Sep1SunSeptember 1, 2019
The writers of the New Testament point out over and over how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies in His birth, His life, His death, and His resurrection. But if you have ever looked up the prophecies that Jesus fulfilled, you may have found yourself confused. Sometimes these prophecies aren’t prophecies in the way we expect them. One good example of this is John 19:36-37 which talks about what happened to Jesus on the cross. When the Roman soldiers went to break Jesus’ legs to speed up His death, they found that He was already dead, so they pierced His side with a spear to make sure. Then John says, “These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: ‘Not one of his bones will be broken,’ and, as another scripture says, ‘They will look on the one they have pierced.’” (John 19:36-37).
Now, there are no prophecies that state: “Not one of the Messiah’s bones will be broken” or “When they kill the Messiah, they will look on the one they have pierced.” Those verses don’t exist (although, see Psalm 34:19-20). So what is John doing in this passage?
In the first chapter of his gospel, John made the connection that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). These words build on a theme in the Bible of lambs and goats sacrificed as substitutes for the sins of God’s people. One of the most important places this theme comes up in the Old Testament is in the Passover meal, where the Passover lamb was killed as a substitute for the firstborn sons of the Israelites. When God gave the instructions for the Passover, He said this: “It [the lamb] must be eaten inside the house; take none of the meat outside the house. Do not break any of the bones.” (Exodus 12:46). Jesus was the fulfillment of the theme of sacrificial lambs in the Bible. They all pointed forward to Him. And the fact that His bones were not broken is part of that fulfillment.
But what about “They will look on the one they have pierced”? That’s a reference to Zechariah 12:10, which says “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child, and grieve bitterly for him as one grieves for a firstborn son.” This is God speaking about how the Jewish people had rejected Him and rebelled against Him. The one pierced is God and it seems to be metaphorical. Is it about Jesus being pierced with a spear on the cross? Well, notice that the pronoun changes suddenly in the middle of the sentence. They will look on me, the one they have pierced, and they will mourn for him as one mourns for an only child. If the me is God, who is the him? Sometimes pronouns just shift like that in Hebrew poetry, so that may be all there is to it, but the context of Zechariah's message and the way it is used in the New Testament suggest otherwise.
In the several previous chapters, God promised to send His Messiah to reign as King in Jerusalem (Zechariah 9:9 “Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion! Shout, Daughter Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”) and God also predicted that the Jewish people would rebel against God. This verse brings those two ideas together and says that God’s people would rebel against God by rejecting His Messiah. They pierced God metaphorically and they pierced His Messiah physically. It’s still a bit strange that the verse switches pronouns so abruptly, as if God (me) and the Messiah (he) are one. But Jesus clears up this confusion by proclaiming that He is not only the Messiah, but the Son of God, and that He and His Father are One (John 10:30).
There is one more difficulty in comparing John 19:37 to Zechariah 12:10. In John, a Roman soldier pierces Jesus, but in Zechariah, it is the Jewish people who have pierced the Messiah (and God). This difficulty can be answered in a couple of ways. First, the Jewish people rejected Jesus and handed Him over to be crucified, so while they didn’t pierce Him themselves, the emphasis is on their rejection of God’s Messiah, which led to His death. But also, in both passages, the emphasis is less on who pierced the Messiah, and more on the result of that piercing.
Zechariah 12:10 begins with the promise that God will pour out His Spirit on the inhabitants of Jerusalem so that they are able to realize what they have done by rejecting God and His Messiah. As a result, they will repent and mourn. After a few verses describing the depth of the mourning, chapter 13 picks up with the result of their repentance: “On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity.” When God’s people mourn over their sins of rejecting God and killing His Messiah, they will be washed from their sins, like someone washes in a fountain. John, in his gospel, picks up on that and says the fountain that cleans us is the blood of the Messiah. When the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, “a sudden flow of blood and water” came from the wound. This was proof that He really was dead, but it is also the symbolic fountain that washes away our sins. Just like the blood of the Passover lamb protected the firstborn sons of Israel, the blood of Jesus, the pierced lamb of God washes away the sins of the world - for anyone who puts their faith in Him, whether Jewish or Gentile.
Sometimes we wish that the Bible was a bit more simple, especially when it comes to the prophecies about Jesus. But the truth is, if the Bible was simple, it wouldn’t be so rich and deep. When the Bible confuses you, don’t give up, keep digging and let the depth and glory of God’s Word astound you.