JOHN 19:31-42

He had in his 22 years serving in the Roman legions witnessed some horrible deaths and he had seen any number of atrocities in battle. But today, as a centurion of the Praetorian Guard, he was sickened, for he had presided over the execution of an innocent man.

He had heard Pontius Pilate declare this man Jesus to be innocent. He had seen the wicked intent of the Jewish leaders, who had been bent on having him crucified for imagined crimes. He himself had observed the gentle spirit of the man, even as Jesus was being lifted up on the cross.

Then there was the terrifying darkness that had enshrouded the land at midday and, at the very moment of the man's death, the seemingly interminable earthquake.

The centurion read again the shingle mounted at the top of the cross. JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. The centurion took a step from honest opinion to faith; he was convinced. This man was no criminal, he thought. He removed his helmet, looked into the lifeless face of Jesus and confessed aloud, "Truly this was the Son of God."

The shadow of the cross stretched out over the crowd. Within a few hours the sun would set, beginning the Sabbath celebration. Then nothing could be done about the corpse which hung on the cross, and it would remain there until the Sabbath had passed. Meanwhile, scavengers-ravens, buzzards, vultures-would swoop in to peck away at the flesh, thereby desecrating the body.

The Law of Moses demanded that the body of a criminal should not be left unburied overnight, particularly during a Sabbath. To make matters worse, this was a high Sabbath of the Passover. So it was that the chief priests went to Pilate and petitioned him to hasten the deaths of those being crucified that their bodies might be buried before sundown.

So Pilate commanded that the crurifragium be administered-that the bones of the crucified's legs be broken with a club or hammer, followed by a swift stroke from a sword or lance to put an end to what remained of life. Breaking the kneecaps and legs were not meant to kill the victim; it was merely Rome's way of increasing the suffering momentarily to compensate for the merciful end which followed.

When word reached Golgotha, the centurion ordered one of his men to take the hammer-the one that drove the nails through the hands and feet of Jesus-and smash the kneecaps of the thief to the left of Jesus. Screams of anguish pierced the silence. The same was done to the malefactor to the right of the Nazarene.

But when the soldier stepped toward Jesus, the centurion restrained him. "Jesus is dead," he said to the soldier, who seemed to be relishing his task.

"Are you certain?" the soldier asked, then shrunk back under a withering look from his commanding officer. Certainly the centurion knew when a man was dead, for he was an experienced and efficient executioner.

The centurion was enraged at first that his judgment should be questioned, but he regained his composure and confirmed quietly, "He is dead."

The soldier shrugged and picked up his lance. He scraped the spearhead two or three times on a stone to ensure it was sharp, then ran his fingertip down the edge of the blade to remove all doubt. Then placing the lance against the exposed side of Jesus, he put his weight against the spear, thrusting it straight up into the heart of the dead man. To the astonishment of the onlookers, a sudden gush of blood and water poured out of the body.

At the fortress Antonia, Pilate granted an audience to Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin and secretly a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. Joseph had known of the plot to destroy Jesus, but he had not been informed about the early morning meeting in which Jesus was summarily tried and convicted-probably because he had dared to express some modicum of sympathy for the teacher in a recent council meeting.

When word reached Joseph of the death of Jesus, he went to Pilate and, using the full influence of his office, demanded the body be turned over to him.

"Why do you want the body of the Galilean?"

Joseph explained his secret devotion to Jesus and his teachings. "Now that he is dead, I want to pay my respects for my master," he said.

Pilate considered this for a moment, then a strange smile crept over his face. "It pleases me to offer assistance to one who would risk exposure to defy that bunch of snakes you call the Sanhedrin," he said. "Take the body and go. I give it to you." Then Pilate instructed his secretary to write a letter giving Joseph of Arimathea authority to receive the body of Jesus from the soldiers at Golgotha.

Because of his own advanced age, Joseph knew death would visit him soon. He had a few years earlier purchased a garden in an exquisite setting and ordered a new tomb be hewed from the rock there in preparation for his burial. It was the tomb of a wealthy man; but on this day he would lay there the body of a poor carpenter-turned-teacher from Nazareth. Nothing is too good for the Son of God, Joseph thought.

Accompanied by his servants, Joseph went immediately to the centurion with his letter of permission to receive the body of Jesus. The cross was lowered and laid on the ground. The ropes were loosened and the cruel nails drawn out one by one. Joseph and his servants washed the dried blood, sweat and spittle from the face and body of Jesus. Then they wrapped his body in a linen cloth and carried it quickly to the garden, which was close by.

It was after five o'clock when they entered the tomb. Inside the rock was an inner court approximately nine feet square where the body was laid. Nicodemus, the teacher of the Law who had met Jesus by night and had since also become a follower in secret, met the burial party there with expensive lotions of myrrh and aloe to anoint the body for the tomb. Those closest to Jesus-his apostles-were not there, for they had gone into hiding. Jesus was instead buried by two members of the very group that had condemned him to death.

In haste, Joseph and Nicodemus wrapped the torso and each limb in long strips of linen in accordance with Jewish burial customs. A layer of myrrh and aloe was generously applied on the cloths, then another layer of cloths was applied over the lotion. Finally, the head was gently wrapped in a napkin.

Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus then exited the tomb, instructing their servants to seal the tomb by rolling a flat carved stone, some four feet in diameter, down a designed trench until it covered the entry completely. Then a smaller stone was squeezed into the crack to lodge the larger stone into place.

Three women stood far off on a small hill overlooking the garden where the tomb was located. Mary Magdalene, Salome and Mary the mother of James the Less had followed the burial party to this place to see where Jesus was laid. They wanted with all their hearts to run into the garden to help anoint the body of him whom they loved, but they could not violate Jewish customs by mingling with the men, two of whom they knew to be prominent leaders. Could these men be trusted, they wondered, to give him a proper burial?

"We'll come back after the Sabbath . . . ." Mary Magdalene let the words trail off wistfully. Then, gathering herself, she said resolutely, "We'll come back after the Sabbath to anoint his body. Come, we must prepare for the Sabbath."

A delegation from the chief priests and Pharisees went to see Pilate. "Sir," they said, "we remember that while he was alive the deceiver, Jesus of Nazareth, claimed repeatedly, 'After three days I shall rise again.'

"We now have reason to believe that his disciples are planning to steal the body so that they may tell the people he has been raised from the dead. This final deception will be far worse than the first he perpetrated. So we ask that you give the order for the tomb to be placed under constant guard until the third day has passed."

Pilate despised the Jewish leaders and their elaborate rituals and pretenses, but he found the machinations and claims surrounding this Jesus intriguing. He considered their request for a moment, then said, "Take a guard." Pilate smiled. "Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how."

So the chief priests and Pharisees went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting a guard of six Roman soldiers.

"So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch." --Matthew 27:66, KJV


 Excerpted from The Son, by Elmer Towns. Copyright © 1999. Regal Books, Ventura, California, 93003. Used by permission.