Jul 29, 2007

The Burial of Jesus

Mark 15:42–47

After the death of Jesus, a man named Joseph of Arimathea came to bury the body of Christ. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of the gospel of Mark to acknowledge how the dignity of Jesus’ burial was a fulfillment of prophecy.


Let us turn our attention now to the gospel according to Saint Mark. I will be reading from Mark 15:42–47, which is the end of the chapter. I would like the congregation now to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time. So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. Then he bought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen. And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. And Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses observed where He was laid.

This morning, we have the benefit of hearing God’s teaching of the burial of Jesus, which has tremendous importance for our understanding of the person and work of Christ. So, I pray that you will hear the Word of God and embrace it with your hearts. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, as we consider this morning this aspect of the life and ministry of Jesus regarding His burial, may the Holy Ghost open our eyes and hearts to the profound significance found therein. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Descended into Hell

A few weeks ago, when we looked at the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, I raised the question of why, in the selection of brief information included originally in the Apostles’ Creed, any space would be taken up referring to Pontius Pilate. Why not Caiaphas? Why not Herod? Why not somebody else? So, we looked at the significance of Pilate’s inclusion in the Apostles’ Creed.

There are two other questions that come to us through church history about the contents of the Apostles’ Creed. The question we hear more than any other is about the creed’s reference to Christ’s descent into hell. If you are really worried about that, come as we study the letters of Saint Peter once we finish up Mark.

The creed’s mention of Christ’s descent into hell does not occur in the earliest manuscripts of the Apostles’ Creed and seems to have been added later. It has provoked no small amount of controversy. There are many churches today that, when they recite the Apostles’ Creed, do not include the phrase “He descended into hell.”

When John Calvin was asked about the propriety of using that statement, “He descended into hell,” Calvin embraced the phrase, but wanted to change the order of the creed. He said, “What the Creed should say is, ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, descended into hell, died and was buried.’” Christ’s descent into hell was what He experienced on the cross, not something after His death. The details of that are for another day.

Died and Was Buried

The other item in the Apostles’ Creed that raises questions is the inclusion of the brief reference to the burial of Jesus: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and was buried.” It is almost redundant. When people died in antiquity, particularly Jewish people, what followed death was burial.

Some speculate that the reason for the inclusion of that word “buried” in the Apostles’ Creed is so that people might understand that Jesus was really dead and that His resurrection was not a resuscitation of somebody merely comatose. Personally, I doubt that is the reason burial is included in the creed. I think it is included in the creed for another reason, a profoundly important theological reason, which I trust we will be able to examine as we look at the text today.

The Women Who Followed

Let us go now to Mark’s gospel, to chapter 15. I am going to go back to verse 40 from last week, where we read this addendum to the account of Jesus death on the cross: “There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome, who also followed Him and ministered to Him when He was in Galilee, and many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem.” I go back to that because at least some of these women appear again in the burial and resurrection narrative.

The first thing we notice is that these women followed Jesus and were witnesses of His crucifixion from afar. I have talked about the idea that we cannot really be loyal followers of Jesus from a distance, but at least these women remained. The male disciples fled for their lives, while the women who had been in the entourage of Jesus during His earthly ministry at least stayed close enough to be observers of His death. They are named here: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses, and Salome.

The three women who are named have some significance. Mary Magdalene, Mary from Magdala, has the unfortunate tradition surrounding her—which has not one shred of evidence biblically—that she was a prostitute. There is no basis for that whatsoever, except that she was one from whom Jesus cast out demons. To assume that her demonic possession resulted in some kind of harlotry is a gratuitous leap that cannot be found in the text. Even more gratuitous is the blasphemous idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or had some kind of love affair with her, The Da Vinci Code notwithstanding. That is the stuff of fiction and of pseudepigraphal literature with not one ounce of biblical evidence to it. All we know from the Scriptures about Mary Magdalene is that she was a faithful disciple of Christ, was there at the cross, and was the first to see Him in His resurrection.

The other Mary mentioned is more mysterious because we are not sure which Mary she is. She is identified as Mary the mother of James the Less and of Joses. Scripture indicates that Jesus had, among other siblings, a brother named James and a brother named Joses, so many believe that the Mary identified here is Mary the mother of Jesus.

Salome is the wife of Zebedee, the mother of the Sons of Thunder, the disciples James and John. So, the women mentioned in this text were intimately acquainted with the earthly ministry of Jesus. We are told that they were following Him and ministering to Him while He was in Galilee.

Joseph’s Request

Now, let us turn to verse 42: “Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God”—let me stop there for a moment.

The time of Joseph of Arimathea’s visit to Pontius Pilate was in the late afternoon on the day of the crucifixion. The Sabbath day began at sundown on Friday, so presumably Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate before sundown, seeking permission to have Jesus’ body of Jesus released into his care to be buried. This had to be done in haste because we know that Jesus expired at three o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, so there was not a lot of time for His body to be removed from the cross and given a proper burial. In the meantime, Joseph also had to secure permission to take the body of Jesus from Pontius Pilate.

We are told in the text that Joseph was a prominent council member. The only council this can refer to in terms of Jewish prominence would have been the Sanhedrin, the very council that turned Jesus over to Pilate and sought His execution. This indicates that not everybody on the council of Jewish leadership was opposed to Jesus. He had at least Joseph as His ally, and presumably also Nicodemus, in that august body of Jewish leaders.

We are told also that Joseph was himself waiting for the coming of the kingdom of God. That would again further identify him as a believer in Jesus. So, we are told that, coming and taking courage, he went to Pilate and asked for the body. It required courage to go to the man who ordered the execution of Jesus as a criminal to ask permission for His body because for Pilate to release the body into the care of Joseph of Arimathea would involve a significant departure from the customs surrounding Roman crucifixion.

The Fires of Gehenna

Usually, when Roman prisoners were crucified, their bodies were disposed of in one of two ways. One way was designed as an instrument of terror to keep a subjugated population under control by injecting fear into them, which was to leave the dead victim on the cross for a significant period of time until the body began to decay and decompose as a warning to anyone else who was thinking of being involved in insurrection, for example. It was a rather ghastly and grim thing to do. The second way was to remove the body from the cross immediately and throw it into a garbage dump. Even when the bodies of those left on the cross were finally removed, they were deposited in the garbage dump outside of Jerusalem, the Jewish name for which is Gehenna.

Garbage in those days was disposed of by incineration. When Jesus spoke of the punishment of hell, He used the location of Gehenna outside of Jerusalem, where the fires never went out, as one of His chief metaphors. The reason the fires never went out was that a constant supply of garbage and refuse was deposited into that dump on a regular basis, at least on a weekly basis. Jesus spoke of hell as the place where the worm never dies, and some worms are parasites that live off the host. But if the worms in the dump began to get hungry, they only waited a short time for their next meal. So, those awful images Jesus used to describe hell are appropriate.

To have one’s body thrown unceremoniously onto the garbage dump was not an indication of respect, and surely not an indication of glory. The only difference between the two methods of disposal was that sometimes the Romans would take the bodies down as soon as the executed criminals died and immediately throw them in the garbage pile, while others hung on the cross for a while and then later were sent to the fires of the garbage dump, Gehenna.

In either case, the ultimate destination of the bodies of executed criminals was a dreadful garbage dump where the bodies, along with the rest of the garbage, were incinerated. That did not happen to Jesus, and that it did not happen to Jesus is of tremendous theological significance, which we will look at in just a moment. In the meantime, let us look at the narrative as it stands.

