The Burial of Jesus Christ (Matthew Sermon 148 of 151)
September 15, 2013 | Andy Davis
Death & Dying, Resurrection of Christ, Sovereignty of God, Prophecy, Resurrection
This morning, God-willing, you're gonna hear a sermon on the burial of Jesus Christ. I think it's possible you may have never heard a sermon, a whole sermon, on the burial of Christ, but this is the joy and delight of taking passages verse by verse and looking at them. A number of years ago, I was just remembering this a few moments ago in the pew. I think it was 16 - It was, sorry, 1985. I'm not that old. That's terrible. 1985, there was the 300th anniversary of the birth of Johann Sebastian Bach, and the classical radio station up in the Massachusetts area played 300 consecutive hours of Bach's music, never playing the same thing twice. That's unbelievable, you think about the amount of music that poured through that genius. And everything he did, he wrote “To the glory of God alone” at the bottom, and he just desired to take his musical gifts and use them for God.
But the last piece that that classical station played was the final movement of St. Matthew's passion, which is the text we're looking at this morning, and it's what Leonard Bernstein called a grand exalted lullaby as they laid Jesus to rest. And what's so interesting, Bach was always putting symbolic things in his music. He's always doing tricky, interesting things, if you knew what to look for, and I don't, but I read about it and they tell me what to look for. But that piece ended, St. Matthew's passion ended with a terribly discordant note that was held on for a long time, so it was really a screeching way to end one of the most beautiful pieces of music that's ever been written. And what Bach was doing is he's saying the story isn't over yet with the burial of Jesus, there's more to come. And so then he wrote Easter Oratorio, and come next week and we celebrate Easter. Now, it's not Easter, I know that, I'm aware of the church calendar.
But the burial of Jesus stands as a significant link between these two hugely significant moments in redemptive history, namely, of course, the cross, the death of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. And so we have the opportunity to see how God orchestrated, in minute detail, the timing of Jesus' death, the elements of his burial, all of those things, the quiet witnessing of the place of burial by the women that were there. He orchestrated and moved Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, at a key moment, to be involved in the burial of Jesus. He even orchestrated Jesus' bitter enemies to achieve the exact opposite of what they were trying to achieve. They wanted to shut down any testimony to the resurrection, and frankly by posting a guard to try to stop what no power in heaven, Earth, or under the Earth could ever stop, the resurrection of Jesus, they just played right into God's hands. Amen. Hallelujah. And they become hostile witnesses, but for the case of the resurrection of Jesus, we'll talk about that more in the future.
But how powerful is it that God providentially rules over every tiny detail, even over those who love Jesus and those who hated him, to bring about the exact burial of Jesus that the Lord had planned to bring about. And so we can worship a God who sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and all of the peoples before him are like grasshoppers, and he does, as Nebuchadnezzar said, as he pleases with the powers of heaven and with the kingdoms, the peoples on earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him, “What have you done?”
So, last week we saw, in that text, God the Father interprets the cross of his son, Jesus Christ. We looked at various amazing, astonishing things that the Father did to tell us how to think about the death of Jesus. And how he orchestrated, supernaturally, an eerie darkness that came over the entire land, which you don't get from the Scripture, but from other contemporary accounts, that it was so dark that they could see the stars. So it's almost like it became night in the middle of the day while Jesus was on the cross. And how the fulfillment of prophecy was the Father's way of teaching us the significance of Jesus' death, how Jesus quoted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And how that was a fulfillment of prophecy, the clear testimony in Psalm 22 of the crucifixion. And also the spiritual significance of Jesus' mysterious alienation from the Father, and how he was, in a very mysterious way, talked about this last week, as our sin bear alienated from God, and the wine vinegar being there that Jesus drank in fulfillment of prophecy.
And then the tearing of the curtain in two, from top to bottom, signaling the free access that we all have right into the presence of God, which I urged you, as believers in Christ, to take away is the central application last week. You have free access to Almighty God any time you want. I certainly hope you walk through that curtain, spiritually, again and again and again, this past week. Coming near to the throne of grace to receive mercy. And how at the moment of Jesus' death, there was a terrifying earthquake that shook, it seems like the whole region, not just right there, but an earthquake felt as far away as Bithynia and other places, just an amazing shaking of the earth. And then the resuscitation, as I called it last week, of holy people that had been dead but came back to life and appeared to many. And so the Father, just by many, many ways, testifying to the significance of the crucifixion of Christ.
The Burial in Prophecy and in Proclamation of the Gospel
The Burial of Jesus Christ is Essential to the Proclamation of the Resurrection
Now we get to the account of the burial, as we finish Matthew chapter 27. As we come to the burial of Jesus, we come to a very significant event, I think often overlooked. So I wanna talk about the burial of Christ in prophecy and in the proclamation of the gospel. Let's start with the proclamation, how the burial of Jesus Christ is essential to the proclamation of the gospel, as Paul gives us a summary of the historical foundation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. He says there, “For what I received, I also passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was buried and that he was raised on the third day, according to the scriptures.”
So there you have crucifixion, resurrection, and then this clear statement of the burial between the two. We also have the Apostle Paul using the burial very plainly to speak of our spiritual status in Christ, we who have been baptized into Christ. In Romans 6:4 Paul says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.” And then Colossians 2:12, “Having been buried with him in baptism, and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.”
And we're gonna talk more about this at the end of the sermon. But there I'm gonna say very plainly, and what Paul says in Romans 6, you should consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. So the idea of Jesus' dead body buried in a cave is a picture of your old nature, your old person in Adam, dead now forever. The person you were in Adam is dead. You are now a new person in Christ. And so, that's a beautiful picture, and Paul uses the burial of Jesus to give us a picture of how dead we should be, and are, to sin. So we'll talk more about that at the end.
The Burial of Jesus Predicted in Prophecy
We also have the burial of Jesus not only proclaimed in the preaching of the gospel, and we'll talk also about Acts 2 and the Pentecost a little bit later, but we also have it predicted in prophecy, the burial of Jesus predicted. First, the manner of the burial, details of the burial predicted in Isaiah 53:9. There it says, “They made his grave with the wicked and with the rich man at his death, though he had done no violence and had not spoken deceitfully.” So we have one key noun and two adjectives in this prophecy that are vital, the word “grave,” the Hebrew word translated there means grave, sepulchre, a place where a dead body is placed. And this is very significant because this is the suffering servant passage, there in Isaiah 53, of this individual who grew up before God like a tender shoot and like a root out of dry ground, had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. Who is this individual?
And “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Well, yes, but it's not until later in verse 9 that we have the word “grave.” So it's clear that not only was Jesus wounded, pierced, struck, or crushed. He was killed, he died. So, only dead people need a grave. And so it's very clear that it's only by the death of the suffering servant that our sins are atoned for.
And so Jesus clearly died and he was laid in a grave, it would be predicted that he was laid in a grave, but then there's some more details in the prophecy. “They made his grave with the wicked, and he was with the rich in his death.” Putting it together, it seems that the verse indicated that the suffering servant, we know to be Jesus, would die and would be assigned, I think that's the best way to understand it, a grave with the wicked - but, in the end, he would be buried with the rich. And so, after the fact, we can look back and see the precision there.
The burial with the wicked was undoubtedly in that Jesus was considered to be a criminal, considered to be wicked by those who killed him, and they would like nothing better than to have made an example of his body, perhaps putting his dead body up or leaving it on the cross for days maybe. The Romans did this kind of thing as a warning to others that they would not follow this pattern of rebellion against Caesar, and the birds picking at the flesh and all that, perhaps that was the intention. Or that he would be buried in a common grave, and not be able to be identified from any other criminal. He was crucified with two others at the time.
So he was numbered among the transgressors, he was numbered among the wicked in his death, but he was with the rich in his death. Now, in our account here in verse 57, we have “a rich man,” it says, “named Joseph of Arimathea, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.” And in John 19, he was accompanied by Nicodemus and together they brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about 75 pounds worth. These things were very expensive, very costly, and so both Joseph and Nicodemus, undoubtedly very wealthy men. And they brought, basically, ingredients for the burial of a king, it was at a kingly level they were treating his body. And so incredible details there in that one verse concerning the burial of Jesus.
Also Jesus gives us some insight concerning the timing of his burial. You remember how evil people came to Jesus and asked, after a river of miracles that he'd done, after so many healings, came and asked him to show them a sign. Again, another miracle. And Jesus said to them, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a miraculous sign, but none will be given it, except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a large fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” That's Matthew 12:40. So the timing of it, we'll talk more about that in a moment, but the timing of it, according to Jesus, laid out. Now, again, I don't think we would have read the story of Jonah and gotten the burial of Jesus out of that, but Jesus is the one that said that's the timetable. And so three days and three nights, the timetable.
The Burial Essential to Proving the Resurrection
We also believe that the burial itself is essential to the early apostolic proclamation of the resurrection. They relied very heavily on the physical evidence of the empty tomb, physical evidence. If the Romans had been able to bury Jesus in a common grave, there would have been no physical evidence of his resurrection other than appearances that Jesus would make to individuals, that would be ample physical evidence, but Jesus did not intend to show himself to everyone, but just to some eyewitnesses. And so the physical evidence of the empty tomb was going to be a strong part of the proclamation, the apostolic proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
I think you get this very plainly in John 20:1-9, listen to that text. You don't have to turn there, but just listen, in John 20. Here's the account of the resurrection of Jesus, and it begins not with an appearance of Jesus, but with the physical evidence of his resurrection at the empty tomb. So there it says, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance, so she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!’ So, Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there,” or set there, I think, interesting word there, set there, “but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen set there as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally, the other disciple who had reached the tomb first also went inside.” Now, listen, “He saw and believed.”
