Friday, September 9, 2011

Why did blood & water flow from Christ's side?

John 19:34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.
Like much of Scripture, the above Johannine verse is fraught with various levels of meaning. Why did blood and water flow from Christ's side? Below are a few meanings as derived from the Church's historical interpretations of the text.

To fulfill prophecyJohn offers an explanation in the immediate context of the verse. In verse 37, he writes: "And again another scripture says, 'They shall look on him whom they have pierced.'" This is a quotation from Zechariah 12:10, a lengthy verse which reads:
And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look 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 first-born. (Zechariah 12:10)
John is thus identifying Jesus as the prophesied one. He fits the characteristics of the Zechariah verse: He was pierced, He was from the lineage of David, and He was a firstborn, only child. Zechariah even went on a few verses later, describing the day that this man was pierced as the day
there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanliness." (Zech. 13:1)
John's description of the blood and water pouring out Christ's side remind us of the cleansing fountain that would be opened when the victim was pierced.

By identifying Christ as the anticipated Savior, John includes in his otherwise tragic account the good news that life in the form of freedom from sin had come.

To highlight his death/suffering
There is a literal, physical dimension to the idea of blood and water flowing from a dead man's side. Studious theologians and medical professionals alike have offered varying opinions. The Navarre Bible Commentary suggests the mixture of water with the blood could indicate "an accumulation of liquid in the lungs due to Jesus' intense sufferings."1 Understanding this can have tremendous theological depth. It also identifies Christ as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. And it can help us cope with suffering if, even without full understanding, we see our leader and divine Savior innocently accept tremendous suffering.

Many physicians such as those at the Mayo Clinic posit that the water was the fluid located in the pericardial sac surrounding the heart:
Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to his side was inflicted and supports the traditional view that the spear, thrust between his right ribs, probably perforated not only the right lung but also the pericardium and heart and thereby ensured his death. (On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ by William D. Edwards, MD, et al)
A diagram of the pericardial wall, sac, and heart, shows a possible point of penetration into the heart that would result in an outpouring of blood and pericardial fluid that John described as water.

If the spear pierced through the outer pericardium wall and into the heart, then the watery fluid and blood could have poured out through the wound. It emphasizes the reality of Christ's death and His very humanity. The idea of the Resurrection was very important to the early Christian community. Paul specifically wrote: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." (1 Corinthians 15:17) Christ truly died and therefore those who saw Him walking about after that saw the Resurrected Christ.

John earlier quoted Jesus eluding to the very idea of the piercing of his heart with an outpouring of water: "He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, 'Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" (John 7:38) John also sees in this outpouring prophecy a foreshadowing of the outpouring of the Spirit: "Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive." (7:39) And again in his epistle, he says that the blood and water give the same witness as the Spirit: "There are three witnesses, the Spirit, the water, and the blood; and these three agree." (1 John 5:8)

To signify the waters of Baptism
On John 19:34, St. Thomas Aquinas writes:
Another reason why this happened was to show that by the passion of Christ we acquire a complete cleansing from our sins and stains. We are cleansed from our sins by his blood, which is the price of our redemption: "You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things, such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot" (1 Pet 1:18). And we are cleansed from our stains by the water, which is the bath of our rebirth: "I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses" (Ez 36:25); "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" (Zech 13:1). And so it is these two things which are especially associated with two sacraments: water with the sacrament of baptism, and blood with the Eucharist. (St. Thomas Aquinas, commenting on John 19)
You see how St. Thomas understands both blood and water as agents of cleanliness. Though he does not mention it in the immediate paragraph above, the idea of blood as a means of cleansing is very Biblical and very Johannine. For instance, John, who also wrote Revelation says: "[T]hey have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb." (Revelation 7:14) and John again: "[T]he blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin." (1 John 1:7)

And of course, water reminds us of cleansing more obviously: "Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet." (John 13:5)

St. Thomas, writing in the 13th century, follows other Early Church Fathers on the baptismal (and Eucharistic) character of John 19:34. For example:
A suggestive word was made use of by the evangelist, in not saying pierced, or wounded His side, or anything else, but opened; that thereby, in a sense, the gate of life might be thrown open, from whence have flowed forth the sacraments of the Church, without which there is no entrance to the life which is the true life. That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup, and supplies at once the laver of baptism and water for drinking.2 (St. Augustine, Tractates on John 120.2, ca. 406 A.D.)

For there came forth water and blood. Not without a purpose, or by chance, did those founts come forth, but because by means of these two together the Church consists. And the initiated know it, being by water indeed regenerate, and nourished by the Blood and the Flesh. Hence the Mysteries take their beginning; that when you approach to that awful cup, you may so approach, as drinking from the very side. (St. John Chrysostom, Homily 85 on the Gospel of John, ca. 395 A.D.)
These understandings all reflect the confluence of revelation on the flow of water from Christ's side. Going back to the Zechariah prophecy, we are told of the fountain that would wash away sins. St. John Chrysostom speaks of the cleansing of sins as a regeneration. In concert with this understanding of the early Church, the theology of the Apostle Paul identifies regeneration with baptism:
Titus 3:5-6 he saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but in virtue of his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, which he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.
The Greek term there translated as regeneration by the RSV-CE is paliggenesiav. Strong's Concordance defines this as a new birth, regeneration, or renewal. In Paul's understanding, a person is "born again" at baptism, for he says:
Romans 6:4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
If we read Romans 6:4 and Titus 3:5-6 in light of our study of John 19:34, we see many parallels. Paul speaks of this washing "poured out" through Christ just as was the blood and water from the Cross. He also refers to our union with Christ's death at baptism. And we have studied how the outpouring of water from the Cross is signal of Christ's death. Thus, to receive the life-giving waters of baptism is to receive from Christ.

