The Descent from the Cross
Tim Temple

Introduction

Matthew, in his account of the crucifixion of Christ, records that when Jesus Christ was hanging on the Cross, the critics passed by with the crowd mocking Him and shouting, “If you are the Christ, come down from the Cross.” Someone has pointed out that it was because He was the Christ that He didn't come down from the Cross. We should be eternally grateful that He didn't, because by staying there, He provided for our salvation.

As we come to the last twelve verses of John, chapter 19, we find Him finally coming down from the Cross because His work was finished. He, with a shout of victory, proclaimed that it was finished. To see this in its proper perspective, we need to remember the overview of chapter 19. In verses 1-16, we saw the deliberations about Jesus, that trial of Jesus in its various stages. Then in verses 17-30, we looked at the death of Jesus with all of its implications. So now, in the last section of the chapter, verses 31-42, we have the story of the descent of Jesus from the Cross.

The Assurance of Death

The first step toward that descent from the Cross was the assurance of death, in verses 31-37. The first part of that assurance was the assurance that the Jews wanted to make. Look at verse 31:

John 19

31The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain upon the Cross on the sabbath day, (for that sabbath day was an high day,) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.
32Then came the soldiers, and brake the legs of the first, and of the other which was crucified with him.
33But when they came to Jesus, and saw that he was dead already, they brake not his legs:
34But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

History tells us that it was customary for the Romans to leave a victim of crucifixion on the Cross to die slowly even if it took several days, and sometimes it did take two or three days. Then when the criminal did die, they just pulled his body off the Cross and left it on the ground. They didn't honor it with a burial; they just left it for the vultures to finish off. All of that was a part of the terrible agony and shame of dying by crucifixion. However, as badly as the Jews had wanted to have Jesus crucified, Jewish law did not permit that kind of treatment, not that they were particularly compassionate, as far as we have already seen, but that they were still in the midst of their rebellion against God's Son, ironically and hypocritically, very committed to keeping the Old Testament law.

God had commanded in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 23, that criminals who were executed hanging on a tree, should be taken down by sunset. The verse goes on to say that this was because anyone who hung on a tree was considered a curse or a monument to God's judgment as long as he hung there. So it was not to be overdone, and it was to be ended by sundown.

Galatians, chapter 3, verse 13, says specifically that Christ did become a curse for us because He hung on a tree. As He hung on the Cross, He actually was cursed by God for our sins. The technical basis for that was Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verse 23, that said it was a curse to be hanged. That was an anticipation of this cruel form of execution that hadn't even been developed at the time Deuteronomy was written.

Out of that background, the Jews went to the Jewish leaders and asked them to break the legs of the criminals so they could die more quickly and could be taken down off the Cross before sundown. The soldiers were dispatched to do that, and apparently the other two were still alive because they did break their legs, but when they came to Jesus, He was already dead. We saw from the Scripture in our last study that He had dismissed His Spirit. He had deliberately given up His life when His work on the Cross was finished.

Even in that, we can see the hand of God. If any of Jesus' bones had been broken, it would have spoiled the type or the picture of Christ as the Passover Lamb. Exodus, chapter 12, verse 46, and Numbers, chapter 9, verse 12, say that the bones of the Passover lamb should not be broken. They were to chose a lamb that was a show animal to begin with, and then they were to be very, very careful. They kept it penned up and fed it well and groomed it just as if they were going to have it in a stock show. They were to be especially careful that none of the bones of the animal were broken. Because Jesus was already dead, the soldiers did not have to break any bones. So God saw to it that that type was kept perfectly. In fact, in verse 36, John also ties it in with prophecy by quoting from Psalm 34, verse 20. John points out that this was a fulfillment of prophecy that not a bone of His would be broken.

Not only did the soldiers not break any of Jesus' bones, but to make certain of His death, one of the soldiers thrust a spear into His side and once again fulfilled prophecy. Notice verse 34:

John 19

34But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and forthwith came there out blood and water.