He saw and believed. So what John is saying there, he's speaking of himself there, John is saying, “My first indications of the resurrection came from the physical evidence of the empty tomb.” Without the burial, you don't have that. Now, he goes beyond that to speak to the rest of the world and the rest of redemptive history, the rest of 20 centuries of Christians who would come along long after the fact, and not get to see the strips of linen lying there, not get to see the head covering, folded up separate, not get to see the stone removed from the entrance, or the empty tomb itself.
John 20:9, very significant statement, “They still did not understand, from Scripture, that Christ had to rise from the dead.” Now, you and I, that's what we believe, right? We've never seen Jesus. We've not had an encounter with the resurrected Lord. How many of you - Don't raise your hand - How many of you believe that Jesus has been risen from the dead? All of you Christians have. You have to believe in it. Well, on what basis? On the basis of Scripture alone. That's all you've got. That's all I've got, but it all started with physical evidence.
The apostles were eyewitnesses of the physical evidence, and it was vital, absolutely vital. And so, in 1 John 1:1-2, the Apostle John says, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at, and our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.” Do you think they touched the strips of linen lying there? I often imagine it, and the Greek supports this somewhat, I think, of somewhat of a cocoon there. With those strips of linen, with that sticky myrrh there and the spices, and Jesus just having passed through the linen, like he would then pass through the walls of the tomb itself, just moving right through. I think, in an interesting way, he passed through and then took the head cloth off and folded it up neatly, and put it in another place, just another touch of conscious, unhurried, careful dealing there that grave robbers would never have done, but unable for them to do. There's no way they can get the dead body out of those sticky cloths there, that's sorta just physical evidence.
And so John just says, “This is resurrection.” There is no other way to explain it. There's no other way to explain it. The body came right out of these strips of linen and the head cloth, went right through the wall, the angel came down, we'll get to this next week, God-willing, the angel comes down, moves the stone and lets the world in to see, but Jesus is already gone. He's already risen. He's out. Death no longer has mastery over him. Amen. And so, all of that: vital.
And so, in the day of Pentecost, 40 days later, the apostles are in downtown Jerusalem and they're proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus. And if you listen to what Peter preaches there, there's no doubt that the empty tomb stood under the proclamation of the resurrection, in a way that it can't for us. We can't do what the first hearers of that gospel message could do. What do I mean? They could go to the empty tomb and look at it. It became, I'm sure, a source of embarrassment to the chief priest and the Pharisees. What are we gonna do about this empty tomb? I don't know what they did with the empty tomb. There's no record of it.
All I know is that, in effect, Peter stands up there at Pentecost, and this is what he says: “Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by signs, wonders, and miracles which God did among you, through him, as you yourselves know this man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge, and you, with the help of wicked men, have put him to death, nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him,” Psalm 16, “David said about him, ‘I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore, my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices. My body also will rest in hope because you will not abandon me at the grave, nor will you let your holy one see decay. You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.’” Then Peter, that's Psalm 16, Peter then preaches the gospel.
This is what he says: “Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his grave is here to this day.” What is he inviting them to do? Go see the bones of David, isn't he? Isn't that, in fact, what he's saying? “Go see the bones of David.” You know why? 'Cause David wasn't writing about himself in Psalm 16. He died and decayed. Well, who is he writing about who died and didn't decay? Who died and didn't decay? Only one, only one, Jesus. And so he says go look at the tomb. “But David was a prophet, and he knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on the throne. Seeing what was to come, seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact.” What is he inviting them to do there? Go look at the empty tomb. Go look, that tomb is empty. Do you not see now then how vital the burial was? You can't preach like that if there's no identifiable burial. You can't preach like that if he's thrown in a common grave. And so the physical evidence of the resurrection was essential, and therefore, the burial was essential.
The Precise Timing of the Burial
The Carefully Choreographed Timing of Jesus’ Death
Well, let's talk about some details of this. Let's talk about the precise timing of the burial. Look at verse 57, it says, “As evening approached.” Now, just stop there. Remember what I said? Now, I don't think we get the idea of the stars being visible at midday in the Bible, but there are other accounts from Tertullian and others that said that the stars were visible at midday in Bithynia and other places. So I always thought it was just kind of like a really dark, cloudy day, but it may have been that God just shut down the sun. But by the time Jesus dies, the sun comes back on again, and then the sun goes down as always. And so evening approaches. It's really powerful, when you think about that, how eerie must that have been, daytime, nighttime, daytime again, and now the sun goes down, just as it always does. So, evening's approaching, the Sabbath time is approaching. And so there's issues here. Jesus spoke his last words from the cross and yielded up his spirit. “Into your hands, I commit my spirit. It is finished.” And he's gone. He's able just to die at will. He's able to lay down his life anytime he chooses. We can't do that, but he did it, talked about that last time.
