His Tomb Was Borrowed: Crucified, Died and was Buried

Original Date: 
Sunday, June 4, 2017

Matthew 27:57-61 His Tomb Was Borrowed: Crucified, Died, and was Buried…On the Third Day He Rose Again

The Creed
Once again, we are continuing in our study of the Apostles’ Creed. The Creed is an early summary of Christian belief. In fact, the word “Creed” comes from the Latin word “credo”, which means “I believe.” When we stand and say this Creed together, we are saying: 1) I agree, I believe these things are true; 2) I pledge, I stand with this God and reject all others; and 3) I trust, I give my life into the hands of this God.

So before I begin, I’d like to invite you to stand and we will confess our faith together:

Christians, what do you believe?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.

An Unnecessary Word?
Today’s sermon is based on a word that seems to be unnecessary: “Buried.”

The Creed tells us that Jesus was crucified, it tells us that Jesus died, it even tells us that He descended to the dead… so why does it need to tell us that he was buried? Isn’t that sort of obvious?

I don’t mean to make too much out of the number of words in the Creed. I know I talked about this last week. There are 114 words in our translation. There’s nothing magical about that number of words. There could be more, there could be less. But I keep bringing it up because in a document so pointedly brief, it is obvious that every word counts.

Or, to put it another way, there are not going to be any superfluous words in such a short document. So, as we saw last week, mention of Pontius Pilate does not get in there by accident. Likewise, there must be some reason that the word “buried” is in the Creed. It would appear the earliest Christians felt this was an important part of our faith.

In fact, if we go back to one of the earliest creeds, one of the earliest summaries of the Christian faith, we’ll find that the word “buried” is included:

In 1 Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul sets out “to remind you of the gospel I preached to you.” In verses 4 and 5 he says:

3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.

You can see the similarities here with the wording of the Creed. In fact, it is from these verses that some of the phrasing of the Creed is taken. And you can see that there are four important steps in Paul’s understanding of the gospel, four crucial events in the life of Jesus: 1) He died, 2) He was buried; 3) He was raised, and 4) He appeared. The burial is an important part of the story. It’s a crucial step in our understanding of the gospel.

In fact, in all four gospel accounts of the life and death of Jesus, there is a paragraph dedicated to Jesus’ burial. It’s actually a paragraph that nobody seems to know what to do with. It seems sort of tacked on.

What I mean is, every year during Holy Week, we want to tell the story of Jesus’ crucifixion. For us, that’s our Maunday Thursday service. So we usually pick one of the gospel accounts to read. And then, we get to the part where Jesus dies, and—no matter which gospel we are looking at, Matthew, Mark, Luke or John—we get this paragraph about them taking Jesus’ body, preparing it for burial, and putting it in the tomb. And I never know if I should include that part, or not. I mean, you get to the big finish—Jesus says “Into your hands I commit my spirit” or “It is finished,” and then you get these sort of extra details about the burial. It seems like it’s just a little verbal cushion between Jesus’ death and Jesus’ resurrection.

So I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon on the burial of Jesus. Chances are you’ve never heard one either. But the Creed includes it, Paul says it is an essential part of the gospel, and all four passion narratives tell us about it; so we’re going to look at it today.

We could get the story from Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. I’ll reference some details from all four. But for our text we are going to use Matthew 27:57-61:

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

What I’d like to do today is go through this passage verse by verse, and share some of the significance of what is going on here. Then, at the end, I’ll have five reasons the burial of Jesus is important to us.

Marking Time
So, first, let’s look at the story. Verse 57:

57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.

The first thing I want to talk about is time. Matthew tells us that evening is approaching. That is, it’s coming up on 6:00. This is significant, because the Jewish Sabbath begins at 6:00 on Friday evening. And one of the things that is prohibited on the Sabbath is the handling of dead bodies. So if something is going to be done with Jesus’ body, it needs to be done before 6 pm.
We know that Jesus’ crucifixion took place from about 9am to 3pm. From the sixth hour (which would have been noon), to the 9th hour (which would have been 3:00) darkness covered the land Matt. 27:45). Then, shortly after 3:00, Jesus died.

So, if Jesus died at 3, and the Sabbath begins at 6, Joseph of Arimathea has a relatively short amount of time to get Jesus’ body down, prepare it for burial, and put it into the tomb.

