45. The Burial and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (John 19:38-20:9)
When I was more deeply involved in prison ministry a few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet a number of prison chaplains. Among these was the chaplain for the death row unit in Huntsville, Texas. He told of some condemned men he had dealt with who had truly come to faith, and of others who were hardened to the gospel. As a death row chaplain, one of his responsibilities was to meet with each condemned man just before his execution. Whether or not they wished to speak with him about spiritual things, there were some other matters which had to be discussed. In particular, they had to discuss their burial arrangements. Unless other arrangements were made in advance by family or loved ones, the body of the executed criminal would be buried in what was, in effect, “boot hill”—a gravesite designated for executed criminals near the prison.
As we come to John’s account of the burial of our Lord, I am reminded of the fact that in all likelihood, our Lord would have been buried in the “boot hill” of His day:
Under Roman law, the bodies of executed criminals were normally handed over to their next of kin, but not so in the case of those crucified for sedition. They were left to the vultures, the culminating indignity and shame. The Jews never refused to bury any executed criminal, but instead of allowing the bodies of such sinners to be placed in family tombs, where they might desecrate those already buried, they provided a burial site for criminals just outside the city (cf. Jos., Ant. v. 44).188
Most of the disciples were keeping their distance from Jesus at this point in time.189 It does not even appear to be possible for any of Jesus’ disciples or family to secure His body and give it a proper burial. And to make the situation even more difficult, time to give Jesus a proper burial had virtually run out. By the time Jesus and the two men beside Him had died, it was getting late. The bodies must be quickly buried, before dark, when the Sabbath began (see Luke 23:54). Every indication was that the body of our Lord would be hastily buried in “boot hill.”
Looking back on this great moment in history, we know something else, something which the disciples did not realize at the time: the Old Testament had prophesied that the Messiah would be buried in a rich man’s tomb: “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, NIV). Somehow, the Messiah would be put to death as a criminal (Isaiah 53:3-4), with criminals (53:9), and yet He was also to be buried with the rich (53:9). How could all these things possibly take place at the same time?
In spite of the difficulties, Jesus was crucified as a criminal, with criminals. And in our text, we shall see that after His death He was given a rich man’s burial. We might even say that Jesus was given a burial “fit for a king.” How did all of this come about? What caused this amazing turn of events? Our text, complimented by the parallel accounts of the Synoptic Gospels, gives us the answer.
Before we concentrate on John’s account of the burial and resurrection of our Lord, allow me to call your attention to the contribution of the Synoptic Gospels. Matthew’s Gospel has some especially important information, which enhances our study in John. Matthew informs us of the request the Jewish religious leaders made of Pilate after the death and burial of Jesus. They remembered that Jesus claimed He would rise from the dead after three days:
39 But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. 40 For just as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish for three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matthew 12:39-40; see also Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; John 2:19).
Even though the disciples had forgotten our Lord’s words about His resurrection, the Jewish religious leaders had not:
62 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “Take a guard of soldiers. Go and make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went with the soldiers of the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).190
In my mind’s eye, I can see the smug look of satisfaction on the faces of those who had brought about the death of our Lord. What could be more perfect? The body of Jesus was in a chamber hewn out of rock, with a very large stone sealing the entrance to the tomb. Once the stone was “sealed,” no one would dare to try to steal the body of Jesus, to make it look as if He had been raised from the dead in fulfillment of His own prophecies. And to be doubly sure, guards were posted at the tomb so that no one could gain access to the body of Jesus. These guards would terrify anyone who dared to attempt to gain entrance to the tomb.
Matthew’s account shows how useless these efforts were to “contain” the Son of God:
2 And there was a severe earthquake, for191 an angel of the Lord descending from heaven came and rolled back the stone, and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were shaken and became like dead men because they were so afraid of him (Matthew 28:2-4).
Did the Jewish religious leaders hope to strike terror into the hearts of our Lord’s disciples to prevent them from attempting to steal the body of Jesus from that tomb? It was not the disciples they were opposing; it was God. The guards were no match for the angels, and a sealed stone was no match for an earthquake. In an instant, every barrier to that tomb was removed. And to think that the women had wasted their time worrying about how they would remove that stone (see Mark 16:3)! It was the Roman guards who were “all shook up” by the earthquake. They were petrified with fear at the sight of the angel of the Lord.
