I have often mentioned that we often look at Christ’s death on the cross as the only thing that Christ came to earth to achieve for us. It is an essential part of his earthly ministry but not the only part of his ministry on earth. The burial of Jesus is an integral piece of the gospel message (1 Cor 15:3-4, Acts 13:26-31). The burial is mentioned in all of the Gospel accounts (Matt 27:57–61; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:38–42). Christ’s execution on the cross was that of a criminal. However, his burial is not like a criminal. One historian, Tacitus, notes that a person legally condemned forfeited his estate and was debarred from the burial (Annals 6.29). Often the body was left on the cross to be eaten by birds. For the Jews, being left on the cross to be eaten by birds was seen as a divine curse (Deut 28:26; Jer 8:1–2; 16:1–4; Ezek 29:5). The Romans would sometimes, the body would be taken down and given to the family, particularly on the eve of a festival. Christ’s burial is an important part of the Gospel message, it is important because if Christ was not raised from the dead then we preach a foolish message (1 Cor 15:14, 17). If he did not die, then he did not die for our sins. How then can believers know that Christ was dead? We see this in our passage today.
Jesus had breathed his last breath, his lungs were still, and his once beating heart had stopped. No blood was sent through his veins, and no signals were sent to his brain. Jesus was right, the Son of Man must suffer many things. He was delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they condemned him to death and delivered him over to the Gentiles. And they mocked him and spat on him, and flogged him and killed him (Mark 10:33-34). We are told that it was evening, on the day of Preparation, the day the Jews would ensure everything was for the Sabbath was to come. Now, we need to understand something about Jewish customs. When we speak of burial we mean in a coffin in the ground 6 feet below the ground. This is where someone is buried and this is where they will stay. However, this is not the case in Jewish customs during the time of Jesus. After someone had died the body was prepared for burial, the eyes of the deceased were closed, the mouth bound up, and the corpse washed and anointed. The body was wrapped and laid in a tomb; the tomb could look different depending on the family’s wealth. However, this is where a drastic change happens. They were not buried in the ground in their final resting place but they were to be in the tomb for one year. Generally, the tomb was a large hole in a. Rock with built-in ‘shelves’ for the bodies to be laid for a year. After their bodies had decayed they would take their bones and be moved to the second burial in their permanent resting place, in an Ossuary. The shelf in the tomb would be able to be used again. However, there was an issue, because it was late in the day the women did not have enough time to prepare the body. Again, this is not embalming, this is placing spices upon the body to keep it from smelling.
There are many aspects of the Gospel that appear in all the Gospels. One man is mentioned by all the gospel authors, his name is Joseph of Arimathea. Now we begin by understanding where he is from (because it is simple), we know he is from Arimathea, but we do not know where Arimathea is. The best answer I have seen is that it is Ramathaim-zophim (1 Sam 1:1; the Septuagint renders it as Armathaim). However, Mark tells us three things about him. The first is that he was a well-respected member of the Council. The Sanhedrin had condemned him to death. Now, some have suggested his concern was not about Jesus, but about the law. The Law gave specific instructions on how to handle the body of someone who was hung on a tree (Deut 21:22–23). They explain Joseph was not concerned about the body of Jesus but about breaking the law. However, the second thing we learn about Joseph is that he was “looking for the kingdom.” This can have two different meanings, the first is that he was longing and expecting Christ to come. However, this does not line up with the other Gospel accounts that explain he was a disciple, although secretly (Matt 27:57, John 19:38). Although I do not have anything other than the connection between the two verses, I wonder if Joseph was the man who asked Jesus about the greatest commandment (Mark 12:34). However, Mark tells us something else about Joseph of Arimathea that he went and stood before Pilate and asked to have the body of Jesus. Mark’s gospel account is the only gospel to tell us this piece of information. Mark accurately calls this ‘courage.’ Joseph of Arimathea showed a lot of boldness. Because he has everything to lose and nothing to gain in the eyes of the world. His reputation on the council would be in question, he is going to talk to the enemy about their enemy which they have been seeking to destroy since the beginning (Mark 3:6). However, Joseph of Arimathea does stand before Pilate in requests of Jesus body.
