237. Burial (Matt. 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42)*
The death of Jesus on the cross was altogether abnormal in a
number of ways —the remarkably short time before death ensued, the loud
cry immediately before the end, the flow first of blood and then of water from
his side. His burial was equally unusual, for it became the personal concern of
two of the leading men in the nation of Israel-Joseph of Arimathea, and
Nicodemus. These present a most interesting study in character.
Joseph was a rich man (Mt.) and "an honourable counsellor" (Mk
), a title which must signify that he was not only a member of the Sanhedrin,
but of ''cabinet" rank he was one of the front bench. He was of Arimathea, very,
probably the birthplace of Samuel —Ramathaim Zophim. Two of the gospels
(Mt. Jn.) describe him as a disciple; the others say that he "waited for the
kingdom of God". John adds that he was a disciple "secretly, for fear of the
Jews". Here is one of the biggest hardships, one of the most taxing demands,
that loyalty to Christ puts upon the would-be disciple facing the shame that
attaches to association with Christ. The pressure exerted by social opinion
against the unorthodox in that day, could be formidable, and Joseph the
honourable counsellor had silted in the face of it—he was a disciple, but
What was it, then, that stiffened his resolution to such an
extent that he now came out into the open and went boldly to Pilate to
ask for the body of Jesus that he might give him decent burial?
Two hints are supplied by the narrative. One, "he looked for
the kingdom of God." This should probably be translated more strongly: "he
expected (as though not far away) the kingdom of God"; and in such a context
this can only mean that he was persuaded that Jesus would be its King. Yet here
was Jesus a lifeless bloody corpse upon which the rigor of death was already
extending its cold embrace. It is a fair inference that something had happened
to convince Joseph that this Jesus, crucified and stark, would nevertheless
receive back the life he had given up. And in the face of this conviction,
social standing and worldly circumstance went for nothing. Thus in his
crucifixion Jesus united together three men, poles apart in their origins and
status, men who were all happy to confess Jesus as Lord, the Lord who would rise
from the dead —and this they did at the climax of his humiliation. It may
well be true that at the time Jesus died on the cross the only men who were
persuaded of his resurrection to eternal life were Joseph and Nicodemus and the
malefactor on the cross I
But this conclusion only pushes a stage further back the
mystery of Joseph's sudden change of outlook. What was it that so convinced him
that Jesus would rise from the dead, that he was now fully prepared to face the
derision, contempt and ostracism of men whose good opinion he had hitherto
Present at the trial?
The answer to this enquiry may lie in the trial of Jesus. One
of the strangest things about the Lord's appearance before the Sanhedrin is that
although he made no attempt whatever to defend himself, and although
prosecution, judge and jury were a unique combination of unscrupulous men bent
on a capital sentence and nothing less, the case against the accused broke down
time after time. For some reason or other the forms of legality had to be
followed, even though all were bitterly hostile to the prisoner at the bar. And
how was it that "their witness agreed not together", being apparently so
hopelesly inadequate that even though these wicked men feverishly sought a
verdict of "Guilty", they dared not use such unsatisfactory grounds for
The explanation of all such difficulties could be the presence
of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, one or both, at the trial. It would need
only the presence of one of these, skilful in the Law of Moses, to make the
enemies of Jesus realize that they could not blatantly turn the Council Chamber
into a Star Chamber. The forms of law would have to be observed. And, further,
when the most outrageous accusations were hurled against Jesus, it would require
only the very occasional interpolation of a word from an expert lawyer such as
Joseph or Nicodemus to demonstrate the contradictory nature or insufficiency of
the evidence. "Joseph had not consented (s.w. Ex.23 :1) to the counsel (s.w.Ps.l
:1,5) and deed of them". And is this why Luke describes him as "a good
man, and a just"? The first epithet would appropriately describe his
honouring the Lord with the best possible burial; the second would apply to his
unavailing stand for justice at Jesus' trial. John's phrase: "after this"
(v.38)-i.e. after v.36,37-suggests that final conviction came by seeing one
scripture after another fulfilled in spite of the efforts of the rulers.
