March 27, 2016
Many years ago, I was on my way to Bible college to prepare for ministry. During the summer, I worked at Greenville Memorial Gardens, a cemetery on the south side of the city, to make some money for college. The owner wanted me to be a salesman – he thought talking to people about cemetery plots would be good training for my future vocation. “Aren’t you preparing people for death?”, he asked. I choose rather to mow grass, weed-eat headstones, and dig graves.
My first day, about mid-morning, the boss tossed me a shovel and said, “Let’s go.” We climbed into a pickup and made our way to Section E. I thought he was pulling my leg – I mean, I’d seen the backhoe – certainly, we weren’t going to dig a grave by hand. He began walking around, examining the ground until he found a small, round marker – it was the first time I’d noticed them. He stepped off the grave sites to find to the one we were looking for. He took the shovel and dug a hole about a foot deep – by this time, I was starting to sweat. Then, we went back to the pickup, gave me a Pepsi, and we sat down. I thought, oh, we were just marking the grave – the backhoe will be here any minute.
After a few minutes of chit-chat, a van from Gray’s Funeral Home pulled into the entrance and drove over. The boss stood up and asked, “You got it?” They driver said, “Yeah,” and opened the back of the van. I thought, got what? He pulled out a small box and opened it to reveal a tin – it looked like a coffee can to me. He shook it and said, “You want to open it?” I was glad when the boss said no. He took the can, dropped it into the hole, covered it up, replaced the sod, and within minutes, the cremated remains of this dead person were buried – you couldn’t even tell where. I remember thinking, some funeral – no one was even here.
Later that day, I was mowing in Section E when two elderly ladies pulled in and started walking around, obviously looking for something. In respect, I pulled over under a tree, turned off the engine, and sat there quietly. I overheard their conversation, “They said he was buried here somewhere.” “They’re supposed to bring the grave marker later.” I would have helped them – but I didn’t think I could find where we had dropped the coffee can. After a few moments, they left – and that was it. Not much of a burial – hardly anyone noticed.
This Easter Sunday morning, I want to talk about the burial of Jesus. And at first glance, it may seem as insignificant as my first burial at Greenville Memorial Gardens. It was kind of a rush job to get finished before the Sabbath, there were no family members present, hardly anyone noticed, there wasn’t much of a graveside service, and to this day, no one knows for sure where He was actually buried. In fact, we might be tempted to ask the question, why so much fuss about the burial? Every gospel mentions it; Paul later would include it as part of the gospel – “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,…” All the gospel narratives record the burial. What’s so important about the burial? I invite your attention this morning to Matthew 27:55-66. Let’s read it.
Not a lot of action there. So, why is the burial so important? Our outline will go like this:
- The Personalities Around the Burial
- The Purpose of the Burial
Let’s begin by looking at the story itself to see the different characters involved in the burial. We meet the first group in verses 55 and 56. Actually, we’re still at the cross. Jesus had just died, the centurion had just proclaimed, “Truly, this was the Son of God.” These battle-hardened warriors – executioners – had seen the miracles surrounding the death of Christ, the darkness and the earthquake, and they confessed, “This was the Son of God.” That’s good stuff – let’s make a movie. Then we get to the next verse, “Many women were there looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee while ministering to Him.” Stop the presses – new headline – “women looking on.” Not a lot of action there – make a movie out of that and it’s a serious chick flick. Let’s skip these and move on to some action – to Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus – at least they did something, right?
Well, drop down to verse 61, “And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the grave.” Great – first they were looking, now they’re sitting. Do something – give me something to preach. Next time we see these women is in chapter 28, verse 1, “Now after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary (how’d you like to be known as “the other Mary”) came to what? to look at the grave.” Here they go again – looking. Should we just skip these action-packed women? (Mary Magdalene action figure) Maybe should skip them, unless…unless there’s something important for us to learn from these women. Let’s take a closer look.
“Many women were there looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee while ministering to Him. Among them was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” The sons of Zebedee were James and John, and comparing other gospel accounts, we find her name was Salome. So, we have Mary, Mary, and Salome. By the way, John tells us also at the cross were Mary, the mother of Jesus, and another Mary, the wife of Clopas – so we have Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary, and Salome. They perhaps could have used a name book.
