By Pastor Glenn Pease
Doctor Martin von Butchell was a London dentist who lost his wife in 1775, and was reluctant to part with her. There was no law against it, so he had her embalmed, and kept her in a glass case in his home. He introduced visitors to her as my dear departed. Word spread of this spectacle, and the good doctor was forced to take action to stem the tide of sightseers. He had to put an add in the paper informing people that only those he was personally introduced to could see his wife, and those only from 9:00 to 1:00. Eventually he remarried, and the new Mrs von Butchell was not fond of the presence of the dear departed, and so the doctor was forced to arrange for a suitable burial. It would have been a grave mistake not to bury her, but he had plenty of time to get the job done. The burial of Christ, however, was a rush job if there ever was one.
Since nobody expected Jesus to die, there were no arrangements for Him to have a suitable burial. The victims of crucifixion were usually left to be eaten by birds and wild animals, or thrown, like worthless garbage, into the dump, and burned. This was the likely fate of the two thieves who died with Jesus. For Jesus, however, there was a swift but suitable burial. None of His family did it, nor did any of His chosen disciples. Surprisingly, the two men who buried Jesus were the two men who, while Jesus was alive, were afraid to make a public show of their faith in Him. Joseph of Arimathea was a recent disciple, and Nicodemus had come to Jesus at night. Both of them were Jewish leaders who feared the Jews, but now, when Jesus is dead, they are the only ones who go into action to see that the body of Jesus gets a suitable burial.
In John 19 we read that Joseph went to Pilate to get permission to take the body, and Nicodemus went to buy seventy five pounds of myrrh and aloes. Together these two men wrapped Jesus in strips of linen with the spices. In verse 40 John is careful to tell us, "This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs." Jesus received from these two leaders an official Jewish burial. There was no funeral, no eulogy, no orations, for the greatest man who ever lived. There was only this quick and quit burial, but it was a dignified burial.
There was a garden tomb near the place of the cross, and it was a tomb where no man had ever laid. There they placed the body of Jesus on that first Good Friday, late in the afternoon. Jesus died about three in the afternoon, and so by the time they got permission and prepared the body it would be getting late. John implies that they had to hurry, for the Sabbath was approaching, and no work could then be done. Chapter 19 of John ends with this verse describing the urgency, "Because it was the Jewish Day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there." There was no time to make other arrangements, so they did what had to be done, and hurriedly got Jesus's body prepared and into the tomb before the Sabbath.
So hasty was the burial that the women who stood at a distant watching were not satisfied it had been done right, and so they got more spices and prepared to go back after the Sabbath to give Jesus a completely suitable burial. It is just like women to think that they men did not do it right, and so they would have to come behind and finish the job. It could be they were right, for Joseph and Nicodemus were public officials and not undertakers. Maybe their hasty job was far from professional. But God, in His providence, knew that even a poor job would last the weekend. That was all the longer Jesus was going to be in that tomb. We can thank God that His plan does not always call for everything being done as good as the women want it done. If Jesus was going to be buried for centuries, that is one thing, but if only for a few days, then the way men do it will be just fine.
The interesting thing about the burial of Jesus is, that in spite of the fact that all four Gospels record it, and in spite of the fact that Paul makes it one of the three historical facts of the Gospel, you can hardly find an author that has written anything about the theological significance of Christ's burial. It is, without a doubt, one of the most neglected, ignored, by-passed, and avoided subject in the history of Christianity. It is not that commentators do not mention it, but the problem is, that is all they do. In volumes galore the authors will go on for pages about the death of Christ, and then merely mention the burial of Christ before going on to a lengthy discussion of the resurrection.
When I read the NIV of I Cor. 15:3, I got motivated to discover new truths I never saw before. Paul says, "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance." Then he lists the three facts of the Gospel. Paul says the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ are matters of the first importance. We all know the death and resurrection are vital, but I never heard anybody say the burial of Christ was of great importance, so when I read that I got excited. I was going to find out why Paul put the burial of Christ on the same level with His death and resurrection.
To my surprise, I discovered nobody would tell me. I looked up the burial of Christ in some of the great theologians of our century, and it was not even in the index. I figured the older theologians would deal with it, but I was wrong. Martin Luther states it in his catechism, but with no explanation. Calvin in his Institutes, of over 800 pages of theology, has less than one half of a page on the burial of Christ, and says as near to nothing as possible. I turned to the preachers for help. Certainly D. L. Moody in his sermon, What Is The Gospel, would expound on all three of the facts of the Gospel. But he didn't. And so it went with all the authors I searched.
Then it dawned on me: The Apostles Creed was my answer. The Apostles Creed and some of the other great creeds of history have the statement, Christ was dead, buried and descended into hell. I knew there were many books written on the creeds, so I went to the seminary library and found dozens of books. Pay dirt at last? Wrong! Most of them just skipped anything to say on the burial, and the few that did had almost nothing to say of significance.
I was beginning to regret that I ever got excited about the burial of Christ. It was a puzzle to me why Paul even mentioned the burial of Christ. It seems like such an incidental detail. I wondered if I was trying to make something of nothing. Certainly the burial of Christ cannot be a part of the saving Gospel that the church is to carry into all the world. Paul must have just slipped this in with no deep thought. But then I discovered that Paul in his own preaching of the Gospel actually included the burial of Christ. Dr. Luke records one of Paul's sermons that he preached on his first missionary journey. In Acts 13, after dealing with the death of Jesus, Paul writes in verse 29, "When they had carried out all that was written about Him, they took Him down from the tree and laid Him in the tomb. But God raised Him from the dead." Paul actually preached the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ as the Gospel. Paul meant it; the burial was to him a vital part of the Gospel. But why? That is the question.
If we look at that weekend that changed the world, we see an interesting fact that few ever consider. It took six hours on the cross for Jesus to die. It took from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. It took only seconds for Jesus to rise from the tomb. When He comes for His bride those Christians still living will be transformed in a twinkling of an eye. I am sure it took no longer for Jesus to go from a dead body to a Risen Redeemer. That means six hours and a few seconds of the weekend are involved in the two great facts of the Gospel: Christ's death and resurrection.
But the third great fact, the burial, not only took several hours in preparation, it was the only one of the three that covered all three days of that weekend. He was buried on Friday, He stayed buried all through Saturday. This was the only complete 24 hour period in this Christ event. Then He was still buried on Sunday morning, and so He was buried some part of all three days. For sheer quantity of time the burial of Jesus was the dominate theme of the weekend that changed the world. But this longest of the three facts of the Gospel is the least considered in Christian history. The whole of the Gospel happened in a short space of about 36 hours. It was the most important span of time in all of time, but the greatest portion of it Jesus was buried.
The silence on this subject is awesome. Everybody acknowledges that it was important, but nobody will say just why. It is in the creeds, and, therefore, it is to be believed as basic doctrine, but there are no reasons given as to why it is basic. The mystery of the burial of Christ aroused my curiosity all the more when I considered that this fact had to be like the other two facts of the Gospel. It had to be good news. Christ died for our sins, and that is good news. He was raised on the third day, and that was good news. But why is it good news that He was buried? To be a fundamental fact of the Gospel it has to be established that Christ's burial was a positive thing, like His death and resurrection.
But I was at a dead end at the tomb of Christ. Where could I go, oh where could I go, where could I go, but to the Lord? That is what I did. I decided the Bible itself has to have the answer as to why the burial of Christ was good news. I got my concordance, and began to look up everything the Bible had to say about burial, and what I found began to shed some light on this issue of Christ's burial. I discovered that it was considered a curse in Israel not to have a proper burial. Eccles. 6:3 puts it in very strong terms: "A man may have a hundred children and live many years, yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a still born child is better off than he." This sounds radical to place proper burial on this level of importance, but it is not. It was the orthodox view of Judaism.
Asaph in Psa. 79:3 laments that the worst of times have befallen Jerusalem, for there was no one to bury the dead. Proper burial was a basic goal of life to the Jews, and to miss it was the ultimate indignity. According to the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, "It is esteemed the greatest calamity that can befall a person." Isaiah confirms this, and describes God's judgment as coming in the denial of decent burial. We read in Isaiah 14:18-20: "All the kings of the nations lie in state, each in his own tomb. But you are cast out of your tomb like a rejected branch....Like a corpse trampled under foot. You will not join them in burial, for you have destroyed your land and killed your people."
Jeremiah adds to this gloomy picture more darkness as he describes the judgment of God on Jehoiakim in Jer. 22:19: "He will have the burial of a donkey-dragged away and thrown outside the gates of Jerusalem." Jeremiah gives several other gruesome accounts of people slain and not buried, but with their bones strewn over the ground with no one to care about them. In II Kings 9:10, Jezebel received the worst of curses. Her body would not be buried, but would be devoured by dogs. There is more evidence, but there is no point in elaboration, for it is not in dispute. It was a curse not to have proper burial, and it follows, therefore, that it was a blessing to have a proper burial.
