He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53.9)
After spending yesterday with our attention firmly fastened on Christ and the cross, today affords a chance to consider family and followers who survive Him. One of the first things we note is the timing of events convenes against them almost as cruelly as Christ’s enemies conspire to kill Him. Before they can absorb the maneuvers leading up to Jesus’s murder, He’s gone. Then, before they can find a moment to grieve together, pressing matters steal their attention. Matthew, Mark, and Luke clock Jesus’s time of death at “the ninth hour,” or 3 PM. At this time of year in Jerusalem, the sun sets around 7 PM, an inconsequential detail on any other weekday. With Christ’s execution on Friday, however, sundown halts all activity for Sabbath. This gives the disciples four hours to: wait for Jesus’s removal from the cross; secure His remains; find an empty tomb; locate a place to wash, anoint, and dress Him for burial; transport His body to the tomb, lay it to rest, seal the entrance, note the location—and still have time to return to their lodgings, prepare for Shabbat, the Sabbath rite, and have everything in place, ready to begin exactly at sundown.
Postponing burial until Sunday is unthinkable. Deuteronomy 21.22-23 declares, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day.” Now, add these factors. 1) All negotiations occur face-to-face and every task is carried out on foot. 2) The rapidity of events catches the disciples totally off-guard; there are no “burial plans.” 3) Not one of Jesus’s close associates hails from Jerusalem, This puts them at the mercy of local sympathizers who, given official and public hostility toward Jesus, are few and far between. Imagine a beloved relative or friend suddenly murdered in a foreign capitol—during peak tourist season, no less—and and you’ll get a sense of what Christ’s family and followers contend with.
Changed by Calvary
With little time to spare, a prominent citizen with local connections steps forward. “As evening approached,” Matthew 27.57-58 reports, “there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered it be given to him.” Combining various details spread across the Gospels, we learn Joseph was member of the Sanhedrin Council, Israel’s Supreme Court. According to Luke 23.51, he dissented from the Council’s decision to try Jesus, although he didn’t disclose his loyalty to Christ “because he feared the Jews.” (John 19.38)
Appealing to Pilate for Christ’s body places Joseph in great jeopardy by openly acknowledging his discipleship. Undoubtedly he’ll be ousted from the Council, losing his social and financial connections. Why doesn’t he continue to follow Jesus discreetly, as he’d done before? He’s been changed by Calvary. He’s witnessed the incomprehensible lengths Jesus goes for him. Toppling his pillars of security and overcoming his personal fears for Christ’s benefit are the least he can do. Joseph of Arimathea essentially comes out of his closet. According to John, his bold act inspires another closeted Council member, Nicodemus—the Pharisee who in John 3 visits Jesus “by night”—to come out.
The two men take Christ’s body, dress it in fresh linen and preservative spices, and lay it in an unused tomb. John says, “This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.” (19.40) What he doesn’t say is these two widely respected lawyers consciously (and conscientiously) break Mosaic Law: “Whoever touches the dead body of anyone will be unclean for seven days.” (Numbers 19.11) They defile themselves in service to Christ. And they don’t do it in the shadows. They touch Jesus’s corrupt flesh without apology during the height of Passover. After this, they will be barred from the Temple and disqualified to lead family rituals for the rest of the week.
Whether or not Joseph’s aware of Christ’s promise to leave the tomb, he and Nicodemus know they’re laying Jesus in a temporary grave. After Passover, Mary and Jesus’s relatives are required by Law to move His corpse to the family crypt in Nazareth. This is why we find Mary Magdalene and others present as Joseph and Nicodemus inter Christ; they need to know His grave’s location to claim His body later on. It’s also why the women are eager to refresh the preservative spices on Sunday morning—preventing putrefaction is of utmost importance to ease the transport of His corpse. Finally, it’s why Christ’s enemies urge Pilate to place a guard at the tomb. They’ve heard about Christ’s promised resurrection and it’s in their best interests to see He isn’t moved. (Isn’t it ironic how quickly legalists can ignore some laws that get in their way while twisting others to trip people they want to control?)
So Jesus’s body rests exactly as prophesied: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53.9) Yet the prophecy’s doleful tone no longer applies. Even Christ’s lifeless physical state somehow changes lives. After three years of constant battles with legalism, what could be more perfect than two nationally prominent lawyers boldly claiming Christ? What could be more powerful than inspiring them to come out of their closets of fear? What could be more eloquent than requiring them to defile themselves in His service? What could be more appropriate than laying Him in a temporary tomb? What could be more right than involving Christ’s women followers in the ministry of His resurrection? This story overwhelms us with examples and lessons. Yes, Isaiah’s prediction paints a grim picture. But, no, there could be no better grave.Two lawyers come out of hiding to claim Jesus, unafraid to be seen in the company of His women disciples as they bury Him in a temporary tomb. (Carl Heinrich Bloch: The Burial of Christ)
While all these magnificent turns in Jesus’s story take place on the ground, below the surface, Christ storms Death’s gates, releases its prisoners and defeats its purpose. From Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor: The Offering—Domine Jesu and Hostias.