Now, Sabbath, the Sabbath, began at sundown, what we call it like roughly 6:00 PM, and so it was essential for Jesus to be buried before the Sabbath, before sundown. It was essential at a couple of levels. First, Jewish law required that no one be left hanging there overnight, Deuteronomy 21. And so John tells us that the Jews demanded that Pilate break the bones of the victims to hurry up the death process so that they could get these men dead, so they could get them buried before the sundown, so they wouldn't be working on the Sabbath. So the timing is absolutely vital here.
Jesus has to die at exactly that moment, because if he'd waited any longer, they would have shattered his bones, and that would have violated the typical prophecy of the Passover, not a bone will be broken, not a single bone will be broken. And so the Passover, Exodus 12:46, you can't break one of the bones of the lamb, and that's just one of those little indicators God put, why not? Break the bone of the lamb, the marrow will be exposed to the broth, and it'll be richer, and all that. God said, “Don't break the bones.” Why? It's just identifiers pointing to Jesus, that's all. So don't break a bone of the sacrificial lamb, and Psalm 34:20 says, “He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.”
So, Jesus had to die so they wouldn't break his bones. He also had to die so that they would pierce him with a lance. And so the Roman, trying to absolutely be certain, he knew he was dead, these guys were experts at death, but just to give clear evidence, he takes this lance and shoves it up into Jesus' side, and water and blood flows out, clear evidence that he's dead. No slumping, no jerking. This water, probably from the heart, flows out. And he's dead, no doubt about it, but that fulfills or sets up a fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 12:10, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” Now, in Zechariah 12:10, that looking is a look of faith, and it's the spirit of grace that's poured out on the whole house of Judah and Jerusalem. And so that, I believe, is referring to a future fulfillment where all Israel be saved. I'm gonna get into a whole different sermon now. I gotta be careful. But at another time in the future, the Jewish nation will look on the one they have pierced and they will grieve for him, and they will turn to him and believe. But again, the timing, he had to die so that they would pierce him in that way.
And as we mentioned, the prophecy of Jonah had to be fulfilled, three days and three nights. Now, we tend to look at it kind of post-scientific revolution, and we're very precise and I like precision. I've got stopwatches that go to the 100th of a second. What's a 100th of a second? Means something to Usain Bolt, but it doesn't mean much in everyday life. But at any rate, we are very precise. People are like, I don't see how Jesus could die at such and such a clock on Friday, and be raised really before sunrise on Sunday, and you get three days and three nights out of that. But it just had to do with the way the Jews reckoned a day and a night, and really from the very beginning in Genesis 1 “There was evening and there was morning, the first day.”
So, any part of any day was called an evening and a morning. And you know what I'm talking about, when you go to a parking garage - Have you ever done this? It's like however many dollars an hour, and you're one minute into the second hour? Whole hour. Or you return a rental car a minute late? Whole day. Try arguing that one with Avis or Hertz. They're not gonna listen to it. You had to have it back by 3:00 in the afternoon, and you didn't. “Oh, I have 3:01.” “I've got 3 o'clock.” Alright, it matters what they think. Any part of that next day is a whole day, and that's the three days and three nights. But again, he had to die before sundown. You understand? Had to do with the reckoning, so that he could be raised on the first day of the week as a picture of the new creation. The first day, the new creation. Not looking back to the old creation, but on the first day, looking ahead to the new creation. Everything's been worked out. So that's the timing and prophecy, all of that.
The Friendly Witnesses to the Burial: The Women and Joseph
The Women Who Were Witnesses
Along with this, God has to raise up some witnesses, friendly witnesses and unfriendly witnesses to the burial. First, let's talk about the friendly witnesses to the burial, the women and Joseph. Look at verses 55-56, “Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee's sons.”
So women were there out of love for Jesus. There's a long track record of this in the gospels. There were women that cared for Jesus, and in Luke 8:3 meeting Jesus' needs financially out of their own resources, and just following him around and caring for him. John's gospel alone tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was there as he died. It's unclear that she's still there at this point, at the burial, we don't know, but she was certainly there as he was dying. It's quite possible that John took Mary home right at that point. We don't know. It is interesting that the other two women are also named Mary, it's from the Hebrew Miriam, which means bitterness, and you get it out of when Naomi said, “Don't call me Naomi, which means pleasant, but call me Mara, which means bitter, because my life's bitter now.” But these women, they're named Mary. And so you have Mary Magdalene there, who is a woman that Jesus had healed from demon possession, you have Mary, the mother of James the Lesser, and then the mother of Zebedee's sons as well.
