Today is Palm Sunday. The day on which we usually look back and remember what we call Jesus’ triumphal entry. When He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people gathered round to shout out praise and hosannas saying as Mark 11 records, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” The surprising twist of His bold entry into the city is that this same crowd shouting His praise on the streets would soon shout out for His execution. That’s usually what we focus on Palm Sunday.
For us though, as we continue on in our trek through John’s gospel, we come to a different text for this year’s Palm Sunday. Yes Jesus rode into the city and yes He was praised as a King (for a King He was and a King He remains and ever more will be!) but in our passage this morning we see a similarly surprising Palm Sunday twist. In John 19:38-42 John tells us that after the King came riding into the city victoriously He was not only executed on a cross but entered into a tomb to be buried in what seemed like apparent defeat.
So Church, I don’t say this very often as I begin a Sunday morning sermon…but prepare yourselves for a funeral sermon this morning as we come to this the most famous of graves.
A Step Into Light (v38-40)
Listen again as I read v38-40, “After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away His body. 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, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”
It’s not common to meet a new character in the closing chapters of a story, but here we get just that as we’re introduced to Joseph of Arimathea. Though we meet Joseph in all four gospels really only here at the burial, we do learn elsewhere that he was a member of the Sanhedrin (Mk. 15:43), he was rich (Matt. 27:57), he was a disciple, and he was longing for the Kingdom of God (Lk. 23:51). But only here in John 19 do we read of him being secretly afraid of the Jewish authorities.This is understandable of course. Jesus had become such a momentous figure in the city that Jewish leaders had been punishing those who believed in Jesus by putting them out of the synagogues, making them outcasts for their faith (see 9:22). In John 12:42-43 he tells us “…many even of the authorities believed in Jesus, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” We can only assume this Joseph was a part of this secret hidden group. But in spite of his great secret fear, now after the cross he did what he had never done before. All the disciples fled when Jesus was put to death, Joseph didn’t. Rather than fleeing, he publicly associated himself with Jesus by asking Pilate for permission to tend to Jesus’ dead body. Being a member of the Jewish authorities himself, this would’ve taken an immense amount of courage. The other Jews could’ve easily seen him doing this and associate him with Jesus and put him to a similar death. But perhaps, viewing Christ die on the cross jolted his fear out of him, perhaps he realized how he’d showed Jesus little honor in life and now saw a chance to honor Jesus in death.Whether or not he was immediately persecuted for this action or not he probably felt a deep grief over his previous cowardice and secrecy. Whatever it was that so emboldened him, he asked Pilate, and Pilate surprisingly gives him permission to do as he desired!
But v39 adds another detail. It wasn’t only Joseph of Arimathea who helped tend to Jesus’ dead body, none other than Nicodemus helped him as well. While Joseph took care of the legalities of Jesus’ burial with Pilate, it was Nicodemus who saw to all they would need to bury His body properly. It says he had seventy-five pounds of myrrh, aloes, and likely linen to wrap the body with. Some have said this is sheer extravagance, or a waste of money. But don’t forget that in preparation for His burial it was Mary back in John 12 who Jesus allowed to anoint His feet with expensive perfume made from pure nard. It’s not extravagance, He’s the King! And historians like Josephus record that other kings, like Herod the Great for example, were buried in a tombs prepared by hundreds of servants bearing spices of all kinds. If this was the case with worldly kings, why would these two men not bury Jesus in a tomb fit for the King of kings?
But notice the other detail John adds about Nicodemus in v39? When speaking of Nicodemus John makes sure to remind us this is the same Nicodemus who had earlier come to Jesus at night in John 3. Why add this small reminder? Well, you can be certain John doesn’t do so for no purpose. No, John doesn’t waste his words. I think he intends us to learn something about both of these two men in this small detail. He intends us to recognize that these two fearful men who have hidden their belief in Jesus in secrecy, fear, and darkness were now in this moment taking a bold step into the light.A step that took all the courage they could muster, a step that would’ve gained them nothing in the eyes of the world, a step they could never take back, a step that could put them in some very precarious situations. Though they didn’t know if this step would bring them closer or farther from harm, and though they couldn’t exactly tell where this step would take them…fear no longer stayed their feet.
