For the sake of his Gentile readers, Mark, as was his custom in the Gospel, explains the Jewish idiom of Preparation Day. It was also the Jewish custom, based on Deut. 21:23, to grant even to criminals a decent burial and to bury them before evening and all the more the evening of the Sabbath. They were not always able to do that because it was the policy of the Romans, as a warning to others, to leave corpses on their crosses until their bodies began to decay. But Pilate didn’t care in this case, or perhaps, knowing as he did that Jesus had not deserved to die and still annoyed at the Jews who had forced his hand, perhaps took some pleasure in granting Joseph’s request knowing that the Sanhedrin would probably be unhappy to learn that he had allowed Jesus’ body to be so quickly removed from the cross and so decently buried.
Joseph was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin and was a faithful man, a disciple of Jesus, as the phrase “who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God” is intended to indicate. A similar thing is said, if you remember, about the godly Simeon who encountered the Lord Jesus as a baby in the temple in Luke 2. We are reminded here that there were more faithful people among the Jews at that time than we might have imagined reading the Gospels.
The word the NIV translates “body” is a word that particularly refers to a dead body, a corpse.
John tells us that Joseph enjoyed the help of another member of the Sanhedrin in doing all of this, the same Nicodemus who had come to Jesus by night according to John 3 and he supplied some 75 pounds of spices to anoint the Lord’s body for burial.
It was clearly Joseph’s own tomb and that in itself meant that Joseph was a man of means. It took a lot of money to cut a tomb out of the rock. Nearly a thousand such tombs have been discovered in and around Jerusalem. [Edwards, 490]
That is, they knew where the Lord had been buried. That is an important detail, of course, because of what would happen next.
Theologians speak of the work of Jesus Christ as being performed in two states or conditions: the state of humiliation and the state of exaltation. The state of humiliation consists of the Son of God taking to himself a human nature, his entering the world as a man, having been conceived in the womb of his virgin mother, his living in the world subject to all the miseries of life, his rejection by men, his suffering, and his death on the cross. In other words, the state of humiliation is all the Son of God endured for our salvation. His state of exaltation then begins with his resurrection from the dead, his ascension to the Right Hand of God, his session, that is his sitting at the Right Hand of God the Father ruling over all things for the church, his coming again, and his judging of the world. In other words, the state of exaltation is all he does as our Savior after his suffering has been concluded.
But what of his burial after his death? What of this link between his death and his resurrection? What is that? What does this mean? Why was he buried and why did he remain dead for a time? Why did he not rise immediately from the cross at the moment of his death? This is not an incidental feature of the history of our redemption. We actually just confessed Christ’s burial, if you remember, as we sang the Nicene Creed. We said that Jesus “suffered and was buried.” And that statement in the creed is based upon the explicit teaching of the Bible. In 1 Cor. 15:3-4, Paul reminding the Corinthian Christians of those things that are of first importance, mentions 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 with him because what he was doing he was doing in our stead.
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.
There can be no doubt that the Lord’s burial belongs with his humiliation and is the final stage, the final chapter, however brief, of that humiliation. There is a sense, of course, in which his great work of redemption was finished on the cross. We read, in fact, in the Gospel of John, that Jesus himself cried out “It is finished!” just before he died. He meant that the work he had come in the world to do, the work his Father had given him to perform was now complete. The ransom had been paid. The veil of the temple was torn in two; the way back to God and so to heaven for sinners had been opened.
But all of this notwithstanding, when Christ Jesus lay dead on the cross the full work of his suffering for sin, his redeeming work, was not entirely completed; the last dregs of the cup of divine wrath had not been drunk. He had yet to be buried.
