only be realized through the trauma of taking the life of a beautiful, innocent, and perfect creature, a creature of great value, a creature whose life stood in the gap between that person and certain death.

Of Water: Especially flowing water, or living water, signifies life. Life comes from Jesus, he is life, and from him flows life to all who will receive it.

6) Fulfilled scripture

For these things came to pass in order that the [Sacred] writing would be fulfilled: “Not a bone of his will be shattered.” And again, another [sacred] writing says: “They will behold and see into the one whom they pierced.”

John 19:36-37
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

John wanted every reader to know more fully what had happened on both the physical and spiritual planes.

These details provided more fulfillment of scripture, since the Passover lamb’s bones could not be broken, and on the day of Pentecost, the people would recognize and mourn the One they had pierced, as the Prophet Zechariah had written hundreds of years before.

The nature of sin is corruption that always leads to death if left unchecked. This nature has been described in a variety of ways—Paul called it a penalty, others called it a price, and again a judgment. It is the nature of holy and pure God to consume sin, either as the refiner’s fire, or as wrath. For us to be wrapped up in sin, corrupted by it, riddled with it, is to mean we, too, would be consumed.

For you and me today it is enough to say that sin’s nature, like the nature of any corrosive agent, is inherent and unchangeable. Knowing our inability to check the devastation of sin, God had always planned—from before the foundations of the earth—to absorb the full cost of sin so that humankind could have a way back to God.

This was Jesus’s mission, to reconcile people to God, to create an intimate, organic union where those who put their faith in him can enter into the fellowship of the trinity and experience the pure and holy life of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Jesus also came to reconcile people to each other, to bring back together what people had torn apart because of sin, because of self‑centeredness and selfishness.

Jesus is the way to reconciliation

Jesus’s work on the cross is the only way reconciliation could be achieved between God and creation, God and people, and people with each other and our world.


[The holy ones appearing in the temple | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]

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