Jesus' Burial

Matthew 27:55-66


From Exegetical Commentary on Matthew, 2006, AMG Publishers.

[55] Several women had been with Jesus Christ from the beginning of His earthly public ministry in Galilee, “helping” (diakonoúsai, the present participle of diakonéō [1247], to serve) to meet His physical needs. Matthew does not give details of how many women were present to suffer through the sight of the crucifixion.

In this verse we are told only that the women followed Jesus all the way from Galilee, ministering to Him (Luke 8:2, 3). This terrible, excruciating scene they “from (apó [575], from) afar off (makróthen [3113]) were…beholding (theōroúsai, the present participle of theōréō [2334], to look with awe)” (a.t.).

We deliberately inserted the word order from the Greek text because it is possible that makróthen does not modify “beholding.” The phrase, in the order of the Greek text, reads, “There were there women many from afar off beholding.” As you can see, it is possible that “from afar off” attaches to “were there” instead of “beholding” from a distance. Most commentators prefer “beholding from afar”; however, we have to reconcile Mary Magdalene and other women being makróthen, from afar off, according to Matthew (v. 56) with their being pará ([3844], near, proximate) the cross according to John (John 19:25). The completed picture is that Mary Magdalene and some of the other women originally came “from afar off” (Matthew) but now were near the cross and beside John at the death of Jesus.

[56] We cannot identify all of the women. However, Matthew informs us that “among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James” (a.t.). Mark 15:40 adds, “James the less and of Joses, and Salome.” Because Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s servant, and Susanna “ministered unto him of their substance” (Luke 8:3), and Mark records that the group, “among whom” were the two Marys and Salome (Mark 15:40), consisted of those who “used to…minister to Him” (Mark 15:41), some have conjectured that Joanna and Susanna also were present.

Possibly “among them” also were the widow of Nain whose son Jesus raised from the dead (Luke 7:11–17), the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36–50), and Mary and Martha of Bethany, the sisters of Lazarus (John 11:1). This event would certainly draw them out. Although they no doubt were fearful, they also desired to support their Master in any way they could.

John 19:25 mentions “His [Jesus’] mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” It is possible that both Joseph’s wife and sister-in-law had the name “Mary,” but the Greek has a slight variation in the name of Jesus’ mother, sometimes referring to her as Miriam or Mariam (Matt. 1:20).

[57] Joseph of Arimathaea, Matthew stresses, “also himself (autós [846], the personal pronoun inserted for emphasis) was Jesus’ disciple.” The verb is emathēteusen, the aorist tense of mathēteúō (3100), to disciple. This active voice given by the Textus Receptus means the initiative was personal and voluntary—Joseph “discipled” or “learned” under Jesus. We wonder how this member of the Sanhedrin found it possible to personally disciple under Jesus. Both his wealth and activities in the Sanhedrin could take a great deal of time. Moreover, the Sanhedrin was clearly opposed to Jesus’ teachings. Joseph had the courage to learn from Jesus in spite of this group’s protest.

The critical texts (UBS and Nestle’s Text) defer to manuscripts that have the passive voice emathēteúthē, “he was discipled,” meaning he was discipled by Jesus. John 19:38 informs us that Joseph was “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” Like Nicodemus who also appeared at the cross (John 19:39), he eventually confessed the Lord openly.

[58] According to the Law, if someone were “hung on a tree” for a crime, the body was not to remain there overnight (Deut. 21:22, 23). Accordingly, Joseph went to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus at the very time the Jews thought they had achieved their greatest victory—Jesus’ death. God used Joseph to fulfill prophecy because he believed Jesus’ prophecy that He would rise from the dead in three days. So he volunteered his newly carved tomb for the Lord’s burial. Disciples who are the genuine product of the Holy Spirit are generous and do not count the cost. They deem any sacrifice worthwhile for Him who gave His life for them.

[59] Joseph wrapped Jesus’ body in a clean linen cloth out of respect. Nothing dirty or defiled touched even the dead body of our dear Lord. Here, an interesting question arises. Where would Jesus have been buried had Joseph not given Him his own tomb? Jesus was not from Jerusalem. At that time, dead bodies could not be transported back home because the Law required immediate interment. But Jesus had no personal assets for local burial expenses. We have to conclude that the Father Himself planned the burial of His Son, raising up a rich believer for this purpose.

Joseph found companionship in Nicodemus who helped take down the body (John 19:39–42). Where were Christ’s eleven disciples? How strange that this honorable task was performed by those outside of Christ’s “little flock” (Luke 12:32). The disciples did not attend to the body of Jesus after His burial except Joseph and Nicodemus. And the women brought sweet spices early in the morning to anoint His body on the day of resurrection. Where were the disciples then? Perhaps they were still cowering in fear or were in deep depression over the turn of events. The Holy Spirit sometimes raises up others to temporarily replace weakened brethren in order to complete the work of ministry.

[60] These events fulfilled many prophecies recorded in Isaiah 53. Now a further prophecy was fulfilled when the Lord “made his grave with the wicked (the two robbers), and with the rich in his death (Joseph of Arimathaea); because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth” (Isa. 53:9).

Something must be said about the burial customs of Jews. In the words of George Milligan (A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, 241-242):

“Immediately after death the body was washed (Acts 9:37) and wrapped in linen clothes in the folds of which spices and ointments were placed (John 19:39-40). The face was bound about with a napkin, and the hands and feet with grave bands (John 11:44; 20:7). Meanwhile the house of the deceased had been given over to the hired mourners (Matt. 9:23; cf. 2 Chr. 35:25; Jer. 9:17) who lamented for the dead in some strains as are preserved in Jeremiah 22:18, and skillfully improvised verses in praise of his virtues. The actual interment took place as quickly as possible, mainly on sanitary grounds; very frequently, indeed, on the same day as the death (Acts 5:6, 10; 8:2), though it might be delayed for special reasons (Acts 9:37ff.).