I don’t think you need to be reminded of this, but that stone was not removed so that Jesus could get out of the tomb (see John 20:19). The stone was removed to make it completely clear to those outside that Jesus was not inside—that He had been raised from the dead, just as He had said.
Matthew supplies us with some other valuable information. He alone informs us that Joseph of Arimathea was a “rich man” (27:57). He also is the one who tells us that the tomb in which our Lord is buried is Joseph’s own new tomb, which has been hewn out of solid stone (27:60).
The Synoptic Gospels portray Joseph of Arimathea in a favorable light. He is said to be a “disciple” of our Lord (Matthew 27:57; see also John 19:38), who was looking for the kingdom of God (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51). He was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50), but he opposed their plans to put Jesus to death (Luke 23:51). All the Gospels identify him as the one who went to Pilate, requesting the body of Jesus:
43 Joseph of Arimathea, a highly regarded member of the council, who was himself looking forward to the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised that he was already dead. He called the centurion and asked him if he had been dead for a long time. 45 When Pilate was informed by the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph (Mark 15:43-45).
From what we are told in John’s Gospel, I am not so sure that I am willing to accept the translation in verse 43, which would indicate that Joseph “boldly” approached Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. I doubt that anyone would boldly approach Pilate on such an occasion. For one thing, Joseph was a “secret disciple” of Jesus. For him to identify himself with Jesus at this point did take courage, but I don’t think that his courage was reflected by a “boldness” in his approach to Pilate. Pilate may have had just about enough from the Jews for one day, especially when it came to Jesus. He was far from happy over the way the religious leaders had forced his hand in bringing about the crucifixion of Jesus. I think that these translations more accurately reflect the sense of Mark’s words:
Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus (Mark 15:43, NAB).
Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus (Mark 15:43, NKJV).
It was a courageous thing that Joseph of Arimathea did, going before Pilate and requesting the body of Jesus. But I don’t think that it was something he did “boldly.” I think that he worked up the courage to request an audience with Pilate and then made his request, but not with the arrogance and smugness with which the Jewish religious leaders had dealt with him. His was a humble request, but a reasonable one. Unlike the crucifixion of our Lord, it does not appear to be something that Pilate begrudgingly granted. Indeed, if he felt guilty over condemning an innocent man, he may have felt good that Jesus (this “righteous man,” as Pilate’s own wife had referred to Him—Matthew 27:19) was given an honorable burial. And if the other religious leaders happened not to like it, so much the better.
The Synoptic Gospels all call attention to the women who were present at the cross, and then followed those who buried Jesus to note the place where the body of Jesus was laid to rest (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:54-56). It was their intention to come back after the Sabbath and do a more thorough job of preparing the Lord’s body for burial.
The Burial of Jesus
38 After this Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus (but secretly, because he feared the Jewish authorities), asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission, so he went and took away the body. 39 Nicodemus, who had come to Jesus earlier at night, went with Joseph too, carrying a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing seventy-five pounds. 40 So they took Jesus’ body and wrapped it, with the aromatic spices, in strips of linen cloth according to Jewish burial customs. 41 Now at the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden was a new tomb where no one had yet been buried. 42 So because it was the Jewish day of preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
The trial(s), execution, death, and burial of our Lord were all hurried. The Jews did not wish to arrest and do away with Jesus during the Passover, but their hand was forced and they had to act quickly. The trial of Jesus had been prolonged (with Jesus being sent to Herod), and because Passover was soon to commence, it was necessary to break the legs of the two men beside Jesus to speed up their deaths. Pilate was surprised to learn that Jesus had already died (Mark 15:44). The bodies had to be taken down and buried before nightfall. It was this “rush” which seemed, at first, to be an obstacle to a proper burial for our Lord, but it actually played an important part in bringing about our Lord’s “royal” burial.
