God’s Scapegoat: “Buried”
March 28, 2004
“I believe in Jesus Christ — who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” The Apostles’ Creed
This is a sermon based on a word that doesn’t seem necessary. We know Jesus died. We know he rose from the dead. If we know what happened on Friday and we know what happened on Sunday, why bother adding the word “buried?” Of course he was buried—that makes sense. That’s what you do with dead bodies. You bury them. Jesus died for our sins. He rose on the third day. Surely that’s the part that matters to us. We assume that he was buried for approximately 40 hours. In a Creed where words are used sparingly, where whole areas of doctrine are either assumed or passed over in silence, where the whole of Christ’s teaching ministry and all of his miracles are not even mentioned, why does the Creed say he was buried? Why state the obvious when so much else is left out?
In putting the matter this way, I do not mean to cast the writers of the Apostles’ Creed in a bad light. After all, they lived much closer to the events of Christ’s life than we do, so they had an appreciation of the relative importance of things that we are perhaps lacking 2,000 years later. It’s always easy to assume that we know better than the ancients about what really matters—but in this, as in so many other things, we are more likely to be wrong than right. If they thought it important to include the word “buried” in the Creed, then it must be important, and there must be something here we need to think about. As I ponder the matter, it occurs to me that I’ve never actually heard a sermon on the burial of Jesus. Most of us, when we read the story of Jesus’ life, tend to go straight from his death to his resurrection. Almost without thinking, we go from “He gave up his spirit” to “Early on the first day of the week ¼” as if nothing important happened in between. But it is precisely at this point that the Creed forces us to stop and take another look at the biblical text. The simple word “buried” tells us more than what happened to the body of Jesus. It alerts us to an area of biblical truth that we might otherwise overlook.
At this point I should mention that many years ago Rev. Ed McCollum gave me a booklet he wrote and had privately published on the burial of Jesus. I wish I could say that I consulted it in preparing this message, but in my various moves I misplaced it and haven’t seen it in over 20 years. Exactly what it said I don’t recall, but I do remember Brother Ed sitting me down and telling me that the burial of Jesus mattered, and that we ought to pay attention to what the Bible says about it.
Three Key Passages
Before we look at the facts of his burial, let’s consider three passages that put it into a broader biblical context:
1) Isaiah 53 contains the most extensive Old Testament prophecy concerning the death of our Lord. Verse 9 contains an explicit reference to his burial—though it must have seemed mysterious at the time it was given—700 years before Christ was born. “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth.” Since the Romans reserved crucifixion for the worst criminals and for enemies of the state, they had little regard for what happened to the dead bodies after they were taken down from the cross. They might be tossed in a ditch and eaten by wild animals or they might be thrown onto a pile of burning garbage. No doubt the Jewish leaders who hated Jesus had “assigned” this fate to him in their minds. But he ended up being buried in a rich man’s tomb—though no one could have foreseen it in advance.
2) I Corinthians 15:1-6 contains a concise summary of the gospel. Paul even says in verse 1, “I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you.” Then he goes on to spell out the gospel in verses 4-5, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.” Notice how clearly he lays out the gospel message:
A) He was crucified
B) He was buried
C) He was raised on the third day
D) He appeared
Or you might look at it in two parts:
1. He was crucified. Proof: He was buried.
2. He was raised. Proof: He was seen.
Either way the result is the same. Paul regarded the burial of Jesus as an essential part of the gospel message. When he preached the gospel, he included the burial of Jesus in his message.
3. Matthew 26:6-13 records the story of Mary anointing Jesus’ head with a jar of very expensive perfume. When John told the same story, he added the fact Mary also anointed Jesus’ feet with the pint of “pure nard,” an extremely expensive perfume imported from India. It would have cost a year’s wages to buy a pint of the perfume. And Mary poured it all on Jesus’ head and his feet. When the disciples (led by Judas) expressed consternation at her wasteful actions, Jesus defended Mary and explained the meaning of her extravagance: “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (vv. 12-13). I don’t think Jesus meant that Mary literally intended to anoint Jesus in view of his coming death. He means that in her extravagant expression of love, she was doing more than she knew—what she was doing on that Saturday in Bethany would be done to the dead body of Jesus the following Friday when he was taken down from the cross. Note the phrase “this gospel.” That tells us once again the burial of Jesus is part of the gospel message.
