What Happened at the Tomb?

In this post, as part of the “What Happened at” series, I want to take a brief look at what happened during the three days the body of Jesus was in the tomb.

A lot of attention was given to Jesus’ burial in the Gospels. You might call it a record of the “chain of custody” of His body until His resurrection – proving He really had died, was really buried according to Jewish tradition, and that His body could not have been stolen. Here is the story, put together from all four Gospels. . .

Joseph of Arimathaea – a wealthy man and an “honorable counsellor” – had not approved of the Sanhedrin’s council to kill Jesus. Although a “secret disciple” up to this point, he was not afraid to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus after He had died on the cross. Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead and sent some soldiers to check. After the soldiers pierced Jesus’s side, they returned and confirmed that he was dead and Pilate released the body.

Joseph then removed Jesus’ body from the cross, wrapped it in linen and, with the women who followed Jesus, went to the place he would bury Him. Another secret disciple, the Pharisee Nicodemus, met Joseph at the tomb. Together, they quickly wrapped the body in fine linen with a mixture of aloes and myrrh to preserve the body until the women could return after the Sabbath. Then Joseph laid Jesus’ body in his own tomb – a new tomb that had been carved out of the rock. When they were finished, they rolled a huge stone over the entrance of the sepulcher. After Mary and “the other Mary” watched them close the tomb with the body inside, everyone hurried to their homes for the Sabbath. Once at home, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” prepared the rest of the spices needed to finish the burial ritual when they returned to the tomb on the first day of the week.

Shortly after Joseph left Pilate, the Jewish rulers approached him with their concerns that Jesus’ disciples might try to steal the body since Jesus had predicted that He would rise from the dead. They asked for the tomb to be sealed and a detail of guards be deployed at the tomb to be sure that did not happen. Pilate agreed, sealed the tomb, and set the watch.

While all of this was happening, the soul of Jesus was in “paradise” – along with the soul of one of the thieves who was crucified with Him (Luke 23:43). Scholars are not sure what paradise is, but the word is of Persian origin and means a garden – a kind of game preserve. The word alludes to the beauty of Eden, the very first garden (in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is actually used in reference to Eden.)

As pleasant as it was, it was not a vacation. The Bible said that, while there, Jesus preached to the spirits that were in prison (1 Peter 3:17-20). This is an unusual passage because it is the only place that gives a description of anything that happened while the body of Jesus was in the tomb before He was resurrected. The Bible gives us no clue as to the mechanics of the event. It only tells us who (Jesus), what He did (preached, declared), and to whom He directed the action (the spirits in prison).

Who were these spirits? We know it was not a “second chance” for those who died in their sins. Hebrews 9:27 and other Scriptures makes it very clear that once a man dies, judgment is the only next step. In 1 Peter 3:20 we see these are specific spirits, not spirits in general. They were the spirits who were disobedient while God was being patient during the preaching of Noah. These are most likely the spirits who did not stay within their limits of their authority, left their dwelling place, and co-habited with the “daughters of men” at that time (Genesis 6:12; Jude 6; 2 Peter 2:4,5).

Jesus Himself references this time in the grave after He reveals Himself, in His glorified state, to the apostle John in Revelation 1:17-18. John writes:

And, when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last: — I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.

So – what happened during those three days the body of Jesus was in the tomb? Jesus, the Second Adam, after having lived a sinless life, while being tempted just like you and I, overcame sin. By His death He overcame sin’s penalty and broke the power of sin over all who believe in Him. This victory is what He declared to the spirits in prison as He brandished the keys that He had won – showing His authority over death and the grave.

Satan, that “Prince of Darkness grim” – although still powerful enough to work his mischief – is now a defeated foe. As Luther wrote, because of Jesus’ victory – “We tremble not for him – his rage we can endure – for lo, his doom is sure – one little word shall fell him.”

Scriptures on Jesus’ burial: Matthew 27:57-61; Mark 15:42-47; Luke 23:50-56; John 19:38-42

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