Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried. But the grave could not contain the holy Son of God. Continuing his expositional series in the gospel of Luke, in this sermon R.C. Sproul preaches on the bedrock foundation of our hope: Christ’s resurrection in victory over sin and death.
This morning I will be reading from Luke 23:50–24:12, and I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” And they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
This is the inspired Word of almighty God, giving a record of supreme importance for each one of us regarding the day on which our Savior was raised from the dead. Please be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we are overwhelmed by the wonder of these things we have just read that have been supervised by Your Holy Spirit. We ask now that the same Holy Spirit would condescend to our weakness and fragility, that You would give us assistance to understand these words and their significance and importance. Use them to change the hardness of our hearts for the glory of Christ and for His gospel. Amen.
Humiliation and Exaltation
Before I look at this text, I would like to take a brief excursion to a short Old Testament passage from Isaiah 53, which is probably Isaiah’s most famous passage. It reads like an the eyewitness of the crucifixion. I will read Isaiah 53:7–9:
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
The reason I wanted to look briefly at Isaiah 53 before we look at this portion of Luke’s gospel is that in the history of theology, we have noticed a pattern in the progress of Jesus’ life as recorded in sacred Scripture. Jesus passed through periods of profound humiliation, then at other times, supreme exaltation.
The pendulum swung between humiliation and exaltation, but it was not a consistent plane in which Jesus started with humiliation, dropped to the nadir of that humiliation, then moved gradually into a process of exaltation. Rather, it was a mixed measure, where during times of humiliation there would be a certain glimpse, a momentary breakthrough, of glory and exaltation.
Probably one of the least-read books I have ever written was on the glory of Christ, where I focused my attention on those vignettes in which the glory of Christ broke through the veil and His exaltation was vividly perceived. I certainly enjoyed writing it.
Think back to the birth of Jesus, which was recorded in Luke’s gospel, where there was such an emphasis on humiliation. He was born in the lowly conditions of servanthood. Yet, at the very moment of the depth of that humiliation, just down the path, outside the fields of Bethlehem, there was a sight and sound show of majestic glory, as God with the shekinah manifested Himself to the lowly shepherds, announcing the birth of their King.
Exaltation in Burial
Normally when we think of the change from humiliation to exaltation, we think that the major hinge of transition between humiliation and exaltation was from the nadir of crucifixion and suffering on the cross to the manifest glory seen in resurrection. No, that was not the point of transition. The moment that marked the change from dreadful humiliation to exaltation was not the resurrection; it was the burial of Jesus.
When Isaiah described the ignominy of the Suffering Servant’s passion and death, he said that He was numbered with the wicked, and yet it was with the rich He was buried. Under normal circumstances, those who were crucified were not buried in rich men’s tombs. I have preached many times in the past about what happens to the bodies of crucified victims, and I was under the misinformation for years that in antiquity bodies were usually disposed of in the Valley of Hinnom, outside the city of Jerusalem, in a garbage dump that was in flames daily and never went out. The worm would not die and the flames were never quenched because the garbage from the city was transferred daily for disposal in Gehenna.
That was a rich metaphor for hell itself, but then I learned recently from the latest scholarship that the garbage dump was probably not put there until centuries later. I have been under the impression that this falsehood was true based upon misunderstanding.
Normally, if a person was crucified for various crimes, their families could claim the body afterward and afford them a decent burial, except in the case of sedition. Those executed as traitors were not allowed to be buried by their families, but rather were left in the fields for the vultures to pluck their eyes out, eat their skin and muscles, and reduce them to skeletons. Since Jesus was condemned as a traitor, it would be expected that His body would be left to the vultures as so much carrion to be devoured; but God said no.
Earlier in Luke 23, we read the last words of Jesus while He was dying. With His last breath, He was strong enough to shout in a loud voice heavenwards, saying, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.” Then He breathed His last. We remarked about how ironic that was after the Son had gone through the unimaginable, ghastly torments of being totally cursed by the Father. Those torments were a thousand times greater than those of Job before Him. Job said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.”
Here, the dying Son of God had committed His spirit and soul to the very Father who had cursed Him. It was a double commitment; as the Son committed His spirit to the Father, so the Father had committed already the care of the body of His Son. God’s Word had said He would not allow a bone of His body to be broken, and in Acts we read that God would not allow His Holy One to see corruption. Let other traitors be fed to the vultures, but not so with the Son of Man. God would have none of it.
Burial from a Secret Disciple
We read that there was a man named Joseph from the Jewish town of Arimathea, about twenty miles north of Jerusalem, from which the Old Testament giant, Samuel, came. We are told Joseph was a member of the council, the Sanhedrin, but seemed not to be present on the day the fateful decision was made by the conspirators who despised Jesus. He did not consent to the death of Christ.
Joseph was a secret disciple, the Scriptures tell us, along with another secret disciple, also a member of the Sanhedrin. The other disciple’s name was Nicodemus, who came to Jesus at night, and Jesus told him that he must be born again. Evidently, he was. He heard the Word of the Lord and was converted to Jesus, as was Joseph of Arimathea.
We are told Joseph was a member of the council, a good and righteous man. We are all depraved in sin, and it is rare in sacred Scripture for God the Holy Spirit to reveal that somebody was good and righteous. This is one of these extraordinary exceptions. Joseph was described as a righteous, good man, a man looking for the kingdom of God, but a secret disciple.
Then we are told Joseph went to Pontius Pilate. Can you imagine the terror beating in the heart of Joseph of Arimathea when he went and knocked at the door of the imperial palace, saying, “I would like to talk to the governor, to Pontius Pilate”? It would have been like Moses in the Old Testament going to Pharaoh and saying, “I have a message to you from God, and God says, ‘Let My people go.’”
When Pilate sentenced Jesus to death, he made sure that a sign was posted above the cross in three languages that announced Jesus as the King of the Jews. That offended the Jews, but Pilate hated the Jews. The Jews intervened and likely said: “Please take that sign down. It’s offensive to us; it’s politically incorrect to advertise this dying criminal as the King of the Jews.”
Pilate didn’t say: “I’m so sorry to have offended you. Let me get a ladder and climb up there and take that notice down myself.” No, no, no—arrogantly and pompously, Pilate replied: “What I have written, I have written. Don’t touch that sign. You leave it right there.”
Joseph came, likely shaking in his boots, saying: “Pilate, can I please have the body of Jesus?” He expected Pilate to say: “You know the rules. He goes to the vultures. No burial for Him.” Joseph probably said, “Please Pilate, let me take Him down from the cross and put Him in my own tomb, a large tomb cut out of the rock where no one has ever been laid.” There was no scent or hint of corruption in that tomb. No lingering odor and no vestige or remains of death.
Through the providence of God, whose hand was on the heart of Pilate, Pilate acceded to this request and said: “Fine. Take Him down. Give Him a proper burial.” Then he took the body down, presumably with aid since it was not a job for one man, and wrapped Jesus’s body in a linen shroud. He had to remove the spikes from the hands of Jesus so He could be taken from the cross and then carried reverently and tenderly to the rich man’s tomb, which was the beginning of His exaltation.
Joseph took Jesus’ body down and wrapped it in a linen shroud from head to toe, around the torso, arms, and legs of Jesus. He was laid in a tomb cut in stone where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning, and the women who had come with Him from Galilee followed and saw where the tomb was, but then they returned so they could also prepare spices and ointments.
We read elsewhere in the Scriptures that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus anointed the body of Jesus with precious ointment and spices that weighed one hundred pounds. I cannot even begin to guess how valuable those spices were in today’s economy, but it was lavish treatment for one hundred pounds of spices and precious ointments to be used for the burial of Christ.
He Is Risen
Then the women, we are told, after seeing the spot where Jesus was laid, went back and rested on the Sabbath according to the commandments. After that time had passed, we read in chapter 24 that on the first day of the week they left at early dawn while it was still dark. They came to the tomb taking the spices they had prepared elsewhere.
The gospel writers tell us that the thing that most concerned the women while on their way with these spices to anoint the body of Jesus was: “How are we going to do it? How are we going to get into the tomb?” This giant stone, like a giant millstone, was placed in front of the tomb, and the authority of Rome put a seal upon it saying no one was permitted to come inside the tomb. The ladies on their pilgrimage were talking among themselves and said: “How are going to get in? Who is going to move the stone?”
When the women came to the tomb, the Bible says that they found the stone rolled away, but they did not find His body; it was gone. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. As they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them: “What are you doing here? What are you looking for? Why are you seeking the living among the dead? Don’t you understand this is a cemetery? He’s not here. He is risen.”
We do not just celebrate this on Easter. Every single Sunday morning, we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, because He was raised on the Lord’s Day. It was on the Lord’s Day that the words were first spoken, “He is risen.” He is risen indeed.
The two men then said: “Don’t you remember what He said to you while He was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day, rise?” The women probably thought: “He did say that, didn’t He? But it went right over our heads. We didn’t grasp any of that. All we heard was that He was going to go be tortured, tormented, and killed. Yes, now that you say it, He did say that He would rise on the third day.”
Impossible for Death to Hold Jesus
The text continues: “Returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, but these words seemed to them an idle tale.” The Apostles thought this was an old wives’ tale. They did not believe it for a second. They said: “What’s wrong with you? We saw the body, we know He died, and now you’re coming and telling us that suddenly He’s gone? Where were the guards?” They responded, “When we went there the guards were gone.”
The rest of Scripture tells us that there had been a violent earthquake, the stone had been moved, and the angels had appeared. The guards of Rome saw all of this and felt the earth tremble in violence. They saw the rock start to teeter and move away. Then two heavenly beings in dazzling garments like lightning appeared. Those brave Roman soldiers ran for their lives.
The Apostles did not believe the women, but listen to this footnote: “Peter rose.” He thought about it for a second and said: “I know it’s foolish talk, but is there any possibility that what they’re saying could be true? No, no, no, it’s impossible. The dead don’t rise.”
Peter’s theology had not yet developed to the point where he understood that it was impossible for death to hold Jesus. That was the impossibility. Death is reserved for sinners, and though the sins of the people were imputed to Jesus, inherently He was sin-less, so death had no claim or title to Christ. The Word says it was impossible for death to hold Him.
“Peter was musing, and maybe he just began to think as he walked casually and slowly strolled in the direction of the garden.” No, that is not what the Bible says. Luke tells us that when he heard this, he got up and ran as fast as his feet could carry him to the tomb. Stooping, he looked in: no guard, no Jesus, just perfectly arranged grave cloths.
Nobody took the body away. Jesus walked out on His own, free and alive. When Peter saw these grave cloths, he went home astonished, marveling at what had taken place. This was probably the most wondrous event in all human history. Do you join him in your soul and heart in the marvel of that moment?
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.