IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 22, May 29 to June 4, 2000

COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 27:57-66

by Dr. Knox Chamblin

V. THE BURIAL OF JESUS. 27:57-61.

A. Joseph of Arimathea. 27:57.

From the evidence of all four Gospels, we learn that Joseph was a respected and wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who, finding his expectation of the kingdom fulfilled in Jesus, dissented from the Sanhedrin's judgment against him and became his disciple - though secretly from fear of the Jews (Mk 15:43; Lk 23:50-51; Jn 19:38). Arimathea is probably Ramathaim (cf. 1 Sam 1:1; for suggested locations, see the atlases). It is Matthew alone who tells us that Joseph was "a rich man" (v. 57, plousios), a fact confirmed by the nature of the preparations for Jesus' burial (C. below). Jesus is again revealed as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah: "He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death" (Isa 53:9, NIV); for a defense of this translation and application, see Gundry, 580.

B. The Request. 27:58.

According to Jewish custom, Jesus' body could not remain on the cross overnight (Deut 21:22-23), particularly when, as here, the next day was a Sabbath (v. 62; Mk 15:42). Yet the Roman custom "was to let bodies of crucified criminals hang in full view till they rotted away. If they were buried at all, it was only by express permission of the imperial magistrate. Such permission was usually granted to friends and relatives of the deceased who made application, but never in the case of high treason" (Carson, 584). Out of respect for Jewish law and (especially) for Jesus himself, Joseph goes to Pilate; knowing the Roman law, he goes "boldly" (Mk 15:42-43). Having certified that Jesus was dead (Mk 15:44-45), Pilate "ordered that [his body] be given" to Joseph. That Pilate thus contravenes the law cited above, confirms that he believed Jesus to be innocent of the charge of treason brought against him (27:19, 24).

C. The Preparation. 27:59-60a.

1. The wrappings. Joseph wrapped Jesus' body "in a clean linen cloth" (v. 59). Jn 19:39-40 reveals that Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus (another member of the Sanhedrin sympathetic to Jesus), who brought the spices (customarily placed between the layers of the shroud), "a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds," a huge amount (Leon Morris, John, 825), a sign of Nicodemus' wealth and a further fulfillment of Isa 53:9.

2. The tomb. Joseph placed Jesus' body "in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock" (v. 60a). "Tombs hewn out of rock had recesses and shelves on which wrapped corpses were laid" (Gundry, 582; cf. Isa 22:16). That this was Joseph's own tomb, deepens the fulfillment of Isa 53:9 (Jesus is placed in the rich man's very grave), and witnesses to Joseph's unselfish devotion: "If Jesus was buried as a criminal, then the Law forbade the owner of the tomb to use it again" (Hill, Matthew, 357); cf. Gundry, 581. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is probably built on the site of this tomb (see J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology, 337-38, 350-51, for the argument that this site lay outside the city wall in Jesus' day).

D. The Stone.

The burial chamber was "sealed with a cut, disk-shaped stone that rolled in a slot cut into the rock. The slot was on an incline, making the grave easy to seal but difficult to open" (Carson, 584; cf. 28:2; Mk 16:3). Matthew alone speaks of a big (megan) stone (v. 60) - preparing for the mighty act of 28:2.


VI. THE GUARDING OF THE TOMB. 27:62-66.

A. The Time.

"The next day" is the Sabbath, Saturday the 16th of Nisan (28:1; Appendix B). "The third day" (v. 64) might then be (1) the third day following Jesus' death, or Sunday, the 17th of Nisan (Friday, the day of the crucifixion, being "the first day" on an inclusive reckoning), or (2) the third day since the authorities' request, or Monday the 18th, in which case Jesus' enemies determine to cover the entirety of the third day following the crucifixion ("After three days," v. 63, means "up to and including the third day"; cf. Mk 8:31, "After three days," and its parallel in Mt 16:21, "on the third day"). It may be that Matthew, in reporting that the authorities went to Pilate on the Sabbath, intends to depict them as violators of the Fourth Commandment. But there is no direct reference to the Sabbath in 27:62-66. See further Gundry, 583-85.

B. The Fear.

The authorities express the fear that without the securing of the tomb, Jesus' "disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead" (v. 64). This was indeed to become one of the rationalistic explanations for the empty tomb (see Floyd E. Hamilton, The Basis of Christian Faith, 290-91). Does the authorities' ostensible fear conceal a deeper fear, namely that Jesus might indeed rise from the dead in accord with his prophecy (v. 63)? If so, the request for the posting of a Roman guard is the most desperate of measures and the most futile of gestures. Considering the authorities' charge that Jesus would perpetuate a double deception (the first being his claim to Messiahship and to deity), observe their own deception in 28:11-15.

C. The Posting of the Guard. 27:65-66.

Pilate grants the request, on the understanding that the guards shall be members of the temple police, not Roman soldiers. The temple police were Jews (Jeremias, Jerusalem, 180); they are also present in 26:47. Thus identifying the men prepares us for 28:11, where they report to the chief priests rather than to Pilate.

Pilate continues, "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how." Is there not cynicism here? Is not Pilate amused by the way Jesus continues to threaten the Jews even from the grave? Does he suspect that Jesus shall indeed rise from the dead, and that the sealing of the tomb and the posting of the guard shall be a vain attempt to prevent his doing so? Hill comments, "The answer put on Pilate's lips has an irony about it which hints at knowledge of the eventual result" (Matthew, 358). But to view the statement of v. 65 as Pilate's own words, not Matthew's, is quite consistent with Pilate's stance up to this point.

"With the dawn all the efforts to eliminate Jesus Messiah from the stage of redemptive history are held up for heavenly derision (Ps 2:4) in the irresistible triumph of the Resurrection" (Carson, Matthew, 586).

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