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A Study by Scott Sperling
Matthew 27:57-66 -
The Burial of Jesus
57 As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
62 The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. 63 “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 64 So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
65 “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
Jesus had died, and was hanging on the cross. In other societies, the Romans would commonly leave crucified criminals on the cross, to rot there, and to serve as a warning to others. However, in Israel, because leaving a body on the cross was against the Jewish Law (see Deut. 21:23), crucified criminals would be buried, typically in a common grave [Osbourne].
The body of Jesus was given a more honorable burial, due to the actions of Joseph of Arimathea: “As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him” (vss. 57-58). Apparently, no family members of Jesus, nor any of his close followers, the Apostles, had the courage to ask for the body of Jesus. Instead, Joseph of Arimathea asked for, and did receive the body of Jesus. Joseph was a rich man, and because of this, perhaps, he could gain access to Pilate to ask for the body. Pilate did not refuse the request.
Joseph was a follower of Christ, though not a close follower (John in his gospel tells us that he followed Jesus “secretly”, see John 19:38). He was also a prominent member of the Sanhedrin (see Mark 15:43), which explains why he followed Jesus secretly. But in this passage, to serve Jesus, and give his body a proper burial, Joseph boldly revealed himself as a follower of Jesus, not fearing any repercussions. “At a time when the apostles had forsaken our Lord,—at a time when it was a dangerous thing to confess regard for Him,—at a time when there seemed to be no earthly advantage to be gained by confessing His discipleship,—at such a time as this, Joseph comes boldly forward, and begs the body of Jesus, and lays it in his own new tomb.” [Ryle, 400-401]. “The crucifixion that sent most of Jesus’ followers into hiding had the opposite effect on Joseph and brought him out into the open” [Morris]. “It was highly dangerous for such a man to avow himself a Christian. But the privilege of burying the body of his beloved Master encouraged him to run the risk. We are best known as Christ’s by what we will do for him, especially when our service involves sacrifice” [Pulpit Comm., 619]. “Joseph was a fit man; for he had wherewithal to bury Christ’s body, being a rich man; most of Christ’s disciples were poor men, and as such, were most fit to go about the country to preach the gospel; but here was one that was a rich man, ready to be employed in a piece of service which required a man of estate. Note, worldly wealth, though it is to many an obstruction in religion’s way, yet in some services to be done for Christ, it is an advantage and an opportunity, and it is well for those who have it, if withal they have a heart to use it for God’s glory.” [Henry, 249].
Certainly, being a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph felt some responsibility for Jesus’ death (though Luke tells us that Joseph did not consent to the Sanhedrin decisions about Jesus, see Luke 23:51). And indeed, we all should have the awareness of blame for the death of Jesus (though none of us were part of the Sanhedrin decisions). We all share blame for Christ’s death, because we all have sinned, and the penalty for our sins was paid by Christ on the cross.
We are not certain of where “Arimathea” was, but because of Joseph’s noble actions, honor will be brought to that unknown town forever.
Joseph, with the help of Nicodemus (see John 19:39), another of Jesus’ secret disciples, prepared the body, and then buried it: “Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away” (vss. 59-60). To prepare the body, we are told by John, that Nicodemus “brought a mixture of myrrhs and aloes, about seventy-five pounds” (John 19:39). This was an expensive burial, fit for a king. “After all the abusive treatment endured by Jesus, the manner of his burial is surprising. The ignominy of having his body hang on the cross after sundown on Sabbath eve during the Feast of Unleavened Bread is avoided by the action of Joseph, who brings the story of Jesus’s horrible death to an end by giving him a decent burial” [Turner, 677].
It was necessary that the body of Christ be buried, and to stay in the tomb until the third day, in order to more clearly testify to the truth of the resurrection. “The infinite wisdom of God foresaw the objections of unbelievers and infidels, and provided against them.—Did the Son of God really die? Did he really rise again? Might there not have been some delusion as to the reality of His death? Might there not have been imposition or deception, as to the reality of His resurrection?—All these, and many more objections, would doubtless have been raised, if opportunity had been given! But He who knows the end from the beginning, prevented the possibility of such objections being made. By His over-ruling providence, He ordered things so that the death and burial of Jesus were placed beyond a doubt.—Pilate gives consent to His burial. A loving disciple wraps the body in linen, and lays it in a new tomb hewn out of a rock, wherein was never man yet laid. The chief priests themselves set a guard over the place where His body was deposited. Jews and Gentiles, friends and enemies, all alike testify to the great fact, that Christ did really and actually die, and was laid in a grave. It is a fact that can never be questioned” [Ryle, 398-399]. “Buried our Saviour was: 1. That none might doubt his death. 2. That our sins might be buried with him. 3. That our graves might be prepared and perfumed for us, as so many beds of roses. He was buried in Calvary, to note that he died for the condemned; and in a garden, to expiate that first sin committed in the garden; and in another man’s sepulchre to note that he died for other men’s sins” [Trapp, 278].
After the preparation of the body, the body was laid in the tomb, and a large stone moved in front of the entrance. “The typical Jewish tomb also had: (1) a heavy wheel-shaped stone, four to six feet in diameter, rolled into a shallow trough and kept in place by a short wall on both sides of the opening; (2) a burial chamber with a preparation room encircled with a stone bench on which the body was readied; (3) burial niches (six feet long and two feet high) cut into the wall either above the bench or in a separate chamber; (4) a decorated limestone ‘bone box’ (ossuary) on the floor to gather the bones after the body had decomposed. A wealthy tomb especially would have a groove sloping down into the doorway, with the heavy stone rolled into it; while it was easy to roll in, it would take several men to roll it up the slope” [Osbourne].
Jesus was laid in a tomb that was not his own, and as we shall see, the tomb is merely borrowed by Christ, not owned. “When we go to the grave, we go to our own place; but our Lord Jesus, that had no sin of his own, had no grave of his own; dying under imputed sin, it was fit he should be buried in a borrowed grave… He was laid in a new tomb, which Joseph, it is likely, designed for himself; but it would be never the worse for his lying in it, who was to rise so quickly” [Henry, 249].
Jesus, eminent though he is, did not have a funeral fit for his eminence. Besides Joseph and Nicodemus, only his most faithful followers attended, those who were with him throughout his suffering, the women: “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb” (vs. 61). “Here were none of the relations in mourning to follow the corpse, no formalities to grace the solemnity, but some good women that were true mourners, Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary. These, as they had attended him to the cross, so they followed him to the grave, as if they composed themselves to sorrow; they sat over against the sepulchre, not so much to fill their eyes with the light of what was done, as to empty them in rivers of tears” [Henry, 250].
Though dead and buried, Jesus worried the Jewish leaders: “The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. ‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again.” So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first’” (vss. 62-64). As stated, this took place on the day “after Preparation Day,” which is the Sabbath day after Passover. This is somewhat ironic, because the Pharisees often quarreled with Jesus concerning doing work on the Sabbath, and yet here, they work to see that a guard is posted and that the tomb of Jesus is sealed. “The restless enmity of these unhappy men could not sleep, even when the body of Jesus was in the grave” [Ryle, 400].
Significantly, these Jewish leaders remembered, and took to heart, that Jesus predicted that he would rise again: “‘Sir,’ they said, ‘we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, “After three days I will rise again”’” (vs. 63). These leaders remembered and took to heart what Jesus’ own disciples did not understand nor take to heart, though they were told by Jesus numerous times that he would rise from the dead. “There is a powerful irony in the fact that they ‘remember’ Jesus’ teaching about being raised on the third day, for his disciples have remembered nothing about Jesus’ prediction. It is a strange quirk of history that the only ones who realize what Jesus really meant are his enemies, not his followers! The leaders place a guard at the tomb when they do not need to, for the disciples are too ignorant even to think of such a thing as stealing the body!” [Osbourne]. “The fear of the religious leaders that the disciples will steal Jesus’s body and deceive people with false resurrection claims seems to be irrational. They overestimate the scattered, terrified disciples, yet their worse mistake is to underestimate Jesus. They rule out any possibility that God would make good on Jesus’s repeated promises of resurrection” [Turner, 677].
They ask that the tomb “be made secure”, and Pilate acquiesces to their request: “‘Take a guard,’ Pilate answered. ‘Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard” (vss. 65-66). There is further irony here, for by posting a guard and sealing the tomb, the Jewish leaders ensured beyond doubt that no fraud or mischief could be perpetrated with respect to Jesus’ body. So, by posting the guard, they strengthen the evidence that Jesus, indeed, did rise from the dead. “Thus carefully did Christ’s enemies obviate the possibility of any fraud or collusion; thus did they themselves prove unanswerably the truth and reality of the resurrection of that same Jesus whose dead body they so carefully guarded” [Pulpit Comm., 600]. “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 there was any deception or imposition. Their seal, their guard, their precautions, were all to become witnesses, in a few hours, that Christ had risen” [Ryle, 401].
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Alexander, Joseph Addison. The Gospel According to Matthew. New York: Charles Scribner Publishers, 1861.
Broadus, John. Commentary on Matthew. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886.
Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke. 3 Vols. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846. (Originally published in Latin in 1555).
Carson, D. A. “Matthew” from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, ed. by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Clarke, Adam. The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Vol. I. New York: G. Lane & C. B. Tippett, 1846. (Originally published in 1831).
Dickson, David. A Brief Exposition of the Evangel of Jesus Christ According to Matthew. Cornhill, U.K.: Ralph Smith, 1651.
Exell, Joseph S. and Henry Donald Spence-Jones, eds. The Pulpit Commentary. Vols. 33 & 34. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1884.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. IV. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Jamieson, Robert; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments. Glasgow: William Collins, Queen’s Printer, 1863.
Keener, Craig S. Matthew (IVP New Testament Commentary). Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.
Lange, John Peter, ed. and Philip Schaff, trans. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1865.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992.
Osbourne, Grant. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament – Matthew. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Popular Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1893.
Thomas, David. The Genius of the Gospel: A Homiletical Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. London: Dickinson & Higham, 1873.
Trapp, John. A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. V (Matthew to Revelation). Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books (www.PuritanDownloads.com). (Originally published c. 1660).
Turner, David L. Matthew. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.
Wilkins, Michael J. “Matthew” from Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
All of these books, except Carson, Keener, Morris, Osbourne, Turner and Wilkins can be downloaded free of charge from: