Jesus, Dead and Buried, John 19:38-42


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“Jesus, Dead and Buried”
John 19:38-42
March 28, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
Pastor Nicoletti

We come this morning to John 19:38-42.

Jesus has been crucified. Jesus has died, and his death has been confirmed by the Roman soldiers. And now Jesus, dead, is buried.

With that in mind, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.

19:38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Lord, our eyes long for your salvation
and for the fulfillment of your righteous promises.
Deal with us, your servants, according to your steadfast love,
and teach us your statutes.
We are your servants, and so we ask you to give us understanding,
that we may know your testimonies.
As we attend to your word now,
help us to love it more than gold, even much fine gold.
Make us to hold to your precepts as right,
and to hate every false way.
Grant this, we ask, in Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:123-125, 127-128]

Introduction

Our text this morning is on the burial of Jesus. And while today is Palm Sunday, the theme of our text has more in common with Holy Saturday.

Over time, in the early church, both Good Friday and Holy Saturday developed into days of preparation for Easter Sunday, with Good Friday focused on the death of Jesus, and Holy Saturday focused on his burial. There is less emphasis on Holy Saturday in our day, though I wonder more and more if that is a mistake.

It’s true that our text emphasizes the rush to bury Jesus before Saturday – before the Jewish Sabbath began on Friday night. But the theme and idea of Holy Saturday focuses on that period between the death of Jesus on Good Friday, and his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

We rightly give a lot of attention to Jesus’s death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave. But what does that period in between have to teach us? What does the burial, and that period where Jesus lay, dead, in the tomb, have for us to consider?

That will be our focus this morning.

And as we focus on those questions, we will see three things:
– We will see the trial of Holy Saturday
– We will see the temptation of Holy Saturday
– And we will see the teaching of Holy Saturday
The trial, the temptation, and the teaching.

The Trial of Holy Saturday

We begin with the trial of Holy Saturday.

Because as hard as Good Friday must have been for Jesus’s followers – as hard as it must have been to see Jesus condemned, crucified, and dead … I wonder if the next day – if Holy Saturday – was maybe even harder.

Because Friday was filled with distressing and traumatic events. But Saturday was when a new reality really must have begun to sink in.

A piece of writing that first led me to reflect on this idea is a passage from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot. I read this passage last year, at the Men’s Night of prayer … but it is a passage I like to try to come back to every year at this time … and one that is worthy of reflection.

There is some background to this passage, as it’s based on an actual painting that Dostoevsky had himself seen.

The painting is titled Christ’s Body in the Tomb (though Dostoevsky refers to the painting as simply “The Dead Christ”). It is by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Dostoevsky read about the painting in an account of another author’s travels in Europe. The painting was in a museum in Basel, and when Dostoevsky and his wife were traveling from Baden-Baden to Geneva, they made a special stop in Basel just to see it.

In her memoirs, Dostoevsky’s wife Anna, recounts how the painting made quite an impression on Dostoevsky, so that he stood before it dumbstruck. At one point he went and got a chair and stood on it so he could get a closer look – Anna was worried they would get in trouble. She herself didn’t like staying in the same room with the painting too long, and she left her husband there with it. When she came back fifteen or twenty minutes later, she found him standing on the ground before it, “riveted by it” and with an expression on his face that made her worried that he was about to go into an epileptic seizure, as he was prone to do. She quietly took him under the arm, brought him to another room and sat him on a bench, and then he recovered. [Pevear in Dostoevsky, viii-ix]

The painting plays a key role in Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, a novel which Richard Pevear says as a whole takes place thematically on “Holy Saturday” – the “desolate time” when “Christ is buried” and “the disciples are scattered” [Pevear, xix]

In the novel, the character Ippolit explains his own thoughts as he encounters this painting.