John’s account makes a point of indicating that the Lord’s burial was a hurried one (19:42). Time was short, and no one who was close to Jesus seems to be able to secure the body of Jesus. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, two men emerge: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. Nicodemus is never mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels, and Joseph of Arimathea is referred to only after the death of Jesus. While the Synoptics speak very favorably of Joseph, John is not quite as complimentary in his description of this man. John does not mention that Joseph was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin or that he opposed their efforts to kill Jesus. John describes Joseph only as a disciple who kept his allegiance to Jesus a secret, for fear of the Jews.
It looks as though John wants us to view Joseph as a pretty unlikely candidate to bring about what the Scriptures require, so far as our Lord’s burial is concerned. Added to this is the fact that Nicodemus is just as unlikely. Who can pull off what is required here, and in such a short period of time? From what I know of Nicodemus, and from what little I know of Joseph of Arimathea, these two men would not be at the top of my “most likely to be helpful” list.
So far as their loyalty to our Lord in the past is concerned, these two men are not impressive. But so far as their ability to accomplish the task (of burying Jesus in a kingly fashion), they are well qualified. This is not the time for a family member or a close follower of Jesus to request His body for burial. But Joseph of Arimathea is a member of the Sanhedrin and a very wealthy man. He offers Pilate the opportunity to rid himself of the responsibility for burying the body of Jesus.
Joseph of Arimathea is not alone in his efforts to obtain the body of Jesus and to give Him a proper burial. He is working with Nicodemus, another very prominent member of the Sanhedrin. These two men must have begun their association as colleagues on the Council of the Sanhedrin. When Nicodemus objected to the way the Council was proposing to deal with Jesus, Joseph must have taken notice. They may have talked privately and discovered that they were of like mind regarding Jesus. They may have attempted to support each other as they objected to the course the Sanhedrin seemed bent on taking. While Jesus was being crucified, they seem to have mutually agreed upon a plan to obtain His body in order to give Him a proper burial.
One cannot discern from the Gospels just when Joseph and Nicodemus agreed to work together, or when they commenced their efforts to prepare for the burial of Jesus. It may be that Joseph agreed to ask Pilate for permission to remove and bury the Lord’s body. At the same time, Nicodemus could have begun to acquire the necessary spices and material to prepare the body of Jesus for burial. Working together, these two men are able to accomplish something that none of our Lord’s family or His eleven disciples could achieve—they are able to gain access to Pilate and to gain possession of the body of Jesus.
In his account of the burial of Jesus, John gives us some very important details. He not only mentions Joseph of Arimathea, he tells us about Nicodemus. It is only from John’s Gospel that we even know of Nicodemus. No other Gospel mentions this fellow. Nicodemus is the same man who “came to Jesus by night,” as we read in John 3:1-2, and as he reminds us in 19:39. It is John’s mention of Nicodemus in chapter 7 of his Gospel that now catches my attention. You will remember that Jesus had come to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles (7:1-10ff.). The Pharisees and chief priests decided it was time to arrest Jesus, so they sent the temple police to bring Jesus to them (7:32). When these men returned empty-handed, the Pharisees were incensed. The officers explained that they had never heard anyone speak as Jesus did (7:45-49).
Nicodemus then sought to speak a word (cautiously, it would seem) on Jesus’ behalf. He did not openly defend Jesus and His teachings, but he did question his fellow Pharisees about the legality of the method by which they proposed to deal with Him.
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before and who was one of the rulers, said, 51 “Our law doesn’t condemn a man unless it first hears from him and learns what he is doing, does it?” 52 They replied, “You aren’t from Galilee too, are you? Investigate carefully and you will see that no prophet comes from Galilee!” (John 7:50-52)
In today’s legal terminology, Nicodemus is objecting that Jesus is not being given “due process of the law.” Jewish law required that charges against Jesus first be substantiated and, after this, that Jesus be given the chance to speak in His own defense. This had not been done, Nicodemus pointed out, and no one seemed to be heading in the direction of making things right. His peers were not at all gentle in the way they responded to his objections. Here was a highly respected teacher of the law, a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin, and yet he was dealt with as though he were an incoming freshman. “You are not a Galilean, too, are you?” This was no compliment. It was like saying, “How could you be so ignorant?” And then, adding insult to injury, they challenged Nicodemus to look into this subject more carefully, implying that his grasp of the issues was shallow and superficial.
