‘Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.’ (John 19:38-42)
Whilst the New Testament tells us very little about what happened on Easter Saturday, each of the gospels spends a surprising amount of time describing the burial and the resting place of Jesus. John’s account includes some unique details, which give us some important insights.
Jesus’ burial was not entirely normal for a person of his standing in society. Ordinary people without wealth were normally buried in the ground, not in a tomb. But Jesus finds an unexpected patron in Joseph of Arimathea. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling class, and his request to take the body of Jesus was a courageous one, given that showing sympathy for this crucified rebel could be dangerous for him.
Rock-cut tombs were very expensive. Generally it was only the extremely wealthy who could afford them, and the fact that this was a new tomb in a garden location indicates that this may have been a family plot, that had not yet been used. To bury a condemned criminal in a family tomb would potentially bring shame upon Joseph’s family and was a sign of great acceptance and devotion.
Most tombs were sealed with a rectangular stone, which fit in the hole like a cork in a bottle. But the gospels tell us that the stone at Jesus’ tomb could be rolled (Matt 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 24:2). Tombs of this type were extremely expensive and rare. Of almost 1,000 excavated tombs from this period, only a handful had round stones, which were around 4.5 feet in diameter.
A tomb of this sort would be comprised of multiple chambers. The corpse would be wrapped in linen clothes and embalmed, and then laid on a bench in the main chamber. After a year, once the body had decomposed, the bones would be placed in an ossuary and moved to a side chamber for preservation. John tells us that Jesus’ body was wrapped in linen and coated in spices. The quantity of myrrh and aloes Nicodemus bought would have been an extravagant gesture and sign of great respect.
Why do John and the other gospel writers go to such lengths to describe the tomb and the burial of Jesus? And why is it significant that Jesus received the burial of a rich man?
The answer goes back to Isaiah 53.
‘He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth’ (Isaiah 53:8-9)
Though Jesus was innocent, he was treated as a criminal. He was considered accursed and cut off from the land of the living. Scorned, shamed, humiliated, reduced to nothing – inconceivable though it might have seemed – Isaiah prophesied that he would receive a burial like that of the rich. And through the generosity of Joseph and Nicodemus, that prophecy was fulfilled.
Even whilst dead, Jesus fulfilled prophecies that had been made over 700 years previously.
And in a strange sort of way, that should give us confidence. Because although it looked like God’s chosen one lay defeated and dead in a grave, His plan had not gone off course. Through the death and burial of Jesus, God was still in the process of rescuing the world.
Saturday may look bleak. But Sunday’s coming.
Questions for Reflection
- Joseph and Nicodemus made extravagant gestures to Jesus, even when it might have cost them their reputation to do so. Are there things God is calling you to do in obedience to Him? And what are the things that might hold you back from responding?
- Even in his death, Jesus was fulfilling prophecy, which suggests that there may be times that God is working out His purposes, despite outward appearances. How can you learn to spot the activity of God, even when it seems like hope is lost?
Why not use the following to help you to pray today:
Lord Jesus, thank you that even in the bleakness of Easter Saturday, we can know the hope that is coming on Easter Sunday. Even in your death and burial, God’s plan was being worked out and His promises were being fulfilled. I choose to draw strength from that today, knowing that you are able to bring life and joy out of any painful circumstance, and I look forward to celebrating your resurrection tomorrow. Amen
If you find yourself with some extra time today, why not read Philippians 2:5-11 and reflect on Jesus’ obedience to God’s plan, even to the point of death on a cross. You may also want to read this post, Waiting in the Silence, and listen to this talk on John 19 from Easter 2012.
Join us to celebrate Easter Sunday
Sunday 20 April – Easter Sunday. 11.00-12.30. The Mermaid Theatre, EC4V 3DB
Image: Entrance to the Garden Tomb by Ian Scott, used under CC