Jesus clearly suffered the curse of dying on a cross by crucifixion, but He did not suffer the greater curse of having His body cast into the garbage dump or thrown to the dogs. He was given a decent and honorable burial in accordance with the Jewish customs. He received the highest honor His body could receive after death. Jesus expected this final honor to His body, for it was clearly a part of God's plan. In Matt. 26:12 Jesus said of the woman who poured out and expensive jar of perfume on His head, "She did it to prepare me for burial." And then He added this amazing tribute to her in verse 13: "I tell you the truth, where ever this Gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her."
Jesus put a great deal of importance on this loving act of preparation for His burial. It seems like a rather trivial incident in His life, but Jesus turns it into a perpetual memorial for all time. This woman who prepared the body of Jesus for burial was one of the greatest women of all time. But since we do not grasp the importance that Jesus placed on His burial, it all seems like much ado about nothing to us. We have missed one third of the Gospel because we have not seen the significance of the burial of Christ. It meant so much to Jesus, and it meant so much to the Jews. Yet, the few who even bother to comment on the burial of Christ link it to the first or the third fact of the Gospel. 99.9% of authors who refer to the burial at all, will say it was to confirm the reality of Christ's death. But, of course, it does not such thing, as the history of people being buried alive demonstrates.
Most just do not have a clue as to why the burial is mentioned.
The problem with those who just consider the burial as another step down in the humiliation of Christ is, it is bad news and not good news. It only makes sense for Paul to stress it if it can be demonstrated to be good news. This means the burial has to be linked, not to the defeat of the cross, but to the victory of the resurrection. A closer look at Paul's language shows that this is exactly what Paul is doing. He says Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture, and He was raised the third day according to the Scripture. He does not say He was buried according to the Scripture. He only says, according to the Scripture, twice. This leaves us with two options: That Paul meant to say, the burial was not according to the Scripture, or that Paul links the burial and the resurrection, and means, these two are according to the Scripture. It is obvious that Paul meant this last idea, for the Scriptures do speak prophetically of the burial of Christ. Isaiah 53:9 says, "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death."
So what we have here is Paul linking the burial of Christ, not to the death of Christ, but to the resurrection of Christ, making it a part of the beginning of victory rather than a continuation of defeat. Once Jesus died for our sins, and the price was paid, there was an immediate change for the better. Death was the last step of Christ's decent. After that it was an upward march. The body would no longer be disgraced, but have an honorable burial, for the curse was over, and the victory was already begun. The death of Christ was a curse that He suffered for us, but His burial was not a curse, but was dignified and honorable. It was an immediate act of honor for His dead body.
We need to get the idea out of our heads that burial was in any way negative. Jesus considered it a great act of love to prepare His body for burial. These friends did their greatest act of love by coming forward to take His body and prepare it for the tomb. It was all according to the highest honor in Judaism. The Bible stresses that the body of Jesus saw no corruption. On the cross Jesus was mutilated, but after the cross not another bad thing happened to His body. They broke the legs of the two thieves, but not those of Jesus. His body was protected from any decay. This was no minor matter but is stressed in the Bible. Peter, in his famous sermon at Pentecost, quoted Psa. 16, "You will not abandoned me to the grave nor will you let your Holy One see decay." He goes on to explain that this referred to the Messiah, for David is still in his tomb buried. Jesus, however, is not, for He rose from the grave in His body which saw no decay.
If one great Apostle made this a basic part of his message, we could say that was his own unique perspective. But if the Apostle Paul makes a big issue out of the body of Jesus having no decay, then we have to face it, this was a part of the original Gospel that the early church took into all the world. In Acts 13 Paul announces that he is preaching the Good News that God has promised to the fathers, and is now fulfilled in Jesus. He proceeds to expound on the issue of no decay in the body of Jesus. Four times in four verses he uses the word decay. It is so impressive as evidence of my point that I want to read it all. Verses 34-37 read, "The fact that God raised Him from the dead, never to decay, is stated in these words: I will give the holy and sure blessings promised to David. So it is stated elsewhere: You will not let your holy one see decay. For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep, he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay."
The burial of Jesus without decay fulfilled the promise of God to David. The idea of being able to die, and not be subject to the consequences of death was to the Jews what the dream of heaven is to us. This was the ultimate victory in their minds, to escape the corruption of death. It was, therefore, a very relevant part of the Gospel that moved the Jews and the Gentiles to respond to Christ in faith. For He died, but never saw corruption in His body. His burial was not defeat, but victory, the victory that men long for over death.
It lead to the whole vast world of embalming and mummification of bodies in Egypt. But as amazing as it was for preserving the body, it did not prevent decay, for even the best of mummies suffered decay. Man cannot prevent decay, but the burial of Jesus without decay was already a symbol of the full victory over death. His body never saw decay, and never would, for it would be raised and perfected, and never experience the defiling touch of death.
