It was the custom of the citizens of Jerusalem to bury their dead outside the city walls – and to this day ancient rock-cut tombs surround the walls of Jerusalem on all three sides (but not on the west, from where the prevailing winds blew!). These tombs were normally intended to hold a number of bodies and often had a series of burial chambers leading off the main antechamber. Sometimes the bodies were buried in tunnels cut in a ‘pigeon-hole’ arrangements, two metres or more deep into the rock, and about 60 cm wide and high. At other times the bodies were laid in semicircular niches formed by cutting away the side walls of the tomb to a depth of up to a metre and about 75 cms up from the ground level. The niche was cut to leave either a flat shelf or a trough on which a body could be placed. There were also ‘bench’ tombs, where the body was laid on a bench that ran around the three sides of the tomb.
Precisely what kind of a tomb Joseph of Arimathea laid the body of Jesus in, we do not know. But one thing for sure, it was sealed by a large disk-shaped stone, probably rolled in a channel in front of the opening. The purpose of such a stone was to keep out animals – as also grave robbers. Mark tells us that on that first Easter Sunday morning, as the women made their way to the tomb, they were asking, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb?” (v3). And well they might ask! For the stone was “very large” (v4) – indeed according to one New Testament manuscript (Dox Bezae) twenty men could hardly have moved it. Certainly the stone blocking the opening to the tomb was too large for the women to move. Perhaps they were hoping they would find some men to help them roll the stone away?
We build our tombs differently today. No cool cave for us. Rather for some of us a damp hole in the ground, 6 feet of earth by 2 feet; and for an increasing majority of us an even smaller hole where our cremated remains will be laid to rest. And yet for all of us that cartwheel of a stone is a meaningful symbol. It speaks of the death that must come to each one of us. It doesn’t matter who we are or what we have done, death will come to us. However much power we may exercise in this life, there will be a day when our power comes to an end. No human power has been found to defeat the power of death. This is the message of the stone.
But thank God, the stone didn’t have the last word. For when the women came to the tomb they discovered that the stone had been rolled away. What was beyond their means, was not beyond the means of God. “He has risen!”, declared the angel (v6). God had raised his Son from the dead Death may mark the end of our power – but not of God’s power. Death was not the end for Jesus – neither need death be the end for us.