It is not clear whether the authorities told them to do that or whether the soldier just acted on his own. There is nothing recorded about them having been instructed to do that. They were just supposed to be making sure they were dead, and the standard way to do that would be to break their legs. At any rate, this is recorded in Scripture that blood and water poured out of His side.

Over the years, a lot of symbolism has developed around this blood and water. There is no point in going into all of the different things that have been suggested about the symbolism of that and what that meant because the Scripture doesn't elaborate on it. This is the only place that it is mentioned, and it is mentioned without comment. Suffice it to say that John, for whatever reason, took this as an unquestionable sign that Jesus was dead.

Back in chapter 7, Jesus had used water springing up from a fountain as an illustration of eternal life through faith in Him. He had said if anyone would believe in Him, He would be like a fountain of living water. Probably that was part of what was pictured in the blood and water flowing from His side. Of course, the Scripture is full of references to the blood of Christ being the basis for our salvation. There are several of those references: Matthew, chapter 26, verse 28; Hebrews, chapter 9, verse 22; I John, chapter 1, verse 7; Revelation, chapter 1, verse 5. All mention redemption by His blood.

In past years, there have been those who said that the blood of Christ was not any more important than any other human being's blood because Jesus didn't bleed to death on the Cross. Even though it is true that Jesus did not bleed to death as the sacrifices bled to death, He was sacrificed in a way that was visible and obvious to everybody. The Scripture refers to it as “our being saved by His blood.” So we need to be very careful that we don't in any way downgrade the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed for our sins, even though He didn't bleed to death. The blood came out of His side after His death had already been accomplished. The Scripture speaks of blood over and over again as the price of our salvation: “Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins” (Hebrews 9:22).

Together, the blood and the water that flowed out of His side speak of the two separate aspects of our salvation. The blood speaks of cleansing and of God's forgiveness of our sins, and the water speaks of the new life that was given to us through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, so at least those are the things that are symbolized by the blood and water. Beyond that, it is speculation, and a lot of speculation has been done, as I say, but those two things are pictured based upon words of Scripture.

So the first part of the assurance of Jesus' death was by the Jews. They wanted to make sure that He was actually dead. They had biblical grounds to do that, but their interest was probably more just for their own freedom from Him—having Him out of the way.

Matthew records that Pilot was surprised that Jesus was dead so soon, and that tells us again that Jesus had control even over His death—not that Jesus committed suicide by any means, but that He, as God, when His work was completed, dismissed His Spirit and was received by the Father.

The Assurance of Jesus' Death By John

In verses 35-37, we have the assurance of Jesus' death by John, as well. If you look in verse 35:

John 19

35And he that saw it bare record, and his record is true: and he knoweth that he saith true, that ye might believe.

Here is John again referring to himself in the third person, which he does consistently throughout the book, but he is talking about himself. John was there and he saw all of this, and he wants everyone to know that he is telling the truth, not just for the preservation of his reputation, but notice at the end of verse 35: “…so that you may believe.” John is giving his own eyewitness testimony about the details of our salvation. Look at verse 36:

John 19

36For these things were done, that the scripture should be fulfilled, A bone of him shall not be broken.
37And again another scripture saith, They shall look on him whom they pierced.

Remember back in verses 25-26, we read that John was present at the crucifixion. There were those four women who were there, but also John was there. In fact, apparently he was the only one of the male disciples who were there at the foot of the Cross. The others may have been at some distance, but they had all fled when He was arrested. So there is no record that they were at the crucifixion, but John was there.

This is probably what he had reference to in verse 35, when he said, “He who has seen has testified…” He was an eyewitness to what he was writing about. So in His grace and providence, God saw to it that we have assurance from an eyewitness that Jesus did actually die for our sins. The reason that is important is that one of the theories about the Resurrection was that Jesus just fainted or swooned on the Cross, and the soldiers thought He was dead and allowed His body to be taken down. The disciples spirited it away and later, when He recovered, He was able to come back and make those post Resurrection appearances.

