I have done a fair number of funerals. The one thing I have always tried to emphasize is the hope of resurrection particularly as they lay the body to rest in the cemetery. At one grave side service in particular, as I looked around at the grief-stricken family, I remembered reading an article about a similar setting of burying a loved one. I told them what the author of the article said to his family at the grave side: “What a beautiful place for a resurrection!” Since then I have almost always said that in order to help families see that beyond this grave site, beyond the painful separation, is the hope of resurrection. What a beautiful place for a resurrection!
Jesus’ friends likely did not have such thoughts in their minds as Jesus was buried. For them, the hopes Jesus had brought for them were over. As the stone was rolled in front of the tomb, there were no thoughts of resurrection. Yet Mark, as he wrote of these events, must have had in the back of his mind, “What a beautiful place for a resurrection!” He knows how this story is going to turn out! He knows that in just a short while, Jesus would rise again from the tomb.
Yet the Gospels emphasize that Jesus was indeed dead and buried. Why is that important? As we continue our study of the Heidelberg Catechism’s section on Jesus this morning, we want to look at the burial of Jesus. We are reminded today that Jesus was indeed buried, but that he rose again not only so that he may live but also so that we may live for eternity and live with him right now as well. Let’s read Mark 15:42-47.
I. Let’s look first at the bold disciple in Joseph of Arimathea in verses 42-43.
There are 3 things about Joseph of Arimathea that are important to notice. First, he was a “prominent member of the Council.” The Council is the Sanhedrin, the same body that had sentenced Jesus to death. Evidently Joseph was not in attendance the night before when Jesus was on trial but Mark says that he was a much respected member of this body. Second, he was “himself waiting for the kingdom of God.” He was looking for God’s people to be saved by the coming of the Messiah. He likely was attracted to Jesus’ teachings about the coming kingdom of God. Finally, John’s gospel tells us that he was also a secret disciple out of fear of the Jews. Followers of Jesus had been thrown out of the synagogue before and so Joseph of Arimathea had kept his discipleship a secret until now.
Now what did Joseph do? He “went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.” To go to Pilate and ask a favor was bold thing to do because Pilate hated the Jews and wouldn’t really want to help one of them out. Moreover, by doing this, he was making a public stand for Jesus to his fellow leaders. Both of these things required a great deal of boldness and courage.
Now we may think, “But where was he earlier when Jesus was being tried?” But before we become too critical of Joseph, let’s consider how bold we often are. If someone takes the Lord’s name in vain, are we bold to confront that person? If someone gossips, are we bold to say that such things should not be said? We are educated, prepared and say we want to do great things for Christ. Yet we too often hold back from fear of what others may think, say or do to us.
II. The reality of Jesus’ death is seen in verses 44-45.
When Joseph asks for Jesus’ body, Pilate is surprised that Jesus was already dead. Typically crucifixion victims would often linger for days before they finally died. In fact, it would be most unusual for a person to die just after a few hours. So Pilate asks the centurion to verify that Jesus was indeed dead. Recall that this centurion was also a powerful witness to Jesus’ time of death. Jesus’ violent death prompted him to say, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” Now God uses the centurion again to proclaim to the world that Jesus was dead. This pagan testifies to all that Jesus, the Son of God, truly died on that cross. Once that is verified, Pilate then released Jesus’ body to Joseph.
Now why does Mark add these little details into the story? Early in the church, there were heretics who taught that the resurrection was a fraud. They said that Jesus didn’t really die, but rather fainted and then was revived in the cold tomb. In Christianity Today magazine a number of years ago, someone wrote a fictitious letter to an advice person along with the response. The letter stated: “Dear Eutychus: Our preacher said, on Easter, that Jesus just swooned on the cross and that the disciples nursed Him back to health. What do you think? Sincerely, Bewildered” The response stated: “Dear Bewildered: Beat your preacher with 39 heavy strokes, nail him to a cross; hang him in the sun for 6 hours; run a spear through his heart; embalm him; put him in an airless tomb for 36 hours and see what happens. Sincerely, Eutychus.’ Mark is making it very clear to his readers that Jesus was indeed truly dead.
Jesus did really die; let’s not gloss over this fact. And let’s remember that Jesus suffered, died and was buried for our sins! Question 40 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: “Why did Christ have to go all the way to death?” Answer: “Because God’s justice and truth demand it: only the death of God’s Son could pay for our sin.” Question: 41: “Why was he buried?” Answer: “His burial testifies that he really died.”
III. Now let’s look at the burial itself as described in verses 46-47.
First, we should understand how crucified victims were usually treated in those days. Roman law said that executed criminals lost all their right to a proper burial. Because of this law, it was possible for a body to be left upon a cross either to rot or to be eaten by birds of prey or by animals. Now, as a matter of fact, most often if the family members asked the local ruler for the corpse, it would be given to them for burial. However, the exception to this were those who were executed for treason. While usually denied, if this exception were to be granted, permission would need to be obtained by imperial governor. However, as was true for Jesus, there could be no ceremony or public mourning in connection with the burial.
Finally, we have the women as witnesses. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid. In those days, a woman’s testimony would not have any legal standing. And so God arranged to have women as these witnesses because it would show that Jesus’ resurrection was not staged or arranged by the disciples. If the disciples were to fake a resurrection complete with witnesses, they would have chosen men who would stand as legal witnesses. These women are proof that Jesus was dead, buried and risen again.
IV. So what are the lessons for us from Jesus’ burial?
Let’s learn from the events of Jesus’ burial. There may be times this week when you have the opportunity to take a stand. Let’s be bold in our discipleship as Joseph of Arimathea was bold. Let’s not be motivated by fear but by courage as we live with our Lord Jesus. Second, let’s again consider the women. They are there simply observing, ready to say what really happened. The facts of Jesus’ burial and resurrection give us great comfort and joy. Are we ready to tell others why we have such comfort and joy?
Moreover, Jesus’ burial teaches us important things about our own deaths. Question 42 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: “Since Christ has died for us, why do we still have to die?” Answer: “Our death does not pay the debt of our sins. Rather, it puts an end to our sinning and is our entrance into eternal life.” We struggle through our whole lives with sin and our death finally ends that struggle and we will enter into the reward of life with God without any more sin.
And Jesus’ death and burial means that sin no longer has power over us now. Question 43 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: “What further advantage do we receive from Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross?” Answer: “Through Christ’s death our old selves are crucified, put to death, and buried with him, so that the evil desires of the flesh may no longer rule us, but that instead we may dedicate ourselves as an offering of gratitude to him.” When we think of our sins, we can think of them as dead and buried. Because of Jesus’ death and burial, our sin no longer rules over us. We still struggle, but God will help us to overcome our sinful actions. We will someday have victory over the struggles we have right now.
Dr. Hughes said, “That’s what Christ has done for us. Coming up out of the depths of death, he has announced to all who are gathered here in this life on earth: ‘It’s OK; it’s safe. You can enter into death, into the darkness and the unknown. It’s safe because I have been there and checked it out. It has not been victorious over me. I have overcome it, and I will be with you in death even as I have been with you in life.”’ Death is not the end of us or our loved ones. Jesus has gone before us and we will someday go to be with him.