A PECULIAR FUNERAL
Dr. Chuck DeVane, Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
JULY 3, 2016
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” 55 There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. 57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 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. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb. 62 The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
— Matthew 27:51-66, ESV
Western culture is deeply influenced by Christianity. Our calendar is shaped by Christian observances and history. Much of our legal code is based on the moral law of Holy Scripture. Even our particular wedding vows and peculiar funeral practices take their cues from the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let’s consider the latter for a moment, funerals. Have you ever noticed that most funerals are conducted on the third day? A person passes away one day, family and friends gather for a visitation on the next day, then on the third day they make their way to the grave. Even more consistent is the way we lay our loved ones to rest, always facing east. It seems the first coming and the second coming of Jesus Christ have set precedents for our funeral processionals.
And why not? The burial of Jesus Christ is essential to the gospel and His funeral was the most unusual in human history. It featured a peculiar cast of characters, a peculiar set of rituals, leaving us with a peculiar and wonderful opportunity.
A Peculiar Group of People
Though they did not gather in a chapel or a cemetery, a large number of odd congregants could have signed the guest book at Jesus’ funeral. They were male and female, Jewish and Gentile, dead and undead. The one thing they had in common is that their lives had been radically changed by their encounters with the Lord Jesus Christ.
A Roman Centurion and other soldiers were changed from the ones who beat and blasphemed Jesus into believers in the Christ. The very claims they had mocked became their very own confession of faith. It became clear to them that Jesus was no mere mortal and His was no normal death. At the cross they saw the light, the burdens of their hearts were rolled away, and they were changed.
A member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph, and his partner, Nicodemus (according to John’s Gospel), were changed from skeptics and critics into servants of the Lord. Only family and the closest of friends could claim a body from the cross, and to do so risked guilt by association. Joseph of Arimathea demonstrated courage and compassion, components of true change, which can be found in all true believers in Jesus Christ.
The women were changed from back seat Baptists into front line evangelists. Women literally had to sit in the back at synagogue services. Women were treated like cattle before Christianity influenced culture. But from this funeral to the empty tomb, these women were chosen by God to take the lead in sharing the gospel and in the formation of the New Testament church. The gospel has the power to change a person who may be a nobody in society and make them somebody special in the kingdom of God.
The dead were changed, quite literally and miraculously. Imagine the beginning of a service in a funeral home chapel, and all of a sudden all of the dead bodies in all the coffins and embalming rooms rise up and walk out of the place. What would you do? Matthew is the only Gospel writer to include this testimony in the account of the cross. Note his precision in that they were raised at the crucifixion but did not emerge from tombs until Christ’s resurrection. Therefore, no one was startled, yet everyone was amazed, and most importantly, the dead were changed into the living.
Faith in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes dead people live. It makes otherwise worthless people of great use to God. It changes many who were once enemies of God, unbelievers of the gospel, critics of Christ and His people, into friends of God, people of faith, and members of the body of Christ. What a difference one funeral can make!
A Peculiar Set of Rituals
Along with the peculiar people you find around the cross, there were some pretty peculiar rituals that were performed during the service. To begin with, the curtain in the Jewish temple, which sealed off the “holy of holies,” where the High Priest went once a year with blood on the Day of Atonement, was ripped in two. Lastly, Christ’s borrowed tomb was sealed and guarded, a step seldom taken in Jewish or Roman customs. Let’s look into these two sealed off places and unseal the real meaning of death and life behind them.
The curtain that sealed off the “holy of holies” was sixty feet high and thirty feet wide. It was a very thick drape through which once a year one person was allowed to go through, the High Priest, on the Day of Atonement. After laying hands on and letting go the scapegoat, then slaughtering the sacrificial goat, the high priest would bring blood into the presence of God as a token of forgiveness of the sins of God’s people.
Who tore this curtain at Jesus’ death? It had to be God, for the curtain was torn from top to bottom. What was the meaning of this one time ritual? Jesus told us on the cross right before He died: “It is finished.” The cross and the curtain tell us that Jesus Christ is our sacrifice, His blood atones for our sin once for all. All of God’s children have constant access to God, to prayer, to offering ourselves as living sacrifices to Him. The debt for our sins, past and present and future, has been paid in full. The Old Covenant is fulfilled in the New Covenant of Jesus Christ, and the gathering of God’s people is now Christians in Christ’s church in Christ’s presence, forever more. Come on in!
At last, the seal on the tomb sealed the deal. Tombs hewn out of caves were regularly sealed with large stones to keep animals out, not people in. But Christ’s tomb not only had a stone, it had a seal, along with guards, for the reasons stated in the text. Here, Pilate makes his last appearance in the Gospels and takes his last non-stand. Here, the Jewish critics of Jesus take their last stand where they think they have the Lord trapped. But who really took the last stand and had the last word at Jesus funeral?
Christ arose from the dead, from a sealed and guarded tomb, to deliver us from death and give us eternal life. Every funeral sermon of every Christian’s funeral is a message of hope. The very first Christian funeral sermon, for Christ Himself, was preached by the angels: “He is risen!” He is risen, indeed!
A Peculiar Opportunity
Jesus really didn’t have a funeral, did He? He arose from the dead before family and friends could gather around the tomb! But ever since then, we bury our loved ones on the third day. Ever since then, we lay them to rest looking east. Think about this the next time you attend a funeral.
But think about this today. We eulogize Jesus every Sunday in worship. We speak good things about the good news of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Every prayer, hymn, confession, communion, and sermon is a testimony that Christ’s funeral and every Christian’s funeral is a mirage. We are not saying goodbye, but hello and welcome. Welcome to forgiveness, welcome to everlasting life, welcome to Christ!
Perhaps this is the first peculiar non-funeral you’ve ever attended, or at least the first one where the message made sense. If it is, you have a peculiar opportunity. Repent of death and believe in life. Repent of sin and believe in forgiveness. Repent of running your own life and give your life to Jesus Christ. You will be a peculiar person practicing peculiar rituals enjoying a peculiar life, one that is abundant and everlasting, which will never end with a funeral.
Dr. Charles F. "Chuck" DeVane, Jr., is the Pastor of Lake Hamilton Baptist Church in Hot Springs, Arkansas. His weekly sermon article, "The Gospel Truth," has been published in newspapers in Arkansas and Georgia. Dr. DeVane is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and has served in the pastorate for over 20 years. Contact Pastor Chuck at PastorChuck@lakehamiltonbaptistchurch.org