God, in advance, is preparing the dispelling of that kind of rumor, because John was personally present and was a witness to the fact that Jesus was actually dead and not just in a swoon. Of course, there are a great many other problems with that swoon theory anyway, but this is one that was prepared by God Himself before the theory was ever even proposed.

Not only that, but John was able to give the prophetic significance of all of this. In verse 36, he reminds us of the prophecy about the Messiah's bones not being broken. According to Psalm 34, verses 20 and 37, he points out this piercing of His side was another fulfillment of prophecy from Psalm 19, verse 34.

Zechariah's Prophecy

About four hundred years before this, the prophet Zechariah had prophesied in Zechariah, chapter 12, verse 10:

Zechariah 12

10And I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.

It is interesting how specific Zechariah was in that prophecy: “…look on Him whom they have pierced…” Of course, His hands and His feet were pierced with nails, and no doubt that is a part of what Zechariah had in mind, but he also must have had in mind this almost impulsive spearing of Jesus in the side by that Roman soldier. It is amazing how these prophecies were fulfilled by people who could have had no knowledge even that they were prophetic and no ulterior motive in piercing the side or in giving Him a sponge full of liquid, as we talked about in our last lesson. So many of these minute details—the soldiers gambling over His robe, things that these people could not have done on their own as a fulfillment of prophecy, things of which they were not even aware—show the validity of the deity of Christ and the fulfillment of prophecy.

Going back to Zecariah's prophecy, notice in the last part of the prophecy it says, “…they will mourn for Him as one mourns for his only son and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn.” To a certain extent, that prohecy began to be fulfilled on the Day of Pentecost in Acts, chapter 2, verses 37-38, when the Jews, listening to Peter's sermon about who Jesus was, said that they were pricked in their hearts and said, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?' They were convicted of that sin of the crucifixion of Jesus, and so that began to be fulfilled right there just a few weeks after His crucifixion.

It is also partially fulfilled today when any person—Jew or Gentile—recognizes Jesus as the Savior or as the Messiah; but prophecy also says that a day is coming when not only individual Jews and Gentiles, but actually Israel as a nation will mourn over that sin of piercing the Messiah and will be forgiven by God (Zechariah 13:1 and Romans 11:26).

It is hard for us to imagine this now, but there will be a day of national repentance on the part of the Jewish nation as it exists at that day in the future. We saw a little foreshadowing of this kind of thing as we came to the fiftieth anniversary of World War II. We have had some apologies of sorts by the Japanese and by the Germans, and we occasionally hear of some spokesperson apologizing on behalf of a nation for the previous acts of that nation, even though that person himself and that generation of people that he is representing may not have personally participated in that. There is this concept of national repentance, a national apology, and evidently that is going to take place at some point in the future. It will be at the beginning of the millennial kingdom particularly.

As I say, any time a Jewish person trusts Christ, that is an individual looking on Him whom they have pierced. But there will be the day when the Jews, as a nation, will come to Christ as their Messiah. During the millennial kingdom, the thousand year reign of Christ, Israel will be once again the center of the earth, religiously and politically. The Bible says that all the nations of the world will come to Jerusalem to worship so all of these promises from the Old Testament about the kingdom of God will be literally fulfilled on the earth with Jesus physically reigning over Israel from the throne of David.

There is a whole segment of Christianity that spiritualizes all of those promises and says that those references to the kingdom that have not yet been fulfilled are being fulfilled in the hearts and minds of Christians and that the Church is spiritual Israel. But at the same time, there are references to the size of Israel's kingdom that have never yet been fulfilled, even in the heighth of David's and Solomon's kingdoms. There are references that are referring to a physical rule of Jesus Christ over Israel, and so we believe that thousand year reign of Christ to be that time when Christ will rule over Israel, and they will accept Him as their Messiah, not only spiritually, but politically also. That is when all those promises that the Jews used as a basis for rejecting Jesus, those promises of His glory and His authority and His ruling over all the nations will be fulfilled in that thousand year reign of Christ.