At any rate, Matthew tells us these women, namely Mary Magdalene, the other Mary, and Salome had followed Jesus from Galilee and were ministering to Him. There are two very important things I want you to see. First, they, like the disciples, had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee. They didn’t fly down, they didn’t drive down, they didn’t ride the Apple Cart – they walked all the way from Galilee. These were committed followers of Jesus. Notice secondly, they ministered to Him – the word is diakoneo, from which we get our word, deacon. They served, they waited on Jesus. Luke 8 indicates they provided for Him out of their own resources – meaning, there was a sense in which they funded Jesus’ ministry. They’re starting to look a little more important.
Now, we don’t know much about these women. We know nothing about Mary the mother of James and Joseph – we’re not even sure who James and Joseph were. Salome was the mother of James and John. She’s the one who came to Jesus in Matthew 20 and asked that her boys be granted seats of honor in the kingdom – one on Jesus’ left, one on Jesus right.
We know Mary Magdalene was from Magdala, on the west side of the Sea of Galilee. She had been healed by Jesus – He had driven seven demons from her. Church tradition made Mary Magdalene a prostitute, but there’s no biblical support for that. In fact, the Catholic church recanted that teaching.
This is what I want you to know about these women: they followed Jesus from Galilee just like the disciples – like Peter, Andrew, James, John and the rest. But there is a significant difference between these women and the other disciples. We never see them arguing about who was the greatest. We never see them boasting they would follow Jesus anywhere. We never see them boasting they would never flee. When Peter made his famous, I Can Speech, we never see them saying, I can, I will, I won’t deny. But what we do see is this:
Verse 55 – they were at the crucifixion. Where were the guys? Oh yeah, that’s right, they fled.
Verse 61 – they were at the burial. Where were the guys? Oh yeah, that’s right, they fled.
Chapter 28:1 – they were at the resurrection. Where were the guys? Oh yeah, that’s right, they were cowering behind locked doors in the upper room.
Do you see that? These women, and these women only, were at the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Sitting? Looking? Not very impressive? Hardly. Apparently, it impressed Jesus, because the angels appeared to these women, and no one else, and said to them, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking (there they are looking again) for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead;…” Then, 28:9 actually says, “And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him.”
Do you see that? These women were privileged to see the empty tomb first. They were privileged to hear the angels – the only ones to hear the angels. They were privileged to see Jesus first. And they were privileged to carry the news of the resurrection first – to the disciples. It has been rightly said, the first witnesses to the gospel – the first to share the good news, were these women. Not the disciples – not Peter, not James, not John. Mary and the other Mary and Salome and some lady named Joanna. In fact, Bernard of Clairvaux called Mary Magdalene, the apostle to the apostles.
So what’s the deal? What’s so special about them? I’ll tell you – their pursuit of Christ was consistent and unwavering. They loved Jesus – they wanted to be where He was. When Jesus hung on a cross – while all the disciples fled, except John – they wanted to be by Jesus. When Jesus was taken down from the cross, dead – they wanted to be by Jesus. When Jesus was buried, they wanted to be by Jesus. Three days later, they still wanted to be by Jesus. And as a result, Jesus was by them, and appeared to them, first.
Now, I don’t think they fully understood the gospel – I don’t think they understood the resurrection. The other gospels tell us they went to the tomb to anoint His body. They were just as surprised as everyone else that Jesus rose from the dead. But the point is this – their love for Jesus was unwavering. While they didn’t understand what was going on, they simply wanted to be by Jesus. Inactivity? Hardly. Unimpressive? I don’t think so. I just want to be by Jesus – dead or alive. They loved Him – they ministered to Him all the way from Galilee, through His death, burial, and resurrection – and He ministered the gospel to them first.
Society then had a tendency to overlook women – society today has a tendency to overlook women – but don’t it – Jesus didn’t. They loved Him – and He loved them. Aren’t you glad, ladies – in a world where you are marginalized, mistreated, exploited, abused, taken for granted, disrespected, that Jesus did not? Again, it is true that women were grossly overlooked then. They were considered unreliable – they weren’t allowed to give testimony in a court of law. If you were making up a story about the resurrection – you wouldn’t have written this. You would have had Jesus appear first to Peter or James or John. This would have appeared incredulous. Exactly. Because it’s not made up.
