As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. (verses 57-58)
We only hear about Joseph of Arimathea at this point in the story, and we never hear about him again. But he’s in the spotlight long enough to inspire.
Each of the Gospel-writers give us different details about this man who appears so briefly. Matthew alone tells us that Joseph was rich and that it was “his own new tomb” in which he laid Jesus’ body. Together with John, Matthew tells us that at some point prior to this time Joseph had been drawn to Jesus and actually become one of his followers. Mark and Luke give us the background, revealing that Joseph was “waiting for the kingdom of God,” indicating an orientation of life toward the things of God, a yearning that was anchored in the scriptures and looking forward to the fulfilment of the Lord’s long-given promises. He’d now found the answer to those longings in Jesus.
But there’s a complication. Mark and Luke both tell us that Joseph was a member of the Council, the Sanhedrin, who were responsible for orchestrating Jesus’ death. It was the Council that had condemned Jesus to death, Mark adding the detail that it was unanimous. What, then, of Joseph’s commitment as a disciple? It’s Luke who lets us know that Joseph himself had not given his consent to the Council’s decision, leading to the conclusion that for whatever reason he had been absent from this decisive interrogation.
Meanwhile, John gives us the further detail that Joseph was secretive about his commitment to Jesus, “because he feared the Jews.”
So, this is a man with much at stake. He has an established, respected position among the religious elite, no doubt accentuated by an authentic and obvious spiritual devotion, but now complicated by the fact that he has fallen in with Jesus who has disastrously fallen out with the Sanhedrin itself.
His action then, as reported by Matthew, is startling. He goes directly to Pilate, asking for Jesus’ body, that he might give him an honourable burial. Under Roman law, an executed criminal lost all right to any honour whatsoever in death, and the body of the crucified victim was often left on the cross to rot and be scavenged by birds of the air. Even the possibility of burial could only be realized if permission was given by the ruling authorities. This was especially the case for the burial of someone convicted of high treason (such as one claiming to be a King), a burial which was on principle disallowed and required a special exemption.
In requesting Jesus’ body for burial, then, Joseph ran the risk of being viewed in the same treasonous category as Jesus himself. He also risked exposing his devotion to Jesus before the other members of the Sanhedrin. But, overcoming that fear, he “went boldly to Pilate”(Mark 15:43), exposed himself to risk, and stepped forward, finally, with visible devotion to the one he had chosen to follow.
It’s the only moment that Joseph of Arimathea comes into view. But I’m so glad he does. His fear turns to courage, his timidity to boldness. He inspires us to do likewise.
All in devotion to Jesus.
Lord Jesus, may you strengthen me by your Spirit to walk in increasing boldness as I follow you. May I, like Joseph, step forward, in devotion to you, setting aside fear, not worrying about risk. All in devotion to you.
Reflect: Consider whether you have been living in fear and timidity in some aspect of your life. Ask the Lord for boldness to step forward.
Painting: Caravaggio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons