by John Ellis
“And again another Scripture says, ‘They will look on him whom they have pierced.’” John 19:37
Note: this is the slightly edited text (edited for readers instead of listeners) of my Good Friday sermon.
Visual images are arresting. Several years ago, while driving through Glenwood Canyon in Colorado, the beauty of my surroundings, the intricately carved rock walls decorated with a variety of colors soaring above me, forced me to pull over off of I70 and almost breathlessly soak in the scenery. Conversely, visual images can also provoke emotional responses that fill us with dread, horror, or disgust. Those who have visited the Holocaust Museum in DC often attest to how the museum’s striking images carved a hole in their soul. And the Apostle John’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus speaks to the power of images – both visual imagery and images created by words.
In John chapters 18 and 19, the Apostle John relates the horror invoked by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. In fact, in verse 35, John pauses the narrative to insist that the terrible scene that he’s describing is true because he was there; he saw Jesus’ crucifixion. This horrifying scene happened, and he’s giving the readers an eye-witness account. But, and thankfully, that terrible scene contains the faith-building story of God’s plan to save a people unto Himself. And that beautiful story is sunk deep into John 19:37. In order to allow the full, contextual weight of the crucifixion story to wash over you, I encourage you to read the Apostle John’s account that I’ve linked to below.
Focusing on verse 37, we see at least three things – 1. The revelation of who Jesus is. 2. That revelation requires a response. 3. One day, everyone will receive just recompense based on their response. And, as the Apostle John notes, verse 37 includes a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures – specifically Zechariah 12:10. To help provide you with the immediate context, please consider reading the passage linked to below.
Briefly, the context of Zechariah 12 is the eschatological restoration and renewal of God’s people. In the passage we just read, we see God’s people marveling as God’s plan of salvation unfolds. In contrast, those who are not God’s people are brought to their knees in defeat as God seeks to destroy all the nations that stand in opposition to His people. And the sign that this salvation has arrived is unwrapped when the one “whom they have pierced” is revealed. Turning back to John 19:37, the Apostle John, inspired by the Holy Spirit, clearly declares that Jesus Christ, who died an agonizing death on the cross, is the one who provides the salvation to God’s people that the prophets wrote about. And this is the first point:
In verse 37, the Apostle John plainly reveals the one through whom salvation comes. Prior to the physical revelation of Jesus Christ, God’s plan of salvation had been shrouded in typology and imagery. From the very beginning, God declared His plan, but He declared it in ways that kept people looking ahead – looking forward to the final fulfillment.
From immediately after the Fall, all the way back in Genesis 3:15, God promised to send a redeemer to crush the head of the serpent. Within that promise, though, it’s revealed that before being crushed, the serpent will strike the redeemer. The redeemer’s victory will come with a steep price. Throughout the narrative of the Old Testament, the imagery pointing to the Messiah is dripping with the blood of the innocent. So, although the Old Testament people of God only saw the Messiah through shadows and types, the revelation of God’s salvation through Jesus Christ at the cross wasn’t a sudden reversal of the story. With his testimony of Jesus Christ, the Apostle John was not creating anything new; he was simply unveiling God’s promise first made in Genesis 3:15 and expounded on even further throughout the Old Testament, and specifically for us this evening in Zechariah 12:10. The revelation of Jesus Christ as the individual whose side was pierced, is the revelation of God’s plan of salvation.
And it’s a plan of salvation that has been revealed in and through history. The story of Jesus Christ isn’t a myth that merely holds spiritual comfort and lessons. Jesus Christ lived in a specific time and place, and suffered physical torture and death. The Apostle John understood that the Christian faith and the Christian hope must be grounded in a literal historical event. This is why he breaks into the narrative, and insists that he saw this historical event with his own two eyes. And this is why he connects the story of the crucifixion with the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10. The hope of God’s salvation has physically arrived, and this hope suffered the physical agony on the cross before having his side pierced in death. Christianity is a faith with its roots and hope planted in the dust of this earth formed as the man Christ Jesus.
There is no wiggle room around what John is claiming in chapter 19 – Jesus is God’s salvation. (is it any wonder that the first book of the Bible that many apostates try to diminish is the book of John?) And, like the prophet Zechariah, the Apostle John is compelling us to keep our eyes ahead, because God’s salvation is not finished. Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is not it; this broken life isn’t our final hope; our salvation is not complete; we look forward to the day of our King’s return, because if Jesus has been revealed as the one whose side was pierced (and he has), that means he will one day bring the enemies of God’s people to destruction in contrast to the blessings heaped on those whose salvation is in him.
Directly connecting Jesus with the prophetic hope of Zechariah means that the revelation of Jesus is universal, even if the results and benefits that flow to individuals are not. (and so that I’m not misunderstood, I’m going to repeat that) Directly connecting Jesus with the prophetic hope of Zechariah means that the revelation of Jesus is universal, even if the results and benefits that flow to individuals are not universal. The ancient people of God had expectations of what would happen when God revealed His Messiah. And those expectations were dependent on an individual’s standing before God.
Since the revelation of the one whose side was pierced includes future action on his part, we can’t sit in quiet contemplation in hopes to merely glean helpful or even moral instruction from the man Jesus Christ. Jesus isn’t just an example of how to live a good life. The revelation of who Jesus is confronts everyone with a decision. And this is our second point, the one who was pierced demands a response.
