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The Life of Jesus - Series 13: Episode 8

Jesus in the tomb

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 27:57-66
Mark 15:42-47
Luke 23:50-56
John 19:38-42

Two members of the Sanhedrin bury Jesus, watched by a group of women. The divine Jesus did not die but went to be with his Father, but the human Jesus did die and was buried in a sealed tomb.

Two members of the Sanhedrin bury Jesus, watched by a group of women. The divine Jesus did not die but went to be with his Father, but the human Jesus did die and was buried in a sealed tomb.


Hello and welcome to Series 13 Episode 8. This is the last episode of Series 13, which looks at the subject of the death of Jesus. We are going to look at 'the burial of Jesus'. We are going to talk about Jesus in the tomb: the facts about his burial; the significance of it; the people involved; and the connection between the death and burial of Jesus and his resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. We will be looking at various different Gospel accounts, mostly in Matthew's account, but all the Gospel accounts provide significant detail that help us to understand the events that happened immediately after Jesus died on the cross.

Introduction and Recap

We are coming to the end of a very dramatic series of events that we have been following, in considerable detail for three series. We started in Series 11, with the events in the first few days of the last week of Jesus' life, the Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday going into the Wednesday of that week. We have discussed these in some detail in earlier episodes: Jesus' Triumphal Entry; his confrontation with the religious establishment in the Temple on Monday and Tuesday; and then that very significant moment on Wednesday, when he was eating a meal with his disciples in Bethany - a village just outside the city - when Judas Iscariot fatefully decided that he was going to betray Jesus. He went and spoke to the religious leaders and this led to Jesus' arrest on the Thursday evening, very late in the night. We followed the drama of that Thursday fairly closely - the day before Jesus' death.

Events moved tremendously quickly in the evening. Jesus celebrated his Passover meal - the Last Supper - with his twelve disciples. Much was discussed then. Many things happened. Judas Iscariot departed from the meal halfway through, and went to give the religious leaders the exact location that he thought Jesus would be later on that evening, in the depth of the night, so that they could arrest him privately, without attracting the attention of the crowds. The determination of the Sanhedrin, the priesthood and the Pharisees was to get Jesus arrested, tried and executed as quickly as possible. In previous series, Series 11 and 12, we have looked at the details of that mounting conflict. As Judas was working with the authorities, Jesus left the Last Supper, and went to the Garden of Gethsemane just outside the city. He was praying there while the disciples were sleeping, when suddenly Judas arrived with an armed group of Temple guards with torches and lanterns. They arrested Jesus. We saw then how Jesus was tried by the Sanhedrin council, in the home of Caiaphas the High Priest, late on the night of Thursday evening; how he was humiliated, accused of being a blasphemer and it was decided by the Sanhedrin council to hand him over to the Romans because they alone had the power of execution.

We saw in the very early moments of Friday morning, how Pontius Pilate - the Roman governor - struggled to deal with this case. He did not want to execute Jesus. He didn't want to get involved in what he considered to be a religious dispute but he was persuaded by pressure from the Sanhedrin and all the other religious leaders, and the crowd that had assembled to support them outside Pilate's palace. He decided that he would give in and Jesus was executed.

In the last two episodes, we have discussed the death of Jesus. We looked at the different Gospel accounts. We have seen that the death of Jesus took place over a six-hour period from 9 o'clock in the morning to 3 o'clock in the afternoon on Friday, which we now call Good Friday. We have seen that in the first half of those three hours, Jesus spoke on a number of occasions and he asked his heavenly Father, first of all to forgive those who had executed him and to work in their lives. He spoke to one of the criminals on the cross, who expressed repentance and faith, and told him that he would share paradise with him that very day; he would be saved, even though he was dying on the cross. Then he saw his mother, and John - the disciple - there, and he asked John to look after Mary, and Mary to accept the care of John in future days, when he wouldn't be there. In the second half of Jesus' six hours on the cross, we noticed there was a strange supernatural darkness that came over the land. It appears that at this time, Jesus was suffering the judgement that God would need to make on sin; the sins of all of humanity were being poured out on Jesus. He suffered an agonising death and felt the great sense of the wrath of God upon him as he died at 3 pm, with a great cry, ‘It is finished’; the work is complete; the work of atonement is complete.

