Updated: Apr 29, 2020
"Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment" (Luke 23:50-56).
THE CONTEXT - THREE RESPONSES The episode of the burial of Jesus brings to light the depth of emotions and turmoil of His followers. We have the luxury and security of reflecting on these events that occurred over 2,000 years ago. But, in order to understand fully the impact of the death of Christ, we must consider how the people of the moment were impacted, how they responded, and how Christ brought comfort, healing, and restitution.
In first-century Jewish culture, when death occurred, the body was taken, cleansed, covered in oils and spices, and laid in a tomb. The body was then left in the closed tomb to decay for one year. When the year was completed, the bones were gathered and placed in an ossuary, a stone vessel (bone box), no longer than the length of the longest bone, the femur, and the width of the widest bone, the pelvis.
A crucified body was a different story. Often, the crucified body was either left on the cross to decay as an example to others or was removed and thrown into a common grave, making room for more to be crucified. Nails were saved for the next unfortunate person condemned to this brutal and gruesome death.
Joseph of Arimathea, a believing Jewish man of great wealth and influence, exhibited great courage by going before the Roman prefect named Pilate and asking for the body of Jesus (Mark 15:43). He wanted to be sure Jesus received a proper Jewish burial because a crucified Jew was not to hang on a tree after sundown. Joseph was a dissenter of the ruling party to which he belonged and did not give consent to their actions. By taking action to provide Jesus a burial, and caring for His body, he was going against the ruling party and professing his faith in Jesus. His actions were of such importance that all four gospels make mention of him.
The biblical text gives insight into two more responses from those close to Jesus during His crucifixion and death; one from the women who followed Jesus and the other from His disciples who devoted their lives to learning from Him. To the pain and bewilderment of the women with Jesus at the Cross, His death became reality. The women showed great courage to visit a tomb which was guarded closely by Roman soldiers and watched attentively by the ruling Jewish party of the day. They were with Jesus in some form throughout the events that took place on that Friday and were determined to serve Jesus in His burial to the best of their abilities. Like Joseph of Arimathea, they played a key role in the narrative and are to be respected, if not admired.
Jesus died shortly before Shabbat (Sabbath) and during time when preparation for the meals and Shabbat conduct was beginning. Jesus' broken body, with open wounds, was quickly removed from the Cross, wrapped in linen, and promptly laid in the tomb. In obedience to the commandments, the women were not immediately able to take care of the body of Jesus as they hoped. The Jewish Sabbath is from Friday night at sundown to Saturday at sundown. Though they prepared the oils and spices before the beginning (sundown) of the Sabbath, they were forced to wait until the early morning after the Sabbath was over at sunrise to apply the oils to the body of Jesus. However, they found the tomb empty!
But, where were the disciples, those closest friends and followers of Jesus on that Friday and Saturday? We do not see them present during the "mock trial" of Jesus, His beatings, and His placement on the Cross. Instead, we know from Matthew, as Jesus is in Gethsemane, He was deserted by those in whom He most invested, ". . . Then all the disciples deserted him and fled" (Matthew 26:56).
The disciples were afraid they would suffer a similar fate to Jesus. Associating with Jesus suddenly put them in jeopardy, not with the common people, but with the ruling party. We know the disciples thought that they were prepared to fight as they were carrying swords. But, when the conflict started, they ran in effort to avoid being identified as traitors. Their hiding kept them away from the temple on Shabbat. Had they understood the words of Jesus, they would have been at the temple proclaiming the coming Resurrection.
Their absence allows insight that the disciples did not fully understand the words of Jesus, "He then began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law and that he must be killed and after three days rise again" (Mark 8:31).
The disciples, the women, and the common people expected Jesus to be a different kind of Messiah; a Messiah created in their image and with their limited view. It was not until after the resurrection of Jesus, and some 40 days later, that the disciples began to understand the meaning of Jesus' death and the capacity of God's love for all humanity.
THE APPLICATION - FORGIVEN, REDEEMED, EMPOWERED, AND EQUIPPED
The disciples were almost entirely absent during the trial, crucifixion, and burial of Jesus. They likely regretted their fear when Jesus was taken, beaten, died, and laid in a tomb. They regretted their hiding. But after the Resurrection, Jesus brought forgiveness and renewed purpose to His disciples. They were given the gift of the Holy Spirit as seen in Acts 2 — they were empowered to speak in His name throughout the known world. They moved from fear into boldness as they gained an understanding of the nature of the Messiah — they were forgiven, redeemed, empowered, and equipped to spread the gospel! A short time after the fact, ". . . they went on their way, . . . rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name. And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they kept right on teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ" (Acts 5:41,42).
We will never know how we would have responded had we been there for the burial of Jesus. But, we do understand that if we hide, we cannot fulfill the call that Jesus set before us. Like the disciples, we must remember that we are forgiven, redeemed, empowered, and equipped to ". . . go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation" (Mark 16:15).
Written by Amy Flattery, Director of the Center for Holy Lands Studies
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