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Doug Van Meter - 27 Sep 2020

The Bold and Necessary Burial (Mark 15:40–47)

Paul declared that the gospel includes the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, though we often view the burial as something of an addendum. Each of the Gospel writers all record something of the burial, which was a necessary part of the Passion Story. The burial was necessary for the gospel to be truly good news. We have lots to learn from his burial.

Scripture References: Mark 15:40-47

From Series: "Mark Exposition"

An exposition of the Gospel of Mark by Doug Van Meter.

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One of the truths repeatedly emphasised in the Brackenhurst Baptist Church, and which should be emphasised in every biblical local church, is the gospel of God. The first lesson in our church membership material is establishing the nature and content of the gospel. Confusion at this point is dangerous. If we get this wrong, we get everything else wrong. Disciples of Jesus Christ know and love and seek to live informed by the gospel. So, what is the gospel?

The gospel is the good news of what God has done for believing sinners through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Packer used to simply define this good news as “God saves sinners.” But, how does God save sinners? Through the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son, just as Scripture reveals. This was the apostle’s definition in 1 Corinthians 15:3–4.

Often, Christians speak of the gospel as though it is only grounded in Jesus’ death. But, of course, apart from the resurrection, his death would, at best, have been that of a mere martyr. But we need to listen to the fullgospel, as declared by Paul. Jesus’ burial is as much part of the good news as his death and resurrection. But, let’s be frank, his burial is often seen merely as an addendum to his death. We don’t hear much about the burial, yet the Gospel writers all record something of the scene we consider today. As we will see, Jesus’ burial was a necessary part of the passion story. It was necessary for the gospel to be truly good news. Jesus’ disciples have lots to learn from his burial. In fact, in the account of Jesus’ burial, we see a demonstration of discipleship.

A Significant Sandwich

In the text before us we have yet another Marcan Sandwich. The beginning of one story (pericope) is interrupted by another pericope before Mark returns to the original one. In vv. 40–41 we are introduced to three women: Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James the younger; and Salome. They were standing “looking on from a distance” as Jesus died on the cross. They were not disinterested, curiosity seekers, but true disciples of Jesus Christ.

We are told that they had followed Jesus while he was in Galilee and were, in fact, at Golgotha because they had followed him from Galilee to Jerusalem. I would venture a guess that these women were aware of what was awaiting Jesus as he came into the city less than a week earlier.

We are also told that they had “ministered to him.” Luke informs us that this included financial contribution (Luke 8:1–3). In summary, these women had the marks of true discipleship. Having been the recipients of Jesus’ ministry, they had followed and served him (as well as serving his people, it seems).

These disciples were at the cross and were witnesses of Jesus’ death. In the texts that follow, they would also witness both his burial and his resurrection. Truly, these were “gospel women.”

After this introduction, Mark shifts to the “meat” of the sandwich: Jesus’ burial by one named Joseph, who was from Arimathea (vv. 42–47), before returning to the women (16:1–8). This middle part of the sandwich serves several purposes.

First, it provides details concerning the burial of Jesus, which also provides confirmation that he really died. As Edwards comments, “The testimony of the centurion before Pilate and the subsequent burial description assure readers that Jesus truly died.”

Second, this brief passage provides us with a demonstration of discipleship in action. As we will see later, Joseph displayed commitment and courage in an open confession of his devoted affection for the Lord Jesus.

Third, and finally, this meaty slice provides us with a comparison—a contrast of dispositions, as it were. Joseph’s disposition of respect and affection shines bright against the dark backdrop of the evil, blasphemous behaviour of the other members of the Sanhedrin. But there is also a contrast between the disposition of Joseph and that of the women.

The women, as we will see, are to be highly commended for their faithful attendance at the cross and tomb. They stand out in contrast to what appears to be the failure of the Twelve—perhaps particularly in comparison with the inner circle of the three. Yet there is something about Joseph’s behaviour that is even more remarkable. And perhaps that is the reason Mark seems to have drawn literary attention to it with this sandwich.

It has been observed that, whereas the women were at a distance from the cross, Joseph was about as close as one could get without actually being nailed to it. He was so close as to literally touch Jesus’ body. And whereas, in what follows, the women were clearly afraid, Joseph’s demeanour is one of commendable courage (v. 43). With Joseph, the disposition of boldness stands out.

