Stephen D. Doe
The first shovelful of dirt skitters across the wood, making a dull sound on the lid of the coffin. The pile of freshly dug earth awaits the workers who will come to cover it. Mourners look down into the hole and then walk away. What do you say at that moment? Buried. Dead and buried. The end.
For family and friends, the finality of that image may remain imprinted in memories. Burial seems to be the closing testimony to death's permanence. Men fear and seek to hide from death. Job's friend, Bildad, calls death "the king of terrors" (Job 18:14). Not much has changed. A Christ-denying world can only see death as a cruel joke, or avoid thinking about it, or accept it with a weary sorrow. There is still a rush to hide the dead from sight. The world is filled with graves and tombs and the ashes of funeral pyres. Some graves are gaping trenches into which hundreds of bodies are pushed. Others are only shallow depressions with just enough dirt to hide the sight and smell of death. Death, burial ... the end.
The Christian church has for many centuries confessed that death and burial took in Jesus Christ. The Apostles' Creed confesses that he "was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell." Hundreds of years later, the Westminster Larger Catechism reaffirmed that:
Christ's humiliation after his death consisted in his being buried, and continuing in the state of the dead, and under the power of death till the third day; which hath been otherwise expressed in these words, He descended into hell. (Q. 50)
The reality of death and burial encompassed the Son of God. But with Jesus it was not the end. The grave clothes and the sealing of the tomb were not to hide the smell of death (John 11:39), but to be the stage for God's mighty work. In Johannes Vos's suggestive comment, Christ's burial is "a necessary fact of the gospel" (The Westminster Larger Catechism, ed. by G. I. Williamson, p. 112).
What we as fallen creatures experience as the inevitable payment or wages for sin (Rom. 6:23), Christ experienced as part of his humbling of himself in order to redeem God's people. By dying and being buried, Jesus Christ submitted himself willingly to what comes to mankind naturally. He saves the elect from death's power by uniting himself with them in suffering and death, so that Christians may be united with him in resurrection life.
The death of Jesus Christ played a key part in the saving work of Jesus Christ. It demonstrated that he was a true man, subject as we are to death itself. In fact, it was his goal in becoming a man. He partook of flesh and blood "that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery" (Heb. 2:14–15). Jesus didn't just weep at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:35); death came to him and he submitted to it.
Consider who it was who died. He was "the Author of life" (Acts 3:15), in whom was life (John 1:4). Christ declared himself to be "the way, and the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Like the Father, he gives life to whom he wishes (John 5:21). He had life in himself by right and gift as the Son of God, "for as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself" (John 5:26). Yet Christ died and was buried.
The life-giving, eternal Son of God, in becoming man in order to redeem dying sinners, was humiliated for the sake of his people. He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 2:8), as the obedient servant of the Father. Dying and being buried are part of our lot as Adam's descendants, but the Son freely drank of this cup for our sakes.
In his humiliation, our prophet Jesus Christ died and was buried. The prophets were killed for declaring the word of the Lord (Matt. 23:30–35). Jesus was the final prophet (Heb. 1:1–2), who proclaimed "the will of God for our salvation" (Shorter Catechism 24). He went to Jerusalem as a prophet and died there (Luke 13:33–34). And, like the prophet Jonah, Jesus Christ was delivered from death, having been "under the power of death for a time" (SC 27; cf. Jonah 2:5–6 and Luke 11:29–30).
In his humiliation, Christ our priest had to be buried and continue "under the power of death for a time." His death was a priestly "offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice" (SC 25). Other priests had offered sacrifices according to God's command. But it was impossible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sin (Heb. 10:4). Those sacrifices had to be offered again and again because the priest himself needed to have his own sins removed (Heb. 7:27). The finality and sufficiency of the sacrifice that Jesus Christ made, however, was vividly shown in the humiliation of his being buried, putting an end to all other sacrifices (Heb. 9:26).
In his humiliation, Christ our king was humbled by being put to death and being buried, so that he might execute his office "in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies" (SC 26). The king who died disarmed and shamed the rulers and authorities through the very instrument of his death (Col. 2:15; cf. Heb. 2:14–15). The life-giving king, Jesus Christ, not only identified with us in our dying and being buried, but showed that death itself must yield to him. Paul reminds us that the last enemy to be not merely restrained but conquered is death itself, which Jesus conquers for us (1 Cor. 15:26). By the believer's union with the Savior, he or she becomes a victor over death and the grave as well.
Christ, in his resurrection power, goes with us through the valley of the shadow of death (Ps. 23:4). Death itself is gain for the Christian because it brings us to the Savior (Phil. 1:21–23; 2 Cor. 5:6–8). Paul's recitation of the gospel doesn't end with "that he was buried," but with the triumphant words "that he was raised on the third day" (1 Cor. 15:4). The gospel necessarily includes the death and burial of Christ, for his resurrection means that "Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit" (1 Pet. 3:18). He was "declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:4). Jesus Christ had to be humbled by death and by being buried, so that death might be our entrance into glory.
Christ is rightly called the firstborn from the dead (Rev. 1:5). The words sung by David, that God would not allow his holy one to undergo decay (Ps. 16:10), had to await Christ's humiliation under the power of death for a time to find their great fulfillment in his resurrection. Humiliation gave way to exaltation as Christ was raised up from the dead on the third day and ascended into glory. Christ's humiliation means our exaltation as we die with Christ to sin and its power over us now (Gal. 2:19–20; Rom. 6:8) and, finally, forever.
When the Christian walks away from a grave, he must do so in hope. The seal on Christ's tomb is broken. The power of death has been shattered. The humiliation of the Son of God, who was buried and continued "under the power of death for a time" (SC 27), means that through our prophet, priest, and king, Jesus Christ, "the souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness, and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves, till the resurrection" (SC 37), when we will be "raised up in glory" (SC 38).
The dirt may be piled up, but the child of God has been delivered from the estate of sin and misery, facing death itself and the pains of hell forever (SC 20, 19), by Christ's humiliation and exaltation. The hope of everlasting life and a final end to death and burials comes because Jesus Christ was humbled by dying and being buried and then was exalted in his glorious resurrection. Hallelujah, what a Savior and what a hope!
Jesus lives, and so shall I.
Death! thy sting is gone forever!
He who deigned for me to die, lives,
The bands of death to sever.
He shall raise me from the dust:
Jesus is my hope and trust.
Jesus lives and reigns supreme;
And, his kingdom still remaining,
I shall also be with him,
Ever living, ever reigning.
God has promised; be it must:
Jesus is my hope and trust.
Jesus lives and death is now
But my entrance into glory.
Courage, then, my soul, for thou
Hast a crown of life before thee;
Thou shalt find thy hopes were just:
Jesus is the Christian's trust.
The author is pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Md. He quotes the ESV. Reprinted from New Horizons, April 2007.