Saturday 31st March: John 19:31-42 – Burial: Preparation, Testimony, Garden of Honour

Many Christian traditions call today Holy Saturday. It is a reflective day where we remember the darkness of the tomb. Very often, living as a Christian is a Holy Saturday experience,[1] since this day straddles Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Christians believe that Jesus died to reconcile us to God, but we await his second coming: these two events symbolise Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

That said, the Bible is silent on Easter Saturday because it was the Sabbath. Much of the Passion narrative happens on the day of preparation – in John, for the Passover feast itself – Good Friday. These crucifixions are carried out more quickly than normal in preparation for the next day’s significant Sabbath. It would have been unlawful to have left bodies on the cross (v.31). In this barbaric form of execution, the agony could be drawn out over several days, but the process could also be sped up by breaking the legs of those crucified. Thus, the legs of the other two crucified with Jesus are broken (v.32). This is a hurried and violent day of preparation.

The soldiers intend to do the same to Jesus, but he is already dead (v.33). The Romans were expert executioners so wanted to be certain, so a soldier pierces Jesus’ side: immediately, blood and water gushes out (v.34). This confirms the physical reality of Jesus’ death. Even by the time this gospel was being composed, there were people claiming that Jesus only appeared to have died, and only appeared to be human. This explains the writer’s insistent testimony that these things are true, recorded so that “you might believe” (v.35). There is another note on the fulfilment of Scripture, especially the quotation: “not one of his/its bones will be broken” (v.36). This is from Exodus 12:46 which decreed that the Passover Lamb was not to have its bones broken. Jesus had become that Passover Lamb.

Jesus was dead but given the scandal among the Jews concerning his life, they would not have accorded Him a proper Jewish burial. Instead, Pilate keeps the body. Nevertheless, in addition to his earlier anointing by Mary (John 12:1-8), Jesus receives some honour in burial. Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished Jew who had been sympathetic to Jesus, described as a “disciple” (v.38), bravely sought the body from Pilate. It was duly given. Joseph was joined by Nicodemus (cf. John 3) who ensured that Jesus’ body was richly embalmed with 100 (Roman) pounds of spices. As with Mary’s anointing, this was more than necessary, but such was the honour accorded to Jesus, that he received something of a customary Jewish burial: lacking in some elements (family tomb, proper ceremony); but rich in others (a new, and even somewhat luxurious burial tomb).

The tomb was established in the garden of the scene of the crucifixion (v.41). The Passion narrative begins with a betrayal in a garden (18:1) and ends peacefully in another garden (19:41-2). Human sin enters the world in Eden (Genesis 2:8f.), but no longer exists in the restored Eden (Revelation 22:3) because of the events in this garden…[2]

[1] I am reliably informed that Pete Greig’s book, God on Mute, helpfully dwells on this in some depth.

[2] I have scanned the NRSV Harper Collins Study Bible for each blog and it was particularly helpful in highlighting this aspect of the garden.

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