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The Burial Of Jesus: Matthew 27:57-65

The Burial of Jesus

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

All of the gospels give attention to the burial of Jesus. (Mark 15:42-47, blog, Luke 23:50-56, blog, John 19:38-42) They were making sure that we know the details of his burial so that the credibility of his resurrection would be solid. This is where we are introduced to Joseph of Arimathea. Mark calls him a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43). John simply calls him a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). Luke says that Joseph was a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action (Luke 23:50-51). This probably means that, when the council voted to convict Jesus of blasphemy, Joseph had voted “not guilty.” When those who were accused went on trial before the Sanhedrin, the members voted on their guilt or innocence by casting pebbles into an urn, white for innocent and black for guilty.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all call Joseph a wealthy man. Only the wealthy could afford tombs cut out of rock like this one. This was a tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself and his family. Matthew says it was new, and Luke says that no one had yet been laid in it (Luke 23:53). Why is it important that Jesus was buried in a tomb that had never been used? Because family tombs like this often had more than one body in them. Since it’s made clear that there were no other bodies in the tomb, there can be no case of mistaken identity later.

It’s hard to describe how generous this was on Joseph’s part. Family tombs were for family members, and Joseph was not related to Jesus, as far as we know. It’s not impossible that they were related, however. If they were, that would at least partly explain Joseph’s offer. To place the body of a non-family member in a family tomb would have been very unusual. On top of that, there was the matter of defiling the grave. Anyone who was crucified was considered cursed. By placing the body of Jesus in this new family tomb that had not even been used, according to tradition, Joseph was allowing that family tomb to be defiled, which meant no righteous member of his family could be buried there.

As I mentioned in my posts on the crucifixion of Jesus, it usually took much longer for people to die of crucifixion than it took for Jesus. It sometimes took days for people to die, and normally, the Romans wanted crucifixions to last as long as possible. And once the victims died, their bodies were normally left on the crosses to rot and be eaten by animals. This was all done to terrify the local populations where the Romans ruled, and it happened with great regularity all over the empire, not just in Judea. But, as John says, the next day was a special Sabbath, the Passover Sabbath in Jerusalem (John 19:31). The Jews would not stand for the horror of crucified bodies left on crosses just outside the Holy City during the Passover Sabbath. According to John, it was the Jewish leaders who asked Pilate to have the legs of the crucified men broken and the bodies removed for the Sabbath. Pilate granted their request, but because Jesus had died so quickly, it was unnecessary to break his legs. Mark says that Pilate was surprised that Jesus had died so soon, and confirmed it with the centurion before releasing Jesus’ body (Mark 15:44-45).

In order for Jesus’ body to receive a proper burial, someone had to go and request the body. So that is what Joseph did. John tells us that Nicodemus was there as well. He was also a member of the Sanhedrin, and he is the one who came to Jesus by night and the one to whom Jesus famously said, “You must be born again.” (John 3:7) Nicodemus provided 75 pounds worth of myrrh and aloes to use in wrapping Jesus’ body (John 19:39), and Joseph provided the tomb. They were both men of means doing for Jesus what his family and friends could not do for him. Though Joseph and Nicodemus did embalm Jesus’ body as best they could, apparently there wasn’t time for Jesus’ mother Mary to perform the embalming that was normally done by family before the sun went down, and the Sabbath began. Jesus died around 3:00 PM, and this was early in April, when it starts getting dark in the late afternoon. So Mary, Mary Magdelene, and the other women there observed from a distance. They had to wait until Sunday morning to anoint Jesus’ body, but they never got the chance!

Luke says the women saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it (Luke 23:55). John says there was a garden there (John 19:41). The gospel writers made sure that we knew these details so we would know that the women’s testimony on Sunday morning was true. They knew exactly where and how Jesus was buried because they saw it for themselves. Because it was a brand new tomb in a garden, it was easy to identify later. There could be no mistake about which tomb Jesus was buried in. The stone that was rolled over the entrance was set into a groove, making it very secure. The stone was heavy enough that it could only be moved by several strong men. The burial of Jesus could not have been more secure, which makes his resurrection undeniable.

But for me, this passage is about Joseph of Arimathea. A man who gave up a precious and sacred family possession for Jesus. And because he did, Jesus’ resurrection had much more credibility than it would have otherwise. Though the chief priests did spread the rumor that Jesus’ disciples had stolen his body, any reasonable person could see that that was impossible, because of how secure Jesus’ burial was. Jesus really is risen from the dead.

The Guard at the Tomb

62 The next day, on the Sabbath,[n] the leading priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. 63 They told him, “Sir, we remember what that deceiver once said while he was still alive: ‘After three days I will rise from the dead.’ 64 So we request that you seal the tomb until the third day. This will prevent his disciples from coming and stealing his body and then telling everyone he was raised from the dead! If that happens, we’ll be worse off than we were at first.”

65 Pilate replied, “Take guards and secure it the best you can.” 66 So they sealed the tomb and posted guards to protect it.

Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us about this part of Jesus’ burial. The sun had gone down, and the Sabbath had begun. The phrase the next day at the start of verse 62 probably does not mean the next morning, as we would think of it. In the Jewish mind at that time, a day could mean any part of a day, not necessarily the whole day. It wouldn’t make sense for the chief priests to wait until morning to ask this of Pilate. If they were really afraid Jesus’ disciples would steal his body, they would have wanted the tomb protected on the very first night. The next day in this context probably means as soon as the Day of Preparation ended at sundown, and the Sabbath had begun.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I believe that Jesus had Pharisees who followed him around, who were more or less part of his group. Doctrinally, Jesus was closer to being a Pharisee than a Sadducee or an Essene, so it makes sense to me that there were Pharisees who were interested in what Jesus taught, because Jesus believed in the resurrection of the dead, and in the authority of the whole Old Testament, like they did. I think it’s likely that many of the complaints Jesus got from Pharisees came from the Pharisees in his group. They would have heard Jesus tell his disciples on multiple occasions that he would rise from the dead. After Jesus was crucified, it seems likely to me that they were the ones who told the chief priests that Jesus had said this. On Easter morning, Jesus’ disciples had to be reminded by the angels at the empty tomb that Jesus had told them he would rise again (Luke 24:6-7). Jesus’ enemies had a better memory of the things he had said than his disciples did. How good are we at remembering the promises of Jesus when things seem hopeless?

It occurs to me now that Joesph of Arimathea, as a member of the Sanhedrin and a secret disciple of Jesus, may well have volunteered the use of his new tomb to the chief priests. I can imagine a discussion among the chief priests and elders after the Pharisees reported what Jesus had said to them, where they discussed the importance of a secure burial for Jesus, so his disciples could not steal his body. I imagine, at that point, Joseph spoke up and said he had a new tomb that had not been used, and that was hewn in rock. His tomb could be used for Jesus, and the rest of the leadership, unaware that Joseph was a believer, thought this was a fine idea. But it wasn’t quite good enough. A Roman seal and guard were also necessary to keep Jesus’ followers from rolling the stone away from the entrance, which eleven strong men could certainly do. So they went to Pilate to ask for a seal and a guard. What they did not count on was that the more secure they made the tomb, the more undeniable Jesus’ resurrection would be if it actually happened. No one believed that Jesus really would rise from the dead at that point; not his enemies, nor his followers.

So Pilate had a Roman seal placed over the stone. A seal was a rope over the stone attached on both ends with a glob of wax, stamped with the imperial seal of Caesar or Pilate the governor. You couldn’t move the stone without breaking the seal. The seal could be easily broken, but if it was broken, everyone would know the tomb had been broken into. On top of that, the seal carried the authority of Rome. To break the seal was to violate Roman authority. Only the guard that sealed the tomb had the authority to remove it. Roman soldiers would watch carefully while the seal was attached, because they were responsible for whatever was sealed. Their careers, and possibly their lives, depended on making sure that seal wasn’t broken. A Roman guard consisted of four soldiers, fully equipped with swords, shields, spears, daggers, and armor. This would be sufficient to scare off any attempt to break into the tomb.

But as we all know, all of these precautions were powerless against the resurrection power of God. Four fully equipped Roman soldiers were more than a match for a group of frightened disciples, but even the entire Roman army was no match for the angel of the Lord who rolled the stone away (28:2), much less the risen Son of God. When Jesus rose, he conquered far more powerful enemies than the Romans. He conquered death itself, and hell itself.

We know from the next chapter that, after Jesus rose, the chief priests did, in fact, spread the rumor that his disciples had stolen his body (28:12-14). They had taken all of these precautions, and yet they still had to put out this cover story. The irony of all of this is that if the authorities had not gone to such great lengths to secure Jesus’ burial, their cover story would have been much more believable. But because they insisted on a Roman seal and a Roman guard, the rumor they spread was laughable. God used Jesus’ enemies to make his resurrection an undeniable fact.

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