Luke 23:50-56 “Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no-one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”
If I should ask any of you about what happened when one of your loved ones died I guess that you would describe how you first heard the news, or maybe that you were there with that person when that one breathed his or her last. Then you would talk of how numbers of people called to see you in the next days, the kind letters you got, and that within a week the funeral service was held and you went to the cemetery and saw the coffin being lowered into the grave. I would think that that would be typical of many of our memories of the deaths of our loved ones. That’s quite different from how the gospel writers describe the death and burial of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, in much of the world today there is not much difference to burials from how it was at the time of our Lord. We don’t talk about the people who came in and took over, who they transported the corpse away, removed their clothes, washed the body, clothed it in a shroud and in a coffin. There are also embalmers in many parts of the world, and the body is on display for a day or so.
THE DETAILS OF JESUS’ BURIAL.
There are a number of unique details:
i] The man who took responsibility for the burial was Joseph of Arimathea. Isn’t that strange? Here is a man we’ve never met or heard of before now. He is mentioned in all four gospels at this point and not before, after Jesus has died. We have not one reference to any contact that he had with our Lord during his life, but now that our Lord dies he pops up. You’d expect someone like James the brother of our Lord to be involved in Jesus’ burial on behalf of his mother. Or you’d think it would be Peter, James and John who would arrange it. Or even that the people who took the other two criminals down from the cross would take Jesus down and throw them all in the same pit with the detritus of Jerusalem. No! Joseph arrives out of nowhere on central stage. It’s as if there the twelve has totally disintegrated. There is no leadership and anyone can take over. Joseph turns out to be an important leader of the Jews, a member of the Council, the court who had tried Jesus and found him guilty of blasphemy. He is the one who puts his head above the parapet. “I am going to give him a decent burial,” he decided. We are not told that he asked the family or the apostles or the women who followed Jesus for permission.
So Joseph of Arimathea took over. Like men in places of leadership and authority he knew exactly what to do. He had access to Pilate but he still needed some courage or boldness to do this. Anyway, he went and asked for permission to remove the nails and take Jesus’ body off the cross and bury it. Pilate was surprised at the request, not so much that Joseph of Arimathea was making it, but surprised rather that Jesus was dead after only six hours on the cross. Sometimes people stayed alive for two days. Mark tells us this, “Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph” (Mk. 15:44&45). He acceded to Joseph’s request because he wasn’t a man who wished every possible evil to fall on Jesus. You don’t get that impression of Pilate, do you? He didn’t hate our Lord, did he? And this fine opportunity came to make the Jewish leadership angry, and Pilate must have relished that!
Who was Joseph? Luke tells us that he was, “a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God” (v.50). Here was a man from a southern Judean town who seems to have protested against the guilty verdict and the whole conduct of the trial, a man who would have been very dubious of the witnesses who told the court that they had heard Jesus blaspheme. He voted against the guilty verdict and opposed Jesus’ crucifixion. Luke is telling us that a few good and upright men on the Sanhedrin had supported our Lord Jesus. More than that, he was a religious man, “waiting for the kingdom of God,” in other words, waiting for the Messianic Kingdom to be set up, and the crushing of the serpent’s head. He believed the Old Testament Scriptures and the covenant promises of God.
But more than that – yes far more. Listen to what John in his gospel tells us, “Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews” (Jn. 19:38). He was an actual follower of our Lord. He had heard him preach and believed him to be the Messiah. Such heart faith is possible and yet for you to tell no one about it. You are a scary cat, a bit ashamed of being known as a Christian, in your family and to the students in school or at university. In your heart you are trusting in the Lord Jesus, but you are afraid of the in group in school. As I often say to you, sitting on a fence is an undignified posture. Either the secrecy will kill the discipleship or the discipleship will kill the secrecy. God will help you nail your colours up and make you think, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Then somebody else turns up with expensive accessories. Old Joseph also had a close friend fascinated with Jesus, and this man we’ve met once or twice in the gospels, most famously in John chapter 3. I’m talking about Nicodemus. We are told by John that Joseph was accompanied in taking the body of Jesus off the cross by Nicodemus, “the man who earlier had visited Jesus by night” (Jn. 19:39). He is the man who takes his stand for Jesus in John chapter seven and is mocked for doing so by the Pharisees. So here are two of the 500 men whom Jesus won to serve him by his life and ministry during his three years of preaching. A few weeks later they would all be gathering together in the mountains of Galilee, where the risen Saviour met with them. Aren’t we encouraged to be told of such a man, that rare breed of politician or civil servant willing to stand up for Jesus in the public square, and especially that he was not a cranky loner. He was a man who had a Christian friend who stood with him. They had this one opportunity in their lives to take this stand and identify as caring for Jesus, and they seized it. Don’t let any opportunity to be missed in saying a word or taking an action for Jesus. That opportunity may never return.
