The Burial of Jesus - John 19:38-42

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Copyright November 7, 2021, by Rev. Bruce Goettsche
We have argued that the death of Christ is a pivotal event in history because it was through the sacrifice of Christ that the debt for our sins is paid. The perfect Son of God gave His life willingly as a sacrifice for our sin. It is painful to think that Jesus endured all these things for us, and it is the most spectacular illustration of love that could ever be given.
This morning we look at the postscript to the crucifixion. Jesus died to the surprise of the guards, who were professional executioners. The story takes a sharp turn in the passage before us.
38 Afterward, Joseph of Arimathea, who had been a secret disciple of Jesus (because he feared the Jewish leaders), asked Pilate for permission to take down Jesus’ body. When Pilate gave permission, Joseph came and took the body away. 39 With him came Nicodemus, the man who had come to Jesus at night. He brought about seventy-five pounds of perfumed ointment made from myrrh and aloes. 40 Following Jewish burial custom, they wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices in long sheets of linen cloth. 41 The place of crucifixion was near a garden, where there was a new tomb, never used before. 42 And so, because it was the day of preparation for the Jewish Passover and since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
Burial in the Middle East usually took place within twenty-four hours after death. In this case, with the Sabbath and Passover fast approaching, the body needed to be buried quickly. Jesus would not have had a cemetery plot available which may have meant Jesus’s body would have been thrown into the garbage dump with the bodies of the other two criminals. This dump was called “Gehenna,” It stood as the chief metaphor for Hell, where the flames of divine wrath never go out.
Secret Disciples
Our text introduces us to two people who came to the rescue. Joseph of Arimathea and a man we met earlier in the gospel, Nicodemus. We read Joseph of Arimathea was a “secret disciple.” Matthew says he was wealthy; Mark, that he was a member of the Sanhedrin (“Council”) and was “waiting for the kingdom of God”; Luke says he had not concurred in the vote of the council to condemn Jesus.
It was a courageous act for Joseph to step forward and ask for the body of Jesus. He stood up as the friend of Jesus, going directly against his colleagues in the Sanhedrin, who had orchestrated the trial and the conviction of Jesus. We might say today Joseph was committing professional suicide.
Nicodemus is a name we have heard before. Back in John 3, Nicodemus came to see Jesus, and he wanted to talk to him and seemed earnest in doing so. In John 7, we read Nicodemus spoke up for Jesus when the Sanhedrin sought to condemn Him. Nicodemus asked, “Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” Likely, Nicodemus was not even invited to the late-night meeting of the Sanhedrin and the trial of Jesus because they knew of His loyalties.
If these men were secret disciples (be careful in judging them lest you also judge yourself), what caused them to step forward now?
Perhaps they were bystanders at the cross. After watching the way Jesus died, they were convinced more than ever God had sent him. Don’t you wonder the price they had to pay for standing with Christ? Was their career over? Were they now among the persecuted?
Jesus told us we should count the cost before we become disciples. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, too many of us are “secret disciples.” Some of our friends might even be surprised by our declaration of faith. We are hesitant to say anything lest we be guilty of offending someone or get in trouble with the secular powers.
Some parents have even said about a Christian upbringing, “I don’t want to influence my children; I want them to decide for themselves.” That sounds noble and open-minded, but it is foolish. The enemy constantly bombards our children and our family members. They are surrounded by anti-god or false-god talk always. They are required to embrace ungodly values and immorality. They are taught ridiculous ideas. Understand, if you don’t try to counter these things strongly with the gospel's message, you are surrendering them to an unfair fight!
There is no reason for us to be secret disciples. We have much more information than Joseph or Nicodemus. We know about the Resurrection, we have the New Testament that records the words and deeds of Jesus, and we have the Holy Spirit living inside of us. We. We should speak up much more boldly than they did. Jesus tells us if we do not confess Him before men, He will not confess us before the Father. In other words, it is our DUTY, and our job, to tell others about Jesus.
The Lord does not call us to be political, preach self-help sermons, or gather in our holy huddles content to keep the world at bay. He calls us to go into all the world and preach the gospel making disciples of all men. This is our highest honor and our most significant act of obedience before the Lord. It is also the greatest act of love we can show to another person. We must transcend the differences and unite to declare the good news to others.
