J.C. Ryle, while rejecting Augustine’s sacramental interpretation, proposed a spiritual, “prophecy-fulfillment” reading, when he wrote,
The flow of blood and water. . .was meant to be a symbolical fulfillment of the famous prophecy in Zechariah: ‘In that day there shall be a fountain opened to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness’ (Zech. 13:1). It was a practical declaration, by fact and deed, to all Jews, that by Christ’s death that famous prophecy was fulfilled, and that now at last there was a fountain opened by Christ’s death. The moment He was dead this fountain was opened and began to flow. Over the bleeding side of our Lord there might have been written, ‘Behold the fountain for all sin.’ It is no small evidence to my mind, in favor of this view, that this famous prophecy occurs only five verses after the text immediately quoted by St. John in this very chapter, ‘they shall look on Him whom they pierced’ (Zech. 12:10).
Still others have seen in John’s details the antitype of the stricken rock from which God made water flow in the wilderness. Edmund Clowney suggested this meaning, when he noted,
John tells us that Jesus stood in the Temple on the last great day of the feast of tabernacles and called, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me. And let him drink, who believes in me. As the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (John 7:38, NIV margin).
When Moses struck the rock, a stream of life-giving water poured out into the desert. When Jesus was crucified, John tells us that blood and water poured from His side (John 19:34). In reminding us of the water as well as the blood, John recalls for us the cry of Jesus at the feast. At Calvary there flowed from His heart the streams of living water. The water that Christ gives is the water of the Holy Spirit (John 7:38–39). The breath of the risen Christ symbolized the gift of the Spirit (John 20:22–23); so does the water that flowed with the blood of the Crucified. The Spirit of life is given through Christ’s death.
There may be merit to a number of these interpretive suggestions regarding the water and blood flowing from the pierced side of Jesus. It is altogether possible that John is, at one and the same time, defending the reality of the death of Jesus and His true humanity, as well as positing that the blood and water point to the two-fold benefit of justification and sanctification. It is also possible that John had the redemptive-historical fulfillment of the water from the stricken rock in view when he included these details. At least, with Augustus Toplady, we can sing with joyful hearts,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy riven side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure,
Save me from its guilt and power.
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