Good Friday is the day Christians traditionally commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus. The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is told in all four Gospels, each offering its own variation on the main theme.
In narrating the event of Jesus’ death, three of the four Gospels mention that bystanders soaked a sponge in wine vinegar and held it up to him on a stick. For the first two, see Matthew 27:45–50 and Mark 15:33–37. (Luke 23:36–37 says only that the soldiers who crucified him offered him wine vinegar.)
The Gospel of John, however, offers a tantalizing detail about that stick:
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:28–30, italics added)
A casual reader might skip right by John’s statement that the stick on which the sponge was lifted up to Jesus’ lips was a stalk of the hyssop plant. But for anyone well-versed in the Hebrew Bible (commonly known to Christians as the Old Testament), that little detail jumps right off the page. In the Hebrew Bible, hyssop branches are used in various rituals of cleansing. And they play a critical role in the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from slavery in Egypt, marking who would be saved from the death that struck the firstborn of the Egyptians.
In saying that the stick used to help satisfy Jesus’ thirst when he was on the cross was a hyssop branch, John is invoking the symbolism associated with it. The symbolism of hyssop says something about the thirst of Jesus—and about how we humans, who commemorate Jesus death on this day, can help to satisfy that thirst.
And according to Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) in the very act of satisfying Jesus’ thirst through doing what is symbolized by offering Jesus wine vinegar on a stalk of hyssop, we ourselves are transformed in mind and heart.
What is the significance of the stalk of hyssop? What does it mean that Jesus was thirsty? And what is the meaning of bystanders satisfying Jesus’ thirst in the particular way they did?
Let’s take a closer look.
The significance of hyssop in the Old Testament
Like other Christian commentators, Swedenborg bases his interpretation of hyssop in the Bible on its use in ceremonial cleansing rituals. However, he interprets it somewhat more abstractly than most traditional Christian interpreters. It refers, he says, especially to the cleansing properties of truth in relation to the human spirit.
In Exodus 12:21–23, Moses gives these instructions to the people of Israel, whom God is about to rescue from their slavery in Egypt.
Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families, and slaughter the Passover lamb. Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin, and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe. None of you shall go out of the door of your house until morning. When the Lord goes through the land to strike down the Egyptians, he will see the blood on the top and sides of the doorframe and will pass over that doorway, and he will not permit the destroyer to enter your houses and strike you down.”
In Secrets of Heaven #7918, Swedenborg takes up the meaning of hyssop in the Old Testament. Here is his explanation of the “bunch of hyssop” in Exodus 12:22. (Don’t worry. We’ll unpack it in a minute.)
“And you shall take a bunch of hyssop” symbolizes the outward means by which purification is brought about. This is clear from the meaning of “hyssop” as outward truth, which is the means by which purification is brought about. It says that they were to take a bunch of hyssop because “a bunch” refers to truth and the arrangement of it.
The reason “hyssop” symbolizes outward truth as a means of purification is that all spiritual purification is brought about by means of truth. It is only through truth that we recognize the earthly and worldly types of love from which we must be purified. When the Lord instills this truth into us, he also fills us with horror at those types of love as being unclean and damnable. The effect of this horror is that when something similar enters our thoughts, the feeling of horror returns, causing us to turn away with loathing from those types of love. This is how we are purified by truth as an outward means.
Swedenborg then goes on to quote and briefly explain several other Old Testament passages in which hyssop is used in cleansing ceremonies, including the well-known passage in Psalm 51:7:
Purge me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let’s put his explanation in more contemporary terms, while bringing in some of Swedenborg’s other explanations of “hyssop”:
Hyssop, Swedenborg says, represents the cleansing of our outward self—meaning our worldly, sense- and self-oriented desires and thoughts, and the actions that flow from them. Here are some examples of these outward desires and actions of ours that need cleansing:
- Focusing our life entirely on glamour and excitement
- A desire to overeat just for the pleasure of eating
- Taking pleasure in casual sex without commitment
There are many others. And of course, they include desires for actions specifically prohibited in the Bible, such as theft, lying, adultery, and murder, that we engage in for our own benefit and pleasure.
These, Swedenborg says, are cleansed by “external truth,” meaning the basic commandments of the Bible that prohibit this type of focus on self-indulgence and prohibit us from engaging in these evil desires and actions.
When we accept the truth of those Biblical teachings, it causes us to see the evil thoughts, feelings, and actions we have indulged in as wrong, sinful, and horrible. We begin to feel a sense of loathing for everything related to them. In this way, our desires, thoughts, words, and actions are cleansed from these wrong and evil things.
This is the symbolism of hyssop as a key element in many of the cleansing rituals of the Old Testament.
The significance of hyssop in John 19:29
In Apocalypse Explained #386:30, Swedenborg quotes and explains John 19:28–30. Here it is again:
Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.”