It’s good for us to see boldness in a step like this. In the face of the world, the flesh, and the devil, we can sometimes wrongly believe that only very powerful men and women of faith are able to make great strides for the gospel. Only famous heroes of history, theologians, missionaries, and pastors who never struggle with fear can make great strides for the gospel in this world. No, we don’t see this throughout Scripture. Who do we see in Scripture moving forward in faith for the gospel? Who is it the God uses for His fame in this world? Regular people, fallen – flawed – yet faithful people, who step by step move forward in gospel boldness. It’s people like this, people like us who make great strides for the Kingdom. Don’t mishear me. Yes, God calls all of us who follow Him to make great sacrifices for Him, great sacrifices in getting this message out to as many as we possibly can. But often those great sacrifices occur slowly but surely by those who take many small steps of faith in the direction of obedience.
So, question. Are you hiding in secret while enjoying a position of privilege in this world as these men did for so long? If so hear this word of counsel from James Montgomery Boice, “What company have you found that is superior? That of unbelievers? The world? If you are thinking along those lines, you are a great fool, for it is the world that, for all its supposed glamour and sophistication, crucified your Master. What makes you think it will treat you more kindly when it finds out that you belong to Him?”Or is your situation more like this: people know you’re a believer, they know you go to church, they know you believe the Bible, but they never hear a word of witness from you. If that’s you God through this text is calling out clearly to you to no longer leave undone what you know you should do. Or, put it like this: what bold step into the light do you know you need to make that you’ve been unwilling to take because you’re so comfortable hiding in the dark?
May you see these two men and be encouraged to follow in a similar boldness. Many picture the Christian life as a stormy ocean and heaven as coming home into a smooth harbor. That’s wonderful for sure, I know I’ve spoken like this of our life in Christ in the past. But back that image up a bit and see something of what this text challenges us with. Picture yourself lost and unconverted, dead in sin, and standing safe on the shore looking out onto a vast and wild sea. You hear the gospel call and feel compelled to believe it. But you know that following Jesus isn’t a call to stay safe on the shore but is a call to launch out in your own little boat risking the ocean! You believe it regardless what comes and launch out, and what do you find on those waters? That the love of Jesus we so adore is as vast as an ocean without a shore.Church, whatever image you think of when you hear the call to come to Christ and step out in faith trusting Him often at great risk to yourself, you must be reminded this morning that risk for the gospel is always right, whatever it brings. Joseph and Nicodemus didn’t know what their obedience would bring them, whether it would bring as little as social awkwardness or as much as their own death on a cross…and many times we don’t know what our obedience will bring us in this life. But you know what we do know? We know God takes care of His own and that God is big enough to handle the consequences of our obedience.
Well, in v40 they take the step officially by seeing to the body of our Lord Jesus. Now we transition a bit in the text as we come to v41-42 where don’t see a step into the light, but a step into darkness.
A Step Into Darkness (v41-42)
“Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.”
We see some details about this grave here. We learn there was a garden near the place Jesus was crucified, and that Joseph had a new tomb in that garden. It seems then that because of both the nearness to the Sabbath and the closeness of Joseph’s new grave, that this tomb proved a fitting spot for the burial. That it was new is telling as well, for older tombs have many bodies in it but new tombs are empty. This matters because in a few days when Jesus would rise from the dead…because this tomb is new and because He’s the only One in it, there would be no mistake as to who came out of it. So, being the King see the ultimate contrast, into the tomb Jesus went, taking an intentional and humbling step down into darkness. This is what we see as our passage ends today in v41-42.
