Sarcophagi (Genesis 50:22-26)

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This is our 105th—and last—study in the first book of the Bible, the book of Genesis. As we saw in our preceding study, Joseph called together his family (brothers, nephews) at the end of his life and gives them some dying instruction, just as Jacob had done on his deathbed. A significant part of his instruction was that, when God gave them the exodus, they must carry his bones with them out of Egypt. In order to fulfil that dying wish, the family allowed Joseph to be “embalmed” and placed in a “coffin,” which would later be carried out of Egypt at the exodus. We noted that the “coffin” referred to was not a coffin as we tend to think of them in the 21st century west, but a sarcophagus, widely used in ancient Egypt.

Of course, Jews are very respectful about the bodies of the dead, and thus Joseph’s sarcophagus would have been safely kept somewhere until the time of the exodus. It is doubtful that the sarcophagus would have been opened and his bones removed; instead, they would have carried the entire sarcophagus with them as they left for the Promised Land. The sarcophagus, then, was a visible sign of one man’s faith in God, and acted as an encouragement to the faith of others. Though the land promises had been made to someone else (Abraham), they pertained very much to him as a member of the covenantal community, and thus he made a statement of faith at his death, which would serve in the centuries that followed to encourage the faith of others.

We gleaned some important principles from this previously. First, the sarcophagus served as a visible reminder of what God had done and of what He would yet do. Again, it was a statement of faith.

Second, there was a community commitment to this request, and it was multigenerational. Joseph’s intention was for the family, the covenant community, to take ownership of the promise to care for his bones. Joseph, of course, was well aware that those to whom he spoke on his deathbed would die long before the exodus. He knew that Israel would spend some 400 years in Egypt (Genesis 15:13-16). Joseph was thus laying upon his audience the responsibility to pass on his request to subsequent generations, and thus the act of faith became a multigenerational one.

Third, the fulfilling of the commitment required a degree of inconvenience. Though the Israelites at the exodus did not realise that they would spend 40 years in the wilderness before entering Canaan, they were nevertheless faithful throughout the years of wandering to keep the sarcophagus with them. Once they had conquered the land, they buried Joseph’s bones as they had committed to do (Joshua 24:32). You can imagine that carrying a sarcophagus around the wilderness for 40 years was no simple task, but the Israelites were willing to be inconvenienced in order to fulfil their commitment.

Fourth, the eventual burial place became a place of salvation. As you compare Scripture with Scripture, you will discover that Joseph’s eventual resting place was in Sychar. According to John 4, Jesus met the woman at the well in the city of Sychar. The woman was saved when Jesus evangelised her at the well, and thus the place in which Joseph was buried eventually became a place of salvation for another.

Fifth, the request that Joseph made on his deathbed was Christ-centred. His request earned him a place in the inspired hall of faith in Hebrews 11. Verse 22 reads, “By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.” The context of the chapter indicates that Joseph’s act of faith, like all the acts of faith recorded in the chapter, were Christ-centred. The men and women named in that chapter were all Christ-centred individuals who believed the promise of God that Messiah was coming.

Sixth, the request involved something that would eventually decay. Thus, it is no stretch to imagine that some present may have argued that Joseph’s request was a lot of bother over something lifeless, which would not ultimately endure.

Of course, the sarcophagus of Joseph is far more than a historical curiosity that bears little or no relevance to our life today. Indeed, his sarcophagus speaks volumes to us. There are several modern day sarcophagi in the life of the believer, and we could draw attention to numerous ones. In this study, however, I want to address three particular things in the believer’s life which act as sarcophagi to strengthen the faith of others.

The Sarcophagus of Burial

The first sarcophagus with which I want to deal in this study is perhaps something of a hot potato, and it is the sarcophagus of burial. I do not wish to be misunderstood, but I want to argue in this study in favour of burial (as opposed to cremation).

From the outset we must recognise that the Bible nowhere condemns cremation, and we need to be careful of forthrightly condemning that which Scripture does not condemn. The decision to be buried or cremated would fall solidly into a Romans 14 category (i.e. an issue of conscience). Nevertheless, it is no doubt significant that no believer anywhere in Scripture is seen to be cremated. Believers in the Bible are always buried or entombed. And there are certainly great sarcophagus-like advantages to burial.