Here is Swedenborg’s explanation of this passage (and once again, we’ll unpack it in a minute):
People who think about this passage only materially, and not spiritually, may assume that there is nothing more to it than that the Lord was thirsty, and he was given vinegar. However, the reason he said “I am thirsty” was that everything the Scriptures said about him was then fulfilled—and he came into the world to save humankind.
His being “thirsty” means that from divine love he willed and desired the salvation of the human race. But his being given vinegar means that in the religion that would come into being after his time, there would be no real truth, but only truth mixed with falsity. This is the sort of truth that exists with people who separate faith from charity, or truth from good. That is the meaning of “vinegar.” Their putting it on a hyssop stalk means a certain amount of purification of that truth mixed with falsity, because hyssop symbolizes an outward means of purification—as explained in Secrets of Heaven #7918.
Swedenborg first says that since this event is presented as fulfilling Scripture, it must have greater meaning than Jesus simply being thirsty and being given vinegar to drink using a sponge and a branch of hyssop. If there were nothing more to it than that, it would be a trivial thing, and not worthy of being recorded in the Gospels.
The scene, Swedenborg says, relates to Jesus’ “thirst” to save the human race.
After all, that was Jesus’ purpose for coming into the world: to save humanity from the power of evil and spiritual death. What else would he be thirsty to do? Surely the thirst of the One who was God with us (Matthew 1:23) would not be mere parched lips and tongue! His thirst was a thirst of the soul! And his greatest thirst was to bring salvation to all people. That is what Jesus Christ thirsted for on the Cross!
The “vinegar” that he was given to drink symbolizes the mixture of true and false beliefs that exist in the mind of religious people here on earth—including Christians.
This meaning of “vinegar” is based on the meaning of “wine” as used in the Holy Supper, where “wine” means divine truth, which is the “blood” of Jesus.
Vinegar is a soured form of wine. So instead of being pure divine truth, vinegar means truth mixed together with falsity. Or in plain terms, vinegar means church people having some beliefs that are true, and others that are not true.
Now let’s expand on Swedenborg’s interpretation of John 19:28–30 based on statements he makes elsewhere in his writings.
As explained above “hyssop” symbolizes purification and cleansing—which is why it was used in various rituals of cleansing in the Bible. The vinegar-soaked sponge was put on a branch of hyssop to satisfy the Lord’s thirst—which is a thirst to save the human race. So the hyssop branch symbolizes cleansing that mixture of truth and falsity in the minds of faithful Christians when we use our beliefs—whether or not they are entirely true—to satisfy Jesus Christ’s thirst to save the human race.
Hyssop: the cleansing of our mind and heart when we share the Gospel of Jesus Christ
Okay, that’s still a bit of a brain-bender.
What does it all mean in practical terms?
Based on everything explained in abstract terms above, here’s what it all means more concretely in our own life:
Offering Jesus vinegar extended on a branch of hyssop symbolizes our willingness to work in service of Jesus’ commandment in Matthew 28:19–20, traditionally known as the Great Commission:
Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
When we share the good news of Jesus Christ and his teachings with others, we are symbolically offering vinegar to satisfy the thirst of Jesus Christ on the Cross. After all, the whole reason Jesus allowed himself to be crucified was to complete his work of saving the eternal souls of all people on earth who are willing to be saved. (And that includes non-Christians as well as Christians! See: Is Jesus Christ the Only Way to Heaven?)
Because all too often, our human understanding of the Gospel is mere “vinegar.”
We humans do not have a perfect understanding of the Word of God. Much of what we believe is actually a mixture of true and false ideas about what the Bible teaches. And if we have the humility to recognize that our understanding is poor and imperfect, we may think that we can’t possibly be worthy of spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to others.
Use what you have; the Lord will accept and bless your efforts
But it’s not true.
Jesus doesn’t ask us to have a perfect understanding of God, the Bible, and theology before we go out to “make disciples of all nations.” He only asks us to use what we have learned, as mixed and imperfect as it may be.
And when we use even our mixed and faulty understanding of the Gospel message in an effort to satisfy the Lord’s desire to save all people, it becomes purified in our mind and heart because we are using it from a willing mind and a good heart to do the Lord’s work here on earth.
Here it is in plain and simple terms:
Don’t worry about whether you’re “good enough” or “smart enough” or “doctrinally correct enough” to spread the good news of your faith to those who need it.
Even if you think that all you have to offer is cheap, sour “vinegar,” share your faith with others anyway.
If you see someone who is struggling with doubt, depression, and despair, offer a word of faith, hope, and love.
Remember, Jesus accepted and drank the wine vinegar that was offered to him. And the hyssop on which it was offered means that even our cheap and shoddy efforts to reach out to others with our faith are blessed and purified by our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
(Note: This post is an edited and greatly expanded version of an answer I originally wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)
For further reading: