The Death and Burial of Jesus
A. Rending of the Veil, Resurrection of the Saints (Mt. 27:51-56)
Before looking at the consequences of our Lord's death, we need to return to v. 50 and his dying words. He has already died spiritually (= separation/alienation from the Father) as witnessed by the cry, "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" In that death he quenched the fires of divine wrath that otherwise would have consumed us. It now remains for him to die physically as well.
The expression in v. 50, "he cried again with a loud voice," is probably a reference to the sixth of his seven utterances on the cross. According to John, this cry consisted of the words, "It is finished" (19:30). Be it noted that such "was not the gasp of a worn-out, disintegrated life, but an exultant expression of the supreme spiritual joy of the completion of His divinely determined work" (Johnson). Note also that he did not say "I" am finished but "it" is finished. Quite obviously, he "did not die the ordinary death of those crucified, who normally suffered long periods of complete exhaustion and unconsciousness before dying" (Lane, 574). He was in complete control of his life, and having finished his redemptive work he voluntarily yielded up his spirit, commending himself to the loving care of his Father.
We are now prepared to examine the consequences of his death, of which there are four mentioned (although we will focus on only three).
1. the rending of the temple veil - v. 51a
There were two veils, one separating the outer court from the Holy Place, and one separating the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (Exod. 26:31-37; Heb. 6:19; 9:3). It was the latter veil (thought to have been 60 ft. long, 30 ft. wide and 1 inch thick) that was ripped in two.
The function of the veil was to separate, to hide, and to prevent man's access into the presence of God. It was a stunning object lesson to all that a sufficient sacrifice for sin had not yet been made. See Lev. 16:2,12-16; Heb. 4:16; 6:19-20; 9:11-14,24-28; 10:19-22. With the miraculous rending of the veil from top to bottom, God now comes forth no longer to dwell in a house built with wood and stone but to dwell in the hearts of his people. Donald Hagner explains:
"Clearly . . . the tearing of the veil is a type of apocalyptic sign pointing, on the one hand, to the wrath and judgment of God against the Jewish authorities . . . and, on the other, to the end of the temple, where God is no longer present. It seems also probable . . . that by his sacrificial death, Jesus obviates the sacrifices and priesthood, making available to all people a new, bold, unrestricted access into God's very presence. . . . From that time on, every believer, Jew and Gentile, has immediate and unrestricted access to God and to the forgiveness of sins accomplished through the death of Jesus on the cross. . . . The death of Jesus establishes the priesthood of all believers" (2:849).
2. the earth shook, the rocks split, the tombs were opened- vv. 51b-52a
3. the saints were raised- vv. 52b-53
There are three possible ways of translating the Greek text, each of which yields a different sequence of events:
a. On the first view, the saints are raised when Christ dies but remain in the tombs until after he is raised and only then emerge and enter the city. But if so, what were they doing in there, and why?
b. Another option is that the saints are raised when Christ dies, leave their tombs at that time, and go somewhere else in the vicinity of Jerusalem until after Jesus is raised. Only then do they make their appearance in the city.
c. The most likely view is that the saints are raised only after and because of Christ's resurrection. They enter into the city at that time (i.e., on Sunday). Read vv. 51-52 placing a full stop after v. 52a. Blomberg suggests that we render this statement: "the tombs broke open. And the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life, and, having come out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection, they went into the Holy City" (Jesus and the Gospels, 348-49).
Lest it seem strange that the tombs are opened on Good Friday when Jesus dies but the saints are not raised until Sunday after Jesus is raised, remember this: the breaking open of the tombs was not designed to let the resurrected saints out, but to signify Christ's breaking the power of sin by his death. If these saints were raised in glorified bodies, as I believe they were, they would not have been impeded by material substance anymore than Jesus was. After all, the rock covering the tomb of Jesus was removed not to let Jesus out but to let the witnesses in.
Therefore, the graves opened at the moment of Christ's death to bear witness to the power of his sacrifice over the tyranny of sin. "The later appearance of the saints in the city then demonstrates the power of his resurrection, by which God fulfills his promises to the saints of old and through which he promises resurrection to all who fall asleep in Jesus" (J. Wenham, 152).
With what kind of bodies were they raised? Several factors to be considered:
· If they were raised like Lazarus, they died again, as did he. This seems problematic insofar as their resurrection was in consequence of Christ's and was designed to testify that the new age of salvation had dawned. It seems inconsistent to say that Jesus conquered sin and death as witnessed in the resurrection of these saints, only for them to have succumbed yet again to death.
· They were most likely raised with glorified bodies identical to that of Jesus. If so, they were probably translated to heaven, or possibly constituted a glorious retinue for Jesus at his ascension.
