Luke 23:44–56: The Death of Jesus, Jesus is Buried
All of Luke Chapter 23 has been focused on the trial, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. This passage is on that last part: Jesus dying, and being buried.
In the last passage Jesus and two criminals were put up on their crosses; verse 44 tells us that this happened around noon (“the sixth hour”). For three hours there is darkness over the whole land, until “the ninth hour” (about 3PM), when:
- The curtain of the temple is torn in two
- Jesus cries out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”
- He dies
When he sees all of this (i.e. Jesus’ attitude toward the people who’d put him here, the darkness, how he talked to the other criminal, …), the Roman centurion who’s there decides that Jesus must have been innocent. Similarly, “the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle” (verse 48) return to their homes, “beating their breasts.” (Does this mean they really repented? I don’t know. It’s a wide chasm to go from “Crucify him! Crucify him! Save yourself, quote unquote ‘Messiah’!” to, “I guess we were wrong, he was innocent.”) Meanwhile, his followers (and Luke makes specific mention of the women who’d been following him) are standing at a distance, watching.
Following this, a man named Joseph approaches Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. (We’re told that Joseph is a member of the Jewish Council, but that he’s “a good and righteous man” (verse 50), and that he had not consented to their decision to bring Jesus to the Romans for trial and execution.) Joseph takes the body, wraps it in a shroud, and lays it in a fresh tomb.
All of this happens the day before the Sabbath, however, so they’re not going to be able to process Jesus’ body properly. So the women who have been following Jesus take note of where and how he’s laid in the tomb, return home to prepare the spices that will be needed to prepare the body, and then rest on the Sabbath.
In this passage Jesus—who was a man—suffered on the cross (causing darkness across the land), died, and took away the separation between God and humans. When people view Jesus as a good teacher and an example, they’re missing the point of His ministry: Jesus didn’t come to this world just to teach us and set an example—though he did both of those things—he came to the world for the exact moment highlighted in this chapter: for his death (and subsequent resurrection), as a punishment for our sins.
Without this sacrifice, I wouldn’t be able to follow His teachings, and I’d never be able to live up to His example. He was sinlessly perfect; I’m the opposite. Except… when I face God on the day of judgement, He’ll view me as if I was sinless, because of what Jesus did for me on the cross!
It almost seems too obvious to comment on, but the darkness in the land is obviously symbolic of what’s happening as Jesus is in agony on that cross. I’ll quote the ESV Study Bible notes, since they put it well:
Often a sign of an eschatological event taking place, darkness represents lament (Amos 8:9–10) and divine judgment (Ex. 10:21–23). Here it is both literal (the sun’s light failed) and figurative (cf. Acts 2:20), probably signifying that Jesus was bearing God’s wrath for his people (cf. Joel 2:2; Amos 5:18, 20; Zeph. 1:15), and also expressive of God’s displeasure and judgment upon humanity for crucifying his Son. The darkness was not caused by a solar eclipse (see note on Matt. 27:45).
We are often uncomfortable with this idea, but the Bible is quite clear: For these three hours, Jesus was being punished for our sins. He was being punished in a way that I never will be—the Father turned His face away from the Son in a way that He will never turn it away from me—as the Father’s wrath was poured out on Him.
And maybe that’s the key word: we don’t like the concept of God being “wrathful.” It seems too… quaint. Too “Old Testament-y.” Not modern enough; we view God as a God of love, not of wrath or punishment. But… He’s both. And because God is loving, and doesn’t want me to suffer for my sin, but is also wrathful toward that same sin, something had to be done. Jesus did it.
But then what happened? When Jesus died, the “curtain of the temple” tore in two. What curtain is that? What is Luke talking about? He’s talking about the curtain that separated the Holy Place in the temple from the Most Holy Place. The layout of the temple had varying levels of Holiness, from the outer courts right into the Holiest part: the Most Holy Place. (I’m over-simplifying this a bit, I think; when I was looking up sites that talk about the “floorplan” of the temple there was a lot of language about the “Court of the Gentiles” and the “Women’s Court” and the “Priest’s Court” and the “Court of Israel,” but I’m just using the simpler terms used in Exodus 26.) Regardless of what you call it, the Most Holy Place was where God dwelled, and it was therefore somewhere that nobody was allowed to go except for the High Priest, who could go there once a year, under very prescribed circumstances, to atone for the sins of the people. It was so Holy, and God’s presence was so much a part of it, that they had to tie a rope to the High Priest’s leg so that they could drag his corpse out of the room if he was struck down by the Presence of God.
The lesson the Israelites were supposed to take away from this is that… well, God is God. He is Holy; He is set apart; He is not to be approached lightly. In fact, He is not to be approached without a sacrifice—and that’s the point that is being made here. Those sacrifices that were needed in order to enter into God’s presence? They’re not needed anymore, because Jesus made one perfect sacrifice, that takes care of that requirement, now and forever. The separation of the people from God, that had to be mediated by the High Priest? That doesn’t exist either, because Jesus is now our mediator to God. We have access to God, not just once a year under prescribed circumstances, but at all times, because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.
It’s important that we recognize how important this is. God didn’t become less Holy when Jesus died. Right now, at this very moment, God is as Holy as He ever was. Entering into His presence is still not something that is done lightly. He is the God of the Universe. He is Holy, and Omniscient, and Omnipresent, and powerful beyond understanding. In the Old Testament people were told that they couldn’t see the face of God because it would literally destroy them, and that hasn’t changed. On my own, if I were to see God face to face, it would destroy me. But what Jesus accomplished was so powerful that I can see God face to face—and one day I will!
We can’t understand how big Jesus’ sacrifice was if we don’t remember how Holy and Awesome God is, how big of a problem our sin is, and how hopeless we were to save ourselves from it. When we underestimate the Holiness of God, we underestimate Jesus’ sacrifice.
In a sense, there’s not a deep theological point to Joseph putting Jesus in the tomb, and the women getting ready to prepare the body. It’s just historical detail; it’s what happened after Jesus’ death and before His resurrection.
It is worth noting, however, that it means Jesus really was dead. There’s sometimes a temptation to view people in the past as being really, really dumb. “Maybe Jesus wasn’t really dead,” we think to ourselves. “After all, medicine wasn’t as advanced then as it is now; maybe he was just in a coma, and they mistook him for being dead.” Which is just… silly. Lots and lots and lots (and lots!) of people had died before Jesus died; people knew what death was, and knew how to recognize a dead body. To think that maybe Jesus wasn’t really dead, but the Romans who took him down from the cross didn’t notice (even though they were on the lookout for people who would be faking their death to try to get out of being crucified), and then Joseph also didn’t notice as he was wrapping Jesus in the shroud (“Hey, this dead body has a heartbeat, and it’s breathing!”), and then still nobody noticed as they were laying the body in the tomb… it defies logic. It goes beyond “medicine wasn’t what it is today” to “these people had to have been incredibly stupid.”
So where does that leave us? If nothing else, it means that Jesus was a human, and He experienced death like all humans do. He was both God and human, and there are other passages where the New Testament gets into the God part of His nature, but this passage is a clear indication of the human part of His nature.