We return this morning to our interrupted series of sermons on the Gospel of Matthew. And we have come to a text that is rarely preached. It may be read in the course of reading the account of the crucifixion of the Lord, but it is rarely preached, by which I mean, rarely proclaimed. It is rarely set before God’s people for their faith and their obedience. But it is a text to be preached, and, I realized as I considered the occasion, a text as good for a New Year’s Day sermon as any other that might be chosen. Hence back to Matthew to pick up where we left off.
v.57 “As evening approached…” that is, the body needed to be buried before sundown as required in Deut. 21:22-23 and before the beginning of the Sabbath as Jewish Sabbath regulations required. We learn from other Gospels that this Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin who had opposed the plot against Jesus and was, in fact, a secret disciple. This act on his part was a coming out into the open. While the Lord’s crucifixion sent most of his disciples into hiding, it had the opposite effect on Joseph. He not only identified himself as a follower of Jesus, but went cap in hand to Pilate, certainly unsure of the reception that he would receive. He would have had to be a man of means to own an unused tomb so near to the capital. John tells us that Joseph was accompanied by Nicodemus, another of the Lord’s disciples among the members of the Sanhedrin.
v.58 This, in itself, is noteworthy – that Pilate gave the body to Joseph for burial. The Romans did not normally bury crucified bodies, but simply threw it out on the ground. Jewish piety forbade this, but it was the Romans who were in charge. But even the Jews buried executed criminals in a common grave, without honor, and forbade their being buried in family tombs. It is not clear that Joseph’s tomb could have been used for anyone else had it been used to bury a criminal and so this was an act of real generosity and sacrifice on Joseph’s part.
v.59 It seems to have been Joseph of Arimathea who took the Lord’s body down from the cross.
v.60 The description of this tomb – which would have had niches cut into the sides of the chamber or chambers upon which to rest the bodies – agrees with the appearance of tombs from the period that can still be seen today in and around Jerusalem.
Matthew emphasizes the care and reverence taken for the Lord’s body. John adds that a large amount of expensive spices was also provided.
v.61 These women were mentioned in v. 56 as among those at the cross.
In works of literature, especially novels, in which complications in the plot lead to a final climax, either happy or catastrophic, there usually follows what is called the denouement. This French term, which literally means “the untying” or “the unraveling,” 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 has or 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 was pointing toward and building up to during the previous three years and, all the more, in the Gospel narrative of the Passion Week. 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 end there — there is one brief final chapter, the denouement, which is the account of the Lord’s burial. There is, of course, another fabulous turn of the plot still to come – the Lord’s resurrection – but of the account of his crucifixion, the burial is its denouement.
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 hours before and while the Lord hung on the cross. The sound and fury of the religious leadership, the crowds, Pilate and the Roman soldiery, the Lord’s suffering, the darkness, the earthquake, the tearing of the temple curtain, all now is past and we end in the peace and quiet of a tomb. But that quiet ending is an absolutely essential part of the story of our Savior’s death and serves as both the historical and theological 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 and later in the Nicene Creed we confess that we believe “in Jesus Christ who was crucified, dead, and buried.” And that 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.
But 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. What is the significance of the Lord’s burial?
- First, Christ’s burial was significant because it was the culmination and completion of his humiliation and his suffering for our sins.
Now, we might have thought otherwise. After all, he had already on the cross and just before giving up his spirit, cried out, “It is finished!” He meant, of course, that the work he had come into the world to do had now been completed. And we saw last time that when he died, while still on the cross, the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom, signifying that the way to God and to heaven had been opened for sinners.
But these facts notwithstanding, it would not be precisely accurate to say that the full work of suffering for sin was completed on the cross. Surely it had been completed in a general sense, but the last dregs of the cup of divine wrath had still to be drunk. The Lord’s burial belongs to his humiliation, his suffering and his death; it is not the climax but it is the conclusion. Think of the ways in which this is so.
- First, his burial was the full and final demonstration of the reality of his death.
We have all heard of cases of someone who was thought to have died but was subsequently discovered to be still alive. I remember the night my father died. We children were gathered around his hospital bed, anticipating any moment his death, but he breathed on and it grew late and I took my mother home. While I was gone they thought he died, but after a minute or two without a breath, he took one again and then another and he lived until I had returned to the hospital and for some time after that. But we are struck by such cases only because we are unfamiliar with death and because such cases are relatively unusual even though people are dying every day. But any such mistake is soon realized. The dead are soon known to be so.
Fact is, anyone who had been around dead bodies knows very well how utterly unlike a living body is a dead one 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. Some would later allege that Jesus only appeared to have died. The tomb is impressive evidence that it was not so. He was dead, seen to be dead, and buried accordingly.
- But his burial is the culmination of his death in another way. Only when followed by burial was his death the authentic human experience of death that the law of God demanded of him if he were to suffer death in our place.
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. I stood near a grave – that of Mr. Shaw – this past Wednesday. There is a finality at that place, in that moment, that is impossible to deny. Life is done. The body is placed in the ground, out of sight. There is no life remaining in it.
Abraham Kuyper puts the 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]
- And still in a third way the Lord’s burial was the culmination of his death: it was the most dramatic evidence of his failure in the eyes of men.
