Luke 23:50-56

Two Lord’s Days ago we completed the account of the Lord’s crucifixion, reading to verse 49 of chapter 23. Today we complete that long and immensely important chapter.

Text Comment

All the Gospels report that Joseph took the initiative to bury Jesus after his death on the cross. But apart from the little we learn of him here, we know nothing about this man. We don’t even know where Arimathea was, Joseph’s home town. It is a reminder, of course, that among the Jews of that time there were believing men and women whose faith in the Lord had not been buried under the avalanche of petty rules that increasingly defined and denatured the religious life of the Jews. There was a remnant of the godly. He was a disciple of Jesus as Matthew and John explicitly say. He was such a believer as Simeon and Anna, Zechariah and Elizabeth, or Joseph and Mary, whom we met at the beginning of the Gospel.
That Joseph asked for the body of Jesus bears witness to the fact that the Lord was in fact dead.
We learn in Matthew that Joseph had prepared this tomb for himself. Tombs hewn from rock were expensive so Joseph was a man of means. The fact that the tomb had never been used is obviously something Luke wished us to know. There was something fitting about Jesus being buried in such a tomb, as it had been fitting that he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey colt that had never been ridden.

As you know, a great many people have claimed that this very linen shroud eventually landed in the cathedral in Turin, Italy, and can be seen today!

The day of preparation was Friday. In fact, in the Greek language ever since “Friday” is still called “Preparation.” All work had to be completed by the beginning of the Sabbath, which, for the Jews, was dusk on Friday. I confess this refusal to complete the preparations for the Lord’s burial has always somewhat puzzled me. There is very little to suggest that the law of the Sabbath, as taught in the O.T., would rightly have ever been thought to forbid the burial of a person on the Sabbath. Talk about a work of both necessity and mercy! As Jesus taught us, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. So perhaps their rushing to prepare the Lord’s body for burial, even if the preparation could not be completed, requiring the women to return to the tomb on Sunday morning, was simply to satisfy the prejudices of a Pharisaical understanding of the Sabbath law. But the last phrase of the chapter may well suggest that either they themselves thought that the law forbade even such work as the preparation of a body for burial or that Luke himself did. In any case, the Jews did not embalm like the Egyptians did. Their Jewish custom was to wrap spices and ointments with the body to mask the smell of decomposition and for this there was not sufficient time before the Sabbath began.
The women plainly were not anticipating a resurrection! [Bock, ii, 1877] This is very obviously an eyewitness touch, this account of the women who had been unable to complete the Lord’s burial and so had to wait until Sunday morning.

In works of narrative literature, in plays and now also in films, especially in which complications in the plot lead to a final climax, either happy or sad, there usually follows what is called “the denouement.”  This French term, which literally means “untying” refers to that part of the story, following the climax, in which the knots of the plot are untied and all is resolved in the final outcome.  It is often brief, sometimes a chapter, sometimes a few paragraphs, sometimes a single sentence that finishes the story and lets us know what will become of the hero or heroine.  The denouement is the letting out of one’s breath after the crisis has been passed.

Well, in the narrative of the Lord’s passion, of his suffering for our sin, the climax is unmistakably the cross, his crucifixion itself.  That is what everything that happened over the previous three years was building up to.  And that is why, as we read in the Gospel of John [19:30], one of the Lord’s last utterances on the cross was “It is finished.”  But the story of the passion does not actually end there — there is one final chapter, quite short, the denouement, which is the account of the Lord’s burial.

There is no doubt that the burial of the Lord is something of an anticlimax, a let-down after the earth-shaking and breath-taking events of those fateful six hours while the Lord hung on the cross. But it is an absolutely essential part of the story and the resolution of the crisis through which the Lord passed on the cross.

The Lord’s burial was not an incidental matter and the Christian Church long ago realized that.  In The Apostles’ Creed we confess that we believe “in Jesus Christ who was crucified, dead, and buried.” And that article of the creed is based on the teaching of the NT itself.  In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, Paul wrote the church in Corinth: “what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised again on the third day, and so on…”  Paul in Romans 6 treats it as a matter of great importance that Jesus Christ was buried for us and that when he was buried we were buried in him and with him.

So the burial of the Lord, following his death on the cross, is no mere historical detail.  It is taught in the Scripture and has been confessed through the ages by the church that the Lord’s burial was an important part of what the Savior did for our salvation.

Do you know how this is so?  Think with me this morning about this event, the denouement of the narrative of the Lord’s passion, so carefully reported in all four Gospels. I want to consider with you this morning why Jesus had to be buried.

  1. First, Christ’s burial was significant because it was the culmination and completion of his humiliation and his suffering and his death for our sins.