Burial was necessary because that is the way of death for us and to conquer death he had to suffer death in our place as we suffer it and vanquish the very death that we must die. The law demanded death for sin and that death is such a death as ends in the grave. Burial is the fullness of death for us and so it had to be for him as well. As a great preacher put it, “The grave is an amen which the human being knows he must utter when death comes.” [Schilder, iii, 554] Burial is the finality of death and, as we all know who have stood beside graves as loved ones have been lowered into the ground: there, supremely there, life is not only finished, but it disappears from view. We walk away, the separation complete. Our father or mother, sister or brother, our son or daughter, our friend is gone to be seen no more. Burial is the proof, the demonstration of death. As the Heidelberg Catechism puts it in one of its shortest questions and answers (41):
Why was he “buried”? His burial testifies that he really died.
It is because burial expresses the nature and finality of our death so profoundly that Abraham Kuyper could say: “Christ would not be a complete savior for us if he had not descended into the grave.” [In Berkouwer, Work of Christ, p. 169]
And, in one other respect, the Lord’s burial was the capstone of his humiliation. His burial was in an important way the most dramatic evidence possible of his failure in the eyes of men. Never had Christ’s true glory as the Son of God and the Savior of the world been so completely hidden as when his body – now slack-jawed, pale, and cold, absent any sign of vitality whatsoever – was laid in that tomb and the stone rolled against the entrance. Could anyone not see that his ministry was finished, that the great movement that had begun in his powerful preaching and dramatic works of supernatural power had been crushed and come to nothing? The Sanhedrin may have gnashed their teeth that one of their own had done him such a kind service, but his burial at least reminded them that they had had their way with Jesus of Nazareth and he would pose no further problems. He now lay in a tomb: no more crowds to cheer his arrival, no more large congregations to hang on his every word, no more long lines of sick and needy people awaiting his help and leaving him leaping and dancing for joy. Buried as he was, he would soon be forgotten by all but a few of his closest friends. His burial is the whimpering end of the once so promising life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.
Even his own disciples could not surmount the brute fact of his burial. They knew he was dead; they did not expect his resurrection. They may very well have continued to wait for the kingdom of God but they did not now think that that kingdom had come in Jesus of Nazareth. “We hoped he was the one who would redeem Israel,” one of his disciples would later say, but laying him in the tomb that afternoon or hearing that he had been so buried, none of them thought so any longer. They were not burying Jesus as part of the history of redemption; they were burying him as a part of everyday events. It was just one more instance of the sadness and disappointment of the death of a loved one such as all human beings experience from time to time. We learn in the other Gospels that some of the women made plans to return on Sunday morning to complete his embalming. Perhaps the true Christ had never been so completely hidden from friend and foe alike as when his sad and faithful friends left him in that tomb that Friday afternoon to return in sadness to their homes. Such is the finality of burial; such is the finality of death as it is expressed in burial. His burial was the end of the hope that had been placed in Jesus of Nazareth and this, therefore, was the last thing he had to do to purchase for us freedom from sin and death. This was the final poverty he endured that we might become rich.
But just as surely as the Lord’s burial was the last stage, step or chapter of his humiliation, so it was a bridge to, even the first step of his glorification and his exaltation. There are clear indications of this as well. As Isaiah had long before prophesied, the Lord died the death of a common criminal; he was numbered with the transgressors. But he was most definitely not buried as a common criminal! He was not thrown into a common grave, a pauper’s grave as most criminals would have been. He was buried instead in a rich man’s tomb; indeed, as we learn in John’s Gospel, he was buried in a new tomb, one that had never been used. He was not, as would ordinarily have been the case even for the wealthy, placed in a tomb among a number of other dead bodies or the skeletons of those long since been buried, or skeletons broken up so as to be placed in ossuaries or bone boxes to make room for more burials in that same tomb. He lay by himself in a brand new tomb like a king. As Isaiah long before had predicted, “he was assigned a grave with the rich in his death.”
And then consider Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph was a disciple of Jesus. We would have known that even had John not told us that he had been a secret disciple for some time; secret for fear of the Jews. But what a lion of a man he had become in the moment of crisis! What a time to come out into the open with his loyalty to Jesus. The Sanhedrin, of which Joseph was a member, had condemned Jesus as a blasphemer. What would they do to Joseph for this act of reverence for their enemy? What is more, it was hard to know what Pilate would think of the man making such a request as Joseph made. He might not think too kindly of a Jew who wanted to pay respects to a man who had been executed as a revolutionary, a subversive. And yet we read that Joseph went boldly to Pilate. He threw caution to the wind and did what he knew was right.
