Thursday, July 22, 2010

Luke 23:44-56 Commentary

The Death of Jesus
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." [d] When he had said this, he breathed his last.

47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, "Surely this was a righteous man." 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

The Burial of Jesus
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.

Dig Deeper
I’m mildly ashamed to admit this, but as much as I hate most of the shows that pass for programming on the history channel these days there is one show that I constantly wind up watching, no matter how much I don’t want to enjoy it. It’s sad to me that a channel, that purports to be about history, shows very few shows these days that cover actually important historical events and seems intent, instead, on having shows on aliens, Nostradamus, and the supposed end of the world. So as much as I don’t want to like the show “Monster Quest,” I keep finding myself watching it. “Monster Quest” is a show that details supposed sighting or infestations of everything from known animals like piranha and examine whether they are now in lakes in the United States to Yetis and other strange creatures. They will interview eyewitnesses and recreate the events that they claim to have seen.

Most of these “monsters” that people claim to have seen would be dismissed as nothing more than fantasy if it wasn’t for one thing. The cases that have eyewitnesses need to be at least considered. Time and again, while watching the show, you will hear an eyewitness say something like, “if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I just would not have believed it.” It’s hard to discount actual eyewitness evidence. In fact, as the show further investigates each case, most of the claims, especially of undocumented beasts like the Yeti, fall apart when the eyewitness evidence is really examined. The person is making up the story, or there is a perfectly logical explanation to what they saw, or they have misidentified a known animal, or they really didn’t see much at all but their imaginations have filled in the rest. Every now and then, though, there is a credible witness who has some expertise in the area, who got a good look at something, and is adamant that what they saw cannot be explained away easily. Those eyewitnesses are at least worth listening to.

From the very opening of this Gospel, Luke promised that he was going to give an ordered account that came directly from eyewitnesses that were keepers of the word. Everything that followed has fallen under that parameter but now Luke is arriving at the pinnacle of his account. This is what everything else has pointed to. It’s not the death of Christ as most modern Christians might suppose. That is certainly important for Luke but is by no means the most important thing. In fact, as he describes the crucifixion and death of Jesus, he is very careful to set up his account for what is to come. Everywhere we look, Luke is giving us eyewitnesses that would have been credible to a Roman audience and at least cause them to take pause and consider the evidence. He is setting everything up for the next chapter, the description of the incredible resurrection of Christ, and he is making sure that any reader would see that this is a credible event. There were no mistakes and this is not some fantasy cooked up by a small group of loyal Jewish followers of Jesus.

In the Old Testament, darkness was frequently associated with judgment (Joel 2:10; Amos 8:9; Zeph. 1:15). This would have been a frightening specter and one that would be difficult to explain away. It also served as a powerful witness to the death of one who was unique to God. Everyone that was in Jerusalem at the time would remember and be able to attest to the unexplained darkness that happened the moment Jesus died. They might be able to come up with logical explanations for the darkness but the timing would certainly seem miraculous. The judgment of God was being poured out on Israel’s representative and the hour of darkness had truly come (Lk. 22:53). Jerusalem could avoid a similar fate if they would but put their faith in the life of the Messiah and allow him to be their representative.

At the same time that the sun had stopped shining, the massive curtain in the Temple, likely that one that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two. Luke doesn’t attempt to speculate on the specific meaning of this event but only reports it. It is likely that the tearing of the Temple curtain indicated one of several things or possibly all of them. The first was that a time of judgment had now come upon the Temple. Israel would be given time to repent as individuals but the nation had been judged and the Temple would be destroyed. The second thing was that ripping of the curtain indicated that access to God had been bridged. Because of Jesus’ death, those in Christ really could now enter into the presence of the Holy God and be reconciled. The third element is alluded to in Ephesians 2:14 where Paul says that in Christ the dividing wall of hostility (the law) had been torn down so that the Jews and Gentiles could really become the one family of many nations that God had promised for so long. When the curtain was torn, so was the wall that had separated the people under the law.

As Jesus took his last breath, he quoted from Psalm 31:5, again identifying himself as the righteous sufferer. The Psalm is a cry of the righteous sufferer committing his spirit into the hands of the mighty God. It is the cry of one who has befallen hard times but trusts that God will exalt him, protect him, and show him to be in the right. Despite appearances, the Psalmist declares that the righteous sufferer has not been given into the hands of his enemy but has instead been entrusted to God’s care all along.

