When I was in the Army, one of the catch-phrases they used (and one of the few I can repeat in mixed company) was “Attention to Detail.” This meant that the Army expected you to pay attention to the little details in your work, because little details can save your life or cause you to lose it.
I thought of that phrase as I read today’s passage. Roman soldiers, who knew nothing about the Law or the Prophets, and couldn’t possibly care less, ended up carrying out God’s predictive word down to the smallest detail. To the degree you’ve heard all this before, just think of it as a reminder as to how precisely God keeps his word, and marvel at how his sovereignty and man’s sinful choices work together in some mysterious way to carry out the Lord's purposes.
Crucifixion was a horrible way to die. If there’s a more intentionally cruel way to kill a man, I haven’t heard of it. That’s why it was reserved for slaves and the basest of criminals, and why Roman citizens were exempt (Paul was undoubtedly beheaded in the end). The criminal was stripped naked, held down, and the nails were placed above his wrists (not in his palm, as some have depicted) and through his crossed feet. He was then lifted up above the crowds, with the crime for which he was dying placed on a sign above his head. Of course, all of this was meant to act as a deterrent to anyone else thinking of committing the same crime. This form of execution, by the way, was the favorite for rebels and seditionists. Rome was very tolerant of religious differences, but it had a serious zero-tolerance policy regarding rebellion.
Most crucified criminals didn’t die from bleeding out. No, that would be way too quick. They usually suffocated. To pull yourself up on the imbedded nails was agony, but to slump down severely hindered your breathing. When a person was exhausted, they had to make a choice to pull themselves up again (with the agony) or slowly suffocate. Crucified criminals usually took days to die.
Here’s where today’s passage comes in. When the soldiers figured you had enough, they’d come along and break your legs. Without being able to pull yourself up, you suffocated. That’s how the criminals on either side of him died. And that would've been how Jesus would've died. Except for God’s word. The bones in the Passover Lamb, as the Lord made clear to Moses, couldn’t be broken. And the Psalmist, with the Holy Spirit inspring him, spoke of God’s righteous man as not having any of his bones being broken.
But that’s not all. The soldiers weren’t about to be fooled by a criminal “playing possum,” so they pierced his side to make sure he was actually dead. Blood and water flowed from the wound. That means that his heart sac had ruptured. Literally, he died of a broken heart—for you and me.
And once again, John points us back to the Old Testament prophets, quoting from Zech. 12:10. Once again God’s word is fulfilled down to the smallest detail
This should be a source of either great comfort or great worry. God’s word will be fulfilled, down to the smallest stroke of a letter. You can count on it. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on you.
Lord Jesus, I don’t want all this minutiae to distract from the real issue here—you died for me. Willingly. I know I’ve said it multiple times, but thank you. I’m yours.