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Jesus' Burial

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Mar 5, 2000

Matthew 27:57-66

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 27. We’ve been studying in the gospel of Matthew for the last several times focusing on the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ and today we come to His burial. As we looked at Matthew 27, verses 33 through 44, we began that specific focus on the crucifixion, and we said that Matthew highlighted the nature and significance of Jesus’ death by pointing us to the characters around Jesus on the cross, and asking us to look at how they reacted to Him. But He also drew attention to exactly what was happening on the cross by pointing us to the supernatural occurrences that were happening in creation itself. The earthquakes, the darkening of the sky in the middle of the day, and the various other miracles which occurred in connection with the Lord Jesus’ death.

And throughout all this we saw that Matthew was not only interested in telling us the facts about the resurrection historically speaking, he was actually wanting to help us understand what the crucifixion meant. And so where sometimes we hear people say the gospels give us the fact of the cross, the fact of the crucifixion, the fact of the resurrection, and these things, it doesn’t give us a theology of those things. And we said that was wrong from the very beginning. All through the gospel writers though they faithfully record all the events as they occurred, are concerned that we would understand why these things are happening and what they mean.

Matthew then went on to focus on the two cries of the Lord Jesus on the cross. His cry from Psalm 22, verse 1, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” And then that second cry in which he rendered up His spirit to the Heavenly Father. And by focusing us on those two cries again Matthew speaks to us of the significance of the crucifixion. And today he comes to the subject of the burial of the Lord Jesus. So let’s hear reverently God’s holy and inspired word here in Matthew 27 beginning in verse 57.

Matthew 27:57-66

Father, this is Your word, and we pray that today as we consider it that you would not only enable us to believe savingly on the one who was crucified, dead and buried. But then if we come with unbelieving, doubting or skeptical hearts, that you would remind us again through the very truth of your word of the reality of these events, and more than that of the reality which they signify for all who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. For we are buried with Him in death and raised in Him to newness of life. Help us to understand that more, somewhat even this day. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

There are many points of interest in this section that grab and vie for our attention, but it seems to me that the overarching theme of this section as we have seen frankly in the past in Matthew is the providence of God even in Jesus burial. Everything that occurs in this passage serves as an unwitting preparation for God to vindicate His Son in the resurrection. It seems to me that none of the main actors, none of the main characters in this story realize just how they are being used in order to confirm, explain and vindicate the claims of the Lord Jesus Christ as we await the days of His resurrection. I’d like you to look at the passage in two parts today.

First of all, in verses 57 through 61. And then secondly, in verses 62 through 66. In verses 57 through 61 you see Jesus buried, but he’s buried in a surprising way. He’s buried by a man that we’ve never heard of before. This heretofore unheard of disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, comes. Instead of the eleven, instead of Jesus’ closest associates, this man that we’ve never heard of before come to bury the Lord Jesus Christ. Now I want you to see a very important truth in that. Now immediately you’re thinking well, why didn’t His own disciples come? John’s disciples had had the character enough, the loyalty enough, the devotion enough and frankly, the courage enough to go and ask for John’s body so it could be buried. Why surely the Lord Jesus’ disciples would show similar bravery, but they don’t. And so your mind immediately begins to meditate on that. But God has a bigger picture, a bigger story that He has in mind for us here, and that is that God in His providence is laying the groundwork here for both the event and the doctrine of the resurrection.