Why is the burial of Jesus part of the good news? Because it reveals that even in death Jesus was no longer the victim, but the victor. His body was already on the winning side, and was not under the power of death. This does not have the appeal to us it did to the people who first heard the Gospel. It is because we have been so powerfully influenced by the Greek philosophy of life that does not put great emphasis on the body. The burial of Jesus and all it means to the honor of the body will only be good news to those who have a high view of the body, and high hopes for the body. The fact that so little is made of the burial of Christ in our Western culture reveals that we have a low view of the body, and have a hard time identifying with the full Gospel. We have let one third of the Gospel slip into near oblivion because it is no longer important to us, or to the people we preach to, that the body of Jesus saw no corruption, and that our bodies will also escape eternal corruption and be perfected as was His body.
The body of Jesus was a perfect specimen for sacrifice for our sin, and even after man mutilated it, it was pure and without decay. His body and blood were the perfect tools to do the job of redemption. You need to have the right tools to get a special job done, and this incorruptible body and blood of Jesus was the only tool capable of redeeming man. Peter states it clearly in I Peter 1:18-19. "For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver and gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect." Even in death the body of Jesus was incorruptible.
When Jesus atoned for all sin the power of death was ended, and He demonstrated that, not just in the resurrection, but in the being buried and still experiencing no corruption. The poison that Adam had put into the vains of man by eating the forbidden fruit, and which caused all men to die and return to dust, was at last purged by the second Adam, and now the body of man, the first man of the new humanity of the second Adam was free from this poison, and its power to produce decay. This is good news for those who are interested in the physical destiny of man.
The Gospel does not revolve around the spirit, but around the body. Christmas exists for the sake of Good Friday. Jesus had to be born into a human body in order to give His body in sacrifice for our sin. Jesus did not die in spirit, He died in His body, and He was buried in His body, and He rose again in His body. The body of Christ is the center of good news. Man is body, soul, and spirit, and if his body is not saved, he is not saved, for man is not complete, and truly man, without a body. Paul is stressing that the plan of salvation includes the salvation of the body. The body is designed to house an eternal soul, to be the temple of the Holy Spirit, and to inherit and eternal destiny. The greatest temple is not that of Solomon or Herod, but the temple Jesus said He would raise up in three days-the temple of His body. Paul says we are to glorify God in our bodies. The resurrection life is a life where the body is used to glorify God.
The business of the church in our Western culture it seems is to save souls and not bodies. You can find hundreds of volumes on soul-winning, but do not waste your time looking for body-saving books, for they do not exist. And that is why the second fact of the Gospel has become a forgotten fact. It was good news for the Jews and the Gentiles of the Apolstolic period, but it has not been for the Western mind for centuries. We have not learned to appreciate the body and to honor it. It is the source of sin and weakness, and not a temple to be glorified and treated with dignity. The whole burial story of Jesus is a story of dignity.
1. The dignity of preparation-perfume before He died, and spices and perfume after.
2. The dignity of place-a rich mans tomb where none had ever been laid.
3. The dignity of person-Jesus was treated like a king, fulfilling the promise to king David.
In a world where the body is treated with so much contempt, the burial of Jesus can be a powerful aspect of the good news. The Gospel offers people hope for the body, for it reveals God's love for and respect for the body. He will take this corruptible thing and make it incorruptible. That is one of Paul's points later on in I Cor. 15. Paul's whole point in this great chapter is that the body is important to God, and the event of Christ's burial is positive proof of it. If you take the body lightly you not only disagree with Paul, you disagree with God, and lose a third of the good news God gives us in the Gospel of His Son.
Paul intended Christians to think more of the burial of Christ, and what it means, far more than we do. The proof of this is in Rom. 6 where he stresses that we are buried with Christ in baptism. Paul makes it clear that baptism is to symbolize all three basic facts of the Gospel: The death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. There is no escaping the evidence. We have so absorbed the burial of Jesus into His death that we have buried it as a distinct part of the Gospel. I do not intend to start a crusade to restore, for most every body in the world who has been saved by hearing and responding to the Gospel would only be able to see the significance of the death and resurrection of Christ. We know that two out of three ain't bad, for trusting a Savior who died and rose again does save, even if you never think of His burial. But for us who have been exposed to this evidence, there is an obligation to take this evidence seriously, and not only be aware of it, but share it where it can be seen by the hearer as good news.
Paul wrote in II Cor. 4:10-11, "We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that His life may be revealed in our mortal body." The body is a vital part of the Gospel and Christian living, and that is why the burial of Christ's body without decay is one of the three basic facts of the Gospel. It adds a key dimension to the good news we are to share with the world.