Then came a Rich Man of Arimathea
John Scarsbrook, Killamarsh, England
It is James who, in his epistle, underlines the fact that genuine faith will always be accompanied by appropriate works. A Joseph stands at both the entrance and the exodus of the earthly pathway of the Lord Jesus. No spoken word is recorded of either, yet, by their actions, they gave evidence that their appreciation of the Lord Jesus was as deep and as true as that of any individual in the four gospels.
The record of Joseph of Arimathea, though brief, introduces us to a man of remarkable courage and selfless devotion. All we know of him is found at the end of each gospel after the darkness had receded and the crowds had dispersed, leaving three tortured and lifeless bodies on Golgotha’s bloodstained scaffold. Tradition has sought to embellish the life of Joseph, but the inspired word holds sufficient to occupy our attention and to touch our hearts as we consider the awesome task undertaken by the most unlikely of men that day.
As Matthew writes his gospel, the Spirit of God engages his mind with Old Testament scripture, familiar to the nation to whom Matthew primarily directs his record. Throughout his twenty-eight chapters there are no fewer than 130 direct quotations, references and allusions to the Old Testament. To the Jewish mind, if unencumbered by bigotry and dogmatism, clear evidence is given that Jesus of Nazareth must be the promised Messiah.
It is, therefore, no surprise that Matthew’s introduction of Joseph, even before his name is mentioned, reminds the reader that though men appointed His grave with the wicked, it was essential that a rich man should be in attendance at His burial. Scripture cannot fail! We learn that Joseph was a disciple of the Lord, but that was insufficient in itself to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 53 verse 9. He must also be rich – and he was! In fact, the only individual so designated in the gospel by Matthew.
All the gospel writers note that he came from Arimathea. Many students of scripture equate this with the Ramah of the Old Testament. If that is so, then we recall that this was the home town of Samuel. Writing on the life of the prophet, W. W. Fereday called him ‘God’s emergency man’, a fitting description for this New Testament son of Ramah.
The name Joseph means ‘He shall add’, recalling the experience of Rachel, the wife of Jacob, as a son was born after those barren, fruitless years. Wherever, in scripture, there is a Joseph, there is hope. Rachel’s son will later say to his brethren, ‘God did send me before you to preserve life’, Gen. 45. 5. The angelic word to Joseph, the husband of Mary, was of One who would ‘save His people from their sins’, Matt. 1. 21. To the natural man, Calvary speaks of failure, defeat and loss. But a Joseph stands by the cross and Ben-oni, ‘son of sorrow’, becomes Benjamin, ‘son of my right hand’, and the hope of victory is assured.
Matthew’s account will teach us, above all, what it cost this rich man to undertake his task that day. It would cost him his standing in society. His care for the body of the despised Nazarene would close the door of the Jewish Sanhedrin against him. His reputation would be ruined in the eyes of his peers in Jerusalem. The cost of providing a burying place, and that ‘his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock’; Matthew alone will emphasize the personal pronouns. It cost Joseph everything he held dear to minister of his substance to another in need.
When Mark takes up his pen to write of Joseph, in keeping with the tenor of his gospel, he is interested not so much in the cost but rather the cause. Not what he did, but why he did it! As ever in the servant gospel, he examines the motive behind the actions. Mark will take a moment to consider how Joseph conducted his daily routine business and record that he was ‘an honourable counsellor’, Mark 15. 43.
We are then given two reasons why Joseph undertook this onerous task. First, ‘because it was the preparation . . . the day before the Sabbath’. As a devout Jew, he had respect for God’s word, and Deuteronomy chapter 21 decreed that the body of a man hanged upon a tree should ‘not remain all night upon the tree’, but should be buried that day. The second reason was that ‘he also waited for the kingdom of God’. Like Simeon, at the Lord’s coming in, he waited with confidence, patience and expectation and had become convinced that this Jesus of Nazareth was the anticipated One. The remarkable faith of these two men illuminates the page of scripture. Simeon saw the fulfilment of his hopes in a tiny babe; Joseph saw it in the lifeless body of a crucified man! The two motives which directed His actions that day were obedience to the word of God and devotion to the Christ of God. What a lesson in service for all believers!