He writes this:
“I think I stood before [the painting] for about five minutes. There was nothing good about it in the artistic respect; but it produced a strange uneasiness in me.
“The picture portrays Christ just taken down from the cross. It seems to me that painters are usually in the habit of portraying Christ, both on the cross and taken down from the cross, as still having a shade of extraordinary beauty in his face; they seek to preserve this beauty for him even in his most horrible suffering. But in [this] picture there is not a word about beauty; this is in the fullest sense the corpse of a man who had endured infinite suffering before the cross, wounds, torture, beating by the guards, beating by the people as he carried the cross and fell down under it, and finally suffered on the cross for six hours (at least according to my calculation). True, it is the face of a man who has only just been taken down from the cross, that is, retaining in itself a great deal of life, of warmth; nothing has had time to become rigid yet, so that the dead man’s face even shows suffering as if he were feeling it now (the artist has caught that very well); but the face has not been spared in the least; it is nature alone, and truly as the dead body of any man must be after such torments. I know that in the first centuries the Christian Church already established that Christ suffered not in appearance but in reality, and that on the cross his body, therefore, was fully and completely subject to the laws of nature. In the picture his face is horribly hurt by blows, swollen, with horrible, swollen, and bloody bruises, the eyelids are open, the eyes crossed; the large, open whites have a sort of deathly glassy shine. But, strangely, when you look at the corpse of this tortured man, a particular and curious question arises: if all his disciples, his chief future apostles, if the women who followed him and stood by the cross, if all those who believed in him and worshipped him had seen a corpse like that (and it was bound to be exactly like that), how could they believe, looking at such a corpse, that this sufferer would resurrect? Here the notion involuntarily occurs to you that if death is so terrible and the laws of nature so powerful, how can they be overcome? How overcome them, if they were not even defeated now, by the one who defeated nature while he lived, whom nature obeyed, who exclaimed: “Talitha cumi” and the girl arose, “Lazarus, come forth” and the dead man came out? Nature appears to the viewer of this painting in the shape of some enormous, implacable, and dumb beast, or, to put it more correctly, much more correctly, strange though it is – in the shape of some huge machine of the most modern construction, which has senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly and unfeelingly, a great and priceless being – such a being as by himself was worth the whole of nature and all its laws, the whole earth, which was perhaps created solely for the appearance of this being alone! The painting seems precisely to express this notion of a dark, insolent, and senseless eternal power, to which everything is subject, and it is conveyed to you involuntarily. The people who surrounded the dead man, none of whom is in the painting, must have felt horrible anguish and confusion on that evening, which at once smashed all their hopes and almost their beliefs. They must have gone off in terrible fear.” [Dostoevsky, 407-408]

Thus Dostoevsky describes the theme of Holy Saturday – the theme of that time between when Jesus was taken down off the cross, and the following Sunday morning when he rose from the dead. It is that in-between time that our text this morning focuses on.

What must it have been like in that moment, in the presence of Jesus’s dead body? Jesus could not have looked so different from how Dostoevsky describes him. What did his disciples – those who dared to come to the tomb as he was prepared – what must they have thought? What must they have felt? What did Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus feel as they looked upon his body? What did the women feel? What must Mary, his mother, have thought?

They had seen Jesus’s power. They had seen him raise the dead! But now, in this moment, death seemed to have conquered him. Might they, in that moment, have thought the same thoughts that Dostoevsky articulates: “if death is so terrible and the laws of nature so powerful, how can they be overcome?” How might that sight have shattered their hopes and even their beliefs?

Holy Saturday – the moment when Jesus lay dead and buried – was a once-in-history event. The Son of God lay dead. But the theme of Holy Saturday echoes throughout history and throughout our lives.

There are many moments where individuals or where whole societies have looked at events that have unfolded, and thought with the disciples: “if death is so terrible and the laws of nature so powerful, how can they be overcome?”

We see it in the brokenness of this world – in the disease, disorder, and death that so often seems rampant in the world we live in. Natural disasters occur which swallow up beautiful lives, cultures, and creations. Disease afflicts those we know and love, and we watch it tear them down bit by bit. Death comes after everyone, some after a relatively long life, but others much sooner – it comes to one person after another, ripping them away from those who love them.

And as we look at the ravages of disaster, disease, and death in this world, we can, with Dostoevsky, begin to see nature as an “enormous, implacable, and dumb beast” that thoughtlessly destroys not only things of great beauty, but people of incalculable value … a beast which we cannot stop … and which we fear no one ever will stop.

Other times we see the evils of the world around us – the evils of society … the evils of people, working together, to bring trauma and terror into this world. We read of coups and oppression overseas. We hear of terror and abuse in other lands. We see injustice, and murder in our own country. We look back over centuries and see the dead bodies and the ruined lives strewn about by the cogs and wheels of one society after another … we see the evils human beings can do to one another on a grand scale, and the beautiful people and things they can destroy, and have destroyed … and like Dostoevsky we too can see human civilization like a “huge machine of the most modern construction, which has senselessly seized, crushed, and swallowed up, blankly and unfeelingly, […] great and priceless being[s]” over and over again.