Pilate is surprised that Jesus had passed away so quickly. He summons a centurion to confirm his death. Now many theories have been given by liberal scholars to try and account for the Gospel accounts. Some seek to deny the death others deny the reality of the resurrection. Many who deny Jesus’ death I think assume we know more today than they did in the 1st century. Now we have discovered many things, however, death has been constant since the fall. They assume they can understand what happened 2000 years later, and I think they commit what CS Lewis calls ‘cultural snobbery.’ Jesus had gone through brutal beating, flogging, and crucifixion all under the supervision of trained professionals. A centurion was not some intern, but a soldier with rank in the Roman army. This centurion was to go and check that Jesus was dead. The Romans had perfected their execution technique. There is no known account of anyone surviving a Roman crucifixion. If you were two people one who had contact with and looked at the corpse or someone two millennia later, who would you trust? Even Mark’s account points this out, as he calls Jesus’ body a corpse.
Joseph was granted the corpse by Pilate. We are told another unique piece of information in the gospel of Mark. That Joseph of Arimathea purchased the linen to wrap around Jesus. We are also told that he took him down from the cross. Another close contact that cannot be denied. Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb. The human body which was united to the second person of the Trinity lay lifeless and dead. However, we are told in the Bible that Jesus’ body did not see corruption (Acts 2:27, 13:37, Ps 16:10). The Westminster divines explain that he was not abandoned in Sheol/Hades, and his flesh did not see corruption. This is what we mean when we say, “He descended into Hell” (Ps. 16:10, Acts 2:24–27,31, Rom. 6:9, Matt. 12:40). The tomb was sealed shut. And there Jesus’ body lay in darkness. Christ’s burial shows that he was deceased. Peter in Acts explains that those who crucified him also ‘laid him in the tomb’ (Acts 13:29). The leaders were concerned to ensure Jesus stayed in the tomb (Matt 27:65-66). Jesus continued in the state of death and was under the power of death until the third day (Cf. WLC 50).
Christ’s burial is also our baptism. We are baptized into death that, just as Christ was raised from the dead that we would be raised with him through faith. That we might walk in newness of Life (Rom 6:4, Col 2:12). We know that Christ’s burial is crucial because he truly died.
Why does this matter?
Why does Paul explain that this is of first importance? He was dead, buried, and rose again, all according to scripture (1 Cor 15:3-4). If he wasn’t dead then he wouldn’t need to be buried and if he wasn’t buried then what was he raised from? This might seem simple, but it is vital to what we teach and believe, and to our bodies. Paul continues to explain,
“Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:12–19).
Paul says, how can some people say there is no resurrection from the dead? He explains that preaching is in vain, and faith is vain and futile. We are liars. But we would still be in our sins. But also he explains something that should send shivers down our spine, “Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished.” If Christ did not die then we have no hope of the resurrection, because Christ did not need the resurrection. A person whose heart is beating does not need to be resuscitated. All we have is this life right now. A funeral would be a final goodbye. The coffin closed would mean we would never see our loved ones again. Our life is but a meaningless blimp on this earth. Our only hope Paul said would be that we have life today. Oh, that we would be pitted.
However, I love one three-letter word in the Bible that gives us reason to rejoice almost every time we read it, “but.”
“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:20–23).
The truth of this can be found in today’s passage. Not only that Christ died, but he was buried. His death was watched by three women, who were there at his death, burial, and resurrection. He was verified dead by a Roman officer, who was a professional executioner. He was buried by a man who risked his reputable position, and who handled his body. We have all the more reason to rejoice, and great certainty that Christ has been raised from the dead. This we can rejoice when we think of our resurrection, that when our bodies are placed in the grave that will not be our final resting place. We can rejoice when we go to a funeral, not without grief, but with great rejoicing that this is not goodbye forever. That although our loved ones are placed in a tomb, if they are united to Christ they will share in the same resurrection. My favorite hymn speaks of this assurance that we have, Abide with me,
I fear no foe, with thee at hand to bless:
Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still if thou abide with me.
Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes:
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies:
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee:
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.
Our comfort is found in life and death that we are not our own but body and soul belong to Jesus Christ our Lord and savior and we belong to him then he will be raised with him as he is the first fruits. Paul puts it this way later in 1 Corinthians 15, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56–57).