Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

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.

Secret disciple

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 only secretly.

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 highly esteemed?

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 condemnation?

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 carpenter!

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 it!

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 at all.

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 fresh.

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 Church.

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 own right!

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 Lord.

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