The case of Nicodemus was similar. His name is surely
Greek-'Conqueror of the people'; but if Hebrew it means 'Innocent of blood',
innocent of the blood of Jesus. He appears at the beginning of the ministry as
"the teacher of Israel" (Jn.3 :10RV), i.e. as president of the Sanhedrin,
another "honourable counsellor". He came to Jesus by night because it would be
derogatory to his high office and damaging to his social standing if it were
known that he had come seeking audience of the young prophet of Galilee.
Nevertheless he deferred to the authority of Jesus and suffered himself to be
instructed. He, the teacher of Israel, sat at the feet of an unschooled
More than two years later he raised his voice in the council
in meek protest against the illegal procedure contemplated against Jesus, only
to be silenced by crude and angry colleagues. No longer was he "the teacher of
Israel." Ruthless party politics had been quick to suspect his timid sympathies
with the man of Galilee, and he had been ousted from office. It was now being
openly threatened that any man who acknowledged Jesus as Messiah, be he blind,
beggar or front bench Sanhedrist, would be summarily excommunicated. What a
thing to happen to members of the Council What a sensational piece of news this
would be! How the streets of Jerusalem would hum with excitement about
So, although "among the chief rulers many believed on him,
because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out
of the synagogue. For they loved the glory of men more than the glory of God"
(Jn.12 :42,43). Clearly these words were written with reference to men like
Joseph and Nicodemus, and must be an accurate description of how things stood
with them then, in the last week of the Lord's ministry. It follows, then, that
this drastic change came about in their outlook and response—their
conversion, in short—took place between that time and the evening when
Jesus was buried; even as Jesus had prophesied: "And I, if I be lifted up from
the earth, will draw all ment (all kinds of men) unto me." It was the
crucifixion which convinced both, as it had convinced the malefactor that Jesus
was "the Christ who abideth for ever." (Jn.12 :32,34). As Moses lifted up the
serpent in the wilderness, even so was the Son of man now lifted up, and these
men, believing in him at last, knew that they would not perish, but in him would
have everlasting life.
So here they were, these two-honourable counsellors, truly!
—humbling themselves at the foot of the cross, gladly giving homage to a
dead man whose claims, when living, they had struggled desperately to hold at
arm's length. Both had found their faith when others had lost theirs. Disciples
of a corpse!
One writer has pointed out what a multiplicity of twos were
associated with the death and resurrection of Christ: two malefactors, two
disciples to provide burial, two women watching, two angels at the resurrection,
two disciples run to the tomb to verify the resurrection. Is it because "at the
mouth of two or three witnesses every word shall be established"? or is there
some further meaning?
Pilate grants the body
Coming to a great decision—"he took courage"
—Joseph went in to Pilate to ask for custody of the body. But for this the
Lord's body might have been flung out into Gehenna (Jer.31 ;40). And how glad
the chief priests would have been to have it so. But for Joseph's riches and his
high social position there would have been no access to the governor's presence
Pilate, quite astonished to, learn that Jesus was already dead
within six hours of crucifixon, sought confirmation from the centurion in
charge. When fully satisfied, he promptly granted the body to Joseph. Mark's own
word to describe this transaction means that he gave it as a gift, freely. There
is point in this, for apparently whilst it was not unusual for the bodies of
criminals to be granted to friends or relatives for disposal, it was generally
expected that the procedure be helped through by means of a douceur. And Pilate
was not averse to taking a bribe.
The contrast with his attitude to the chief priests should not
be passed over. When they had complained about the inscription over the cross of
Christ, Pilate had truculently answered: "What I have written, I have written."
Now with Joseph he is willing —nay, almost anxious-to oblige. Such was the
impression made upon him by Jesus.
Thus there came about the fulfilment in remarkably detailed
fashion of yet another Old Testament prophecy: "And he made his grave with the
wicked, and with the rich in his death" (Is.53 :9). The Nazarene, crucified
between two criminals, found interment in the tomb of a rich man, instead of
rotting in Gehenna. The literal translation of these words should begin: "And he
gave (or appointed) his grave . . ." The unspecified subject of this sentence
might be God, in which case the reference is to His inscrutable foreknowledge of
all that was to transpire concerning His Suffering Servant, or-on a lower level
—it might be Pilate, in which case the remarkably detailed accuracy of the
prophecy is impressive; for-read thus-it anticipates that the same man who
appointed that Jesus be crucified between two thieves should later decree his
burial in a rich man's tomb!