The text indicates, actually, many women were there watching. And G. Campbell Morgan, I love what he said about these women, powerful, describes the mental state of these women. “These women,” he says, “were hopeless, disappointed, bereaved, heartbroken, but the love he had created in those hearts for himself could not be quenched even by his dying; could not be overcome even though they were disappointed; could not be extinguished even though the light of hope had gone out. And over the sea of their sorrow, there was no sighing wind that told of the dawn.” So they weren't believing the resurrection. Even when they went to finish Jesus' burial on the first day of the week, they weren't believing in the resurrection at that point. But they certainly loved Jesus. And they were vital, because they were the ones among Jesus' followers who knew where the tomb was on that first day of the week.
Joseph of Arimathea: The Wealthy Man Predicted by Isaiah
We also have Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man, predicted by Isaiah. And isn't it amazing the supernatural work that God did on Joseph's heart and Nicodemus' heart at a key moment, supernatural work. Now, we have, in John 19:38, “Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, because he feared the Jews.” Same thing with Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night and wasn't flying his full colors during Jesus' lifetime. Now, the indication in the text there was that Joseph was actually discipled by Jesus. It's a verbal form there, not just a disciple, but he was actually discipled by Jesus. So it seems that Joseph spent some time being trained by Jesus, but again, secretly.
Now, he was a very prominent member, according to Mark 15:43, of the council, an important member, not just a council member, but a leader. And it says, in Mark 15:43, “he was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, and he went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body.” It's a fascinating statement, Mark 15:43, “went boldly to Pilate.” Why did it take boldness? Jesus was the condemned leader of, apparently, the official news was he's king of the Jews, leader of an insurrection. Anyone who came and showed any favorable connection to Jesus was likely to be arrested and condemned himself. So Joseph risked everything.
Joseph’s Bold Request
Now, this is the amazing thing with both Joseph and Nicodemus. They risked everything when Jesus' evidence, the evidence that he was, in fact, the Messiah was at the lowest it had been in years. He's dead now. Many of them wondering, like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we had hoped he was the one but now we don't think he is. Why? 'Cause he died under a curse. That's not a Messiah. Messiahs don't die under curses. Where did Joseph get his courage? Where did he get his boldness at this key moment? Same place you and I get our boldness for a witness, amen? From the power of God working on our reluctant hearts. He suddenly didn't care anymore what his brother Jews thought about his loyalty to Jesus. He didn't care what Pilate might do to him. He is filled with boldness and goes and asks for Pilate's body. Now, you think, this is no big deal. No, this was a huge deal. I do believe the Romans probably would have made an example of Jesus' body if he hadn't gone for it.
Pilate Granted the Request… Surprisingly
And the timing is huge because he apparently went before the enemies went. They probably would have demanded things done in reference to Jesus' body. And he had to be a prominent member, because if he was just a regular, ordinary individual, I don't think Pilate would have even seen him. But because he was a council member, he let him in and he said, “Alright, take his body.” Sovereignty of God. Sovereignty of God. Proverbs 21:1, “The king's heart,” Pilate's heart, “is like a water course in the hands of the Lord. God directs it whatever way he pleases.” And he raises Joseph up, and he raises Nicodemus up. And they're not afraid of death anymore, and they're not afraid of losing their position or their money anymore. They go boldly and they ask for Jesus' body.
The Physical Aspects of the Burial
Wrapping Jesus in Grave Cloths
And so we have physical aspects of the burial. “Then Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. And Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.” Every word is vital.
First of all, the wrapping of the body, we have from John 19, with Nicodemus. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes. As we mentioned, myrrh is a sticky resinous kind of substance, somewhat like pine tar, only aromatic. And so they would scrape it off of certain trees that came from the Arabian Peninsula. And they would dry it out for three months, and it was very aromatic. It shows up at three times in Jesus' life: at his birth, when the Magi brought it as a gift, myrrh being one of the gifts. And then twice at his death, once mixed with wine as a sedative and he tasted it but refused to drink it, and then here in terms of the burial. Again, it was sticky, and so it would have held the strips of linen together in a sticky, kind of, it would make it almost like a unit altogether. Again, a powerful physical evidence of the resurrection after Jesus rose from the dead.
And they're treating him with tremendous respect. They're wrapping him like a king, they're rich, and they're gonna lavish 75 pounds of this substance on Jesus. That's like a king's ransom. It's expensive stuff, and it smelled beautiful. And that was to mask the stench of decay. Unneeded. Unneeded. He's the one that would die but not decay, but it still smelled nice, even though Jesus would not decay at all.
Joseph’s New Tomb
And Joseph had a new tomb providentially right near where Jesus died, carved out of a rock, a cave, picture a cave. And there was a stone in front of it, this would be the setting for the account I read earlier in John chapter 20, this is the empty tomb. This is the place where it would be. No one had ever been laid in it before. I wonder if no one was ever laid in it again. I'm sure Joseph wouldn't have wanted to lay anyone else. That was the empty tomb. How powerful is that? Conversely, in a way, you could say, “I wanna be in that tomb, because just as Jesus rose from the dead, I know I'm gonna rise too.” Either way, that was his tomb, and no one had ever laid in it.
