Gospel of John: A Race Against Sunset


According to Jo-Ann A. Brant, Jesus’s crucifixion and burial are described in seven movements, in John’s gospel.

  1. Crucifixion, John 19:16-18
  2. Contention concerning the inscription above Jesus’s cross, John 19:19-22
  3. Casting lots over Jesus’s clothing, John 19:23-25
  4. Committing of John and Mary the mother of Jesus to each other, John 19:25-27
  5. Christ’s spirit commended into God’s hands, John 19:28-30
  6. Cut of the Centurion’s spear, John 19:31-37
  7. Consignment of Christ to the tomb, John 19:38-42

Request for the Body of Jesus

The fellowship of finding another like-minded believer seemed to give both Joseph and Nicodemus the courage and resources they needed to do for Jesus what they could not find a way to do alone, or separately. These two disciples who had kept their faith in Jesus a secret while the Master lived, now risked everything to serve their rabbi in death.

Then, after these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus but hidden through fear of the Judeans, requested of Pilate that he could bear away the body of Jesus, and Pilate permitted it, so he came and bore away Jesus’s body. And also came Nicodemus (the one who had before come in the night) bringing a myrrh and aloes mixture, about a hundred weight.    

John 19:38-39
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

Apparently it was about an hour beyond the time the temple curtain had been torn, sundown was closing in, so there was a sense of urgency in getting these preparations underway. According to Jewish law, even a criminal’s body could not be left hanging all night. What is more, it was the day before the Sabbath, so by 6 p.m. that night, all the bodies had to be cleared away.

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph was a very wealthy man from the town of Arimathea. Luke described him as a good man, and righteous, a man of justice. He was also among the small minority of Jews who waited for the kingdom of God, which made him a Pharisee, a believer in the coming Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. He was a member of the Sanhedrin, so one of only a small number of people who were considered religious rulers, and when the chief priest began his push to put Jesus to death, Joseph was one of the few who voted against it.

Joseph had been afraid, all the time Jesus was alive, to let people know that he was a disciple. It would have meant risking his position in the council, and his whole career as a Pharisee and religious ruler. Already, the Sanhedrin had begun ejecting Jesus-sympathizers from their local synagogues, which meant they could no longer interact with anyone of Jewish faith or lineage, even their own families. They were complete outcasts. Consider Joseph’s position in the community. He weighed the cost and decided to keep his faith a secret.

But now, Joseph experienced intense grief and horror because the Lord Jesus, the longed-for Messiah, had been put to death by the chief priests and Sanhedrin, men who were supposed to be holy unto God. He experienced such a crisis of faith—for he was one of them—that his very integrity of being a person devoted to God required he overcome his fears.

In weighing his career and his love for the Lord, Joseph realized that it was his relationship with God that mattered most. According to Roman law, the body would normally only be released to a member of the family, but Joseph was a man of some importance, as he had enough political capital to be able to get into the palace at Fort Antonia and to see Pilate privately, after official hours.

Pilate had not even gotten the report, yet, from his centurion about the condition of the crucified men. He was surprised Joseph was already there, asking for the body. After summoning the centurion however, Pilate was assured that indeed Jesus was dead.

Joseph was able to secure immediate permission to take Jesus’s body, so he quickly purchased a length of linen, and headed to Golgotha.

Nicodemus

Nicodemus was also a very wealthy man, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin. It seems Nicodemus was the real thing, he took his life of faith and being a Pharisee seriously, he was seeking after God and was attracted to Jesus’s character and teaching.

But, he was afraid of allowing his fellow Sanhedrinists and Pharisees to know this about him. Early in Jesus’s ministry Nicodemus came under cover of the night to speak privately with this new and controversial rabbi about religion. Instead, Nicodemus learned about life, about rebirth, to be born from heaven into new and eternal life.

As the religious leaders became more negative about Jesus, wanting to arrest him and even kill him, Nicodemus spoke up, saying it was against their law to condemn a man without giving him a fair trial. He got shouted down and humiliated for that.

But now Nicodemus was willing to align himself with Joseph’s politically and religiously dangerous plan.

Joseph was a secret disciple, and Nicodemus possibly even more so. They had not been brave enough to publicly align themselves with their Messiah. Now, by entering Pilate’s palace (a Gentile, and therefore unclean), but far more so, to handle Jesus’s dead body, they would no longer be able to celebrate Passover with their families, and they would be conspicuously missing from the special services at the temple. But because they loved Jesus, God provided a way for them to find the courage and wherewithal to richly bury the Lord, becoming part of God’s fulfillment of scripture.

Wrapped for Burial

So, they took the body of Jesus and bound him in linen cloths after the spices, as is the custom of the Judeans to bury.

John 19:40
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

The two men packed the equivalent of 75 pounds of spices around Jesus’s body, enough for a royal burial, then wound strips of linen layered with aloe and myrrh around Jesus in accordance with Jewish burial customs.

It seems Mary of Magdala, the other Mary, and the rest of the women who had come down from Galilee with Jesus, all followed Joseph. Mary of Magdala sat with the other Mary directly across from the tomb as Joseph and Nicodemus went about their mournful task. Since there was not time to do everything, the women quietly determined to come back later, after the Sabbath days, to finish the detail work with more spices and ointments.

Race Against Sunset

Now, a garden was in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden was a new tomb, in which as yet never before had even one been placed. Therefore there, because of [the Day of] Preparation of the Judeans, because the tomb was near, they placed Jesus.

John 19:41-42
The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain

They could not go farther because of the urgency of time. This was Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb, their only option. Regardless of what Joseph had originally determined to do for Jesus, circumstances showed him what was -necessary- to give.

Even in this detail, scripture was fulfilled: In burial, Jesus’s body did not touch the decay of death because he was laid in a new tomb. Though Jesus was crucified with criminals, he was laid to rest as a royal king.

Incidentally, by going immediately to the cross and personally removing Jesus’s body, Joseph and Nicodemus also provided the two legal witnesses necessary according to Jewish law to verify Jesus’s death. As two of the most prominent Jewish men in their society, known for their integrity, their spirituality, their character, being above reproach, they were able to give witness to the fact that this man really was Jesus of Nazareth, and that he really was dead.

There has to be death before there can be resurrection

Joseph’s final act was to roll the big stone into place at the entrance of the tomb he had given to Jesus. In my inner ear I hear the scrape of the stone, the men breathing heavily, the sound of quiet weeping. There are no words, for no words would be enough. As Jesus had said, It is finished, now these might have said, It is done.

Yet, Jesus’s burial prepared the way for new life in the physical resurrection sense and new life in the spiritual sense as well.

As you and I identify with Jesus we are able to put to death our own old life, the old habits and memories, the old way of living, and become reconciled to God. The way is open to us not only to be made one with God again, but also to live a new life.


[Jesus being taken from Golgotha | The Brooklyn Museum, James Tissot, Public Domain]

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