Jesus has Followers in Surprising Places
I want us to return to our studies in Luke’s Gospel this morning and we have arrived at Jesus’ burial. Yes, I know it was Easter last weekend when in particular we celebrate Jesus victory over the grave but today we’re going to have to back-up just a little bit. This is where we’ve got to in Luke’s gospel. Jesus has been scourged and then crucified. He was nailed to a cross between two criminals who were being executed for their crimes while he himself was guilty of nothing.
The site of execution was located just outside the city walls of Jerusalem at a place called Golgotha and there, after long hours of suffering, Jesus finally cried out:
“Father into your hands I commit my spirit”
And having done that Luke tells us that Jesus breathed his last and died.
Jesus was dead. We’ll return to this fact a little later on for it is crucially important and the Bible wants us to be fully convinced of it.
After Jesus died the next thing to be sorted out was the disposal of his body and it is to this subject that Luke next directs our attention. You probably think that it is obvious – after all after death a burial normally takes place. But it was perhaps not so obvious as that. You see under Roman Law a man who had been executed as a criminal had no rights that guaranteed him a proper burial and so the most likely outcome would be that Jesus’ dead body would simply be cast into a communal grave. That this did not happen in Jesus’ case is in large part due to the intervention of a secret disciple who chose this moment to go public in his support of Jesus.
Joseph of Arimathea
The man in question was Joseph and he appears in the Bible record uniquely in connexion with this incident concerning Jesus’ burial. You won’t find anything else in the Bible written about this man but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all refer to his participation at this important moment of history.
There are plenty of lessons for us to learn from Joseph and they include:
· God has his people even in the most unlikely of places
· God has his people ready to act when the moment arrives
· Fearful and secret disciples may yet prove to be genuine after all
But we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. Let’s slow down and gather together all the relevant information so that we can properly identify this man Joseph.
- Joseph was from the Jewish town of Arimathea and all the gospel authors identify in this way (Mt.27:57, Mk.15:43, Lk.23:50, Jn.19:38). But there were several towns in Palestine that had this name so we’re not much the wiser. It might have been the birthplace of Samuel but we can’t be sure.
- Joseph was rich man (Mt.27:57) and being rich he was able to buy what he wanted and needed. He had had a new tomb prepared for himself; it was cut out of the stone and no-one had ever been laid out in it. (Mt.27:60) And this tomb was located in the very garden where Jesus was crucified. He was also able to buy the linen cloths that were necessary for the task of burying Jesus’ body (Mk.15:46).
- Joseph was a member of the Jewish Council (Mk.15:43, Lk.23:50), the Sanhedrin, and not just any member he was highly respected (Mk.15:43), and that means that his judgement and opinion would have been highly valued and sought after by others. He was a good man, an upright man (Lk.23:50) and that sadly couldn’t be said of all the members who sat on that Jewish Council.
- Joseph was a religious man who was eagerly looking for the Kingdom of God (Mk.15:43, Lk.23:51) – a kingdom to be established by the Messiah.
We’ve come across a few others in Israel who were holding on to this hope – people like Simeon and Anna who were there as Jesus began his earthly life.
- Joseph had come to believe that Jesus was this Messiah and so he had even become one of his followers (Mt.27:57)
- Joseph however made sure that his discipleship was kept a very personal and private matter – he was what is called a secret disciple or a secret believer. Up to this point he had not made any sort of public declaration as to where his allegiances lay and we’re told that the reason for this was his “fear of the Jews” (Jn.19:38).
If we pause for a moment and think about it Joseph was a man who potentially had a lot to lose and so that he should be wary of the Jews is totally understandable. After all the Jewish authorities were generally very opposed to the teacher from Nazareth and they had already let it be made known that anyone who decided to follow him risked being put out of the synagogue (Jn.9:22, 12:42).
- Although Joseph was a member of the Council he had not agreed with the decisions that the Council had taken concerning how to deal with Jesus (Lk.23:51).
Had Joseph been present at those meetings and kept quiet realising that to speak out would be futile? Or had he seen the direction in which the tide was turning and simply absented himself? Perhaps others in the Council had begun to suspect him and didn’t inform him of the hastily summoned gatherings? We can’t be sure but we do know is that he wasn’t in favour of the course of action that had been adopted by those Jewish leaders.
It is nice to know that even in the most hostile of environments that the Lord can have his followers. Up till now as the narrative has unfolded we haven’t really been aware of such people. The gospel authors have focused on the general opposition that Jesus faced from the Jewish hierarchy and it all seemed as though this opposition was something of a monolithic bloc but now we a given a little glimpse that there were exceptions.
