The Empty Tomb
If he was not preparing for his own death, then there would have been no tomb for Jesus.
The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, this was the Lord’s doing and it is amazing in our eyes.” Matthew 21:42
The man that humanity rejected has become the foundation of salvation, and this is marvelous in our eyes. To save the world, Jesus was pushed from it. He was driven out and cast amongst the lowest of the low. He was buried in an empty tomb, in a garden on the outskirts of town. In Jewish tradition, where a person is buried is extremely important. Families had tombs that held generations. To be buried without a name or a marking was a sign of great disrespect.
Jesus was buried in an empty tomb, a tomb that most clearly did not belong to His forefathers. It is unclear to whom the tomb even belonged. One Gospel account attributes it to Joseph of Arimathea; the others describe it as merely being a vacant tomb with the garden.
The tomb was new. The Synoptic Gospels say that it was hewn from the rock. A traditional Jewish tomb would have edges on three sides for the bodies and a flat floor. To make a tomb was not a simple process. It required foresight and persistent work. The tomb in the garden was not created over night for Jesus; it was intended for someone else. If it belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, this is intriguing. Arimathea was a town some miles north of Jerusalem. Joseph’s burial place should have been pre-established, marked out and named by his ancestors, but according to Matthew his final resting place was to be in the garden, in a new tomb.
On the night of the burial, Joseph must have suffered confusion and fear. If Jesus was not the Messiah, Joseph was now destined to rest for all eternity in the same tomb as a madman and a heretic. But Joseph must also have been experienced hope. The giving of his tomb for the service of Christ shows Joseph’s faith, and his willingness to risk his reputation for the sake of God. As Luke describes him, Joseph was a member of the council. However, he had protested the crucifixion. John describes Joseph as a secret disciple awaiting the coming of the kingdom of God. By asking for the body of Jesus and sacrificing his tomb, Joseph openly declared his faith. He showed his belief in a moment of hopelessness for many of Christ’s closest disciples. Why would he expose himself to shame and rebuke if he did not believe in the words that Jesus had spoken? If Jesus were not the Messiah, why would Joseph feel the need to treat the body with respect?
Joseph longed for the body of Jesus. He longed for him in a way that was not expressed by most of the Apostles. Joseph was one of the first people to reverence the body of our Lord. He provided a proper burial, even though he hoped for the resurrection. He cared for our Lord in a way he was unable to prior to His death. He came to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus; He came to one of the most powerful men on earth to ask for the opportunity to reverence the King of the Universe who had just suffered the death prescribed to Him by the former. And the response of Pilate is interesting. He does not reject Joseph’s petition; instead he is taken aback that Jesus was already dead. It seems that Pilate was expecting a bigger fight from Jesus, that there would have been more noise and excitement. He sends a guard to double check that Joseph wasn’t playing a trick, and when it was clear that Jesus was dead, Pilate allowed How was Joseph able to accomplish this feat of original reverence? He had to die. In a simple, literal sense, Joseph had to die for the burial of Jesus to be made possible.
If he was not preparing for his own death, then there would have been no tomb for Jesus. In a figurative and spiritual sense, Joseph was also required to die--to doubt, pride, and fear. Joseph had to die to the doubt that the man he had been secretly following was a liar. His doubt in the divinity of Christ had to die, otherwise, he would not have the strength to place the body in the same tomb he was preparing to be laid in himself. He had to die to pride, a step that he first encountered in his opposition to the council regarding the condemnation of Jesus. This death of pride continued throughout Good Friday, as he exposed himself time and time again as a follower of Jesus by petitioning for the body of the Lord and using his own linen and tomb in service to Jesus. And with each and every one of these actions, Joseph had to die to the fear whispering in his ear and stabbing Him in the heart with every glance from the other members of the council, Pilate’s guards, and Pilate himself. Joseph had to conquer fear to stand before an earthly ruler and ask to receive Christ.
What would have happened if Joseph had not asked for the body of our Lord? The next day was the Sabbath, there was nowhere to place the body, there was no time to prepare except in that moment. Joseph had to trust, and he had to act. He truly had to pray, “Lord, I am not worthy that You should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Only say the word and my empty tomb will be made a tabernacle. Only say the word and my secret love for You will be made apparent. Only say the word and all rebuke and hatred will seem like only a speck in the glorious radiance of the coming resurrection.
We must be like both Joseph and the tomb.
We must be like the tomb. We must be hollowed out, the stone of our hearts chiseled and hewn days in advance, not the morning of Easter Sunday. We must be made ready for service to Jesus. The walls must be set deep, the floor made smooth. This can come about through the purification process of Lent. Each day is another chip away at the stone of our hearts. Every day another inch hewn away, otherwise there will be no place in which Jesus can come to lay in repose in our hearts. The tomb must be made ready, and when it is prepared, it must be offered.
We must be like Joseph, fearlessly seeking the privilege of receiving the Lord’s body. We must go against the crowds who petition against reverence and we must stand before earthly magistrates to demand the daily reception of the body of our Lord. We must rise against our own fears, and we must turn from a secret discipleship to a willingness to spend the rest of eternity as the person who risked his honor to be buried with Jesus. We too have to die. We have to be buried. We have to rest in the hope of the third day and give our hearts to God to be molded, chiseled, and hewn into the tabernacle for His Son.