Or maybe it’s on a more personal level. Maybe it is sin and evil much closer to home that brings the theme of Holy Saturday before your face. Maybe it is the sin of another that has brought pain and suffering into your life or the life of someone you love. Maybe it is the sin of someone you love, which is bringing pain and suffering down on themselves. Or maybe it is your sin, which is wreaking havoc in your own life, or the lives of those you love. And you look at its power, and you look at the destruction it causes, and you can see in it a “a dark, insolent, and senseless […] power, to which everything [seems to be] subject.” And your strength to fight back seems inadequate. And your hope seems to lie in the dust.

How has the theme of Holy Saturday pressed itself into your life? What are the trials that force you to see the brokenness and the sin of the world we live in – like an enormous beast, or a terrible machine, or a dark power?

This is the trial of Holy Saturday, and we all face it in some part of our lives.

The Temptation of Holy Saturday

And the trial of Holy Saturday invariably leads us to the temptation of Holy Saturday. Because once such brokenness and evil forces itself before us, we must decide what we will do with it. And as we do, we are tempted to a range of faithless responses.

Sometimes we are tempted to distraction. The brokenness of life comes before us, and we want to just brush it aside. We want to fix our attention on something else. Some people arrange their whole mental and emotional lives to avoid and distract themselves from the presence of evil, brokenness, and death in this world.

Other times we are tempted to denial. We deny that things are that bad. We put a happy spin on things. We emphasize the positive. We deny that sin, and brokenness, and death, are really that terrible. We look for a silver lining … or we try to describe them as “natural” though our hearts strain against such claims.

Both distraction and denial are ways of coping that try to avoid the hard realities of Holy Saturday moments – of moments when we come face-to-face with the reality that this world is not the way it is supposed to be. Both distraction and denial may work for a time. But both only work by resisting reality itself.

Then there are the temptations we face when we truly acknowledge the brokenness before us.

One is the temptation to despair. This is the temptation Dostoevsky seems to most allude to. We give up. We stop trying. We let our hope be shattered. We abandon our faith. We embrace despair and cease to hope for deliverance, because it seems to us like nothing – neither man nor God – can overcome the evil, the death, and the brokenness that seems to devour so much of this world and those we love in it.

And then other times we are tempted instead to detachment. Rather than despair of the ways this world is not the way it’s supposed to be, we detach our hearts from those things which sin and brokenness can touch. We try to stop caring about others who might be crushed under injustice. We try to buffer our hearts from those we love, so that if disease or death takes them, we won’t feel the impact so hard. We shrug off our hopes for our own lives, so that if we fall short, we won’t get too upset. We try to make ourselves numb and indifferent, so that the pain of this world cannot really reach us.

What do you most often tend towards? When real pain and brokenness and evil force their way into your life and into your field of vision, what are you most often tempted towards in your response? Is it distraction? Denial? Despair? Detachment?

These are just some of the temptations we can face when our lives are confronted with an echo of Holy Saturday.

The Teaching of Holy Saturday

What is striking then, is that those whom our text focuses on this morning, do not give in to any of those temptations, though they are living through the actual Holy Saturday itself.

And so, it is in them that we find the teaching of Holy Saturday. And to show us this teaching, John focuses our attention on two men: Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus.

Let’s hear their role in our text again:
19:38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

Let’s consider each of these men.

We have not heard about Joseph of Arimathea before this part of the story.

We learn from Matthew that he was a rich man. We learn from Mark and Luke that he was “a member of the council” – meaning the Sanhedrin. And we learn from John that he was a disciple of Jesus secretly, because he feared how the Jewish leaders would respond.

Then there is Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a Pharisee and a ruler among the Jewish people. He also was a member of the Sanhedrin. We came across Nicodemus in chapter three of John’s Gospel, which John refers to again here. There Nicodemus visited Jesus at night. Presumably, he visited him at night because he feared how other Jewish leaders would respond if they knew of his interest in Jesus. Nicodemus shows up also in chapter seven, when he reminded his fellow Pharisees that the law required hearing from someone before condemning them. For this, Nicodemus was called a Galilean sympathizer. [Michaels, 981]

Both Joseph and Nicodemus had kept their relationship to Jesus a secret, out of fear for what it might cost them if their faith in him became known. But that abruptly changes in this passage.

First, there is the action of Joseph requesting the body of Jesus.

