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Sealed Inside a Garden Tomb

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 27:57–66; Mark 15:42–47; Luke 23:50–56; John 19:31–42

God is always at work—in good times and bad times—providentially moving all things to His ultimate, desired end. As Jesus was taken down from the cross and placed in a tomb, God was simply preparing the way for His ultimate triumph.


The last words of Jesus have been spoken. The earthquake that followed His death has subsided; and not only the centurion, but others there with him, have just said in Matthew 27:54, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” 

With that, three events take place in the hours that follow. John 19:31 records this:

Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.

This is the High Sabbath that will take place the following day, on Friday. In our last session, we covered the fact that Jesus was crucified on Thursday, as the nation killed their Passover lambs. Now, with this special Passover Sabbath beginning at sundown, the Jewish officials do not want these three Jewish men hanging on crosses, messing up their religious festival. Imagine the irony here; the religious leaders do not want the one they should have worshiped interfering with their worship ceremony.

So, they want Pilate’s soldiers to break the legs of these men and hasten their death. Pushing them off the sedulum—that seat made of a block of wood—and then breaking their legs would make it impossible for these victims, in their weakened condition, to push themselves up in order to breathe.

The soldiers do just that to the two thieves; but they find, in verse 33, that Jesus is already dead. Just to make sure, verse 34 says a soldier “pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.”

The reason it is so important to note these facts is, as John points out here in verses 36 and 37, they fulfill two messianic prophecies. First, like a Passover lamb whose bones were not to be broken, so the Lord’s bones—as the final Passover Lamb—were not broken (Exodus 12:46). Second, the prophet Zechariah says that one day, as Jesus descends in His second coming, the nation of Israel will look upon the one who was pierced (Zechariah 12:10).

By the way, this all confirms that Jesus truly died. No one can seriously claim that Jesus somehow revived in the tomb.

Next, we are introduced to a man named Joseph of Arimathea. He is described in John 19:38 as “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” Luke’s Gospel gives further details:

He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action. (Luke 23:50-51)

Here is a member of the Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. Whether he had been silent throughout the Sanhedrin’s illegal proceedings or his objections were drowned out in the rush to destroy Jesus, his commitment to the Lord is now revealed.

He comes to Pilate and publicly requests the body of Jesus. And Pilate agrees.

To the shock of the public—and certainly to his friends on the Sanhedrin—Joseph recovers the Lord’s body. But he is not alone. John 19 adds a wonderful surprise:

Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices. (verses 39-40)

So, two members of the Sanhedrin join forces to bury Jesus and—do not miss this—effectively end their religious careers and their seats in the Sanhedrin.

Now the place of burial is in a garden near the crucifixion site, and it’s described in Matthew chapter 27 as Joseph of Arimathea’s personal tomb. Verse 60 says he laid Jesus’ body in “his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away.”

What is described here is a typical first-century, cave-like tomb with only one entrance. A large stone would be placed in a trough and then rolled down with the help of gravity to cover the tomb’s entrance. Once this stone was in place, it would take several men to roll it uphill and away from the entrance.

Normally, generations of a family would be buried in a single tomb. This tomb, however, has never been used—and it is not going to be used for long.

The importance of Jesus’ burial in this tomb is threefold. First, this fulfills the messianic prophecy of Isaiah 53:9, which said the Messiah would be “with a rich man in his death.” And so He was.

Second, it confirms again that Jesus is truly dead, now wrapped in linen cloths sealed with sticky substance nearly 100 pounds in weight. This is critical, because without the Messiah’s death, there can be no genuine claim to resurrection life.

Third, Jesus is buried in the tomb of this prominent Supreme Court Justice, and the Gospels tell us that Mary Magdalene and other women are watching the preparation and burial of the Lord’s body (Matthew 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55-56). In other words, there is no room for the ridiculous idea that these women and disciples evidently went to the wrong tomb on Sunday morning, and finding that tomb empty, they made the mistake of thinking Jesus had risen from the dead.

Add to that the fact that this tomb is now heavily guarded, as Matthew records:

The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’” (Matthew 27:62-63)

We are not sure how they knew this—it is possible Judas had told them. But what is interesting to me is that the religious leaders remembered something the disciples seem to have forgotten.

Now the leaders do not believe the prediction; they are just afraid the disciples might try to steal the body and claim Jesus rose from the dead. So, they ask Pilate to secure the tomb for at least three days. Pilate agrees, and we are told in verse 66 that they “made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.”

There are at least four soldiers guarding the tomb. They are armed with spears, swords, and daggers and protected with armor. They are highly disciplined and committed to fulfilling their duty.

And the tomb is sealed. A cord was stretched across the stone covering the entrance and sealed at each end. The seal was of clay with a signet ring pressed into it. Anyone who broke this seal would have received the death penalty; and if the guards were bribed, they knew it would spell the end of their lives as well.

These details are all important because together they eliminate the possibility of fraud. There is no way the disciples can overpower these soldiers, move the stone, and remove and hide the body of Jesus—and then successfully claim He had risen from the dead. Let me tell you, God is setting the stage for Jesus’ resurrection so that it cannot be explained away.

So where are the disciples at the moment? Singing about the Lord’s coming resurrection? Plotting to steal His body? Gathering enough money to bribe the guards? No.

The truth is, they are not expecting a resurrection! They are disillusioned and confused. Any memory of Jesus’ promised resurrection is buried by their fears. They are now in hiding.

This is a good reminder for us. When the Lord seems to be absent, when life takes an unexpected and disappointing turn, the Lord is alive, and He is still at work. He does not want us to go into hiding, but to openly serve Him and take His message to the world around us.

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