I. God, in His providence, lays the groundwork for the event and doctrine of the resurrection.

In the occurrences that we see here in verses 57 through 61 God is laying the groundwork for us to understand the resurrection, and he’s laying the groundwork for a testimony even to the event of the resurrection, not only from His disciples, not only from the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, but from his expressed and avowed enemies. Now Joseph we are told is a man from Arimathea. In fact, he is from the town of Ramathaim-zophim about twenty miles to the north and west of Jerusalem. It is the hometown of Samuel. And this man, we are told, came and inquired of Pilate, asking for Jesus’ body. Out of nowhere comes this disciple that we have never heard of before in the gospel and will never hear from again. And he asked for the body of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew tells us explicitly in verse 57 that he was wealthy. That was surprising in those days. There were not many wealthy followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. But this man was wealthy, he was prominent. We are told that specifically here in the passage in verse 58. He was able to secure a meeting with Pilate after hours. You can imagine going down to the Governor’s Mansion after hours and just knocking on the door and saying you know, I would like to see the governor. Your chances of that would be rather slim, unless you had a little bit of pull or status in the community. And this man goes to Pilate after hours, and without a previous appointment and says I’d like to speak with Pilate, and I’d like to ask the privilege of taking care of the body of this man who has just been crucified. He was a secret disciple of Christ. Matthew tells us explicitly in verse 57 that he was a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. But John tells us in John 19:38 that he was a secret disciple of Christ. Just like Nicodemus, this man was a prominent leader and teacher in Israel, and he had not openly declared his loyalty to the Lord Jesus Christ. And in light of that fact you need to understand how brave he was. I mean he’s going to Pilate’s palace to ask for the body of a man who has been condemned and executed as a traitor, a rebel against Rome. Now Jesus was in no condition to help him in such an identification. But Joseph, anyway, goes to Pilate and asks for His body.

You see, the Romans normally like to leave the bodies of crucified men on the cross until they deteriorated to the point they would finally be taken down and cast into a common grave with other criminals who had committed heinous and capital crimes. If that had happened, Jesus’ resurrection would have been obscured. And as we’re going to see in a few moments, Scripture would not have been fulfilled. And so this man Joseph comes to Pilate, and he asks permission to take His body. He prepares Jesus’ body for burial, he dresses Him in fine funeral clothing, and he lays Him in his family tomb. By the way, this linen grave clothing that was given to the Lord Jesus by Joseph was probably the nicest outfit of clothing that the Lord Jesus ever wore.

And so we see Joseph taking great care over the body of his Lord. Matthew explicitly reminds us here that this is Joseph’s own family tomb, and he does that, as well as noting Joseph’s prominence and wealth because he wants you to see something. If you take your Bibles and turn with me back to Isaiah, chapter 53, Matthew is telling you here that in Joseph, coming out of nowhere, a prominent man, a wealthy man, taking Jesus body and burying Him in his own family tomb, he is in fact fulfilling two things that Isaiah had said about the Messiah over six hundred years before Jesus was born. We read them in Isaiah them in Isaiah 53, verses 8 and 9 and verses 11 and 12. “By oppression and judgment, He was taken away, speaking of the suffering servant. And as for His generation, He was considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living for the transgression of my people to whom the stroke was due. His grave was assigned with wicked men. Yet He was with a rich man in His death because He had done no violence, nor was there any deceit in His mouth.” Verse 11. “As a result of the anguish of His soul, He will see it and be satisfied by His knowledge the Righteous One, My servant, will justify the many, as He will bear their iniquities. Therefore, I will allot him a portion with the great, and He will divide the booty with the strong because He poured out Himself to death and was numbered with the transgressors and yet He, Himself bore the sin of many and interceded for the transgressors.” And so He is in His death with a rich man, and He is given a portion with the great. And Matthew was telling you here that God ordained, God-given, God-inspired prophecy was fulfilled in what Joseph of Arimathea did.

Now I want to speculate with you a moment. I do it not to lead you on a rabbit trail, but to illustrate just how significant this is what Joseph had done. Can you imagine the conversation that Joseph had with his wife? Remember, the Sanhedrin had to be married. Probably they were already in town for the Passover. They were twenty miles from home. This man was a prominent man. He was a wealthy man, well connected. He was a leader of Israel, a leader of the synagogue back in his hometown as well as a member of the highest court of the church in his day. And he says to his wife on the afternoon of the Lord Jesus’ death, “Honey, I’ve got to go get His body, and I’m going to bury it in our family tomb.” And his wife says, “Joseph, you have got to be out of your mind.” If you identify yourself with Him by going and asking for that body, you will lose all the wealth of our family. You will be cast out of the synagogue. I will be cast out of the synagogue. Our children will not be allowed in the synagogue in the town in which they grew up. You will lose your status. You will be removed from the Sanhedrin, and it will be no telling, given what they have just done to the Lord Jesus Christ, what they will do to you. And Joseph, after all He’s already dead.” And he says, “Honey, I owe that man everything, and I just have to do it.”

