READ : John 19:31-42
In describing the burial of Jesus Christ, scripture shows how completely he identified with us. Jesus shared our experience of death to the fullest – even to the grave.
Jesus was dead. The actual moment of his death is described in an unusual way. Several of the accounts say that he “gave up his spirit,” as though death, for Jesus, was a voluntary act. “I am the good shepherd,” he had once said. “I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:14-18). That’s a very odd way for a man to talk – if Jesus was only a man. But Jesus didn’t just talk like that, he actually willed the end of his life. As he breathed his last Jesus whispered, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
All four gospels also record that Jesus said something else just before he died. Matthew, Mark and Luke mention only a loud cry. John tells us in the fourth gospel that what Jesus shouted from the cross at the end was a single, electrifying word: “Finished!” “It is accomplished!” he cried.
What did Christ mean by that? He meant that his most difficult task had been completed. He was talking about the work he had to accomplish before people could be saved. Jesus’ unique work was to die as the perfect sacrifice to take away the sin of the world. He knew that he had done that at that last moment on the cross, and that’s why he died with a shout of triumph. At that very instant, the Bible says, the curtain in the temple was torn from top to bottom, indicating that the way to God and heaven was now open to everyone who believes in Christ (Luke 23:45; Hebrews 10:19-20).
The gospel writers also tell what happened after Jesus died. The fullest account is written in John:
The next day would be a special Sabbath. The Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath. So they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus. Then they broke the legs of the other man.
But when they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead. So they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers stuck his spear into Jesus’ side. Right away, blood and water flowed out. The man who saw it has given witness. And his witness is true. He knows that he tells the truth. He gives witness so that you also can believe.
These things happened in order that Scripture would come true. It says, “Not one of his bones will be broken.” (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20) Scripture also says, “They will look to the one they have pierced.” (Zechariah 12:10)
Later Joseph asked Pilate for Jesus’ body. Joseph was from the town of Arimathea. He was a follower of Jesus. But he followed Jesus secretly because he was afraid. . . .
Nicodemus went with Joseph. He was the man who had earlier visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought some mixed spices, about 75 pounds. The two men took Jesus’ body. They wrapped it in strips of linen cloth, along with the spices. . . .
At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden. A new tomb was there. No one had ever been put in it before. That day was the Jewish Preparation Day, and the tomb was nearby. So they placed Jesus there.
John 19:31-42, NIrV
Late on the afternoon of what Christians now call “Good Friday,” a delegation of Jerusalem’s religious authorities came to see the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. They had been there very early that same morning to secure Jesus’ condemnation and execution. Now they had a further request. They wanted the deaths of the victims on Golgotha’s crosses to be hastened, so that their bodies could be removed and buried before sunset. Their reason for this was astonishing, given what they had been guilty of doing that day. According to Old Testament law the body of an executed person was not to be left hanging past sunset. It was especially important to these religious leaders that this rule be kept, because that particular evening marked the beginning of a day that was doubly significant. It was both a Sabbath and the first day of the Passover Festival. The religious leaders didn’t want anything unlawful to interfere with the celebration of this very holy day. Everything had to be just right; every ceremonial law had to be scrupulously observed. That was the attitude of the people who had just engineered the death of God’s innocent Son.
So, to please these influential people, Pilate gave orders to his soldiers to break the legs of the three men who had been crucified that day on Golgotha. Because the victims of crucifixion hung suspended by their arms, the only way for them to breathe was by pushing themselves up with their legs. Sometimes this terrible ordeal could go on for hours or even days, but breaking the legs resulted in quick death as the sagging body was unable to draw breath into the lungs. So the soldiers broke the legs of the two criminals on either side of Jesus. But when they came to Jesus himself, they discovered that he was already dead. One of them then took his spear and thrust it into Jesus’ side. John reports this detail with vivid deliberateness, adding that both blood and water poured from the wound. He saw it himself, and his report, he says, is reliable.
John obviously also thought this act was important. And because he did, so should we. But important for what reason? Well, for one, it showed beyond any doubt that Jesus had really died. If anyone is tempted to doubt the judgment of the professional executioners who pronounced him dead, the evidence of the spear wound is conclusive. Medical experts say that the blood and water coming from Jesus’ wound indicates that his heart and its surrounding sac was pierced by the Roman spear.
