Laying a Foundation of Credibility – Luke 23:50-56

By: Northern Seminary

My first career role was in journalism when I worked for the top newspaper in Scotland. As well as the traditional morning paper, it had a sister publication which came out in several editions during the day. For six months in my early years I worked as an editor on that day-time paper, and I loved it. Being a reporter and hunting down the stories was still the best, but I also loved the buzz of editing stories fast so they met the deadlines for going to press.

There are two ways editors make all the stories they have fit on each page in a paper. One is that the senior editor tells the sub-editors – people doing what I did – how many words are allowed for each story. So my job was to cut back or rewrite a reporter’s masterpiece to fit the space available. Then, the other way a page finally all came together was by having a collection of short filler stories of various lengths, any one of which could be slotted into a vacant space. So we’d prepare several one or two paragraph stories – nothing of great importance – and they’d be used only if a gap needed to be filled.

The verses in Luke’s gospel about Jesus being taken down from the cross and then laid in a grave owned by a man called Joseph could be seen as a filler piece. We could think of these few verses as just functional details of no great importance, merely filling a gap in time before we return to the real story of resurrection day.

But a writer like Luke valued every inch of his manuscript space, and he didn’t do fillers. Every part of the story mattered for his readers to get the whole picture of Jesus’ death and resurrection. There is nothing accidental or unimportant in what he writes next.

Luke 23:50-56

50 Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea, and he himself was waiting for the kingdom of God. 52 Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. 54 It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

55 The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. 56 Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.

Luke is a good reporter, and the way he lays out the story is easy to follow.

  1. The burial which had to happen quickly.

Luke took the view that the death and resurrection of Jesus are events of such enormous significance that if people are to understand them and believe in them they need to be aware of exactly what happened. He was writing his gospel for non-Jewish readers, people unfamiliar with Jewish customs, so he needed to give a lot of background information. That includes facts about Jesus’ burial which are important for what happens later.

  • It was a burial which had to happen quickly.

Normally the Romans left a crucified body decaying on its cross for days after death as a warning to others. But that conflicted with Jewish law which said the body of someone who had been hung could not be left hanging there after sundown because that would desecrate the land (Deut. 21:22-23). So in Judea the Romans made an allowance for local sensitivity, and Jews could remove a crucified body and bury it on the same day the person died.

Jesus died around 3:00 in the afternoon on a Friday (Luke 23:44), and it was imperative that he was buried before the Sabbath. That would begin at sundown (around 6.00 p.m.), and run until sundown on the Saturday. By the time Jesus’ body was taken down from the cross, there would be little light left, so his body was wrapped in a linen cloth, and taken immediately to the tomb Joseph was making available.

  • Jesus was laid in a new tomb, so no other body but his was there.

Jesus’ body was taken to a tomb carved out of a rock cliff. In the days when people had only hammers and chisels for tools, that was hard work. So tombs like this were not for just one person. In different areas of the hollowed out rock there would be slabs so several people could be buried in the one tomb. Thieves were kept out by creating a small trench outside into which a heavy stone was set which would be rolled over the entrance. Jerusalem had many cave-like tombs of that kind.

Joseph of Arimathea had made his family crypt available for Jesus (Matt. 27:60). That was quite a sacrifice, and doubly so because no one else had yet been buried there. Luke, John, and Matthew all make it clear in their gospels that the tomb was new.[1]

  • There wasn’t time to do the full burial rites.

Luke is very clear that time was running out before sundown. “…the Sabbath was about to begin,” he writes (v. 54).

The most important thing for Joseph and his helpers[2] was that Jesus’ body should not be left anywhere outside. His own tomb was in a garden close to Calvary,[3] so they quickly took Jesus’ body there.

In most cultures, right down the ages to the present day, there is usually some preparation of a body before burial. It might range from the use of spices to full-blown embalming. John’s gospel explains that Nicodemus, who assisted Joseph, brought about seventy five pounds of myrrh and aloes, and they were used as they buried Jesus’ body (John 19:39-40).

But that was probably less than what was needed, and, making a reasonable guess, neither Joseph nor Nicodemus, working with haste, would have done everything as it should have been done. The job was less than perfect, but it was all they could manage in the time available.

These details might seem unimportant, but Luke has a significant purpose in reporting these things, as we shall see later.

  1. Joseph, the man who did what was right even if no one else would.

We know relatively little about Joseph.

Luke says: “He came from the Judean town of Arimathea” (v. 51), but no-one is entirely sure where Arimathea was. Some speculate it was not far from the modern Israeli city of Lod, but no one knows. There are also stories from later times about Joseph, even that he came to the British Isles and founded a church there. But these are legends, with no historical basis. However, Joseph is mentioned in all four gospels, and no one questions that he was the person who took charge of burying Jesus.

The body of a crucified criminal belonged to the Romans, and would normally be thrown into a pit alongside other bodies. Joseph anticipated that, and took steps to prevent it. He went to the Governor, Pilate, and asked to be allowed to have Jesus’ body (v. 52). Pilate was probably surprised but he agreed.

Why? Why would Joseph do that? After all, to be seen as the friend of someone identified as an enemy of Rome was to put yourself at risk.

Joseph intervened for two reasons.

First, Matthew and John both report that Joseph “had himself become a disciple of Jesus” (Matt. 27:57; also John 19:38). He wasn’t the only Jewish leader to believe – John said “many even among the leaders believed in him” (John 12:42), but he adds that they kept their faith private to avoid reprisals. Joseph did that too, and yet his godliness shines through. Luke describes him as a man who “was waiting for the kingdom of God” (v. 51).