Let’s go back to the burial of Jesus. While Joseph went and secured the body of Jesus, Nicodemus secured 75 pounds of spices! Someone suggests this was the amount of spice that would be used to bury a King. The spices were placed between the strips of cloth that would be wrapped around the body. The spices were not to embalm the body; they were to minimize the stench of the decaying body.
With the nearness of the Sabbath (which began at sundown of the day before (around 6:00 p.m.), they were pressed for time. Remember at 3:00, Jesus was still on the cross. It would have taken time to go to Pilate, have the soldiers check on Jesus, and release the body. We don’t know how many of those spices were able to be put on the body before running out of time. We don’t know if they finished preparing His body. The other gospels tell us that the women who were at the cross followed Joseph. Mary Magdalene and the mother of Jesus sat opposite the tomb and watched the guys. This could be the reason they returned on Sunday morning. They may have been unable to finish (because of the time) . . .or, they may have thought the guys didn’t do an adequate job. (It is kind of like the difference between a man’s definition of “clean” and a woman’s definition are different.)
Jesus was placed in a tomb that was likely cut out of solid sandstone. It was probably Joseph’s own burial tomb. These tombs typically had an inner chamber where the body would be laid in death. The doorway contained a groove into which a heavy stone would be fitted that could be rolled in front of the doorway. The body would be placed on the slab until it had fully decomposed, and then it was put into an ornate box called an ossuary.
What Happened to Jesus When He Died?
Some skeptics try to ridicule Christians by asking, “If Jesus was God, who was running the world for the three days He was in the tomb?” There are at least two errors in this question. The first is the assumption that when a person dies, they are gone. When Jesus died physically, he did not die spiritually! Like us, His spirit went immediately into the presence of the Lord!
Second, God is a trinity. While the Son took the form of man, the Father and the Holy Spirit continued to govern the world. There was never a time when the steering wheel of history was left unmanned.
The question, “Where was Jesus between His death and resurrection?” is raised by the Apostle’s Creed we recite,
“[Jesus] was crucified, dead, and buried; He descended into Hell (or Hades);” the third day He rose again from the dead.
A primary passage in the discussion of this question is 1 Peter 3 where we read,
18 Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God. He suffered physical death, but he was raised to life in the Spirit.
19 So he went and preached to the spirits in prison—20 those who disobeyed God long ago when God waited patiently while Noah was building his boat. Only eight people were saved from drowning in that terrible flood.
Let’s start with what this text and the creed do NOT mean. They do not teach that Jesus went to Hell to give people another chance to be saved. The Bible is clear: “It is appointed to men to die once and then face judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27) There is absolutely no doctrine of second chances in the Bible. In the 1 Peter passage the Greek word used for “preached” in this passage is not the word used for evangelism. It is a word that means “announce.”
What does it mean that “Jesus preached to the spirits in prison?” When did it take place? Who were the beneficiaries of the discourse? The passage has provoked various interpretations.
There are three possible interpretations of this passage. The first says that Jesus preached to these people “through” the person of Noah. The idea is Peter anticipates people will be concerned about people who died before Jesus came to earth. Peter argues that there is no need to be concerned about those who died before the death and resurrection of Jesus. Those people heard the message of God’s salvation. It was proclaimed by Noah and others who were faithful before God. These people were saved by their faith in God’s promise to redeem them.
The second view goes to another difficult passage in Genesis 6. We aren’t going to get into that passage because it will weigh us down and confuse things even more. This interpretation says Jesus announced to Satan and the demons that He was victorious in His plan of salvation.
The third view I think is the best view. In the Apostle’s Creed, the word “Hell” is more accurately translated as “Hades,” which refers to the place of the dead. I believe Old Testament saints died and had to wait to go to Heaven until the redemption price had been paid by Jesus. Until that time, they were in Hades (the place of the dead). So, all the creed is saying is, Jesus was buried like everyone else.
If we take the parable of Jesus in Luke 16 (Rich man and Lazarus) as an accurate picture of what it was like when someone died. According to the parable, there were two places in Hades: the bosom of Abraham (where believers went), and the place of torment. Both places are holding places for those who have died. The bosom of Abraham was a good place but not yet Heaven. With the sacrifice for sin paid, the door of Heaven was opened. 1 Peter then is affirming that Jesus died and went to the place of the dead to open the door of Heaven to all who believed (were waiting in the bosom of Abraham). They welcomed into their place in Heaven.
By this time, I suspect your question is: “Why is this important?” There is a simple answer: we always want to understand Biblical texts. The Bible is not afraid of hard questions. In fact, the difficult texts often lead us to the most profound truths.
