by Derrick G. Jeter
There on the cross hung the limp body of the One they thought was the Messiah. There on the cross hung the hopes and dreams of those who longed for freedom from Roman oppression and anticipated the glorious kingdom of God. There on the cross—for all to see—Rome had won and God’s plan for His people had lost. There on the cross death and darkness triumphed over life and light.
Or so everyone thought. But it wasn’t the end of the story; it was simply the beginning of a new story.
Nevertheless, from where Jesus’s disciples stood they couldn’t see the page of history turn to a new chapter. All they could perceive was the closing of the book.
Burial: Friday Afternoon to Sundown
Jesus said that He came to give life, and give it to overflowing (John 10:10). But when Jesus bowed His head and breathed His last earthly breath, that promise died with Him. There, standing in the darkness of the late afternoon, His followers, His mother included, pushed past such the empty thoughts of dead dreams and shattered hopes, and made preparations for burying their dead Messiah. Nightfall was fast approaching, and the Law was clear: those accursed to die on a tree must be buried the same day, before sunset (see Deuteronomy 21:23). To make matters more urgent, sundown would bring the Sabbath—a holy day—in which no work could be done (Exodus 20:10)—not even the work of burial.
The Jewish leaders, who had mocked Jesus and demanded His crucifixion, rushed to the Praetorium to petition Pilate that the legs of the condemned be broken, preventing them from pushing up to exhale, hastening their deaths. That way the men could be buried before the sun set over the western horizon. Pilate, wanting to simply be done with these prickly people and their peculiar religious notions, gave orders for the exactor moris, the centurion in charge of the crucifixion, to break each of the men’s legs. The soldiers took their heavy mallets, the ones used to drive the spikes through the wrists and feet into the wood, and with a powerful blow broke both femoral (thigh) bones of the two criminals on either side of Jesus. Their shrieks filled the air until they could no longer breathe.
Coming to Jesus, the soldiers noticed that He had already expired. But to be sure, one of the soldiers took his spear and thrust it into the side of Jesus’s chest, puncturing the sack surrounding the heart, until the mixture of blood and what appeared as water came gushing forth from the open wound. For battle hardened soldiers, those dealers in death, this flow of blood and clear liquid was a sure sign that they had performed their jobs precisely—Jesus was dead!
Standing there that day, somewhere in the background, were two secret disciples—two rulers of the Jews—Joseph from Arimathea and Nicodemus, the one who had come to Jesus at night. Finding courage, now that his Messiah was dead, Joseph went to Pilate and asked for permission to take Jesus’s body from the cross and bury it. Granted, Joseph and Nicodemus performed the gruesome task of prying the nails from Jesus’s hands and feet, and lowering Him into the waiting arms of the women. Tenderly bearing their load, the women and three men—Joseph, Nicodemus, and John—carried Jesus’s body down the hill and laid Him on the ground in front of an open tomb. Nicodemus had brought linen and spices to prepare His corpse for burial.
Working quickly, but carefully, Jesus’s friends messaged His taut muscles, loosening His arms from their V position and His legs from their bent posture, so He might be laid out straight. They washed His broken body and anointed it with oil, then wrapped Jesus in a single linen cloth. Under His chin they wrapped a napkin and tied it securely, to keep His jaw from gapping open when the muscles began to decompose. Next, taking long strips of linen, which have been soaking in a mixture of spiced resin, they began to wrap Jesus’s body like a mummy. They used seventy-five to one hundred pounds of heavily scented linen, including frankincense, to offset the pungent smell of decomposition.
As the sun began to dip over the horizon, the burial party of loving friends and family hadn’t finished the task of wrapping the body. But there was no time to complete it now; they must hurry and place Jesus’s corpse in the tomb. Joseph, in preparation for his own death and the deaths of his family members, had a tomb carved into the Golgotha hillside. It would now serve has Jesus’s grave. Placing Jesus on a carved out ledge and rolling a large stone over the yawning hole to seal the tomb—to keep grave robbers out and foul smells in—they completed their undertaking—entombing all their hopes and dreams.
Later, they would return and finish the wrapping. In a year, after Jesus’s body had throughly decayed, they would come back one last time, remove His bones from the lining wrappings, place them in a bone box—called an ossuary—along those of His father, Joseph, and other ancestors. And for eternity, it would be said that Jesus was “gathered unto His fathers.”