Now, we might have thought otherwise.  After all, he had already on the cross, just before giving up his spirit, said “It is finished!”  He meant, of course, that the work he had come into the world to do had now been completed.  And we read that at his death, while he still hung on the cross, the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Obviously that event signified the completion of something!

But these facts notwithstanding, the full work of suffering for sin was not finished; the last dregs of the cup of divine wrath had still to be drunk.  His burial belongs to his suffering and death; it is not the climax but it is the conclusion. That is easy to demonstrate.

In the first place his burial was the full and final demonstration of the fact of his death. When people die they are buried. We’ve all heard of cases where someone was thought to have died only to have it discovered later that he was really still alive. President Harry Truman’s favorite joke, I have read, was about a man who had a heart attack, was pronounced dead and taken directly to the mortuary. He woke up the next morning, sat up in the casket, and said to himself, “If I’m alive, why am I sitting here in a casket in a mortuary, and if I am dead, why do I have to go to the bathroom?” (Being president doesn’t necessarily mean you have a great sense of humor.) But we hear of such cases only because they are so unusual and rare, though people are dying every day, some seven thousand a day in the United States. In fact, it almost never happens that a person thought to be dead was in fact still alive. I spent my three seminary years working in a mortuary and I can tell you with some confidence that anyone who had been around dead bodies knows very well how utterly unlike living bodies they are, even a short time after death. The color disappears from the skin, the heat from the body; all the tone which life imparted to the muscles disappears, breathing ceases and all movement with it. The eyes go blank, the jaw slack. And in Jesus’ case, John tells us that the soldiers, just to be absolutely sure that he was dead thrust a spear through his side, causing a sudden flow of blood and water.  Then he was taken from the cross a dead body, carried some distance to a tomb, wrapped tightly for burial and laid to rest in the grave.  All of this was the public demonstration and the evidence of the Lord’s death.  We should see it as part of that complex of events which taken together constitute the Savior’s death for us: the beatings, the mockery, the crucifixion itself, and the tomb. Tombs exist for the dead and Jesus was dead.

In the section of the Heidelberg Catechism devoted to the articles of The Apostles’ Creed, we find the question (41): “Why was he ‘buried’?” And the answer, one of the shortest if not the shortest in the catechism, is: “His burial testifies that he really died.”

In the second place his burial belongs with his death because only when followed by burial was his death an authentic human experience of death. He came to die in our place, to die for us. And so he had to die like us, to die as we die. Real death, the human experience of death involves not only the passage of the spirit from the body but the finality of the separation of the spirit from the body, the shame of a body without life, without beauty, without strength.  Real death, that is, involves the grave. Abraham Kuyper put this point bluntly:  “Christ would not be a complete savior for us if he had not descended into the grave.”  [In Berkouwer, Work of Christ, p. 169]

In the third place the Lord’s burial was part of his death, indeed the culmination of his death because it was the most dramatic evidence of his failure. At least so it appeared to men. Oh yes, they loved him; those who buried Jesus. They loved him very much and were heartbroken at his death.  But did they know him? No. They were not burying the Messiah, the Savior of the World.  They were burying a prophet perhaps, a very great and good man who had brought them nearer to God. But despite all that they had seen him do and all that they had heard him say, his death left him in their minds only a man among men. To them his death was the sad end, the inglorious conclusion to what had been such a promising life. He was still a young man. What might he have accomplished had he lived another thirty or forty years? But the end was now written — Finis — as it must eventually be for every human being.

And that was his friends; what of his enemies? There were a good number of men in Jerusalem that night who breathed a sigh of relief because they thought they had finally eliminated this thorn in their side. They went home to enjoy a feast with their families on that Passover Sabbath. There were a good number of men who felt lighter that night than they had in weeks or months. Who felt a great weight lifted off their shoulders; who felt that life had returned to normal.

Never had Christ’s true identity been hidden as it was hidden when his lifeless body was laid in that tomb by a few of his friends. Never had the difference between the majesty of God the Son and the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth been so dramatically revealed as when his cold, perhaps now stiffening body was laid in that tomb.

The simple fact is that had his followers understood, had they with faith recollected the Lord’s promise to rise again on the third day, had they any real grasp of who Jesus was and what he had been doing on the cross, they either would not have buried him at all or would have buried him very differently [Schilder, Christ Crucified, 556.]  The arrangements for his burial — and later to complete his proper burial — all indicate that no one was expecting his resurrection.