Many of the other disciples had fled for their lives, but Joseph stood up and was counted a follower of Jesus at the most inopportune of all conceivable moments to do so. He may have thought him only a great prophet, murdered like other of God’s prophets had been, he may not have had any inkling of the coming resurrection, but he stood by God’s man in the hour of crisis and placed his reputation and his life in jeopardy in order to do so.
And he placed him in his family tomb, perhaps just recently purchased or cut out of the rock. According to the Mishnah those who died ignominious deaths were not to be buried in family tombs. [Edwards, 489] But if that were a regulation in Joseph’s time, he bravely ignored it and placed Jesus in that new tomb that was to become the place of the triumph of life over death. What a lion of a man Jesus had made of Joseph of Arimathea! What rule Jesus was exercising still, though dead, over the hearts of men. What greatness of human life resulted from following Jesus Christ. These men may have been inexcusably ignorant as they lay him in the grave, but he had already planted the seeds not only of living faith but of a triumphant godliness in their hearts. Even in death he was exercising his sovereign power over the hearts of men. Badly misunderstood as he was, even by his friends, all now lies ready for the dawning of a new day. However unrecognized by the Lord’s disciples at the time, the circumstances of the Lord’s burial held promise of men and women who would turn the world upside down. They would ignore any and all conventions to advance the kingdom of Jesus Christ. All of that is indication that while the Lord’s burial was the last chapter of his humiliation, it was as well the harbinger of his exaltation. It is both the finality of death and the beginning of a new life for the world!
And so there is something else here I want to consider with you this morning. Something to be observed of our Lord’s burial and of the faithful discipleship of those who buried him. One more thing that made his grave, his death, the beginning of his triumph. Mark, remember, has been interested in both subjects from the beginning of his Gospel: how Jesus would bring in the kingdom of God and what it would mean for men to follow him.
I want to draw your attention to the fact that Joseph of Arimathea, here clearly set before us as a model disciple, buried Jesus. You have heard me on this before, but as the culture moves still more rapidly away from Christian practice it is imperative that at least the followers of Jesus Christ understand their faith and make their decisions accordingly, especially their public and most public decisions. And a very great many Christians are not doing so in one supremely important respect. I do not blame them for this; I blame the Christian ministry which has not made an issue of this, has not spoken clearly or emphatically, largely, alas, I think out of ignorance. At a key moment and with respect to a key index of the abandonment of a Christian base in our culture the Christian ministry has remained largely silent. I am determined not to share in that silence and I am determined that you shall be thoroughly discipled in respect to this part of our theology and ethics as the followers of Jesus Christ.
There is an important detail in the translation of v. 46. The NIV, very unfortunately, hides, obscures, virtually denies the detail in its translation. Twice in the verse Mark refers to the Lord’s body with a masculine pronoun, even though both of the nouns which are the antecedents of that pronoun are neuter in gender. That makes the choice of pronoun intentional on Mark’s part. The Greek word soma, which means body, and the Greek word ptoma, which means corpse, are both neuters and ordinarily the pronouns that refer back to those nouns would be found therefore in the neuter gender, as pronouns ordinarily agree with their antecedents in gender and number. But Mark refers to the Lord’s body explicitly not as an “it” as we have it in the NIV, but as “him.” The ESV, which I know a number of you are reading, is much better, accurately rendering the masculine pronouns. The ESV reads:
“Joseph bought a linen shroud and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb…”
There is a world of theology, of meaning, and of obligation in that masculine pronoun him. They laid him in the tomb. They did not lay a body that used to be a person in the tomb. They laid the person himself in the tomb. All of these disciples, however confused they may have been at that moment as to the true identity of Jesus Christ and however unexpecting they may have been of the events to come, all understood that the dead would rise at the last day. Remember Mary, Lazarus’ sister, making that confession to Jesus at her brother’s grave. They knew that death in this world was not the end of human existence. They knew that the righteous would rise to live forever. Every believer knew that. And Joseph of Arimathea knew that when he buried Jesus.