It is important that Jesus really died, because that means he really paid the penalty of sin. Nothing less than the death of the Son of God could provide the full, complete and perfect atoning sacrifice for human sin. But because Christ paid this ultimate price, there’s nothing more for us to pay. We don’t have to try to atone for our sins through our own suffering, or by doing enough good works, or by painstaking religious exercises (a hopeless task anyway). Instead, by trusting in Christ’s death, we have genuine freedom from guilt and we experience genuine peace with God.
The gospel writer sees another significance in the wound in Jesus’ side. To John, this was one more compelling proof that Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. His death was the fulfillment of Scripture’s prophecies, dozens of them, right down to the smallest detail. Because of this spear wound, none of his bones were broken. And that was a requirement for the Passover lamb that symbolized Jesus (according to Exodus 12:46). Because of this, he also conformed to Zechariah’s prediction (Zech. 12:10), repeated in the New Testament book of Revelation (Rev. 1:7), that one day everyone will look upon a Savior who has been pierced for the sins of humankind. Some will look at him and greet him with hearts flaming with love. Others will look in horror when they realize that they have rejected the one and only Savior, and lost all hope of eternal life.
After Jesus died, he was buried. It had to be done, as it does for everyone, the last item of business to be checked off for every human life. Funeral customs differ from one culture to another. Jesus was buried according to the culture in which he was raised. But the basic purpose is the same. The bodies we have lived in must be disposed of. Death is the final insult. The last, unavoidable humiliation everyone has to go through is to become a corpse. It is a hideous prospect to think that we all have to go through that some day. We try to suppress the thought and avoid the subject. We joke about death; we make light of it. We try even to prettify the bodies of the dead and make them look like they’re only sleeping.
What bothers me about death is not just the pain and terror of it. It’s the repulsiveness, the indignity, the shame of it all. But I find Jesus’ burial both moving and comforting. It means he went all the way through the experience of death for us. He actually became a corpse, a corpse that had to be prepared and then carried away and buried like every other one. God was willing to allow even this to be done to him! It was the last act of his earthly ministry for us. His identification with our humanity, our frailty, is complete. If Jesus could do that much, I can know that he will be with me when I have to endure death some day.
It’s actually quite surprising that Jesus’ burial was carried out with such reverent and loving care, or that he received a proper funeral at all. The two criminals’ bodies were undoubtedly simply thrown by the soldiers into a common, unmarked grave. But with Jesus’ body a different disposition was made.
It happened this way because of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, two wealthy and influential men who were also secret followers of Jesus. They appeared before Pilate and asked for his body. Together with some women who were also disciples of Jesus, they gave the body as much preparation as they could before sunset on Friday, and then laid it in Joseph’s own expensive, rock-hewn tomb in a garden which was conveniently nearby.
We know nothing at all about this Joseph apart from this one incident. He is a man of a single act: he buried Jesus Christ. Joseph and Nicodemus came forward at the exact moment they were needed and did what had to be done, though it was difficult, costly, even dangerous. Others may have honored Christ while he was alive and popular and powerful, but these men demonstrated their love for Jesus when he was dead and apparently finished. These men had hidden their devotion to Jesus for a time, fearing to be open followers. But they revealed their true colors when it counted most. In burying Jesus, these men and women showed both courage and unselfish devotion to him.
THE END, BUT NOT THE END
So Good Friday came to its sad conclusion. But the lingering sadness of the scene does not explain all of its importance. Jesus’ burial was also important because if he really died, that means he really rose from the dead. If he hadn’t been buried, there would have been no empty tomb to testify to his resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is not a trick, or mere wishful thinking. It’s a real victory over death and the grave. Someone once observed that a man is not entirely dead until he is buried and everyone else has left. Burial is the end, the dead end, of each life’s journey. Even death itself doesn’t seem final until the last words have been spoken over the coffin, and we turn and walk slowly away. That’s the end.
But do you know that Jesus went all the way to this end for us, and that then he moved past it into the joy of Easter morning? Because he was buried in his grave – and more importantly, because he rose from it – we need not fear to be left in our graves one day. By Christ’s rest in the tomb, God has made the graves of his saints holy. No matter how dark the places through which we must pass, we can know that our Lord has been there before us. Because Christ died and rose again, we will not die forever. Hallelujah!
That’s a powerful comfort for those with faith in Jesus Christ. If you have put your trust in him, if you have personally surrendered your life to him, you can know that death need not hold any terror for you either. Believe in Christ, and don’t be afraid!