A Swooning Slander

The world is no friend of grace and therefore no friend of the gospel. Other Gospel writers record how the Jewish leaders were so afraid of the idea of Jesus being raised from the dead that they made sure guards were posted at the tomb lest someone steal his body to promote a false claim that Jesus rose. In the book of Acts we read, on numerous occasions, that people became enraged at the teaching of Jesus’ resurrection. The resurrection points to the power of the gospel. Satan will therefore do all he can to attack the historicity of Jesus resurrection. One of those attacks comes by way of the swoon theory.

The lie is promulgated that Jesus did not actually die on the cross. He seemed to be dead because, it is alleged, he was in a sort of coma. When his body was taken down, either under the assumption or the pretence that he was dead, he was still very much alive. After he was put into the tomb, his body revived. The “miracle” was merely resuscitation, not resurrection. After Jesus came to, he managed to unwrap himself from the metres of shroud in which his body had been embalmed. He then pushed aside the heavy stone (easily a ton) and left the tomb along with his grave clothes. Millions—billions!—have been fooled ever since.

I maintain that this takes more faith than the facts, provided in this pericope, do. Yes, Jesus died. The centurion witnessed his death, as did the women. Clearly, so did Joseph of Arimathea. Without further delay, therefore, let’s unpack this text and apply its lessons. After all, Paul reminds us that, when Jesus Christ was buried, all those for whom he died were buried with him (Romans 6:1–4).

Textual Explanation

It was late afternoon, hence early evening. The sun had returned, and the strange darkness had already been forgotten by far too many. The Sabbath was about to come upon the land, in more ways than one.

Friday was a “day of Preparation” before commencement of the weekly Sabbath. Jews who knew the law of the Lord would have been concerned that, since a Jewish man was hanging on a tree, there was the very real potential of God cursing the land unless he was taken down before sunset, particularly before the sun sets before the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 21:23). Little did they realise that, in crucifying Messiah, the curse had already been let loose (see Mark 13; Revelation).

It seems that Rome allowed the Jews to remove dead, crucified victims from the cross in accordance with Deuteronomy 21. Ordinarily, the bodies were thrown into an open pit to decompose or to be eaten by birds and beasts of prey. One reason was to drive home to bystanders that Rome would not tolerate treason.

Sometimes, the victim’s family, especially if the victim was Jewish, would ask for the body so they could give it a proper burial. In Jewish culture, the dead body was first washed but had to be buried within 24 hours (again, note Deuteronomy 21:23). all of this is significant when we consider Joseph’s request (v. 43).

First, by asking Pilate for the body, he was identifying with a perceived criminal, condemned for both blasphemy (which would have put Joseph at odds with the rest of the Sanhedrin, as well as the populace) and treason/insurrection (which would have put him at odds with Rome). Talk about deliberately putting yourself between a rock and a hard place!

Second, because the Sabbath was near, touching a dead body means that Joseph would been ceremonially defiled. He would have been considered unclean—at Passover!

Third, Joseph was not a family member of Jesus, which made the request highly unusual.

When you consider all of this, it becomes increasingly clear that Joseph was not merely a nice guy with a sense of civility. No, Joseph was a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. His earthly home was thirty kilometres northwest of Jerusalem, but his real home was the kingdom of God. In Paul’s words, his citizenship was in heaven (Philippians 3:20).

Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned by all four Gospel writers in conjunction with this act of burying Jesus’ body. What they have to say is obviously important, and their record fills in some gaps. But there is enough said here to fulfil Mark’s purpose. And his purpose, of course, is to reveal what it means to follow Jesus. His purpose is to reveal what biblical discipleship looks like. His purpose is to reveal how every part of the gospel—including the burial—informs and shapes the life of Jesus’ followers.

Joseph, we are told, was “a respected member of the council.” “The council” refers to the Sanhedrin, the very group that had charged Jesus with blasphemy and subsequently condemned him to death. Luke informs us that, at the trial, Joseph did not consent to the decision (Luke 23:50–51). Either he was not present (remember that the trial occurred in the middle of the night)or, if he was there, he remained silent or spoke in dissent. We are not told. Regardless, in the scene before us, he makes it clear where his loyalties lay.