Under Roman law the bodies of executed criminals were normally handed over to their next of kin, but that was not the case for those executed for sedition. The Romans usually left those bodies to the vultures, but the Jews “never refused to bury any executed criminal, but instead of allowing the bodies […] to be placed in family tombs […] they provided a burial site for criminals just outside the city.” When the Jewish leaders asked that the bodies of those executed be taken down, we can assume that they planned to bury them in a common grave. But at this point, Joseph of Arimathea intervened, using his rank as a member of the Sanhedrin to gain access to Pilate. Joseph’s action put him at a considerable risk from both the Roman and the Jewish authorities. But Pilate’s willingness to grant him the body, even though Jesus had been executed for sedition, would seem to indicate again that Pilate didn’t really think Jesus was guilty or a threat. It also might have been one more way for Pilate to upset the Jewish leaders. [Carson, 629]

Then, while Joseph got the body of Jesus, Nicodemus gathered the spices. And at this point we should notice that the sheer quantity of spices that Nicodemus brings for Jesus was not normal. About 75 pounds by our measures, several commentators affirm that this was not a typical amount of spice to bring, but rather a quantity that was appropriate for a king. [Michaels, 981-982; Wright, 137]

Which was probably the point. The actions of Joseph and Nicodemus – by requesting the body of Jesus, by bringing him to a new tomb, and by bringing such a quantity of spices to anoint his body – all of this effectively amounted to a public profession of faith. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus are making it publicly known – to the Roman authorities and the Jewish authorities and anyone else who cares to see – that they believe that Jesus is, in fact, the rightful king of the Jews. They do this by “intentionally planning a royal burial” for him. [Michaels, 981-982; Wright, 137]

Whereas before Joseph of Arimathea was only a disciple of Jesus in secret, out of fear, now he comes out and makes it publicly known, for all to see. Whereas before Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, now he clearly comes to him during the day – before the sun set and the sabbath began. [Carson, 629] And together, surrounded by their servants carrying spices and preparing the body of Jesus, they honor Jesus with a royal burial, and they proclaim their faith that Jesus truly is the king of God’s people.

But this leads us to ask a few questions.

First, what did they expect would happen next?

And the answer is that we don’t really know what they expected next. And maybe they didn’t know what they expected next either – at least not in concrete terms. But it seemed that at the very least they expected God to act. They believed that Jesus was God’s king, and that God would act in light of the death of his king. There’s no indication of what they expected God would do in that moment, but on a fundamental level, they looked at the desolation of Holy Saturday – the bruised and battered body of Jesus, crushed as it was by the brute beast that is death, crucified by the senseless machine of society, condemned by the dark power of sin – they looked those realities in the face … and they clung to the belief that God still reigned – that this God, the God of Israel, the God who had appointed Jesus Christ as king – that this God could, and that this God would defeat death, this twisted world, and sin itself.

And they decided that they would be on the side of this God. They would align themselves with this God even if it meant losing everything else – even if it meant rejection by their own people, or death at the hands of their Roman overlords.

Whatever the details might be, however much was still unknown to them, Joseph and Nicodemus believed that God still reigned, and he would defeat all his enemies. And so they align themselves with Jesus – for Jesus was God’s king.

Which brings us to the second question: Why now? Why do Joseph and Nicodemus choose this moment to align themselves publicly with Jesus and proclaim him as king?

John Calvin marvels at this question. He asks where such a change could have come from. He asks why, when the benefits of following Jesus would seem to be at their lowest, and the risks would be at their highest – why at that point Joseph and Nicodemus would come out to publicly align themselves with Jesus. This was, after all, an act that would have put them in danger both with the Roman leaders and with their fellow Jewish leaders. Calvin concludes that the only explanation is that this was the work of the Holy Spirit, and evidence of the miraculous fruit that came from the death of Jesus. [Calvin, 244-245]

Which brings us to our third question: Were they right? Were Joseph and Nicodemus right in trusting themselves to the God of Jesus Christ? And here Calvin concludes that their very faith – their very courage – was proof that they were. For they themselves were the first miraculous fruits of Jesus’s death.

To make this point, Calvin points us back to Jesus’s own words. In John 12, Jesus himself said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Jesus spoke those words about his glorification. For Jesus declared that he would be glorified in his death. And the public faith of Joseph and Nicodemus are just the very first fruits of a cosmic harvest that would come from the death of Jesus.

For not only Joseph and Nicodemus would come to follow Jesus in light of his death, but hundreds, and then thousands, and then millions would come to follow Jesus Christ. And each and every one of them was the fruit born from the death of Jesus.

For he died for the sins of his people, that they might be forgiven and have life. Their salvation would be the fruit that grew out of his death as their savior. And because he purchased them with his blood on the cross, he would bring them to himself – he would effectually call them by the Holy Spirit so that they would come to know him, and trust him, and publicly own him as their king.

And he died in this way not to call the righteous, but sinners.

When we think of the courageous public acts of Joseph and Nicodemus, risking everything here to own Jesus as their king, it can be too easy for us to dismiss this as the sort of faith that is beyond us. They took great risks, they had courageous faith … but not us. We are fearful. Our faith is frail. We have failed so much in the past … we fail so much even now … we cannot walk in faith as they did.

And if we think anything like that, then we have missed the miracle of Nicodemus and Joseph’s faith. We have attributed their actions to their own virtues, and we have ignored the fact that the very thing John wants us to see here is that their actions – their faith – cannot be explained as rooted in their own virtues.

Because they themselves had failed. They themselves had been fearful. They themselves had had a frail faith – so much so that they had previously kept it a secret.

But Jesus wanted them. Jesus wanted fearful and failing men like them to be transformed into the fruit of his sacrificial death. And so they were. Not because of any power in them, but because of the power of Jesus, who, like a grain of wheat, gave himself over to death in order to bring the fruit of salvation to feeble men like Joseph and Nicodemus.

John Calvin remarks that God’s work in Joseph and Nicodemus, and his identification of them as disciples despite their failures was evidence of “how graciously God acts towards his people, and with what fatherly kindness he forgives their offences.” [Calvin, 245]

And so, whatever you have done, whatever you have been through, Jesus calls you to be the fruit of his death on the cross – not because you deserve it, but because he has purchased you with his blood – he has died so that you might have life. That is the fruit of his death.

But it does not end there. For the fruit of his death includes not only those he will call to himself, but also his place in the universe.

For on the third day, God the Father would raise Jesus from the dead. And from there, on the day of ascension, he would lift him up into heaven, and seat him on the throne of the universe, giving him a “name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” [Philippians 2:9-11] And so Jesus, now bodily raised from the dead, reigns in heaven as king.

And yet still, the fruit of his death does not end even there. For Christ promised that he would one day return to this earth, and he would make all things new. He would raise his people from the dead, and he would give them new bodies, and he would make a new heaven and a new earth and there he will dwell with his people, “and God himself will be with them as their God.” And “he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things” will have “passed away.” [Revelation 21:3-4]

That is the final fruit – that is the final harvest that Jesus promises his people will come from his death.

That truth – that promise that our risen Lord will make all things new for all who have placed their trust in him – that is why we can look at this text and the events of Holy Saturday without distraction, denial, despair, or detachment.

And it’s also why we can look at the echoes of Holy Saturday in our own lives and in this world with the faith of Joseph and Nicodemus. We can look at the trouble around us – at the brute beast of death, at the senseless machine of this fallen world, at the dark power of sin – we can look at them and not despair, because we know that our God reigns, and he will conquer all his enemies.

We may not know how exactly he will do it. We may not know exactly when he will do it. We may not know exactly what lies between this moment now, and that final victory in the future … but we do know that the victory is coming. We know the full fruit of Christ’s death will come to harvest.

And so we can wait. We can hold on in faith. We can trust the Lord, come what may. And we can have confidence not in ourselves, but in the Lord who bought us – in the Lord who gave us life … in the Lord who has made us the fruit of his death.

For he will finish what he started. He will restore what he has purchased. He will glorify the world over which he reigns. And that promise is sure even in the quiet of Holy Saturday. Even in the sin and brokenness that surrounds us right now.

As one author puts it, in our passage this morning, the Apostle John urges us to wait with expectant faith. “Watch with me,” he says, “through this sabbath, this quiet, sad rest.” as Jesus lies in the tomb. “Wait for this, the final day, the seventh day, to pass. God rested on the seventh day. So must Jesus. But [the] whole [Gospel] has been about new creation. Wait for the eighth day.” [Wright, 139]

For on the eighth day, everything will change.

Amen.

This sermon draws on material from:
Augustine. Homilies on the Gospel of John 41-124. Translated by Edmund Hill. Edited by Allan D. Fitzgerald. The Works of Saint Augustine. Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2020.
Calvin, John. Commentary on the Gospel According to John. Vol. 2. Translated by William Pringle. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1847 (2005 Reprint).
Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. PNTC. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991.
Dostoevsky, Fyodor. The Idiot. Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York, NY: Random House, 2001 (Vintage Classics 2003 Edition)
Michaels, Ramsey J. The Gospel of John. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.
Wright, N. T. John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2004.

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