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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Redemption and the Burial of Christ



A while back, I heard one of my favorite preachers--an extraordinarily able expositor--make a passing comment on a passage that spoke of burial, and, in making a small connection with the burial of Christ, say something to the effect that there wasn't really any huge redemptive significance there. Knowing this preacher, my immediate thought was: "I'm sure he overstated that and doesn't really believe it." That's still my belief, but it got me to thinking. I wasn't sure I had any firm grasp myself of the redemptive significance of Christ's burial! So I decided to study it a little bit in Scripture. I still have *plenty* to learn on this subject, but I found a couple of interesting things. And really, what I want to share here is not so much a full exposition of what the burial of Christ should mean to us, but simply a broad framework in which to understand it, theologically and biblically. I also want to preface by saying that Scripture gives the overwhelming majority of the weight of redemptive significance to the cross and resurrection events in the work of Christ (the historia salutis as it is sometimes called). Mutually interpreting, those two events are the heart and center of the gospel, and as we will see, the burial of Christ is best understood in light of both of those events.

However, the burial is also explicitly mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, which is one of the clearest and most succinct summaries of the gospel in the New Testament:

"Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve." (NASB, emphasis mine)

So how does the rest of Scripture talk about the burial of the Christ? What emotions are we supposed to associate with it? How does it impact our redemption? Does it?

At first glance, it may seem to be obvious that we are supposed to associate the burial of Christ with negative emotions and realities like death, sadness, decay, despair. Even if we understand that the suffering and death of Christ are ultimately for our salvation and good, in and of itself, the burial of Christ means that He is physically dead, lifeless, dishonored, in a state of having endured the shame of the cross. In fact, this is a real part of the meaning of the burial of Christ. But as I found in my study of the subject, it is not the total picture.

The main way in which I want to approach the subject of the significance of Christ's burial is the lens of the theological category of the "states of Christ." In traditional Reformed, if not also more broadly evangelical, systematic theology, zooming into "Christology," and then zooming in to the "work of Christ," Christ's existence is divided into three "states" or categories. These would include Christ's pre-incarnate glory, His "humiliation" spanning from His incarnation to His death, and His "exaltation." This is often illustrated by means of a large U-shape, with His highest states of glory and exaltation at the ends of the 'u' on top, and the lowest point of His state of humiliation, usually His death on the cross, at the bottom of the curve of the 'u'. Such illustration is often accompanied by quotation of the Carmen Christi or "Hymn of Christ" in Philippians 2:6-11. This passage speaks, in language fitting Aramaic better than Koine Greek and therefore suggesting a very early traditional Christian creed or hymn with strikingly high Christology, of how Christ, who though being equal with God, didn't regard equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, becoming a servant, obedient to God to the point of death on a cross, and therefore subsequently being exalted by God the Father to a place of new honor and glory, to be acknowledged by all men.

If we take this visual of the 'U-shape' of the states of Christ, where do we place the burial? The humiliation of Christ includes everything from the left end of the 'u' at the top, to the bottom of the curve, and the exaltation spans the rest, on the right side, up to the other end of the 'u'. Does the burial of Christ fit better in the area of humiliation or of exaltation? I personally have an idea of where to place it, but it is a little complicated for a number of reasons.

First of all, there are some factors that would lead us to believe it would be most appropriate to place the burial somewhere in the humiliation section of the graph. Obviously, physically lifeless existence doesn't seem to be much of an "exalted" state...at least as far as the human body goes, it's weak, even impotent, and void of the zōē life God breathes into a living human being to animate him for life lived in dominion over the Creation. Moreover, the burial of Christ specifically means that it's a burial following the igominy of Calvary--His burial is the indirect result of a brutally violent substitutionary death...hardly any kind of "exaltation," right? Scripturally, Christ's "grave was assigned with wicked men" (Isaiah 53:9a, although "grave" here is perhaps best understand as a Hebrew idiom for death in general since the tomb in which Jesus was laid was unused until then) and the grave was associated with at least the hypothetical prospect of "corruption" or "decay" (in the sense of biological decay) (Acts 2:27, 31). Romans 6 associates being "buried with Christ" in faith-union with Him with being "buried" into His death, only subsequently to be raised with Him in newness of life. Burial is more closely associated with death than with resurrection...or is it?

Actually, the Jewish custom of burial itself pointed forward to hope in the day of resurrection, at which time God would physically raise all the dead and carry out final judgment. This ancient Jewish belief is confirmed and continued in the New Testament, although, as we will see, Christ is a special case. Christ is the "firstfruits" of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20). His judgment day has come and gone. He was punished with eternal-quality punishment on the cross, under the curse of the Law (Gal. 3:13) as a substitute sacrifice for His covenant people; then He was vindicated for His personal righteousness and victory, and also declared the Messianic Son of God, through His resurrection from the dead (Rom. 1:4). Not only that, but in both 1 Cor. 15:42-49 and Romans 5:12-21 the resurrected Christ is envisaged as the "Second" or "Last Adam," whose resurrection has brought the age to come--the age of new Creation controlled by the principle of the Spirit (as opposed to "decay" and the "flesh") into the present age, and in whom (united by faith) a new humanity is being created, being fitted for the age to come by regeneration of the heart, sanctification, and the indwelling power of the Spirit. Everyone in Christ is a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). The "old" age is still here, but is passing away and being overcome by the light and power of the gospel of the risen Christ. We are partially in the "age to come" already, as Jews believed would come with the Messiah. They were right about that, but the already-not-yet ("inaugurated eschatology") of God's plan wasn't clearly revealed until Christ's resurrection and its New Testament exposition by the apostles. We await the consummation of the age to come, in the eternal state which will commence with Christ's Second Advent.