The description implies that he was an honourable man, with a good standing in the community, and probably a degree of wealth. Most significantly, he “was also himself looking for the kingdom of God” (v. 43).

Like Simeon, he was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Hughes explains, “His hope for spiritual renewal and national repentance was probably long-established.”

Like the scribe who encountered Jesus, Joseph took seriously the word of God and his promises (12:28–34). He was awaiting the new era, the Messianic era prophesied throughout the old covenant. From what we are told here, he surely believed Jesus was the Messiah, the promised king.

Absent but Authentic

Joseph’s absence from the tomb three days later may indicate that he was as baffled about Messiah’s redemptive work as the disciples. Nevertheless, it seems evident that he was a true disciple. Again, Mark seems to want to make this point. Interestingly, John states unambiguously that Joseph was a disciple but “secretly for fear” (John 19:38). We must ask, since Mark was surely aware of this detail, why did he not inform his readers? I believe the reason is because, as is so often the case in his book, Mark let’s actions speak just as loudly as words. “No one can remain a secret disciple of Jesus indefinitely. There invariably comes a point at which we must burn our boats and cross our bridges” (Ferguson).

Mark’s readers should see in Joseph some characteristics of true disciples and therefore the marks of true discipleship: courageous patience, devoted perseverance, and unashamed identification, among others.

Because he was waiting (“looking”) for the kingdom of God, we are told that he “took courage” (v. 43). The word speaks of extreme conduct—think, skydiving; bare cliff climbing; or Paul, and others, preaching the gospel while imprisoned for preaching the gospel (Philippians 1:14). It was faith with abandon and a truly bold move (KJV). English observes, “Although the apostles are still in a state of shocked absence, an unexpected disciple emerges to do what was reverently appropriate. Bravery was not Joseph’s normal characteristic … but [he was] in the crisis ready to rise to the occasion as [a] disciple.”

Craving Christ

Joseph made this request because (as the KJV puts it), he “craved the body of Jesus.” Jesus had been declared an imposter and a blasphemer by Joseph’s fellow council members. The Romans had crucified him as guilty of treason or insurrection. And yet this highly esteemed man, a person of prestige and position, was willing to identify with him. What risk. What devotion. What discipleship.

The word translated “asked” (or “craved,” in the KJV) is used in this latter sense throughout Mark (6:22–25; 10:35; 11:24; 15:8). Joseph was deeply serious that Jesus’ body be shown the respect he was due. As Mark draws his book to a close, he provides a clear example of someone who denied himself and stayed with Jesus till the end. Oh, that we would all have such devotion to the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20).

Warfield once commented that the Gospels are not formal biographies but biographical arguments. That is, they argue for the unique person and work of Jesus Christ. This conviction about him is what lies behind our commitment to follow him. Clearly Joseph was persuaded about Jesus’ character and mission. He was willing to risk everything for him. Being persuaded of his character, Joseph craved to openly show his commitment to Christ. His belief made him bold. His conviction made him courageous. It will do the same to us.

Pilate’s Surprise

When Joseph approached Pilate with his request, Pilate was amazed to hear that Jesus was already dead. Death by crucifixion usually a day or two—sometimes longer. In fact, based on Pilate’s summoning the centurion for verification, it seems that he was sceptical about this report. But the centurion confirmed that Jesus was dead. If this was the same centurion as in v. 39 (and why would we assume it was not?), he would know. After all, it was the way in which he saw Jesus die that confirmed to him that he was the Son of God. Interesting. A Jewish and a Gentile disciple of Jesus came together before Pilate to testify to Jesus’ death! That looks something like Ephesians 2. Not only was the veil torn in two, the middle wall of partition dividing Jew and Gentile had also been torn asunder. It had come down. Truly God’s gracious ways are amazing!

We should consider why Pilate “granted the corpse to Joseph.” As noted, crucifixion was designed to be a deterrent to those who entertained like ideas of revolt. To leave criminals on the cross and to then throw their bodies into a common and often open pit to be eaten be ravenous beasts and birds was a huge punitive, even political, statement. As noted, Joseph was not even a relative of Jesus. Why, then, the accommodation?

