Since Thursday at sunset would begin a special Friday Sabbath associated with the Feast of Unleavened Bread — which would then be followed by the normal weekly Saturday Sabbath, it was paramount the crucifixion wrap up with enough time to dispose of the bodies.
While we don’t know the specific time of death, when the executioners come to break Jesus’ legs in order to expedite the process He was clearly deceased. In order to confirm this was the case John 19:33-34 recounts that when these professional soldiers “came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.”
There is no doubt Jesus was indeed dead before His body was removed from the cross. In fact, upon Joseph’s request that Pilate grant him permission to give Jesus a proper burial, Mark 15 records how “Pilate marveled that Jesus was already dead” so he “summoned the centurion and asked him if He had been dead for some time.” It was only “when he found out from the centurion” that Jesus was deceased that Pilate “granted the body to Joseph.”
The reason this detail is so important is that it directly challenges what is known as the Swoon Theory. In an attempt to discredit the resurrection narrative proponents of this view believe that Jesus was crucified, but only appeared to be dead when he was removed from the cross and laid in the tomb. At this point the coolness of the sarcophagus revived Jesus, He regained consciences, escaped, and then fabricated the story of His resurrection.
While you may find this idea to be silly on the surface, the criticism is to be taken seriously as you’ll find it presented in the Koran and believed by a billion people. Many Muslims contend that following what amounts to a hoax Jesus ultimately fled Judah to live out His life in India.
As you contend with such a position the first counter-argument is that the Scriptures present more than enough evidence that Jesus died on the cross. First, we have the eyewitness testimony of John who personally saw His death confirmed. John 19:35, “He who has seen has testified, his testimony is true; he knows he is telling the truth, so that you may believe.”
Secondly, we have a post-mortem autopsy being conducted by the Roman soldiers at the foot of the cross that reveals Jesus died from catastrophic heart failure. Third, we have the official testimony of the centurion reporting back to Pilate’s inquiry that Jesus was indeed dead. Finally, we have Joseph and Nicodemus personally preparing His body for burial! It’s highly unlikely they would have failed to detect even the slightest pulse.
Aside from the fact such a theory doesn’t fit within the historical record provided in Scripture, it also doesn’t fit within our historical understanding of a Roman crucifixion. It can’t be overstated how the four Roman soldiers charged with carrying out the crucifixion of Jesus were professionals. All four men were experts at killing and this was not their first rodeo.
The truth is these men could not afford to make a mistake for if a prisoner escaped death the soldiers would be executed. We’ll actually see this reality come into play with the coverup hatched by the religious leaders. What’s interesting about this theory is the inconvenient fact there are no records of anyone surviving a crucifixion, especially one following a scourging.
Honestly, such a theory also doesn’t make any logical sense. Hypothetically, let’s say Jesus somehow survived the scourging and then the crucifixion which included being stabbed by a spear and was somehow revived and resuscitated when he was placed into a cold tomb…
First, explain how a man in such a physical state would be able to roll back the stone?Secondly, if Jesus had somehow survived the crucifixion, I also think it’s safe to say His battered body would have hardly been a motivation for the disciples to start a new religion based almost completely upon His resurrection! To this particular point Alexander Metherell aptly said, “A person in that kind of pathetic condition would never had inspired his disciples to go out and proclaim that He’s the Lord of life who had triumphed over the grave.”
With that out of the way… Customarily, the bodies of those who’d been crucified would be disposed of with zero care or any consideration. Typically, the body would be taken from the cross and simply discarded in a local dump. This would not be the case with Jesus!
While it’s difficult to say with certainty what time Joseph was granted the body, we can say his window to remove Jesus from the cross and burry Him is his family tomb was rapidly closing. Knowing this John tells us Joseph recruited help from his friend Nicodemus.
In harmonizing the three other accounts of what occurs during these few hours with John 19 (the details of which you will find recorded in Mark 15, Matthew 27, and Luke 23) the following occurs after “Pilate gave Joseph permission” to properly bury the body of Jesus.
First, Joseph and Nicodemus come to Golgotha and remove the body of Jesus from the cross. I think it’s sad that not one of Jesus’ closest followers played any role in this process. His public disciples were nowhere to be found while these two “secret disciples” decide to go public! What must this experience have been like for these two men?
The first part of removing the body from the cross would be to take a long piece of fabric — likely one of these men’s outer tunics — place it across Jesus’ chest, tuck it back up under each of His armpits, with the ends of the fabric then thrown out over the horizontal beam.
Then from a solid position behind the cross — holding onto the each end of the fabric — Nicodemus would be able to hold the body of Jesus in place while Joseph pried each of these three long nails from His feet and hands. Note: This is why traditional depictions of the cross still have this piece of fabric on display though the body has been removed.
Once Joseph is able to wrestle that final nail from the timber freeing Jesus from the cross, Nicodemus slowly begins to lower Him downward. I imagine Joseph initially shoulders the body until Nicodemus can come around and help him transfer Jesus onto a stretcher of some kind. I imagine by the time Jesus is laid down both men are covered in His blood!
John tells us “in the place where Jesus was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb” owned by Joseph of Arimathea. The Gospel records also tell us this tomb had been “hewn out of rock” and was brand new — “in which no one had yet been laid.”
After removing Jesus’ body from the cross it was likely a short walk to this tomb as both the Garden and Golgotha were in close proximity. Once there Joseph and Nicodemus would begin the preparation process of the body “as the custom of the Jews is to bury.”
Unlike, for example, the Egyptians who’d embalm a body by draining the blood and then replacing the internal organs with spices before tightly wrap it so that mummification would occur with time, the Hebrews had their own unique process for handling the dead.
A Jewish sarcophagus — tomb as it is translated into English — was designed to allow the body to lay in state and decompose naturally. Then after a period of time the tomb would be opened, the bones of the deceased collected into a box known as an ossuary, and placed onto a shelf. It was normal for one tomb to told multiple generations of family members.
This particular “custom” would begin with a thorough washing of the body itself. To do this Joe and Nick would first remove the crown of thrones that had been pressed into Jesus’ scalp. Aside from this they would then remove any of the splinters that had gotten wedged into the tissue of His back as He pushed Himself up and down the rough timber to breath.
Once the debris had been removed these men would begin the painful process of cleaning Jesus’ body. They tenderly wash the blood from His hair and the spit from His face. They can’t help but notice the deep bruising and swelling from the beating He endured. Then they clean out the wounds left from the nails that were driven through His hands and feet.
At some point Joe and Nick roll over the body and do their best to wash away the dried, coagulated blood now caked onto a back left it tatters from the scourging early that morning. Finally, as they gingerly clean the remainder of His body, with great care they tend to the large, gaping laceration in His side left over from the blunt entry of the Roman spear.
Sure there was a “custom” for how the Jews were to bury their dead, but this process had never been attempted on a body that had been scourged and crucified by Romans. I am confident Joseph and Nicodemus do their best, but the extent of the mutilation of His skin and tissue makes it virtually impossible to completely clean His body in its entirety.
Following the washing, these men would then lay Jesus’ body onto a long piece of linen cloth on a platform inside this tomb. At this point “strips of linen” would be used to tie together His ankles and knees. His arms would be fastened across His chest and His jaw firmly secured.
The “hundred pounds” of this costly “mixture of myrrh and aloes” Nicodemus had brought with him would then be packed on top of and around His body in order to tamper the smell of the coming decomposition. The cloth Jesus had been laid on would be folded back across the body in order to hold everything together and a shroud placed across His face.
While I doubt this delicate process was rushed, because of the coming Sabbath Joseph and Nicodemus aren’t able to completely finish the task. So to insure wild animals or thieves couldn’t easily access the body, these men “roll a large stone against the door of the tomb.”
According to Mark 15 as well as Luke 23 “Mary Magdalene and Mary” Jesus’ mother had “followed after” Joseph and Nicodemus in order to “observed the tomb where He was laid.” In fact these ladies “return” home in order to “prepare” additional “spices and fragrant oils” for the body. The plan will be to come back following these two Sabbaths to finish the process.
The reason so much detail is provided by all four Gospel authors about Jesus’ burial is to make it crystal clear to the reader that He was truly dead. Aside from this the writers go to painstaking efforts to insure the location of the tomb itself was not in question.
The historical record is abundantly clear the tomb was owned by Joseph of Arimathea and both he and Nicodemus personally placed the body of Jesus there. This fact is further substantiated by at least two other eyewitnesses: Mary Magdalene and Mary His mother.
Aside from all of this in Matthew 27:62-66 we read, “On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation (for the record this would have been Thursday evening), the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying, ‘Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise.' Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, 'He has risen from the dead.' So the last deception will be worse than the first.’ Pilate said to them, ‘You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.’ So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard.”
Not only does this passage confirm “the chief priests, Pharisees, and Pilate” knew where the tomb was located, but the tomb was secured in two specific ways. First, the “stone” covering the entrance was “sealed” insuring any attempt to enter would be known as the seal itself would be broken. Additionally, a “guard” of 16 Roman soldiers was “set” in front of the tomb with specific orders to keep anyone from attempting to “steal” the body of Jesus.
Sadly, there are skeptics who seek to argue that the notion of resurrection occurred simply because the women came to the wrong tomb on that Sunday morning. The problem with this position is that it fundamentally lacks any Biblical evidence and is frankly stupid. If this had been the case the enemies of Christianity could have simply produced the body.
