42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.
Everybody loves enigmatic characters, those characters that have an air of mystery about them. In the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, Joseph of Arimathea—the man who asked for the body of Jesus and who buried Jesus—is one of those enigmatic character. And, as usually happens with enigmatic characters, people’s curiosity gets the better of them and increasingly strange stories grow up around them. This seems to be especially true of Joseph of Arimathea. There are countless legends that have grown up around Joseph, many of them quite old. Undoubtedly this is because we do not know all that we would like to know about Joseph. So people allow their imaginations to fill in the blanks! The BBC has provided a fascinating list of some of these legends.
- He was the first person to bring Christianity to Britain, having been sent with other disciples by St Philip.
- He built Britain’s first church (some say this was actually the first church in the world).
- He was Mary’s uncle, and thus Jesus’ great-uncle.
- He was a merchant who visited England to buy Cornish tin.
- He took Jesus with him to England when Jesus was a teenager (local legends say that among the places they visited were St Just in Roseland and St Michael’s Mount).
- He brought to England two vials containing the blood and sweat of Jesus (or two vials containing the sweat of Jesus).
- He brought the Holy Grail to England and hid it in a well at Glastonbury, now called the Chalice Well.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church says of Joseph of Arimathea:
Acc. to the apocryphal “Gospel of Nicodemus” he played an important part in the foundation of the first Christian community at Lyddia. In the “De Antiquitate Glastoniensis Ecclesie,” written by William of Malmesbury between 1129 and 1139, occurs the earliest mention of the story that St. Joseph came to England with the Holy Grail and built the first church in the country at Glastonbury, but the passage relating this incident was added to the book at least a century later.
It is also said of Joseph of Arimathea that he planted his staff in the ground of Glastonbury and it blossomed into a thorn tree. It is said that this where Glastonbury Thorn comes from. All of these legends are fascinating and a bit amusing, but they do point, again, to the mystery surrounding Joseph of Arimathea.
Even so, what is truly intriguing about Joseph of Arimathea is not the legends but rather what we do know, what scripture does tell us about Joseph. All four gospels mention Joseph, a fact that is very important. When all four gospels mention a figure or an episode, attention must be paid.
So who was Joseph and why does that question matter to us? Who was Joseph of Arimathea and, specifically, who was Jesus to Joseph?
Joseph of Arimathea saw in Jesus the answer to what he was looking for.
We begin with Mark’s fascinating comment about Joseph’s spiritual state.
43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.
Does this mean that Joseph of Arimathea was a follower of Jesus? Or does it simply mean that he was a man who was expecting God to do something and was therefore uneasy with the murder of this Jesus about whom he could see no real problem and about whom he might could see a movement of God? It is interesting how the different gospel writers shed light on Joseph’s true identity. Consider:
- Matthew: “who also was a disciple of Jesus” (27:57)
- Mark: “a respected member of the council who was himself looking for the kingdom of God” (15:43)
- Luke: “a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 23:50-51)
- John: “who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38)
The picture that emerges from all four gospels when placed side-by-side is that Joseph of Arimathea was an actual disciple of Jesus who was so secretly because he was a member of “the council,” the high Jewish council in Jerusalem. Even so, as we will see, Joseph’s desire to keep his faith secret reached its limit when it came to the thought of Jesus not being buried. But for our purposes at this point let us simply note that, in Jesus, Joseph saw the answer to what he was looking for. And what was Joseph looking for? “The kingdom of God,” Mark tells us.
How many religious council meetings had Joseph sat through? How many ceremonies? How many holy days, festivals, assemblies? How often had he observed Passover, recited the psalms, said the prayers? How often had Joseph of Arimathea helped to keep the religious machine moving forward, advancing, guarding and honoring the old ways in an effort to honor the God of Israel?
But how many times in the midst of these activities, these duties, the responsibilities, noble though they were, had he hoped to see the reality behind the symbols, the way behind the rites, the God behind the ceremonies, the Kingdom behind the religion?
He was “waiting for the kingdom of God,” Mark tell us. He was waiting. He was watching. He was looking. He was a good man. He was a righteous man. But he yearned to see the Kingdom come, the in-breaking of the rule of the God of Israel into the world, the actual world, the world that he inhabited.
And somewhere along the way he had heard Jesus. Maybe he heard the sermon on the mount. Maybe he heard the parable of the prodigal son. Maybe Joseph had heard Jesus rebuke his fellow religious professionals. Maybe Joseph, a wealthy man, had noticed that Jesus loved the poor and warned the rich of the dangers of wealth. Maybe he had seen how Jesus treated women and children, which was quite different than the treatment that women and children often found.
Maybe it was Jesus’ tone. Maybe it was His face. Maybe it was His eyes. Maybe it was His voice.
