Tomorrow is Good Friday, the day Christians throughout the world remember and reflect upon the death of Jesus, an event dating back nearly 2000 years. According to the gospel writers, Jesus died at three o’clock in the afternoon. The Jewish sabbath began at six. This meant for the family and friends of Jesus, time was not on their side. The clock was ticking, and the body of Jesus needed to be buried quickly.
Biblical accounts of funeral arrangements reveal that the Jews typically took great care in preparing the corpse for interment. Family and friends washed the body of the deceased, rubbed it with oil and spices, and wrapped it in cloths. The body was then placed in a family tomb cut out of the rock. Inside, a number of niches were carved where the bodies of deceased family members would be placed. After one year (enough time for the flesh to decompose), the dried bones were collected and put in a stone box called an ossuary. In this way, the family could make space in the tomb for future burials.
This was exactly the plan for Jesus. When they wrapped his body in linen cloth, it was expected that they would come back one year later, collect his bones, and place these bones in an ossuary. But, they needed a tomb, and they needed it quickly. They had to finish with the preparations and burial before the sabbath began. Fortunately, one individual came to the rescue. Here’s how Matthew records the event:
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and 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. (Matthew 27:57-60)
Notice that they wrapped the body of Jesus, but did not use spices or oil perfumes. There wasn’t time to fully prepare his body for burial. This is why the women returned to the tomb on Sunday morning, after the Sabbath. They’d planned to unwrap Jesus, rub the oil and spices onto his body, re-wrap the linen cloths around him, and then return a year later. Only, when they got to the tomb early that morning… wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s more to say about the Friday events before we get to the Sunday surprise.
The tomb. They needed a place in close proximity to bury Jesus. Joseph from Arimathea stepped up to the plate. He was a man of means, and he’d recently had a tomb carved for his family. According to Matthew, Joseph took the body of Jesus and placed it “in his own new tomb.” Luke tells us that Joseph wrapped the body of Jesus in linen cloth “and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid (Luke 23:52-53). Why did both these writers emphasize the fact that Jesus was the first to be buried in this tomb?
The reason is that the Jewish people did not, and do not, like to mix different elements together. While there are numerous commands in the Old Testament regarding this, the clearest reference to this practice is found in Leviticus 19, where God gave this command to the Israelites:
Do not mate different kinds of animals.
Do not plant your field with two kinds of seed.
Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. (Leviticus 19:19)
I had the opportunity to visit Israel earlier this year. While there, I discovered a kosher practice previously unknown to me. Jews do not mix dairy and meat. I learned this fact while visiting a restaurant which specialized in hamburgers. Cheeseburgers were not on the menu. No dairy with meat. A friend traveling with me brought an ice cream into the restaurant. He’d purchased it at a store next to the hamburger place and wanted to sit with our group while we ate. He was asked to leave. No dairy mixed with meat, and they were serious.
While not expressly forbidden in the Old Testament, this tradition has its roots in the command to “not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19). The Jews have taken this verse and erred on the side of caution by avoiding the combination of meat and dairy altogether.
In the same way, they do not mix families in the same tomb. Throughout the Old Testament, we see family burial places. When an individual grows old, there is a desire to return to the family home to be buried with other family members (Genesis 49:29-32, 2 Samuel 19:37) The common practice was that a family tomb belonged only to members of that family.
Which meant — for Joseph of Arimathea — he was giving up his tomb forever. By allowing the body of Jesus to be buried in his brand new, never-before-used tomb, he was forfeiting his right or the right of his family members to use that tomb. In the future, only the family members of Jesus would be allowed to have their bodies placed there. Joseph would have to go and have a new tomb carved for him and his family.
Or, so he thought.
He may have met with a contractor from Acme Tomb Carvers, Inc. about a new tomb, but canceled those plans after the events of Sunday. Turns out that Jesus didn’t need the tomb after all. There were no bones to collect the next year. No ossuary was needed. The tomb was empty.
I think there is a huge lesson in this for us. Over my years of following Christ, I’ve discovered an amazing truth: I can never out-give God. Whatever I think I’m sacrificing is returned to me in a multitude of ways. My financial gifts, the sacrifice of my time, the following of God’s will instead of my own desires… all of these have brought me more peace, joy, and fulfillment in life than I ever could have gained by withholding from God. My sacrifices, it turns out, haven’t been sacrifices at all. I gained far more than I ever gave.
The same was true for Joseph. He had more than just his tomb returned to him. He gained peace and joy in following Jesus. He received eternal life. And… he was given the promise that one day, his tomb will be empty again when his own body is raised from the dead (I Thessalonians 4:16).
This Good Friday, as you remember and reflect upon the death of Jesus, consider this act of Joseph and how you can do the same in your own life.
Kevin Mills is the Lead Pastor of Northway Church in Macon, Georgia.
**John 19:38-42 records Nicodemus with Joseph, helping him wrap the body of Jesus and using oil and spices in the process. The most likely explanation for the women coming on Sunday to do the same is that everything was so rushed, they didn’t know that Nicodemus had prepared the body in this manner.