Mark tells us that Joseph went in boldly to Pilate, ‘and craved the body of Jesus’. Pilate is among others in the gospel who, on occasion, marvelled at the Lord Jesus, His works, His words and His ways. Pilate expressed surprise that He was already dead. What he did not appreciate was that the perfect servant knew precisely that there was ‘a time to die’. Not at the dictates of Rome nor of Herod, not at the whim of the Jewish rulers, but according to the divine plan conceived in the eternal counsels, ‘before the foundation of the world’. Mark’s poignant record says, ‘he . . . took him down . . . wrapped him . . . laid him’. The precious ashes of the sacrifice, were resting in a clean place, Lev. 6. 11.
Luke paints his portrait of Joseph from a slightly different angle. He is not concerned about the cost or the cause, but will tell us something of the character of Joseph. Consistently in his gospel, Luke observes a number of individuals, often introducing them with the phrase, ‘a certain man named‘. All, of course, are seen in contrast to Luke’s primary objective, which is to carefully examine the perfect Man and to give his verdict. This he does first from the judge presiding over the highest court in the land, ‘I find no fault in this man’, then from the parched lips of a tormented, dying felon, ‘this man hath done nothing amiss’.
The Spirit of God never dispenses accolades in an arbitrary or casual way; they need to be earned. So, when Luke is inspired to record of Joseph that, ‘he was a good man and a just’, he stands alongside very worthy personalities in the New Testament. Barnabas, that ‘son of consolation’ in Acts chapter 4 is the only other individual to be described as ‘a good man’, and only three others in the gospel records, Joseph, the husband of Mary, Simeon and John the Baptist are deemed to be ‘just’, well respected company indeed!
Luke will tell us also that Joseph was consistent and honest. He was no ‘yes man’, no hypocrite. When the scheming, surreptitious plans were laid to ensnare the Saviour, Joseph was there, but he ‘had not consented to the counsel and deed of them’, Luke 23. 51. Now, however, decisions had to be made and Joseph ‘went unto Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus’. The word ‘begged’ does not imply a cringing servile attitude, but rather a petitioner asking for something from one who has the authority to grant the request. Mark tells us that Joseph went in boldly, confidently, to Pilate. Luke will maintain his theme of the absolute purity and impeccability of the Lord Jesus, later endorsed by John, as he records that the borrowed tomb was one ‘wherein never man before was laid’.
John’s record is different. As he considers Joseph there is no mention of riches, honourable, good or just. He is simply a disciple and even that, ‘secretly for fear of the Jews’. That gives us the key to John’s testimony to Joseph. If, as we have seen, Matthew considers the cost, Mark the cause and Luke the character of Joseph, John will reveal the conflict that gripped this man’s whole being as the shadow on the sundial moved relentlessly on to the commencement of the Sabbath. The legs of the two thieves had been shattered with an iron mallet, hastening death by shock and asphyxiation. The lifeless body on the centre cross having received, post mortem, one final indignity from a Roman spear, now awaited removal from Golgotha to fulfil the request of the Jewish authorities that ‘they might be taken away’, John 19. 31.
Events that day appeared to have been orchestrated by the Jews, by Pontius Pilate and a detachment of Roman soldiers. In reality, they were each in their own way moving under the inexorable power of the living word of God, spoken and recorded many centuries before! So many scriptures were fulfilled that day at Calvary, and as Joseph came from the presence of Pilate with authority to remove the body from the centre cross, Isaiah’s words, spoken some 700 years earlier, now took substance.
The moment was almost past, he must make his stand, doubtless Joseph counted the cost, then, the decision was made, he would follow the Master’s steps to Calvary. Maybe he thought it would be a lonely journey, and, if we only had the synoptic gospels, that would seem to be the case. But John now brings another figure into focus: moving slowly, burdened with ‘about an hundred pound weight of spices’, fragrant and costly. John had kept his eye upon Nicodemus right from chapter 3 of his gospel; there he tells us of a man confused. In chapter 7, John sees him concerned. But now at Golgotha he is a man converted. The Lord had reminded Nicodemus of the wilderness experience of the nation and the uplifted serpent of brass, adding by way of explanation, ‘even so must the Son of man be lifted up’, 3. 14. He could have said, ‘and you will take Him down’, but He refrained; the Spirit of God must do His work.
And so they come. Two men from the very ranks of those who pursued the Saviour to Calvary, now united in fellowship, ready to take the first steps in following the despised Nazarene.
Gently they took Him down
Unfixed His hands and feet
Brought forth the winding sheet.