In John 19:38-42 notice who were not there as you see the final depth of Christ’s humiliation. John tells you of the activity of Joseph of Arimathea and of Nicodemus, as the honor they render points to the beginning of his glory. But the question for you is, “were you there when he was laid in the tomb?”
The absence of the followers of Jesus is part of the humiliation involved in his burial. Burial appears to mark the end of Christ’s work. The Messiah is indeed dead. Joseph’s honor is being paid to a dead Redeemer. The burial shows that Jesus Christ is truly dead. Theories of a death-like faint are false.
The promised resurrection seems to have been forgotten. Joseph’s actions (except for being hasty due to the approaching Sabbath) are the normal ones involved in burial of the dead. The women come after the Sabbath expecting to complete the anointing of their dead Lord. To the casual observer the work of Jesus Christ appears to have ended, and to have ended tragically. None of the disciples are present. John, who had been there, may have been taking Mary to his home. Some of the women who had followed from Galilee were there, as we learn from the other Gospels.
The burial is the final step in Christ’s humiliation. As the one made sin for us, Christ not only suffers, not only dies, but is laid in the tomb. He undergoes burial, as you and I will unless he returns before we die.
The contrasts are staggering. The God-man is dead, the Lord of life has been placed in a tomb. Christ is dead and remains under the power of death for a time. But, this is the final step in his humiliation. After that comes the glory of his exaltation.
Joseph of Arimathea and of Nicodemus treat the body of Jesus with reverence and respect. Jesus died with the wicked, but his grave was with the rich. The new tomb in the garden belonged to Joseph, as we learn elsewhere.
Joseph was a prominent member of the Council (Luke 23:51 tells us that he had not consented to Jesus’ death) who had been a secret disciple of Jesus, John 19:38. Now he openly acknowledges Christ as he goes to Pilate, the Roman governor, and asks for the body of Jesus. Joseph asks for the body, removes it from the cross, wraps it for burial, and places it in a rock-hewn tomb which had been prepared for himself. In this he is joined by Nicodemus, being mentioned for the third time in this Gospel (John 3:1; 7:50), who brings a substantial amount of spices for the hasty burial.
The Gospels do not tell us what went on in the heart of these prominent Pharisees to make them go public at this point. Perhaps it was the death of Jesus, perhaps his condemnation by the very body of which they were members, that made them realize that they could no longer remain uncommitted. We don’t know just what consequences Joseph and Nicodemus faced for his choice, nor if they correctly anticipated them. But they could no longer be silent. Beware of being hesitant to trust in Christ and to confess before the world that you belong to him. God does not give you the luxury of remaining neutral about Jesus Christ. You may not feel ready to commit yourself to Christ. Perhaps the cost seems high–there are things you want to try and it might seem that he would keep you from them. It may be that you face ridicule or contempt from fellow students or co-workers, and that makes you hesitant to acknowledge Christ publicly. Thankfully, neither man was too late.
Jesus rested as the Redeemer of his people. Jesus was honorably buried. It was not thrown into an unmarked grave, as might have been the case with the other criminals.
The respectful treatment of the dead was important in the Scriptures. Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were all laid to rest in the promised land. The purchase of the Cave of Machpelah was a statement of faith. It expressed the confidence that God would be faithful to his promises and would eventually give the promised land to those who were nomadic strangers in it. “Christian burial” may sound like an old-fashioned term, but it flows out of a view of the world and of the human person that is profoundly different from both the mechanistic view of some and the superficially “spiritual” view of others.
Although those performing this burial apparently did not act with an awareness of the resurrection, the God who sovereignly planned your salvation had ordered this Sabbath rest for his Son between Christ’s suffering and his resurrection. Humiliation is about to give way to exaltation. Christ truly enters death, but it cannot hold him. Death is about to work backwards! When you face death, do it with the knowledge that even this path is one on which your Savior has preceded you. His triumph ensures your resurrection.
That is why you need to ask if you were there when they laid him in the tomb. Are you united with Christ in his burial? In Romans 6 Paul points to the significance of your baptism (your are buried with him in baptism) as he reminds you that to continue in sin is a contradiction of what you are in Christ. Just as Christ’s burial marks the conclusion of his being made sin for us, of his being subject to the domain of sin and the suffering that flows from it, so you, as one who believes in Christ, are dead and buried to the power of sin. Its enslaving power has been broken in your life. A definitive change has taken place. That means that you can love that person who seems so difficult. That means that you can treat your child (or your parent) in a way that glorifies God. Think about a sin that you struggle with (tongue, thoughts, feelings). Before you give in to letting loose with words that tear down, before you let your eyes and mind wander where they shouldn’t, before you give in to feelings of hate or jealousy, tell yourself that Jesus was laid in Joseph’s tomb because of those sins. And remind yourself that by the power of the Spirit, you were buried with Christ–and are now a new creation.
Because of your Savior’s brief stay in the tomb, when you die, the part of you that is your body rest in the grave until the day of resurrection. And your soul is somehow with the Lord until that day comes.
Jesus was buried as your Savior, just as he lived, died, and rose as your Savior. You are united with him in his death, and burial. As one buried with the Savior, you have died to sin. As one who shares in his resurrection, make your new life is visible in the way you live this week.
Klaas Schilder puts it well: “We can say, then, that the line of Christ’s humiliation does indeed descend to the grave, but that it there effects the strength which will exalt Him again. . . . And he who is buried with Him has already been glorified with Him, arisen with Him, and been placed in heaven.” (Christ Crucified, p. 560).