Aftermath of His Death

We have been talking about the assurance of Jesus' death in verses 31-37, but in verses 38-42, we find the aftermath of His death. The other Gospels give more details about the circumstances of the crucifixion. You remember from Luke and from Matthew that there was a tremendous earthquake, and there was darkness over the whole earth. There was the splitting of the veil in the Temple, torn from top to bottom. All of these miraculous things took place as the surroundings of the death of Christ. Those things were not the primary focus. The primary thing was that Jesus died for our sins, but those were signs and indications to the people who were there and to the witnesses who would read about it later, that this truly was the Son of God.

After the calamitous death of Christ, with all those things surrounding it, the scene changes to an almost eerie kind of peacefulness in these last verses of John, chapter 19. It is in that scene of peacefulness and stillness that the body of Jesus is tenderly taken down from the Cross and buried. In the closing verses of the chapter, John gives the details of that.

Permission for Jesus' Burial

First, in verse 38, we find the permission for burial:

John 19

38And after this Joseph of Arimathaea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave. He came therefore, and took the body of Jesus.

Mark, chapter 15, says that Joseph was an honorable man, and Luke, chapter 23, verse 50, says that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel. Luke tells us that he had not consented to the death of Jesus, but now after the death of Jesus and probably because of all of that revelation of God's power that he would have seen as he watched the crucifixion, or if he was just present in Jerusalem when all of that was going on, it would have been confirmed to him that this was really the Messiah, as he already believed. Now he is willing to risk excommunication by the Jews, maybe even his own death as a member of the Sanhedrin, but he risks all of that. He comes to Pilate and asks for the body of Jesus.

None of that mattered. None of the danger to him mattered now that salvation was finished. Pilate was probably amazed to get a request like this from one of the Jews who just a few hours before that had been clamoring for Jesus' death, and for all that he knew, this could have been one of the people who was out there yelling, “Crucify Him.” After all of the trouble that he had with the Jews in getting Jesus to the Cross and Pilate's not having enough nerve to keep Him from the Cross, he must have been amazed that one of those very people would come and ask for His body.

He may have granted it in a desperate attempt to save his own conscience for having allowed that crucifixion to take place. An amazing thing is that instead of just dumping the body on the ground, as would normally have been the case, he actually gives permission for this man to take the body and bury it.

Preparation for Jesus' Body for Burial

In verses 39-40, we find the preparation of the body for burial. Notice verse 39:

John 19

39And there came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight.
40Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.

Here is another amazing thing: When Nicodemus came to Jesus in chapter 3, John tells us that he was one of the rulers of Israel. Jesus referred to him as a teacher in Israel. So here he is, along with Joseph of Arimathaea, another member of the Sanhedrin—two of the rulers of Israel, two of the prominent men among that group who, as a group, rejected Christ as their Messiah. Maybe they were surprised to see each other there or maybe they already had shared the fact between themselves that they were secret believers in Christ. We don't know any of that, but here they were, secretive about their belief in Him in His life, now willing to expose themselves to great risk after His death.

You know, that is an interesting commentary on what a true understanding of the death of Jesus Christ has on people. It changes people's lives. It brings them to the place of being willing to do things that they would not have done previously. I believe that it may have been the actual death of Christ, although the Scripture tells us that they believed in Him; but after His death, they were emboldened to take this controversial stand, to say the least, and see to it that the body of Jesus was buried.

We might speculate how things might have been different if these men had stood up for Jesus, and there are so many believers today who are secret believers, for whatever reason, afraid to speak out for Jesus Christ in their workplace or in their neighborhood or wherever it may be. Probably all of us, to a certain extent, harbor those kinds of reticence; but think how different things might have been if Nicodemus and Joseph had been willing to speak up for Him. At least, they were willing now, and they provided the respect and the honor of a burial of Jesus.