He buried the Lord in the full expectation that he would rise and live again. Not on the following Sunday and not as the Lord of life and salvation, but as any other believer in God would rise and live again. And in that understanding of death and burial Mark properly and in keeping with the witness of the entire Bible refers to the dead and buried Jesus with personal pronouns. He took him, he wrapped him in the linen shroud, and laid him in a tomb.
The personhood of the dead body is fundamental to the Bible’s entire doctrine of salvation as the deliverance, the redemption of the entire human person, body and soul together, from sin and death. The body is laid in the grave as the human person, in the full and certain hope of the resurrection of that self-same body to eternal life at the last day. That Christ’s resurrection is the first fruits of the resurrection of all the believing dead is everywhere taught to be its meaning in the New Testament. Jesus rose from the dead and we shall as he did because we were in him when he was buried and rose again. But the conviction of this, the power and force of this truth, is fading in the church because it is almost entirely eclipsed in the culture. We have become so much a people of the world, of the present, that the future, especially the distant future, the ultimate future, bears down on us scarcely at all. And so, in American culture today, the dead body, the corpse has become an it, it is not longer a him or a her, a he or a she.
The simple proof of this is the rapidly growing popularity of cremation as an acceptable method of disposing of a human body after death. As of 2005 at least ten states reported that more than 50% of dead human bodies had been cremated. The State of Washington was third, with 64% percent of deaths followed by cremation. What is revealing is that cremation is most popular nationwide in those parts of our country where the Christian church is weakest. Most Christians apparently have received so little teaching on this subject that they remain unaware that this turn in the treatment of the dead body represents an absolutely unparalleled return to paganism and a rejection of biblical practice that is unprecedented in the entire history of the believing church in the world. God’s people have never cremated their dead until this very moment in human history! But they are doing so today; even in our Presbyterian Church in America!
We got a Christmas letter from some friends of ours in Great Britain who were describing the death of an elderly family member and the celebration of her life that the family enjoyed after they had returned from the crematorium. So matter-of-fact. So normal! A Christian family gathering after the service at the crematorium. No one realizes that no one, no one would have said such a thing in Israel in biblical times – no matter that Israel was surrounded by peoples that practiced cremation – no matter that no one would have said such a thing in the long history of the Christian faith in the Gentile world until this very moment of ours. It was part of the practice of the Christian faith to bury or entomb her dead precisely because they were and remained persons. You don’t burn up a person. You may burn up an it; you may not burn up and destroy by fire a him or her. Can you imagine saying of scattered ashes what the Bible says of the dead: they rest in their graves until the resurrection; they sleep awaiting the last trumpet? Ashes don’t rest; they don’t sleep; bodies do; persons do.
And what are the arguments for cremation we hear nowadays. Some, of course, are the nakedly materialistic arguments we expect of our culture. It’s cheaper. It doesn’t burden the living with the expense. Woody Allen was absolutely right to say that “To be an American is to take God and carpet with equal seriousness.” When burial can cost a fraction of a cheap new car, to consider saving money by avoiding the burial of a human being is a grotesquely naked instance of a rampant materialism. By all means let the world save its money; but not the Christian church! Let the world burn up their dead; but not the followers of Christ who will soon rise to welcome the returning king.
The other arguments you hear for cremation are of an environmental sort: no longer enough room for cemeteries, it takes too much water to keep the grass green, gasoline to keep the cemetery mowed, and so on. To put such considerations – at once ridiculous and profoundly untrue – ahead of the meaning and sanctity of human life is to cease altogether to think as a Christian. Have we reached the place where golf courses mean more to us than human beings and the second coming of Jesus Christ? But there is more. Many now, even in our supposedly secular land, are arguing for cremation in a way that mimics the great religions that practice cremation as an article of faith. If in Hinduism the body is burned so as to return the soul to the world of the spirit, in modern America, for as little as $4,500 one can have the ashes of your loved one placed beside a tree; a tree with room for as many as fifteen family members. As the urn decomposes, the body becomes one with the tree, one with nature. The concept of a family tree takes on a whole new meaning! Earth has become our mother instead of the church of God.
