The Renown Of His Burial

Did Joseph know the tomb he hewed would be for Jesus Christ?

Our Lord Jesus was buried by two members of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathaea, “an honorable counselor” (Mark 15:43), and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and “a ruler of the Jews” (John 3:1). These two noblemen of highest reputation and social standing carried the body of our Lord into that “sepulcher which was hewn out of a rock” (Mark 15:46).

The sepulcher where they laid His body was in a garden (John 19:41), doubtless like all Oriental gardens, with a stone wall around it, and a door that could be closed to keep out prowling animals and, if necessary, unwelcome men and women.

The “rich man” (Matt. 27:57) who owned the sepulcher evidently owned the garden also. Indeed, the garden spot had been purchased, the wall built, and the garden planted with the object of making the tomb in the comparatively soft rock inside. The sepulcher would not have been private and safe outside the garden.

This garden and grave were “in the place where he was crucified” (John 19:41). Those who carried Him to the tomb did not have far to go, for “the sepulcher was nigh at hand” (v. 42).

One striking thing about this rock-hewn tomb was that the man who owned it had made it himself with his own hands—“his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock” (Matt. 27:60). No doubt Joseph paid to have the stone wall built around the garden to enclose it. He probably had a gardener plant the slips and flowers. But when it came to hewing the tomb, he took the hammer and chisel and did that himself. Rich men do not usually hew their own tombs. They might sometimes hew a tomb as a labor of love for someone who was especially dear, but not for themselves.

That tomb was “a new tomb” (v. 60). It was just completed and had never been used.

Three Strange Questions

(1) Why did Joseph make a sepulcher there?

His home was at Arimathaea, twenty-five miles from Jerusalem. Why did he hew a sepulcher at Jerusalem instead of at Arimathaea? There had been a time when Jerusalem was Joseph’s glory, as it had been the psalmist’s when he sang: “Walk about Zion, and go around about her: tell the towers thereof. Mark ye well her bulwarks, consider her palaces; that ye may tell it to the generation following” (Ps. 48:12-14). Or in verses 1-3 of the same psalm: “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. God is known in her palaces for a refuge.”

But the great King came, first as a babe to Bethlehem, and then to Jerusalem, as Zechariah had foretold, “meek, and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt, the foal of an ass.” When the King came, however, the rulers of Jerusalem hated Him and utterly rejected Him. Now Christ was Joseph’s glory, and Jerusalem’s utter apostasy had taken away Joseph’s pride in that city in whose palaces the Son of God had found no refuge.

(2) Why did Joseph select the garden and hew the sepulcher outside the gate of the city?

There were other sepulchers in Jerusalem beside those of the kings (2 Chron. 21:20; 24:25). Joseph was a rich man; why did he not prepare a tomb inside the city rather than outside in the place of the unclean? Outside the gate was outside the camp; this was the place of the unholy. Did Joseph prepare this tomb for himself, or for someone he loved, in the place of the unclean?

(3) Why did Joseph choose such a place as “Malefactors’ Hill” for his garden and tomb?

Would he want friends visiting his grave to hear the shrieks and groans of dying victims on Roman crosses? That was the place where the vilest of criminals were crucified and hastily buried—“Golgotha,” the “place of a skull.” Why did Joseph want a sepulcher there?

Whom did Joseph bury there?

Joseph buried there the body of his Lord. Had Joseph known that Christ was to be crucified there, it would be certain that he made the tomb for Him.

Did Joseph know? That is the fundamental question.

Nicodemus knew that Christ would be lifted up in death. He learned that the first time he visited the Lord by night (John 3:14). Nicodemus and Joseph were fellow members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus and Joseph were fellow disciples of Christ. What one knew, the other knew. The incidents involving Joseph and Nicodemus can be explained in no other way than that together these two instructed disciples studied the law, the prophets, and the psalms. How could they do otherwise?

After the first meeting of Nicodemus with the Lord, this Old Testament scholar went home knowing that Jesus of Nazareth was the Son of God given, as found in Isaiah 9:6 (cf. John 3:16). He knew that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of Man, of Psalm 80:17 (cf. John 3:14); and he knew He was to die by crucifixion, to be the antitype of the serpent on the pole of Numbers 21:8, 9 (cf. again, John 3:14).

Thus Nicodemus knew that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ, the key to the prophets, the psalms, and the law. What an incentive that must have been to him to study the Old Testament Scriptures! What light must have been thrown on his instructed mind, full of the knowledge of the letter of the law!

Then when Joseph was a disciple too, what discoveries he and Nicodemus must have made!

When Nicodemus said in the Sanhedrin, “Doth our law judge any man before it hear him and know what he doeth?” (John 7:51), how strange if Nicodemus were content to hear Him just once! It would not be according to the nature and impulses of the children of God, if Joseph and Nicodemus were disciples of Christ without having sat at His feet. They likely communed with their Lord on several occasions. Their very souls would demand it.