ii] The Jews were unhappy with men hanging on crosses on the Sabbath Day. The leaders of the Jews had earlier gone to Pilate on this Preparation Day, the day before the Sabbath, and they had asked him to remember that the next day, which began in the early evening, was a Sabbath and it was not acceptable to them for three naked bodies to be hanging on a cross on a holy day. So here was a conflict between Jerusalem and Rome, because Rome tended to keep the bodies hanging on their crosses for weeks as a deterrent to future criminals until the bodies disintegrated. That was an abomination to the Jews and to any right-thinking people. That corpse was a filthy thing . . . a repulsive thing. So they asked Pilate to end the crucifixion. Break the legs of the criminals toward the end of the afternoon so that they couldn’t stretch up to suck in air and then they would suffocate, or thrust a spear into their bodies. So this was done. The squaddies strolled over to the crosses and they broke the legs of the two men one each side of Jesus, but our Lord had stopped breathing, but they had to make sure he was dead, and so one of them pushed a spear into him. The apostle John himself was there and he actually saw them do this to Jesus. He saw the water and blood flow from his riven side.
But what is all this? It is sheer legalism. “We have to keep the Sabbath. Nothing must stop our holy day being observed to the letter. We can kill the Messiah by nailing him to a cross and mocking his nakedness and pain, but we will challenge the Roman Empire about desecrating the seventh day of the week.” That is the ugliness of unbelief. We know it well. I think of two Muslim brothers in Boston who a week ago at a marathon let off bombs that killed children because they deplored the non-Muslim way of life of the Western world. I think of white Fascism that despised the Jewish way of life so that they gassed and killed millions of them. Unbelief!
iii] After Joseph and Nicodemus took him down from the cross then they prepared his body for burial. Joseph “wrapped it in linen cloth,” we are told, but John in his gospel tells us a little more. “Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs” (Jn.19:39&40). What do we see here? Just how lavish Joseph and Nicodemus were in embalming the body of our Lord – 75 pounds of spices and perfumes! And strips of linen wrapped round and round – just as you see in Egyptian mummies where their great leaders are wrapped about in yards of linen. Wasn’t all this excess a little indication of their guilt feelings? Doesn’t it strike you that they were making some reparation in Jesus’ death for their failure to protect Christ in his life from such a dying? Now they will spare no expense in caring for his dead body.
THE FACTICITY OF THE DEATH AND BURIAL OF JESUS CHRIST.
It answers two serious objections to the death and resurrection of the Lord Christ.
i] His burial answers the so–called ‘swoon theory.’ This theory is one of those that tries to explain away the resurrection claiming that Jesus swooned rather than died. This theory is about 300 years old, but it’s appeared very often throughout history. It came out in Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s book of 1982 Holy Blood, Holy Grail. They suggested that Pilate was bribed to allow Jesus to be taken down from the cross before he was dead. In 1992, Barbara Thiering explored the same theory in her book Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 2006, Baigent published The Jesus Papers, a book that describes how Jesus may have survived the crucifixion. Five other sensationalist books supporting the swoon theory were written in the 20th century.
The idea that Jesus had swooned rather than died falls apart pretty quickly when you consider that Jesus had undergone as many as six trials, was beaten up, then scourged with 39 lashes. He had been crucified with nails in the hands and feet; he hung there for six hours bleeding and dehydrating; his spear-pierced side had emitted blood and water. He was left in a tomb for three days, and was tightly wrapped up. His arms and legs were not free; strong linen was wrapped round and round him. Remember how revived Lazarus needed the disciples to free him from his grave clothes. These swoon conspirators suggest that Jesus having gone through all this was able to revive himself, freed himself from the tight wrappings, walked on pierced feet, single-handedly moved the stone, pushing it back up its ramp with those hands that had been crucified, and got by the armed guards given the charge of watching the sepulchre. Then he managed to walk a long distance on feet which had been pierced and appeared to the disciples as a living, vital, calm man, and as the victorious conqueror of death. However Luke tells us that the centurion saw him die, the soldiers pierced his side, his enemies and friends were confident that he was dead, Joseph and Nicodemus took him down, wrapped him up with cloths and spices and buried him, all because he had been killed and now was a corpse. It would take more faith to believe in the swoon theory than to believe that he rose.