And Joseph’s faith became visible at a most inauspicious moment. As the situation showed every sign of having become utterly hopeless Joseph stepped out of the shadows and showed his commitment to Jesus. Surely it was too late, what good could possibly come of such a stand taken at this late stage?
It is tempting to ask why did a man who kept his faith secret for fear of the Jews decide to reveal it when everything appeared to be lost, wasn’t it a meaningless gesture? A case of missing the boat, of too little too late?
Well, it is interesting that the Bible doesn’t criticise Joseph and perhaps we should hesitate before we do. After all it is certainly better late than never and as Joseph stepped forward at this late stage he had important work to accomplish, significant work to do.
Perhaps Joseph was one of those people who need his hand to be forced by extreme circumstances. Well, the circumstances could hardly have been more extreme and Joseph took his step out into the open – he declared by his actions that he stood for Jesus.
As we think about Joseph we may do well to reflect upon our own lives and our own responses too. It took trials and troubles to bring Joseph’s faith out into the open but it did come Has anything similar happened in our lives that has brought us to openly declare ourselves for Christ?
God had a plan and that plan had a place in it for Joseph. At a time when most of Jesus’ followers had lost heart God filled this man with a remarkable boldness and enabled to accomplish his vital role in the unfolding gospel story.
- Joseph’s chosen course of action revealed him to be a courageous man - for what he did took courage to do. He went to Pilate and asked for permission to take Jesus’ body away.
Now maybe you wonder where was the courage in that? Well there are several reasons:
The first concerns Pilate. You see Pilate didn’t like the Jews, and he was particularly annoyed at the way he had just been manipulated by them concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate had repeatedly declared Jesus to be innocent but had been out-manoeuvred as the Jewish leaders ran what should have been his show. And wasn’t this man Joseph of Arimathea on their council? Why should he look favourably upon any request coming from one of them now? What was more Pilate had shown that he couldn’t be completely pushed around – when petitioned to change the accusation sheet he had curtly slapped down the request. So why would he act more generously now? And why should this dead man be given any formal burial anyway – he had no rights to any such a burial – why not just have him thrown into the communal grave with the others?
If it was courageous of Joseph to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body wasn’t it also courageous to expose him in this way to the hostility of the rest of the Jewish leadership that had just shown what kind of violence and injustice it was capable of? It was a risky business. While Jesus’ well-known disciples took the decision to hide themselves away behind locked doors this high profile man chose this as the moment to publicly declare his sympathies for the Saviour and so to risk his reputation! Extraordinary!!
But God was in it. Joseph had an important task to carry out and permission came from Pilate that enabled him to do so!
Joseph and the Corpse of Jesus
Pilate gave permission to Joseph but only after having made sure that Jesus was actually dead. I want you to note just how the gospel writers are at pains to let us know that the hero of their story had really died and was well and truly dead! And Joseph has his part to play in this.
Luke tells us that with the permission given Joseph proceeded to take Jesus down from the cross and prepare him hastily for burial. Now, we’re not to imagine that Joseph acted on his own in this. But he oversaw it. He saw to it that Jesus was taken down from the cross – it wasn’t the task that a man on his own could easily perform. But Joseph was a rich man and probably had servants who could help him. We are also told by John that he was joined in the whole affair by Nicodemus. If Joseph supplied the tomb and the linen cloths, Nicodemus’ contribution was a heavy bag of spices.
Together these men got Jesus’ body off the cross, removing the nails, and wrapping its limbs with the linen cloths binding the spices up tightly with them. The spices were used to delay putrefaction and to mask the stench of death. In doing this these men were not expecting any sort of resurrection to follow. Had there been even the faintest glimmer of life left in that corpse these men would have noticed it as they went about their task – both were followers of Jesus and they would have acted so quickly if they had seen any sign of life remaining, but they saw nothing for there was nothing. You can’t imagine them leaving the man they both followed bound with funeral spices in a cold tomb if there was any hope of life but they had no hope and so his dead body was laid out in the tomb and the entrance sealed with a large stone.
Pilate had been assured Jesus was dead and now the way Joseph and Nicodemus behaved confirm that fact.
Nor was that all: the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee had followed the cortege to the place in the garden where the tomb was and there they carefully watched as Jesus’ body was laid in the tomb. They saw exactly what had been done and when it was all over they went away, they had their own funeral spices and ointments to prepare. They too were sure he was dead. Their preparations were not to celebrate a resurrection but to anoint a corpse.