Would the Lord refrain from telling them the details of His crucifixion and death, as He told His other disciples? The fishermen of Galilee knew not the Scriptures and so did not take in the words of His death and resurrection. But masters in Israel would. The sequel shows that they did.

Even apart from any other enlightenment from the Lord, these two intelligent and devout students of the Old Testament could have discovered in its pages all the facts of Christ’s death. From Genesis 22:14 they could learn that it would be within sight of Mount Moriah: “In the mount of the Lord it shall be seen.” Across the vale the three crosses could be plainly seen from the temple; until the darkness intervened, the priest in the temple could plainly see all that took place at Calvary.

From Exodus 12:6 Joseph and Nicodemus could tell the day of the year and the hour of the day the Passover Lamb was to be slain.

From Daniel 9:24-26 they could easily calculate the year when Messiah should be cut off.

Since the place of Roman execution answered perfectly to the place “outside the camp” of Leviticus 4:12, and was yet near enough to Mount Moriah to be seen from thence, there could be no mistake when and where our Lord was to be crucified.

Thus Joseph, if he was interested, could surely know; and the details show that he did know.

Peter and John “mourned and wept” with the others when Christ was crucified. It took the resurrection of Christ to instill boldness into them. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John … they took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13). Those elders of Jerusalem knew that nothing but company with a resurrected Christ could have effected this radical change in them.

But Joseph was bold when Jesus was dead! “Joseph of Arimathaea … went in boldly unto Pilate” (Mark 15: 43). To the eleven all seemed lost at that moment. Why was Joseph so bold?

Joseph calmly commenced to perform what severed every link between him and the Sanhedrin, the temple, Jerusalem, and the Jews. What put that sacrificing boldness into Joseph?

There is only one answer: Joseph knew that thus it should be; his faith was confirmed. Joseph knew that the Scriptures had been fulfilled. Joseph had the brightest faith at the darkest moment. Joseph had the greatest courage when there seemed to be absolutely nothing to warrant it.

More than that, the provision of the linen and the spices showed that not only the cross, but the burial was expected.

When Joseph went to Pilate at the ninth hour and returned with the centurion to Calvary, he had no time to buy linen; it was ready before. Nicodemus had no time to purchase and mix a hundred pounds of spices either; they too were all ready. The grave in the garden nearby had been hewn by Joseph’s own hands as a labor of love, and it too was ready on time.

The Jews expected the bodies to remain on the crosses until the Sabbath unless their legs should be broken (John 19:31), but Joseph and Nicodemus knew when Christ would die.

Thus God in heaven used the spontaneous love of two devoted disciples of Christ to carry out His Word and to honor His Son in His death, after He had cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).

Joseph knew that spices were needed, but he bought only the linen. Nicodemus knew that linen was needed, but he bought and mixed only the spices. This shows that the two friends had conferred beforehand and each knew what the other would bring. It was love to Christ that moved them to do it. They came together at the right moment and did the honors due a king to the One who so well deserved them.

A Disciple of Jesus, BUT SECRETLY

This is what Andrew Bonar wrote of Joseph and the burial of Christ:

“At the hour of His death, behold the providence of God! A rich man, one of the honorable and esteemed in Jerusalem, a member of the Sanhedrin, and a disciple, unexpectedly appears at Calvary. This was Joseph of Arimathaea, without exception the most singularly noble character introduced to us in the Gospels. This rich man had been driven into concealment by the plots formed against him by the Jews, on account of his defending Jesus in the Sanhedrin openly (Luke 23:51). ‘Being a disciple,’ not ‘secretly,’ but ‘secreted,’ or forced to hide by reason of their plots. He was the very contrast to timid Nicodemus—bold and unreserved.

“Behold, then, this man suddenly returns to the city; and finding that all is over, he boldly seeks the body of Jesus, his beloved Master. And next, he and Nicodemus— two rich men, but the one all boldness, the other nervously timid—lay the body in its silent tomb.

“And where is the tomb? ‘In the place where he was crucified’ (John 19:41); that is, at the very spot where criminals were put to death, and where they used to be buried. Extraordinary as it may appear, this very spot was the spot where Joseph’s new tomb was hewn out of a rock! The stony sides of the tomb—the new tomb— ‘the clean place,’ where Jesus was laid—were part of the malefactors’ hill. His dead body is ‘with the rich man and with the wicked’ in the hour of His death! His grave is the property of a rich man; and yet the rocks which form the partition between His tomb and that of the other Calvary malefactors are themselves part of Golgotha. Is there not here a fulfillment of Isaiah’s words to the letter, and that in a way so unlikely that no eye could have foreseen it but His who foreordained the whole?”

