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Faith Bible Church, NY
August 27, 1995
The Burial of Jesus
This morning we come to the burial of Jesus Christ. Often this section of the gospel accounts is skipped over or given only a brief glance. In some ways it seems as only the transition needed to get from Jesus great passion on the cross when He bore our sins to the great hope of mankind, Jesus resurrection from the dead. I must admit that as I was doing my first review of Matthew to see how I might break it up into sections for preaching I had considered giving this section only a cursory comment as a finally to the sermon on Jesus’ crucifixion, or as a brief opening in the sermon I will do on Jesus resurrection. But there are several very significant aspects to this text that warrant giving it significant time.
First, we will see in this text God’s providence. His hand will be moving in the many details of the lives of individuals in order to fulfill prophecy. We often think of supernatural miracles as the great demonstration of God’s power; those things that break the laws of nature. When God interrupts the normal order of things we humans stand up and take notice. Things like the plagues on Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, provision of manna in the wilderness wanderings, the earth opening up to swallow Korah and his rebellious followers, Jericho’s walls falling down, axe heads floating on water, Elijah taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, Jesus healing every manner of disease and sickness, walking on water, calming the storm with a word, turning water into wine, and raising the dead. When God works in this manner He gets our attention.
God’s providence is not as outwardly spectacular, but the more you think about it, the more incredible is its demonstration of God’s sovereignty. God’s providence is His working in and through the details and circumstances of ordinary people, often over long periods of time, to accomplish His will. Most of the Bible’s prophecies have been fulfilled through God’s providence. God’s hand in circumstances and in the details of the lives of individuals are clearly seen in this text as He weaves everything together to fulfill prophecy and provide loving care to the body of Jesus Christ.
We also learn from this text some important principles about the care that should be given to the deceased. We live in a age of extremes. Some people being extravagant while others are indifferent.
And a third important aspect in this text is the precautions the enemies of Jesus take to make sure that He does not come out of the grave.
HE DIED AT THE APPOINTED TIME
We ended last week with several women including Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and Salome, the mother of James and John, standing at a distance looking at the cross on which the dead body of Jesus hung. It is a little after 3 p.m., the time of the Passover sacrifices which have now been made of no account since the perfect Passover lamb, Jesus Christ, has been sacrificed.
About the same time we find from the gospel of John (19:31ff) that the Chief priests and elders are again demanding something from Pilate. Here again we see God’s providence at work as He weaves together the religious hypocrisy of these Jews with the indifference of Pilate in order to fulfill prophecy.
31 The Jews therefore, because it was the day of preparation, so that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high [day]), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and [that] they might be taken away. These religious hypocrites were concerned that the men being crucified might profane the high Sabbath the next day if they were still on their crosses. The practice of the Romans was to leave a man on a cross until he was dead. However, Deut. 21:23 said that the corpse of an executed criminal could not be left “hanging on a tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God give you as an inheritance.” If this would defile the land on a normal day, how much more so on the Sabbath which God commanded should be kept holy, and even more so on the high Sabbath of Passover.
These men were very concerned that this Sabbath not be defiled in such a manner. The fact that they had already defiled Passover itself by their disregard of the Law of Moses in the trial and execution of Jesus did not bother them, but such ceremonial defilement they did not want to risk. So they come to Pilate and request that the process be speeded up. It was now three and the Sabbath began at six. There was only a short time left in which these men had to die so their bodies could be taken down and disposed of before the Sabbath.
Remember that crucifixion kills through suffocation. The death process was dragged out in crucifixion because its victim could raise himself to get a gasp of air. The process could be speeded up by having their legs broken, then unable to raise themselves, they would quickly suffocate. The Romans would do this by taking a large wooden mallet and shattering their legs. The pain of that would be extreme, but short lived.
32 The soldiers therefore came, and broke the legs of the first man, and of the other man who was crucified with Him; 33 but coming to Jesus, when they saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs; 34 but one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water. 35 And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so that you also may believe. 36 For these things came to pass, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, “Not a bone of Him shall be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.”
The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves, but were surprised to find that Jesus was already dead. If Jesus had still been alive, they would have broken His legs too, but as John pointed out the prophecy of Psalm 34:20 had to be fulfilled. The time of Jesus death assured that not one of His bones would be broken.
At the same time the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10 also had to be fulfilled. Jesus had to be pierced. Alfred Edershiem in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah, points out that after crushing the legs of those being crucified the soldiers would often also deliver what was often called the “death stroke.” They would thrust their spear in the side and through the heart of the person to ensure death. The soldier had no reason to do this in that he had already declared that Jesus was dead, but he did anyway and found that blood and water flowed out. Jesus had already been dead for a while. The soldier unwittingly fulfilled the Zechariah’s prophecy. He also confirmed beyond doubt that Jesus was dead. The wound was so deep that after the resurrection Jesus invited Thomas to place his hand in it. God’s hand moves in the details of circumstances, timing and the life of a Roman soldier to ensure that what He had previously said through the prophets would be fulfilled.