Humiliation to Exaltation

We are told that Joseph acted hastily and with courage. He came to Pilate and said: “Please, can I have the body? I want to give Him a proper burial.” Pilate was immediately concerned about the state of Jesus’ corpse. He marveled that Jesus was already dead. So, he summoned the centurion. The centurion is the one who said, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

Pilate asked the centurion: “Is He dead? Is He really dead?” The centurion affirmed that He was. Pilate asked if He had been dead for some time. When Pilate found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. So, Joseph bought fine linen, took Him down, wrapped Him in the linen, laid Him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.

We see now in this narrative that after Pilate granted the request of Joseph of Arimathea, Joseph took great pains to give Jesus a proper burial. He wrapped the body of Jesus in sheets and fine linen, then put Jesus in a magnificent burial site, a tomb. The one thing he was not able to do because he did not have time before sunset was anoint the body properly with spices. As we will see later, the women came to the tomb on Sunday morning for the purpose of anointing the body. Usually, the body was anointed before it was entombed, but in this case, there was no time for it.

Why do I say there is significance to this? I have mentioned to you before that the life of Jesus followed a basic progression that moved from humiliation to exaltation. We see throughout the life of Jesus increasing hostility and increasing suffering imposed upon Him until that suffering reaches its crescendo in the crucifixion, often called the grand passion.

When do we find the turning point in Jesus’ life from humiliation to exaltation? Usually, when people look at the biblical narrative, they say: “That’s easy. Jesus’ exaltation begins on Sunday morning with His resurrection from the dead.” While that may be the zenith of His exaltation in the New Testament, it is not the beginning. The beginning, the point of transition from suffering to exaltation, is found in His burial. Why? There is one reason, and it has a couple of points of emphasis.

Prophecies Fulfilled

The first and primary reason Jesus’ exaltation began with His burial is that His burial fulfilled the ancient prophecies of the Old Testament. Look for a moment at Isaiah 53:

He was oppressed and He was afflicted,
Yet He opened not His mouth;
He was led as a lamb to the slaughter,
And as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
So He opened not His mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment,
And who will declare His generation?
For He was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgressions of My people He was stricken. (Isa. 53:7–8)

Up to that point, everything we have read references His humiliation. Isaiah continues in verse 9, “And they made His grave with the wicked—” that is, the people who were crucified with Jesus. But then, Isaiah gives us the critical word:

But with the rich in His death,
Because He had done no violence,
Nor was any deceit in His mouth. (Isa. 53:9)

In that prophetic utterance centuries before Jesus, Isaiah sees the point of transition from the Suffering Servant’s humiliation to His vindication in the fact that He is buried with the rich because He is innocent. That was fulfilled to the letter in the circumstances surrounding the burial of Jesus.

Another aspect of that prophecy can be found in the second chapter of the book of Acts. When Peter gives his magnificent sermon on the Day of Pentecost, he quotes from the Old Testament, from a psalm of David, saying:

I foresaw the Lord always before my face,
For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken.
Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad;
Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope.
For You will not leave my soul in Hades,
Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. (Acts 2:25–27)

On that occasion, Peter essentially said: “David was not talking about himself. David’s tomb is with us to this day. When David died, his body underwent the natural process of corruption, but not the body of Christ. He would not suffer His Holy One to have a bone in His body broken.”

You might say, “Wait a minute, they put the spear in His side.” That is true. But the body of Jesus substantially remained intact even in crucifixion, again fulfilling the Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah, whose body not only avoided being thrown on the garbage heap and being subjected to corruption but was honored with the dignity of a sacred burial according to Jewish tradition.

The Practice of Burial

By way of application, a question I regularly receive from people is this: “Do we have to bury the remains of our loved ones when they die? Why can’t we just do cremation? Is there any law against cremation?” More and more in our culture, cremation has become the option of choice for many people, and that is also true in the church today. So, I often have people ask me about cremation.

This is what I say to them to give them some peace of mind: “As far as I know, there is no prohibition that I can find anywhere in the Bible against cremating the remains of your loved ones or having your own body cremated by your desire. There is no prohibition. At the same time, I cannot find anywhere in the Bible that gives an absolute command for Christians to dispose of their bodies by burial.” There is no prohibition against cremation and no command for burial, so there is some latitude on this question.