“The place of burial in New Testament times was always outside the city (Luke 7:12; John 11:30; Matt. 27:52, 53), and frequently consisted of a natural cave, or an opening made in imitation of one. These rock-sepulchres were often of considerable size, and sometimes permitted the interment of as many as thirteen bodies. Eight, however, was the usual number, three on each side of the entrance and two opposite. The doorway to the tomb was an aperture about 2 feet broad and 4 feet high, and was closed by a door, or by a great stone that was rolled against it (Matt. 27:60; Mark 15:46; John 11:38-39).”

In the same reference, Milligan adds that in addition to family sepulchres (Gen. 23:20; Judg. 8:32; 2 Sam. 2:32), there were private tombs such as the tomb of Joseph of Arimathaea (Matt. 27:60). According to Herkless, special provisions were made for the interment of strangers (Matt. 27:7-8; cf. Jer. 26:23):

“Jewish law required that the body of a person who had been executed should not remain all night upon the tree, but should “in any wise” be buried (Deut. 21:22, 23). This law would not bind the Roman authorities, and the custom in the empire was to leave the body to decay upon the cross. But at the crucifixion of Jesus and of the two malefactors, the Jews, anxious that the bodies should not remain upon the cross during the Sabbath, besought Pilate that the legs of the crucified might be broken and death hastened, and that then the bodies might be taken away (John 19:31).

“According to Roman law, the relatives could claim the body of a person executed. But which of the relatives of Jesus had a sepulchre in Jerusalem where His body might be placed? Joseph, wishing Jesus’ burial to be according to the most pious custom of his race, went to Pilate and asked for the body. The petition required boldness (Mark 15:43), since Joseph, with no kinship in the flesh with Jesus, would be forced to make a confession of discipleship which the Jews would note. Pilate, too, neither loved nor was loved by Israel, and his anger might be kindled at the coming of a Jew, and the member of the Sanhedrin to be assailed with insults. Pilate, however, making sure that Jesus was dead, gave the body. Joseph, taking down the body of Jesus from the cross (and other hands must have aided his), wrapped it in linen which he himself had bought (Mark 15:46 [see John 19:39–42])” (J. Herkless, A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels, 901-902).

After Joseph buried the body of Jesus, he departed, having done his best for His Lord.

[61-62] The two Marys remained near, “sitting opposite (apénanti [561]) the sepulchre” (a.t.). The Jews referred to Friday as paraskeuē ([3904], preparation), the day on which to prepare for the Sabbath. Mark 15:42 literally calls Friday “the pre-Sabbath” (prosábbaton [4315]).

Only Matthew reports that the chief priests and Pharisees requested Pilate to post a guard at Jesus’ tomb. Their fear lay not so much in the belief that Jesus would rise from the dead but that the disciples would steal the body and say that He had risen. Such a report would mean nothing to the Sadducees, since they rejected the theory of bodily resurrection, but it might deceive Pharisees like Nicodemus and laypeople sympathetic with Pharisaic doctrine. Because they had no jurisdiction beyond the temple or outside the city where Jesus was buried, the priests and Pharisees had to ask Pilate, the only one who could order armed soldiers for that area.

[63] So they said to Pilate, “Sir, we remember that that deceiver (plános [4108], impostor) said, while he was yet alive, ‘After three days I will rise (egeíromai, the present middle of egeírō [1453], to raise) again’.” The middle voice again stresses Jesus’ initiative and ability to raise Himself from the dead. The present tense accentuates the certainty of it, as if it were a principle: “I raise Myself.”

[64] They anticipated a conspiracy. To negate the possibility, they requested Pilate to command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure (asphalisthēnai, the aorist passive infinitive of asphalízō [805], to secure) until the third day. Since Jesus’ prophecy was so specific, it did not matter what happened after the third day. Joseph had rolled the stone against the door, but the chief priests and Pharisees were not satisfied. They wanted a seal and a guard against the threat that the disciples would steal the body Friday or Saturday evening and then on Sunday proclaim that Jesus rose from the dead.

[65] If Pilate had not considered the threat reasonable, he would not have responded as he did: “Ye have (échete [2192], either an imperative or an indicative—the same morphologically, i.e., “have at your disposal”) a watch (koustōdían [2892]): Go (hupágete, the present imperative of hupágō [5217], to go; derived from hupó [5259], under, a preposition that denotes stealth) your way, make it as sure (asphalísasthe, the aorist middle deponent imperative of asphalízō [805], to secure oneself against enemies, cf. Acts 16:24) as ye can.”

The middle voice of asphalízomai implies, “Secure it yourselves.” Make it as safe as you think necessary; in other words, given your evident familiarity with conspiracy, do whatever you have to do. One wonders here what Pilate thought of this paranoid messianism. But, in deference to Jews, others, like Theudas (Acts 5:36), had jeopardized the leadership role of the chief priests and Pharisees as well as the little security the oppressed nation of Israel had.

[66]So they went, and made the sepulchre sure (ēsphalísanto, the aorist middle deponent indicative of asphalízō).” The middle voice emphasizes their personal objectives—”for themselves”—over and against any concern they might have for Pilate’s motives. In all probability, he did not take the threat seriously. After all, Jesus was not a typical general or king.

After all this preparation, neither soldiers nor cement could match the power of angels.

Spiros Zodhiates (1922-2009) served as president of AMG International for over 40 years, was the founding editor of Pulpit Helps Magazine (Disciple’s predecessor), and authored dozens of exegetical books.

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