Over the years I have done nearly 300 hundred funerals. Most of these funerals have followed a predictable format. We remember the one who has died, share the hope of the gospel, and pray for God to give strength and perspective. People file past the casket to say final good-byes and then we usually travel to the cemetery where the casket (or urn) is buried in the ground. In the case of a former or current soldier, military rites are accorded.
Burial customs say something about the people who engage in those customs. In Egypt bodies were mummified and significant people were buried with their treasures because they believed the person continued their existence just in another realm. There is a growing trend today to have no service of remembrance. The body is cremated and the ashes are scattered sometime in some place. I believe this is a result of the growing belief that we live, we die, and that’s it. Life is a mad dash to nothing and death is the end.
Because of our Christian roots, in our country everyone is buried with their heads facing west. This is because the Bible says Jesus will appear in the Eastern sky and at that time the dead will be raised. So, each body is buried so that they will rise to face the East.
In Bible days when someone died the entire community mourned with those who had suffered loss. Bodies were usually buried quickly because of decomposition (only in the case of significant people was a body actually embalmed (an example would be Jacob and Joseph in Egypt). Such and embalming would take weeks. Burial was often in a family plot or tomb. Markers were often erected over the burial site as a way of testifying to the life of the one there buried.
In our text this morning we are told of the burial of Jesus. It’s one of those texts that, quite frankly, we generally read quickly and often without much attention. We are going to try to pay attention today.
The Men Who Buried Jesus
Luke tells us,
50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 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. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53Then 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. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
At the end of his gospel Luke introduces us to someone we have not met before: a man known as Joseph of Arimathea. After this account we never read about him again. I suppose you could say that this is Joe’s “fifteen minutes of fame”.
As we compare gospel accounts what we know about Joseph is this: he was from Arimathea which most people believe was about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. He was a leader. He was part of the Jewish Council known as the Sanhedrin. Matthew tells us that he was rich. It is likely that he had moved to Jerusalem (like a government official might move to Washington). John tells us that he was “A disciple of Jesus but secretly because of the Jews.” Luke tells us he was a good and upright man who had not consented to the decision of the council. Most likely Joseph (and Nicodemus) were not invited to (and did not know about) the meeting. The men of the Council were only concerned about getting the votes they needed to pass through the resolution they wanted.
Scribes and Pharisees were often in attendance when Jesus spoke and did some of his miracles. We can only speculate that Joseph was at some of these meetings and came to believe that Jesus was truly the Messiah sent from God. What convinced him? Was it the authority and perceptive nature of His teaching? Was it the intimacy that Jesus seemed to have with God? Was it because of one of the miracles that he witnessed? We don’t know.
The truth is that it is just as well that we don’t know. People are awakened by God’s Spirit in many different ways. One person may suddenly “get it” after hearing a message; another will believe after a long discussion, still others will come to faith because of their study of the Bible, others believe because of a book they read or a song they heard. Some believe because of a dream or some other miraculous occurrence. Some come dramatically, other come quietly. Some receive Christ in a public meeting while others become a follower in the quiet of their own mind. God’s Spirit uses many different means to reach people.
Joseph had been a silent believer. He spoke up at this time because if Jesus had not died before sundown (the beginning of the Sabbath) he would have remained on the cross and the Romans would have taken him down and let the wild animals and birds take care of his corpse. It was common for executed men to be left to simply decay.
Joseph was not about to let that happen. Jesus would at least be buried with honor and dignity. He went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body.
Luke does not tell us the whole story. In Mark 15:42-47we read,
42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
Two things to notice here: First, Pilate was willing to let Joseph have Jesus. Think about it. Pilate was not really in the mood to do any favors for the members of the Sanhedrin. He knew Jesus was innocent and had been forced to sign his death warrant. Why does he agree to Joseph’s request? I wonder if this shows that Pilate also wanted to give Jesus an honorable burial.
Second, notice that Pilate verified the death of Jesus. Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead because it often took days for people to die of crucifixion. The centurion was present when they broke the legs of the other criminals (to hasten their asphyxiation). But they saw that Jesus was already dead. John tells us (19:31-37) that they made sure he was dead by sticking a spear under his rib cage up toward his heart. They witnessed water and blood coming from the wound (possibly meaning the heart had been pierced).
This is important because there will always be someone who says, “Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead because Jesus never really died. He simply passed out and then revived.” Pilate made sure Jesus was dead.
Joseph did not take care of Jesus all by himself. John tells us,
39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:39-42)
Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus. To the readers of John’s gospel he is a familiar character because John told the story of his meeting with Jesus in John 3. John told us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee and also a ruler of the Jews.
Joe and Nick were pressed for time. We know Jesus died sometime after 3:00 p.m. the Sabbath began at 6:00 p.m. In those less than three hours Joseph had to go to Pilate, have the death of Jesus verified, gather the materials, take Jesus to his tomb (which was nearby) and prepare his body and lay it in the tomb.
Joseph went and secured a burial cloth. (If you have ever heard of the “Shroud of Turin” it is a cloth that many people have concluded is this very burial cloth. I don’t know whether it is or isn’t and don’t think it matters.) Nicodemus meanwhile went and got spices . . . 75 pounds worth of spices. That seems like a lot to me but the amount of spices indicated the degree of honor that was being shown. One commentator noted that this was the amount of spices that would be used for a King. The spices were to cover the smell of the decay of the dead body and slow decomposition.
Most likely servants washed the body of Jesus and then did the actual wrapping. Touching a dead body would have made both Joseph and Nicodemus ritually unclean for the Passover celebration. Maybe they didn’t care. Maybe their devotion to Jesus was greater than the religious purification rites.