So his burial is more than the fact that he was placed in the tomb. It is a part of prophecy and part of the gospel message. And that’s why it appears in the Apostles’ Creed.
I. His Burial Explained
The details of Jesus’ burial appear in all four gospels: Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42. Rather than look each passage individually, I’d like to combine them into one seamless account.
The story begins late on Friday afternoon outside the city walls of Jerusalem. Jesus is dead by 3:00 p.m. Sundown (marking the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath) begins at 6:00 p.m. Once it was clear that Jesus had died, something had to be done with his body. For some period of time after his death, his corpse hung on the cross, suspended by ropes and the spikes in his hands and feet. Eventually a man called Joseph of Arimathea steps forward. All that we know about him comes from the four gospels. He was a rich man, a righteous man, and a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. That meant he would have been highly respected and well known to many people. The gospels tell us he was a wise man and a counselor who was looking for the Kingdom of God. They also tell us a key fact—he had not consented to the death to Jesus. Although he could not stop the crucifixion, he cast his vote against it. But the most important fact was not known to others on the ruling council: Joseph was a secret believer in Jesus. Although we don’t know how it happened, he had become convinced that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, the Son of God and the Son of Man, the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament. Perhaps only his family knew of his commitment. If others had known, he would have faced harassment and ridicule.
Mark tells us that Joseph bravely went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. The word “bravely” fits well because Pilate had no use for the Jewish leaders, and they had no use for him. Joseph could not have known how Pilate would respond at that crucial moment—but he went to him anyway. Pilate’s first response was surprise that Jesus was dead. Normally men lasted longer than six hours on the cross. Jesus had been crucified at 9:00 a.m. and he died by 3:00 p.m. Certainly part of that is due to the savage treatment he received. But the greater explanation is this: He was not killed. He laid down his life voluntarily. Pilate summoned the centurion on duty (presumably the lead officer) at the cross and asked if Jesus had already died. When he learned that he was dead, he gave Joseph permission to take down the body of Jesus from the cross. At this point John adds a fact that the other evangelists don’t mention. Joseph was joined in his task by another secret disciple—Nicodemus. John 3 tells how Nicodemus (who was also a member of the ruling council) came to Jesus at night, for fear that others would know of his visit. Jesus told him he needed to be “born from above.” Sometime between that night and Good Friday, Nicodemus had become a secret follower of our Lord. It is ironic that the two men who take care of Jesus’ body are Jewish leaders who are also secret believers.
Taking the body down was a difficult, messy business because Jesus’ body was in such bad shape. Blood oozed from cuts and lacerations, there was a hole in his side from the spear, and holes in his hands and his feet. His face had been beaten almost beyond recognition. After cleaning the body, Joseph and Nicodemus began to wrap it tightly with a linen cloth. John tells us that they had 75 pounds of aloes and myrrh that they interspersed with the linen as it wrapped around his body. This aromatic ointment would eventually harden into a nearly impenetrable shell that protected the body from quick decay and made it difficult for grave robbers to steal the body.
They had to hurry in their work because according to Jewish law, they could not handle a dead body on the Sabbath. So if we run the clock backward, certain things had to happen in sequence: Jesus dies, the soldiers realize he is dead, his side is pierced, the crowds begin to disperse, Joseph goes to Pilate, Pilate summons the centurion who reports that Jesus is dead, Pilate gives Joseph permission to take the body, Joseph returns to the cross where he and Nicodemus (no doubt aided by the soldiers) take the body down from the cross. They clean it and begin to wrap it in linen cloth. All of that would have taken the better part of two hours.