The Stone in Front of the Entrance
And that large stone, that would be the first visible evidence of the resurrection. Heavy disc, I picture it like a coin, thick though, heavy, rolled down into a trough, so that no grave robbers could come in, no wild animals could disfigure the body. And it was there, and a block, but in the resurrection, clear evidence because it was removed.
The Women as Witnesses… Again!
And then, verse 61, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, sitting down there opposite the tomb. They knew exactly where it was, and when it was dark, on the first day, they would know exactly where to go. No doubt about it. All of that: vital.
The Unfriendly Witnesses to the Burial: The Jewish Officials and the Roman Guard
Chief Priest and Pharisees Relentless in Squashing Jesus’ Movement
So those were the friendly witnesses and the physical aspects of the burial. What about the unfriendly witnesses? You have the Jewish officials and the Roman guard. Verse 62, it says, “The next day, the one after preparation day, the Chief Priest and the Pharisees went to Pilate.” Now, the chief priest and the Pharisees are relentless in trying to squash Jesus' movement. They wanna just crush it and get rid of all memories of Jesus. Interestingly, that they would do anything at all together because the chief priests were almost universally Sadducees. And the Pharisees and Sadducees were bitter enemies in the politics of the Jewish religion and state, but on this one thing, they could agree, they hated Jesus, hated him, and so they got together.
Their Statement to Pilate
Also, it's odd that the Greek indicates that they went right into Pilate's council chamber. They went right into the place where ordinarily they would never go. And what is their mission? Well, look what it says, verse 63-64, “‘Sir’ they said, ‘We remember that, while he was still alive, that deceiver said, “After three days, I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead, and this last deception will be worse than the first.’”
So they're afraid. Isn't it amazing that none of Jesus' disciples seemed to have remembered Jesus' teaching that on the third day, he would rise again? But his enemies did, they remembered. Now, they didn't believe it. I don't think that the disciples were believing in a resurrection at that point, but they wanted to stop the disciples from deceiving the people, preaching a fraud, preaching a fraud. Now, I'm not gonna go into great detail on how this played exactly into God's hands, 'cause I wanna preach that at a later sermon, but they did, they played exactly into God's hands.
I wonder if, in years later, they regretted doing this, posting the guard. I wonder if they did. We'll get to that. I'm gonna save all those comments for the next time I preach, not next week, but the one after it, God-willing. But I think they had cause to regret posting that guard. Now, some question whether it was a - it depends on the translation. To some degree, it could be said, “You have a guard, you post him,” but I think the NIV has it right here, “Take a guard and make the tomb secure, as you know how.” I think why would they go to Pilate? And he doesn't need you to tell him you already have a guard. And the soldiers who were there after the resurrection were very afraid what Pilate would say. And if they were just the temple guard, I don't think they would be as afraid of what Pilate would say. I think these were Roman guards, and I think the seal also points to that. So I think these were Romans.
The Seal: A Symbol of the Limits of Human Power
One Final Twist: The Sealing of the Stone
And so, finally, verse 66, we have the seal. “So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.” The guard’s posted. It's there to stop the disciples from getting in. Any of those disciples gonna try to get in? What do you think? You know the disciples, where were they? They ran for their lives. Where were they? In the upper room with the doors locked, for fear of the Jews. Are they gonna try to get in? No. But Jesus is gonna get out. And he's not gonna just try to get out. He's going to get out. And there's gonna be an angel that's gonna come down, and those guards are gonna shake with fear and become like dead men. If I'm not careful, I’ll go ahead and preach next week's sermon right now. But they posted the guard and they put a seal on the stone.
The Seal Represented the Authority of Pontius Pilate and Ultimately the Authority of the Roman Empire
Now, what was the seal? The seal was the official symbol of the Roman government of Pontius Pilate on behalf of Caesar, saying whosoever moves this stone will be condemned by the Roman government. That's the seal.
Human Authority Ordained by God… but God Rises Above It
And we know that the Bible teaches us that all human authority is established by God, and we must submit ourselves to the human authorities, but angels are not subject to that, are they? And neither is God. God is the King of Kings, and he's the Lord of Lords, and he'll break any seal he wants to. Amen? So I picture the seal being between the movable stone in the wall, so that, if you break it, you've broken the law. And so we'll talk about who broke that seal, but we know who it is. It's a limit of human power, there's nothing the government could do to stop the resurrection of Jesus. And there's nothing the government can do to stop the proclamation of the resurrected Jesus. And that's a powerful thing, isn't it?
