31Since it was the day of Preparation, the Jews did not want the bodies left on the cross during the sabbath, especially because that sabbath was a day of great solemnity. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed. 32Then the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. 35(He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.) 36These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled, “None of his bones shall be broken.” 37And again another passage of scripture says, “They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
Passover falls on the 15th day of Nissan, in the Jewish calendar. That is sometimes a Saturday (measured from sundown on Friday to sunset on Saturday), in which case the Passover Sabbath (Friday evening to Saturday morning) is especially holy. The synoptic gospels say that Jesus ate the Last Supper with his disciples as a Passover meal, which would mean Passover was on the Thursday, and that the religious leaders were concerned about having the body removed before the Sabbath. But John says that meal was a preparation meal, and that the Passover occurred on a Sabbath that year. In this way he is emphasizing Jesus as being the Passover Lamb, given us for salvation. Whichever was the case, all agree that the religious leaders wanted the bodies taken down before the Sabbath began. It is interesting that again Pilate yields to them. It was the custom among Roman conquering armies to leave bodies on the cross as a warning to the populace.
The religious leaders asked Pilate to have the legs of those on the cross broken so they would die more quickly. A person dies of crucifixion by asphyxiation, when they are no longer able to push up and expand the chest to breathe. Breaking the legs would hasten that process by making pushing up from the feet impossible. It was a cruel death. And so, the soldiers went to break the legs of the men, but when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead. Jesus had said, “It is finished” and given up his spirit. He had finished his work and died to this life. We can speculate that he died quickly because of the severe flogging and blood loss, but to the writer here, Jesus died quickly because his work was finished and he chose his own time to do so. The writer then says that the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. This emphasizes Jesus’ true humanity and the reality of his death. “He who saw this” is likely John, again unnamed, but in this gospel the only one of the disciples who remained at the cross. He testifies to this so that we also might believe.
“These things occurred” – the failure to break his bones fulfilled (completed) scripture: the Passover Lamb was given whole – none of its bones was broken; or perhaps he refers to Psalm 22:16,17, “I can count all my bones”. And then he also quotes Zechariah 12:10, “And I shall pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly for him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” John wants his community (and future readers such as ourselves) to understand two things in this passage – that Jesus was truly human and he truly died, even though John has spent much of the gospel telling us of Jesus’ divinity. He holds the paradox together here. And secondly, that these things happened by Jesus’ choice, in order to fulfill the scriptures, and for the salvation of humankind.