THE OVERLOOKED FACT OF THE GOSPEL
April 9, 2006
The profound story of the crucifixion of Jesus is concluded by Luke with an especially beautiful record of the burial of the Lord. Those who know the original language much better than I do would so there is almost a musical or poetic quality to what Luke writes. Verses 50-53 are in the original language just one long sentence. There are no interruptions to it. Notice what it has to say.
“Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments. On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”
That story is what seems to me to be the overlooked fact of the gospel. In fact, in looking back over what I have done over the years, I learned that I have taught this episode in classes, but I have never, ever done just a lesson in the worship time about the burial of Jesus. I have missed a great privilege and some very important lessons in that way. I thought it would be good this morning if we corrected that.
I have chosen today not to use the PowerPoint on purpose. I think there are some things that are so precious that they ought to only be written on our hearts, and this is one of them.
Notice that the burial of Jesus is an important event, an important fact of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus predicted his suffering, just as he prepared his disciples to know that he was going to be raised up again on the third day, he also predicted his burial. When people were clamoring for a sign in Mark 12:40, Jesus said there would be no sign except as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish, he would be in a part of the earth for three days and three nights. When Mary lovingly poured the fragrant ointment on his body and anointed him, Jesus said that she had done a great work because she had anointed his body beforehand for burial. And so, in both of those places and I’m sure others, the Lord reminded us that this event would be a part of his experience.
The letters of the New Testament, even the preaching in the book of Acts, also emphasize the place of the burial in the gospel story. In I Cor. 15, for example, you remember that the chapter begins with Paul saying, “Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel I preach to you, in which you received, in which you stand and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” So notice that the people who based their hope of being saved on the gospel will have had to give some attention to the fact, also, that Jesus was buried.
And then notice that all four of the gospel accounts have paragraphs in them that describe the event of the burial. There are not very many episodes in Jesus’ life which are described by all four of these gospel accounts. That means that the burial has some great significance just in that way. We might try to put the four paragraphs together and remind ourselves of what we know of the story.
We know that it was coming upon evening from Matthew and Mark’s accounts, that Jesus had died about 3 in the afternoon and that without the loving action of one man in particular and then another who helped him, the Lord’s body might have either been just tossed into a common grave of some sort with criminals who had died, or who knows what else might have happened. But the Bible says that Joseph of Arimathea, a man who has adjectives attached to his name that are not given to very many in scripture. He was a good and just man; he was a respected member of the council; he was somebody who was looking for the kingdom and had not gone along with what the Sanhedrin had done (apparently that meant that he was not there when this decision was taken), and someone who was a disciple of Jesus but secretly for fear of the Jews. Now in this hour of deepest need bravely went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. He put himself at risk in doing that. What an act of devotion and courage it was!
We are told also that Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus by night, also went and helped Joseph in that process of the burial. Joseph, possibly with servants and maybe even Nicodemus at that time, took the body down from the cross (we are not given all the details), and in keeping with the burial customs of the Jews, they would have washed the body; they would not have disturbed any of the organs of the body in any way like other peoples might have done in burial; they wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, something that had some expense to it and also was an expression of dignity. And then that Joseph had a tomb which was nearby to the place where Jesus had been crucified. We are not told exactly where it was in scripture. There are legends or ideas about it, but we don’t know for sure if they are true. Joseph and Nicodemus took about 75 lbs. of spices that Nicodemus had brought, again at expense to himself, myrrh and aloes, and that they folded those things into that linen garment that they wrapped him with in what time they had, placed it in this tomb that Joseph had provided. We are told that they had been followed by two women, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses. Apparently this second Mary was the one who was the mother of James, the son of Altheas. These two set over against or across from where the tomb was and watched the process carefully, saw how he was laid, watched while Joseph rolled a very large stone, something in the nature of a large millstone across the front of that rock-hewn tomb and then left it.
And you know, at this point, there is a part of the gospel story that is easy to miss. It was the beginning of the Sabbath when that sundown came, and all of the noise and the commotion and the activity of that day in which Jesus had been crucified, all of that has ended and the people who have seen what has gone on now go and rest that Sabbath. It is as if we need to take some time to process this before we hurry to the morning of the first day of the week when the resurrection occurs, that there is something that we ought not to miss here, that there is something that will help us in our living for the Lord.
So many people have shared the experience of having been to a graveside of some sort and having had to have taken their thoughts with them to mull those thoughts over for a while. That is somewhat like where we live right now, in between when Jesus was offered for us and when he comes again.
We want to try to mediate about that while we sing song #7, Abide With me.
When I look at the gospel story, I can see something of the profound importance of the suffering of Jesus on the cross. I can see some of why that happened and what Jesus was paying when he experienced that. When I look at the account of the resurrection, I can appreciate at least something of the power and the meaning of that event which declared Jesus to be the Son of God with power and made him the first born of the dead. But what is it about the burial which is so important to us. Let’s try to answer that question with a few observations from these paragraphs.
First, the burial is important to us because it declares that the suffering and the humiliation is finished. Jesus endured frightful things throughout the 24 hours prior to this, all the way from betrayal to desertion to humiliating beatings and spitting in the face, mockery – the cruelest kind of physical treatment at the hands of all of his enemies and even some of his friends. But when the burial came, all of that was finished. All that that body had suffered was laid to rest there at the tomb. Jesus’ body was handled and treated only by those who were expressing loving care and devotion for him, only by those who had been willing to risk something of themselves for the sake of him. No more will the Lord’s enemies ever personally be able to take him in hand and to abuse him. The Bible says that the next time we see him, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:9 and following). The burial declares to all of us that there does come a time when the things that people go through are completed and finished, and there is nothing the enemy can ever do again to inflict that kind of disaster upon human flesh.
