Why was Jesus Christ already dead when the soldiers came to break His legs? What killed Him so soon? Was Jesus weaker than other men? It took the average man four to six days to die after being crucified, with death occurring from sheer exhaustion. There were some men who lasted as long as nine days.
This question comes up because in John 19:33-34 it appears Jesus was already dead when the spear was thrust into His side. If this is the case, then how did Christ die?
About the year 1847, a Dr. Stroud claimed that Christ died of “laceration or rupture of the heart.” In other words, “a broken heart.” But the prophecies stated that Jesus Christ would shed His blood for our sins (see Matthew 26:28; Luke 22:20).
Did Jesus die of a broken heart as some scholars say? Did He die from mere exhaustion?
Unger’s Bible Dictionary claims: “The unusual rapidity of our Lord’s death was due to the depth of His previous agonies ….” Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Commentary states there was, in Christ’s case, “… suffering which would naturally hasten His death, not to speak of His exhaustion from the previous care and suffering.” These commentators reason that the soldier pierced Christ’s side just to make certain Christ was dead, and that since He was already dead at that point, only a small amount of water and blood trickled out.
Another idea, from a book titled Passover Plot, is that it was all a hoax—that Christ never died, that He was merely drugged to appear as if He were dead.
So how do we disprove all these claims? How do we preserve the integrity of God’s Word and the sacrifice of His Son for the remission of our sins?
When we sin, God requires that we be of a contrite heart and that we repent, but that attitude does not pay the penalty for our sins. What pays the penalty for our sins is the shed blood of Jesus Christ, which caused His death. Unless Christ actually shed His blood as He was sacrificed, we have no Savior.
In order for our sins to be forgiven, Christ had to shed His blood. Without the shedding of His blood, there is no remission of sins! (Hebrews 9:22). If Christ did not die this way, then the prophecies of Jesus’s death were not fulfilled and we cannot be forgiven of our sins! Our very salvation is at stake with this question!
Since history reveals that the suffering on the cross was usually prolonged, usually lasting a couple of days, with death normally occurring from sheer exhaustion, there was really no physical reason why Christ should not have still been alive when the soldiers came to break His legs. Even Pilate marveled that Jesus had died so quickly (Mark 15:44).
Soldiers broke the legs of crucifixion victims in order to hasten their death. With broken legs, it was impossible to raise up on the legs to get air—causing death by suffocation. In the Gospel recorded by John, soldiers broke the legs of the thieves and malefactors because the Jews didn’t want their bodies hanging there on an annual holy day (John 19:31). The soldiers did not break Jesus’s legs because He was already dead (verse 33).
It was prophesied that not one bone of His body would be broken (verse 36). Jesus was the anti-type of the Passover lamb—which was not to have any bones broken (Exodus 12:46).
Another key similarity between the Passover lamb and Christ is that the Passover lamb was to have its blood shed. Likewise, Jesus Christ was brought as a Lamb to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7) and He “poured out his soul unto death” (verse 12). It doesn’t say that Christ was already dead, but that the pouring out of His soul led to His death. If Christ was already dead when speared, then how could His blood have been shed for us? Blood doesn’t gush forth from a dead body.
The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, and it comes from the same Hebrew word translated life. Leviticus 17:11 states, “For the life [same Hebrew word, nephesh] of the flesh is in the blood.” Jesus poured out His life—and that life is in the blood. The shedding of blood brought about His death!
Another way we know His blood was completely shed is found in Acts 2:31: “He seeing this before spake of the resurrection of Christ, that his soul was not left in hell, neither his flesh did see corruption.” While in the grave three days and three nights, Christ’s body did not see corruption, or decay. In decomposition, the blood is the first thing to decay. The fact that His body had no blood left in it tells us why His body did not see corruption. Christ’s blood had drained from His body. What didn’t pour out from the spear wound drained out from His wounds in His feet and hands as a result of the nails that had pierced them.
So how can we prove that the spear caused the fatal wound from which all Christ’s blood was shed? The answer is found in Matthew’s account, and a key omission made by the translators of Matthew 27:49.
Verses 46-50 give us the chronology of events: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias. And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him. Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.”
In both the Ferrar Fenton and the Moffatt translations there is a vital part of the verse not found in the King James Version—located between verses 49-50—which reads, “But another taking a spear pierced his side, when blood and water came out. Jesus, however, having again called out with a loud voice, resigned His spirit.” Christ died because one of the soldiers came with a lance, or spear, and pierced His side, and out came water and blood.
Why doesn’t this part of the verse appear in the King James Version? Why haven’t we been reading that the reason Christ died is because He was stabbed with a spear or pierced in His side and out came water and blood? Many of the old manuscripts contain the full verse; so do the Diaglott, the Harmony of the Gospels, along with the Fenton and Moffatt translations.
It was written in the marginal reading of the Greek text when the King James was written, so says the Biblia Sacra Polygrotta of 1657. But the translators thought it better to leave it out. Also, by the Greeks’ own admission, this verse was still in there as late as a.d. 510, after which they made the mistake of removing it. But they were forced to leave us witness in the marginal reading so that we might know what the true original reading is.
A Greek New Testament written in the a.d. 300s wrote this about Matthew 27:49: “and another took a spear and pierced his side and there came forth water and blood.”
The bulk of the Greek manuscripts have officially not included this text, yet God has seen fit that the Greeks—responsible for preserving the New Testament in Greek—have themselves left us a witness in their marginal reading that this verse originally was in Matthew. A significant number of Greek manuscripts still retain it.
Christ then, according to Matthew, died because a soldier took a spear and pierced His side and out came water and blood. As a result of that frightful wound, Christ cried out with a loud voice, He screamed and then He died. Christ died because His blood was shed for you and for me.
Putting the Scriptures Together
One reason the King James translators did not include this verse is because they, like many others, misunderstood the inspired statement in John concerning the piercing of Christ’s side. John only records the action, whereas the missing portion of Matthew 27:49 records the time sequence. We can know the time the soldier pierced Christ’s side by putting John 19:34 together with the rest of the scriptures. A more accurate rendering of John 19:34 shows its place in the flow as parenthetical explanation of how Christ died: “But [howbeit] one of the soldiers with a spear had pierced his side ….”
Jesus “poured out his soul unto death” as Isaiah prophesied. His blood was thoroughly shed!
As a result of that terrible spear wound, Christ suffered a complete loss of blood. Because of His blood being shed, we can ask God to forgive our sins. Upon repentance, God will apply the shed blood of Christ, which is the only way our sins can be forgiven and the death penalty removed. Christ did it all for us.