Always remember there is one central historical reality not in dispute… The body of Jesus went missing! Not a single soul who was alive when these things happened debated the fact Jesus had died on the cross. There was zero mystery as to the specific tomb in which He was buried. And a simple truth that the body of Jesus was gone three days later.
William Lane Craig wrote, “If the tomb weren’t empty, it would be impossible for a movement founded on the belief in the resurrection to have come into existence in the same city where this man had been publicly executed and buried.” In fact, while the detractors of Christianity have had great incentive, to this day the body of Jesus still has never been discovered.
The reason the Gospel authors include all of these details is to highlight the lunacy of the spin that either the women accidentally went to the wrong Garden Tomb or that Jesus’ body went missing because the disciple somehow stole it. In actuality, the Biblical record tells us this particular fake news began almost immediately following the resurrection itself.
Let me read for you a section of Matthew 28:2-15, “Behold, there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat on it. His countenance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men. But the angel answered and said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for He is risen, as He said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay…
(Verse 11) Behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, 'His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.' And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will appease him and make you secure.’ So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.”
This notion that the disciples stole the body of Jesus and created this elaborate hoax of His resurrection to start a new religion is as silly today as when it was originally presented.
For starters, what would motivate the disciples to even attempt such a thing? Consider that just 12 hours earlier almost every one of them had abandoned Jesus. Then while He hung on the cross only John and a group of women demonstrate a willingness to be publicly identified with Him. By sunset this day Judas has already hung himself and Peter is somewhere weeping over his behavior earlier that morning. Who knows were the rest were?
How telling that not one of these men showed a concern that Jesus’ body receive a proper burial. If not for the actions of two “secret disciples” Joseph and Nicodemus it’s likely Jesus’ body would have been ripped from the cross by the soldiers and discarded in the trash.
From the perspective of these men their world had come crashing down upon them. They had forsaken all to follow Jesus and this was not the destination they had imagined. These men were hopeless and lost. What reason would they have for stealing His body? Jesus was dead. The revolution over. All they cared about now was getting out of town.
More often than not deceptions are conceived for some type of selfish motive and gain. And yet, their belief in a resurrected Jesus would only cause these men to be hated, persecuted, excommunicated from Jewish society, imprisoned, exiled, beheaded, tortured, and crucified!
While true people certainly die for false beliefs all the time, they at least think they are dying for the truth. You see you don’t need a degree in human psychology to know people do not die for a cause they know to be false. If these men had stolen the body of Jesus to create a hoax it’s only logical one of them would have broken and confessed under pressure.
In contrast to this J.P. Moreland writes, “The apostles were willing to die for something they had seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands. They were in a unique position not to just believe Jesus rose from the dead, but to know for sure. And when you’ve got eleven credible people with no ulterior motives, with nothing to gain and a lot to lose, who all agree they observed something with their own eyes — now you’ve got some difficulty explaining that way.” Indeed you do!
Aside from lacking any type of underlying motivation, the simple truth is that there is no way the disciples could have stolen the body even if they had wanted too! As we’ve already noted the body of Jesus was in a sealed tomb with a 24-hour detail of Roman guards who’s singular task was to keep anything like this from happening. A group of 10 untrained disciples attempting to overpower 16 Roman soldiers would have been a suicide mission!
Some say, as described in Matthew, the disciple were able to steal the body because the guards fell asleep. First, if you were a Roman soldier who fell asleep on duty you would be put to death. Secondly, the stone covering the tomb weighed two tons. How could the disciples roll away a stone, steal the body, and not wake up any of these sleeping guards?
Finally — and this will explain the direction John’s narrative takes in chapter 20, if the resurrection of Jesus was in actuality some grand hoax designed by the disciples it makes no sense why your first eyewitnesses would be a women — Mary Magdalene — who’s testimony wasn’t even admissible in a court of law! Instead the disciples would have tried to improve the credibility of their story by having men make the discovery.
Ben Witherington III writes, “Given the patriarchal world of the earliest Christians, it is not believable that a missionary-minded group would make up such a story… It is not believable that early Christians made up stories about women, and particularly Mary Magdalene, as the foremost validating witnesses of the risen Lord. This is not credible especially because the writers of these Gospels, like other early Christians, were hoping for more converts.”
The intention of the Gospel writers and larger point behind the details they provide is to present only one logical outcome for what ends up happening — Jesus rose from the dead! The death of Jesus had been certified. The location of the tomb He’d been laid was not in question. The ability of the disciples to steal the body was not conceivable. And while no one was getting into the tomb, ironically, no one could keep Jesus from getting out!
In closing there are three thoughts I want you to leave this study considering… The first is not only the perceived hopelessness of this particular day, but how untethered from reality such a perspective actually was. From the larger flow and narrative of Scripture what occurred on this Passover was a completely unthinkable and shocking tragedy.