The second group of people associated with the burial that day was Joseph of Arimathea, and his friend, Nicodemus. John is the one who tells us Nicodemus was there. You’ll remember it was Friday, and the Sabbath was approaching. Not just any Sabbath – it was a High Sabbath, meaning it fell during a holy week. It was the Sabbath after the Passover – the Sabbath of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. So, John tells us the Jews, probably the chief priests, approached Pilate and said, listen, Pilate, it’s against our law for bodies to hang on a cross during the Sabbath – they were such law-abiding citizens, don’t you think?
Actually, Deuteronomy 21:22-23 says, “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you as an inheritance.” They almost got it right – except for the part about Jesus not committing a sin worthy of death, He was innocent, but what’s a little law-breaking among friends. And the law actually said, don’t let them hang on the tree all night – it really didn’t have anything to do with the Sabbath.
But, that’s okay – they were trying to be righteous, law-abiding citizens. So, they said, Pilate, would you mind just breaking their legs? You’ll remember that would keep the victims from being able to push themselves up to breathe, and death would come in a matter of minutes – Pilate, would you mind breaking their legs so we could go ahead and take them down from the cross? That’s so special – bless their law-abiding little hearts. They didn’t want His body hanging on the Sabbath, but they would crucify the Lord of the Sabbath.
So, Pilate gave the order – with a heavy, wooden mallet, they broke the legs of the two insurrectionists – and within moment, one of them was in Paradise. But, when they came to Jesus, they found He was already dead, so they didn’t break His legs – they just pierced His side with a spear instead. All that, John says, so the prophetic Scriptures would be fulfilled, “Not a bone of Him shall be broken,” and “They shall look on Him whom they pierced.” I want to remind you, God was in charge of the death of His Son.
Jesus was dead. So Joseph came to Pilate and asked that the body be given to him. Now, just who was this Joseph? By looking at the parallel accounts, we learn the following:
First, He was from Arimathea. We don’t know exactly where that was, although a good guess is a few miles north of Jerusalem. Matthew also tells us he was rich, and he had become a disciple of Jesus, although John tells us he was a secret disciple, for fear of the Jews. We don’t know when he became a follower – he’s not mentioned before the story of the burial, and he’s never mentioned again. Luke tells us he was a good and righteous man, that he was looking for the kingdom of God. Finally, Mark and Luke both tell us that he was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, and that he had not consented to the action the Council had taken against Jesus.
Put all that together. This guy came to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Joseph, who had been a secret follower was secret no longer. That took great courage, for a couple of reasons:
First, you can be sure his career in the Sanhedrin was ruined. These were the guys – the religious leaders, who wanted to get rid of Jesus. The fact is, it costs something to be a follower of Christ – both then, and now. Not only was there the cost of a ruined career and reputation, but secondly, there was a physical cost in that he bought a linen cloth, wrapped Jesus’ body in it, and laid Jesus in his own new tomb.
Tombs cut out of rock were quite expensive – they were for the richest people. Not only that, Joseph took a gamble because crucified criminals weren’t even supposed to be buried. And if they were, no one else was allowed to be buried with them – which explains why it was a new tomb. Back then, there would be a family burial cave – an opening with several places dug out of the wall to place bodies. By placing Jesus in his own tomb, Joseph was losing the opportunity to use it for himself or his family in the future. This was a costly act.
John also tells us Nicodemus, a famous teacher of the Jews, probably also a member of the Sanhedrin, helped Joseph prepare the body. You’ll remember, Nicodemus was the guy who came to Jesus by night in John 3 – and Jesus explained to him the necessity of the new birth. Apparently, Nicodemus listened. He brought about 75 pounds of burial spices that were wrapped in the linen when Jesus was buried. Finally, they put Him in the tomb and rolled a stone in front of the entrance. Again, this was very common for rich tombs – there would have been a large stone to the side of the entrance in a channel cut out at the base of the rock. Roll the stone in front of the entrance, and the burial was complete.
