by Mike Ford (1955-2021)
In the process of a Bible study I was doing on relationships, I came across some examples of friendships in one of my study aids. Some of the examples listed were Abraham and Lot, David and Jonathan, and Christ and Joseph of Arimathea. We are all well versed in the story of Abraham and his nephew Lot. Perhaps not as well known is the story of the friendship of David and Jonathan, son of King Saul.
The last one, though, of Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea, intrigued me. Most of us know that, after His death, Christ's body was laid in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57-60; Mark 15:42-46; etc.). What was the relationship between the two? How well did they know each other? Are there any lessons in this relationship that might help us in our relationship with Christ?
In terms of numbers of verses, the Bible says little about Joseph, yet in those few scriptures God has provided us a fair amount of detail. We begin in Isaiah 53:9, a prophecy written 700 years before the actual event took place: "And they made His grave with the wicked—but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth." This whole chapter speaks of the life of Christ.
The word "they" refers to those who condemned Christ to death. In his commentary on the Bible, Albert Barnes says the phrase "My people" should be used here. Without specifically designating who has decreed that Christ would be buried with the wicked, we get the sense that Jesus was not only to die a terrible death but also to suffer the indignity of being buried in a common grave with common criminals. He would be denied even an honorable burial.
As we all know, that did not happen. Jesus Christ was given a decent burial, and this is when Joseph of Arimathea arrives on the scene.
We will cover the various accounts of Jesus' burial in the Gospels first, the only places where Joseph is mentioned by name, and see what we can learn about this man.
Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him. And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed. (Matthew 27:57-60)
This fulfils Isaiah's prophecy. Joseph, a rich man and a disciple of Christ, took the body of Jesus, hastily prepared it for burial and laid it in his own tomb. Matthew mentions that Joseph was from Arimathea, a town whose location is a matter of some dispute. Some scholars believe that it is the town of Ramah, Samuel's birthplace, lying about six miles north of Jerusalem in the land of Benjamin. Another candidate is a town called Aramathea about 16 miles east of Joppa.
Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage [boldly, KJV; with great courage, Phillips], went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time. And when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph. Then he bought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen. And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. (Mark 15:43-46)
Joseph was "waiting for the kingdom of God." Well versed in the Old Testament, he anticipated the reign of the promised Messiah. Barnes writes:
But this expression means more than an ‘indefinite' expectation that the Messiah ‘would' come, for all the Jews expected that. It implies that he believed ‘Jesus' to be the Messiah, and had ‘waited' for HIM to build up the kingdom of God. . . .
Mark emphasizes that Joseph exhibited "great courage" in going before Pilate to request Jesus' body. Of the four accounts, only Mark adds that he went "boldly" in to Pilate. Much is left unsaid here, such as how did Joseph get in to see Pilate? The procurator was not a man that would receive just anyone, especially without a prior appointment. Joseph, however, "went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus." Before deciding, Pilate sought more information. Summoning the centurion in charge of the crucifixion would take time. In all likelihood, Joseph remained and talked with Pilate while awaiting the centurion's arrival. Upon learning that Jesus "had been dead for some time," Pilate seems not to have hesitated to release His body to Joseph. Did they perhaps know each other?
A Council Member
And behold, there was a man named Joseph, a council member, a good and just man. He had not consented to their counsel and deed. He was from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who himself was also waiting for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a tomb that was hewn out of the rock, where no one had ever lain before. (Luke 23:50-53)
What council was Joseph a member of? None other than the Sanhedrin, the 71 "elders, men of age and experience, and scribes, lawyers, or those learned in the Jewish law" that made up "the supreme council of the Jewish people" (Smith's Bible Dictionary). This same group condemned Christ, yet Luke calls Joseph "a good and just man." Herbert Lockyer's All the Men of the Bible, p.204, comments:
As the Bible never uses words unnecessarily, there must be a distinction between "good" and "just." As a "good man" we have his own internal disposition—what he was in himself. As a "just man" we have his external conduct—what he was towards others. His just dealings were the fruit of the root of his goodness. His was the belief that knew how to behave.
Luke also informs us that he had "not consented to their [the Sanhedrin's] counsel and deed." This could mean that he had simply not voted with the majority, or it could mean that he had gone so far as to speak out against their actions. The Interpreter's Bible suggests, "Whether he merely withheld his vote or actively disagreed with his colleagues in the determination to be rid of the troublesome prophet from Nazareth is not clearly stated" (vol. 8, p. 414). In their commentary, Jamieson, Faussett and Brown feel that "he had gone the length, perhaps, of dissenting and protesting in open council against the condemnation of our Lord." The Ambassador College Correspondence Course (1986 ed., Lesson 25, p. 11) concludes that Joseph may not even have attended the Sanhedrin's trial of Jesus. Luke's wording could be taken to mean that he disagreed by not attending, or that he was there under protest yet did not vote (see Mark 14:64: "they all condemned Him").
After this, Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took the body of Jesus. And Nicodemus, who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury. (John 19:38-40)
Now we find out that Joseph was a believer, but in secret! Why was he afraid of the Jews? For the same reason Peter denied Christ—for fear that they too would be killed. More than that, Joseph was a respected pillar of the community, a man who had worked a lifetime to achieve what he had. To come out publicly as a disciple would have meant the destruction of the life he and his family enjoyed.
John says Joseph "took the body of Jesus." Taking a lifeless body down from a stake is no one-man task. Nicodemus, another secret disciple, also a member of the Sanhedrin, helped him. This is the same Nicodemus who came to Jesus "by night" to ask Him some pointed questions and received some pointed answers (John 3:1-21).
If this were all that we could know about Joseph of Arimathea, it would be sufficient to tell us much about the man and his character. However, sources outside the Bible add a few interesting tidbits. The Jewish Talmud records that Joseph was the great-uncle of Jesus, a younger brother of Mary's father!