Now my friends, think what was hanging in the balance. Joseph doing a seemingly, meaningless act burying the body of his Lord, was in fact not only fulfilling scripture, but preparing for the glory of Christ and His resurrection. And all of us my friends are called from time to time in life to exercise that kind of faith and devotion in the Lord Jesus Christ. And sometimes it’s in very small and mundane things. You know you could have made a good argument assuming that His wife made such an argument. You could have made a good argument for not getting involved in such a thing. I mean you can hear it, “Oh, honey, you could have such an influence in the synagogue if you weren’t kicked out.” But Joseph did what he was burdened to do out of faith and belief and loyalty in his Lord, and it turned out to be absolutely crucial in the fulfillment of the decree of God. And I wonder if you think sometimes well, it really doesn’t matter whether I give to missions. Or it really doesn’t matter whether I speak to my neighbor about Christ. But who knows in your little gestures what eternal destiny hinges. Perhaps something that you send to the mission field, perhaps a prayer or a missionary; perhaps a quiet, kind word of witness at a funeral or a wedding may be the difference between heaven and hell for an immortal soul. Never underestimate how your faithfulness may be used in the providence of God.

Can we not see the faithfulness of Joseph honored here? Jesus’ burial, you see, is the first Christian burial. The burial of Jews in Jesus day was an act of great piety, and it probably spoke of their hope for a future resurrection. That body was taken care of because it was in prospect of the hope of the resurrection that the believer was laid in the tomb. And so Joseph, and we’re told by John, Nicodemus also came and helped in the burial of Jesus. Matthew tells us by the way that the Marys were there. Think again how important this was. Joseph of Arimathea, Nicodemus and the Marys knew exactly where Jesus was buried. Now if He had been thrown into a common grave, even His disciples wouldn’t have known where He was. But as it were, God is already setting up the scenario for His own disciples and we’ll soon see for both the Gentiles and His Jewish opponents to know exactly where Jesus was buried. In fact, the knowledge of His burial place was so widespread that the site of the tomb now in Jerusalem was the approximate site identified within ten years of the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. We know almost specifically where our Lord was buried, and we also know that He was not in that tomb come resurrection morning. And we’ll see why in just a few minutes.

But I want you to see the point of this passage. In verses 57 through 61 God is in His loving providence, while His enemies are still triumphing over the Lord Jesus in His crucifixion. God is in His loving providence laying the groundwork for His Son’s vindication. He is setting up a scenario whereby there are numerous witnesses to the fact that He was indeed dead, and He was indeed buried, and that He was not in that tomb when they came back to check. Joseph, in this passage, is the model disciple. Even in the midst of this very difficult situation, Joseph, the wealthy though in a position to lose a lot, was ready to identify himself in his godliness and his loyalty and his bravery for the Lord Jesus Christ. This shows us one aspect of discipleship doesn’t it? Devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ no matter what you could lose. And Matthew is saying, and think of it my friends, would Matthew – you know how Matthew has been talking about Pharisees. You’ve been reading through this book, you know what Matthew thinks of Pharisees. Would Matthew have invented a story about a Pharisee who came to bury his Lord? You see this is another testimony to the reality of the history of this event. This is the last thing that early Christians would have wanted to know that not the apostles, but a Pharisee buried the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, Matthew is telling you blow by blow, and it’s to his own shame. He knows that you are saying well Matthew, why weren’t you there? Why wasn’t Peter there? Why wasn’t John there? At least the Mary’s had the courage to be there. Why weren’t you there is the essential proclaimers of the gospel. But he shows us here doesn’t he. God’s provision for His Son. When His closest friends had abandoned Him, before the foundation of the world God had ordained that His Son’s body would be cared for by a disciple who was until that time utterly unheard of and perhaps even unknown to the circle of disciples of the Lord Jesus.