While the women and the three faithful disciples were preparing Jesus’s body for burial, the Jewish leaders, the Sadducees and Pharisees, had one more request of Pilate.
“Sir, we remember that when [Jesus] was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I am to rise again.’ Therefore, give orders for the grave to be made secure until the third day, otherwise His disciples may come and steal Him away and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first” (Matthew 27:63–64).
Pilate must have thought, “Will these people never leave me in peace?” “Go,” he said. “You have a guard; make [the tomb] as secure as you know how” (27:65). Walking the short distance from the Praetorium to the tomb, the sun already having sunk below the horizon, the Jewish leaders took an official Roman seal and affixed it across the stone, secured with melted wax, and stationed a guard—a contingent of Roman soldiers, paid through the temple treasury, and Jewish temple guards.
With the grave sealed and the guard posted, the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees returned to their homes, to observe the holy day of Sabbath. On Saturday morning they would continue to observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread and prepare for the sacrifices of the closing convocation.
Meanwhile, the followers of Jesus hid themselves away from preying eyes and possible spies who might turn them over to the authorities. And in their fear and doubt they mourned alone, wondering, What do we do now?
On Saturday, Luke recorded: “And on the Sabbath [the disciples] rested according to the commandment [of Exodus 20:10]” (Luke 23:56). The disciples may have rested from working on that lonely Saturday, but rest—physical, emotional, and spiritual rest—surely escaped them.
At the breaking of dawn, when the rooster awoke the city of Jerusalem with its raucous crow the memory of Jesus’s piercing gaze cut to the very soul of Peter. Jesus had told Peter, just a mere twenty-four hours earlier, that “the cock will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me” (Luke 22:34). And when the time came for Peter to identify himself as a Jesus follower, he failed . . . not once, but three times. Before the words of his third denial escaped his mouth, Peter heard a rooster crow and he caught the eyes of Jesus, remembering what the Lord had said, “Before a cock crows today, you will deny me three times” (22:61). In that memory and in that gaze Peter ran into the predawn darkness and “wept bitterly” (22:62).
Now with every crow of the cock Peter can hear Jesus’s words and feel Jesus’s eyes on him. Failure. Deserter. Faithless friend. That’s what Peter heard in the rooster’s song. With each crow of the cock, the poisonous mixture of shame and guilt left a bitter after-taste; its sickening stew boiling over in the pit of his soul. For the remainder of his days, at the beginning of each new dawn, the crow of the cock would remind him of his shameful faithless; at the beginning of each new day he must breakfast with the salty bitterness of his tears.
All of the disciples must have felt some of the shame and guilt Peter was consumed with. They also felt the despair of hopelessness. They had pinned all their hopes on Jesus, but he proved to be another false Messiah, just like all the others who had come before Him and suffered the same fate at the cruel hands of the Romans. They were so sure He was the real Messiah, the one the prophets had foretold, but He was unable to break the chains of Rome. Instead, Rome broke Him. Mixed with their shame and hopelessness was also the hot breath of fear. The dread of death hung heavy in the air. If they crucified Christ, might they be next? Could they escape the city? And if they could escape, what would they do? After following Jesus for three years, how could they just slip back into their former lives?
In the fog of shame, guilt, hopelessness, fear, and doubt it was best to stay put—to lay low—and let things simmer down. In a few days they would slink out of the city, return to their homes and try to put the last three years behind them. Peter and Andrew, along with James and John, would return to Capernaum and the Sea of Galilee to resume their fishing businesses. Matthew, well, perhaps he could get back into the tax collection business, but not in his hometown of Capernaum. The others would do the same, but for now it was best to sit and wait.
And wait they did—and good thing they did. Soon, Jesus would show them that He hadn’t failed in their expectations as Messiah. Their false expectations had failed them. They misunderstood, even after three years, that Christ had come, not to rescue them from the enemy of Rome, but from a more dangerous and eternal enemy—the enemy of sin and death. In the morning Peter’s rooster would crow once again, but instead of announcing shame and guilt and hopelessness and fear and doubt it would announce victory and life!