HE WAS BURIED IN THE APPOINTED MANNER
But now that Jesus was dead, what was to be done with his body? The religious leaders did not care as long as His and those of the two t hieves were taken off the cross. The Romans did not care. They were indifferent to the care of a crucified body. Their common practice was to throw them in a common grave for criminals. This was apparently the plan Jesus enemies had for Him for Isaiah 53:9 says that “His grave was assigned with wicked men.” These graves were often left open and animals would scavenge the bodies as food. The Romans might just as easily throw the corpses into a burning rubbish heap like the one in the Hinnom Valley not far away.
On occasion the family of an executed criminal would be allowed to take the body for burial, but even this was not usually allowed because the desecration of the body by throwing it in a common, open grave or on a garbage heap was part of Rome’s warning to all about the consequences of defying its laws. Who would now take care of Jesus’ body.
The only disciple that is known to have been present was John, but Jesus had given him the responsibility of taking care of His mother, which is what John apparently was doing now. John was present when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, but neither he nor Jesus’ mother are mentioned as now being there. None of the rest of Jesus’ family are mentioned as being present, and the women who were present would not have had a basis to claim Jesus body. Remember that women in the society were not given much consideration, especially when it came to legal matters.
From the human standpoint the situation seems hopeless. There is now only a short time before the body must be disposed of, and there is no one around to claim the body. But God’s hand is not short. He had said through the prophet Isaiah that though Jesus grave was assigned with the wicked, yet He would be with a rich man in death. God’s providence was still at work. Look at Matthew 27:57.
57 And when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. 58 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered [it] to be given over [to him.]
The phrase, “when it was evening” refers to the time of the first evening watch from 3 to 6 p.m. It is just at the proper time that we find a man named Joseph from the city of Arimathea coming to ask for Jesus’ body. The prophecy would be fulfilled, but let us note some of the details of God’s providence at work here. Joseph of Arimathea, as stated in our text, was a rich man. An important aspect of fulfilling the prophecy. Luke 23 tells us that he was a “good and righteous man” who was “waiting for the kingdom of God.”
Second, we note that he is a disciple of Jesus, that is, a follower of Jesus. However, John tells us that he was a “secret” disciple for he was afraid of the Jews. Why would he be afraid? Because these religious leaders hated Jesus so much that they had said that anyone who confessed that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. The practical result of this would be being cut off from Jewish society.
Joseph had another reason for being afraid. Mark 15 tells us that Joseph was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin. If it was known that he was a follower of Jesus he would have most certainly been put out of that council as well. Mark tells us that Joseph “gathered up his courage” to go to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. The secret disciple was no longer going to be secret. Earlier in the day he had already stood out because he did not consent to the condemnation of Jesus (Luke 23:51).
If Joseph had not been a member of the Sanhedrin it is doubtful that Pilate would have paid much attention to him, but as far as Pilate knew Joseph may have been there making his request on behalf of that council. Remember, he was a prominent member of it. It was of no consequence to Pilate what happened to Jesus body, so if a member of the Sanhedrin wanted it, he could have it. But Pilate was surprised to learn that Jesus was already dead. Mark tells us that Pilate asked the centurion if Jesus had already died, and finding out that to be the case, he granted Jesus’ body to Joseph.
Notice again the hand of God all through this. A fearful rich man who is a secret follower of Jesus finds courage to publicly ask for Jesus body. He does so at precisely the right time. Only a short time earlier had the chief priest requested Pilate to have those being crucified taken down from the crosses. If Joseph had asked later he would not have had time to bury Jesus before the start of the Sabbath. This is important because Jesus had to be buried before the start of the next day in order for Friday to count as the first day of His three days in the grave. Joseph is also the right man, a member of the Sanhedrin, so Pilate would grant his request without questioning. This is not by chance, but by God’s sovereign hand.
Joseph now proceeds to the site of the crucifixion at Golgotha. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the entrance of the tomb and went away. 61 And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.
John’s account tells us of another person that shows up along the way. Nicodemus, another “ruler of the Jesus,” who in John 3 had come to ask Jesus his questions at night because he was afraid of the other Jews finding out. Now we have two secret disciples who are boldly identifying with Jesus by going to get Jesus, while all the disciples except John were in hiding. It should also be noted that these men were not concerned about the ceremonial defilement that would come upon them because of touching a dead body (Num. 19:16). Neither did they understand that Jesus would rise from the dead in a few short days or they would not have taken such care to prepare Jesus’ body.
John’s account says that they had nearly 100 pounds of burial spices, being myrrh and aloes. The Jews did not embalm as the Egyptians did, but they did put spices around the body and in the burial clothes in order to lessen the stench of decay. These men did not understand that Jesus would rise from the dead in three days or they would not have gone to so much trouble to keep the body from stinking. These men did what they did because they had come to love and respect Jesus and wanted to do something as a final act of loyalty to him though they had been secretive about their relationship to Jesus previously. It is tragic, but too often it takes the death of someone to finally move us to finally express what has been on our hearts and never said or acted upon.
Notice the care given to Jesus’ body. It is a good example for us of how to treat the bodies of our loved ones when they die. There is no extreme here in either direction.