But here as we’ve said Scripture is being fulfilled and Paul talks about that. Turn with me to I Corinthians, chapter 15. Paul emphasizes this in I Corinthians 15, verses 3 and 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.” You see what Paul is saying there. Christ died by the book. He was buried by the book, and He was raised again from the dead by the book. In other words, in specific, explicit fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, Jesus was crucified dead, buried and raised again. And so this is what’s hanging in the balance in this passage.

And this is a passage which gives us a grand reminder of the important of believing in God’s word and trusting in His providence. In His overruling providence here, God ordered things so that the death and burial of Jesus were placed beyond all doubt. Think of it. Think of it. These Gentiles and Jews, government officials, religious leaders were in fact conspiring to make sure that no fake resurrection could be claimed. That was their goal. But they were being used by God to confirm Jesus’ resurrection. Listen to what J.C. Ryle says: “They little thought what they were doing. They little thought that unwittingly they were providing the most complete evidence of the truth of Christ’s coming resurrection. They were actually making it impossible to prove that any deception or imposition had occurred. Their seal, their guard, their precautions were all to become witnesses. In just a few hours that Christ has risen, their own devices became instruments to show forth God’s glory.”

And how often is that the case in the Bible and in subsequent Christian history? The things which seem to be most against Christians and most against the faith, God will take and turn and use for His own purposes. And He does that right here. What’s happening here? God in His providence is laying the groundwork for the resurrection, and He is using the wrath of man to praise Him. But that’s not all.

II. God, in His providence, lays the groundwork for defending His Son’s truthfulness and His persecutor’s deceitfulness.

If you look at verses 62 through 66 you’ll see that these Jewish leaders continued their scheming, they continued their machinations on Saturday because of their concern over a fake resurrection. They wanted to make sure they did everything they could within their power to thwart any attempt to fake a resurrection. But again, with that as the main story that Matthew focuses upon, he has in mind a bigger, an overarching theme and that is that God in His providence is laying the groundwork for defending His Son’s truthfulness and showing his persecutors’ deceitfulness.

It’s very interesting. You remember as we were reading Isaiah 53, 9-11, 12 and 13, that whole section, do not you notice how it focuses on the lack of deceitfulness in the suffering servant’s mouth? There was no deceitfulness in his mouth, and yet when the Sanhedrin, when the chief priests and the scribes show up to Pilate, this pagan, they approach him politely. They call him sir, they call him lord, and how do they refer to the Lord Jesus Christ? They refer to Him as the deceiver, and it’s almost as if the Heavenly Father said well, we’re going to see in just a few hours who the deceiver is and who speaks the truth. You call my Son a liar, I’m going to show the world that you are liars. And they come in and they say, you see if they fake this resurrection and people start spreading the word that He was raised again from the dead, that last deception is going to be worse than His first. In other words He managed to dupe some of the people into believing that He was the Messiah. Now if they try and dupe some more of the people into thinking that He’s actually been raised again from the dead, we’re going to be in a worse fix than we were before. So Pilate, we have got to make sure that His disciples do not steal the body away. Now it’s ironic, isn’t it?

Matthew is showing you a picture of the disciples who are so demoralized, they are nowhere around the Lord Jesus Christ. The women have to go show Jesus’ circle of disciples where the tomb is. They know, Joseph knows, Nicodemus knows. But Jesus’ eleven disciples don’t know where He is. Peter and John have to be led by the women. They couldn’t even effect a rescue of the body of Jesus. They didn’t know where He was. And so Matthew has shown you what is happening to the disciples so that you’ll know that this idea of their stealing Jesus’ body never entered into their minds. They didn’t even know where He was. Matthew alone tells us of this encounter.

