John 19:31-42 The Burial

John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow ( 2000

At the end of the previous chapter we saw how Jesus did not just breathe his last (which is also true) but he very deliberately dismissed (discarded) his battered and dehydrated body.

The burial of Jesus's body is important. As Paul said, "I handed over to you as of first importance what I in turn received: that the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried" (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). In his case and in ours, the resurrection takes place immediately as the old body is discarded and the body suited for heaven is received (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). The body Joseph of Arimathea put with dignity in his own tomb was the corpse that had been used by the Messiah for thirty years. But the Messiah was already back at home with the Father.

With Jesus' resurrection a change of immense importance had taken place. In the Old Testament period people who died were described as going down into sheol (Greek Hades), the abode of the dead (as in Genesis 37:35, 42:38, 44:29-31, Job 7:9, 17:13-16). The quiet peace of sheol could be disturbed, as in the case of Samuel (1 Samuel 28:11-15). But meanwhile sheol was a place where the person waited in shadowy silence (Psalm 6:5). Some of the Old Testament saints believed, as did the later Pharisees, in a future redeeming (freeing) from Sheol (as in Job 19:25-26, Psalm 49:14-15).

But the wonder of Jesus' resurrection was that the first thing he did after receiving his resurrection body was to go down into sheol and free those who were awaiting the resurrection. "He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison" (1 Peter 3:18-19). Those who did not want eternal life with the Messiah were freed to go out into eternal death (the darkness of 3:19-20, see Jude 13). Paul may be referring to the Messiah's descent to free those in sheol when he quoted a psalm: "when it says, 'He ascended,' what does it mean but that he also descended into the lower parts of the earth" (Psalm 68:18, Ephesians 4:9-10).

The clear evidence that Jesus did this three days before the first Easter Sunday is the fact that "the earth shook, and the rocks were split, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many" (Matthew 27:51-53). But this had happened immediately Jesus died, and the Old Testament saints were freed from sheol while the battered body of Jesus was still hanging on the cross (Matthew 27:53-54).

This was why the early church's preaching of the resurrection was so wonderful. It was not just the resurrection of the Messiah (Acts 2:32, 3:15, 4:10) but the awesome fact was the resurrection of the dead from the power of sheol. As Peter said, "in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead" (Acts 4:2, 17:18, 32, 23:6). And Paul argues, "How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then the Messiah has not been raised" (1 Corinthians 15:12-13).

This corrects the mistaken impression that Jesus was dead in sheol (hades) for three days till Easter morning. Some even argue the monstrous idea that Jesus was sent to hell instead of us. What happened early on the Sunday morning was that once the main Passover celebration was over the Messiah came to dispose of his old body. He did not want it to be an object of veneration. Which is why John describes the scene of the empty tomb. He will tell us that he "outran Peter and reached the tomb first and saw the linen wrappings lying there." Peter arrived a moment later and he noticed "the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself" (20:4-7). Obviously Peter and John discussed this astonishing phenomenon of a body that had been disintegrated leaving the grave clothes to fall to the ground. And who could have done this but the Messiah himself?

John tells us it was Joseph of Arimathea who took Jesus' corpse down from the cross. He was joined by Nicodemus, and together they reverently wrapped the body in spices "according to the burial custom of the Jews" (19:38-41). The point is that this was not just a very messy chore that they undertook. By working with a dead body they had defiled themselves, and according to Jewish law they were not allowed to celebrate the Passover that night. We can imagine the horror and disappointment of the wives of the two men and their children, who would have made all the preparations and looked forward to the evening with great anticipation. But there was a provision for them to celebrate the Passover with their families, including all the trimmings, exactly a month later" (Numbers 9:9-11).

John does not record the fact that Peter and the other nine disciples, excluding Judas who committed suicide and John who was at the cross with Jesus' mother (19:26), had all disappeared after the arrest. Matthew and Mark say "all the disciples forsook him and fled." (Matthew 26:56, Mark 14:50). Presumably they gathered with their families for Passover that night, and perhaps some of the meaning of what had happened to the Passover Lamb of God began to become clear for them.

Jesus had explained as much as they could take in during the last supper (not a Passover meal, see notes under 13:1-15). Many years later Paul would write "Our paschal lamb, the Messiah, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth" (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

19:31-33 Jesus died about three in the afternoon. And since it was "the day of Preparation" the Jews wanted the bodies of the three crucified men taken down and disposed of before the Passover celebration began. John reminds us it was "a day of great solemnity" when no work of any kind could be done (as ordered in Numbers 28:16-18). The breaking of the legs was to hasten death.

19:34-37 Jesus was already dead (see note on 19:30). The soldiers did not break his legs, but one of them drove (or was it had driven) his lance into his side (see the problem this raises in 20:25). John again tells us he was an eyewitness of the blood and water that came out. And it reminded him of a verse from the prophet Zechariah. "When they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child" (Zechariah 12:10). He also thought of a verse from the Psalms, "He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken" (Psalm 34:20). John does not offer these verses as proof texts, but rather as fulfilments of Scripture which he had learned, and perhaps puzzled over as a child.

19:38 Joseph came from Arimathea, a village not far from the present day airport at Lydda. And Matthew says he was wealthy (Matthew 27:57), and Mark calls him "a respected member of the sanhedrin" (Mark 15:43), and so he would have been present at the council early that morning. Perhaps he felt he had not spoken in defence of Jesus as he could have done. Mark and Luke tell us that he was "looking for the kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43, Luke 23:51 compare Luke 2:25).

John describes him as a disciple of Jesus, who had kept his meetings with Jesus secret. But now with great courage he went to Pilate and obtained permission to bury Jesus. And he did this in his own new tomb (19:41) that had been hewed in the rock" (Matthew 27:60). The tomb was in a garden (19:41) and it had a great stone that could be rolled in front of it to seal it (Mark 15:46).

19:39-41 What interested John was that he was joined by Nicodemus, the leading rabbi of Jerusalem, who had come to Jesus by night (as described in 3:1-10). Nicodemus brought spices weighing 300 pounds to be wrapped in the grave clothes. Because the other Gospels missed the story of Nicodemus and what he did, John wants us to honor his role in the burial of the Messiah's body. And as we have seen again and again, John's purpose is to help us "believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name" (20:30).

19:42 All this had to be done in great haste as the day of Preparation was now ending, and the Passover celebration would begin very soon at sundown. It was the end of a very long day since the last supper the evening before (13:1-5, 19:31).

20:1-18 Resurrection