It is such a patronizing attitude to 1st century people, that they were so stupid and incompetent compared to us, that an army officer failed to make sure that Jesus Christ actually died, and that Romans and Jews both were unable to discover the deception. The disciples were ignorant enough to believe that he rose from the dead, but contemporary man who believes in flying saucers also believes that a spark of life was still in his body and in a couple of days he had recovered from all of this. Then his friends succeeded in hiding the fact that he needed nursing for many months, until all his wounds were healed, and then they smuggled him off to live the rest of his life in obscurity – in India someone has suggested – where he died in old age of natural causes. If you can believe that then it would be a breeze for anyone to believe in the resurrection of the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount.
ii] His burial answers the lie that it was not Jesus who died but someone else. I am talking about the Muslim message that it was not our Saviour the great prophet who died on the cross. God did not allow that, in fact God lifted him to heaven. It was perhaps Judas who was crucified or another volunteer disciple who was changed to look just like Jesus. He was the one who actually died on Calvary. This is what you will find on Wikipedia, the various views of Muslims who deny that the virgin born Saviour died an atoning death and rose the third day. Imagine it, that they think Judas died in the place of Jesus. It is the very opposite of the gospel, where we are told of the love of God who sent his Son who became the Lamb of God and he died in the place of men who had behaved more vilely than Judas. So some Muslims say that Judas died in Jesus’ place. Here in all the gospels and so also in Luke the death of Jesus was not in a dark alley at midnight. It took place at 3 p.m. in the afternoon when after hours of darkness the sun was shining brightly again. It was an observed death and an official execution with a death certificate issued by Rome, as it were. His closest friends and even his mother witnessed it. They took him down and they buried him. The idea of Islam that some science fiction action was performed on the face of Judas (or a friend) to make him a clone of Jesus – even to giving him the very same attitude that Jesus had so that he could he pray for his enemies and speak seven times on the cross. It is simply anti-Christianity. We believe that one day every disciple will see Jesus and then be transformed into the likeness of Jesus, but they believe that his unrepentant betrayer could be supernaturally transformed into his likeness to suffer the agony of the cross in his place. We feel like saying to the Muslims who claim this, “Please . . . you cannot be serious.” The very heart of the Christian message is that the one and only Jesus became the Lamb of God and died in order for our ultimate transfiguration.
CONSIDER THE IMPORTANCE OF JESUS CHRIST BEING DEAD.
i] The death and burial of the Lord Jesus was another proof of his incarnation. His power over creation, demons, disease and death was the evidence that this man was the incarnate God. His humanity was proven by his tears, and hunger, and sensitivity to pain, and his mortality. He was thus bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. To die in our place he needed to be a son of Adam, and a son of Abraham, and a son of David, in other words not an angel but as real a human being, as much flesh and blood as ourselves. Luke has shown us his divinity and his humanity all the way through his Gospel, from the manger in Bethlehem to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus of Nazareth was true God and a real man. But what clearer or stronger proof of his humanity could there be than the fact that he died?
Nothing proclaims the frailty and utter humiliation of our human condition as powerfully as a corpse. We don’t want to look at it. It scares us. It is one thing to say that “dust we are, and to the dust we will return,” but to see a dead body, even the body of your kith and kin, is very solemn indeed. Joseph and Nicodemus lowered the cross and picked up the pliers and extracted the nails. Then they picked up his body and put it on a cart. It was a body that had weight to it, that had recently been alive, as anyone could see from the dried blood on its hands, its feet, and its side. Joseph felt cold skin and firm bones as he began to wrap the body in pure linen – that is how real it was. It was the human body of the divine Son of God, whose incarnation is proved in the way he was taken down from the cross and de-nailed.
ii] The death and burial of the Lord Jesus was another example of Christ’s deep humiliation. We often speak of Christ dying for us. Now we are moving on and considering Christ dead for us. Paul says he humbled himself to death. It was the tearing apart of his soul and his body that was the depth of his humbling. Christ tasted death for us. Christ removed death’s sting from us in this extraordinary way, by letting it penetrate his own heart and not letting it come out. Although his body did not experience corruption nevertheless Jesus must enter the place of corruption. He must deliver his body to the humiliation of the grave, to the place where every sinner returns to the dust. This was a voluntary act on the part of this suffering Servant of Jehovah. He freely chose to submit himself to the sentence of the Father, “Dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return.” And he did this for us.
