READ : Isaiah 53:8-9
Why does the Bible make such a point of the fact that Jesus was buried after he died? Might this detail have something important to teach us?
The incredible ordeal of Jesus’ passion and death at last was over. After all the pain and suffering, the affliction, the humiliation and the wounds, his end came quickly.
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
That’s the testimony of the evangelist Luke (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.
There remained only one last detail to complete the story of Christ’s passion. Shortly after he died on the cross, Jesus’ body was taken down and buried in a garden tomb near the place of execution. Even this small detail had been predicted long before by the prophet Isaiah.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.
(Isa. 53:8,9, niv)
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.
CRUCIFIED, DEAD 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 – 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 happened to those who defied Roman power. But in the place Jesus died, and especially on the particular day he died, that would not do.
Jesus was crucified on the hill of Golgotha (in Latin, Calvary; both words have the grimly appropriate meaning “the place of the skull”), which was just outside Jerusalem. His death occurred on a Friday afternoon; the Jewish Sabbath began that day at sundown, and on the day Jesus was crucified, the high and holy feast of the Passover would also begin. No one wanted bodies to be on public display during this time, as this would not only have been unsightly, it would have been ceremonially defiling to all the Jewish people. 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 and 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. It was just as Isaiah had prophesied. Though Jesus would die with the wicked, he would be buried with the rich.
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 (time was short for the Sabbath was approaching), and then laid it in his own expensive, rock-hewn tomb in a nearby garden. 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 came forward at the moment he was needed and did what he had to do, though it was difficult and costly and perhaps even dangerous; and that is all we are told about him. But it was a great thing that he did. Others may have honored Christ while he was alive and popular and powerful. Joseph demonstrated his love for Jesus and did him honor when Jesus was dead and apparently finished, and incapable of doing anything for him in return.
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 wrapped in its shroud, Joseph of Arimathea boldly confessing his love for Christ with that single great act, Jesus’ mother looking on, overcome with grief, some of the other women and one or two of his disciples also observing, their faces etched with anguish at this end of all their hopes, this seeming breaking of their dreams.
But the poignant sadness of the scene does not explain its importance. Most surprising of all about Jesus’ burial is the attention it receives in scripture. Why is so much made of the fact that Jesus’ body was buried after he was crucified? Not only did Isaiah prophesy it 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, the apostle Paul includes Christ’s burial as one of the basic elements in the gospel message:
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, that he was raised on the third day.
(1 Cor. 15:3)
The Apostles’ Creed, developed in the post-apostolic period as the simplest and most basic summary of Christian beliefs, makes Christ’s burial an article of universal Christian faith. It uses just five verbs to describe the entire earthly career of Jesus: He was born. He suffered. He was crucified. He died. He was buried.
WHY IT IS IMPORTANT
All this emphasis must mean that there is something very important about the fact that Jesus’ body was buried after his death. Of course in the most basic sense, Christ’s burial is simply a consequence of his death. It confirms 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 – the so-called “swoon theory” (as if such a scenario could explain the miracle of the resurrection). Nor did he just pretend to die on the cross. Jesus’ spirit did not secretly fly away and leave just an empty form to undergo crucifixion, which is what some traditions that are deeply offended by the cross 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.) In Jesus’ case, they did their job thoroughly. He was buried because he really died.
This is a point of great importance because if Jesus really died, 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. “Jesus paid it all,” says an old Christian song. Well, he truly did. And his burial testifies to that. 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 anyway). By trusting instead in Christ’s atonement, 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. 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 a hallucination or mere wishful thinking. It is 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 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. That’s 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 he was buried in his grave – and more importantly, because he rose again from it – we need not fear to be left in our graves someday. By Christ’s rest in the tomb, God has sanctified the graves of his saints. No matter how dark the places through which we must pass, our Lord has visited them before us – including the darkest of them all: the cold and narrow room of the grave. Christ visited the grave so that we will not have to lie there forever. Hallelujah!
BURIED WITH HIM
All of this is a great 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. But there is a further lesson, one more thing his burial has to teach us. The New Testament emphasizes Jesus’ burial not only as a proof for a past event (namely, his death), or as the promise of a future one (our own resurrection from our graves someday at the time of his glorious return), but as a pattern for present experience. New Testament teaching interprets Christ’s burial as a symbol of something that has to happen to us in our lives right here and now. This is how the apostle Paul explained it when writing to the Christians in Rome:
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
(Rom. 6:3,4, rsv)
For believers in Christ, baptism is a symbolic reenactment of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. There needs to be a before and after in every Christian’s life. What we were before we believed in Christ dies when we become Christians. Our old selves, our old habits, our old way of thinking, our old patterns of behavior must be buried and left behind, finished and done with. What we are now in Christ must come to life, changing the way we think and speak and act. And this doesn’t happen only once. It has to happen every day. Every day we must die to sin and come alive to God in Christ. Have you been buried with him? Have you been raised to new life with him? Are you living in him and for him today? God grant that you are.