In the time that we have spent in Genesis, we have not yet seen a cremation. We have, however, found several examples of burial. All the patriarchal heroes were buried. Jesus Christ was buried in a tomb, and Paul’s comments on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians and other New Testament passages seem contextually to assume burial. The early church knew only of burial. I found it interesting to note that sarcophagi were the primary mode of burial right up until the time of the early new covenant church. At that point, the church began abandoning sarcophagi in favour of entombment either underground or in a cave. Thus, it is clear that the church of the early centuries saw the benefit and significance of burial.

I would suggest that a burial can and should be a clear statement of hope. At the crucifixion of Christ, we are told that many tombs were opened and that the dead in those tombs were resurrected. They walked around Jerusalem and appeared to many at that time. The Bible doesn’t tell us who the resurrected were, but I suspect that they may have been Old Testament saints. Perhaps Joseph was one of those resurrected at that point, though such a supposition is obviously impossible to prove. Regardless, their resurrection was a clear and hopeful foreshadowing of the resurrection to come; and burial ought always to act as such a statement of hope.

Cemeteries offer a wonderful opportunity to preach the gospel. In fact, when I am involved in a burial service, I often take some time after the service to wander around the graveyard and read the inscriptions on various graves. Some headstones speak no words of hope whatsoever, whilst others carry a clear message of resurrection hope. Cemeteries across the world will one day, literally, come alive as their bodies are raised to immortality.

Now, of course, some might argue that what happens to the body after death is irrelevant. After all, does the body not merely decay and get eaten by worms? Is that not what Job said? Indeed it is, but he also believed that he would one day stand in a new body with his Redeemer (Job 19:25-27).

Some believers argue that cremation is far less of an inconvenience to the family than burial. Whilst that may be true, such a pragmatic approach is not necessarily biblical. As we have seen, it was hardly convenient for the Israelites to carry Joseph’s sarcophagus for 40 years in the wilderness, yet they were willing to undergo the inconvenience to fulfil his dying wish.

It is a sad fact that believers are not always the greatest thinkers. Rather than reasoning biblically about difficult issues, believers are often far too prone to just take the pragmatic approach. When it comes to this particular issue, perhaps we should commit to at least considering burial and its implications. And, like Joseph, let us be willing to discuss the matter before we die. There has been some discussion at our church about keeping a file of important details regarding church members for when they die. In addition to information concerning the whereabouts of the will and various insurance policies in place, we want to afford members the opportunity to pre-select the songs that will be sung at their funeral, their pallbearers, the text that will be preached, etc. There is great wisdom to such a practice, and to make such preparations is simply to follow in a long line of patriarchs who did the same.

Once again, please do not misunderstand me: I am not suggesting that to be cremated is to violate Scripture. I am simply saying that, for those left behind, there is something wonderful about the prospect of a burial. As painful as it is to attend a graveside service, it gives believers great hope to realise visually that the person buried will indeed rise again.

Let us then make our death and our burial an opportunity to point others to Christ, just as Joseph did.

The Sarcophagus of Church Buildings

A second sarcophagus, which can be used as a faith builder in our lives, is that of the church building. Of course, we never want to idolise the church building, as some might be tempted to do, but neither do we want to minimalise it. I remember a man many years ago, who was clearly an unbeliever, telling me that he had just recently had the most “worshipful” experience of his life. He had attended a particular church in another part of our country (which clearly is an apostate church) but it felt “worshipful” to him because of the stained glass windows and the overall “cathedral” feel of the building. That is an example of how we do not want to view church buildings; nevertheless, the church building can play an important faith building role in the life of the believer.

It has been pointed out that the church centuries ago built their church buildings to last. Many of the great European cathedrals are centuries old, and yet they stand as firm as ever, because they were built to last. They were clearly built with future generations in mind, which is (sadly) not always the case with our buildings today. In fact, such cathedrals often took generations to complete, so that the generation that started the building did not survive to see it completed. But that was no reason not to build, for they trusted that future generations of Christians would still be around to reap the benefits of their work.

