Burial and the Grave: A Chronological Harmony

Burial and the Grave

Request for Early Deaths (John 19:31-37)

            Crucifixion is a long and cruel form of death. It can take a person up to three days to die on a cross. But Jesus and the two thieves were crucified on the day before Passover. The Jews were particularly anxious to have the people off the cross before the evening because the Law required that bodies not be left overnight (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) and they did not want the Passover profaned. Thus they asked Pilate to order the legs broken to speed up their deaths. Being unable to push upwards for air, the people on the cross would die quickly from suffocation.

            Notice that John mentions that the Passover day was a special Sabbath day (or high day). This is a reference back to the Old Testament’s reference to certain feast days being holy convocations (Exodus 12:16; Leviticus 23:2-8). The Passover was considered to be a Sabbath day no matter what day of the week it happened to fall upon and such was the case for this particular Passover Sabbath.

            When the soldiers came to break the legs, they did so for the two thieves, but notice that Jesus was already dead. One stuck his spear in Jesus’ side, thus making sure Jesus was dead. John, who was still nearby saw that water and blood flowed out of the wound. This is significant because the heart sac fills with fluid when a person dies. The water flowing from the wound means the spear reached to the heart. Even if Jesus wasn’t already dead, the spear wound guaranteed that he was dead. There is no possibility that Jesus merely swooned on the cross and recovered later.

            The fact that Jesus died earlier than expected is easily attributed to the severe treatment he received in the hours leading up to his crucifixion, especially the scourging he received. But his early death also meant that yet another prophecy was fulfilled, though those who fulfilled it did not intend to do so (Psalm 34:20; Zechariah 12:10). The lack of broken bones is important when we realize that Jesus was the lamb of God. The Passover lamb was to be eaten without breaking any of its bones (Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12). Thus, Jesus became our Passover (I Corinthians 5:7).

Burial (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; Luke 23:50-54; John 19:38-42)

            With the Passover starting at sundown, the body had to be put into a grave while it was still daylight. Once the Sabbath began, no work could be done, including the burial of a loved one.

            Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Sanhedrin council and a secret follower of Christ, gathered up courage to approached Pilate and requested Jesus’ body. Arimathea is believed to be another name for the city of Rama in the tribe of Benjamin. Luke makes sure we understand that Joseph was a good and just man. He had not consented to the Sanhedrin’s decision. It is likely that neither Joseph or Nicodemus were present when the Sanhedrin met that morning. Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead, but after summoning the centurion in charge and finding out Jesus had be dead for a while, Pilate granted the request.

            He was a rich man and brought fine linen cloth in which to wrap Jesus’ body (Mark 15:46). Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin and the same man who came to Jesus early on in his ministry, helped Joseph. He also supplied about a hundred pounds of a myrrh and aloe mixture for preparing the body for burial (John 19:39). These aromatic spices were placed between the body and the linen wrappings (Psalm 45:8) and were a mark of a royal burial (II Chronicles 16:4).

            They placed Jesus in a tomb that Joseph owned that was in a nearby garden, evidently because there was no time to locate another. The tomb was a brand new one which had not be used for any other burials. Grave tombs located in gardens were where the rich buried their dead and, thus, another prophecy was fulfilled (Isaiah 53:9). A large stone was rolled across the opening to seal the tomb. The fact that the tomb was new is important to remember. There can be no mix up over a body that disappeared. Being a tomb cut in rock meant there was no access to the tomb but through the entrance, which was sealed.  

Women Watched (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55-56)

            The women at the cross observed the preparations. Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of James and Joses (Matthew 27:56), are mentioned in particular. They helped with the preparing of the spices and oils, and saw how Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb and where the tomb was located. These multiple witnesses testify that Jesus’ body was actually placed in the tomb. There also can be no claim that when the women came back on the first day of the week that they went to the wrong tomb.

            None of the accounts rule out that the Sabbath on this Passover week went two days, one for the Passover on Friday and the regular Sabbath on Saturday.

Tomb Sealed (Matthew 27:62-66)

            On the following day, which means it was the Passover and Jesus had already been in the grave overnight, the leading Jews came to Pilate and requested that the tomb be sealed. They remembered that Jesus said he would arise after three days and they were afraid the disciples would come and steal the body to make it look like it happened.

            Pilate granted them men to guard the tomb and they were permitted to make the tomb as secure as they could. They placed a seal on the stone covering the entrance and the guards watched the tomb the remainder of that day and overnight.

            Notice that this too indicates that there were two Sabbaths in a row, since the resurrection did not occur until the morning after the guards were posted.