Lots of attempts have been made to identify the actual burial site – a few shekels to almost any taxi driver in Jerusalem, and you can be taken to any number of sites which all claim to be the burial site of Christ. There are good reasons to believe the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, or perhaps the garden tomb is the site, but in the end, we can’t be sure. Why? Because His body isn’t there. Maybe a clue as to why the burial was so important.
Which brings us to the final group of people at the burial, found in verses 62-66. The chief priests and Pharisees came to Pilate. You have to figure Pilate is getting tired of hearing about Jesus by now – he had washed his hands of the whole thing, but he keeps having to deal with Him. Imagine his concern in three days when he gets reports that Jesus’ body is gone. They came to Pilate the day after the Preparation, that is, the preparation for the Sabbath, meaning they came on the Sabbath, and said, “Listen, this deceiver said He was going to rise from the dead in three days. If His disciples come and steal His body away, then the last deception, some supposed resurrection, will be worse than the first deception – His supposed messiahship. So, why don’t you give the order that the grave site be made secure.”
Pilate said, fine, go ahead. And so they took a guard, either Roman soldiers or their own soldiers, the temple police, and posted them outside the tomb. They even placed a seal at the entrance, meaning they probably poured hot wax over the crack of the entrance so they’d be able to tell if anyone moved the stone. All of that is important – they were trying to prevent a deception of a resurrection, and I would suggest, they did. There was no deceitful resurrection. By their actions, trying to prevent deception, they actually proved the reality of the resurrection. They were there – there could be no other reasonable explanation except genuine resurrection.
Which brings us to our second point and conclusion – that is, the question of the morning: What is the big deal about the burial? I mean, okay, we know He’s dead – can’t we just fast forward to the resurrection? The burial is a touching story – Joseph and all that, but there’s not a lot of action there – kind of mundane – can’t we just move on? In fact, most people do – they focus on the cross, briefly mention the burial, and speed ahead to Easter Sunday. But the gospel writers didn’t – why? There are at least three reasons that dwelling on the burial is important.
First, the burial proves Jesus was really dead. Look at all the solid proofs which verify His death. The centurion and the Roman soldiers – trained killers and executioners – confirmed Jesus was dead. They even thrust a spear in His side just to make sure. Then, Joseph and Nicodemus prepared His body for burial, which included wrapping the body tightly with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. Finally, they placed the body in tomb, rolled a heavy stone in front of it, where Jesus was kept for three days. Through the years, people have tried to deny the reality of resurrection – they’ve tried to suggest that He wasn’t really dead, that His body was stolen, that they came to the wrong tomb – all kinds of flimsy arguments to explain it all away. But the record is concrete – it clears it, almost as if God expected the attacks. There can be no doubt, from any thinking, reasonable person, that Jesus was dead, and then alive.
Secondly, the burial was important because it was a fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah 53:9 says, “His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death,” What does that mean – “His grave was assigned with wicked men”? We know He died with wicked men – but how was His grave assigned with them? Crucified criminals were not normally buried – their grave usually consisted of being thrown into a common grave for criminals, or the garbage heap outside of town. He was crucified with criminals, and therefore assigned a criminal’s burial. But, in fulfillment of Scripture, He was with the rich in His death.
Finally, the burial is important in our understanding of baptism – our identification with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In baptism, there is a rich, theological connection to the death of Christ. Look at these verses with me in Romans 6:
1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase?
2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?
3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death?
4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection…
8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him,
9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.
10 For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God.
11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Now, there is some discussion whether this passage is talking about water baptism or Spirit baptism – but it doesn’t really matter – water baptism symbolizes our baptism by the Spirit of God anyway. What is important is when a person is baptized, they are identifying with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ. They are dying to themselves, the old self is being buried, and they are being raised to walk a new life in Christ – a life in which they say no so sin – they are no longer slaves to sin. They have been freed from it – it is no longer master over the follower of Christ.
How important is the burial of Christ anyway? It’s critical. It proves He was dead, it fulfills prophecy, and helps kill ourselves, and live to Christ.