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on hyssop


"A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, 'It is finished,' and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit." (John 19:29-30 ESV)

The Apostle John in his gospel adds a detail not mentioned by the other gospel writers-- that the last drink offered to Jesus was extended on a woody stalk of hyssop. (Hyssop is an aromatic perennial which grows in Palestine, being an herb in the mint family.)

The gospel of John, though very readable to Greeks of the first century, was written by a Palestinian Jew and has many Old Testament references throughout, usually in the form of images (like the vine, the shepherd, the stone water pots, etc.) rather than direct quotes from the OT like Matthew. There are also elements of irony, such as Jesus speaking of the temple, referring to himself rather than the building, as his hearers presumed.

The mentioning of hyssop would trigger OT references in the mind of a Jewish reader. For example, the Passover...

"Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you." (Exodus 12:22-23)

Hyssop was used to sprinkle the water and blood for cleansing from leprosy (Lev 14), and for sprinkling from the defilement of death (Num 19). King David uses the figure of hyssop as an appeal for God's cleansing: "Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow." (Psalm 51:7)

Most deaths in the OT were defiling rather than purifying. That is, death was something that brought defilement, from which cleansing was needed. The sacrificial deaths, on the other hand, brought cleansing and healing for those for whom the death was a substitute. The death of the Messiah, would itself be cleansing and healing, because it is the atoning sacrifice to which the other sacrifices foreshadowed (Isa. 53).

So, here at the crucifixion of Jesus we have a scene which outwardly looks like a public condemnation and immense defilement, yet John is alerting the reader to a detail that points to a deeper, divine plan. When a person of Jewish background read this account of Jesus' death, he would immediately catch the implication that the death of Jesus was not a martrydom or defilement, but rather his death brings cleansing and healing.

It's that death that cleanses you and me from sin and makes us God's people. The author of Hebrews makes mention of hyssop, as part of the initiation of the Mosaic covenant. Hyssop was used to sprinkle the blood onto his covenant people:

"For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, 'This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.' And in the same way he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins." (Hebrews 9:19-22)




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