What was the central claim of the early church about Jesus? It wasn’t that he was a powerful healer, a great teacher or leader, or that he was the victim of injustice. It was that Jesus was bodily raised from death to life after he was crucified, truly dead, and buried. This claim is what was foolishness to the Gentiles and a stumbling block to the Jews (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).
The main arguments against this claim of the church was that Jesus wasn’t really dead, or perhaps the disciples had stolen the body, or perhaps the women had gone to the wrong tomb. So as you read Matthew 27:57-66 notice that Matthew is step-by-step countering these arguments.
First, Jesus was placed in a new tomb, it had not yet been used. In the 1st century, what did burial look like? Bodies weren’t put in a coffin and buried in the ground with a tombstone marking the spot. Instead, bodies were wrapped in cloth with perfumes and spices. The wrapped body was laid on a shelf or ledge inside a cave. Because graves were robbed, some would have a large stone rolled across the entrance to make robbery more difficult. The body was left on the shelf until all the flesh had decomposed, normally about a year in the dry climate of the Holy Land. Then the friends or relatives would come to the tomb, collect the bones of their loved one, and place them in a box called an ossuary, which was long enough to fit a femur, the longest bone in the body, and large enough to fit a pelvic bone, the largest bone in your body.
This is the process that Joseph of Arimathea began. He requested Jesus’ body from Pilate and Pilate granted his request. This alone shows that Jesus was dead. Roman soldiers and governors didn’t do anything halfway when it came to capital punishment. There was no chance they would have let a condemned rebel leader escape death. The suggestion that the disciples stole the body is just as unlikely since they had been in hiding since Jesus was arrested. It wouldn’t have been possible anyway as the Temple priests, anxious about this happening, went to Pilate and had a Roman guard placed at the tomb. They also placed a seal on the tomb to make sure the stone over the entrance wasn’t moved.
The last argument was that the women went to the wrong tomb on Easter morning. Matthew counters this by noting that the two women who went to the tomb on Easter morning were also there with Joseph of Arimathea on Friday night. They knew which tomb Jesus was in.
None of these things proves the truth of the Christian message. That isn’t Matthew’s goal. He allows room for doubt, but he makes sure that if you do doubt it has to do with whether or not the living God, the creator of the universe, would and could raise the Messiah, on whose shoulders rested the weight of our salvation, from the dead. It seems that Matthew can hardly wait to begin the next chapter in which all will be revealed.
How long was Jesus in the tomb?
For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. (Matthew 12:40)
How do we fit three days and nights between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? Some people suggest that there was a special Sabbath that week as part of Passover, so Jesus was actually crucified on Thursday, or possibly even on Wednesday. It’s possible, but not at all what was remembered and passed down by the early church, the people who were discipled by Jesus’ disciples. It’s that third night “in the heart of the earth” that causes us confusion.
We do know that in the 1st century and earlier, days were not counted in the same way we do today, in 24 hour periods. In Esther 4:16, Esther sends a message to Mordecai telling the Jews to fast in preparation for her uninvited appearance before the king.
“Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my attendants will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.”
Two verses later, in chapter 5, verse 1 we read, “On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall.”
Counting 3 nights and days from Esther 4:16 would mean Esther could not have gone to see the king until the fourth day. Yet we find her there on the third day. This is analogous the time Jesus spent in the tomb. It seems that in the time of the Bible, even if only a part of a day had passed, it could be counted as a day.
Jesus died on Good Friday and was buried before sunset, the time when Jews considered the next day began. So Friday was day 1 in the tomb. Saturday was day 2, and Jesus rose in the morning on Sunday. That was day 3.
“After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.” (Matthew 28:1)
“On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered over to the hands of sinners, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” (Luke 24:1-7)
This doesn’t account for the 3rd night Jesus mentions in Matthew 12, but it does explain the 3 days. Jesus created an exegetical quandary for us by throwing that 3rd night into Matthew 12. Regardless, the intent of the Gospels is not to give us an exact timeline, but rather to share the gospel, the ‘good news’, that Jesus died, was buried, and was raised from the dead, fulfilling the covenant and saving us from death, the penalty for our sin.
Activities for kids during Holy Week
- Plant something: Talk about new life and Jesus rising from the tomb.
- Make an Easter basket for a neighbor. Fill it with treats and surprise your neighbor with your gift.
- Either use your garden/tomb display (Make a Grace Garden or an Easter Garden) or use an empty box. Place a figure in the box to be Jesus in the tomb. Cover the ‘entry’. Place a figure outside the box to be a guard.
- Bake resurrection cookies.