What is interesting about the burial of Christ in this regard, is that a number of biblical texts point in the direction of anticipation of the resurrection, and of the resurrection as the beginning of New Creation, as well as the fulfilment of the Davidic covenant. For example, Isaiah 53:9 continues "Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth," prophesying the relatively honorable circumstances of Christ's burial in a new tomb, because of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus (members of the Sanhedrin, actually). And the Acts 2 passage referenced earlier, in which Peter is preaching the Pentecost sermon explaining the outpouring of the Spirit in connection to Christ's death and resurrection, says that in fact Christ was not utterly abandoned to Hades/Sheol, and was not allowed to see corruption, because of God's promise to the king (even though David had undergone decay, his greater Son, the ultimate Messianic king, would not) (Acts 2:27, 31-32). Another important factor is that Christ, in crying out "It is finished" on the cross (John 19:30), declared that the suffering of divine wrath was over (or at least was proleptically over, barring the actual death itself moments later) on the cross. Surely this is the lowest point of the humiliation of Christ, and therefore the grave must be placed somewhat past this point on the 'U-graph' of the states of Christ. This last point is bolstered by Jesus' words to the repentant thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 that "Today" he would be with Christ in Paradise. Exegetes of varying theological opinions dispute comma placement here, but the preponderance of instances in which Christ says "Amen, I say to you," indicate that "today" is not usually a part of that introductory formula. Hence, Christ's suffering was over when He died on the cross.

Other than a couple of other significant things about Christ's burial that could be discussed further, such as 1) the apologetic power of the details of the grave clothes recorded in several of the gospel accounts (and the apparently traditional Jewish burial method by which Christ fully identified with His people in death as well as in life), 2) the occasion for another demonstration of divine power in the angelic appearance and earthquake that shook up the guards at the tomb, and 3) the idea of the "sign of Jonah" (Matt. 12:39-40) which points to the burial and resurrection of Christ as a powerful chastisement particularly of the Pharisees for their refusal to repent and believe in Christ and even more pointedly, given the background narrative of Jonah, for their disdain at Gentile inclusion, the location of the burial of Christ is perhaps the most powerful indicator that the burial should be seen not only as the conclusion of a violent death, but a prelude to an even more powerful life--New Creation, resurrected life.

What do I mean?

Look at John 19:41, 42: "Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there."

The hewn out rock in which Joseph and the other disciples placed the breathless Lord Jesus' body was situated in a garden. Whether or not John intentionally included this detail in his gospel account because he understood the theological import of this fact, the biblical-theological, redemptive-historical significance cannot be missed, especially in light of 1 Cor. 15 and Rom. 5 as discussed above.

The First Adam, who failed in his mission to fill the earth and extend God's representative dominion throughout the Creation, began his mission and then sinned and disobeyed God in the garden of Eden. The Second Adam, with His new resurrection life granted because of His obedience, in whom all Christian believers are made alive in spirit and will one day also participate in resurrected physical life, was raised to that new, eschatological life in a garden just outside Jerusalem. From there He commissioned His disciples to carry out representative dominion restoration through making disciples to the ends of the earth, in the new power of union with the incarnate, risen, and all-authoritative Christ, and the presence of the Spirit (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8). The successful accomplishment of this in history will (after the unsuccessful final Satanic rebellion of Rev. 20:7-9) lead to the consummation of new Creation in a garden-city complete with the "water of life" and the "tree of life" as described in Revelation 22 (however symbolic the imagery may be).

So we see that although the burial of Christ is intimately connected with Christ's sacrifical death on the cross (and I can't help hearing echoes of Micah 7:19b in Romans 6...as Christ takes our sin into the heart of the earth by His death, God truly "casts our sin into the depths of the sea"), it is perhaps even more intimately connected with the anticipation of the resurrection. Just as the cross can be seen ironically as the place of Christ's greatest victory over evil (Col 2:14-15; cf. in Revelation when the saints overcome "by the blood of the Lamb," e.g. in 12:11), the grave can be seen as simultaneously Christ's participation in human death, as well as His victory over death. It is perhaps best to place the burial at the very beginning of the "upswing" of the 'u' on the "states of Christ" 'U-graph.'

The burial of Jesus Christ is simultaneously the dénouement of His Passion, and a Grande Ouverture to the drama of New Creation, the realization of the blessings of the long-awaited age to come through the resurrection of Christ. Praise His holy name!

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