The church building can indeed be a symbol of the faithfulness of God. Our church recently began construction work to extend our auditorium. The need to do so has arisen because of the growth that God has given to the church. When I came to Brackenhurst Baptist Church in 1993, our first midweek Bible study comprised ten people meeting in the basement. Today, the auditorium is almost full for midweek prayer meetings. In 1993 we had a small room in the corner of the building for the crèche; since then, we have had to move the crèche to bigger rooms several times, and in the recent past had to add onto the church building in order to have a large enough crèche. Over the years, we have had to purchase more chairs for the congregation, and now the need has arisen to once again extend the auditorium in order to seat everyone. And as we look back over the years, and think of the many extensions that have taken place at the building, clearly we see evidence of God’s faithfulness to us.

The church building is a tool that both requires and encourages faith. There is certainly a great deal of faith involved in construction on a church building. Someone recently commented (not in my hearing) that our church is acting foolishly to extend the building when the country is in the economic state that it is. (Strangely, people do not seem to think in the same terms when it comes to building their own houses, or buying new cars, etc.) The fact of the matter is that God’s faithfulness has created the need to build and we must now step out in faith and trust Him once again, as He always has done in the past, to meet our needs in building. I pray daily for God to supply what is necessary financially to complete the building, and it has both required and built my faith to do so.

Church buildings are a community project. Someone recently spoke to me about the construction at the church at said something about “your building.” A few days later, I reminded this dear brother that it is not my building; it is our building. The building belongs to the church, and the current additions to it are a community project. This means, of course, that the community must supply the necessary funds to complete church buildings. In our own building project, we have already had several church members involved hands on in planning the layout of the building, preparing the foundations, laying bricks, etc., and we anticipate yet more community involvement as the project continues.

Church buildings ought to be, as observed above, multigenerational structures. In the midst of our current building project, there have already been suggestions as to ways to increase seating capacity when the need arises again in the future. What a wonderful way to think! Such suggestions come from those who are thinking about the future, not only the here and now. One of the elderly men who is heavily involved in our construction recently commented to me that he won’t be around for our next extension project. Again, that is an example of a man who has a multigenerational mindset. In fact, the two church members most heavily involved in the construction are both in their retirement years. They are not building for their own generation. They realise fully that the benefits of the construction will be felt by future generations, but that does not stop them from being involved in the work.

Joseph’s sarcophagus was probably made of limestone, and though it lasted for a long time it did eventually decay. Similarly, though we construct according to building code, we recognise that our church buildings are only brick and mortar, and they will not last forever. That being said, the temporary building can and should serve to point people to the unchanging God.

As we saw briefly above, Joseph’s sarcophagus came to rest in a place of eventual salvation. It was at Sychar, where Joseph was buried, that the Samaritan woman heard and responded to the gospel from Jesus. Likewise, church buildings are places for the salvation of souls. One reason our church is willing to build at this point is because a larger building will seat more people, which will result in further opportunities to preach the gospel.

Many years ago, in the church in which I grew up, a building project was undertaken. It was decided that church members would be involved as much as possible in the actual work of building. It took us three years to complete the project, and every area in which we needed a professional (electrics, plumbing, etc.) someone in the church had the necessary qualifications, with one exception. At one point, some duct work was needed for the air conditioning system, and no one in the church had the necessary expertise. But, right at the time when we needed work on the air conditioning system, God saved a formerly vociferous unbeliever, who “happened” to have an air conditioning business!

After his conversion, this man came alongside and spent many hours doing the work necessary for the air conditioning system. In fact, he worked so hard that he joked a long time afterward that he wished he had been saved a year later! Today, that man is pastoring a church that he planted in Australia! And so, even before the building was finished, God used it to bring salvation to one of His elect (and, of course, to many more since then).

But above all, let us remember that church buildings are Christ-centred in their goal. Just as Joseph gave instruction for his bones with eyes of faith fixed firmly on Christ, so church buildings are constructed and extended with the glory of Christ in mind.

The Sarcophagus of the Lord’s Supper

The final sarcophagus with which I wish to deal in this study, though we could spend time considering many more, is that of the Lord’s Supper.