I can only guess, but likely Pilate’s acquiescence was because he knew that Jesus had been delivered up for envy (v. 10). Pilate did not view Jesus as a threat to Rome (which, ironically, Jesus actually was!). Of course, this highlights Pilate’s guilt in condemning an innocent man. Nevertheless, Pilate granted permission to Joseph. He viewed the dead body of Jesus as merely a corpse, not as the Christ.

Time was of the essence and so Joseph hastily purchased the fine and costly linen for the shroud. He then, with the help of Nicodemus (John 19:38–42), and perhaps with the help of his servants, took Jesus’ body down from the cross. Most likely, he made sure that the body was washed before wrapping him in the shroud. Matthew Henry tenderly writes, “He took down the body, mangled as it was, and wrapped it in the linen as a treasure of great worth.”

Having wrapped his body in the shroud, he and Nicodemus then took the body and laid it in “in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock” (v. 46).

A “tomb” like this was hewn out of the limestone hillside and resembled something like a cave. These were uncommon modes of burial, typically reserved for those who were particularly wealthy. Tombs like these were used for multiple burials, with each tomb having several shelves on which would be placed a corpse. This helps us to understand the post-resurrection narratives, which describe the women and Peter and John rushing “into” the tomb to have a look. The shelf where Jesus had been laid was empty! It also helps us to appreciate the fulfilment of prophecy. Isaiah 53:9 says, “And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, Isaiah.” Again, hear Matthew Henry: “Those that hurried him to the cross, designed that he should make his grave with the wicked; but God designed he should make it with the rich (Isaiah 53:9), and so he did.” God’s decreed will is always accomplished.

It is often said that Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb. That is especially true since he only used it for the weekend!

Having laid the body in the tomb, a large stone was rolled into the rut before the entrance. The grave was sealed until the next time it was needed.

Mark then brings this section to a close by informing us that witnesses were present at the burial: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid” (v. 47). Two thirds of the gospel were now fulfilled: the death and the burial. Jesus had truly died. The atonement had been made and the burial with the stone sealed its testimony. All that remained was the vindication by resurrection. In three days, we will have the full gospel!


So, what’s the point? Why does this matter? Why did Mark record this? What did it mean to the original audience and what should it mean to us?

First, it was recorded to provide historical proof that Jesus truly died. “Jesus died for our sins, according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). In accordance with the same Scriptures, “he was buried.” In this account we have testimony that Jesus truly died: Joseph, the centurion, and three women. That is more than sufficient evidence. And since Jesus died, the ransom was paid. Mission accomplished (10:45)!

Do you know that Jesus died for you? Are you living in the light of this truth?

Second, Jesus’ burial does not only provide evidence of his very real death but also instructional example of biblical discipleship. The response of Joseph to ensure the burial of Jesus illustrates for us some characteristics of a true disciple. As does the presence of these women. Observe a few characteristics of biblical discipleship.

First, true disciples are more concerned about Jesus’ reputation than their own. Being in contact with a dead body would quite possibly make him unclean and unable to fulfil certain religious customs. Publicly identifying with a crucified criminal probably put an end to his career in the Sanhedrin. This would all have coagulated to ruin his reputation and to make him persona non grata before most of the community.

Consider also the presence of the women. As France helpfully notes, “Their enthusiasm has survived sufficiently to keep them even at this gruesome scene, standing apart from the mocking citizens of Jerusalem… When all the male disciples have deserted, the women are still there, faithful to the last.”

Second, true disciples understand the priority of the family of God and of God’s family dynamics. Joseph’s actions were an amazing demonstration that he considered Jesus to be a part of his family. After all, the sepulchre of the wealthy was a family grave.

Related to the above, while none of Jesus’ earthly, blood family claimed his body, Joseph, a member of his spiritual family, did (see 3:31–35). Quite literally, he was doing the revealed will of God (Isaiah 53:9).