I must admit that I had nearly written Nicodemus off in chapter 3, but after reading about Nicodemus in chapter 7, I had totally given up on this man. I assumed that he just sort of wilted under the criticism of his peers, never to be heard from again. I now must rethink my hasty conclusion. I believe that Nicodemus rose to the challenge. I think that he did investigate more thoroughly and found that the Scriptures did point to Jesus as the Messiah. Furthermore, I think that as Nicodemus became more convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, he spoke out more openly, and at least one other person on the Council agreed with him—Joseph of Arimathea. I am willing to go even farther. I wonder if it was not because of the objections of Nicodemus (and perhaps Joseph as well) that the Sanhedrin felt compelled to modify the way they sought to deal with Jesus, so that they at least appeared to be following Jewish law. Is this why Jesus was first brought before Annas, and then Caiaphas, and then finally brought before the whole Council? Is this why the assistance of Rome was requested? If this is the case, then Nicodemus contributed greatly to the process which led to our Lord’s crucifixion rather than to death by stoning, as the Jews seemed to prefer. It would also seem that the Sanhedrin voted to hand Jesus over to Pilate, but not without hearing objections from both Joseph and Nicodemus (if, indeed, they were both present). This act of requesting the body of Jesus and giving Him a proper burial may have been a public protest on the part of these two members of the Sanhedrin. All of this would mean that Joseph and Nicodemus were not as passive in their disagreement with their peers on the Sanhedrin as I had assumed.
It is John’s Gospel alone that informs us of these two men’s lavish use of spices in their preparation of Jesus’ body for burial (19:39-40). From the accounts of the Synoptic Gospels, we might have assumed that our Lord’s body was not even properly prepared for burial. We read there only that the body of Jesus was “wrapped in a clean linen cloth” (Matthew 27:59; see also Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53). We read also in the Synoptics of the intent of the women to return to the tomb and to prepare the Lord’s body with spices (Mark 16:1; Luke 23:55-56; 24:1). It was almost as though the women were unaware of the fact that nearly 75 pounds of spices had been used by Joseph and Nicodemus. Or, perhaps they just felt they could not trust these men to do it right, and they would have to come back later to improve on the work of these two men.
The thing that strikes me in John’s account is that no mention is made of the fact that the tomb in which Jesus was laid was the one that Joseph had custom-built for himself (Matthew 27:60). From a reading of John’s account, one would assume they were carrying the Lord’s body away from the cross and through a garden (only John mentions the garden). It was getting late, and they had no time to lose. There was an available tomb nearby, in the garden, and they made use of it. It appears the reason for using this tomb was not because it belonged to Joseph, but because it was close, and it seemed expedient to use it because they had run out of time.
This makes sense to me. The question which the reader must ask is, “How was it possible for Jesus to be given a rich man’s burial, when none of His eleven disciples were present, and when the time was so short?” Putting together all of the data from the four Gospels, I would conclude that something like this occurred. Joseph and Nicodemus had opposed the Sanhedrin’s plan to kill Jesus. At some time during the crucifixion process, they determined to acquire the body of Jesus to give Him a proper burial. Joseph went to Pilate and obtained the body while Nicodemus acquired the necessary spices and cloth. They both went to the cross, took down the Lord’s body, and wrapped it in a clean linen sheet. They were carrying the body through the garden, noting the lateness of the hour, and wondering what they should do. Joseph may have looked up and seen the freshly-hewn tomb which he had acquired for his own burial (and perhaps for the use of his family as well). Realizing they were out of time, Joseph told Nicodemus that they would stop right here and bury the body of Jesus in his own tomb. There was no time to do anything else.
I am assuming here that Joseph had intended from the beginning to give Jesus a proper burial, but that he had not necessarily planned to bury Jesus in his own tomb. As nightfall approached, Joseph realized that he was in trouble, time-wise. He looked about, and his eyes fixed on his own personal burial place. There was really no other choice, given the time, and so this is the place where they chose to lay the body of Jesus. John tells the story in such a way that the reader sees, once again, the sovereign hand of God, orchestrating these events so that they fulfill the prophecies of old. Jesus was put to death with criminals, but in the final analysis, He was buried with the rich. The One who seemed destined to be buried on “boot hill” is now buried on “snob hill.” And in so doing, prophecy is once again fulfilled.
Note, incidentally, that John does not tell us every time that a prophecy is fulfilled. Three times in his account of our Lord’s death he indicates that the details of Jesus’ death fulfilled prophecy. But here he does not tell us that the Scriptures were fulfilled, even though they were. I believe John expects his readers to figure some things out for themselves. A good teacher does not give the student the answer to every question. A good teacher teaches the student how to find the answers to his questions. John is a good teacher.
1 Now very early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw the stone had been moved away from the opening. 2 So she went running to Simon Peter and the other disciple whom Jesus loved and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him!” 3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out to go to the tomb. 4 The two were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 Bending over, he saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter, who had been following him, arrived and went right into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen cloth lying there, 7 and the face cloth, that had been around Jesus’ head, not lying with the strips of linen cloth but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple who had reached the tomb first came in, and he saw and believed. 9 (For they did not yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.)
In this text, we come upon another unlikely player in the drama of our Lord’s burial and resurrection. Mary Magdalene is mentioned at this point in all the Gospel accounts. Only Luke refers to Mary Magdalene earlier in the life of Christ:
1 Sometime afterward he went on through towns and villages, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2 and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and disabilities: Mary (called Magdalene), from whom seven demons had gone out, 3 and Joanna, the wife of Cuza, Herod’s household manager, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their own resources (Luke 8:1-3).
This is not a very flattering introduction, is it? Mary Magdalene is the woman from whom Jesus had earlier cast out seven demons. From that point in time, she seems to have faithfully followed Jesus, along with the other women named. These women supported Jesus and His disciples out of their own means.
All the Gospels honor Mary Magdalene by naming her as the first woman to come to the tomb to anoint the body of her Lord. Matthew also mentions the “other Mary” (27:61), Mark refers to “Mary the mother of Joses” (15:47), and “Mary, the mother of James and Salome” (16:1). Luke includes “Joanna” and “other women” (24:10). These women came prepared to anoint the dead body of Jesus. They did not come with the intention of becoming witnesses to His resurrection, but that is precisely what happened.
John chooses to focus only on Mary Magdalene. This woman is the first one to arrive at the empty tomb. She came to the tomb while it was “still dark” (20:1), and when she got close enough she saw that the stone had been removed. That was all the information she needed. She jumped to the wrong conclusion. She was right, of course, in assuming that the body of her Lord was gone. She was wrong to conclude that someone (“they”) had taken the Lord’s body from the tomb. Exactly who “they” are is not indicated. She may have been thinking in terms of thieves, but more likely she was thinking of the Romans, or perhaps the Jewish religious leaders, or even the “gardener.” No matter; she was wrong.
Mary first ran to where Peter was and then to where John (and Mary, the mother of our Lord) was staying.192 She repeated the conclusion she had reached. The body of Jesus had been taken, and she had no idea where His body could be found. Her highest ambition was to locate the Lord’s body, so that she could see to it that He was properly buried. Is this not an illustration of a marvelous biblical truth?
6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing. 7 Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:6-9).
20 Now to him who by the power that is working within us is able to do far beyond all that we ask or think, 21 to him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21).
Mary was to experience a far greater blessing than she could have imagined at this dark moment in her life, no doubt the darkest she had ever known. She had been delivered from bondage to Satan. She had been privileged to follow her Lord and to help support Him and His ministry. She had placed all her faith and hope in Him, and yet He had been put to death as a criminal. That was bad enough, but now she thought that she would not even be able to honor His memory by properly anointing His body for burial. It couldn’t get any worse—or so she thought. But the truth was that it could not get much better. How slow we are to see God’s richest blessings in the things which appear to be great adversity!
Peter may have followed Mary to the home of John, where Mary repeated her story. The two men must then have alternately walked and run to the tomb to check out the situation. John seems to have outrun Peter. Was this because he was younger, or might it be because Peter had already run some distance from his house to John’s home? We don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. The entrance to the tomb would not be any bigger than necessary. After all, this tomb was hewn out of solid rock. A smaller entrance would make it easier to seal the tomb, and it was not as if people routinely entered the place. John therefore had to stoop to look into the tomb. Some have wondered why he was so slow to enter in and investigate more thoroughly. I think John was too good a Jew to defile himself by rushing into a tomb. Peter, on the other hand, was not as scrupulous. When he arrived, he seems to have entered the tomb without giving it a thought. Peter came out scratching his head, so to speak. It was a mystery to him, one that he couldn’t reason out. The body of Jesus was definitely gone, but the scene inside the tomb was not what one would expect if the grave had been robbed. And where were the guards? Who had moved the stone? What was going on? Peter simply didn’t know (see Luke 24:12).
John’s curiosity now overcomes his scruples about entering the tomb. He had earlier noted the strips of linen cloth. They may not have been in the form of a cocoon, but neither were they the unraveled mess one would expect after grave robbers had done their work. Entering into the tomb and looking more closely, John could now see the whole scene. In addition to the linen strips, he could see the face cloth that had been around Jesus’ head. It was laying separately, neatly placed by itself. John pondered as he looked, and believed (20:8).
It is incredible that some would conclude from this statement that John “believed that Mary was right, and that Jesus’ body was gone.” That would be to state the obvious. It seems to me what John wants us to grasp is that while Peter was still pondering the evidence, John had reached his conclusion. John had come to believe that Jesus really had somehow risen from the dead. John “saw” and he “believed.”
The parenthetical comment in verse 9 is further confirmation of this. Neither Mary Magdalene, nor Peter, nor John understood at this point that it was prophesied that their Lord would rise from the dead. Of course Jesus had said it, and Old Testament prophecies had foretold it as well. But like many of the things Jesus had spoken to His disciples, they simply did not remember or comprehend what He meant.
Why does John tell us this here and now? I think the reason is very simple, and very important. The disciples were not predisposed to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. It was not something which Jesus suggested to them, so that when His body was found to be missing, they would jump to the conclusion that He had truly been resurrected. John is telling us that he came to believe in the resurrection of Jesus before he even realized that he was supposed to do so.
There is a country and western song that goes something like this: “I was (fond of) country (music), when country wasn’t cool.” John is telling us here that he became a believer in the resurrection of Jesus before it was understood to be a necessary part of the Christian faith (see Romans 10:9). John believed Jesus had risen from the dead, by the sheer force of the evidence, not because he thought he was supposed to. What an incredible event this must have been. There, in the darkness of that tomb, John “saw the light.”
There are a number of things which catch my attention in our text. The first is that there is a clear change of players. The regular team—the eleven disciples—have been called off the field, and a number of substitutions have been made (to speak in sports terms). Among these are Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus, and Mary Magdalene. Who would have expected such folks to play a key role in the burial and resurrection of our Lord?
There is a lesson to be learned here: God provides. I am reminded of the story of Abraham, when he took his son Isaac up Mount Moriah to offer a sacrifice to the Lord. Isaac asked his father where the animal to be sacrificed was, and Abraham assured him that the Lord would provide the sacrifice. And God did provide. Our text is another demonstration of God’s faithful provision of all that He has purposed and promised. He provided a rich man’s burial for Jesus, who should have been buried on “boot hill.” He provided a place near the cross, within a very narrow window of time. He provided, not through the expected means, but through a man whose name (Joseph of Arimathea) we have never seen before in the Gospels, and through another (Nicodemus) whom we would never have expected to help bury the body of our Lord. The women who followed Jesus wanted to be able to anoint the body of our Lord, but the barriers to entering the tomb seemed insurmountable. A large stone covered the tomb; it had been sealed by Rome, and soldiers were there guarding the tomb to make certain it was undisturbed. God provided. Neither the stone, the seal, nor the soldiers kept Jesus in the tomb—or the disciples out.
God always provides for the fulfillment of His promises. He does so by the instruments of His choosing. He does so in His time. The human instruments were those we would not have chosen, people we would never even have considered. It never occurred to me that, among the members of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to die, there would be some who believed in Jesus, who opposed the plan of their peers, who managed to obtain the body of Jesus and give it a rich man’s burial. God was at work in the hearts of these two men—Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus—and at just the right time, He used them for His glory, and their good.