As we have stated, the commitment regarding Joseph’s sarcophagus was a community one, and it was multigenerational in its focus. Likewise, the Lord’s Supper is a multigenerational community commitment. “For as often as ye [plural] eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye [plural] do show the Lord’s death till he come” (1 Corinthians 11:26). We have no biblical reason whatsoever to believe that our generation is the last one. The earth may yet be in its infancy. There may yet be thousands of generations after our own. And until Christ returns, the Lord’s Supper will be corporately observed from generation to generation.

The Lord’s Supper is furthermore a visible reminder of what God has done and will do for us. He has saved us through His Son, He continues to save us and one day He will fully save us. And it is this salvation—initial, continual and final—that we remember as we partake.

As with church buildings, the elements of which we partake at the Lord’s table decay. There is nothing supernatural about the bread and the wine at the table. But the One to whom the elements point never decays!

For some, partaking of the Lord’s Table may require some inconvenience, but it is certainly worth it. In our own church, we almost exclusively observe Communion on Sunday evenings. We want to guard the table from abuse, and there are generally more visitors (potential unbelievers) on Sunday mornings that Sunday nights. For some (elderly, sick, etc.) it is something of an inconvenience to come out on a Sunday night for Communion, but it is certainly worth the effort to do so. And it is doubtless a blessing to the church when they see those inconvenienced nevertheless willing to make the effort to attend Communion services when they are held.

There is a sense in which the Lord’s Table is a place of salvation. No, the elements do not save us. Jesus, however, who was sent to save us from our sins (Matthew 1:21), has ordained the Lord’s Supper as a means of grace by which we are sanctified. At the Table we examine ourselves and we deal with sin. By looking to Christ as we partake we are further saved from our sins.

The Lord’s Supper is not a meal for unbelievers. Jonathan Stoddard, grandfather of Jonathan Edwards, pastored a church in Boston, Massachusetts in the early 1700s. He bore testimony that he came to faith as he partook of the Lord’s Supper one Lord’s Day. The sobriety of the occasion, he recalled, pointed him to Christ and he was converted at the Table. He used his experience to justify opening the Table to unbelievers during his ministry. It was only when his grandson assumed the pastorate after him that the Table was once again guarded from unbelievers.

Though unbelievers have no business partaking of the Lord’s Table, it is certainly something that they ought to watch as they sit in the church where it is observed. Jesus said that, by properly observing the Table, we “show” His death until He comes. The word “show” literally means “to declare” or “to preach.” There is a sense in which biblical observance of the Lord’s Table is a gospel message preached to those watching. And just as Jonathan Stoddard was saved during a Communion service, so God may use the biblical observance of the Supper to bring others to salvation watching.

Finally, let us note that the Lord’s Supper is a Christ-centred command, and therein it finds its value. I have been blessed in recent months to read much about church history. It has been wonderful most recently to read of the great Reformers like Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, and others, who came out of the Roman Catholic Church and returned to the true gospel. At the same time, it has been sad to read of the great controversy between these Reformers over the nature of the Lord’s Supper.

Zwingli and Luther in particular differed greatly and vociferously over the nature of the Supper. Though he was less than Roman Catholic in his view, Luther nevertheless believed that Christ was somehow physically present in the elements. Zwingli, on the other hand, viewed the Supper as nothing more than a memorial meal. It was Calvin, some 20 years later, who brought what I believe is the biblical view to the table: that the elements are in no way the physical body and blood of Christ, but that He does minister grace in a special way during the meal, which makes it far more than a mere memorial. After discussing their differing views of the Table and failing to come to an agreement, Zwingli and Luther separated from one another. In fact, Luther went so far as to say that although Zwingli could be treated as a friend, he could not be treated as a brother!

And yet even though their attitude was dead wrong toward one another (Luther in particular), it must be observed quite clearly that all the Reformers took the Lord’s Supper very seriously. They took Christ seriously, and though they differed greatly, both men were fully persuaded of the need to properly observe the Lord’s Supper. Yes, there was controversy between them, but at least they took Christ seriously. And we must do the same!

And so, indeed, burial, church buildings and the Lord’s Supper stand as clear testimonies to faith in Christ. As we acknowledge these and other sarcophagi, may we look with eyes of faith to Christ, and may our faith be of encouragement not only to us, but to the generations that follow.

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