Final Note: A Fulfillment of a Type
It also fulfills a little type that maybe you have missed. Typical prophecy, has to do with things acted out in Old Testament history, that give us foretaste and indications, generally, of Christ especially. So, types are things acted out, like Abraham almost sacrificing his son, his only son, Isaac, whom he loved, a picture of the Father giving Jesus for us. All animal sacrifices were typical prophecies, types acted out in history. Many types. But in Daniel chapter 6, we have an interesting type. There, Daniel is thrown in the lion's den for having his quiet time, basically. And they put a stone over it, and they sealed the stone. And it's the same message, whoever moves the stone before morning comes, the power of Darius and of the Medo-Persian empire will come down on your heads. And so it was, in the end, Darius himself who broke the seal, and moved the stone, and found out that Daniel was still alive. And Daniel came up out of that hole in the ground alive, a picture of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Applications: The Gospel, the Descent to Hell, and Cremation
The Gospel: Christ Died to Destroy Death… Trust in Him Alone
So what applications can we take from this? Well, first and foremost, do you not see how vital history is to the gospel? These things matter. We are a historical faith. It matters whether Jesus really lived. It matters whether he really died. It matters whether he was really buried and whether he really rose again. It really matters to us. This isn't just a myth or a story, a religious inspirational fable. We are a historical people. History matters to us more than any other religion in the world.
And if Christ has not been raised, then we are still in our sins. We have physical bodies. We commit physical sins. We are physically aging and physically hurting, and we are physically dying, and at the end, we will be physically dead if the Lord doesn't return. Does it matter whether this stuff physically happened or not? You better believe it does, because Jesus has made us a promise: “Because I live, you also will live.” And that's a physical promise. And so you need to know the certainty of the gospel, Christ has died, and he has been buried, and he has been raised from the dead.
Trust in him. Trust in him, I plead with you. If you have come here today and you came outside of Christ, you're not a Christian, I plead with you, trust in this gospel, believe in him for the forgiveness of your sins. Don't leave here still under the judgment of God. Christ died. He did all of this for sinners like you and me. Trust in him. And for us as witnesses, let's preach this. This is exciting. It's exciting for me to talk about the empty tomb, and I'm grateful for all of the physical evidence that God has given us.
Consider Yourselves Dead to Sin
Now, speaking to you Christians, if I can go back, harken back to Romans 6:4, it says, in Romans 6:4 that we were buried with Christ through baptism into his death, and raised into newness of life. I want you to live out that life, consider yourselves dead to sin, consider yourselves alive to God in Christ Jesus. Picture a corpse and say, “That's who I was in Adam. That person I was in Adam is dead. I'm not under sin anymore. I'm not under law. I'm not in Satan's kingdom anymore. I can say no to any temptation that comes my way, by the power of the Holy Spirit. I can see all of my temptations dead at my feet. I can be a mighty warrior for holiness in my life, I don't have to ever sin again the rest of my life. I'm gonna consider myself buried with Jesus, dead to sin.” Picture that burial. That's what Paul gives you both in Romans 6:4 and in Colossians 2:12.
Stand in Awe of the Meticulous Sovereignty of God
Thirdly, stand in awe at the meticulous accuracy of the providence of God, every little detail, the timing, the prophecies, everything down to the detail. And realize the same God is watching over your life, filtering your temptations, filtering your struggles and your suffering. He is orchestrating good works for you to do. He is orchestrating every little detail of your life. And if you're going through vast and deep suffering right now, understand God is the one who's bringing it into your life because he loves you, not 'cause he hates you. And he is working a glory in you that far outweighs any trial you're ever going through. So, trust in the sovereign providence of God, everything's orchestrated down to the detail, even including your life.
God is Able to Move His Servants to Do His Will
And isn't it beautiful, fourthly, how God is able to move his servants out of their pit of fear and selfishness and worldliness, like Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, to move out and serve him. So, I would urge you, look at your life. If you have been living a worldly life, you've been living caring too much what non-Christian people think about you, caring too much about your position in your company, in your career, like Joseph of Arimathea cared about his career too much, and he wouldn't fly his colors for Jesus until finally God moved him out. You can't, by the strength of your own will, move out of that, it's too strong, but God has the power to do it. “You will receive power when my Holy Spirit comes on you, and you'll be my witnesses.”
Don't live a life of fear. Live a life of witness. And if you've been fearful to witness, fearful to get involved in missions or to live openly for Jesus and say, “Father, by the same power that moved Joseph and Nicodemus out when Jesus was cold dead, please give me that power to preach the gospel and share with coworkers, neighbors, friends and family.”
Burial Shows Honor: Some Respectful Comments About the Manner of Burial
Alright. Those are the easy applications. Now we get to the hard ones. I wanna talk about the manner of burial. Okay, let's say it plainly. I wanna talk about cremation, it's not an easy topic because it's sensitive. I acknowledge that this topic can be painful for some. I also believe there's good times to talk about it and not good times. So for me, as a pastor, it's not a good time to talk about it in the office, at Hall-Wynne Funeral Home. That's not a good time. “Oh, we're planning on cremating Grandma, what do you think about that?” That's not a good time for us to talk about it. Let me tell you what I think about that.