Oh yes, they loved him; those who buried Jesus. They loved him very much and were heartbroken at his death. But how well did they know him? It is hard to believe that they thought that they were 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 now he was gone, a man among all other mortal men. To them his death was the end, the finish of his life and work in the world, as it is for any man. Wouldn’t you love to talk to those people and ask them what they were thinking about Jesus when they laid him in the tomb. We know what they were not thinking about him, but what were they thinking about him? And that was his friends, his followers; what of his enemies? They were sure that, finally, they had eliminated this thorn in their side. They sighed with relief and satisfaction and went home to their Passover celebrations and the beginning of the Sabbath.
Never had Christ’s true identity been hidden as it was hidden when his lifeless body was laid in that tomb. Never had the difference between the majesty of the Son of God and the body of the man Jesus of Nazareth been as great as it was when the Lord was laid in that grave. The simple fact is that had his followers understood, had they had anything but the smallest and weakest faith, had they had any real grasp of who Jesus was and what he was then doing, they either would not have buried him or would have buried him differently [Schilder, Christ Crucified, 556.] The arrangements for his burial – and later for his embalming – all indicate that no one was expecting his resurrection a few days later. The Gospels make it perfectly clear how much of a surprise that was to everyone. The tomb, the spices were intended for a person who had died and a body that would remain in the grave.
See the Lord now: dead, a failure, his work come to nothing, his enemies with their feet upon his neck. 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 shone from him. Could there be a more complete reversal of fortune? His body now lying stiff and cold in a tomb; his eyes lifeless, his jaw slack, his skin a pallid gray, his disciples scattered in fear, his closest women friends making hurried preparations to embalm him 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.
And this was the last part of the price of our salvation, brothers and sisters, the complete disintegration of the reputation of Jesus Christ and his complete failure in the eyes of men, even in the eyes of those who loved him most. This was the bottom rung of the ladder down into the abject poverty and shame which he had to embrace that we might be made rich! That garden tomb held our Savior and the finishing touches were put on our salvation in that cold, dark grave.
But the role his burial plays in the humiliation of our Savior and the completion of his suffering and death is not the whole story of the burial or its full significance.
- 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 and striking indications of this happier meaning of the Lord’s burial.
- First, of course, is the amazing fact, long before prophesied 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 this tomb 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, such as would usually be reserved for the burial of kings.
God 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 the Resurrection. He was buried in the eyes of many as a criminal, but in his burial testimony was also given to his innocence of any crime and to his royal prerogatives.
- Then, further, take note of Joseph, the member of the Sanhedrin, and Nicodemus who accompanied him, as John tells us.
Nicodemus, remember, was the man who had come to Jesus by night and had 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, both of these men reveal their true colors and come out into the open about their loyalty to Jesus. What a time to reveal that, when the twelve had fled and the Lord seemed to have been overpowered by his enemies.
What an exquisitely beautiful demonstration of the Lord’s power over the hearts of men, 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. What lions even their little and confused faith in Jesus made them! Church history is full of their followers by the way: men who had much to lose who nevertheless publicly displayed their loyalty to those condemned by the rich and powerful. 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 where Huss had been condemned by all the powerful men of Europe; or of Lord Burleigh, who when the Scottish Council had voted that the dying Samuel Rutherford would not be allowed to die in his College rooms in St. Andrews, alone rose among his peers to say “You have voted that honest man out of his college, but you cannot vote him out of heaven.” There is the anticipation of the sway that Jesus would exercise over the hearts of untold multitudes of men and women in these two good and brave men who buried the Lord. There is here an anticipation of the faith, bravery and courage of a vast multitude who would believe in Jesus and love and honor him in defiance of the opposition of the world.
- Still further we learn elsewhere, as had also long before been prophesied, as in David’s prophecy 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 tomb did not even begin to become the place of stench and putrefaction that it would certainly have become. His body was being kept by the power of God for the resurrection on the third day. We don’t learn that here in Matthew, but we learn it elsewhere and it is worth our remembering as we consider the burial of the Lord.
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. That was the Lord’s human nature’s first appearance in heaven! What must heaven have been then – with its prince in human nature back in triumph, for those few hours before returning to earth to take up his body once again Easter morning? We cannot imagine what celebration there must have been: the company of just men made perfect, the angels, now the Son returned to his Father’s throne and, ineffable and indescribable to us, the first heavenly meeting of the Father and the Holy Spirit with the human nature of the Son! The thunderous welcome of untold numbers of voices, the glory of God resplendent, and Christ the Son among all those who loved him and had awaited his return. So, while the culmination and nadir of his death, the Lord’s burial was also the sign 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 holds us to some degree in its thrall. We shrink from it, from the experience of it surely. We don’t think much about it even though, we believe, it is our path to everlasting joy. On a New Year’s Day we are forced to reckon with the passing of our lives, the rapid, relentless on rushing of time. But otherwise we think of it very little.
We are, we are ashamed to admit it, too much like those 19th century Muslims who, though strict fatalists in their theology, when Medina was struck by the plague, 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 merited this special mark of divine favor.
We too fear death and shrink from it, in defiance of our theology and our faith in Christ. We know we should not; we are embarrassed that we do. 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. But here the Lord’s burial will help us, and not just when we come to die, but to live our lives today in the triumph of our Savior; to live daily with the certain expectation of far more wonderful things to come on the other side when death shall have taken us to that place where everyone has everlasting joy upon his head.
Here is a thought for the New Year that arises directly from our text and from this history. 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. 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. 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 he was buried for us just as he died for us and just as he rose for us on the third day.
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 Garden Tomb, that Jesus Christ performed for our salvation – great joy, great faith, great love, and great peace 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 read what our hearts should remember:
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!