Sermon: “Christ Jesus Buried”
Text: Matthew 27:57-66
The burial of Jesus is not a minor detail in Christian teaching. For example, the apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4, “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.” The burial of Jesus is placed together with His death and His resurrection as a matter of “first importance.” So, it should not surprise us that Christ’s burial is also included among the foundational truths that Christians confess about their faith in the Apostles’ Creed. But why is His burial so important?We might first ask ourselves why we consider a funeral and burial important. The answer may vary from one culture to another, but in many cultures, a funeral is the last opportunity to say “Good-bye” to someone we had known and perhaps loved. It is a final ceremony of separation (告別式 ). A funeral is also an opportunity for surviving family and friends to gather and to comfort one another in their shared sorrow. It is a time to “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). In our burial customs we show our respect for the dignity of human life, which God gave and which He has now taken away (Job 1:21). In burial we also acknowledge that we must all face the final “enemy” or “curse” of death, because of our rebellion against the One who gives us life. God made our first ancestors with the capacity to live forever. It was only in consequence of Adam’s sin against God that God said to him, “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19; cf. Rom. 5:12). Just as all men must die and “return to the dust,” so Jesus Christ also died and returned to the ground when He was buried. Matthew tells us about Jesus’ burial in some detail in verses 57-66. In fact, Matthew devotes as many words to tell us about Jesus’ burial as he does to tell us about Christ’s resurrection (28:1-10)!
II. FOUR IMPORTANT THINGS TO REMEMBER ABOUT CHRIST’S BURIAL
What does Matthew’s account show us in Jesus’ burial that is so important? Consider these four things. First, Matthew’s account shows us that Jesus, who lived and died as a man, also left His body to be buried– as any other ordinary man. The burial testifies that Jesus Christ has really died. And like any other human being, the body of Jesus Christ was taken out of sight and placed in a grave. His body was placed into a tomb cut into the rock. Then the tomb was closed with a massive rock placed over its opening. As other body burials, this burial was performed for two reasons: to preserve the honor and the memory of the deceased, and to protect the living from the offense of decaying flesh. It is the final act at the end of a human life. Most people understand this physical, biological reality. But is it really the ultimate end and goal of human life? Some of Jesus’ friends and family may have thought, “Well, now Jesus’ suffering is over. His body is in the grave, but His soul lives on in heaven.” Many Christians think this way today. But the grave is not the final end of the body, according to the Scriptures. And heaven is not the ultimate destination of the separated soul. The grave is only a temporary “resting place” for Jesus’ body. And heaven is only a temporary home for the soul. Jesus Christ reigns from His eternal throne not as a Spirit, but as the resurrected Son of Man. For us, too, the grave is not the final resting place for our bodies, and heaven is not the final home for our disembodied souls. We must keep this in mind. Nevertheless, Jesus the Son of Man has died. He would not be “revived” by any human, medical means. For Jesus, the phase of existence we call “human life” was finished. That is the first significance of Jesus’ burial.The second matter of significance in Jesus’ burial is that He is honored in that burial. This is a surprise. Why? Because ordinarily, no one who had died on a cross as an executed criminal under the Roman system of justice was permitted a dignified burial. Bodies of crucified criminals were thrown into a vacant field to decay, or to be eaten by dogs or by wild animals. Refusing burial rights was part of the punishment! It is a surprise that the Roman governor would allow such a burial. Matthew tells us how this occurred. It happened because a certain “rich man” named Joseph from the town of Arimathea “came to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (v. 57-58). This story is included in each of the other Gospels, but only Matthew tells us that Joseph was a “rich man.” Perhaps Joseph’s wealth explains his influence with the Roman governor! But the real reason why Jesus was buried in this fashion can be found only in one place. You can read it in Isaiah 53:9. “His grave was assigned to be with wicked men, yet with a rich man in His death; although He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth.” So Jesus died between a pair of thieves, surrounded by greedy and wicked men (including the governor, the priests, and the soldiers). But in death Jesus was given to “a rich man” to be honored and buried with dignity. In this unlikely and unexpected manner, God made it clear Who is in control! God keeps His promises. Not one word that He has spoken will ever fail.A third thing that Matthew shows us in His record of Jesus’ burial is that Jesus’ life and work had changed people in remarkable ways. Joseph of Arimathea is one example of a man whose life Jesus had changed. Matthew tells us that Joseph had “become a disciple of Jesus” (v. 57). Mark and Luke add that this Joseph was “a respected member” of the Jewish Sanhedrin, who “had not consented to their purpose and deed.” This Joseph risked his position among the leaders of the Jews when he came to Pilate and asked to bury the body of Jesus. He also took a dangerous political risk before the Roman governor. Jesus had been executed for His claim to be “King of the Jews,” an enemy of Caesar. By requesting Jesus’ body for burial, Joseph