THE BURIAL OF CHRIST
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”
38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
— John 19:31-42, ESV
Unusual funerals abound in our world. Bella Lugosi was draped in his Dracula cape when they laid him to rest. Tupac Shakur’s cremated remains were rolled with marijuana and passed out to his friends, who gave a whole new meaning to “up in smoke.”
Celebrities are not alone in being offbeat. In preparing for one of my first funerals as a pastor, I visited with a terminally ill women, a sweet but poor lady named Maude, and asked her if there was anything specific she wanted me to say at her memorial service. “Tell them I died rich,” she said, “with gold in my teeth, silver in my hair, and gas in my stomach.”
Jesus’ funeral was unusual, of course, as the God-man is the most unusual man to ever walk with man. It was no joke and no light-hearted atmosphere, though. There was a coroner, actually a rough bunch of coroners, who pronounced death. There were morticians, two of them, from very surprising backgrounds. There were mourners, at least from a distance, whose tears would flow for three days.
All of this, according to John, came under the orchestration our sovereign God, to fulfill prophecy, provide atonement, and promote faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
The coroner confirmed Jesus’ death, and believed.
Four Roman soldiers and a centurion carried out the death sentence of Jesus Christ. It was their job to serve as coroners, too, confirming the actual, physical death, so that burial could be arranged. Their method for this, like everything else about crucifixion, was brutal and cruel.
The religious rulers, “the Jews” John refers to in this episode, requested of the Romans an early end to the spectacle. It was about 3:00 p.m., and sundown would mark the beginning of the Passover Sabbath. The bodies needed to be dead and buried before then (ref. Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
To hasten and confirm the death of the three men on the crosses, the Roman soldiers worked from the outside in. As they approached each thief on the cross, they were still breathing, so their legs were forcefully broken. This made it impossible to give the diaphragm a push with the legs so the poor criminals could breath. Asphyxiation would agonizedly arrive within a minute, maybe two.
Jesus, voluntarily and mercifully, was already dead. The soldiers knew it, but to add cruel insult to fatal injury, they stabbed Jesus’ side with a spear. “Sorrow and love flow mingled down” according to Isaac Watts, “blood and water” according to John. Apparently Jesus’ heart and pericardial sack had burst under the weight of the cross, and medical experts attest that when this happens, red blood and clear bodily fluids separate inside the torso. Jesus Himself had taught that what is inside a man will come out, and in His final hour it did.
The lack of reaction to the spear, the evidence of heart and other organ failure, and the testimony of the soldiers/coroners confirmed the actual, physical, historical death of the Lord Jesus Christ. John the Apostle, eyewitness and Gospel writer, includes his testimony, too.
By the time John wrote his Gospel late in the first century, Gnosticism, an ancient heresy resembling new age philosophy and property gospel theology, was encroaching upon the church. On sect, the Docetists, preached Jesus was divine but not human. But, spirit beings don’t bleed blood and water.
John wrote mainly, not to refute false religion, but to promote faith in Christ and true Christianity. He says he recorded this episode “that you may also believe” (vs. 35). Indeed, this is the purpose of the whole Gospel (ref. 20:30-31).
Surprisingly, at least one of the coroners did. John does not record his profession of faith explicitly, but you can read about it in Matthew 27:54, Mark 15:39, and Luke 23:47. When the coroners’ work was done, the time came to turn Jesus’ body over to the undertakers.
The morticians buried Jesus in the tomb, and believed.
Joseph of Arimathea (mentioned in all four Gospels, only in this context) and Nicodemus (found only in John 3, 7, and 19) make for an odd couple. Joseph was wealthy and a member of the Sanhedrin, which means he was probably a Sadducee. Nicodemus was most definitely a Pharisee. Sadducees and Pharisees disagreed on almost everything, except their joint jealousy of Jesus Christ.
The two men had taken part in every part of the passion of Christ. They ordered the arrest, served on the jury at the religious trial, rubber stamped the political and public trials, and watched Jesus die at the hands of Pontius Pilate and his Roman henchmen. Then, in a twist of fate, or more accurately a twist of faith, Joseph and Nicodemus were the ones to lay Jesus’ body to rest in nearby tomb.
At some point they had come to believe in Jesus, but kept their Christian identity secret among “the Jews” up until this moment. I do not believe these two believers were cowards, they were more like spies imbedded in Judaism until Christianity could take over. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” they began professing, publicly, their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Joseph and Nicodemus knew Scripture well, and it is the word of God and the Spirit of God that causes a child of God to receive the Son of God as Lord and Savior. These Hebrew experts knew the swan song of Psalm 22 and the servant song of Isaiah 53, and watched Jesus perfectly sing them both. Then came the spear, taking the two back to Zechariah 12:10. It was then the men walked out in the open with their love for the Lord Jesus Christ, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body, applied the proper burial ritual, and laid Him in the tomb.
Shortly after the burial of Christ, the sun went down to mark the end of that sad but good Friday. The second day, Saturday, the Sabbath, would be silent, mournful, peaceful. On the third day, all Heaven breaks loose. We’ll explore that scene in chapter 20. But with apologies to John, I’d like to extend the 19th chapter for just a moment.
The mourners wept for Jesus from a distance, and believed.
John, Mary mother of Jesus, and other women, kept near the cross as Jesus died. Surely they watched from a distance as Joseph and Nicodemus buried Him. The other Gospels attest to it. Besides, they had to know where to return after the Sabbath, on the first day of the week. What were they doing, what were they talking about?
I want to go back to the sword, which only John records. It is the one the coroner used, the one Joseph and Nicodemus would have linked to the messianic prophecy of Zechariah. For mother Mary, however, another memory must have resurfaced. When Jesus was born and brought to Jerusalem for consecration, Mary was met by a prophet named Simeon (ref. Luke 2:25-35). He had good news, a message of salvation, a confirmation of Jesus as the promised Messiah. But veiled within this good news was some bad news, too. Simeon told Mary there would be terrible opposition to Jesus, then said, “and a sword will pierce through your own soul also.”
If there needed to be a last straw, surely the sword was it. Mary knew it, John knew it, the saved Sadducee and former Pharisee knew it, and thanks to Zechariah, Simeon, and John, now we can all know it. Jesus died to prove He is the Messiah of the Jews, the Savior of the world, and the Lord of all heaven and earth.
The fact that Jesus is Lord, God Almighty, high and lifted up, makes it all the more amazing that He lowered Himself to earth to die. He did so that pagans, like the Roman centurion, would believe and be saved. He did so that religious hard knots, like Joseph and Nicodemus, would believe and be saved. He did so that those near, like John and Mary and the other women, would believe and be saved. He did so that people 6,000 miles away an 2,000 years removed from the cross would embrace the cross, believe and be saved.
Jesus, keep me near the cross,
There a precious fountain;
Free to all, a healing stream,
Flows from Calvary's mountain.
In the cross, in the cross,
Be my glory ever,
Till my ransomed soul shall find,
Rest beyond the river.
— Fanny Crosby