It is very interesting and worrying to me that the arguments for cremation are so similar to the arguments for abortion. The attack on the personhood of human beings has been made first as we might have expected at the extremes of human life: the pre-born and the dead. Only from there does it move toward the center: next the handicapped child and the elderly who are sick and infirm, and onward it moves. But it began with abortion and cremation, and those two practices very much belong together in logic and in fact. They are a denial of the personhood of a human being.
It is, of course, inconceivable that Jesus Christ might have been cremated. And that is not because God could not have restored his body for the resurrection. The Christian burial of the dead has never had anything to do with the notion that the body needs to be preserved in order for it to rise on the last day. Decomposition occurs. When the sea gives up its dead at the return of Christ bodies will be raised that long ago ceased to exist. The martyrs who were burned at the stake and their ashes scattered on a river will have their bodies restored to them as the Scripture says. And that is why you needn’t grieve without hope if loved ones of yours have been cremated. Just don’t do the same thing yourself! Decomposition is not cremation in precisely the same way a miscarriage is not an abortion. We are to practice our faith as Joseph of Arimathea practiced his. We are to affirm by our actions both the personhood of the body and our conviction that that self-same body will live again as did Jesus’ body. When Paul speaks of these things he assumes both that the dead body in the grave is a human being a person himself or herself – he too uses personal pronouns to speak of buried bodies, “they who are in their graves” – and he also assumes that Christians will have buried their dead as they did in apostolic times and ever thereafter until our own lifetime.
Jesus Christ sanctified the grave for us, not the crematorium! He sanctified a reverent procedure in which the person is laid to a rest, a rest from which we know he or she will soon awake. No one can confess and embody that faith by cremating a human body, a human being!
Here are ethics that arise directly from our text and from this sacred history of our redemption. Some day, for some of us much sooner than later, and for all of us sooner than we think, you and I will be carried into a cemetery. Words will be spoken over us, our loved ones comforted in their loss, and our bodies, encased in a casket, will be lowered into the cold ground and covered with darkness. Gradually the circle of folk will scatter to get on with their lives and we will be left behind in our solitary grave.
Our death will be sealed with burial just as our Savior’s was. No one will mistake the fact that the end has overtaken us. That is a hard thought. Our culture is loath to think of it. I am sure that unwillingness has a great deal to do with its preference for cremation: out of sight, out of mind. There is a woman who exercises at my gym whose vanity license plate reads “FOREVR29.” But, of course, it is a pipedream. 29 is a distant memory for her. She is much nearer to the end of her life than to its beginning. But Christians will be buried when they die precisely because it is the key confession of their lives that their existence will not end with their death, that they will rest in their graves until the resurrection, and that then they shall live again and live as they have never lived before. Because of Christ’s conquest of death, burial for us as well is both the image of the finality of death and a rest from which we will soon awake!
G.K. Chesterton mocked the practice of cremation in a so-called Christian country, a practice that was getting up a head of steam even in his day, by reminding us that in the great Eastern religions at least they practiced cremation with a flair; they practiced cremation because they believed in it. At least it meant something; it was part of their theology. It may not be something that a Christian believes, but they believed it and practiced accordingly. So Chesterton mocked Christians using this practice that belonged to other people’s faith:
If I were a heathen, I’d build my pyre on high
And in a great red whirlwind go roaring to the sky.
But Higgins is a heathen and a richer man than I,
And they put him in an oven just as if he were a pie.
If the dead body were an it, you could by all means burn it up to save money. But it is not an it; it is a he or she. You cannot burn up God’s people! Much better is another Chesterton verse.
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.