They joined together in the Jewish ritual of wrapping each individual part of the body. They would wrap each finger and each toe separately in strips of linen saturated with these spices that Nicodemus brought. That is the reason that it is so significant at the Resurrection that the grave clothes were lying there as though undisturbed. Again, the critics, through the years, have said that Jesus could have waked up in the tomb, realized that the agony of the Cross was over and gotten Himself together and gotten out of the grave clothes. That would be impossible. There would be no way that a human being could put those grave clothes back just like they were, because, just as I say, it was like a sarcophagus. It would be like the mummies that we see that the Egyptians produced.

To know that kind of thing about the burial would nullify that idea that Jesus, as a human being, got Himself out of the grave and put the grave clothes back where they were. So that was what these men, joined by the women who were followers of Jesus, began to do. We know that they had to hurry because they wanted to get the bodies off the Crosses before the beginning of the Sabbath, and they may not have been able to do it as thoroughly as they wanted to. That is probably why the women came back on the resurrection morning—maybe to do a touch-up, maybe to make sure that they had gotten everything done like it was supposed to be done because they had to hurry with it before the Sabbath.

Jesus' Body Placed In the Tomb

Finally, in verses 41-42, we see the placement of the body in the tomb. Verse 41:

John 19

41Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.
42There laid they Jesus therefore because of the Jews' preparation day; for the sepulchre was nigh at hand.

You see again how the Sabbath played a part in all of their planning. Apparently, this was a quick decision on the part of Joseph of Arimathaea. It may be that another of his motives was that he knew that his tomb was near enough by that they could place Him in it. There may have been other believers who would have been willing to put Him in the tomb that they owned, but Joseph either made the choice or was chosen by others because his tomb was nearby.

Here is another fulfillment of prophecy. Isaiah, chapter 53, talks about the suffering of Jesus and the rejection of Jesus. It says that He was despised and rejected of men. But verse 9 says that even though He was despised and rejected of men, He made His grave with the rich in His death. Notice:

Isaiah 53

9And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death…

Again, what a minute little prophecy—despised and rejected of men, but He made His grave with the rich in His death. That reminds us that the death of Christ, even these little details, has great spiritual significance for us beyond our salvation. Romans, chapter 6, verse 4, and Colossians, chapter 2, verse 12, speak about this spiritual significance. Burial implies a boundary set between a previous existence and a new beginning. When Christ suffered in our place on the Cross, our sins were laid on Him: “He bare our sins in His own body on the tree…” (I Peter 2:24).

Our sins were removed from us, and so the burial of Christ was very important because it signifies the completion of that task of His burying our sin in His body. We don't think much about the burial of Jesus, but it is very important, if for no other reason than to make a visible demonstration of the completion of His burying our sins in His body on the tree.

The Christian is one who chooses to identify with Christ's death and burial and His resurrection as a putting away once and for all of old ways of thinking, old ways of living, and rising to a new way of living ourselves because of Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. II Corinthians, chapter 5, verse 17, says that as we continue to choose to live as though we really had been buried and risen with Christ, as we live with that realization in mind, our former way of life more and more passes away. We are new creatures in Christ. We have a new way of looking at everything. Even though we still have the same body and the same physical surroundings, we see those things differently, because we were buried with Christ and we were risen with Him.

Conclusion

Let me ask you: Have you been buried with Christ? Have you trusted Him as your Savior? Have you realized that His burial made possible our putting away that old life? There are so many Christians who genuinely believe in Jesus Christ as Savior, but who don't realize the power of our salvation to put off that old life and the fact that that sin has been paid for and it no longer has any power over us.

There may be some of you who need to come to that realization that because of the death and burial of Christ, your sin has been put away. It was nailed to the Cross with Jesus, and it has no power over you any longer. We still have temptation and a part of that temptation is the feeling that we have to say yes to the temptation, that we don't have the power to say no. God, in His own wisdom, has arranged things in such a way that we have to make a conscious realization of that in order to have it so in our lives. But we were buried with Christ because our sins were forgiven. They were taken care of at the Cross, and we rose with Him spiritually.


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