He had lived that quiet life in Nazareth; he had then exploded onto the human stage in Galilee at his baptism in the Jordan, and then, after three years of ministry he was killed. One writer has said that from a human point of view the Lord had not achieved much. It was an unusual thing to say. I suppose he meant that we collect the sum of all the healings, his sermons and the 500 disciples who believed in him, that that was the total fruit of 33 years of God incarnate in the world. It came to an end when some of his own creatures kill him. Not an incredible achievement for the Almighty Creator of outer space. Yet who was this, and what was to come from this for the next 2,000 years? Here and now, in our text, let me show you God the Son. Veiled in death the godhead see! His dead body is being carried to the grave. Beneath that napkin wrapped around his head, and behind those bandages that shroud his body there is the body of the Word who was God and who was in the beginning with God but now made flesh, and there isn’t a spark of life in him. Body and soul have been rent in twain. Here within this shroud within a grave behind the stone is God the Son as to his body, but as to his spirit he is safe in heaven with his Father. But at this moment at the end of Luke chapter 23 his years of humiliation are over, and he has left us with the memory of his healings and his teachings and the 500 men and women who follow him.
iii] The death and burial of the Lord Jesus is another part of the payment for our pardon. How Jesus lived, that alone did not save us (God becoming a sinless man and his active obedience), how he suffered in the darkness and anathema on the cross, that alone did not save us (the passive obedience of the God-man dying for our sins). He also needed to be dead; that was necessary for our redemption. To understand this, we have to go all the way back to the very beginning, to something God said in the Garden of Eden: if the man ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he would surely die (Gen. 2:17). But of course Adam did eat from the fruit of that forbidden tree, and death has been the unavoidable, inescapable result for all Adam’s posterity ever since. According to the justice of God, the wages of sin really is death (Rom. 6:23). But if that is true, then why did Jesus die? For if there is one thing we know from his life (especially from his trial), it is that Jesus never committed a single sin. What, then, is the explanation for his death and burial? The explanation is that Jesus was dead as our substitute. He entered the grave making payment for our sins. If the wages of sin is death, then Jesus could only make full atonement by experiencing death. More than his active obedience, and more than suffering anguish, despised and forsaken on Calvary, he must taste death for us all. Only so could full atonement for sin be made. You often hear people say that they do not fear death but they fear the dying. It is the very reverse with me. Whatever pain I must endure at the end it will be by the assistance of good men and women and of God. But then I must enter the valley of the shadow. My great comfort concerning that is that my Saviour has been there. He has gone to sleep in death and warmed its bed for me.
The cosmic sacrifice was really offered up in death. The Lamb’s throat was cut and out flowed his blood. The penalty of our sin that God demands has actually been discharged by God the Son. Sinners believing in Jesus may die in hope as the walk through the valley of the shadow of death and not be afraid. In themselves they are mortal and guilty. But Christ has suffered death for the ungodly. Death has lost its sting. “by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebs 2:14&15).
iv] The death and burial of Jesus was another part of the prophecies made about him. When the prophets spoke about Jesus and his saving work, they invariably testified to his being dead. When David sang the song of the suffering Christ, he said, “you lay me in the dust of death” (Ps. 22:15). When Isaiah prophesied about the coming salvation, he said that the Suffering Servant “was cut off out of the land of the living . . . they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death” (Isa. 53:8-9). The apostles spoke the same way in the New Testament. “We were reconciled to God by the death of his Son,” Paul said to the Romans (Rom. 5:10). According to Hebrews, it is “through death” that our Savior has delivered us from the power of death and our slavery to sin (Heb. 2:14-15). The apostles and prophets were always saying, “We believe that Jesus died” (I Thess.4:14).