The righteous sufferer would be justified but quoting from a Psalm would mean little to a Roman reader. So what? Anyone could claim that ancient writing as their own. But, says Luke, consider the Roman centurion who was watching all of this. This influential and respected man of position praised God. This crucified man, said the centurion, was in the right, he was one who was innocent (what the TNIV renders “righteous”). This wasn’t some flighty Jewish witness. This wasn’t someone who would be swayed by the emotion of the moment or fooled because he was really hoping that this would be the Messiah. In the eyes of a Roman audience, this was a credible witness that could not be dismissed but Luke goes even further. Those who had gathered around to watch the spectacle but certainly didn’t oppose it or try to stop the proceedings, now shared in the feelings of the centurion. They beat their breasts, knowing that an innocent man had been put to death. Whatever happened that day, they knew that God was not pleased. The Roman witness was impressive, but a vast majority of the people corroborated his response. This man should not have been killed, but he had been and he was now dead.

As Jesus was taken off of the cross, Luke brings us another impressive witness, Joseph of Arimathea. This was no peasant. Joseph was an important member of the Council, one that would have been respected by both Jews and most Romans. He was known to follow the law and to be an upright and trustworthy man. He had not agreed with the council’s decision to put Jesus to death and now he was taking a great gamble. He hadn’t stepped forward before as a public follower of Jesus but he would now. He took the risk of going to Pilate and asking for the body of Jesus, something that was dangerous because it was common practice after a political rebel had been put to death to also get rid of his supporters. We should not miss the fact that Joseph’s actions were squarely outside of the normal cultural practices. Taking care of burial arrangements was not only the sole responsibility of the family of the deceased, it was one of the most solemn duties of a family member. Joseph was publicly stepping up and embracing Jesus’ teaching of creating a new surrogate family around himself by fulfilling the role of family in that society. By taking Jesus down and burying him, Joseph was loudly declaring that he was a part of Jesus’ family.

The burial process in Israel at the time was a two-part process that could take up to a year. The body would be prepared with spices and perfumes and then would be placed on a shelf inside a tomb for up to a year while the flesh decayed. The bones would then be taken and placed in a bone box called an ossuary and put up on another shelf in the tomb. Generally tombs were for an entire family and would contain many family members. But Luke is careful to point out that Joseph was a wealthy man with a new tomb. The tomb would be in a prominent place and it was empty. It wouldn’t have been in an area that was jammed in with a bunch of other low-grade tombs and there were no other bodies in that tomb. Luke is clearly laying out the importance of the witnesses for what is about to take place. Joseph was an impressive witness who had come out publicly and taken bold action. He could be sought out and questioned about what he had seen. On top of that, Luke has taken away many of the “logical explanations.” There was no getting the wrong tomb or looking in the wrong place.

In addition to all of this, Luke produces further witnesses. The women were standing to the side all along, watching all of these events. Granted, women weren’t impressive witnesses in the first century but Luke wasn’t making up a story here. He was presenting facts as they happened. He has carefully produced several impressive witnesses but he has also produced a horde of other witnesses to supplement the testimony. The women were waiting to prepare the body for burial but they could not properly complete the job because of the coming Sabbath. It seems most likely that, despite much Christian tradition that he died on Friday, Jesus died on a Thursday afternoon (which would put him in the tomb for the required three days and nights). Joseph was acting in accordance with Deuteronomy 21:22-23 which declared that a man killed in the fashion that Jesus had been must be buried on that same day, but they couldn’t complete the proper preparation of the body. The women could not handle the body during the special Passover Sabbath on Friday and the regular Sabbath on Saturday. They watched carefully, says Luke, where the body was laid. There would be no going to the wrong tomb when they returned on Sunday morning to finish the burial preparations.

It would be easy to miss Luke’s final point of witness with the women and other disciples but it’s important that we don’t. Their plan was to return on Sunday and finish the burial. Jesus was dead and gone in their minds. What that meant for his claims of being the Messiah they had no doubt not worked out yet. But the fact is clear. They were not expecting to find anything more on Sunday morning than a dead body badly in need of spices and perfume. They were not huddled together waiting expectantly for Jesus to rise from the tomb, an addition which we would expect to find if Luke was simply making up this story. No, they were expecting nothing of the kind. Their Messiah was dead and they would return home for the darkest days and nights of their life.

Devotional Thought
I find it fascinating that even while the women thought that Jesus was dead and had failed in his attempt to be Messiah and bring about the salvation that he had promised, they remained faithful to him and were prepared to honor him and care for his body. Yet, when we feel like God has let us down or not fulfilled our expectations, those are the moments that we are usually quickest to jump ship. Are you faithful to God even when things don’t seem to be going well? Do you honor Jesus in your life even when it seems to you that things have failed miserably? The faithful women, when they returned to Jesus would discover something amazing and so will we when we remain faithful despite difficult circumstances.

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