However, though there is not a universal command for disposing of the bodies of people through burial, there is one instance where such a command does exist, and that is in the Old Testament book of 2 Samuel, in which it is commanded that even the bodies of criminals who are executed must be buried. The reason for that is simple. In the Jewish and Old Testament tradition, ritual burial was the traditional customary means of disposing dead bodies, and there was a reason for that practice.

In Old Testament days, the pagan practice of disposing of bodies was through putting them on a fire and incinerating them. Part of the reason for that pagan practice was because the pagans viewed the physical bodies of human beings as inherently wicked. As a result, there was nothing wrong with throwing the bodies on the funeral pyre and letting them be disintegrated by fire.

The Jews did not view the body in the way eastern dualists did or in the way the Platonists did. The Jews believed in creation, that God created man body and soul and pronounced His benediction not only on the soul but also on the body, saying, “That is good.” As Christians, we look forward to the final day and the resurrection of the body.

Plato saw redemption as being salvation from the body. Christianity teaches salvation of the body. Do you see the difference? Within the Christian community, there must never be any disparaging of the value of the physical aspect God has given to us, but the pagan rites of cremation indeed disparaged the value of the body.

The Old Testament tradition of burial falls short of being an absolute command. I want to make that clear. I do not want anybody saying that I believe you are violating the directive of the Bible if you get cremated. At the same time, I would never do it, based on the strength of the implications of the evidence from the biblical example.

Not only do we find the examples in the Deuteronomic requirements for the burial of criminals, but we also have examples of the disposition of the bodies of mediators from both the old and new covenants.

The old covenant mediator was Moses. Who disposed of the body of Moses? They did not call the local undertaker. God Himself took care of Moses’ body, and He did not burn it. He buried it. The very act of the burial of Moses sanctified it. The body had already been sanctified years before with the patriarch Abraham, who was promised to have descendants like the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore. The only piece of real estate that Abraham, who had been promised to be the father of a great nation, ever owned was Machpelah, which was his grave. The disposition of the bodies of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—in every case—was burial.

So important was burial to the Jews that when the Exodus came and the people of Israel were redeemed from bondage in Egypt and were called upon to leave Egypt, God commanded them to take the bones of the patriarch Joseph with them. Again and again, we see this example in the Bible.

The biblical examples reach their zenith with the way the body of Jesus was treated. It was treated tenderly. It was treated with honor. He was laid to rest according to the customs of His people throughout thousands of years. That is why, over the last two thousand years, virtually every church in Christendom has continued that process. To remove it just for financial or economic reasons frightens me. Again, it is not a law. You are free. I am just advising you to follow the burial process for the reasons I have mentioned.

A Rich Man’s Tomb

I want to say one last thing quickly about the burial of Jesus. We are told that when He was laid to rest, Joseph laid Him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock, and then he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. The customary form of burial among the Jews was not placing the bodies of people in coffins, digging a hole in the ground, and putting them in. For the most part, Jewish burial consisted of being placed in caves hollowed out from the porous rock. It was easy to do. They put shelves up on those caves, family tombs, and the bodies were placed in the caves.

Now, 80 percent of the caves that the Jews used for burial places had a square stone at their entrance. The square stone was placed there to protect the tombs from grave robbers. In the case of wealthy people such as Joseph of Arimathea, the tombs would have a circular rock placed in a rut in front of the tomb, which could be rolled aside with great effort. That is the kind of tomb in which Jesus was buried.

If you visit Jerusalem, you can visit the Garden Tomb. The odds that the Garden Tomb is the tomb in which Jesus was laid to rest are astronomically low. But the good thing about the Garden Tomb that tourists visit in Jerusalem is that it is exactly the kind of tomb in which Jesus would have been buried. He made His grave with the rich because God would not allow His Holy One to suffer corruption. Even in His burial, honor and exaltation were given to our Lord.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.