In Zechariah 12, there are two distinct peoples. One is, of course, God’s people. The other group is those who oppose God’s people, and, hence, oppose God.
Zechariah 12:10, explains who the “they” are who have pierced Jesus. According to Zechariah, the “they” refers to the children of God. “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on whom they have pierced.” The house of David, the people of God pierced Jesus.
Isaiah 53:5 tells us that “he [Jesus] was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
All the way back in Genesis 3:15, the reason that God promised to send a redeemer to crush the head of the serpent was because of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. Sin, our individual sin, has created a divide between all humans and God. To become one of God’s people requires our sin to be dealt with. And since God is fully righteous and just, He can’t overlook our sin. This is why the redeemer had to be wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. Jesus took the just punishment of our sins on himself – he who lived a sinless life in order to fulfill God’s righteous demand for complete obedience was punished for the sins of God’s people. The people of God pierced Jesus.
And when confronted by Jesus, when God revealed his plan of salvation to the people of Judah in Zechariah 12, the people of God responded with Holy Spirit provided pleas of mercy. Recognizing their role in his death, the revelation of Jesus as the suffering savior prompted the response of contrition in God’s people.
However, there is another passage in the New Testament that provides evidence of another group of people who took part in piercing Jesus. In Revelation 1:4-7, the Apostle John tells us that those who opposed Jesus also pierced him. Verse seven concludes with, “Behold, he is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who have pierced him. And all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.”
There is coming another final revelation in which the entire human race will be physically confronted with who Jesus is. And, as John writes, those who are not God’s people will wail in agony after being confronted by the one whom they pierced.
All humans are sinners and fall short of the glory of God. All humans have participated in the rebellion that pierced Jesus. And all humans respond to the revelation of who he is. Those who are counted as the people of God respond with faith and repentance. And, the Gospel isn’t a one-off message for Christians. Like our brothers and sisters in Christ in Zechariah 12, those of us who have responded to Jesus in Holy Spirit provided faith and repentance should be constantly thanking God with faithful and contrite hearts for the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. In a few moments, Lord willing, we will be celebrating communion. While we eat the bread and drink the cup, we will be rehearsing the wonderful truth of how Jesus Christ gave his body and his blood to wash away our sins. Communion is a visible demonstration of our response in faith to the one whom we’ve pierced. If you’re not a Christian, while you’re observing us as we take communion, ask yourself how you’ve responded to Jesus. If you’re not a Christian, that means that you’ve rejected who he is; you’re claiming that you don’t need his life, death, and resurrection to bridge the gap between you and God. And if you haven’t responded to Jesus in faith and repentance, you’re claiming that your role in the piercing of God’s son means nothing. That’s your response – a rejection of Jesus. And that’s a terrible position to be in, because everyone will one day receive just recompense for their response to the one who was pierced. And that’s the third and final point.
In John 19:37, the Apostle John doesn’t allow readers the chance to brush off the crucifixion as a one-off event that may serve as an example of loving self-sacrifice. John’s use of the Zechariah quote explicitly contradicts the popular belief that Jesus’ death didn’t atone for sins and is without any eschatological import. Many today view Jesus as a moral guru who demonstrated a way forward to salvation. Except, according to the Bible, and specifically John 19:37, Jesus IS salvation and his death has extreme eschatological import. First century Jews who read John 19:37 would’ve immediately picked up on the full context of John’s claim. They would not have missed that the promised redeemer in Zechariah 12:10 brings blessings to those who are his, and judgment to those who are not his.
For Christians, the knowledge that one day our Savior and King is going to return to complete our salvation should fill our hearts with praise, great joy, and boldness. Rehearsing the Gospel on a daily basis is a means of grace that the Holy Spirit uses to provide us with endurance. Because our King was pierced, our hope is sure. Because our King took on the punishment for our sins, we are going to live forever in complete and full communion with our Creator and King. The realization of our coming recompense should cause us to boldly live lives that bring honor to our King. Out of thankfulness, we should be devoted to sharing the Gospel with our friends, family, and coworkers who have yet to bow the knee in faith and repentance to King Jesus.
If you’re not a follower of Jesus, like those in Revelation 1:7, you will one day wail in agony and regret at the final revelation of Jesus Christ. The recompense for your response of rejection will be that of eternal punishment. But that day hasn’t arrived yet, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is still available for you to claim by a humble response of faith and repentance, placing your entire hope and identity in King Jesus. So, please, I urge you to abandon your rejection of Jesus, and instead accept him and the salvation that he has accomplished.
As Good Friday comes to a close and we enter the glorious reminder of Easter that the suffering servant didn’t stay dead but rose from the grave, don’t ignore God’s revelation of who is the one whose side was pierced. Does your life reflect a response of humble gratefulness that’s manifest in love and obedience towards God? Or, are you like the nations of Revelation 1:7 who will one day wail on account of him? Repent and believe in the one whose side you pierced.
“Father, thank you for revealing your plan of salvation in Christ Jesus. Renew the faith of your people tonight. Give us grace and boldness to declare how and why our King was pierced for us. Cause us to live lives of thankful obedience that honor and glorify your great name. Father, if there is anyone here this evening who does not yet know you, please reveal yourself to them and provide them with saving faith and repentance. Make them your own for the sake of your eternal kingdom and for your infinite glory. In all this we pray in the name of your son and our great king and savior, Christ Jesus. Amen.”