I should also note that the time marker is important for figuring out the day of Jesus’ resurrection. The Creed says that “after three days he rose again.” Jesus, in predicting His resurrection, used the sign of Jonah to predict that He would be in the ground for three days (Matthew 12:40). But if Jesus died at 3:00 on Friday afternoon and rose early on Sunday morning (say around 6 am), that’s only 39 hours that He is dead. So how can we say that it took three days?

What matters is that Jesus was dead for parts of three separate days. If you were going to Sioux City today, and coming back on Tuesday, you could say that you were going to be in Sioux City for three days and no one would argue with you. You’d be in Sioux City this evening (1 day), all day Monday (2 days) and part of the day Tuesday before coming home (3 days). So Jesus could die on Friday, be buried all day Saturday, and then rise early on Sunday and be said to rise again on the third day.

But, if the Sabbath begins at 6:00 on Friday evening—if the Jews mark their days from evening to evening—then for Jesus to be buried for 3 days He needs to be buried before 6 pm.

A “Secret” Disciple
So, Joseph has his work cut out for him. He’s working with a narrow window of time.

Now, before going to the next verse, let’s talk a little bit about Joseph. Joseph of Arimathea is named as the person who buries Jesus in all four gospels. What we know about him, we get from the Bible.

Matthew tells us that he was a rich man. Rich enough to have his own tomb, and rich enough to have expensive burial spices with which to wrap Jesus’ body. Mark adds that he was a member of the Jewish ruling council—the Sanhedrin. So that probably means that he was witness to most of Jesus’ trial. He was even there when the council voted to condemn Jesus, though Luke tells us that he did not consent to their decision. Matthew also tells us he “had himself become a disciple of Jesus.” John confirms this, but adds an interesting word, calling him a “secret” disciple of Jesus.

So, this is interesting. Joseph is a prominent, wealthy leader of the Jewish community. He has been watching Jesus, and listening to the stories about Him, and He has become convinced that Jesus is the real deal. He has decided that He wants to follow Jesus.

But he hasn’t told anybody about it. He’s kept it a secret. To come out openly for Jesus would be to risk his position on the council and possibly even his life. Thus far, the best thing he has been able to do for Jesus is vote “no” when the council was deciding to condemn Him. But even then, there is no record that he spoke out in defense of Jesus. There is no indication that he mustered any sort of argument in an attempt to save Jesus’ life.

Most of us would probably say that Joseph wasn’t much of a follower of Jesus. If he claimed to be a disciple, he sure didn’t show it. He seemed more ashamed of Jesus, scared of the consequences if he showed his allegiance, then he seemed a committed Christ follower.

And yet, the Bible calls him a disciple. It’s right there in Matthew 27:57. It says the same thing in John 19:38. And he’s about to step up for Jesus in a major way.

Rescued from the Trash Heap
Verse 58:

58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.

Can you imagine the courage it took for Joseph to go to Pilate? Here he’s been keeping his allegiance to Jesus a secret. He’s been protecting his wealth and status and position on the council.

And now, Jesus is dead. There’s really no point in coming out for Jesus now. It’s not like there’s this big groundswell of support for Jesus now that He’s died a martyr’s death. Quite the opposite, really. All the big name followers, those who were most prominently connected to Jesus during his ministry, your James and John and Peter and the others, have gone into hiding. They don’t know if the Romans are coming for them next. So there’s nothing to gain from identifying with Jesus now.

But Joseph, who has thus far kept his loyalty to Jesus a secret, can’t stand to see Jesus’ body left on the cross to rot. So now, he screws up his courage, risks the wrath of an already irritated Roman governor, risks being ostracized by the rest of the Jewish council, risks his reputation and his wealth and his social status, and he goes to Pilate and asks if he may have possession of Jesus’ body.

Joseph may have kept his love for Jesus a secret in life, but he is going to take a bold stand for him in death.

Now, I should pause for a moment and talk about what would have happened to Jesus’ body if Joseph had not stepped up. It was not typical for Roman crucifixion victims to be buried. Not typical at all.

One of the purposes of crucifixion was to deter other crimes. The Romans usually left bodies hanging on crosses for days or even weeks. It was like a sign-post: “Do not challenge the power of Rome.”

Moreover, when bodies were taken down, they were rarely buried. If they were, it would have been in a shallow, mass grave. More often, the bodies were simply taken to a trash heap—such as Gehenna outside of Jerusalem—where they would be burned or left to the wild animals to pick over and scavenge.

In fact, I read this week that archaeologists have found only one body that they believe shows marks of being crucified. This doesn’t mean crucifixions rarely happened, but that it was very rare that any efforts were made to preserve the body of someone who died on a cross.

So if Joseph had not come along to request Jesus’ body, there may not have been much of a body left by Sunday morning. Verse 59:

59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,

Here’s something else that is rare for a crucifixion victim. In fact, it is something that is rare for most people who died at that time. Joseph prepares the body for burial. He wraps it in a clean linen cloth. What that really means is that he embalmed the body.

Back then, in Israel, bodies were not embalmed by putting fluid into the body, but they were preserved by being packed on the outside with spices. They were carefully wrapped with strong aromatics that would diminish the smell of decay and also keep scavengers away. It was expensive, and only the truly wealthy could afford to do it.

John even tells us that Joseph had help. John mentions that Nicodemus, another member of the Jewish Council who earlier visited with Jesus under the cover of night, brought along about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes and helped Joseph to wrap Jesus’ body.

So what is happening here is actually the first step in the exaltation of Jesus. After the work on the cross is finished, it is actually Joseph and Nicodemus who are the first to honor Jesus by giving Him an expensive funeral more befitting of a King than of an itinerant teacher who died a criminal’s death.

The Garden Tomb
Verse 60:

60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.

Then, Joseph takes it a step further. It so happens that right there, close to where Jesus died, Joseph has his own tomb. A cavern cut out of the rock that he plans to use for his own burial and that of his family. Again, this is something that only the wealthy could afford. So now he uses his own tomb as the burial place for Jesus’ body.

Now, nobody is 100% sure today where this tomb was. But if you ever go to the Holy Land, one of the sites you are likely to visit is the Garden Tomb at a place now known as Gordon’s Calvary outside of the Damascus Gate. Unearthed in 1867, this tomb is just a stone’s throw from a limestone outcropping that the weather has carved into the shape of a skull. Since the Bible says Jesus was crucified at Golgotha, the “place of the skull”, it is suggested that this could be the place of the crucifixion. If so, then the Garden Tomb is mere yards away and it would have been relatively easy for Joseph and Nicodemus to take Jesus’ body down, wrap it in cloth and all those spices, and place it in this tomb before the Sabbath began at 6:00.

The Garden Tomb itself is a relatively quiet, peaceful location that even has a groove cut in front of the door that could have held a stone to be rolled in place to seal the entryway.
Regardless of whether this is the place or not, the Bible is very clear that Joseph took Jesus’ body and placed it in his own, never-before-used tomb.

Verse 61:

61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.

The paragraph ends with this final note and bit of foreshadowing. We are told about the two Marys to confirm that the place of Jesus’ burial was no secret. There were witnesses to what happened, and the next few verses even tell us that the Jewish leaders and Romans posted a guard. We may not know for certain where the tomb is today, but they sure knew then.

These two Marys are also going to be the first to discover the empty tomb, so it is important to establish that they knew right where it was. There can be no accusation that they went to the wrong place.

Why the Burial Matters
So the Bible actually gives us quite a bit of information about Jesus’ burial. The gospel writers considered it an important part of the story. The question is: why? What difference does it make to us that Jesus was buried? I have 5 things.

1) First, it establishes that Jesus really died. If you are going to claim that Jesus was raised from the dead, then it is pretty important to establish that He was really dead. The detail John provides about the Romans thrusting a spear into His side does that. But so also does the burial.

This isn’t a case of Jesus somehow surviving the crucifixion. He was truly dead and buried.

2) Second, Jesus’ burial is a fulfillment of prophecy. Many people are familiar with Isaiah 53 as a prediction of Jesus’ death. That’s the passage that says Jesus was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.

But Isaiah 53 also contains a verse that seems pretty confusing. Isaiah 53:9 says:

9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,

On its face, this verse is patently absurd. How could someone be assigned a grave with the wicked, and also be buried with the rich? It doesn’t make sense. If someone died a criminal’s death their bodies were discarded and left to rot. The burial of the rich, as we’ve said, was unique and for the privileged few.

And then we get the very unusual circumstances of Jesus. He dies alongside two criminals. He dies a criminal’s death Himself. But here comes this rich man to claim the body and honor Him with expensive burial spices. How many people in history can be said to both be assigned a grave with the wicked while simultaneously being buried with the rich? There can’t be many, right? And Isaiah wrote this 700 years before Jesus!

3) Third, Jesus’ burial sanctifies our own trip to the grave.
In the RCA liturgy book that I use for funerals, there is a prayer that I read at the graveside. It goes like this:

Almighty God, by the death of your dear Son Jesus Christ, you have destroyed death; by His rest in the tomb you have sanctified the graves of the saints; and by His glorious resurrection you have brought life and immortality to light.

There is something comforting about standing at the graveside of someone you dearly love and knowing that Jesus has already been where they are now. There is hope in the truth that Jesus has transformed death for those who follow Him. The grave is no longer a dark, cold forbidding place. Instead, for those who love and trust in Jesus the grave becomes a doorway to a new life of immortality and joy.

4) Fourth, Jesus’ burial is a picture of the complete removal of our sins.

As you probably know, Jesus death is the fulfillment of a lot of Old Testament sacrificial rituals. If you want to understand what was happening when Jesus died, one of the best things you can do is go back to the books of Exodus and Leviticus and study all of the rituals the Jewish people used to cleanse themselves of sin.

And one of the most important rituals was the Day of Atonement and the use of a scapegoat. On that day the High Priest would symbolically lay his hands on two goats and pray over them, confessing all of the sins of the people. One of the goats would then be sacrificed, signifying that the penalty for sin was death and the need for blood to be shed in order to cleanse the people. The other goat—the scapegoat--would be led out of the camp into the wilderness, signifying that the sins of the people had been carried far, far away.

Jesus’ burial is a way that Jesus lives out the role of the scapegoat. By going outside of the camp, all the way to the grave itself, Jesus is carrying our sins far, far away (cf. Heb. 13:13). We’ll talk about this more in two weeks when we get to the line “He descended to the dead.”

In 1910 an evangelist named J. Wilbur Chapman (who would become one of Billy Graham’s mentors) wrote a song called “One Day.” Recently it was re-popularized when the band Casting Crowns recorded it. The chorus of the song captures what Jesus did in his death and burial perfectly:

Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!

5) And then, fifth and finally: Jesus’ burial prepares for Jesus’ resurrection.
As we’ve seen, if Joseph had not stepped up to claim and bury Jesus’ body, there may never have been a resurrection at all. At the very least, there would have been little left of Jesus’ body. That’s not to say that God, in His sovereign power, could not have reassembled Jesus’ body in whatever way He needed too, but it would have been much less powerful evidence to point at an empty spot in the trash heap and say: “Look, He’s not there.” Far more powerful to point to an empty tomb.

It seems clear to me that God was sovereignly working through Joseph to make sure the stage was fully set for Jesus’ bodily resurrection from the dead. It was because Jesus was “crucified, died and buried” that “on the third day he rose again.”

There’s a phrase I’ve heard in a couple of recent praise songs that has really resonated with me. I chose it as the title for today’s sermon. “His tomb was borrowed.”

I love that line. It reminds us that Jesus was buried in a grave that was not his own. It honors the act of Joseph in stepping up and offering Jesus his tomb. It reminds us that though Jesus died a criminal’s death, He was buried with the honor He deserved.

But more than all that, when you borrow something that means you are going to give it back. If I borrow your car, it means I’m only going to use it for a little while. If I borrow some money, it means I’m paying it back. When Jesus borrowed Joseph’s grave, He knew He was giving it back.

So, one of the songs where the line shows up is a song by Hillsong called “Love is War.” The other is in the song we are going to sing at the end of the service, the song “Resurrecting.” The fourth verse goes like this:

The tomb where soldiers watched in vain
was borrowed for three days
His body there would not remain
our God has robbed the grave

So, is “buried” a necessary word in the Creed? I think it is. I think it reminds us that Jesus really died, that His death fulfilled prophecy, that He has blazed the path to the grave, that He has carried our sins far away, and that He truly has risen again.

The most important thing about the burial of Jesus is that Jesus didn’t stay buried.