To signify the Eucharist
You see St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and St. John Chysostom all reference the blood as a reference to the Eucharist. The most obvious tie-in to this comes from the Gospel accounts. For instance:
And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:27-28)

And he said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many." (Mark 14:24)

And likewise the cup after supper, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood." (Luke 22:20)
Paul likewise recognizes the blood of Christ as that which is in the Eucharistic cup:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16)
And incidentally, when a priest prepares the wine during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, he pours water into the cup as well reflecting the same mixture flowing from Christ's side! (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #142)

To signify the birth of the ChurchThe idea that life and salvation poured out from Christ's side in the form of blood and water also communicates the birth of Christ's Church. This truth can be seen when we focus on the location of the outpouring––Christ's side.

In the Old Testament, life was often derived from the "side" of a type of Christ. For instance:
So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh; and the rib which the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. (Genesis 2:21-22)
Paul teaches us explicitly that Adam is a type of Christ. (cf. Rom. 5:14) So you see the significance of the "sleeping man" (also an ancient figure of someone deceased, e.g. Matt. 27:52) whose side was opened, and how life came from it. From Adam's side came Eve. And from Christ's side came life for all the Church.

Another example is Noah's Ark.
Genesis 6:16 Make a roof for the ark, and finish it to a cubit above; and set the door of the ark in its side; make it with lower, second, and third decks.
The ark itself was a "vessel of salvation" from the flood. All the creatures and Noah's family entered and exited by this portal in the ark's "side." When we view the ark as a type of Christ, we can even more clearly see how the Church is availed of the true "vessel of salvation" by participating in Christ's side––which again is the blood and water representing the Eucharist and the Baptism.

The Apostle Peter explicitly ties the episode of Noah's ark to baptism:
1 Peter 3:20-21 God's patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
St. Thomas Aquinas identifies these same figures in Scripture. We see his identification of the Church in John 19:34 if we expand his earlier quote:
That blood was shed for the remission of sins; that water it is that makes up the health-giving cup, and supplies at once the laver of baptism and water for drinking. This was announced beforehand, when Noah was commanded to make a door in the side of the ark, Genesis 6:16 whereby the animals might enter which were not destined to perish in the flood, and by which the Church was prefigured. Because of this, the first woman was formed from the side of the man when asleep, Genesis 2:22 and was called Life, and the mother of all living. Genesis 3:20 Truly it pointed to a great good, prior to the great evil of the transgression (in the guise of one thus lying asleep). This second Adam bowed His head and fell asleep on the cross, that a spouse might be formed for Him from that which flowed from the sleeper's side.
And so we see that in death there is birth. Through John's mention of the "blood and water" we are able to understand so much of what was foretold, and how we, too, participate in Christ's death so that we might be "cleansed from sin."

1The Navarre Bible: St. John, Four Courts Press, Dublin; Scepter Publishers, New York, 2005, p. 190.
2The "laver of baptism" is more accurately a "bath" which is one of the "sacraments" Augustine describes here. A very literal translation of the Latin in the last sentence is: "He tempers (duly mingles) the cup with the saving water; this affords both a bath, and a drink."


  1. ♪♫▲▼▲


  2. A new perspective on the study of 1 John 5:1-12 (key verse 6) with Hebrews (key Chapters 7-9)

    When John writes that Jesus Christ “came by water and blood” (1 John 5:6a), he is using “water and blood” as a synonym for covenant. As explained in Hebrews (9:16-22), it takes blood and water, together, to bring a will/covenant into effect – the blood represents the death of something or someone. If the covenant cannot come into effect nor has any value without blood and water then, “water and blood” is synonymous with covenant. An inspired John had just found a unique way of saying, “covenant”! Thus, what John means is, this one, Jesus Christ, came by covenant—the new covenant God had made with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, to forgive their wickedness and remember their sins no more (Heb. 8:8-12).

    Not only did Jesus come by covenant, He was the sacrificial lamb of the very covenant that had brought Him to earth--to take away sin from both Jew and Gentile. John declared, when he saw Jesus, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29a: NIV). Jesus is also the mediator or High Priest who ratified the covenant (Heb. 7-8). He brought it into effect through His own body as blood and water flowed from His pierced side on Calvary’s cross (John 19:34).

    God, who is faithful, has not left anything undone; He has kept His promise to forgive wickedness and sins. He gave us a Savior and High Priest, Jesus, His Son, our eternal intercessor (Heb. 7:24-25). Messiah!!

  3. thank you. very helpful indeed