It’s interesting that he shows them on the seventh day, on the Jewish Sabbath, going into a Gentile’s palace and scheming with him to make sure that Jesus stayed buried. By the way, Matthew can’t even bring himself to call it the Sabbath day. Have you noticed that? He knew that the next day was about to be the first day, the resurrection day, the Christian Sabbath, he knew that they were desecrating the old covenant Sabbath, and he couldn’t even bring himself to call it the Sabbath. He called it the day after the preparation. In fact, throughout this passage, you will notice that Matthew begins to number time based upon the day of Christ’s crucifixion leading up to the first day which will become the Lord’s day, the Christian Sabbath. These men come into Pilate’s presence, and they say, well you know we heard this man saying in teaching that in three days He was going to raise Himself from the dead. Now this is a switch, isn’t it? In His trial, they used that phraseology to accuse Him of doing what? Of attacking the temple, of claiming that He was going to tear the temple down. Suddenly now they admit that they knew themselves that He was not talking about tearing the temple down. He was talking about dying and being raised again in three days. So the story has changed. These men, Matthew is showing us, are already deceitful. And so they asked Pilate to secure the tomb, to protect it from theft, lest an even greater deception be accomplished. And so they have a Roman guard stationed at the tomb, a string is spread across the stone and it’s sealed with the official Roman seal. And you know what that did? It made absolutely certain that the first people to witness the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ would be non-disciples. It wouldn’t be Jesus’ inner circle that would spread a claim that couldn’t be corroborated. It would be non-disciples, Roman guards stationed at the tomb who would be forced to testify that He was not there.

So once again God’s providence deploys the insults and the schemes of Jesus avowed enemies in order to vindicate Him, to confirm His teaching and to bring Him glory. See, their words were shown to be false and their deceitfulness was revealed while Christ truthfulness was doubly vindicated and confirmed. All the extra measures that they took to secure Jesus’ burial ended up drawing attention to His resurrection. And friends, you wouldn’t make up a story like this. You’d never make up a story about the disciples not caring enough about the Lord Jesus to take His body down and give it a decent burial. You’d never make up a story about a member of the Sanhedrin coming to bury the Lord Jesus Christ. And Matthew will later on mention the story that was being spread by the Jewish leaders that Jesus had been stolen by His disciples. That very fact lets you know that that was the main way of explaining what had happened to the Lord Jesus Christ. And that fact lets you know that the tomb was indisputably empty. The Jewish leaders would not have made up a story that the tomb was empty if they could have proved it in any other way that it was not. And so the very fact that Matthew includes the story lets you know that the Jewish leaders admitted the emptiness of the tomb, but everything they had done precluded the disciples being the ones who had rescued Jesus. Matthew is showing you the irony of God’s providence here. That all the designs of men are used for the glory of Christ.

My friends, you may be in such a point and time in your own life where you are tempted to doubt God’s providence. You may be in some dark night of the soul. You may be facing something that you just don’t understand how God is going to be able to work it out, and here Matthew is saying, you know, we were utterly demoralized at this time. We had no idea what God was doing. But looking back on it, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he saw God’s hand in it every step of the way. God moves in a mysterious way – His wonders to perform. He plants His footsteps on the sea and rides upon the storm. He has a plan. It is a loving plan; it is a good plan. Those who have embraced Christ will find in the end that nothing can bring a charge against them as His chosen, and nothing can separate them from the one who is the lover of their souls. Oh dear friends, believe on that today, and you’ll find all the benefits which are attached to Him. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and God, we marvel at this gospel story. We marvel at your wisdom, and how it mocks the wisdom and the deceitfulness of men. And we pray that You would give us the grace to believe with all our hearts the Lord Jesus as He is set forth in the gospel, and we ask this in Jesus’ name, Amen.

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