Many rightly see Jesus’ earthly life as a journey or progression from humiliation to exaltation, because it was just that. Being the eternal Son of God He took on frail flesh, becoming in all things as we are except sin. He lived among us, taught us, revealed the Father to us with signs and wonders following, He told us of the coming Helper in the Spirit, and ultimately died in our place as the sin bearing wrath absorbing atoning sacrifice. Many often say it is this cross that’s the culmination or peak of His humiliation, but I disagree. We can too easily overlook the fact that the cross, as gruesome and as significant as it was, wasn’t the culmination of His humiliation, no, His burial was. There is no deeper insult, no greater irony, and no more unexpected twist than the Lord of life Himself entering a tomb in death. He could indeed descend no lower than this. He deserved the grandest and greatest exit out of this world, don’t we give kings and heroes alike funerals with all kinds of pomp and circumstance? Indeed we do, don’t miss that for Jesus, only two men were present at His funeral. Because of these things creeds and confessions of old include the burial within it stating that Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried.” And more importantly than the creed is that Scripture long ago foretold He would do this. In the famous suffering servant passage of Isaiah 53 we read, “He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth. By oppression and judgment He was taken away; and as for His generation, who considered that He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made His grave with the wicked and with a rich man in His death,although He had done no violence, and there was no deceit in His mouth” (Isa. 53:7-9). He died the death of a wicked man, and was buried with a rich man, no doubt, ultimately meaning Joseph of Arimathea.
I mentioned earlier that today we were in for a funeral sermon and that this grave is the most famous grave of all. It is famous not only for being a grave for so short a time, but for what it has to teach us.
Church see in Christ’s death the end where sin desires to take us. Christ bore our sins completely and where did it lead Him? To the tomb. Remember then what sin intends to do with you in tempting you. It doesn’t want to give you pleasure, it doesn’t want to give you meaning, it doesn’t want to give you relief or rest from the sorrows of the world, no. The wages of sin is death, and all who work those hours receive that wage. Remember this anew and rid yourself of the thoughts that you can just play with sin, or dabble in it here and there. Sin is out to get you, it’s crouching at your door, and its desire is to kill you. From seeing the end it intends to take you, now…today…this very hour…turn around and go back to the ancient paths, the old roads, the narrow gospel road, and find rest for your soul in the life it gives.
Church see that unless Jesus returns prior to our deaths, we all must at one time or another enter a similar grave. Isn’t it comforting to know that Jesus has already been there before us?Yes the dying process and death itself can be frightful to think on and approach and experience, but Jesus knows what going through it is like. We therefore can face the grave without fear, for in a very real sense our grave will be like His. Jesus’ grave truly did receive Him but it couldn’t destroy Him. Just as the great fish couldn’t stomach Jonah but quickly delivered him up again, so too, Jesus’ grave and our own graves contains no smell of decomposition, but a wonderful fragrance complementing our entrance into eternal life.This is why Psalm 116:15 can say, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”
Church see the garden. It was our first parents who sinned in a garden and experienced death and being unable of themselves to reverse such a sentence they lived out the rest of their lives in exile and death east of Eden. And now we their descendants still feel the ache of exile, knowing that we were made for more than what this life brings us. See here in our passage another garden. Is it a coincidence that the first Adam plunged all mankind into death in a garden and the Second Adam finished the redemption that brings life to all who believe in another garden? There is no coincidence here, there is a plan unfolding. A plan made from before the world that will showcase the greatness and glory of this Second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Because of Christ, for the believer, oh the joy of this, it is not death to die! Or as C.S. Lewis says in The Last Battle all of life is the front cover, the grave is merely the table of contents, now at last death brings believers to Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read, which goes on forever, in which every chapter is better than the one before.
One commentator ends his notes on this text saying this, “What a great privilege it was for Joseph and Nicodemus, those two belated disciples, to bear Jesus’ body into the grave where He would conquer death. What a privilege it is for us to bear His good news into a world help captive by the fear of death. What an urgent matter it is for every soul to believe on Jesus Christ, placing our sins on His cross and our hopes in His resurrection life, taking up by faith the Christian anthem of praise, ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’”
So Church, it’s Palm Sunday. In what must be one of the most ironic twists of history, because of Jesus’ burial in the tomb, we can sing Palm Sunday hosannas with gusto everyday of the year!
D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John – PNTC (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1991) page 628-629.
Ibid., page 629.
Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John – NICNT (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1971) page 825.
Carson, page 629.
James Montgomery Boice, quote in Richard D. Phillips, John 11-21 – Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R, 2014) page 610.
David Crowder, Sometimes, 2012.
Phillips, page 619.
John Flavel, quoted in Phillips page 621.
C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle – The Chronicles of Narnia (New York, New York: Harper Collins, 1956) page 767.
Phillips, page 623.