In every way possible the gospel writers highlight the fact that Jesus had really died and they did so for a very important reason, a reason that should fill us with joy. It meant that the price had been paid. The wages of sin is death and if sin is to dealt with a death must occur. Suffering was not enough. A sacrifice that didn’t end in death would be an incomplete and ineffective sacrifice. But in Jesus a complete sacrifice was offered, and his sacrifice ended in his death as the promised wrath of God was poured out upon the victim until there was no more wrath to be poured. The Lamb of God had shed his blood for the sin of the world. The life of the Saviour had been laid down for his undeserving friends.
How important it is for us to know that Jesus died!
Yes, the death of Jesus viewed from some angles is a sad event and yet we should be so glad, so thankful that he really did die for without his death we would still be exposed to the judgment of wrath that sin calls for. Without his death we would have no substitute to take our place.
Because the sinless Saviour died,
my sinful soul is counted free;
for God the Just is satisfied
to look on Him, and pardon me.
All the Details Fit Together
I have asserted a number of times already that Joseph had an important part to play in the gospel story and I have emphasised how keen the gospel writers are for us to be fully convinced that Jesus really and truly died on the cross. Let me now try to show you how this all fits together.
Joseph’s intervention led to Jesus’ body being entrusted to his care. That meant that Jesus’ body would not be cast into a communal grave where future identification might be so much more readily compromised. No, Jesus body would not be placed in any such place instead it would be placed in a tomb cut out from the rock. Why are we told that detail? Well, a tomb cut in the rock couldn’t be quickly tunnelled in to by means of a passage dug through earth – no secret tunnels and no theft of a body was possible. The only way out would be by the main entrance, the one sealed with a massive stone and guarded by soldiers.
The tomb where Jesus was laid was also a new one. It had been made for Joseph but he was still alive and no-one else had been put in that tomb. Again there is not the slightest possibility of confusion! Jesus had been laid alone in the tomb and on the morning of the resurrection the tomb was empty – they hadn’t somehow missed him amidst a lie of other corpses.
And yes, it was Joseph’s tomb, and as we’ve already remarked Joseph was a rich man - Isaiah in the OT had prophesied that the Messiah would be “with a rich man in his death”.
Yes, at the end of Good Friday there is one astounding fact you should know and about which you should be fully convinced – Jesus was dead and buried!
The next day was the Sabbath and Jesus’ disciples again showed the type of people they were – they were God-fearing, they were law-abiding, and they were truth respecting people. They respected the Sabbath and they waited until the new week began the next day. Why do I say this? Because these are people you can trust; their testimony fits together for the simple reason that their testimony is true. Jesus had died and the penalty for sin had been paid.
The events of the first day of the new week would bring tremendous joy into the world because they would demonstrate that the Father fully approved of what his Son had done and fully accepted the sacrifice he had made. We will with God’s grace return to this in the coming weeks.
Some Final Remarks
Before we finish up this morning I do want to briefly mention some of the applications that suggest themselves from these verses.
Let us be charitable towards those who may well be secret believers and not too quick to criticise them - Joseph is not criticised in these verses and indeed shows himself to be a hero of the faith when others stumble and fall.
We may fail to fully understand just why it was that Joseph chose such an apparently inopportune moment to go public with his discipleship but go public he certainly did. Maybe he had simply discovered the answer to the well known question:
“what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk.8:36)
As there were men like Joseph and Nicodemus so there may well be others in our own day who belong to Jesus and who operate in high places. Let us pray for our Christian MPs and for Christians in places of responsibility and authority in countries all around the world. Some of them might yet be secret believers awaiting their crisis-moment when they too will go public with their faith. We don’t know their struggles, their fears nor what it might cost them to openly follow Jesus.
Joseph and Nicodemus shine brightly and briefly in God’s plan of salvation before they pass from the scene. May we be similarly up for it when God calls us to do our duty!
Finally, we see from the examples of both Joseph and Nicodemus that Christian discipleship can be costly. For Joseph leaving aside the possible loss of status and respect in his community we see that to follow Jesus involved costs: there was for Joseph the cost of buying some linen grave-clothes; there was the cost of the ceremonial uncleanness that would be picked up in the course of handling a dead body and preparing it for burial; this was more than a mere inconvenience for it would render Joseph unable to participate in the most important religious feast of the year that was just about to be celebrated; and there was the inconvenience of having your personal tomb occupied by another – who knows what plans he might have to adjust to accommodate that?
Real costs – of course they would be outweighed by the benefits but costs they remained and remember Joseph didn’t realise what was about to take place next. Your discipleship involves cost too, all genuine discipleship does, but the benefits will also far outweigh the costs for you. How does Paul refer to them? “a momentary affliction” isn’t it? “Not worth comparing to that eternal weight of glory which is beyond all comparison.”
Well, now, I’ve finished and we look to the Lord to bless his word to us this morning.