Dead and Buried

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : John 19:31-42

What is so much made of the fact that Jesus was buried after he was crucified? There is something very important about the fact that Jesus’ body was buried after his death.

What is unmistakable about the Christian faith is the enormous significance it attaches to the death of Jesus Christ. Obviously, everybody has to die sometime. But normally we don’t dwell on that fact for those whom we care about. We prefer to emphasize the lives of the people we love, not their deaths. But with Jesus it’s different. The words of the Apostles’ Creed follow one another like hammer blows, each one driving the fact of Christ’s death deeper into our minds and hearts. Suffered . . . crucified . . . dead . . . buried. Our catechism asks the question, “Why was he buried?” And it answers simply, “His burial testifies that he really died” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. & A. 41).

Dead

Jesus really died. Does that point need such belaboring? Is there anyone who would deny this fact? Actually, there are many who deny it. One of the earliest Christian heresies was called docetism, from a Greek word that means “to seem.” This teaching held that Jesus wasn’t really human, he only seemed to be human, because God would never pollute himself by actually taking on human nature. And since Jesus only seemed to be human, he only seemed to die as well. On the other hand, there are also millions of people today who follow a religious teaching which says that Jesus was really human, but that he was miraculously rescued from the cross as another man was killed in his place, because God would never allow so great a prophet as Jesus to suffer so gruesome a fate as crucifixion.

But the New Testament is unanimous in its insistence that Jesus Christ, true man and true God, truly died one Friday afternoon just outside the city of Jerusalem on a hill called Golgotha. Each of the four Gospels describes the moment of his death. Luke, for example, writes that “Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). John adds in the fourth Gospel that Jesus said, “It is finished,” as he bowed his head and gave up his spirit (John 19:30), meaning his great work of salvation had been accomplished once and for all.

In fact, not only do the Gospels describe Jesus’ death, they tell about his burial as well. Here is the account from Matthew:

As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.

Matt. 27:57-60

And Buried

Several things about Jesus’ burial are quite unusual. Perhaps most surprising is that it happened at all. According to Roman custom, victims of crucifixion were generally not given burial. Once the victim died—and that sometimes took several days—the Romans liked to leave the body hanging on its cross a while longer, as a graphic warning to all passersby of what would happen to anyone who defied Roman power. But in the place Jesus died, and especially on the particular day he died, that would not do. On the day Jesus was crucified, the high and holy feast of the Passover began. So on that Friday afternoon the priests went to Pilate, the Roman governor, and asked that the deaths of Jesus and the two criminals who were crucified with him be hurried along so that their bodies could be disposed of before the festival began.

Another surprising thing about Jesus’ burial is that it was done privately and with reverent, loving care and proper ceremony. The two criminals’ bodies were undoubtedly simply thrown roughly by the soldiers into a common and anonymous grave, but with Jesus’ body a different disposition was made. Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy and influential man who was also a secret follower of Jesus, appeared and asked for his body. He gave it as much preparation as he could (for the time was short as the Sabbath approached), and then he laid it in his own expensive, rock-hewn tomb in a nearby garden.

And so Good Friday came to its sad conclusion. It certainly is a moving scene, one in fact that has appealed to the Christian imagination and has often been depicted in Christian art down through the centuries: Jesus’ body, cold and pale, being lowered from the cross and then wrapped in its shroud. Joseph of Arimathea boldly confesses his love for Christ with this single great act. And Jesus’ mother looks on, overcome with grief, along with some of the other women who followed him and loved him, their faces etched with anguish at this end of all their hopes, this seeming breaking of all their dreams.

But the poignant sadness of the scene of Jesus’ burial doesn’t really go very far in explaining its importance. Most surprising of all about the fact that Jesus was buried is the attention it receives in scripture. Why is so much made of the fact that Jesus was buried after he was crucified? Not only does Isaiah prophesy this great event in the Old Testament, not only do all four Gospels describe it in the New Testament, but the burial of Christ soon became one of the central affirmations of the Christian faith. For example, here’s the apostle Paul writing to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:3:

For I have delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, 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.

1 Cor. 15:3

So the Apostles’ Creed is simply following the apostolic testimony in making Christ’s burial an article of the universal Christian faith.

Why It Matters

Now all this emphasis must mean that there is something very important about the fact that Jesus’ body was buried after his death. Of course, perhaps the most basic thing of all as we have already seen, is that Christ’s burial is first and foremost a confirmation of the fact that he truly did die. Christ’s death was a real death, not a feigned one. He did not pass out from loss of blood on the cross and then later revive and escape from his tomb. That is the so-called “swoon theory” which I think takes the prize as the single most unconvincing attempt to explain away the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith that is founded upon it. Nor did Christ just pretend to die on the cross, or pull a quick switch with a hapless bystander, as other traditions have suggested. No, make no mistake about it. Execution was one of the things the Romans were very good at. (They had plenty of practice after all.) In Jesus’ case, we may be sure that they did their job thoroughly. No, he was buried because he really died.

But here is why Jesus’ real death and real burial really matters. This is so hugely important because if Jesus really died, it means he really paid the penalty of sin. And nothing less than the death of the Son of God could provide the full, complete and perfect atonement for your sin and mine. “Jesus paid it all,” says the old Christian song. Well, he truly did. And his burial testifies to that. And because he paid the ultimate price, there’s nothing left for us to pay. We don’t have to try to atone for our own sins through our own suffering, or by doing enough good works, or by painstaking religious exercises (a hopeless task in itself). By trusting instead in Christ’s death for us, we can have genuine freedom from guilt and know real peace with God.

Jesus’ burial is also important because if he really died, that means he really rose from the dead as well. If he hadn’t been buried, there would have been no empty tomb to testify to his resurrection. Jesus’ resurrection is no trick. It’s not a hallucination nor mere wishful thinking. It’s a real victory over death and the grave. Theologian Karl Barth once commented that “a man is not entirely dead until he is alone in his tomb after the others have gone away.” Burial is the dead end of each life’s journey. Even death itself doesn’t seem final until the last words have been spoken over the grave, and we turn and walk slowly away. And that is the end.

Do you know that Jesus went all the way to that end for us, and that he then went beyond it into the joy of Easter morning? Because Jesus was buried in his grave—and more importantly, because he rose again from it—we don’t need to be afraid of the day when we will be left in our graves. By Christ’s rest in the tomb, God has sanctified the graves of his saints, as an old funeral prayer says. No matter how dark the places through which we must pass, our Lord has been there before us. And because he has already been there, we know that he will also be there with us, when our time comes. There is no valley of shadow through which you and I must pass alone. There is no dark room that Christ has not already visited, including the darkest of them all—the cold and narrow room of the grave. Because Christ lay in the grave and then rose from it again, we won’t have to lie there forever either. This is the gospel. Believe this good news, and live and die in peace.