In The Traditions of Glastonbury, E. Raymond Capt cites evidence that Joseph was an international merchant involved in the tin trade in the British Isles. Using accounts from early British historians, Mr. Capt asserts that Joseph was in charge of Rome's mining interests in Britain. Such a position would require Joseph to spend a considerable amount of time away from his homeland. If this were true, it would also explain how Joseph was able to so easily gain an audience with Pilate. He was a prominent man in both the Roman and Jewish worlds.
There is strong circumstantial evidence that Joseph was a Roman citizen. Steven M. Collins, in his book The Lost Ten Tribes of Israel—Found! makes a case for Joseph acting as a sort of father figure or mentor to Jesus between the ages of 12 and 30. Most scholars have assumed that His stepfather Joseph died when Jesus was still young. As such a close relative, it is certainly possible that Joseph of Arimathea stepped in to help. Some traditions even have Joseph and Jesus with second homes in Glastonbury, England (see Did Our Lord Visit Britain As They Say in Cornwall and Somerset? by C.C. Dobson, 1944, Destiny Publishers)!
We know enough about Joseph of Arimathea to start to draw some conclusions. He was a relative of Jesus, possibly very close to Him. He was a follower of Christ, likely from early on, but certainly after Jesus began His public ministry. Matthew says he "had also become a disciple of Jesus" (Matthew 27:57), but he does not tell us when. At the same time, he was a wealthy, influential member of Jewish society and, quite conceivably, of Roman society as well.
Joseph awaited the Kingdom and thought Jesus was the Messiah, yet he kept his beliefs to himself. He was a "secret" disciple for "fear of the Jews." Was this fear for his life, for his family or for his position? Maybe all three. This was a tough spot for Joseph of Arimathea! All his life he had worked to attain the level of success that he enjoys. When he reaches middle age, he has a great nephew come along who just may be the Messiah. He watches Jesus grow up, maybe even helps the process. He knows what a remarkable man Jesus is.
Yet he remains a "secret disciple." It seems almost as if he is on the proverbial fence, a foot on each side. Jesus teaches, "No man can serve two masters" (Luke 16:13). We have all tried it at one time or another—and we have all seen that it does not work out.
It is not hard to imagine the thoughts that must have spun through his brain as he sat in the council, watching the condemnation of his nephew. Maybe he spoke out, maybe he dissented, maybe he left in shame or fear before a decision was reached, or maybe he was never present. We do not know for sure.
He must have been miserable as he watched Jesus tortured, mocked and crucified. With the exception of John, Jesus' remaining disciples certainly shrank back in fear. However, at a time when "all His acquaintances . . . stood at a distance" (Luke 23:49), Joseph, the secret disciple, stepped forward. He who had hung back for fear of the Jews courageously claimed Christ's body from His executioners.
In Psalm 38:11, David laments for himself and for Christ: "My loved ones and my friends stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off." In all fairness, Christ's disciples would probably have had no proper tomb for Christ's body, even had they had the connections to ask for His body. Nevertheless, the sense of these verses is that His closest disciples abandoned Jesus.
This situation was custom tailored for Joseph. All he had to do was step forward and declare to one and all his choice. He could come off the fence. Which master would he serve? Adam Clarke writes in his commentary on Mark 15:43:
It needed no small measure of courage to declare now for Jesus, who had been a few hours ago condemned as a blasphemer by the Jews, and as a seditious person by the Romans; and this was the more remarkable in Joseph, because hitherto, for fear of the Jews, he had been only a secret disciple of our Lord.
Good and Just
God calls Joseph a "good and just" man, and that he most certainly was. Yet he seemed to be unwilling to commit to the Christian way of life until Christ's death. To put it another way, his priorities were wrong. Notice this paragraph from Lesson 25, "Passover: The Beginning of God's Master Plan," of the Ambassador College Correspondence Course:
Before each Passover, every true Christian should examine himself to more fully understand his vital need to observe the Passover. A spiritual self-examination will show each Christian that he or she is still a sinner in desperate need of Christ's sacrifice. Observing the Passover is a profound annual reminder of our physical and spiritual sins, and a reminder that Christ has paid in full the penalty of those sins, as long as we truly repent of them (I John 1:9). (p. 15)
Joseph must have examined himself and, despite being "a good and just man," determined that a change must be made. Each of us should be as honest with ourselves. For Joseph, putting God first most likely cost him his position in the community, maybe his job, possibly his wealth. Herbert Lockyer says legend has the apostle Philip sending him to Britain. Other traditions say Joseph took Mary and others with him to Britain, where he raised a church and preached the gospel. Whatever happened, he certainly must have had to give up his former life in Jerusalem.
Like Joseph, we all served many masters. For each of us, the competing "master" is something different. It may be a career, a hobby, a house, a car, books, movies, television, sports, or whatever. We have to evaluate what is competing for our time with God. Then we must do as Joseph did and choose Christ over the competing "master."
Maybe Joseph sinned in valuing his position in society too high. In listening to Jesus' pre-Passover messages, he undoubtedly learned that the focus of Passover was not to be on his sins, but rather on the forgiveness of his sins. Then, in witnessing the terrible pain and suffering that Christ went through, he felt remorse and repented. Then, just hours before the feast of Unleavened Bread, a festival picturing God's people coming out of this world and coming out of sin, Joseph of Arimathea came out. His is an amazing example of God's hand fulfilling prophecy and simultaneously working in a man's life.
Mark says Joseph "was himself waiting for the Kingdom of God." We are now doing the same. Each of us, in examining our spiritual lives, can display the same courage Joseph of Arimathea showed: to discover our true Master, to come out of our sins, and to sacrifice ourselves and all that we may enjoy to honor Christ.