Jesus said he spoke in parables because it would make people work to find the truth. One of the things that were drilled into my head when I was working on my degree in Christian Education is: “that which is discovered (rather than merely “dispensed”) is always embraced more fully.” This is the reason some of the deepest truths are found in some of the most confusing texts. Don’t be afraid to dig deep!
Pondering the days when our Lord’s body was in the tomb reminds us that all the believers leading up to that moment were waiting for Christ to “finish” the work. In some ways, it was like the last out in the World Series (with the Resurrection is the “presentation of the trophy”). We also are reminded that Satan has lost the battle even though the war continues. The decisive battle has already been won. We do not need to fear Satan.
Let’s draw some conclusions. First, we learn once again a powerful lesson about the plan and purpose of God. God works out His plan through the circumstances of life.
Do you remember the show MacGyver? He was a guy who could take common things and use them to escape from incredibly bad situations. This passage shows us that MacGyver has nothing on the Lord. The Lord takes good things and bad things and uses them to accomplish His purpose in the world. He is much smarter than the enemy, and His power is far superior to that of anything in or around the world.
This is our reason for confidence in the Word of God. We know it is His truth. What He predicts comes true. What He promises, He delivers. Because of this, I want to suggest some things that should result in our lives.
1. We will read the Bible differently than other books. It is not a novel or an academic textbook. We don’t read it to learn facts! We read it to gain wisdom and guidance for life. The Bible, if you will, becomes our “true north,” so we can always find our way.
2. We will read the Bible regularly. Just as we know we need fruit and vegetables to survive and thrive in life, God’s Word is essential to good mental health, wise thinking, and finding God’s best for life.
3. We should memorize God’s Word, and we should hide it deep in our hearts so we have it at our disposal.
4. When life is uncertain, we should trust God’s Word more than the polls, the government, the media, social media, or even our own feelings and desires. Anything that contradicts God’s Word is wrong! We must stand on this truth even as powerful people demand we think their way.
5. We should teach God’s Word to our children. Why is it that we will follow our kids all over the country for various extra-curricular events, but we are unwilling to sit down and read and teach them the Word of God?
Second, we are challenged by Joseph and Nicodemus to step out of the shadows and to stop being secret believers. We play into the hands of the enemy by staying in secret. We must speak up for the gospel! We must not remain the silent majority! Here are some things to remember,
1. As believers, our first priority is the cause of the gospel. It is tempting to get into the political fray and focus on the various social issues of the day. AS CITIZENS, we certainly can and should express our feelings and vote on these issues. AS CHRISTIANS, we mustn't be distracted from proclaiming the message of the cross and the empty tomb! We must keep first things first. We must sternly resist the notion that our political choices are conclusions anyone who is a “true believer” should hold. We need to draw our plan from the Bible, not from our news channel or those in office.
2. When we remain silent, we deprive ourselves of the joy of trusting God and walking with Him through life if we do not point others to Jesus.
3. When we do not speak out, we will miss out on the vibrant worship that results from seeing God work through you in ways you could not have imagined.
We live in a world that desperately needs to know the truth about Jesus. Many have heard His name but know nothing about Him. They see Him as merely a famous historical figure, and they don’t understand why He came and what He did for you and me.
Others know the facts about Jesus, but they see them only as historical footnotes. These people do not understand the personal relevance of what Jesus did. They don’t understand that their salvation and quality of life are impacted by what happened on the cross and because of the empty tomb.
It is our job, our responsibility, and yes, our privilege to share these truths with others. To do so, we must step out of the shadows and dare to engage in conversations that turn to spiritual things. It is our job to plant seeds, show Christian love, and point people to the One who gave His life for our sin.
Finally, we see the question, “What are you going to do with Jesus?” is the most important question there is. The time is short. We do not know when we will die, and there are no second chances after we die. Have you put your trust and confidence in Christ’s work for you? Are you willing to rely on and follow Him? If so, tell Him. Then, tell someone else what you have done so they can rejoice with you.
There will always be those who decide they will follow Jesus “someday.” They are not ready to become “religious.” To you, I say: “Don’t become religious! Enter a vital, beautiful, and committed relationship with Jesus. Jesus had the most trouble with the “religious” people. He is not looking for party-line people; He is looking for those who will be genuine in loving and following Him. God wants to introduce you to what REAL life looks like. And from what I have seen so far, it is inexpressibly spectacular!
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