The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ are the foundation of the Christian faith. Christianity stands or falls on these two great historical realities. So it’s understandable, perhaps, that what happened in between the climactic events of the cross and the resurrection should be somewhat overlooked. So let’s take a few moments, on this day when millions across the world are thinking about Jesus in the tomb, to think about the importance of the burial of Jesus.
Just try to imagine for a moment what would have happened if Jesus hadn’t been buried in the way he was. It was a real possibility—indeed probability—humanly speaking. The Roman custom was to leave a crucified corpse hanging to rot and be eaten by birds and animals of prey—it served as an effective deterrent to any would-be criminals. Jewish custom demanded that even executed criminals should be buried (Dt 21.22f), but under normal circumstances this would have happened in a mass grave outside Jerusalem. This seems to be what the Jewish leaders intended for Jesus – Jn 19.31: Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The body of Jesus was going to be thrown into a pit along with the two crucified beside him.
What if either of these things had happened? If Jesus’ body had been left on the cross to be eaten by vultures, or thrown into a mass grave it would have been much less clear that he had been raised. Think how sceptical people are of the resurrection as it is, in spite of being superbly documented. It would have left a huge question mark and shadow over a central element of the faith.
But, as with all the other details of Christ’s Passion, God is completely in control. He has prepared someone who will safeguard the body of Jesus and the credibility of the resurrection. But who? The disciples have run away and are in hiding—and in any case it’s very unlikely that they would have been given the body of Jesus by the authorities. Remember why a seal and a guard was placed on Jesus’ tomb in the end? Mt 27.64: Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. The women who followed Jesus certainly would have helped if they could have, but they had no influence. Who then? It turns out to be someone completely unexpected. Someone we haven’t met before and won’t meet again in Scripture: a man called Joseph from Arimathea.
Who was he? Mark tells us (15.43) that he was a ‘respected member of the Council’ who according to Lk 23.51 had not consented to their decision and action. As a member of the Sanhedrin he had access to Pilate and commanded respect and trust. He was also a rich man (Mt 27.57), so he had the means to provide not just a burial for Jesus, but a highly honourable burial. Luke describes him as a ‘good and upright man’ (Lk 23.50). Mark tells us he was waiting for the kingdom of God’ (15.43). He was waiting expectantly and believingly for God’s Messiah to come and establish his kingdom. He had believed that Jesus was the fulfilment of that hope, because he ‘had himself become a disciple of Jesus.’ (Mt 27.57).
So why haven’t we heard of this Joseph before now? John gives us the answer in Jn 19.38: Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretlybecause he feared the Jews. He was one of those described in Jn 12.42-3: …many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
But the events of the previous night have shown up the evil hypocrisy and unbelief of the Sanhedrin whose good opinion he had coveted so much. He no longer cared what people thought and so he goes openly to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body. Mk 15.43 says that he took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. The verb describes an act of great daring. What was so daring about it?
Jesus had been executed on a charge of high treason against Rome. Joseph wasn’t a relative—so why would he identify himself with a dead terrorist unless he was in sympathy with him? It was daring because it was bound to infuriate the other members of the Sanhedrin. And, most of all, it was daring because Jesus couldn’t do anything for Joseph now. As far as Joseph was concerned, Jesus was dead and gone. And yet he still boldly sacrifices his reputation for what must have seemed like a lost cause.
Listen to Calvin’s stirring words of challenge: If Joseph summoned up his confidence when Christ hung deadon cross, in his holy desire to do him honour, and we today, after his resurrection from the dead, have not at least the same flourishing zeal for his glory in our hearts—then woe to our idle ways!
So Joseph, assisted by another secret disciple, Nicodemus, took Jesus’ body from the cross and at lavish expense prepares it for burial. The tomb was of the finest quality, cut out of the bedrock of a hillside set in a large garden or orchard, with a large disc-shaped stone to keep out intruders and animals—another hallmark of an exceptionally fine tomb.
As soon as Jesus’ body is placed in this tomb it is safe from anyone who might try to steal it. The Pharisees helpfully make doubly sure that there is no possibility of that happening by arranging an official guard and seal! So the location of Jesus’ body is absolutely certain—it is laid in the tomb at the very last moment before the Sabbath begins. The place of burial is very definitely identified by eyewitnesses (Mk 15.47). John tells us that it was located near the place of crucifixion. There is no chance of getting this tomb mixed up with another one.
These arrangements of Jesus’ burial also helped to certify Jesus’ death. As Joseph and Nicodemus worked together to carry the dead weight of Jesus’ lifeless body, as they washed his terrible wounds, as they wound those linen strips around him, as they handled Jesus’ body in that intimate setting, there could have been no question that he was really dead. If there had been even the slightest sign of life, they would have noticed it—they would have been longingfor it and hyper-alert to anything remotely hopeful. But there was nothing—so they sealed him in the tomb and left him.
In this we see Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled (Is 53.9): He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death… Jesus died a criminal’s death with criminals and was destined for a criminal’s grave, but in the end his body was laid in a nobleman’s grave. How fitting for Jesus to be buried like a king, after all he has endured as our King to defend us from the wrath of God. How fitting too, since he cried out on the cross, “It is finished”. His accursedness was finished. Yes, his humiliation would continue for three days as he continued under the power of death in burial, but his honourable burial was such an appropriate foretaste of the glory about to be given to him.
What then does the burial of Jesus teach us? Let me suggest several lessons:
1. It’s a reminder that Jesus did indeed die and continued under the power of death for a time. His body really was broken for us and his blood was really poured out. How thankful we should be to think of the lifeless corpse of the Lord of life being prepared for burial and laid in a tomb, since the only reason Jesus was in that state was because of you and me. Because of our sins.
2. It’s a reminder that God’s purposes can’t be frustrated. Every tiny detail of salvation was provided for, right down to the burial of the body of Jesus. That corpse hanging on the cross at 3pm seemed destined for a mass grave of criminals. Who would have thought that within three hours it was going to be wrapped in fine linen scented with vast quantities of the most expensive perfumes, lying in one of the finest tombs in Jerusalem?! God had everything prepared from all eternity, even though it wasn’t revealed until the last minute. We can trust this God with all the details of our lives, and even our deaths. Nothing has been left to chance, even though sometimes it might look that way.
3. It’s a reminder that God has his people, even in the most unlikely and unpromising situations. Remember Elijah? It seemed like everyone else had abandoned the faith but him, and yet God had reserved 7000 who hadn’t bowed the knee to Baal. Here, in the Sanhedrin of all places, are two men who hadn’t sold out to Satan, and who stood up to be counted at critical moment.
4. And Joseph himself is such a challenge and encouragement. Are you following Jesus, but often secretly? In your workplace, your school, maybe even in your family, or among your non-Christian friends. Like Jospeh do you care more about the praise of men than the praise of God? You don’t want to stand out and seem odd? Perhaps there are times when you know you should speak out, but instead you keep quiet? Times when you should take a stand, but you don’t? If you’re like Jospeh in your inconsistency, you can become like him in this way too—you can change! God has work for you to do that only you in all the history of the world are able to carry out. You are uniquely placed to do it. So take courage and come out of the shadows. Nail your colours to the mast and make it clear to the world that you are living for Jesus Christ.