Our word ‘waiting’ doesn’t convey the spirit of active looking and longing for the Messiah that was true of someone like Joseph. He was like Simeon and Anna who were described by Luke much earlier in his gospel.

Simeon was a devout man, “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), but not sitting back, passive, as if there was nothing for him to do. Simeon responded to the prompting of the Spirit, went to the temple, and was there at exactly the moment Jesus was brought by his parents. He held the Savior, he blessed him, and prophesied about him to Mary (Luke 2:27-35).

It was the same with Anna, a prophet and very old. Even at the age of eighty four she worshiped, fasted, and prayed to God day and night, never leaving the temple area. She too met Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus at the temple, gave thanks to God for him, and spoke about Jesus to all who were seeking the redemption of Jerusalem (Luke 2:36-38).

Joseph of Arimathea was like Simeon and Anna. He longed for God’s salvation, and believed it would come through Jesus.

As well as his faith, the other reason Joseph chose to get involved with Jesus’ burial was because he’d always believed him innocent. Luke says Joseph was “a member of the Council… who had not consented to their decision and action” (vs. 50-51). Joseph could see that Jesus had done no wrong. He had high principles so even if everyone else among the Sanhedrin voted to condemn, Joseph would not.

But, of course, he hadn’t won freedom for Jesus. Opinion went against him. Jesus was handed over to Pilate, flogged and crucified, and he died. So now, all Joseph could do for this innocent man Jesus was give him a dignified burial. He may have died among criminals but Joseph would not allow him to be buried with criminals in a common pit. Jesus would have a proper resting place in the tomb of a believer.

Again, this man’s beliefs and actions matter for Luke’s record. Before explaining what mattered so much, there is one more section in Luke’s account of Jesus’ burial.

  1. The women who wanted to anoint Jesus’ body but had to wait.

Luke describes how “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee” (v. 55) followed Joseph as he brought Jesus’ body to his garden, and they saw how he laid out the body inside the tomb. Then they went home. So, although they prepared spices, it was now the Sabbath and therefore they rested rather than returning immediately to anoint the body.

Luke does not detail who these women were, but probably the same women that Luke describes coming to the tomb on the Sunday morning, and he lists some of their names: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James (Luke 24:10).

They were brave. They may have stood at a distance on Calvary, but now any observer would see their devotion. But, in their mind, they had to know where Jesus was laid because they had a job still to do. Perhaps they hadn’t seen that Joseph and Nicodemus had used some spices on Jesus’ body, but more likely they knew that the hasty work of these two men was not enough. When dealing with grieving families, pastors soon learn that they want everything done ‘right,’ done ‘properly,’ for their loved one at the funeral. It was the same two thousand years ago. These women were determined that everything should be done rightly for the body of their Savior, their Lord.

So, why does all this matter? Why would Luke use valuable space to write down details of where Jesus’ body was laid, who took it there, who saw it put there, and so on? Why not just use one short summary sentence like: “After the cross, his body was put in a grave,” and then move straight to the story of the resurrection?

The answer lies in the word “credibility.” The very next thing Luke will describe is resurrection. A man who was dead will have come back to life.

Luke’s readers were neither ignorant nor gullible. They knew: dead people stay dead. They don’t walk out of their tomb; they don’t have conversations; they don’t eat meals; they don’t leave commands. Luke is about to write about all those things. How would anyone ever believe him? Answer: it would at least help if he reported some facts that made his account seem credible.

Luke, in fact has been leaving a trail of evidence all along.

First, he wanted to show that Jesus was always innocent, and he’s done that in several ways:

  • Pilate’s repeated and strong arguments that Jesus had done no wrong (Luke 23:4, 14, 22), and his statement that Herod had also found nothing about him that should lead to a conviction (23:14-15).
  • The same conclusion from one of the criminals crucified beside Jesus on Calvary, that Jesus had done nothing wrong (23:41).
  • The words of a Roman centurion who saw and heard everything that happened with Jesus from trial to crucifixion, and then declared, “Surely this was a righteous man” (23:47).

Luke’s readers needed to know the man put to death was a good man and an innocent man. He may have been crucified beside common criminals, but he was very different from them. There was a real credibility about Jesus as God’s Messiah.

Second, and perhaps even more important, Luke was giving evidence of a different kind, evidence that would provide foundational credibility to what he would write next, the remarkable and seemingly crazy report that Jesus had risen from the dead. Even as he’s writing about Jesus’ death, he’s laying groundwork that what follows about resurrection is actually true.

He sets out important details:

  • A Roman centurion watched Jesus die. He saw him breathe his last. A man who knew what it was like for someone to expire witnessed this. In other words, there was no doubt Jesus was dead.
  • Someone with the standing of Joseph, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, took the body. There was no question about who had it, or what he did with it. This was a man with impeccable credentials and reputation, and he laid Jesus’ body in his own tomb.
  • Women who had known Jesus from the time in Galilee saw exactly where that tomb was, and Luke points out that they even noted where the body was laid in the tomb. They would not make a mistake like going to the wrong garden or wrong tomb on the Sunday morning.

Luke was a thoughtful man. We are familiar with the story of the resurrection. In a sense, it doesn’t surprise us. Luke’s readers would be more than surprised; they would be shocked by what he said! How could a crucified man be the Son of God? And how could a dead man come back to life?

Well, Luke is saying, this was no ordinary man, but a man sent by God who was innocent of all wrongdoing. He was certainly dead and there are very clear and trustworthy witnesses of that, including where his body was put.

There was credibility about Jesus, as there will be credibility about the resurrection report Luke is about to write.


[1] Matt. 27:60; John 19:41.

[2] Nicodemus is named – John 19:39.

[3] John 19:41-42.

March 31, 2015

Ready to start your seminary Experience?

Apply Now