The cross changes our relationships and loyalties. I was talking to a man recently who shared with me that when he came to faith in Jesus Christ, his parents beat him up. He had been raised in a cult and they were deeply offended that he had embraced the truth. Perhaps, like religious enemies, of the early church, they thought they were doing God service (John 16:2). As a Christian, however, he found his closest family within God’s people. He said to me concerning he and his family’s desire to join BBC, “We just want a place to serve.” True disciples of Jesus are committed to doing God’s revealed will, not merely knowing it.

Beware having a head full of doctrine while remaining a loner. That is not the mark of a faithful disciple. What value to you place on God’s family?

Third, true disciples show great concern for the proper treatment of Christ’s body. Joseph, in a very literal sense, prioritised Christ’s body. His boldness in denying himself and identifying with the Lord Jesus to the point of risking everything is what Jesus demands of those will follow him. As Matthew Henry pastorally reminds us, “The care taken of Christ’s body speaks to the care which he himself will take concerning his body, the church.” Therefore, be careful how you treat the body of Christ: how you speak of her; how you relate to her; etc. Prioritise her! Be committed to sacrificially serving her. Witherington, lamenting the condition of many Christians, writes, “We often prefer a health-and-wealth gospel to one of suffering and service. We join churches because they meet our needs, not because they give us the most opportunity to serve and sacrifice for the gospel. Yet still, the cross beckons us to come and stand in its shadow. Whether we do so or not is the ultimate test of our discipleship.”

How do you speak of the church? How do you care for her? How do you protect her?

Fourth, true disciples don’t claim to have perfect knowledge (though they do claim to know the One who has perfect knowledge). Joseph did all of this with less-than-perfect understanding. Again, we can probably assume that he was not persuaded that Jesus would rise from the dead, any more than the remaining eleven disciples or the women did. We can relate to this, for who of us fully grasps the Lord’s person and work and words? Yet we seek to remain faithful and loyal to the end.

Joseph no doubt came to believe in the risen Lord. He put himself in a position where he could grow in knowledge and in grace of the Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). Keep growing. Keep learning. Keep obeying along the way and more light will be given. Be patient with one another.

Fifth, true disciples persevere amid uncertainty. Like Joseph, they do so because they continue “looking for the kingdom of God.” Even when things don’t look so hopeful, like Joseph, true disciples of Jesus trust God to do be doing something wonderful in the dark. Note that a great work preceded the burial of Jesus and a great work followed his burial. Another sandwich, if you will. This is where disciples often live.

Having experienced the great work of regeneration, and anticipating eventual resurrection, we often find ourselves living out our faith in the space of the dark silence between these great works. This is where faith is demanded and expected. Joseph exemplifies this.

Perhaps our current COVID-19 circumstance is a situation in which this principle applies. How are we doing in the middle? Having experienced conversion, and while fully expecting a day of restoration, how are we persevering in these days of waiting and uncertainty? That, in many ways, is a test of our discipleship.

As we look for the kingdom, we need to realise that, in fact, the kingdom is nigh to us. Such a conviction will encourage us to identify with Jesus. It should produce a craving for the body of Christ. If it doesn’t, we need to be aware, perhaps even suitably alarmed.

It is far easier to remain faithful when things are exciting and visible. It is a lot more trying to do so amid the uncertainty of the mundane. But remember, the mundane is the norm. It is this norm that requires faith, not the spectacular, which is a matter of sight.

Sixth, true disciples are to take seriously God’s providence. It seems that a main lesson Mark wants us to glean is to rest in God’s providence. Calvin helpfully summarises, “When the Son of God was buried by the hand of Joseph, it was the work of God.” We need to be persuaded that God is in control over every detail of history.

Consider all God did to fulfil Isaiah 53:9. Consider the women as witnesses of the burial and the placement of the centurion and his testimony of Jesus’ death. Consider God’s providence in Pilate’s life. All of this came about to make an airtight argument for the authenticity of the gospel.

In our day, God is the same! He is providentially ordering things to build—and purge—his church. Brothers and sisters, God is ordering all things for his glory and for our good and these he has made inseparable. Take comfort from the bold and necessary burial of Jesus. He does all things well. Therefore, like Joseph of Arimathea, be faithful to the end. Believe and be bold. Like the burial of Jesus, this is necessary for a gospel-informed, and gospel-witnessing life.