Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments (Luke 23:50–56).
And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb (Matt 27:59–61; ESV).
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 (John 19:39–40).
Even before the end of the apostolic era (c. 100 AD) one of the most pernicious and persistent heresies, which flourishes today, is that which says that Jesus’ human nature was not (and is not) genuine, that it was only apparent. This heresy is called docetism from the Greek verb dokein (δοκειν) “to seem” or “to appear.” Since the time of Plato (c. 420s BC–c.328 BC) at least, there were philosophical influences among the Greeks that doubted the reality of the physical world. Plato himself in his Republic told the allegory of the cave the clear message of which was that one’s sense experience of the physical world is not to be trusted. This physical world illusory. That way of thinking was transmitted to the Hellenized world, in which the early church came into being. Thus, there were those who were prepared to accept that Jesus was God (or a god—the Greeks and Romans were always up to adding to the Pantheon if only to cover their bases) but there were those who had great difficulty with the notion that he was true God and true man. The docetists said that he only appeared to be man.
Struggles over the true humanity of our Lord lie behind one of the earliest confessional statements preserved for us in 1 Timothy 3:16:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory (ESV).
The Apostle Peter reminded his readers in Asia Minor that Jesus was “put to death in the flesh” (1 Pet 3:18) and that he “suffered in the flesh” (1 Pet 4:1). According to the Apostle John one of the marks of Antichrist is to deny that Jesus is God in the flesh:
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already (1 John 4:1–3; ESV).
Indeed, the first thing the Apostle wrote to the congregations was to affirm the true humanity of Christ:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…. (1 John 1:1–2; ESV).
Though it was soundly rejected by the Apostles and by the church catholic (universal) including the Reformed churches, the docetic heresy has not disappeared. The Muslims embraced a version of it. They do not regard him as God the Son incarnate and they deny that he was crucified. They say that it was Simon the Cyrene who was crucified. Though they pretend to honor Jesus as one of God’s prophets, of course, they do not. Jesus prophesied his death and burial:
But he answered them, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matt 12:39–40; ESV).
That is a prophecy which, according to Scripture, Jesus fulfilled. To say, as Muslims do, that Jesus is a prophet but to deny his crucifixion, death, and resurrection is a contradiction. It also denies one of the central Christian truths. That Jesus was truly dead. It wasn’t an appearance. He did not “swoon,” i.e., he did not merely appear to die. He really died. When they took him down from the cross he was dead. There was no respiration, no pulse. They wrapped his body. They prepared it for burial and placed it in the tomb before the beginning of the (saturday) Sabbath. His cold, lifeless body lay in the tomb which was covered with a large stone, marked with a seal and guarded by elite troops whose lives were in jeopardy should anyone steal the body.
Thus, we confess:
41. Why was He “buried”?
To show thereby that He was really dead.1
Jesus was not first person in the history of salvation to be buried. The patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob) were buried. Scripture is at pains to note their burial.
Isaac and Ishmael his sons buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron the son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites. There Abraham was buried, with Sarah his wife (Gen 25:9–10; ESV).
Why the emphasis on their burial? There are at least a couple of things at stake here. First, Abraham was buried in Canaan, in the promised land, so the future inheritance by the Israelites is foreshadowed. Even more significant, however, is that his burial pointed to his expectation of a heavenly home. Canaan was not ultimately about Canaan. It was a picture of heaven. Scripture says, “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God (Heb 11:10–11; ESV).
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (Heb 11:13–16; ESV).
Christian burial, whether Abraham’s or ours is an act of faith, looking forward to something beyond.1 Our Lord Jesus was buried to show that he was dead but he was also buried in hope, in expectation of his resurrection.
Because Jesus died and was buried we know that the wrath of God against the sins of all his people was fully exhausted. Believers need not fear judgment because Christ our substitute, our Mediator, has endured it for us. We may also live as those who have been crucified with him, who have died to sin that we might live a new life in union with Christ.
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. Historically, Christians have buried rather than cremated remains.