Immediately after Crucifixion

That brings us to a very significant moment. What happened to the body of Jesus? No plan had been made. All these events happened so suddenly that no one was ready. All his followers were in a state of shock and disbelief. Some of them were not even present at the crucifixion. It was up to the Romans to decide when bodies would be taken down off the cross and who would be allowed to bury them. Very often the bodies were either burnt, or put in a common burial site - just thrown in unceremoniously. What was going to happen to the body of Jesus? Where was he going to be buried? This is the question that we are going to look at in our episode today in the first half of our discussion.

The Women at the Cross

Let us turn first of all to Matthew 27: 55 - 56. We read these verses in the last episode but this is the starting point for the story that we need to tell today.

55’Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee's sons.’

Matthew 27:55-56, NIV

There is a group of women who had come from Galilee, who have been travelling with Jesus for some weeks, or possibly even months, since he left Galilee, and have been caring for his needs and, no doubt, the needs of the other disciples, as they had been travelling around. They are watching from a distance. Who is in this group? Matthew gives his description and the other writers give a few further details. First of all Mary Magdalene. She is mentioned in Luke 8: 2 which describes the situation of Jesus travelling around in Galilee with the Twelve and it says there,

‘And also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases, Mary called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had come out’

Luke 8:2, NIV

and then other women are named.

‘These women were helping to support them out of their own means.’

Luke 8:3, NIV

Mary Magdalene is a woman who had experienced incredible freedom from dark spiritual oppression in her life. That is all we really know about her. Popular tradition that she was a prostitute, has no basis in the Bible whatsoever. Popular tradition that she had some intimate relationship with Jesus, has no basis in the Bible whatsoever. The biblical facts are different. The biblical facts are that she experienced some incredible release from oppression in her life. She became a devoted disciple and had the financial means to travel and support Jesus. She comes to the site of the crucifixion, along with the mother of Zebedee's sons - those are James and John, Jesus' disciples. Their father was called Zebedee. Matthew 4:21 makes that clear. This is the mother of two Jesus' closest disciples. John 19: 26, says that Mary the mother of Jesus was there, as we noted in the last episode when Jesus spoke to her from the cross, as he had spoken to John. A few others are there as well - some we don't know their names.

Many women were there watching from a distance. Why were they doing this? Their devotion to Jesus was the number one reason. They travelled the journey with him and they want to be with him in this terrible moment of suffering. Perhaps they were supporting Mary, the mother of Jesus, in her intense distress as she sees her firstborn son executed in front of her very eyes, in a brutal fashion. Perhaps they were concerned already about the burial, and wanted to know where the burial site was, so they could help with the burial. They were there also because they were no direct threat to the authorities, unlike the male disciples. We hear nothing of them at the foot of the cross, apart from John. He is the only one we know who was there. Peter is in a state of terrible shock, having denied Jesus a few hours earlier. The other disciples have been scattered to their homes and residences, the places where they were staying. They feared arrest and execution, too. The Romans executed Jesus; why shouldn't they arrest his closest associates? Only John was there, along with the women.

Joseph of Arimathea

Matthew 27: 57 - 61

57As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. 58Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 59Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60and 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. 61Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting opposite the tomb.’

Matthew 27:57-61, NIV

On this Friday, the Jews were preparing for the coming Sabbath day. Saturday is the holy day of Judaism, called the Sabbath, and in Jewish tradition that day starts on the Friday evening at sunset, which would be approximately 8pm at this time of year. Jesus died at 3 pm and no one was allowed to conduct any burials, or do any work of that type, or any other type, on the Sabbath. It was a day of complete rest, according to Jewish tradition and the Law of Moses. So between 3 pm and about 8 pm, Jesus needed to be buried if he was going to be buried at all. Then comes a significant man who walks into the story of Jesus' life here, at this critical moment, for the first time. His name is Joseph of Arimathea. Luke 23: 50 - 54 tells us a little bit more about Joseph of Arimathea.

50Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51who 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. 52Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus' body. 53Then 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. 54It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

Luke 23:50-54, NIV

Joseph came from a Judean town to the north-west of Jerusalem but the significant thing about him was, not only was he wealthy but he was a devout Jew and he was very senior in Judaism. He was even a member of the ruling council, which is the Sanhedrin. We learn amazingly, that Joseph had been present the night before when Caiaphas, the High Priest, had summoned the Sanhedrin to an informal, and extraordinary meeting at his house. Joseph had been there and he had not consented to their decision and action. He did not agree that Jesus was a false messiah and a blasphemer. He did not agree to their decision to hand him over to Pilate. This is the first we hear of Joseph of Arimathea, so it appears that in the Sanhedrin not everybody agreed and we are going to find another person who didn't agree in just a moment. It also turns out that he was a believer in Jesus. He was waiting for the Kingdom of God, and he was a good and upright man The implication of the Gospels, including in John 19, is that he was a secret disciple. Being a rich man, he planned for his death as rich Jews did then - they still do today - by preparing a tomb. He went to Pilate who was the only one who could give a decision about what to do with the bodies that were hanging up on crosses - those who died under crucifixion - and Pilate gave his consent that Joseph could take the body and bury it. It was of no concern to Pilate. As far as he was concerned, the issue was finished.


But Joseph of Arimathea was not working alone. By looking at John's Gospel, John 19: 39, we find that somebody else was working with him.

‘He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes about 75 pounds.’

John 19:39, NIV

Nicodemus is an interesting character. He is referred to twice earlier on, in John's Gospel. He appears in John 3, when Jesus was visiting Jerusalem, right at the beginning of his ministry. Nicodemus came to him secretly during the night time, and he questioned him in detail about his message and the Kingdom of God. Jesus explained to him what it was to be born again. He appears again in John 7, when he challenges the religious leaders who are very critical of Jesus and want to condemn him. He challenges them that they are not giving him an opportunity; they are not looking at the evidence; they are not giving him an opportunity to defend himself. It appears that both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea are secret believers in Jesus and they are both members of the Sanhedrin. On that fateful meeting in the High Priest's house, not only was Joseph of Arimathea not agreeing to the decision and action, but neither was Nicodemus. As soon as Jesus died, these two men wanted to quickly do something for him out of the greatest respect for him. Staying in John 19: 39 - 42,

Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40Taking Jesus' body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.

John 19:39-42, NIV

Very hastily, these two men - probably accompanied by servants - because they were rich men, took the spices that were often used in burial, placed those with the body, wrapped the body in linen wrappings, and put the body in the tomb, and placed a stone in front of the tomb. This is probably where they needed the help of servants, because the stone would have been very heavy. It appears that the site of this tomb was very close to the site of the cross. Matthew 27: 61 makes it clear that at least two women noted the site of the tomb. They saw the place where Jesus was laid in the tomb. This becomes very significant, when the women seek to come to the tomb very early on Easter Sunday morning. They know where they are going because they have been there before, and they have seen the place.

Guards Set at the Tomb

To give you the final part of the story, Matthew 27: 62 - 66.

62The 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.’ 64So 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.” 66So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.‘

Matthew 27:62-66, NIV

They wanted to guard the tomb to prevent the theft of the body by the disciples, or anyone else, and to prevent rumours that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Pilate was quite happy with this. Again, it was of no real significance to him, because Jesus had now been executed, and as far as he was concerned that was the end of the matter. Pilate tells the religious authorities, from the Sanhedrin, that they can go, seal the tomb, and post a guard there. The guards were not Roman soldiers, as is sometimes thought. They were Temple guards, which have been mentioned in the story. Jewish religious leaders were allowed to guard the Temple compounds with armed guards. These are the guards, who came to arrest Jesus at the Garden of Gethsemane. We have seen them already. Pilate encourages them. If they want to protect the tomb, that is the way they need to do it - by sending their own guards. This explains the fact that on Easter Sunday, when the tomb is empty and the stone was rolled away, the guards go and report to the Jewish religious leaders, not to the Roman authorities. It is because the Jewish religious leaders sent them in the first place. Jesus is laid in the tomb on Friday evening, somewhere between 3 pm and 8 pm. On the Saturday, or the Sabbath early, the Jewish authorities place a guard. They go and find the tomb; they find the stone; seal it; and place armed guards there to keep guard for a number of days.

