The four Gospels give a coherent and complementary account of Jesus’ life. However, relatively few stories are included by all four writers. The account of Joseph of Arimathea is one of those which does feature across the Gospels – see Matthew 27:57-61, Mark 15:42-47, Luke 23:50-56 and John 19:38-42 – and the picture which is painted of him is fascinating.
Luke 23:50 describes Joseph of Arimathea ‘a good and righteous man’. He was faithful to God’s law and sought to live a life which was in keeping with God’s standards. Additionally, he is introduced by Matthew as ‘a rich man from Arimathea’ (27:57). He was wealthy and had resources. This becomes clear later on when he generously donates his family tomb and buries Jesus in it.
Joseph was a member of the Council
He was ‘a prominent member of the Council’ (Mark 15:43). This was a group of 71 chief priests and scribes who were the ruling Jewish religious body. We read in Luke 22:66-71 how the Council gathered and condemned Jesus to death. This sham trial had one purpose, which was to find Jesus guilty of something that would appear to make him a threat to the ruling Roman authorities. This would thus enable the Council to recommend to the Roman authorities that Jesus be killed. The trumped up and false charges which were brought against Jesus were clearly enough ‘evidence’ for many in the Council but it was not a unanimous decision. Joseph ‘had not consented to their plan and action’ (Luke 23:51).
Joseph was a disciple of Jesus
This good, righteous, rich Council member had ‘become a disciple of Jesus’ (Matthew 27:57). We know from Jesus’ teachings that it is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God due to the fact that is easy to place their security and reliance on their wealth rather than on God Matthew 19:23,24 . It is therefore significant that Joseph, described as rich, is a disciple of Jesus.
Part of Joseph’s discipleship was that he was ‘waiting for the kingdom of God’ (Mark 15:43). In this he was like people such as Simeon who had waited for the consolation of Israel for years. Jesus talked about, preached and demonstrated the kingdom of God and those who had ‘eyes to see’ recognised that He was the fulfilment of God’s long-anticipated promises.
John expands this and indicates that Joseph was a disciple, ‘but a secret one for fear of the Jews’ (John 19:38). It was clear that the authorities were not impressed by Jesus and as His ministry progressed they became increasingly antagonist and aggressive towards Him. To be identified as a disciple of Jesus would have called into question Joseph’s commitment to the Jewish ruling elite and would have put his position and status at risk.
Joseph was a man of courage
We have already read that he didn’t consent to the plan to kill Jesus which showed that he was prepared, in the context of Council debate and decision-making to speak for a point of view not held by the majority. His secret following of Jesus might imply that he lacked courage and that may be true. However, what we see in the light of the events of Good Friday is Joseph emerge from the shadows and publicly pledge his allegiance to Jesus.
As a member of the Sanhedrin he understood the workings of the political machinery in Jerusalem and he had contacts. Using his prominent position he gained access to Pilate whereupon he requested the body of Jesus. This was highly risky. The bodies of crucified criminals would be handed over to their family members but those who were accused, like Jesus, of treason would be left for the birds to consume. That was the Roman law. The Jews, however, allowed all bodies to be buried but crucified criminals were buried in a common grave just outside of the city.
Knowing all this, Joseph ‘gathered up courage’ (Mark 15:43), approached Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate, ever cautious, checked that Jesus was dead given that He had not long been crucified (v44) and then handed Jesus’ body over to Joseph (v45). This courage was not just the courage of facing Pilate. This was courage because he was making a stand against the Jewish Sanhedrin. He was declaring that his convictions were unchanged and Jesus was innocent. But more than that, he was declaring that Jesus was the One He claimed to be.
Joseph then performed an act of deep love for Jesus, bestowing on Him a dignity which stands in stark contrast to the way He had been treated on the previous 24 hours. He firstly bought a linen cloth in which to wrap Jesus (v46). Then he took Jesus’ body down from the cross (v46). Jesus’ body would have been a mangled, bloody mess of lacerated flesh. He had been whipped, beaten and battered. The wounds from the crown of thorns, the nails in His hands and feet, and the spear-wound in His side would have made one gag. To remove a body from a cross would have been deeply unpleasant and yet Joseph courageously did this. In addition, touching a dead body would have made him ceremonially unclean which, especially since it was the Passover the next day, was not something a respectable Jew would willingly and knowingly do.
Joseph placed the body in the linen cloth before putting Him in a new tomb which he owned. This is likely to have been Joseph’s family tomb but was yet to be used.
Joseph thus gave Jesus a dignity in death.
Joseph of Arimathea, the secret disciple, emerged from the shadows to perform, at great cost and risk to himself, an act of courage and devotion.
His Lord, so brutally betrayed and dishonoured in life, would now be honoured and dignified in death.