Sunday, 23 February 2014

Thinking About a Burial

Every Lord’s Day is a reminder of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. At the same time, it is also a reminder of the burial of Jesus. Perhaps we wonder why Paul includes the burial of Jesus in his summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4. Here are seven possible reasons.

The first detail about his burial is that it reveals the accuracy of biblical prophecy. Isaiah 53:9 predicted that the Messiah will be buried in a rich man’s grave. If we were reading for the first time the accounts of the death of Jesus in the Four Gospels, we would not expect them to say that he would be buried in such a place. Yet we know that Joseph of Arimathea, a rich man and a ruler of the Jews, obtained permission from Pilate to take down the body of Jesus and bury it, which he did by putting it in his own tomb.

A second detail of which the burial of Jesus reminds us is the authority of God over all earthly powers. The verse from Isaiah reveals that the human authorities who arranged for and supervised the death of Jesus intended to place the dead body of Jesus where they placed the dead bodies of executed criminals. Yet their intentions were overruled and his body was placed instead in a rich man’s grave.

A third detail that we can see is that the burial of Jesus testifies to the actuality of his death. The Gospels tell us that the government, in order to prevent the disciples of Jesus stealing his body and pretending that he was alive, arranged for a seal and for a guard to be placed so that this would not occur. Government permission was only given after an accurate check was made to certify death. It was a dead body that was placed in a rich man’s grave.

Fourthly, his burial reminds us of the anomaly of his death. The rest of the verse from Isaiah reminds us that Jesus was sinless in action and in speech, and we also know that he was sinless in thought as well. Death is in the world because of sin, and it is only sinners who die. Yet here a sinless man dies and is buried. The grave had an unexpected guest when Jesus of Nazareth was placed in the rich man’s tomb. Here was a victim who was sinless, and such a person had never been in the grave before. Everyone else who had been buried had been sinful.

Fifthly, the burial of Jesus is another example of his willingness to associate himself with sinners. We know that he was numbered with the transgressors when he was baptised by John the Baptist, whose ministry was that of baptising persons who were willing to state publicly that they had repented of their sins. Jesus had no sins about which he could repent, yet he aligned himself with sinners when he was baptised. Further he was numbered with the transgressors when he was crucified at Calvary. It was criminals who were subjected to such an awful death, and in going through that experience Jesus identified himself with the worst of sinners. And here he is now being identified again with sinners as he is placed in a grave.

Sixthly, the burial of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb was testimony to the admiration given to his Son by the heavenly Father. It is almost as if God said, once Jesus had stated that he had finished his work and placed himself into the care of his Father, ‘The first matter that I need to do is take care of his body. And therefore I will arrange for it to be placed in a rich man’s grave, but not only a rich person’s tomb, because it will be a tomb in which no other body has yet been placed. Although his death was worse physically than that of most other men, and his reputation sunk lower than that of other men, and his body more marred than that of other men, I will begin the process of his journey to the highest glory by ensuring that his body is placed in a unique grave.’

Seventhly, the burial of Jesus in a rich man’s tomb is a source of challenge and of comfort for his people. Jesus shows the attitude with which we should face the last enemy: he died by placing himself into the hands of his Father, knowing that he would take care of the body. None of us knows how we will die – it may be suddenly in an accident, or through a prolonged disease, or through old age – but what we do have is a perfect example of how to approach our own demise. We can only do so by placing ourselves into the hands of God. That is the challenge.

The comfort is to know beforehand that Jesus has been in the grave before us and for us. As one of the old divines put it, ‘In his burial Jesus warmed the bed of death for his people.’ He will take care of our bodies. The rich man’s tomb is for us a sign that Jesus was on the way to glory. Similarly, when we lay a believer in the grave, it is a sign that we believe he/she is already in glory with Jesus and will yet be raised from that grave by Jesus.

So we should not be surprised that Paul regarded the burial of Jesus as one of the matters that were of chief importance as far as the gospel is concerned. 

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