As soon as Pilate had given sanction, all was feverish but
reverent haste. Joseph bought a long cerecloth of linen in the shops which were
just preparing to shut for the Passover Sabbath Nicodemus brought also an
immense quantity of myrrh and aloes, almost as much as was used at the interment
of the famous Gamaliel II. No expense was spared. It was the funeral of a king.
These two men must have had servants present (Mk.15 :46; 16 :4) to handle the
body of Jesus, but if they undertook that holy task themselves, there would be
no Passover for them (Num.9 :9,10).
The account of the obsequies of king Asa (2 Chr, 16 : 14) may
perhaps suggest a threefold use for the spices employed: first, they were put on
and between the folds of the linen in which the limbs and then the entire body
was wrapped; also they were used to line the recess in which the body was laid;
and, finally, some would be burned in the tomb to make it sweet and
All this, John says, was "as the manner of the Jews is to
bury." This emphasis was necessary, for the Egyptians, the great masters of the
art of sepulture in ancient days, used to remove the brain and vicera before
embalming the body. John is here preparing the reader for his account of the
resurrection of Jesus, a resurrection that was to be complete, entire, wanting
nothing. And doubtless, too, his symbolic mind saw in these facts much of
significance concerning the mystical body of Christ, which is his
The detailed mention of spices has pointed Old Testament
associations. In Psalm 45 the king who rides in glory and in majesty is one
whose garments "smell of myrrh, and aloes, and cassia." This is almost to be
expected, for he is one who is "anointed with the oil of gladness above his
fellows", and the anointing oil prescribed in the Law had these very
constituents (Ex.30 :23,24). But this anointing oil was for the priests in
tabernacle and temple. Whence it follows that this king is a priest also in his
The tomb was Joseph's own, new and rock-hewn (Ex.33 :22), in
Joseph's garden hard by the place of crucifixion. "Such was our Saviour's
poverty, that as he lived in lended houses, so he was buried in a borrowed
sepulchre, being rather a tenant than owner thereof" (Fuller) If the Gordon tomb
is an incorrect identification (and the argument still rages), the remains of
Joseph himself now rest where Jesus was laid.
The very newness of the tomb was worthy of special comment.
Luke's phrase: "wherein never man before was laid" employs a triple negative. It
was the custom rather than the exception to use ancient tombs over and over
again, just as in many an English churchyard a score or more of generations have
been buried in the same small acre. But there is more in this. It has been
pointed out that here was yet another remarkably accurate fulfilment of Old
Testament prophecy: "Neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption"
(Ps.16 :10). When, on the third day, the Spirit of God breathed life into the
Second Adam and the angel of the Lord rolled away the stone, Jesus did not even
see corruption, for his tomb was new and had never known any earlier contact
with the corruption of death.
Thus, once again, the problem is provoked as to why the
writers of the gospels should seize on some fulfilments of Old Testament
prophecy to bring to the attention of their readers and yet should fail to
emphasize others often more impressive. Isaiah 53 :9 and Psalm 16 :10, just
considered, are interesting examples. It has also been observed that the gospels
present a remarkable parallel between the birth and the death of Jesus. Instead
of Joseph, a just man, and the birth pangs of a virgin womb by the power of the
Holy Spirit, there is another Joseph, a just man, and the pangs of death leading
to deliverance from a virgin tomb by the power of the Holy Spirit.
John hints at the happy coincidence that Joseph's garden tomb
should be so very near to Golgotha. Evidently the beginning of the Sabbath was
almost on them as it was with little margin of time that the self-assigned task
was thankfully completed. There in a garden, the Second Adam slept, that through
his sleep there might come into existence his Bride-to-be.
And two of his devoted followers, Mary Magdalene and Mary the
wife of Alphaeus, sat watching until the last moment when the great stone was
rolled into its appointed place, and thereby they surely qualified for the high
honour of being the first to see Jesus after he rose from the tomb.
Now, at last, for a short while, the Son of man had where to
lay his head (Mt.8 :20). There, hidden in a cleft of the rock (Ex.33 :22; 34:6)
he waited until the glory of the Lord came, proclaiming the Name of the