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The Guard at the Tomb
62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate
The Burial of Christ.
57 When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathæa, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus' disciple: 58 He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered. 59 And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed. 61 And there was Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre. 62 Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, 63 Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. 64 Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. 65 Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. 66 So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.
We have here an account of Christ's burial, and the manner and circumstances of it, concerning which observe, 1. The kindness and good will of his friends that laid him in the grave. 2. The malice and ill will of his enemies that were very solicitous to keep him there.
I. His friends gave him a decent burial. Observe,
1. In general, that Jesus Christ was buried; when his precious soul was gone to paradise, his blessed body was deposited in the chambers of the grave, that he might answer the type of Jonas, and fulfil the prophecy of Isaias; he made his grave with the wicked. Thus in all things he must be made like unto his brethren, sin only excepted, and, like us, unto dust he must return. He was buried, to make his death the more certain, and his resurrection the more illustrious. Pilate would not deliver his body to be buried, till he was well assured that he was really dead; while the witnesses lay unburied, there were some hopes concerning them, Rev. xi. 8. But Christ, the great Witness, is as one free among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave. He was buried, that he might take off the terror of the grave, and make it easy to us, might warm and perfume that cold noisome bed for us, and that we might be buried with him.
2. The particular circumstances of his burial here related.
(1.) The time when he was buried; when the evening was come; the same evening that he died, before sun-set, as is usual in burying malefactors. It was not deferred till the next day, because it was the sabbath; for burying the dead is not proper work either for a day of rest or for a day of rejoicing, as the sabbath is.
(2.) The person that took care of the funeral was Joseph of Arimathea. The apostles had all fled, and none of them appeared to show this respect to their Master, which the disciples of John showed to him after he was beheaded, who took up his body, and buried it, ch. xiv. 12. The women that followed him durst not move in it; then did God stir up this good man to do it; for what work God has to do, he will find out instruments to do it. Joseph was a fit man, for, [1.] He had wherewithal to do it, being a rich man. Most of Christ's disciples were poor men, such were most fit to go about the country to preach the gospel; but here was one that was a rich man, ready to be employed in a piece of service which required a man of estate. Note, Worldly wealth, though it is to many an objection in religion's way, yet, in some services to be done for Christ, it is an advantage and an opportunity, and it is well for those who have it, if withal they have a heart to use it for God's glory. [2.] He was well affected to our Lord Jesus, for he was himself his disciple, believed in him, though he did not openly profess it. Note, Christ has more secret disciples than we are aware of; seven thousand in Israel, Rom. xi. 4.
(3.) The grant of the dead body procured from Pilate, v. 58. Joseph went to Pilate, the proper person to be applied to on this occasion, who had the disposal of the body; for in things wherein the power of the magistrate is concerned, due regard must be had to that power, and nothing done to break in upon it. What we do that is good, must be done peaceably, and not tumultuously. Pilate was willing to give the body to one that would inter it decently, that he might do something towards atoning for the guilt his conscience charged him with in condemning an innocent person. In Joseph's petition, and Pilate's ready grant of it, honour was done to Christ, and a testimony borne to his integrity.
(4.) The dressing of the body in its grave-clothes (v. 59); though he was an honourable counsellor, yet he himself took the body, as it should seem, into his own arms, from the infamous and accursed tree (Acts xiii. 29); for where there is true love to Christ, no service will be thought too mean to stoop to for him. Having taken it, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth; for burying in linen was then the common usage, which Joseph complied with. Note, Care is to be taken of the dead bodies of good men, for there is a glory intended for them at the resurrection, which we must hereby testify our belief of, and wind up the dead body as designed for a better place. This common act of humanity, if done after a godly sort, may be made an acceptable piece of Christianity.
(5.) The depositing of it in the sepulchre, v. 60. Here there was nothing of that pomp and solemnity with which the grandees of the world are brought to the grave, and laid in the tomb, Job xxi. 32. A private funeral did best befit him whose kingdom came not with observation.
[1.] He was laid in a borrowed tomb, in Joseph's burying place; as he had not a house of his own, wherein to lay his head while he lived, so he had not a grave of his own, wherein to lay his body when he was dead, which was an instance of his poverty; yet in this there might be somewhat of a mystery. The grave is the peculiar heritage of a sinner, Job xxiv. 19. There is nothing we can truly call our own but our sins and our graves; he returneth to his earth, Psalm cxlvi. 4. When we go to the grave, we go to our own place; but our Lord Jesus, who had no sin of his own, had no grave of his own; dying under imputed sin, it was fit that he should be buried in a borrowed grave; the Jews designed that he should have made his grave with the wicked, should have been buried with the thieves with whom he was crucified, but God over-ruled it, so as that he should make it with the rich in his death, Isa. liii. 9.
[2.] He was laid in a new tomb, which Joseph, it is likely, designed for himself; it would, however, be never the worse for his lying in it, who was to rise so quickly, but a great deal the better for his lying in it, who has altered the property of the grave, and made it anew indeed, by turning it into a bed of rest, nay into a bed of spices, for all the saints.
[3.] In a tomb that was hewn out of a rock; the ground about Jerusalem was generally rocky. Shebna had his sepulchre hewn out thereabouts in a rock, Isa. xxii. 16. Providence ordered it that Christ's sepulchre should be in a solid entire rock, that no room might be left to suspect his disciples had access to it by some underground passage, or broke through the back wall of it, to steal the body; for there was no access to it but by the door, which was watched.
[4.] A great stone was rolled to the door of his sepulchre; this also was according to the custom of the Jews in burying their dead, as appears by the description of the grave of Lazarus (John xi. 38), signifying that those who are dead, are separated and cut off from all the living; if the grave were his prison, now was the prison-door locked and bolted. The rolling of the stone to the grave's mouth, was with them as filling up the grave is with us, it completed the funeral. Having thus in silence and sorrow deposited the previous body of our Lord Jesus in the grave, the house appointed for all living, they departed without any further ceremony. It is the most melancholy circumstance in the funerals of our Christian friends, when we have laid their bodies in the dark and silent grave, to go home, and leave them behind; but alas, it is not we that go home, and leave them behind, no, it is they that are gone to the better home, and have left us behind.
(6.) The company that attended the funeral; and that was very small and mean. Here were none of the relations in mourning, to follow the corpse, no formalities to grace the solemnity, but some good women that were true mourners—Mary Magdalene, and the other Mary, v. 56. These, as they had attended him to the cross, so they followed him to the grave; as if they composed themselves to sorrow, they sat over against the sepulchre, not so much to fill their eyes with the sight of what was done, as to empty them in rivers of tears. Note, True love to Christ will carry us through, to the utmost, in following him. Death itself cannot quench that divine fire, Cant. viii. 6, 7.
II. His enemies did what they could to prevent his resurrection; what they did herein was the next day that followed the day of the preparation, v. 62. That was the seventh day of the week, the Jewish sabbath, yet not expressly called so, but described by this periphrasis, because it was now shortly to give way to the Christian sabbath, which began the day after. Now, 1. All that day, Christ lay dead in the grave; having for six days laboured and done all his work, on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed. 2. On that day, the chief priests and Pharisees, when they should have been at their devotions, asking pardon for the sins of the week past, were dealing with Pilate about securing the sepulchre, and so adding rebellion to their sin. They that had so often quarrelled with Christ for works of the greatest mercy on that day, were themselves busied in a work of the greatest malice. Observe here,
(1.) Their address to Pilate; they were vexed that the body was given to one that would bury it decently; but, since it must be so, they desire a guard may be set on the sepulchre.
[1.] Their petition sets forth, that that deceiver (so they call him who is truth itself) had said, After three days I will rise again. He had said so, and his disciples remembered those very words for the confirmation of their faith, but his persecutors remember them for the provocation of their rage and malice. Thus the same word of Christ to the one was a savour of life unto life, to the other of death unto death. See how they compliment Pilate with the title of Sir, while they reproach Christ with the title of Deceiver. Thus the most malicious slanderers of good men are commonly the most sordid flatterers of great men.
[2.] It further sets forth their jealousy; lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say, He is risen.
First, That which really they were afraid of, was, his resurrection; that which is most Christ's honour and his people's joy, is most the terror of his enemies. That which exasperated Joseph's brethren against him, was the presage of his rise, and of his having dominion over them (Gen. xxxvii. 8); and all they aimed at, in what they did against him, was, to prevent that. Come, say they, let us slay him, and see what will become of his dreams. So the chief priests and Pharisees laboured to defeat the predictions of Christ's resurrection, saying, as David's enemies of him (Ps. xli. 8), Now that he lieth, he shall rise up no more; if he should rise, that would break all their measures. Note, Christ's enemies, even when they have gained their point, are still in fear of losing it again. Perhaps the priests were surprised at the respect shown to Christ's dead body by Joseph and Nicodemus, two honourable counsellors, and looked upon it as an ill presage; nor can they forget his raising Lazarus from the dead, which so confounded them.