See the Lord now:  dead, a failure, his program wrecked and come to nothing, his enemies triumphant. Think back to the Sunday before — his triumphal entry into the city to the hosannas of the great crowd. Think back a year before to the Mount of Transfiguration and the divine glory that radiated from him then. Could there be a more complete reversal of fortune?  His body now lying stiff and cold in a borrowed tomb; his disciples scattered in fear; his closest women friends making hurried preparations to complete his burial after the Sabbath; no crowds to cheer, no followers to hang on his every word. This, then, is the end of the ministry of Jesus Christ. In all of these ways, the Lord’s burial was the completion and the perfection of his death.

And this was the last part of the price of our salvation, brothers and sisters, the complete experience of human death, the disintegration of his reputation, and the apparent triumph of his enemies. The tomb was the lowest rung of the ladder of humiliation that he had to climb to its bottom that we might rise with him to the heights of heavenly glory! That garden tomb held our Savior and in darkness and silence put the finishing touches on his sacrifice for our salvation. But even that is not the whole story of the burial of Jesus Christ.

  1. We should see the Lord’s burial not only as the culmination of his death and humiliation but also as the bridge to his exaltation, the preparation for his victory over sin and death.

There are also various indications of this.

First, of course, is the amazing fact, long before prophesied, indeed seven hundred years before by Isaiah, that though the Lord died the death of a common criminal, he was buried in a rich man’s tomb.  John tells us that it was located in a garden and we read here that it had never been used. The Lord’s was the first body ever laid in that tomb. John also tells us that Nicodemus, who assisted Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus, supplied 75 pounds of fragrant spices, myrrh and aloes, for the perfuming of the body — a very large amount, and such as would ordinarily be reserved for the burial of kings.

The heavenly Father saw to it, that though to men a failure, Jesus was nevertheless buried in a way poor failures are not.  The Father was laying claim to his Son’s prerogatives as the King of Kings even before anyone else recognized that he was.

Second, take note of Joseph, the member of the Sanhedrin, as was Nicodemus who helped him, as John tells us.  Nicodemus, remember, was the man who had come to Jesus by night and had with him that immortal conversation about the new birth that we read in John 3 and who, later, as we read in John 7:50-51 had sought to defend the Lord, even if somewhat timidly, before the council.

Now, at this darkest moment when the danger of doing so was greatest, both of these men reveal their true colors and come out into the open about their loyalty to Jesus. What a time to declare their loyalty, when the twelve had fled and the Lord seemed completely to have failed in his mission! What an exquisitely beautiful demonstration of the Lord’s power over the hearts of men, of the truth of what he had promised that his sheep would hear his voice and follow him, and of his capacity to make heroes of cowards and men of sight and sense into men of faith.

I love these two men; these lions. They are the two men who figure most magnificently in the narrative of the Lord’s death even as discouraged and depressed as they must have been. Church history is full of their followers by the way: men, who had much to lose, who nevertheless publicly displayed their loyalty to the Lord when it was most dangerous to do so.  I think of the lone nobleman who stuck out his hand to shake the hand of John Huss as he was being led from the courtroom to his execution, a courtroom crowded with the most powerful men of Europe. Or remember Lord Burleigh, who when the Scottish Council had voted that Samuel Rutherford, already on his deathbed, would not be allowed to die in his College rooms in St. Andrews, alone among his peers stood up to say “You have voted that honest man out of his college, but you cannot vote him out of heaven.” Such men were Joseph and Nicodemus. The Lord had not failed to win their hearts and even his death had not destroyed their loyalty to him. These two men are the leading edge of a great host of men and women the Lord Jesus would captivate and who would prove loyal to him through thick and thin. I hope we are all in that number.

Third, we learn elsewhere, as had also long before been prophesied in Psalm 16, that the Lord’s body did not suffer decomposition as would have been the case with any other human remains. Unbeknownst to Joseph or Nicodemus or the women, and no thanks to the 75 pounds of aromatic spices that the Lord had already been buried with, that tomb did not even begin to become the place of stench and putrefaction that it would certainly have become ordinarily. Had Jesus been still dead on Sunday morning, the women might well have expected to encounter the sickeningly sweet smell of a decomposing body, amidst the smell of the spices already packed around him to mask the smell of decomposition. His body was being kept by the power of God for the resurrection on the third day.