showed that he honored Jesus and accepted His teachings. Joseph took a stand for Jesus and the kingdom of God, rather than merely accepting the decisions of Rome. Here is a clear indication that Jesus’ followers would not forget Him. The ministry of Jesus would have lasting results. Even though many disciples had fled and failed Jesus for a time, there were some who continued to seek the kingdom of God and its righteousness, because of Jesus’ ministry. Joseph was one of those faithful followers. And there were others: the women who watched where Jesus was buried and came to the tomb to grieve. And even Nicodemus—another Jewish leader we read about in John’s Gospel—joined Joseph in honoring Jesus in His burial. Jesus’ life had not been without lasting fruit.The fourth matter Matthew tells us is a familiar detail that is not found in any other Gospel. Matthew alone tells us about the efforts of the Jewish priests and Pharisees to guard the tomb of Jesus from grave-robbers. Why did the Jewish leaders ask Pilate to guard Jesus’ grave? First, they remembered what Jesus had promised openly while He was preaching in the temple courts. He had said not only that He would be crucified, but that “after three days I will rise again.” This promise had not been forgotten by Jesus’ opponents. Secondly, the leaders were afraid that Jesus’ followers would steal Jesus’ body from the tomb and claim that He had, in fact, risen from the dead. So, in order to prevent any such attempt, the chief priests and Pharisees asked Pilate to order his soldiers to guard the tomb until the three days had passed. It appears that Pilate was reluctant to approve of their plan, just as he had been reluctant to sentence Jesus to death. In response to their request, Pilate said, “You have a guard!” Some scholars understand this is as a command: “Take a guard!” But, whether it was the temple guard or Pilate’s Roman soldiers, it is clear that the governor finally allowed them to set a guard, to place a seal on the tomb, and to “make it as secure as you can” (v. 65-66). Only Matthew mentions any of these details. The purpose, of course, was to prevent any disciple of Jesus from entering the tomb and removing Jesus’ body. Not even the Pharisees, who believed in the idea of a physical resurrection, thought seriously about Jesus’ claim that He would rise from the dead. They called Jesus “that deceiver” and thought His disciples were deceivers, too. But what was Matthew’s purpose in recording these details about the guard and the seal on the tomb? I think it is to show how foolish and powerless are the leaders of men when they set themselves in opposition to the living God! The Jewish leaders and the Roman governor have not set themselves against a dead man or against His little group of disciples, but against God Himself. Man can do nothing to prevent what God has declared He will do! Psalm 2 says it best: “The kings of the earth take their stand, and the rulers take counsel together against the LORD and against His Anointed. … [But] He who sits in the heavens laughs, the LORD scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury: ‘But as for Me, I have installed My King upon Zion, My holy mountain.’”
What can we learn from Christ’s burial and how can we apply it to our lives? First, we learn that Christ, as the “Son of Man,” was buried and His body returned to the ground, just as the body of Adam did before Him, just as we will return to the ashes and dust of the ground in our turn. But Christ, the Son of Man, was buried as our representative—the “last Adam.” And He was buried with the promise of resurrection. When our turn comes, we will be buried with that same promise.Secondly, as Christ’s burial fulfilled the prophecy of God’s word in Isaiah 53, we should expect every word of God to be fulfilled. We should remember every word that God has entrusted to His people. We have His instructions for living and serving and loving others. We have His words of comfort and encouragement and correction to share with those around us. The leaders of Israel remembered the words spoken by Jesus, but they tried to resist and nullify those words. We rightly criticize them, but do we even remember Christ’s words to us! And if we remember His words, do we believe them? Do we follow them? Do we believe what Peter said to Jesus in John 6:68: “You have words of eternal life!” Hear Christ’s words to you! Remember them. Live by them. Not one good word of the Lord has failed. We can trust Christ to keep His word always, no matter how “unlikely” it seems.Thirdly and finally, we must realize that many who hear God’s words will do all they can do to resist them, just as the priests and Pharisees tried to resist the fulfillment of Christ’s promises. Matthew’s Gospel focuses especially on the matter of authority. Jesus Christ is presented as the King of the Jews and the One who possesses “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He is the Son of Man from Daniel’s prophecy. To Him is given “dominion, glory, and an eternal kingdom.” Therefore, no matter how great are the forces that oppose Christ, it is Christ who will have the victory. His enemies did all they could do to prevent what Jesus had promised from becoming reality. And they failed! Even though Pilate and the Jewish leaders tried with all their power to prevent anyone from entering Christ’s tomb from the outside, they were powerless to prevent what God had planned. They focused on the outside of the tomb; but God was working on the inside of the tomb! God sometimes works that way in our lives, too. Sometimes it seems like all the influences around us are conspiring to prevent us from breaking free and following Christ. But when God is at work in your heart, no force on earth can prevent what God will do there. When He works inside of you, new life and hope and joy will burst forth! And nothing can stand in His way!