How often we are like the eleven disciples of our Lord, so frightened and lacking in faith that we do nothing, or like the women in our text who are preoccupied with fears about how we can move a stone. How foolish these fears seem to us now, and yet is it not our own fears that keep us from attempting what our Lord has commanded us to do?
As I read through this text describing our Lord’s burial and resurrection, I am impressed with how unlikely it all seemed at the time. It looked impossible to secure the Lord’s body and to properly prepare it for burial before nightfall. It seemed impossible to find a burial place. There seemed to be no one who would be able to secure the release of our Lord’s body. And once the body of our Lord was discovered to be missing, there seemed to be no way to recover it. Much of what occurred in our text was contrary to the expectations and desires of those who were present. It does not seem as though Joseph really intended to have Jesus buried in his burial place, but as time ran out, it became the only thing he could do. For John, at least, there is an unavoidable conclusion: God raised Jesus from the dead. All these things were orchestrated by God, at just the right time, and in just the right way, so that the Scriptures would be fulfilled.
This was not a conclusion John felt he was obliged to reach, based upon our Lord’s prophecies of His resurrection. John had completely forgotten about these prophecies. He believed in the resurrection of Jesus because there was no other explanation. The resurrection is a foundational truth for the Christian. Saving faith is resurrection faith. Christians do not believe in the resurrection simply because they feel obliged to do so; they believe in the resurrection because it is true, and there is no other reasonable explanation for the events which we find described in our text, or in the rest of the Bible.
By bringing about the fulfillment of prophecy in the way He did, God gave compelling proof of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The disciples and followers of Jesus believed in the resurrection because the evidence was compelling. That’s the way God wanted it to be. That’s the way God caused it to work out. He arranged for the body of Jesus to be placed in a hewn tomb, the entrance of which was covered by a great stone, sealed with the Roman seal, and guarded by Roman soldiers. The open and empty tomb was compelling proof that the claim of our Lord to be the Messiah, the King of the Jews, was true.
As I think of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, I am reminded that these were men of position and power, and at least Joseph was a man of wealth. I would never have imagined God would have used them to provide for our Lord’s royal burial, but this is precisely who He used. While it is true that God uses the weak and foolish things of this world, it is also true that He sometimes uses the rich and the powerful, as He does here in our text. God always uses just the right instrument to accomplish His purposes.
As I have reflected on this passage, I have come to realize that it describes one of the great turning points of all time. Our Lord is put to death, and His body is placed in a tomb, only to be raised to new life on the third day. This event turned the disciples’ sorrow to joy, their weakness to strength, their fears to boldness and courage. It was the turning point for men and women like Joseph, and Nicodemus, and Mary Magdalene, not to mention Peter and John and the other disciples.
It is by His death, burial, and resurrection that Jesus Christ saves us from our sins, and from the penalty of death. Have you trusted in Him, in His death on the cross of Calvary for your sins, and His resurrection from the dead, so that you may have eternal life? Let me invite you to do so this very hour. May the truth of this text be a turning point in your life, to His glory and to your eternal good.
189 From Luke 23:49, it would appear that some or all of Jesus’ disciples watched the crucifixion from a distance, with the exception of John, who stood near our Lord, along with some of the women who followed Him (John 19:26-27).
190 Ironically, the religious leaders must have been pleased to learn that Jesus’ body had been secured by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and placed in a grave hewn out of stone, with a large stone sealing the entrance. This was the perfect place to “secure” the body of our Lord.
191 I am impressed by the term “for” here, and am tempted to say that the angel somehow employed the earthquake to move the stone. I know that we might be inclined to think that the angel put his shoulder to the stone and moved it, but it almost seems that he simply summoned an earthquake, the rolling motion of which would make short work of this massive stone. It may be worth noting that the word John uses (rendered “moved away” in John 20:1) is not the normal word for rolling (as the Synoptic Gospels describe it), but a word which can mean “lifted” or “removed,” among other things. We think in terms of “rolling” a great stone because of its mass and our human weakness. God is able to dispose of such things with the greatest of ease. It seems that the earthquake was the means of moving this great stone, and the angel appears to have dispatched it.
192 In the Greek text, there is a repetition of the word “to” in John 20:2: “So she went running to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved and told them, …” This implies that Peter and John were staying at two different places.