Now all of this we can mention without so much as imagining what it must have been like when the soul of Jesus Christ, the man, accompanied by the soul of that believing thief, arrived that Friday afternoon in the courts of heaven. We read earlier in this same chapter, “Today,” he told the believing thief, “you will be with me in Paradise.”  That was the Lord’s human nature’s first appearance in heaven! God the Son was a familiar figure there, to be sure, but the incarnate Son had never been there. The human nature of Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary; he had lived his life, those thirty plus years, in Palestine, and Jesus the man died on the cross of Calvary and was buried in the tomb. The man Jesus, in his soul, was a newcomer to heaven that day!  How do you suppose the Jesus of Nazareth was greeted there that afternoon? We hardly know how even to imagine such things! Taking place in the realm of the spirit; we have to imagine a world like ours. The city beautifully decked out for the celebration, great laughing, weeping crowds lining the streets, tickertape falling from the sky, a proud Father waiting to greet his Son as the procession reaches the palace steps and the limo door, its convertible top down, is opened; such is the best we can do. What must heaven have been like then — with its prince in human nature back in triumph, at least for those few hours before he would return to earth to take up his body once again Easter morning? Try in your mind’s eye to see the company of just men made perfect, the angels, all basking in the divine glory, and now the Son returned to his Father’s throne! So, while the culmination and nadir of his death, the Lord’s burial was also the anticipation of wonderful things to come.

Now, then: many of us, indeed all of us in differing degrees are afraid of death.  No matter how much as Christians we may believe that Christ has conquered death and removed its sting for all who trust in him; no matter how firmly we may believe in the prospect of heaven after death, death still casts a gloom and provokes fear. We love our bodies. The thought of their losing life is hard for us. Proof of that is that although death is the one certainty of our lives, we shrink from thinking about it. 

We can be like those 19th century Muslims who, though strict fatalists in their theology, when Medina was struck by the plague they all fled the city for the comparative safety of the desert. Though they confessed that the plague was a messenger sent from heaven to call them to a better world, they excused their flight on the grounds that being conscious of their unworthiness; they did not feel that they had merited this special mark of divine favor! We too can fear death, in spite of our theology and our faith in Christ. How different, how much better and more powerful, would our lives be were we to carry about with us a living sense of the Lord’s victory over death, of his having left it impotent, toothless and transformed it into one short, dark passage to eternal light.

Here the Lord’s burial will help us, and not just when we come to die, but to live our lives today basking in the triumph of our Savior victory over death. Some of you young people are thinking, “This doesn’t really apply to me; I have so many year left.” You don’t know that, of course, but look around the room. There are some people here this morning who wonder if it will be this year. They are old enough to know that they can’t have too many years left. But whether young or old we should live our lives happier than we do, basking in the triumph of our Savior’s victory. One of these days we are going to be carried in to a cemetery, you and I. Some day; for some of us much sooner than later, and for all of us much sooner than anyone thinks, you and I will be carried into a cemetery. I very much hope you will be carried into a cemetery and will not be cremated — a pagan practice that is finding for the first time in the history of Christendom some measure of acceptance by Christian believers — and with your body in a casket, words will be spoken over you, your loved ones, weeping, will be comforted in their loss, and your body will be lowered into the cold ground and covered with dirt and then with sod. Gradually the circle of folk will scatter to get on with their lives and you will lie in pitch darkness in your solitary grave, or perhaps below or above your spouse, who was lowered into that same grave before you. Your soul will be awake and alive in Paradise, but your body will lie in the grave.

Your death will be sealed with burial just as the Savior’s was. No one will mistake the fact that your life has ended. A hard thought. But then, not so hard for those who know that we were buried with Christ so that we might be raised with him, and that his having been buried as we must be, was so that we would know that he would raise us up on the great day just as he was raised.

My prayer for all of us is that we might come to have more and more of that deep, strong, pure piety which comes from the careful recollection of and meditation upon the mighty work, from Bethlehem to the tomb, that Jesus Christ performed for our salvation — great joy, great faith, great love, great peace, and great hope belong to those upon whose hearts these things are written.

Have you ever walked through an old Christian cemetery and been reminded, as I have on several memorable occasions, how the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ lie at the heart of all we believe, all we are, and all we will be as Christians. The gravestones used to say what Christians should still say, first themselves and then to one another. The gravestones say what our hearts should never forget.

            Corruption, earth and worms
            Shall but refine this flesh
            Till my triumphant spirit comes
            To put it on afresh!                             Or,

            God my redeemer lives,
            And often from the skies
            Looks down and watches all my dust
            Till he shall bid it rise.                         Or,

            I shall sleep sound in Jesus
            Fill’d with his likeness rise,
            To live and to adore him,
            To see him with these eyes.
            ‘Tween me and resurrection
            But Paradise doth stand;
            Then — then for glory dwelling
            In Immanuel’s land.                            Or,

            People, if you have any prayers
               Say prayers for me:
            And lay me under a Christian stone
            In that lost land I thought my own,
            To wait till the holy horn is blown,
            And all poor men are free!

Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself!