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Why the Burial of Jesus Matters

April 2, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 23:50-56 (NRSV)

Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

Focus

The Gospel of Luke, like the other biblical Gospels, describes in some detail the burial of Jesus. Why? First, the burial of Jesus underscored the fact that he really died on the cross. He really bore the penalty for human sin through his death. Second, the burial of Jesus sets the stage for what is coming, namely the resurrection. As we reflect on the death and burial of Jesus, we are struck by the amazing love of God for us, even as we are prepared for the celebration of Easter.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

On this Holy Saturday, I’d like to reflect with you on what happened right after Jesus died on the cross. Luke tells us that his body was placed in a tomb. This was better treatment than many crucified people would have received. Their bodies were often discarded by Roman soldiers and left exposed, unless they had families or friends nearby to care for them. The body of Jesus was fortunate enough to receive unusual attention from a man named Joseph, who was both a member of the Sanhedrin and a follower of Jesus. He made sure the body of his Lord was appropriately buried, so that, later, the bones of Jesus could be finally interred in an ossuary (a special box for bones), according to the common cultural practice. Little did Joseph know that God had other plans for the body of Jesus.

In most human societies appropriate burial of dead bodies is a sacred tradition. It matters profoundly that we ensure the proper resting place for those who have died. Yet, after burials happen, we don’t generally mention them specifically. For example, my father died in 1986. I’ve spoken of his death probably 500 times since then, but I don’t think I’ve ever said, “My dad died in 1986 and then he was buried.” Burial, however significant to us, is something we assume and don’t need to point out specifically. Perhaps the exception these days is when someone’s ashes are scattered. But if I say, “My dad died” you’d rightly assume that he was buried. Therefore, it’s notable that all four biblical Gospels describe the burial of Jesus and the help of Joseph of Arimathea as if it were essential.

Moreover, the very earliest summary we have of the Christian message also contained an explicit reference to Jesus’s burial. The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Corinth about twenty years after Jesus’s death, summarized the basic Christian good news in this way: “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I, in turn, had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5, italics added) There it sits, unadorned but essential: “and that he was buried.”

Why did the earliest Christians, and then why did the writers of the Gospels, consider it so important to mention the actual burial of Jesus? To put the question a different way, what does “and that he was buried” add to the essential Christian message? For one thing, it prepares the way for the affirmation of the resurrection. To say that Jesus died and was raised without mentioning his burial could lead to a misunderstanding of the story. One might think that Jesus was immediately brought back to life from the cross or that he was immediately jettisoned to heaven. “And that he was buried” eliminates these options and explains the place from which Jesus was raised.

But, more important by far, the mention of the burial of Jesus makes it absolutely clear that Jesus really died on the cross. He didn’t just appear to die, as was once proposed by Hugh Schoenfield in his bestselling book, The Passover Plot (1965). Scholars of all theological stripes have discredited Schoenfield’s “swoon theory.” Whatever else can be known about Jesus, all the evidence, from both biblical and extra-biblical sources, points to the simple fact that he really died upon the cross.

When the earliest Christians proclaimed the burial of Jesus, they were saying, in effect, that he really, really died. Had Charles Dickens been among the first Christians, he might have said that Jesus was as dead as a doornail, just like Jacob Marley. I don’t mean to suggest that Jesus’s death, a fairly mundane historical fact, is easy to parse out theologically. After all, Jesus was not just a man, but the God-man. He was the Word of God in flesh, the One in whom was life and who was the source of all life (John 1:1-14). That Jesus died physically, and that, in the process, he suffered the penalty of spiritual death for sin, are mysteries far beyond our ability to fully fathom. How could the One who was the Way, the Truth, and the Life actually die? How could the Author of Life lose his own life? I don’t propose to answer these questions. I’ve been a Christian for over fifty years and they still perplex me . . . and call me to wonder . . . and invite me to worship.

Perhaps Charles Wesley, early in the eighteenth century, penned one of the best responses to the question of the mystery of Christ’s death. Our closing prayer will be the words of his beloved hymn, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” I can think of no better way to conclude this Lenten devotional series on Holy Saturday than by reflecting on the reality, mystery, and mercy of the cross, so that we might experience God’s love more truly and powerfully. As Wesley wrote, “Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”

Reflect

When you think of the burial of Jesus, what comes to mind for you?

In what ways does it matter to you that Jesus really died and really was buried?

If you have time, take some moments to reflect on the wonder of Christ’s death and burial. The words of our closing prayer might help you in your contemplation.

Act

On this Holy Saturday, plan for a time when you can quietly reflect on the death of Christ and its meaning for you. Talk with the Lord about what you think and feel in your time of reflection.

Pray

And can it be that I should gain, An interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain – For me, who Him to death pursued?

Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
Amazing love! How can it be, That Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

He left His Father’s throne above, So free, so infinite His grace –
Emptied Himself of all but love, And bled for Adam’s helpless race:

‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, For O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray – I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;

My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my living Head, And clothed in righteousness divine,

Bold I approach th’eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own.
Bold I approach th’eternal throne, And claim the crown, through Christ my own. Amen.

(Selected verses of “And Can It Be” by Charles Wesley, 1738)

P.S. from Mark

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