Jesus - Fully God and Fully Man

As we come to the end of this episode, and having described the story, we now need to step back for a moment and think about the significance of this event, in our understanding of Jesus - as both the Son of God and a man, a human being. He was fully God, and fully man. The first thing we need to say is that Jesus was fully physically dead. There is absolutely no doubt that the Roman authorities knew him to be dead. John makes this point clearly, in John 19: 33 - 35. When the Roman guards were looking at the bodies,

33But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus' side with a spear, bringing out a sudden flow of blood and water.

John 19:33-34, NIV

The guards checked Jesus to see whether he was dead and they didn't need to break his legs, which they sometimes did to ensure that someone was dead - by stretching the body further but they pierced his side. The divine person of Jesus, the Son of God, in his divine nature did not die at Calvary, did not die at Golgotha on the cross. Jesus actually said to the criminal on the cross, ‘Today you'll be with me in Paradise’. Jesus, in his divine being, went to be with his Father at the moment of his death. But Jesus, in his humanity - in his physical body - was utterly physically dead, just as any other dead person that has ever died. One of the ancient creeds has a phrase, ‘he descended into Hades’. This phrase was added, from the original creed, to try and explain what happened at that point. Hades meaning ‘death’. Physically Jesus entered into the state of physical death in a total and complete way, just like anyone else. If we had seen his physical body, and if a doctor had examined him just before he was placed in the tomb, there would be no doubt at all that Jesus was dead. At the point of resurrection, the divine living Jesus is reunited to the human physical Jesus, as Jesus takes on a resurrection body. Death, in that sense, is a separation between the divine Jesus and the human Jesus - a momentary separation. They are reunited in the resurrection.

People have sometimes speculated and wondered what happened between Jesus' death and his resurrection. Where did Jesus go? It appears that he went to be with his Father in Paradise. That is what he explicitly says on the cross. We take that as the primary evidence. His body was in the tomb. Some people have wondered whether during this particular time Jesus went into hell, and preached either to demonic spirits or to humans, who had lived before him - preached the Gospel to them, to give them a chance of believing the Gospel. This theological idea has been quite widespread over the period of history. This is based on interpretation of 1 Peter 3: 19 - 20,

19After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits — 20to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.’

1 Peter 3:19-20, NIV

A closer examination of this text suggests that this is a description of what happens at the point of resurrection, not in the period between death and resurrection. It starts with the expression ‘after being made alive’ which is the most likely translation of that Greek phrase - ‘after being made alive’. This isn't what happens at this particular time but it appears that, between his resurrection and his ascension, Jesus proclaims his Kingdom and his glory and his power, in some mysterious way to those who had died previously, and to demonic powers. This was a declaration of his glory. It wasn't preaching for salvation, and it didn't happen in this particular period of time. In this period of time, Jesus - the divine Son of God - was with his Father, and Jesus - the Son of Man - was dead in the tomb awaiting that glorious moment of resurrection. In conclusion, we can say categorically that Jesus really died physically and spent two nights, and parts of three days, in the tomb.

His disciples were in a state of disarray and desolation. The women turn out to be key witnesses. They saw where the burial took place, and they returned to that exact same place on Easter Sunday morning, having obeyed the Sabbath, when they weren't allowed to travel around. At the earliest opportunity, they returned to the tomb to find something amazing had happened. We will come back to that story when we start our final series, Series 14, in the next episode. I hope you join us then.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How was Jesus' death different to that of the rest of mankind? Did he really die?
    2. Consider the ways in which Jesus was truly dead and how the Sanhedrin had guarded against a false resurrection.
  • Discipleship
    1. How would you have been feeling as one of his followers at this time? Where were they?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. What would the Sanhedrin have thought about Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus? Use tagging to research them.
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