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Burial or Cremation?
“And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you” (Exodus 13:19).
Here the Spirit of God tells us that Moses did something that must have been very conspicuous to the nation of Israel as they made haste and left the land of Egypt. They left the land in haste, but not as slaves secretly escaping from their captors in the night. They left Egypt as slaves who had completely conquered, spoiled, and dispossessed their captors in an open display of triumph and victory. As they left the land of captivity, Moses took the bones of Joseph with them. Why do you suppose he did that?
I know this: God the Holy Spirit tells us in Hebrews 11 that Joseph made his brethren swear to carry his bones out of Egypt by faith. Moses carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt by faith, and Joshua buried them in Canaan by faith. And I think he did this as an indication of how believers ought to honor the dead bodies of those the Lord has taken to glory.
I am often asked, and several of you have asked me about this. — “Should a believer be cremated or buried?” While the Scriptures do not give any commandment, they do, in my opinion, clearly indicate that the burial of our bodies is most consistent with the faith of the gospel. Our Lord was buried in the earth; and we confess our Savior and our faith in him by a burial in believer’s baptism. Clearly, there is a connection between burial and our faith in Christ.
Abraham buried Sarah in the cave of Machpelah in the land of Canaan; and when he died, Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the same tomb (Genesis 23 and 25). And in Genesis 50 Joseph had his father Jacob embalmed, spent forty days mourning him, and obtained special permission from Pharaoh to carry his body up to Canaan. There he buried Jacob with Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 49:33-50:13). No doubt many, as they watched this procession, must have thought, “Why all this bother? Why all this expense? The man is dead. Don’t they know that his body is going to rot and decay and return to the dust? Doesn’t Joseph know that the body is just a shell, not the man?”
Yes, Joseph knew all that, and more. He did what he did to honor the father he dearly loved (2 Chronicles 16:14; 21:20). And Joseph embalmed his father because embalming was an indication that the one whose body was dead was really very much alive.
The Scriptures do not tell us that; but that was the reason the Egyptians embalmed their dead and built great pyramids for their kings. And our Lord Jesus tells us plainly that the death of the body is not, for God’s elect, death at all, but the beginning of a better life (Psalm 116:15; John 11:25-26; 2 Corinthians 5:1-5).
Joseph embalmed his father in hope of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:29; Acts 9:36-37). When Paul speaks of the baptism of the dead in 1 Corinthians 15:29, the word baptism is used there as it is when the Scriptures speak of washing cups and pots and tables (Mark 7:4-8). The Apostle asserts that the reason for the practice of washing (embalming the dead) is the hope of the resurrection. The Lord Jesus Christ redeemed our bodies as well as our souls. It is altogether proper for us to treat the bodies of the dead with the utmost respect and honor, burying them in hope of the resurrection.
Joseph in a Coffin
That is what Joseph did for his father. He embalmed him and buried him in the land of Canaan, believing the Word and promise of God, — that he would live again in resurrection glory. Joseph’s last act, as he was leaving this world, was an act of faith. He required his brothers to swear to him that they not leave his bones in Egypt (Genesis 50:22-26).
The Book of Genesis, the book of beginnings, closes with Joseph in a coffin. All God’s dealings with Israel recorded in these 50 chapters, all the promises made to the patriarchs, and the glories of God’s servant Joseph end with “a coffin in Egypt.” For 300 years Israel was left with nothing but a mummy and a word of promise. The elaborately embalmed body of Joseph lay in a coffin, probably on public display somewhere in Goshen for 300 years! For three centuries, that silent “coffin in Egypt” preached its mighty message. What did it say?
First, it was a silent reminder of mortality. The shriveled, colorless lips that lay in that coffin, wrapped with linen, had left as their last utterance, “I die, but God will surely visit you.” No man is necessary. No mere mortal is indispensable. God’s Israel will survive the loss of the strongest and wisest. God lives, though a hundred Josephs die. Joseph died; “And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceeding mighty; and the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7). So life springs side by side with death. There are cradles as well as graves; but the fact remains, you and I must soon die (Ecclesiastes 7:2-4; Psalm 90:12).
Second, that “coffin in Egypt” was a herald of hope. Joseph’s bones, lying in “a coffin in Egypt,” perpetually declared, God will bring you out of this place. That is precisely what the Scriptures teach us about the burial of God’s saints in the earth (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 1 Corinthians 15:51-58).
Third, that “coffin in Egypt” was a preacher of patience. No doubt, hope deferred for 300 years had made many hearts sick and caused many fainting Israelites to ask in unbelief, “Where is the promise of his coming?” But, for all those years, the silent coffin laid before the children of Israel proclaiming, “Though the vision tarry, wait for it.” Surely, we need the same lesson.
Fourth, that “coffin in Egypt” was a pledge of possession. It proclaimed, “Canaan is yours and you shall possess it” (Romans 8:16-24).
Moses and Joseph’s Bones
Why does the Spirit of God tell us that Moses carried Joseph’s bones out of Egypt? It is certain that Moses did not personally, physically carry that coffin containing Joseph’s bones out of Egypt. Yet, our text declares that the carrying of Joseph’s bones out of Egypt was specifically the work of Moses. Why? Moses represented the law of God. Joseph was typical of our Lord Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead, because the law being satisfied, death had no more claim upon him. Joseph also represented God’s elect who have been brought out of the bondage of sin and death, because God’s holy law has no claim upon us, since Christ has put away our sin (1 Peter 4:1-2).
Joshua and Joseph’s Bones
But Moses, the law, could never give Joseph and Israel the possession of the land of Canaan. That was a work that had to be done by Joshua. Joseph’s bones were buried in Canaan with Joshua’s, after the Lord God fulfilled every promise he had made to Abraham and the nation of Israel concerning that land (Joshua 24:29-32). So it shall be with you and me. As Joshua brought Joseph’s bones into Canaan and laid him to rest with himself in the land of promise, so the Lord Jesus Christ, our great Joshua, shall give us rest in the land of God’s promise (Hebrews 4:1-11). When I leave this body, please, bury my body in the earth with my Redeemer to await the resurrection.