So now it is past 5:00 p.m. They have less than 60 minutes to finish their work. In one of the God-ordained serendipities of this story, Joseph had purchased a tomb that had recently been hewn from the rock. No doubt he intended to use it as the burial place for himself and his wife, and possibly for other members of his family. Not only was the tomb available and unused, it was also in a garden near Skull Hill where Jesus was crucified. If you ever go to the Holy Land, your tour guide will take you to a place called Gordon’s Calvary outside the Damascus Gate. It’s a limestone outcropping that the weather has carved into what might be the shape of a skull. Many people think this is the true spot of Jesus’ crucifixion. Next to it—literally only a few yards away—is the Garden Tomb, a quiet, peaceful, restful location with a first-century tomb cut into a hillside. There is even a trough in front of the tomb where the stone would have been rolled in front of the entrance. I’ve been inside that tomb three times. There is a chamber for visitors and a chamber where the body would be placed. Many people think this is the exact spot where our Lord’s body was buried on Good Friday. Regardless, he must have been buried either there or someplace very similar. I should add that having visited the Garden Tomb three times, I can testify that the tomb is empty. Whoever was buried there left a long time ago.
It’s now only a few minutes before 6:00 p.m. Joseph and Nicodemus pick up the limp, lifeless corpse of Jesus and half-carry, half-drag it to the garden tomb. Thank goodness it wasn’t far away. Between the weight of the body ¼ and the linen ¼ and the spices ¼ it must have weighed almost 250 pounds. Meanwhile the sun slowly sinks into the western horizon. Shadows fall across the olive trees. The two men—secret disciples—carry the dead body of Jesus to the tomb. Close behind are Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, weeping. The entrance to the tomb was very small. Nicodemus and Joseph had to bend over to get inside. Inside the tomb was dark, almost pitch-black. Musty and damp. They laid the body of Jesus on a ledge and turned to go. When they got outside, Joseph and Nicodemus rolled a great stone over the entrance. The women sat by the side watching.
Then Joseph and Nicodemus left. Then the two Marys left. Darkness fell on the garden cemetery. Everyone had left. Inside the tomb ¼ silence. The smell of death was everywhere.
Why So Much Detail?
Why does the Bible provide so much detail regarding the burial of Christ? I can think of five answers to that question.
A. To prove that he really died. This was a huge issue in the early church—and remains so to this very day. The details of his burial reinforce the central truth—that Jesus really and truly died on the cross.
B. To show the true cost our salvation. We are accustomed to saying, “Our sins put Jesus on the cross.” That’s true, but we can say it stronger than that. “Our sins sent him to the grave.” He was buried because he died carrying the heavy burden of our guilt and shame. The burial of Jesus shows us the true end of our rebellion and lawlessness. Left to ourselves, we end up in the grave—which is where our Lord ended up after he had suffered for our sins.
C. To teach us that God does not forsake us when we die. We know that “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Yet death in and of itself is dark, cold, forbidding, frightening. Death seems anything but precious to us. We fear death, and rightly so, for death cuts us off from the land of the living. Our Lord was cut off by the Father’s decree. It pleased the Lord to crush his only Son (Isaiah 53:10). Yet in that crushing, God did not abandon his Son forever. The ministrations of Joseph and Nicodemus and the kind care of the sorrowing women were God’s way of saying, “I have not forsaken my Son in his death.” We learn from this that burying the dead is a Christian duty and a Christian service to our loved ones. We do well to care for the dying and to provide for a decent burial for the dead. If God cared enough for his Son to see that he was properly buried, even so we should do the same for those we love.
D. To sanctify death so that we will not be afraid to die. Here we come even closer to the heart of the gospel. Is there any fear more fundamental than the fear of death? Perhaps every other fear is but a subset of that great fear. But Jesus has transformed death for those who follow him. What happens to us, happened first to him. What happened to him will one day happen to us. He entered death’s dark realm and not only subdued it. He conquered it once and for all. By his victory over death he has sanctified it so that we no longer need to fear it. He went into the tomb and then he came out. Thus we will not fear to go in, knowing that one day by God’s grace, we too will come out.
E. To picture the complete removal of our sins. We know that Jesus died so that our sins might be forgiven. But there is an aspect of this truth that we often overlook. John the Baptist said of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). One of the primary Hebrew words for forgiveness means to “lift and take away.” That’s forgiveness. God removes the burden of our sin, and then he takes it far, far away.