· The objection to their having glorified bodies is 1 Cor. 15:20 ("But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep"). But this is a valid objection only if we assume the saints were raised on Friday when Jesus died, but before he was raised. If they were raised only after he was, then Jesus is himself the "first fruits" as Paul teaches.
· Who were these people? The term "saints" might suggest they were well-known OT and inter-testamental Jewish believers, martyrs, etc. Some have suggested that they may have included Joseph, Jesus' adoptive father, and John the Baptist. A question that is not answered is why, or on what basis, these saints were raised and no others.
4. the centurion's confession - vv. 54-56
Luke 23:47 indicates that he also confessed Jesus to have been a "righteous" man. This centurion was most likely the Roman officer in charge of overseeing the execution. Does he say, "Truly this was a Son of God" (divine being; divine man; deified hero)? Or does he confess that Jesus was "the Son of God"? Probably the latter. [The absence of the definite article in the Greek text allows either view.]
B. Buried, but not abandoned (Mt. 27:57-61)
One might think that the death of a crucified victim terminated his humiliation. Unfortunately, this was not the case. Roman law demanded that the victim be deprived of any and all honors in death: he was allowed no funeral, no eulogy, no public mourning or expressions of sorrow on the part of friends or family. The final insult was leaving the body on the cross either to rot or to be eaten by predatory birds and scavenger dogs. What little remained was forbidden formal burial, the body being cast into the valley of Hinnom, a perpetually smoldering dung heap outside the city on which the corpses of crucified victims were mercilessly tossed. Jesus, however, was spared this final indignity.
(1) v. 31 – This particular Sabbath was a "high day" because it just so happened that it was also Passover. The annual Passover occasionally fell on a Sabbath even as for us Christmas occasionally falls on a Sunday. Therefore, this was an especially holy and highly regarded Sabbath day.
(2) v. 31 - Roman custom was to leave the bodies of crucified victims on the cross as a public warning, i.e., as a deterrent to crime. But according to Jewish tradition (Deut. 21:22-23) the bodies of all executed criminals could not be left exposed in public after sundown. In addition, sundown on this day was the beginning of the Sabbath and therefore extra precautions had to be taken lest the bodies of Jesus and the two thieves profane the land. This is the motivation behind the request of the Jewish leaders.
"Nowhere is the ungodly hypocrisy of the Jewish leaders more evident than in their insistence that Jesus' body be taken down before the Sabbath. They had no compunction about murdering the Lord of the Sabbath, yet they were meticulous in not wanting to defile the Sabbath by having his body hanging on the cross after that day began" (MacArthur, 293).
(3) vv. 32-33 - Jesus' death had been accelerated because of the severe abuse to which he had earlier been subjected.
(4) v. 34 - Why the spear thrust? Perhaps it was a customary practical step designed to make certain he was dead. Then again, it may be regarded as an act of unjustified barbarism. Regardless of intent, it was ordained of God as the fulfillment of prophecy (v. 37).
(5) v. 34 - What is the significance of the "blood and water"? Many contend that under extreme circumstances the heart ruptures, causing blood to spill into the pericardium surrounding the heart where it mixes with the lymphatic fluid. This is what was released by the spear wound. It is not the cause of death, however, but the fact that Christ died that concerns John. The apostle was an eyewitness and reports the blood and water to stress that Jesus really died (vs. docetism).
(6) vv. 36-37 - "As with the fulfillment of scripture by the partition of Jesus' clothes, so here there is no suggestion that the soldiers had any inkling that their actions were giving effect to what had been written long before. Rather, their actions were providentially overruled by God for the accomplishment of his purpose" (F. F. Bruce, 377). See Ex. 12:46; Num. 9:12; Ps. 34:20; Acts 2:22-23.]
We now return to Mt. 27:57-61 and take note of the principal characters involved. The request for the body of Jesus would normally have come from some member of his family or from his disciples. However, Mary, his mother, was no doubt emotionally exhausted, if not devastated, by the course of the day's events, and every indication is that John, the only disciple left at Calvary, would have taken her home to care for her even as Jesus requested of him. Nowhere do we read of the brothers or sisters of Jesus, and it is most likely that they were still in unbelief concerning his messianic claims. Most agree that Peter, broken by shame, was hiding in John's house in hopeless dejection. We don't know what happened to the remaining nine disciples, but most likely they retreated to Bethany following Jesus' arrest in Gethsemane.
Four people are left to care for the body of Jesus. All four gospels mention Joseph of Arimathea; Matthew and Mark mention Mary Magdalene and another Mary; and John mentions Nicodemus. Two other women, named Joanna and Susanna, were probably there to help.
