This week, I was reading the account of Jesus’ death in John 19 in a bible study, and a word stood out to me that I had not noticed in previous readings. It was the term hyssop. John says,
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
I began asking myself questions about the text. What is a hyssop branch? Why did John add this specific detail in the last moments of Jesus’ life on earth? These questions caused me to dig deeper into the biblical significance of hyssop and its connection to Christ’s crucifixion.
In the English Standard Version of the Bible, hyssop is referred to twelve times. Ten of which are in the Old Testament. By definition, hyssop was a spice used by Israelites throughout the Old Testament for both cooking and religious ceremony purposes. I want to touch on two unique stories that mention hyssop and connect to Jesus in his last moments on the cross.
The first story is found in during Israel’s enslavement in Egypt and their freedom through God’s use of the 10 Plagues. Here were the instructions that God gave his people the last plague – the death of the firstborn child.
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. You shall observe this rite as a statute for you and for your sons forever.Exodus 12:22-24
These instructions are what we now know as the Passover in the Bible. God passed over the Israelites and spared their firstborns because of the lamb’s blood on their doorposts. They were not saved because of their lifestyle but by the blood. The Israelite boy enslaved in Egypt that did nothing to be saved was safe that night because of the blood of the lamb on his parent’s door.
Hyssop was the instrument used to apply the life-saving blood to the doorpost of each Israelite home the night before the final plague came upon Egypt.
The second interesting reference to hyssop can be found in King David’s sorrowful and repentant prayer to God. David says,
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.Psalm 51:7
Psalm 51 is an emotional response from King David after he has an affair with one of his closest friend’s wives and plots the murder of this same friend. Within David’s repentant prayer, we see hyssop mentioned in verse 7. In this verse, David referred to the religious usage of hyssop to cleanse him from his failures.
The book of Leviticus explains how hyssop was utilized for the religious cleansing of people with leprosy. Leprosy was a debilitating, socially isolating skin disease. Though not outwardly a leper, David saw himself inwardly diseased with sin and referred to hyssop as a symbol by which he desired to internally cleansed.
The mentions of hyssop in the Old Testament point to it as an instrument by which cleanses and saves the Israelite people. Every Passover, a hyssop branch, would have been remembered by the Israelites as a representation of salvation and deliverance from Egypt. Every time a hyssop branch was used to cleanse a leper in the temple, there was a reminder of the holiness of God and the brokenness of the world. When the story of King David’s fall was retold, the imagery of inward leprosy would have been seen with his allusion to hyssop.
Hyssop in the Old Testament pointed to a more significant moment when it would be used again in the New Testament. When Christ went to the cross to be killed, his broken body, shed blood, and death was how all humanity’s sins were paid fully. The greater Passover Lamb’s innocent blood was shed to save undeserving sinners. The inward and outward lepers have hope for eternal cleansing, not momentary.
Like the Ancient Israelites, we too can see the hyssop branch and be reminded of the salvation, deliverance, and cleansing offered to us freely by God; however, we now see the connection more clearly and understand that this hope is not rooted in a religious ceremony or ritual but a living person – Jesus Christ.
May we all find lasting hope in Christ today after being reminded of the unconditional love he displayed through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.
questions to consider
- What do you do when you see words or phrases in the New Testament that you did not understand?
- What are others references in the Old Testament that point to Jesus Christ?
- Do you believe that Jesus is the greater Passover Lamb that offers eternal life to all who follow him as Lord?