II. His Burial Illustrated
We see an illustration of this in the story of the Day of Atonement from Leviticus 16. On one day each year—Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the high priest (and only the high priest) would go behind the thick veil to enter the “Most Holy Place.” That was the most sacred spot in ancient Judaism. It contained the Ark of the Covenant, which was a small, ornate chest with a golden lid called the “Mercy Seat.”
One Man—the high priest
One Place—the Most Holy Place
One Day—the Day of Atonement
On that one day of the year, two goats were brought before the high priest. By lot one of the goats was chosen for sacrifice. After the goat was killed, the high priest carried the goat’s blood into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat. This signified that blood had been shed for the sins of the people. But that was only part of the ritual. When the high priest came out of the tabernacle to stand before the people, the second goat was brought to him. Placing his hands on the goat, he prayed a prayer of confession, naming the sins of the people of Israel. You can imagine the tension as he called out the sins of the people:
On and on the list would go until all the hearers were convicted of their own sinfulness. Eventually the prayer was finished. A man then took the goat—called the scapegoat—and led it into the wilderness. He walked until he was far out of sight of the Jews. Then he kept on walking until he was in a distant, desolate corner of the wilderness. Only then did he release the scapegoat—allowing it to wander off on its own. Then he returned to the camp without the scapegoat. Thus did God demonstrate that he not only forgives sins, he removes them from us so far that they can never come back again.
Not just forgiven. But forgiven and removed forever.
III. His Burial Applied
Now let’s apply this Old Testament truth to the burial of our Lord.
A. When Christ went into the tomb, he carried our sins with him.
B. When he came out of the tomb, our sins were gone forever.
When John Bunyan wrote the classic book, Pilgrim’s Progress, he included a section that perfectly describes this truth. The book itself is an allegory of a pilgrim named Christian who makes his journey from earth to heaven. But early in the story, he carries the burden of his own sins. This is how he is set free:
He ran thus till he came at a place somewhat ascending; and upon that place stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulcher. So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulcher, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.
Think about those last five words: “I saw it no more.” When our sins are forgiven and removed, we see them no more. The burden is not only “lifted at Calvary,” it is rolled away so that we will never have to carry that burden again. The Bible uses a number of images to describe how God deals with our sins:
God blots out our sins as a thick cloud (Isaiah 44:22).
God forgets our sins and remembers them no more (Jeremiah 31:34).
God puts our sins behind His back (Isaiah 38:17).
God buries our sins in the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19).
God removes our sins as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12).
I can think of only one gospel song that directly connects the removal of our sins with the burial of Christ. It’s been a favorite of mine for more than 30 years, and even though we rarely sing it today, it deserves recognition. In 1910 an evangelist named J. Wilbur Chapman (he was one of Billy Sunday’s mentors) wrote a gospel song that traces the story of Christ’s life from his birth through his life, death, resurrection, and his second coming. The song is called “One Day” and the chorus goes like this:
Living, He loved me; dying, He saved me;
Buried He carried my sins far away;
Rising, He justified freely forever;
One day He’s coming—O glorious day!
That second line connects the burial of Jesus with the complete removal of our sins. Charles Spurgeon called Jesus Christ the “great Scapegoat” who stands in our place, bearing our sins, taking them far away. Then Spurgeon asks a personal question: “Can you feel assured that he carried your sin? As you look at the cross upon his shoulders, does it represent your sin?” There is only one way to be sure. “Have you laid your hand upon his head, confessed your sin, and trusted in him?” If you have, then he bears your sin and you bear it no more. For all those who read these words, I press the question home to your heart. Have you laid your sins on Jesus? Have you trusted in him who died to forgive your sins and take them far away? Do not let the picture of God’s scapegoat vanish from your mind until you have laid your burden on Jesus. Rejoice in your deliverance from sin, and adore the Redeemer who paid the price and took the heavy load, who went to the cross and then to the grave, that you might be set free. Amen.