One Painful and Beautiful Burial

Obeying God in the Dark

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Guest Contributor

We don’t often think much about the hours after Jesus breathed his last breath on the cross. During Holy Week we focus on the events of Thursday, Friday, and Sunday, and rightly so. But what about the long, confusing hours between when Jesus died and rose?

We can at least imagine things being different — what if there was no Saturday between Christ’s death and resurrection? Jesus could have agonized on the cross for several hours, and then, as soon as his heart stopped beating, immediately come back to life — perhaps shattering the cross into a thousand pieces as he did so. Or at least the resurrection could have occurred sometime Friday evening, sparing Jesus from the shame of burial, and making his triumph over death more public.

But it was not this way. Evidently, to conquer the grave, he had to go down into it. Jesus had to not only die, but he had to stay dead for an interval of time.

Today, we remember that terrible yawn of time between Friday afternoon’s nightmare and Sunday morning’s glorious vindication. We remember that period of discord and suspense and confusion, as Jesus’s body became cold and stiff, and hell seemed triumphant, and every light in the world seemed extinguished.

“God took what seemed like a dismal ending and turned it into a glorious beginning.”

I can scarcely imagine what it would have felt like to live through this day. If there ever was a time of despair, this was surely it. And here, in this darkest, most despairing of hours, the Gospels present us not with abject, unmoving hopelesness, but with a beautiful display of devotion and loyalty to Jesus, when Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate to obtain and bury the body of Jesus during those long hours between the crucifixion and the resurrection.

We might not initially realize how heroic this act was. But for several reasons, it was an amazing demonstration of courage and sacrifice that may inspire us to keep obeying God during the dark and lonely nights of our own lives.

Courageous Obedience

First, this act was courageous. To associate yourself with a convicted criminal was risky — hence the abandonment of all Jesus’s other disciples (Mark 14:50), and Peter’s denials (Mark 14:68, 70, 71). Others had already been seized for showing too much interest (Mark 14:51). Hence Mark 15:43 says that Joseph “took courage and went to Pilate” to make the request for Jesus’s body.

Moreover, Joseph and Nicodemus (whom John’s account includes) had a lot to lose. They were both highly ranked Pharisees — members of the Sanhedrin, or Jewish ruling council. Mark describes Joseph as “a respected member of the council” (Mark 15:43). Matthew adds that he was wealthy (Matthew 27:57).

Conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees had been boiling up for years, and we know how it just ended. If you’re a Pharisee, to honor Jesus by burying his body is to surrender your position of security and defect to the (apparently) losing side.

I wonder what went through Joseph’s mind in the moment he was escorted before Pilate?

Cheerless Obedience

Second, this was a cheerless act. Wealthy, educated men like Nicodemus and Joseph generally did not do menial labor like burying dead bodies. This was a messy, smelly affair left for the servants, not respected members of the Sandhedrin.

“These men loved Jesus. Imagine therefore the weight of grief they felt as they handled his lifeless body.”

I wonder, were Joseph and Nicodemus a bit clumsy with the linen cloths at first?

Matthew records that Joseph was a disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57). Luke calls him “a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50) who did not approve of Jesus’s crucifixion and “was looking for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51). Nicodemus’s behavior is portrayed positively as well since his initial conversation with Jesus in John 3 (John 7:50–51; 19:39).

So, these men loved Jesus. Imagine therefore the weight of grief they felt as they handled his lifeless body. Dead bodies are always eerie. It is unnatural to see lifeless eyes looking at you. But when it is someone you love and respect, the grief is compounded.

What words could express the strangeness and sadness of peering into the lifeless eyes of the very Son of God!

Costly Obedience

Third, this act was costly. Luke 23:53 mentions it was a tomb “where no one had ever yet been laid.” To cut a new tomb was expensive, as was providing the linen cloths and spices. In fact, John’s account tells us that Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39), which was an incredible sum of money.

I wonder, if Nicodemus was married, what his wife thought of his handling of their finances?

Preparing History’s Turning Point

Jesus’s burial is an important part of the gospel story. The Apostles’ Creed recounts that Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried.” In an important summary of the gospel, Paul recounts that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4).

One wonders: how would the events of Easter weekend look different apart from the courage of Joseph and Nicodemus? Obviously God could have raised Jesus’s body from another location. Or he could have transported it to the tomb by other means. But God honored the loyalty and sacrifice of these men by having them play a critical role in the gospel narrative.

“We don’t know what God may do tomorrow with our efforts today, but true obedience is never wasted.”

Joseph and Nicodemus didn’t know that. As Saturday was dawning (Luke 23:54), it would have been easy for them to think that their life was over. They had spent their money and lost much of their status. Their future did not look particularly bright in that moment. But through this very act, God prepared the conditions for the turning point of all history. God took what seemed like a dismal ending and turned it into a glorious beginning.

True Obedience Is Never Wasted

Friend, does the path of obedience feel to you dark and difficult? Are you in the midst of a long Friday night or lonely Saturday of your own?

Remember that the ultimate Sunday morning — the restoration of all things — is still to come. Like Joseph and Nicodemus, we don’t know what God may do tomorrow with our efforts today. True obedience is never wasted. Who knows what glory might still be reverberating on the new earth, a trillion years from now, because of your difficult obedience today?

(@gavinortlund) is a pastor, author, speaker, and apologist for the Christian faith. He is a husband to Esther, and a father to Isaiah, Naomi, Elijah, Miriam, and Abigail. He serves as President of Truth Unites and Theologian-in-Residence at Immanuel Church.