In keeping with Bonar’s comments on the meaning of the word “secretly” in John 19:38, Vine in his Expository, Dictionary of New Testament words renders the word literally as “having been hidden.”

The question might well be asked, “If Joseph of Arimathaea was in hiding for fear of the Jews, what was he afraid of?” He was certainly not afraid of losing his official position in the Sanhedrin; for if he had not forfeited it already by his protest against the deeds of that group, he certainly did when he asked for the privilege of burying the body of Christ. If the members of the Sanhedrin had not put him out of his counselorship before the burial of Christ, they certainly would then.

If Joseph of Arimathaea was afraid of being put out of the synagogue and away from the temple services, why did he do so drastic a thing as to handle a dead body on the night of the Passover? He was a “chief man among his people” (Lev. 21:4); to deliberately “defile” himself on such a holy occasion for one who was not a near relative would be unpardonable in the eyes of the temple authorities. Especially so when that dead body was His who was so utterly condemned by the chief priest as a blasphemer. Joseph, by his deliberate act of honoring the body of the Lord Jesus in the plain sight of the elders of Israel, showed he was not afraid of what they might do to him in the synagogue or temple.

When Joseph went boldly to Pilate and to Calvary when he might have had the very worst to fear from the bitter Jews, he showed plainly that he was not afraid of losing position, riches, friends, reputation or his life itself. All he could lose he deliberately sacrificed without hesitation for Christ when he buried Him.

What then was Joseph afraid of? Why did he hide away, till our Lord cried, “It is finished!” on the cross?

Joseph was afraid of the Jews putting him in prison before he accomplished the work he had purposed and prepared himself to do, even to give to the Son of God the burial of a king. He had prepared that tomb for his Lord, and he did not want the elders of Israel to frustrate his purpose. All the events that followed showed Joseph had no fear for himself whatever. What this devoted man did, with the fellowship of Nicodemus, was perhaps the most courageous and most costly act of love to Christ that was ever performed.

But where did Joseph hide? He could not have been far from Calvary, for he knew immediately when our Lord said, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” and bowed His head in death. Right away Joseph went to Pilate. He was ready and waiting for that moment. Where could Joseph be in hiding and yet know so minutely what was happening on the cross?

There was one place where Joseph could hide without danger of being found by the pious Jews at the Passover season, and that was in the sepulcher he had hewed in the rock, which tomb was in the walled garden that belonged to him. Four days before the Passover every sepulcher had to be whitewashed to let the Jews know just where they were so they could be carefully avoided. Defilement from tombs and dead bodies prohibited the faithful from eating the Passover. All Joseph had to do was to fulfill the temple requirements and whitewash his sepulcher and no one would go near it.

It seems to me that the tomb in the garden was the only logical place for the linen clothes to be placed in readiness as soon as they were bought. Also the hundred pound weight of spices mixed and prepared by Nicodemus would be there also. A hundred pounds is a heavy load for a very strong man to carry far. You carry a hundred pounds of potatoes for two city blocks and see how your back and bones will ache. No, Nicodemus did not carry that weight of spices far. The spices must have been somewhere near to the place where Christ was crucified. That tomb in the garden, “near to the place where he was crucified,” was the logical place.

When Joseph went to Pilate to beg Christ’s body, he did not have the linen on his arm. Pilate wondered whether He were already dead. Probably the Jews had just left, asking that the crucified might have their legs broken to hasten their death. Pilate would not believe Christ was dead till he called the centurion who had charge of the crucifixion. While the messenger went, and until the centurion came, Joseph stood with Pilate, waiting. When the centurion affirmed that Jesus of Nazareth was dead, that He had died at the ninth hour when the darkness lifted, then Pilate commanded the centurion to release the body to Joseph. Together Joseph and the centurion returned to Calvary. The linen, therefore, must have been somewhere near at hand, for Joseph and Nicodemus commenced immediately to take the body down.

For my part, I am convinced that behind that garden wall these two noblemen saw and heard all that was said and done at Calvary without themselves being seen or heard.

Joseph No Longer Afraid

What must have been the thoughts in the hearts of the Jews at Calvary, as they still sat down and watched Him there, to see the centurion come back from Pilate with one of the foremost Jewish leaders walking by his side? Why was Joseph of Arimathaea coming with the centurion? What was he going to do? All the leaders of Jerusalem would know him. Some of them knew that he was a disciple of the Nazarene. The atmosphere must have been tense with questioning.

Only a few minutes after Joseph left the centurion, he returned, bringing over his arm yards and yards of fine white linen. With Joseph came another who was well-known as a ruler and a Pharisee. It was Nicodemus, bearing on his back a burden of one hundred pounds of spices—myrrh and aloes. These men of the strictest sect of the Jews’ religion—what were they going to do? Would they dare to touch a dead body on such a sacred day as this? Were these counselors of Jerusalem going to associate themselves with Jesus of Nazareth now that He was dead? The people did not have long to wonder.