Joseph of Arimathea - The four gospels tell us eight things about this man: (1) he was from Arimathea; (2) he was rich (Mt. 27:57; he was owner of a garden and a tomb close at hand); (3) he was looking for the kingdom of God (Mk. 15:43); (4) he had become a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews (Jn. 19:38); (5) he ended his secrecy and mustered courage to ask Pilate for the body (Mt. 27:58); (6) he was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin (Mk. 15:43); (7) he had not consented to their action concerning Jesus; and (8) he was a good and righteous man (Lk. 23:50).
Although the text says he removed the body, purchased the linen, and buried Jesus, he must have had help. He could not have removed the body, far less rolled the stone over the tomb, by himself. He undoubtedly had servants. Nicodemus was also there to help.
Nicodemus - See John 3; 19:38-39.
Pilate - Knowing from experience that the death of one crucified normally took two to three days, he was surprised when Josephus requested the body (Mk. 15:44-45). To release the body of someone convicted of treason, and to a non-relative at that, was unusual. Many suspect this indicates Pilate still had reservations about the guilt of Jesus.
Several observations are in order concerning the burial of Jesus.
First, it must have been emotionally overwhelming to remove his body from the cross.
Joseph and Nicodemus would have stood at the foot of the cross as a soldier leaned a ladder against it and climbed upward. There he extracted the nails, tossing the five-inch spikes to the side to be used later to impale yet another victim. He then gently lowers the body into the waiting arms of Joseph and Nicodemus: "Careful now," says Joseph. "Easy does it."
Perhaps Joseph knelt down on blood-drenched soil, cradling the head of Jesus in his lap. Removing the crown of thorns brutally embedded in his brow would have been especially traumatic. Joseph worked gently, as no doubt he had many times before when removing a splinter from a child's finger. With a soft wet cloth he cleans the blood from Jesus' face.
Joseph casts a glance at Nicodemus, who is shaking his head in dismay and disbelief, his own tears now falling on the lifeless body of the crucified King.
As Joseph brushes back off the face of Jesus the hair matted and tangled by sweat and blood, the questions must have raced through his mind: "Is this really the Messiah? How can it be? Is it worth the risk to take responsibility for his body? What have we gotten ourselves into?" Or were they simply overcome with grief at seeing and carrying the body of their Lord and Master?
Perhaps they paused only briefly as they gazed on his body, their minds reflecting back on his years of loving service;
his hands . . . which healed and held and helped, now torn and cramped;
his eyes . . . which blazed and wept and forgave, now shut tightly in death;
his lips . . . which spoke of love, life, hope, truth, faith, now parched and broken;
his side . . . at which so many had walked and found comfort, now brutally pierced;
his back . . . that offered to carry the burdens of weary sinners, now lacerated to shreds;
his knees . . . on which he had knelt to pray for others and to wash the disciples' feet, now bruised and battered;
his feet . . . on which he had walked to minister, which had carried him to the lost and needy, now torn and twisted.
Second, we take note of the preparation of the body for burial.
Evidently, Joseph obtained a large linen cloth from the market in which to wrap the body, Nicodemus provided the supply of dry spices to pack around the body to act as a partial and temporary anti-putrifacient, while the women agreed to return to the tomb at the first possible moment after the Sabbath was over to anoint the body properly.
There is considerable debate about the precise nature of the burial cloths which cannot detain us here. Clearly, though, the burial of Jesus was unusual because of the time pressure with the Sabbath fast approaching. There was no time to wash the body or to procure ointments; no garment with which to dress the corpse. We are told that "they bound it (the body) in linen cloths with spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews" (John 19:40). Presumably the jaw and wrists and ankles were bound together, the body was wrapped in a large sheet with the spices around it, with the women committed to return after the Sabbath to anoint him as best they could.
Third, there was the tomb.
The tomb of the wealthy in those days was constructed with two chambers, an outer room into which one could easily walk, and an inner room, the entrance into which would have been through a rectangular doorway about 2ft. high. This explains why the disciples had to "stoop down" to see where the body had once lain. The entrance to the outer chamber of the tomb would have been sealed with a stone, either a boulder rolled directly into the entrance, or possibly a disc-shaped stone, about a yard in diameter, like a millstone, which was placed in a wide slot cut into the rock. Since the groove into which the stone fitted sloped toward the doorway, it could easily be rolled into place; but to roll the stone backwards would require the strength of several men . . . or only one angel!
In conclusion, were the story to have ended here, we would be of all people most to be pitied. It matters little how he died or why he died if he remained dead. It matters little who was involved or why or what they felt, if his body stayed in the tomb. All that we have seen of the death of Jesus is of significance to us, indeed, eternal importance, only because he rose again to bodily life, having conquered both sin and death. Apart from the resurrection, his death matters no more to us than that of the two thieves between whom he was crucified.