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Not one of His bones shall be broken. Preservation in Persecution and Martyrdom

Updated on June 18, 2020

Once, I was chosen alongside thirteen persons to give reflections on the Stations of the Cross on Good Friday, in lieu of the normal reflection given in the Stations of the Cross booklet. I was given the eleventh station to meditate on and give the reflection. After the event of the Stations of the Cross, a friend and elder brother called me and picked out a sentence from my reflection: “Behold the agony experienced as the executioners drove heavy nails into Jesus’ hands and feet: it stabbed his flesh, crushed his bones and opened up streams of blood”. For him, the word “crush” means to be broken, and as such I went against the assertion that none of Jesus’ bones was broken (Jn 19:36). Jesus underwent torture, beating, and fell various times on the way to Calvary before he was finally crucified on the cross. Is it really true that none of Jesus’ bones was broken? Is there a deeper meaning to this statement or should it be taken literally?

THEOLOGICAL INTERPRETATIONS

The Calvary event was the highest point of Christ’s life. The Son of man came into the world to lay his life down for the redemption of humanity. The Old Testament foretold of his coming, his birth, and his death (Isa 7:10-18; 52:13-53:12). Certain signs and prophesies were linked to Jesus as the messiah and saviour. The gospel of John highlights one of such prophesies in the event of Jesus’ crucifixion and death: Not one of His bones shall be broken (Jn 19:36). One cannot argue against the significance of this solemn declaration. However, how do we bring meaning to this expression? Does the unbroken bone signifies something more than the natural? Jesus restored health to the sick, he straightened crooked, disjointed and broken bones of cripples. So definitely, the breaking of his bones would not be a physical problem to the powerful Son of God. He voluntarily laid down his life as a living sacrifice, and then rose again on the third day. Is there anything the breaking of his bones could have affected or stopped? There have been varied explanations for this biblical expression and I will highlight some of them.

Jesus died as the Passover lamb; his legs were not broken; this tallies with what had been said of the Passover lamb at the exodus from Egypt: not one of its bones shall be broken (Ex 12:46). But his side is pierced; this is in fulfilment of the words of the prophet Zechariah: “they shall look on the one whom they have pierced (Zech 12:10). The wound in the side of Jesus as well as the wounds on his feet and hands remain on his glorified body as marks of his great love for humankind.

Why is it significant that his bones weren’t broken? It is an expression of the salvific role of Jesus as the source of our wholeness. Jesus' bones never broke, but mine do. This is because I am a sinner, and I am helpless, broken, and empty. When we repent, we are smashed before God, because we realize our sin, our guilt, our filth, and our unworthiness before God. Jesus came to correct our own brokenness. He is our frame and structure and excellence and glory. He is the unbroken shield that raises us up and makes us firm.

Another answer to the unbrokenness of the bones of Jesus lies in the integrity of the Lord’s body; the very people of God who are ‘of his bones’. This unbrokenness is related to creation and to Adam, for Adam spoke for Jesus and the Church brethren when he said: bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh (Eph 5:30,32; Gen 2:3). Also, Christ’s Church is intended to remain unbroken, whole and firm, and not be shattered into splinters. It is not God’s will that the body of Christ; the church people, be broken apart. It is His will that the true body of believers be unified in love and in spirit.

ANALYSIS OF THE HANDS AND FEET

The unbrokenness of Christ’s bones is hinged on the fact that after his crucifixion his legs weren’t broken unlike those of the two criminals nailed to the cross by his side (Jn 19:32). Are there other events that might suggest that the bones of Jesus might have been broken? Yes, maybe yes. First, Jesus after he was arrested was beaten and tortured. On the road to Calvary, he fell under the heavy weight of the cross at various moments and especially at the foot of the rocky Calvary. Second, is the nailing of Jesus’ hands and feet to the cross. Could it have happened that he snapped or broke a bone during these periods? We are tempted to ask, are there bones in the hands and the feet? Could the nails have broken the bones of his hands and feet? Let us thus examine the bones of the hands and the feet.

