It was late afternoon, and Jesus’ body dangled lifeless from the cross. Evening was fast approaching, and the law of Moses was interpreted to mean that a crucified criminal could not be left on the cross overnight (Deut 21:22-23). Moreover, it was Friday; Sabbath would begin at sundown. The body had to be taken down and buried, and there was little time for the work to be done.
The responsibility for burying Jesus should have fallen to family or perhaps to Jesus’ closest followers. But who? The Twelve, with the exception of John (and of course Judas) had run away, and at any rate were not men of means. His mother Mary was almost certainly a widow. His brothers did not believe in him, and had probably long since abandoned Jesus to his fate.
Enter Joseph of Arimathea. Matthew gives us little in the way of additional personal information, save that he was rich and a follower of Jesus (27:57). But the other gospels fill in some of the gaps.
John says that Joseph was not only a disciple but a secret one, “because he feared the Jewish leaders” (19:38). Why? Because he was one of them. According to both Mark and Luke, Joseph was a member of the “council,” meaning the Sanhedrin. Luke adds that Joseph was a righteous man who had not agreed with what the Sanhedrin’s murderous plans (23:50-51). One can only imagine the pressure there would have been in the council for Joseph to conform, to vote with the majority.
For Joseph to go public with his loyalties was an act of courage. He could no longer follow Jesus in secret. Since he was not only a member of the Sanhedrin but a “prominent” one, he used his influence and went “boldly” (Mark 15:43, NIV) to Pilate and asked to have Jesus’ body. Pilate agreed; one wonders what might have gone through his head after his recent unpleasant interactions with prominent Jewish leaders.
Permission granted, Joseph went to take the body of Jesus down from the cross. According to the gospel of John, Nicodemus, a Pharisee and fellow member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1) was with him. It may be that Nicodemus had also become a disciple of Jesus, perhaps a secret one like Joseph. Joseph had purchased clean, new linen in which to wrap Jesus’ body (Mark 15:46); Nicodemus brought the customary spices to layer in between the strips of cloth (John 19:39-40).
The two men then laid Jesus in the new tomb Joseph had originally commissioned for himself. He had no doubt paid good money to have a tomb hewn for him out of rock. No one had used it yet, and by Jewish custom, once a convicted criminal had been laid there, it could never be used again, and Joseph would have to commission another. It was a generous gift and a tangible mark of his devotion.
In an earlier post, I suggested that the story the Bible tells requires a cast of thousands, with some characters having no more than a walk-on part. Joseph of Arimathea, like Simon of Cyrene, is one of these. We know little about him, though because of his obvious devotion to Jesus he has been venerated for centuries in legend, church tradition, and classical art.
Joseph is a brief but thought-provoking case in the cost of discipleship. Because of his official position, he had feared letting others know of his commitment to Jesus. But when the need arose, love and loyalty won over fear. His was not only a financial sacrifice, but a social one; though we know nothing more of his story with certainty, we can guess that for his actions he was rejected by his peers and embraced by the early church.
At Lent, we remember and celebrate what Jesus has done for us.
But there is another side to discipleship. If we were to publicly demonstrate our loyalty, what cost would we fear?