4. THE LORD JESUS CHRIST WAS BURIED IN THE GRAVE OF ANOTHER.
Since Jesus did not make a sacrifice for his own sins but for others, it seems so appropriate that he was also buried in another’s tomb. Let me turn that in two ways, firstly what I have often remarked about in the past, that it was a fine tomb. It was the tomb of a man with plenty of money to make the best tomb for himself. This had not been an old sepulchre, full of the stench of death, where many corpses over the centuries had decomposed, a place where rats would burrow in and hunt for carrion. No one at all had ever been laid out in this tomb. The marks of the chisels of the stone-masons were still fresh on its rocky sides. It was fragrant and clean and spacious. The Father had grieved as he had witnessed what men did to his Son when his Son was being obedient to him. Now that Christ has accomplished full atonement God prepares the very best tomb for his Son. He shows all his love for him when he prepares this place for his body to rest honourably for this brief time. The provision of this cave is an expression of God’s measureless love for his Son, for being obedient to him even to the death of the cross. So he planted it within the mind of Joseph of Arimathea months earlier to have this tomb cut out by masons and their labourers, and have a special stone made that would roll down at the entrance in a groove so that the body would be safe from robbers and beasts. He had Nicodemus bring a prodigious amount of the finest spices and perfumes to cover his body, not allowing it to putrefy. All this was the Father’s loving response. It was the enacted display of his great words, “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
But there is something more about Jesus buried in another’s grave. An old Christian named Maximus of Turin once raised the question, “Why did they place the Saviour in someone else’s grave instead of his own? They placed him in another person’s grave because he died for the salvation of others. Death didn’t just happen to him, but how much it benefited us. Why should he . . . have his own grave?” Jesus wouldn’t be using it for very long anyway, so why not borrow another man’s tomb? His parents had borrowed a stable for a maternity ward for his birth. In his lifetime he had no place to lay his head, and he lay in a borrowed grave. Everything our Lord ever did was for others, up to and including his death. It was for us that he suffered, and for us that he was dead.
IT WAS FROM THE DEAD THAT JESUS ROSE.
If Jesus Christ dead was the ultimate proof of his incarnation and the final payment for our atonement, it was also essential for the resurrection. Jesus had to die before he or anyone else could be raised again. This is only logical: in order for someone to be raised from the dead, he has to be dead to begin with! There could be no Easter Sunday without Good Friday, no resurrection without the crucifixion, and no empty tomb without the death and the burial of Jesus. Thus what happens in Luke 24 has to be preceded by all that happened in chapter 23.
What is ultimate reality? That question is what the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ answers. Is ultimate reality death? Is the coffin the meaning of life? Is the burial service and the rotting corpse the final reality? We live and we die, and those are the only certainties of our lives. Is that it? Here is the extraordinary event. Do you understand what we have here? The resurrection is not what we call a brute fact, an isolated fact, some event historically recorded and written about by a number of eye-witnesses, a strange unexplained occurence that took place over 1900 years ago, something that we may talk about from time to time, shaking our heads and saying, “Amazing!” but for the rest having no further impact or significance. This event doesn’t mean that a great teacher and healer managed somehow or other to reverse the process of dying so that he came to life again, but that no one is likely ever to do this again.
No. It was one particular unique person, the Lord Jesus Christ who arose, and he became the first fruits of them that slept. Jesus is not a mere remarkable individual. He is God the Son, the incarnate Lord, the one who was in the beginning with God, the one God sent to save us from death and hell. He is the Anointed of God, ordained from before the foundation of the world to be the head over all things to the church and the head of the church. He was ordained to be the first-begotten of the dead and the beginning of the new creation. He died and all his people died in him. He rose and all his people rose in him. They are inseparable from him in his resurrection. As in birth the head of the baby appears first and then the body, so it is in the resurrection, it is the head who appears from the grave first of all, never to die again, and then all the body of Christ. They were planted together in the likeness of his death, he and them. Now they are raised with him in the likeness of his resurrection, he and them.
In the providence of God, Jesus was buried alone, in an empty tomb (Luke 23:53). This is significant because it meant that his resurrection could be confirmed. In those days it was uncommon for anyone to be buried alone. Most tombs contained more than one body. The body disintegrated in the heat of the Middle East but before the process was complete another body would be brought in, but not in this sepulchre. The body of Jesus was the only one in the grave. There could be no confusion about which body belonged to Jesus. It was he alone who came back to life and not as a ghostly apparition. There was physical resurrection.
Luke informs us that “the women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid” (Luke 23:55). They saw . . . they were eye-witnesses, not lying deceivers, not plotters, godly women like the women in this congregation, but these, before they rolled the stone down they saw where and how Jesus’ body was positioned. This too was significant, because it proves that this was not a case of mistaken identity. The women who came back after the Sabbath knew exactly which tomb to visit, and exactly where the body had been laid. So when they found the tomb totally empty, there was only one reasonable explanation: Jesus had triumphed over death by rising from the grave.
The hope of your resurrection depends on this gospel fact. The one great question everyone has about life is what will happen at death. The ancient pharaohs built their grandiose pyramids in the desert, and some people now have their bodies stored in liquid nitrogen. They are grasping for some guarantee of life after death. In fact, there is just one guarantee and that is the risen Christ. But we can know for sure that Jesus rose again only if we also know that he was actually once dead and buried. Once we do know this, we never need to worry again about what will happen when we die. Because Jesus has gone into the grave ahead of us, he can lead us out again and on to eternal life.
21st April 2013 GEOFF THOMAS