Joseph laid down his linen and Nicodemus laid down his spices on the sward near the cross. Next, those two noblemen of unblemished reputation walked to the foot of the cross and looked up at Him who hung upon it.

As Nicodemus looked up he may have repeated: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:14-16).

Then when Joseph looked at the gaping side, riven by the soldier’s spear while he was away talking to Pilate, he may have quoted: “Reproach hath broken my heart; and I am full of heaviness: and I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps. 69:20, 21). “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced” (Zech. 12:10).

Together, with tender hands they drew out the nails, and if the limbs were bound, they loosed the cords to take the body down. I am sure they must have repeated: “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have enclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet” (Ps. 22:16).

The two faithful friends, in the sight of the Jewish authorities who were silent in their helpless wrath, bore the sacred body to the soft green grass and laid it down to prepare it for burial. They would straighten the arms by the body, then looking upon that face as they took the crown of thorns from His brow, they would say together, “His visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men” (Isa. 52:14).

And again, as they looked and wept upon Him, they repeated: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa. 53: 5, 6).

What a gospel meeting that was! The Jews were silent, helpless and bitter; the Roman soldiers awe-stricken because of the earthquake and because of His dying cry which had made them admit, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

Why do I believe that Nicodemus and Joseph quoted these verses? Well, I know that they knew them. I know also that if we had been in their place, we would have quoted them.

All could see that what the two men were doing was a labor of love. The folds of the napkin were wrapped about His head while the spices were poured in. Then, beginning at the feet, the body was carefully and reverently wrapped by Joseph, while Nicodemus poured in the myrrh and aloes. The fragrance of that preparation must have pervaded the whole atmosphere. That was the most fragrant spot in the universe of God.

When the body was ready, the women, who for shame had been afar off, drew near, and followed as mourners to the tomb, and beheld where He was laid. As Joseph and Nicodemus bore the precious burden to the tomb they would say, “They made His grave with the wicked, but with the rich man was His tomb” (Isa. 53:9. See Jamieson, Fausset and Brown’s commentary).

Having placed the body in the rockhewn sepulchre, Joseph and Nicodemus rolled a great stone to the door and departed.

Where did they go? What happened to them there? We must wait until the judgment seat of Christ to hear the end of this, as of many another thrilling story of de-votedness to Christ.

This that Joseph and Nicodemus did was one of the first evidences of victory in the midst of seemingly overwhelming and irretrievable defeat.

“So let all thine enemies be confounded, O Lord: but let them that love thee be as the sun when he goeth forth in his might” (Judg. 5:31).

The Type of the Burial of Christ

“And the priest shall put on the linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh, and take up the ashes which the fire hath consumed with the burnt offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar. And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes without the camp unto a clean place” (Lev. 6:10, 11).

The solemn care of the ashes of the burnt offering tells the story of how precious was the object they represented. The burnt offering was wholly burnt. It was all for God, a sweet savor unto the Lord. The garments the priest wore when he took the ashes from the altar and placed them beside the altar were not the garments he wore when he took them from beside the altar and carried them without the camp. There is here a suggestion of the end of one priesthood when the ashes were taken from the altar, and the commencement of a new priesthood when they were carried to a clean place outside the camp.

When Nicodemus and Joseph took the body of our Lord from the cross, they broke every tie that bound them to the temple and its service. Were they of the priestly family of Aaron or of the consecrated tribe of Levi, they violated every link with the old order at Jerusalem when they deliberately handled a dead body on the eve of the Passover. They lost every claim to the privileges or service of the temple; they had completely broken with the old order.

But when they carried that body to a clean place outside the camp they were priests of a new order. They were members of that royal priesthood that is a “chosen generation… a holy nation, a peculiar people,” ordained to show forth the praises of him who hath called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Pet. 2:9). They were of that “spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).

Joseph and Nicodemus carried the ashes of the Burnt Offering to a clean place outside the camp. That Burnt Offering was Christ, who was in every word and deed, in every motive and desire, a sweet savor unto the Lord. He came of His own voluntary will. He glorified God on earth and finished the work God gave Him to do.

Joseph and Nicodemus not only as new priests reverently carried and deposited the ashes of the Burnt Offering in that clean tomb, but when they came to the cross to do this honor for Christ, they went forth “unto him without the camp, bearing his reproach” (Heb. 13:13). None other of the Lord’s disciples had so much to lose as they, and they gladly and finally sacrificed all they had.

May devotion to Christ cause us also to go forth unto Him outside every camp, bearing His reproach.