Since Genesis 3 God had promised humanity and specifically the Jews He’d send to earth a Savior who’d atone for our sin, utterly crush Satan, and restore the eternal life we forfeited long ago. And yet, as the sun set on this Passover, with a lifeless Jesus laying in that Garden Tomb, with a stone being rolled across the entrance, it all seemed like an awful joke!
At the close of this day man was convinced sin had killed the Savior, Satan had buried Him, and the pangs of death had finally snuffed out our chance for life once and for all. Hell had won! Evil ruled the day. God was dead! Man’s last hope had ended in total failure. Redemption came up short! The grand plan of God appeared to have been thwarted at last.
May I ask… Have you ever found yourself in such a dark and depressing place — a place where things have taken such an unexpected turn for the worse that you find yourself questioning whether or not God’s promises are any good at all — that God might be dead? Hope has been crushed. God’s plan made to no avail. Your life laid to rest in a tomb!
On this day the human perspective was limited by the tragedy it had just witnessed at the crucifixion. As the day transitioned to darkness there was not a soul alive who expected or anticipated resurrection! Not a single person held any hope that God was still at work and His promises sure. Even Jesus had experienced the fate all men face. In fact, the women who come to the Tomb just a few days later did so fully expecting to find a dead Jesus.
While it’s true our perspective on such things is often held captive by the moment in which they occur, rarely are we privy to the complete plan or our perspective shaped by the full story. If mankind had believed Jesus’ word his outlook would have been much different.
If any of this resonates with you I pray you are encouraged by the simple reality that as with this Passover your story and God’s plan for your life is not yet complete! However hopeless your circumstances may be in the moment please realize your perspective is not complete.
God’s apparent inactivity is not evidence He’s no longer at work. Will you believe He still has a plan and a purpose — that He’s working all for the good? Friend, I beg that you hold onto hope in the midst despair! Believe God will do the improbable even though you’re facing the impossible. The darkest day this world had ever seen would give way unexpectedly to a most incredible display of resurrection power! His Light would quickly overcome!
Secondly, it’s a powerful image that following His declaration “It is finished!” Jesus rested in the Garden Tomb for two Sabbaths before rising from the dead. In the context of Genesis 2 when God rested on the “seventh day” we learn that the point of the man’s Sabbath was to (A) remind him it had only been through God’s work that we were originally afforded a relationship with God on the “seventh day” and (B) that since our actions ruined this relationship it would only be through His work that our relationship could be restored.
What’s interesting is this “seventh day” or God’s Sabbath (His rest) has only occurred twice in human history since Eden. Obviously “God rested” on this original “seventh day,” but since then God has busied Himself with the work of redemption because of our sin!
How interesting that while the religious world had ceased from working in an attempt to earn God’s favor, on these two Sabbaths Jesus rested in a Garden Tomb. He had completed His work on Calvary so that man might now be given God’s favor and find his rest in Him.
Never forget… Rest is only found in a relationship with God, but a relationship with God is only made possible through the completed work of Jesus! Instead of trying to earn, achieve, or maintain God’s favor, join Jesus and take rest knowing His work for you is finished!
Finally, consider how just it was that while the day began with Jesus in the hands of a vengeful world, the day closes with His body in the hands of loving disciples.
I’m not going out on a limb when I say that Joseph and Nicodemus were forever changed through their personal interaction with the body and blood of Jesus. As these men took to the task of tenderly removing Him from the cross and preparing His body for burial the moment must have been heavy. Imagine putting your fingers into the contusions of Jesus’ hands and feet, cleaning the deep wound in His side, the very sight of His lacerated back.
Aside from this, I imagine — as these two men left the Garden Tomb that evening — they were literally covered with the blood of Jesus. What a reminder as to the brutal effects of sin. A picture of what was really required for forgiveness. A physical manifestation that illustrated the wrath of God. For Joe and Nick their interactions with Jesus’ body and blood powerfully demonstrated the sacrifice Jesus willingly offered for them. His incredible love on display!
Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but I wonder what it would it have been like for these two men to see the empty tomb? To see the burial cloths where they left them, but no body!
As I’ve contemplated these two men and imagined the profound implications of the moment for each of them I’ve come to the conclusion that you and I should have a similar experience every time we come to the Lord’s table. Though we do not handle the actual body and blood of Jesus, the bread and the wine serve as a reminder of these very things.
Every time we come to the table may we handle the elements as lovingly as Joseph and Nicodemus handled the body of our crucified Savior. May we contemplate the significance of His sacrifice and the covering of His blood. While on that Passover morning Jesus suffered in the hands of a vengeful world, beginning with Joseph and Nicodemus, every day that has followed the body and blood of Christ forever remains in the hands of loving disciples.
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