Secondly, the burial of Jesus shows that even as he suffered, there was something about his kingly dignity which appealed to the very best in humanity. Even while he was being crucified, he began to win people’s hearts and to turn them to nobility and to courage. Here is Joseph of Arimathea. John says he was, “A disciple secretly for fear of the Jews.” I don’t know if that means there was some natural timidity to it or if it just means that like others, he believed in Jesus but was afraid to confess it because he would lose too much. Whatever it was, though, something about what Joseph saw, caused him to be willing to take courage (Mark 15:43) and to go boldly to ask Pilate to have the privilege of taking that body.
Nicodemus is the man who had come to Jesus, once by night, who had sort of spoken up that he should not be treated illegally on another occasion, but he had not come out openly, apparently, in favor of the Lord, but now Nicodemus comes to the Lord’s aid and helps him when there is not a thing to gain and so much to lose. These dear women who have followed him from Galilee have stayed through the whole thing, and they are there watching. Their intention is to go back and complete what the men were not able to get done. All three of those cases are illustrations of the reverence and the dedication and the courage which Jesus had won in the hearts of people who had seen who he was and what he had gone through. I don’t know how much hope they did this with, but I know that they did it. The ones who had boasted, “Even if everybody forsakes you, I never will. I’m ready to die,” were gone. But these people were there.
In the third place, the burial of Jesus further identifies him with all the rest of us. There is not a family here who is not acquainted with the graveside in some way or another. As long as it is appointed unto man once to die (and that will be until the Lord comes), that will be a part of human experience. I don’t know if there could have been some sort of a shortcut from this. He has paid the price on the cross. Maybe that could have been considered enough. But, Isaiah had prophesied in Isaiah 53:9 that the one whose death was with the wicked would have his grave put with the rich. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea both were apparently wealthy. Joseph provided his own new tomb for this purpose. And Jesus was made like us in yet another way. Not only that he had become flesh and dwelt among us, not only that he had died, but also that he was buried. Our Father in heaven knows what that is like, too.
Fourth, I want you to notice that this burial makes it a certainty who it was that was raised up from that tomb, who was missing from it early on the first day of the week. Everything about this, even the way his enemies went about it, only made it more certain that the resurrection occurred when the time came. Did you notice all the details as you thought back over the burial? This tomb was one in which no one had ever been laid meaning that you couldn’t mistake who it was that was gone from that tomb. There were not other bodies there. The Lord was not allowed to see corruption, even in the sense that he was placed where other people may have been buried before. Joseph and Nicodemus both knew how they had prepared the body and where they had laid it and with what great care Joseph had rolled that huge stone in front of that opening. There was no other exit from that tomb. The two women who were there were in a position to see, and they watched closely so that they could come back to that tomb. There was no mistaking it. And when Joseph had gone to Pilate to ask for the body, Pilate was surprised to hear that he had already died, so surprised that he sent a centurion (a Roman soldier tried to be in charge, trained to know when somebody was dead) to see if it really had occurred. Only when that centurion came back and assured him did Pilate release the body to Joseph. There is no mistaking it.
Then remember that on the Sabbath it was only the Lord’s enemies who had any fear of what might happen. They went to Pilate and asked for the tomb to be guarded. It was sealed and then guarded. In every way, the Lord was preparing for the eyewitness evidence of the resurrected Jesus to only be more powerful. Nobody went to the wrong tomb. Nobody moved the body beforehand. The Father raised it up.
And then the burial of Jesus allows all of us to see that there is a time when we simply have to depend on the Father and await the fulfillment of his promise. To me one of the most bittersweet statements in all the Bible is the last one in Luke 23, “On the Sabbath they rested, according to the commandment.” They might have rested in terms of not doing any work, but I’ll bet you they didn’t rest much otherwise. What agony there would have been on that Saturday in the minds of people who had loved Jesus and who thought that maybe he was the fulfillment of the prophecy. There is a first day of the week in every week but there is also a day like this in every week when maybe it seems like things are hopeless when we just wait for God to finish his work and to do what he has promised. These people were just waiting for that and it happened.
We sang “Abide in Me.” That song has in it a line which talks about how no ills threaten when he is near. It might help us to remember that Henry Light, the writer of that song, finished the song when he was on his way from England where he lived to Italy to try to recuperate from tuberculosis. It said that he stopped in France to mail the final draft of this song back to his wife at home, and then he died in Italy. He never got to go back. There is that picture in the background of this story of the burial. That is why it is so meaningful. God did keep his promise. He took the worst that could be done and brought victory over it.
In the New Testament, the burial is used with great significance. I have chosen two passages from the book of Colossians to illustrate my point. Colossians 2:12, talking about putting off the body of the flesh, says, “Having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses.” Our sins, our failures can be buried in Christ, and God can raise us up to walk in newness of life. That is what baptism is about. It is not the burial of a live person who has already been saved. It is the burial of someone who is dead in sin and the burial of those sins in Christ so God can raise him up to walk in newness of life.
And once that is done, the Bible says that the burial begins to affect our values. In Colossians 3:2 says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” There is something about the burial which calls to mind the hiddenness of our lives in Christ. When we call on people to be obedient to the gospel and to live as Christians, what we are saying is to let the Lord bury that and raise you up. Once raised up, be a hidden person in Christ and let that rule how you live your life. Maybe you are here this morning wanting to take that action. If we can help you, let it be known while we stand and sing together.