Are there bones in the palm? There are 27 bones within the wrist and hand. The wrist itself contains eight small bones called carpals. The carpals join with the two forearm bones, the radius and ulna, forming the wrist joint. Further into the palm, the carpals connect to the metacarpals. There are the five metacarpals forming the palm of the hand. One metacarpal connects to each finger and thumb. Small bone shafts called phalanges line up to form each finger and thumb.

The 26 bones of the foot consists of eight distinct types including the tarsals, metatarsals, phalanges, cuneiforms, talus, navicular and cuboid bones. The foot begins at the lower end of the tibia and fibula, the two bones of the lower leg. At the base of it, a grouping of bones form the tarsals, which make up the ankle and the upper part of the foot. There are five metatarsal bones in each foot. Similar to the bones of the hand, these nearly parallel bones create the body of the foot.

Looking at the whole event of the crucifixion, and the placement of the bones of the hands and feet, one is tempted not to agree with the unbrokenness of the bones of Jesus. However this is not a sufficient proof to assert the otherwise; much more so, we know that God works in mysterious ways.

A RECOURSE TO THE OLD TESTAMENT

There are two passages in the Old Testament that are referenced when speaking about this particular subject. They are the Passover supper (Ex 12) and the psalm of the righteous servant (Ps 34). The Passover lamb was meant to be unblemished, it should be killed and the blood sprinkled on the door post of the house, yet the bones should not be broken. In reference to Christ, he is lamb of sacrifice who was blameless and without blemish, but suffered death for the redemption of others. He will be delivered to death, yet his bones will be preserved.

The passage in the psalms talks about a righteous man who trusts in the Lord and does his will; a righteous man who suffers unjustly. Many are the afflictions of the righteous man, but the lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. Two promises are made here, which are deliverance and preservation. The righteous one will be delivered and preserved from persecution. Applying this to Jesus, we find that Jesus certainly is righteous. Indeed, he is the most righteous man who has ever lived; and no one has ever suffered more unjustly: the sinless innocent one enduring a criminal’s suffering and death. However, God did not deliver him out of his afflictions. There was no deliverance but there was preservation; just as the Passover lamb also was delivered up to death but his bones preserved. So what is expressed in these passages is the theme of persecution and preservation.


Without disapproving of or disregarding the theological assertions that are deduced from these passages, I believe that the themes of persecution and preservation cannot be excluded from these texts. However it is quite hard to join these two themes together in a single sentence. How do we talk about persecution and yet bring in preservation at the same time? Can we find any similar biblical passage that expresses both themes together? The answer is yes. What passage could that be?

Jesus warned his disciples about future persecutions. Jesus said: You will be handed over by parents, brothers and relatives, and some of you will be put to death and you will be hated by many because of my name, yet not a hair from your head will be destroyed (Lk 21:16-18). The two announcements might seem to be contradictory: foretelling the persecutions that will lead to martyrdom and the promise of total preservation; persecution and preservation. However, what we find here is the affirmation of the solicitude that will protect the persecuted, without however dispensing them from the ill-treatment to which they will be subjected.

The apostles and disciples of Jesus were beaten to death, crucified, beheaded, stoned, roasted, boiled and torn to pieces by wild beasts. Were their hairs still intact without the loss or destruction of a strand? Possibly yes and possibly no. However, what we can deduce from it concerning the assurance that not a hair will be broken or lost signifies that providence will continue to watch over the slightest details of their lives even when they are in prison or undergoing torture and death. Nothing will be lost, because sufferings are part of the divine plan in which everything that is lost is found or regained at a loftier level. That is what Christ demonstrated by his resurrection.

Thus this same preservation in persecution can be applied to Jesus. It is not so much about making sure that the smallest bones of the feet and hands were in place, but that the smallest details of our very being does not hide from the God of all things, whose providence reaches to the littlest things. So also, He knows about what we will go through and arranges it accordingly without one single bit falling out of place. Even in persecution He is still in control, such that He tailors all things and has the power to preserve even the minutiae of our being. Not one of his bones will be broken is the promise of total preservation even in persecution and martyrdom.

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