Secondly, That which they took on them to be afraid of, was, lest his disciples should come by night, and steal him away, which was a very improbable thing; for, 1. They had not the courage to own him while he lived, when they might have done him and themselves real service; and it was not likely that his death should put courage into such cowards. 2. What could they promise themselves by stealing away his body, and making people believe he was risen; when, if he should not rise, and so prove himself a deceiver, his disciples, who had left all for him in this world, in dependence upon a recompence in the other world, would of all others suffer most by the imposture, and would have had reason to throw the first stone at his name? What good would it do them, to carry on a cheat upon themselves, to steal away his body, and say, He is risen; when, if he were not risen, their faith was vain, and they were of all men the most miserable? The chief priests apprehend that if the doctrine of Christ's resurrection be once preached and believed, the last error will be worse than the first; a proverbial expression, intimating no more than this, that we shall all be routed, all undone. They think it was their error, that they had so long connived at his preaching and miracles, which error they thought they had rectified by putting him to death; but if people should be persuaded of his resurrection, that would spoil all again, his interest would revive with him, and theirs must needs sink, who had so barbarously murdered him. Note, Those that opposed Christ and his kingdom, will see not only their attempts baffled, but themselves miserably plunged and embarrassed, their errors each worse than other, and the last worst of all, Ps. ii. 4, 5.
[3.] In consideration hereof, they humbly move to have a guard set upon the sepulchre till the third day; Command that the sepulchre be made sure. Pilate must still be their drudge, his civil and military power must both be engaged to serve their malice; one would think that death's prisoners needed no other guard, and that the grave were security enough to itself; but what will not those fear, who are conscious to themselves both of guilt and impotency, in opposing the Lord and his anointed?
(2.) Pilate's answer to this address (v. 65); He have a watch, make it sure, as sure as you can. He was ready to gratify Christ's friends, in allowing them the body, and his enemies, in setting a guard upon it, being desirous to please all sides, while perhaps he laughed in his sleeve at both for making such ado, pro and con, about the dead body of a man, looking upon the hopes of one side and the fears of the other to be alike ridiculous. Ye have a watch; he means the constant guard that was kept in the tower of Antonia, out of which the allows them to detach as many as they pleased for that purpose, but, as if ashamed to be himself seen in such a thing, he leaves the management of it wholly to them. Methinks that word, Make it as sure as you can, looks like a banter, either, [1.] Of their fears; "Be sure to set a strong guard upon the dead man;" or rather, [2.] Of their hopes; "Do your worst, try your wit and strength to the utmost; but if he be of God, he will rise, in spite of you and all your guards." I am apt to think, that by this time Pilate had had some talk with the centurion, his own officer, of whom he would be apt to enquire how that just man died, whom he had condemned with such reluctance; and that he gave him such an account of those things as made him conclude that truly he was the Son of God; and Pilate would give more credit to him than to a thousand of those spiteful priests that called him a Deceiver; and if so, no marvel that he tacitly derides their project, in thinking to secure the sepulchre upon him who had so lately rent the rocks, and made the earth to quake. Tertullion, speaking of Pilate, saith, Ipse jam pro suâ conscientiâ Christianus—In his conscience he was a Christian; and it is possible that he might be under such convictions at this time, upon the centurion's report, and yet never be thoroughly persuaded, any more than Agrippa or Felix was, to be a Christian.
(3.) The wonderful care they took, hereupon, to secure the sepulchre (v. 66); They sealed the stone; probably with the great seal of their sanhedrim, whereby they interposed their authority, for who durst break the public seal? But not trusting too much to that, withal they set a watch, to keep his disciples from coming to steal him away, and, if possible, to hinder him from coming out of the grave. So they intended, but God brought this good out of it, that they who were set to oppose his resurrection, thereby had an opportunity to observe it, and did so, and told the chief priests what they observed, who were thereby rendered the more inexcusable. Here was all the power of earth and hell combined to keep Christ a prisoner, but all in vain, when his hour was come; death, and all those sons and heirs of death, could then no longer hold him, no longer have dominion over him. To guard the sepulchre against the poor weak disciples, was folly, because needless; but to think to guard it against the power of God was folly, because fruitless and to no purpose; and yet they thought they had dealt wisely.