When it was all done the body was carried to Joseph’s brand new tomb that had been cut into the stone. The Bible tells us that a large stone was rolled in front of the tomb.
55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
If you put the four Gospel accounts together there seems to be four women who were present:
- Jesus’ Mom (John 19:25)
- Mary Magdalene
- Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses (probably also referred to as the wife of Clopas who worked for Herod)
- Salome, Jesus’ aunt (the sister to Jesus’ mom) who was also the mother of the sons of Zebedee or James and John (making the Apostle John the 1st cousin of Jesus).
We are told that they “saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it.” Luke was writing well after the Resurrection and he certainly knew there were stories that the women went to the wrong tomb and mistakenly thought Jesus had risen from the dead. Luke wants it to be known that the women made note of the location of the tomb. They knew exactly where the tomb was.
We are told that the women went home and prepared more spices and perfumes for the body. It seems a little like overkill here. Nick and Joe had already used 75 lbs of spices why would they bring more? Alistair Begg suggests the women watched as the servants of Joseph and Nicodemus hurriedly put the spices on Jesus’ body and they must have said, “these guys don’t know what they are doing. Men can’t do this kind of work! Let’s not say anything. We’ll come back after the Sabbath and do the job right.”
The reason we so often pass over this section is because it doesn’t seem to have any relevance to us. However, I think we are missing some important truths.
First, we must note the facts of the account. Jesus was truly dead. This fact was verified by Roman experts who had no reason to want Jesus to be alive. Note also that the women knew exactly where Jesus was buried. These are important facts to keep in mind as we move to the account of the Resurrection next week.
Second, notice that Jesus came for both the rich and the poor. Throughout the gospel of Luke we have noticed that Jesus had a special place in his heart for those who were hurting. He had compassion on the poor and those who were cast off by the world. Jesus also criticized those who did not have that same kind of compassion. His target was often the rich.
Jesus said it is hard for the rich to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven (because they feel so secure in their riches) but it is not impossible! We see Joseph and Nicodemus as followers of Jesus. Both of these men were rich and powerful. It is a reminder that the gospel is not biased toward anyone. It does not matter whether you have no money or more money than you could possibly spend. None of us can be saved apart from Christ and none of us can earn this salvation. It is something we receive as a gift from God.
In the church we stand on equal footing. This is a place where different soci-economic groups meet together. It is a place where the rich are to help the poor and where we together seek to advance the Kingdom of God. All the labels assigned by the world are left at the foot of the cross. We are all sinful people who have received grace.
You Never Know Who Will Surprise You. Let’s face it, after working through Luke’s gospel we have come to think that all the Jewish leaders were bad guys. If all we knew about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus was that they were members of the Jewish ruling council, we would have drawn some pretty wrong conclusions. We might have condemned them without even knowing them.
Isn’t it something that the people who honor Jesus in His burial were not the disciples? We don’t see them anywhere in this story (which doesn’t mean they weren’t there). Instead these two guys come from the most unlikely of places and treat Jesus with a respect that catches us off-guard.
This is a good lesson for us. We are too quick to conclude that we have everyone figured out. Often we have people labeled and categorized before we even know them. We dismiss some because they are
- An ex-con
- A child
- From a political party different than your own
- Of a different race
- From a different culture
- From a different income bracket
- Because they have a particular job.
- They attend a different church
Listen to the way people talk and you will hear this going on all the time! Heed the warning: God uses unlikely people to accomplish His purposes.
As you read through the Bible we see God
- He chose the prostitute Rahab to save the Jewish spies in the book of Joshua. She eventually became a part of the genealogy of Jesus.
- He chose to use the impulsive and hormone driven Samson as a Judge in Israel, saving them from the Philistines.
- He chose the foreigner Ruth to be the Grandmother to Kind David
- He chose to anoint the youngest son of Jesse, a guy by the name of David to be the future King who became known as a “man after God’s own heart”
- He chose Amos, a Shepherd to be a prophet
- He chose common fisherman and even a tax collector to be part of the disciples who would be given the task of sharing the message of Jesus with the world.
- He chose the antagonistic Pharisee Saul (we know him as Paul) to lead the charge into the non-Jewish world to preach the message of confession, repentance and forgiveness.
God has a track record of using unexpected people. This tells us two things. First, it tells us that we should not draw conclusions about others. We should not say, “they are beyond hope” or “they are a lost cause”. God has made a habit of doing some of His best work using those the world thought were lost causes. Our job is to proclaim the gospel to everyone!
Second, I hope you see that God can also use you. Do you feel you don’t measure up or have nothing to offer? Do you feel it is too late for you? Learn from this account. I suspect Joseph and Nicodemus prepare the body of Jesus with great sadness but also with great regret that they were silent for so long. What if they had spoken up earlier? What if they had shared what they had discovered about Jesus? Yes, they may have been ridiculed . . . but they also might have won some of their friends to Christ.
We know that the death of Jesus was necessary . . . but they didn’t. Not yet. They may have been filled with regret . . . but look how God used them! There is still time! Don’t wait for something bad to happen before you step forward to follow the Lord. Start now. Start today.
Someday we will die. People will hopefully be at our funeral. Let’s live in such a way that people will testify of our faith and our faithfulness. Let’s pray that there might be some present who will tell of meeting Jesus because of us. Though we may still hope people are sad we died (we all want to be missed), let’s live so that they are also joyfully confident of our destination. May they rejoice in the knowledge that when Jesus does appear in the Eastern sky . . . we will be there too.