First and foremost, I believe it's a matter of Christian freedom. I don't think you sin if you decide to be cremated or cremate a loved one. There are no clear prohibitions, there are no clear commands either way, but I don't think that's all we should say about this topic. I think there's more to say about it, and I think this may be a good time to say it.
Cremation, secondly, in no way hinders the cremated believer from having an awesome resurrection body. I hope you believe that God is able to raise cremated people into awesome resurrection bodies. Or else how could people who die in other conflagrations, plane crashes and others, be resurrected? So, God is able to do this. He's not hindered at all.
But the issue for me is the symbolism involved in funerals. The symbolism involved in funerals, that's the issue for me. Are funerals symbolic? Yes. Do they have lots of symbolic elements? Yes, they do. Consider, for example, a casket covered with an American flag, what is the symbolism of that? Well, this individual served in the armed services. That's what it symbolizes. So there's lots of symbolism that goes. I've been to lots of funerals. We have members of our congregation that were in this ministry, this industry. There are so many symbolic elements.
So what are we saying by cremation versus what are we saying by burial? I think, simply put, I don't think that we want to say what the Bible generally says when dead bodies are burned. Consistently in the Bible, when dead bodies are burned, it's a symbol of divine judgment and wrath. For example, Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, Achan, who sinned in Joshua 7 and he and his family and all his possessions, all of it burned to ashes. It's a symbol, generally, of divine rejection.
Conversely, what are we saying when we carefully love the body, wrap it up, take care of it, as they did with Jesus, and plant it in the ground? Aren't we testifying to our belief in the resurrection? And are we fitting into the language of 1 Corinthians 15, “The body that is sown is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it's raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it's raised a spiritual body.” So I think the sowing of the body, it pictures the planting like a seed, not the scattering like dust to the wind.
Also regularly, in the Old Testament, we see careful treatment of the body shows faith in the unfulfilled promises of God. For example, didn't Joseph give commands concerning his bones that they be carried out of Egypt with the exodus into the Promised Land and buried in the Promised Land? Yes, he did. Why? Because he was saying, Hebrews 11:13, the promises of God haven't been fulfilled yet, and we died in faith believing that they would. And so the careful treatment of Joseph's bones shows that we believe there's yet to come more.
So even more then for us, we believe in a resurrection. So we desire to give respectful, careful treatment of the body as a testimony to the resurrection from the dead. If you have any questions about this, if you have any thoughts about it, I don't mind talking to you, etcetera. But I would just urge you to consider this one question: in the issue of symbolism, what are we symbolizing by cremation, versus a careful, loving, respectful treatment of the body?
Christ’s Descent to Hell??
And then, second difficult question, Christ's descent to hell. See, I don't have to do these things, but I think it's helpful to you. Do you know what I mean by Christ’s descent to hell? Well, we don't read the Apostles Creed very often, but there it says, in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in God the Father, Almighty maker of heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day, he rose again from the dead, and ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty.” So it's a chronological, historical, and the chronology is huge. He was crucified, dead and buried, descended to hell. You see? So it's not so much that he endured hell on the cross, as I believe, it's that he died and was buried and descended to hell.
What do we say about that? I don't have time to go into all the scriptures that talk about it. I would just say this, the scriptural evidence for Christ’s descent to hell is flimsy, at best, flimsy. It has to do with how you translate a Hebrew word “sheol,” in the KJV frequently “hell,” but generally just “grave” or “tomb.” It has to do with Ephesians 4, saying that he descended to the lower parts of the earth or “lower regions of the earth,” again, KJV, but other translations, just “he descended to the earth,” which is lower than heaven.
And again, the sense of ascended and led captives in his train, a sense that he went down and rescued some Old Testament saints, generally, or something like that, who were languishing in some kind of prison, and then brought them up, it gets into a whole kind of theology that isn't supported anywhere else. Frankly, I think Moses and Elijah were up in heaven, and then came down and visited Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. Amen. Hallelujah. So, they were up there, I think he said to the thief on the cross, “Today, you'll be with me,” Where? “In paradise.” He says, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.”
I don't think he descended to hell, but either way, I'll tell you this, it shouldn't have been in the creed. What do you put in a creed? The milk, basics, stuff everybody believes in, stuff that there's absolutely no doubt about it whatsoever in scripture, that's what you put in a creed. So, whether Jesus descended to hell or not, I think it shouldn't have been in the creed, or there would have been more scriptural evidence to it.
So, as we look at this text today, all I can say is praise God for the gospel. Amen? Praise God that Christ died. Praise God that he was buried. And praise God, and we'll talk about it next week, he was raised from the dead on the third day. Close with me in prayer. Father, we thank you for all the things that we have learned and can learn from Scripture. Teach us more. Strengthen our hearts, O Lord, in the faith. Help us, O Lord, to follow you day by day, and especially for us, as believers, help us to consider ourselves dead and buried to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Spirit. In your name, I pray. Amen.