First, I should point out again those that were with Jesus to the end. John and the women who stood there by the cross with the hope that some how their presence would be a comfort to Him as He suffered. Today we sanitize death. It generally now takes place not in the home, but in the hospital, hospice or convalescent home. In the years Diane worked as a nurse in a cancer unit of a hospital, she saw many people die, many with no one there but the professionals. Certainly some of these die alone simply because the timing of their death occurred when no one was there, and such was the case with both of my mom’s parents. Yet, I wonder how often our efforts to prolong life do not instead serve to put people in a position where they will die alone. It is a question that must be considered when we have to face the difficult decisions related to how to best care for a loved one whose health is failing them. Too often those decisions are based simply on what is convenient for us, not on what is best before God.
I should also point out that even after Jesus’ death, the priority was on the living. Again, John would have been the likely person to care for Jesus’ body, but Jesus had already set the priority for him, and that was to take care of His mother, which is what John was doing. So it must be with us. The priority must be on the living and bringing care and comfort to them.
Third, notice again that Joseph and Nicodemus are no longer afraid to identify with Jesus. It would have been better if they had done this before death, but at least they are doing so know. The same holds true for us. It would be best to do this before a funeral, but true words and actions of loyalty are always appropriate when someone is dying and at a funeral.
Fourth, they are also willing to bear the personal cost of being ceremonially defiled and the price of the burial spices, and for Joseph, the use of his tomb as well. It is a final act of love and loyalty. To complain about the inconvenience or the personal cost is to reveal the true nature of your selfish heart.
Fifth, they responded in accordance with the opportunity and their resources. Funerals in that society were very important social affairs. Musicians would be hired to play mournful dirges, professional “wailers” would be hired to cry and increase the outward demonstration of sorrow (Matt. 9:23). The procession to the burial site could also become very elaborate as the musicians, wailers, and grieving family and friends all went out to the burial sight.
None of this occurs here. It is simply Joseph, Nicodemus and the two Mary’s. It is probable that Joseph carried Jesus’ body while Nicodemus carried the burial spices with the two Mary’s helping as they could. The only real expenses were the burial spices. The tomb belonged to Joseph and such tombs were designed for multiple uses, so there really was no expense there. Funerals are not for show and tell. Your love is not measured in how much you can spend on their funeral.
The care for Jesus’ body demonstrates the balance. The body of the deceased are not just remains that need to be disposed of in the most economical manner, but neither are they the person themselves that they should receive lavish attention. A dead body is the cherished shell that once housed the individual we loved. We treat it with respect out of honor and in the memory of that person.
After they had finished wrapping Jesus’ body with the linens and spices, they laid it in the tomb. Then they rolled the large stone that protected the entrance from animals and vandals. Joseph and Nicodemus went on their way while the two Marys remained awhile longer sitting opposite the grave, as many of us might be apt to do at the grave of a loved one as sorrow fills our heart and we find it hard to let go and say goodbye.
HIS ENEMIES APPOINT A GUARD
Matthew next points out the precautions Jesus’ enemies take to make sure that Jesus stays in the tomb.
62 Now on the next day, which is [the one] after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together with Pilate, 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that when He was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I [am to] rise again.’ 64 “Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, lest the disciples come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go, make it [as] secure as you know how.” 66 And they went and made the grave secure, and along with the guard they set a seal on the stone.
This is the only activity that takes place on Saturday, the Sabbath. Amazingly, the chief priests, which are mostly Sadducees, and Pharisees have joined forces for the second time. They are theological enemies and generally at odds with each other, but they do have a common interest. They hate Jesus, as evidenced here by the fact that they only refer to Him as “that deceiver.” They want to make sure that there is no possibility that Jesus’ disciples might come and steal Jesus body away and thus begin a deception that Jesus had been raised from the dead as He had claimed He would be. They were so intent on this that though it is now the high Sabbath, they are unconcerned about being defiled by going into the Praetorium to meet with Pilate if it will accomplish their goal.
They did not have anything to fear from the disciples because they were still in hiding. It is strange that they had failed to understand and believe what Jesus had told them in plain language about His resurrection whereas the Sadducees and Pharisees understood and remembered though they were told in figurative language.
Pilate agrees to their request because he recognizes that if a deception could be pulled off that the King of the Jews had conquered death and was therefore invincible, he could end up with a serious rebellion on his hands. He tells them to take a guard. This is a Roman guard, not a Jewish Temple guard, which would have no authority outside the Temple and which would not be answerable to Pilate. The guard is stationed and an official seal is placed on the tomb. This would be either made of clay or wax in which an official emblem of Rome has been impressed into it. To break the seal is to defy Rome. No one would dare to break it.
Again we see God’s hand at work even through His enemies. They had placed the guard and set the seal to prevent a hoax from being perpetrated, but God had it done as an added factor in proving that there was no hoax and the resurrection really did take place.
We serve a sovereign God who cannot only work supernaturally but also orchestrate all the details of circumstances and many lives, including those of His enemies, to achieve His will. This is what backs up the great truth of Romans 8:28 that “we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Even when we do not understand the things we or those we love may be going through we can rest with certainty that God knows what He is doing and that He will work it out in both His and our best interest, if we are one of those that love God. The amazing burial of Jesus demonstrates that.
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