Whatever it was, however it happened, whenever it happened, Joseph felt something stir within him. He felt an unease that gave way to a daring thought. Maybe this Jesus was the King. Maybe His way was the Kingdom come. Maybe in Jesus the hope of Israel had finally arrived!
Yes. Yes! That was it! In Jesus the Kingdom of God had come to man! In Matthew 4, Matthew tells us:
17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Have you ever felt that feeling, that gnawing feeling that you are missing something? Have you ever wanted to be a part of something real: a movement, a revolution, a movement of God in the world. Joseph found that in Jesus. I too have found that in Jesus! Countless people the world over have found that in Jesus!
Jesus is the Kingdom come! Jesus is God with us! Jesus is what you have been waiting for! Can you see it? Can you feel it? Here in Jesus is the answer to your heart’s yearning and your mind’s discontent. Here in Jesus is then answer!
Joseph of Arimathea saw in Jesus somebody and something worth risking his all for.
So compelling was this Jesus that the force of His person and calling and life overwhelmed even Joseph’s desire to remain a secret disciple. Yes, Joseph moved stealthily, but that does not undo the fact that Joseph took a great risk in the actions he took upon the crucifixion of Jesus. What was it that moved Joseph to act? Simply put, it was the unacceptable thought of Jesus being left on the cross during Passover, His body rotting away in public view. That, after all, is what often happened in such cases. Adela Yarbro Collins explains.
There is evidence that the Roman practice of crucifixion at least some of the time involved leaving the crucified corpse on the cross to be “torn to pieces by wild animals and birds of prey.” Some have argued that crucifixion was associated “with denial of burial; the victim loses contact with the earth, is denied acceptance in the realm of the dead below, and wanders the earth near the site of death.”
It was this that moved Joseph, this and his love for Jesus. A man reaches a point, even a man trying to keep a secret, when he must act. So Joseph acts.
43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph.
To understand the risk involved in this, let us first deal with this description of Joseph as “a member of the council.” This could either mean that Joseph was a member of a local council in Arimathea or it could mean that Joseph was part of the actual Jerusalem council. It would appear most likely that Joseph was a member of the Jerusalem council. The Anchor Bible Dictionary offers four lines of argument for the idea that Joseph “was a member of the Jerusalem council.”
- “He appears to have been a wealthy landowner (Matthew 27:57…)”
- “he reportedly did not consent in the decisions or actions regarding Jesus (Luke 23:51…)”
- “the word for council, used with reference to the Sanhedrin by Josephus…is not modified to specify any other than the one in Jerusalem…”
- “he is associated with Nicodemus, a member of the Jerusalem Sanhedrin (John 19:39…)”
This is a fascinating thought because this means that Joseph would have been a part of the body that officially decreed that Jesus must die. Joseph sat on the council that condemned Jesus to death. However, as was just mentioned, Luke, in Luke 23, reveals that Joseph had dissented from the council’s decision.
50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning.
This makes Joseph’s actions all the more astonishing. The Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary observes that, “Ordinarily, family or friends requested the body of one who was executed…Yet Jesus’ disciples do not do this.” It then notes that the fact that Joseph had to “take courage” and ask for the body “suggests that the request involved some risk.” Indeed it did!
In going to Pilate and asking for the body of a man condemned by the Jerusalem council of which he was a member Joseph was identifying himself with a man condemned and executed as a criminal and a heretic. He was therefore risking his name, his reputation, his standing in the community, his seat of honor.
Yes, in Jesus, Joseph found somebody and something worth risking his life for. But there is more. Ronald Kernaghan has made the interesting point that by taking on the responsibility of burying the body of Jesus Joseph of Arimathea put himself in a position where he might become ritually defiled and unclean on the Sabbath, a thought that would have been horrific to any observant Jew, much less a religious leader. Kernaghan explains:
Mark’s description of what he did indicates that he handled Jesus’ body himself…It is hard to imagine that he could have purchased a shroud, taken Jesus’ body down from the cross, wrapped it, placed it in a tomb, and sealed the tomb before evening fell. Furthermore, Joseph had to get Pilate’s permission to remove Jesus from the cross. Pilate did not believe that Jesus had already died, so he sent for the centurion to check Joseph’s report. That was a great deal for Joseph to accomplish between three in the afternoon and sundown, and sundown signified the beginning of the Sabbath. Mark presents us with the possibility that a Jewish leader of considerable standing handled a corpse on the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a holy day, and touching a corpse was a very unholy thing to do…There was little chance that Joseph could have been sure of finishing everything he had to do before the start of the Sabbath. It was at the very least a risky thing to do, and it was, in any event, hardly a course of action that would have endeared him to other leaders in his community.
Yes, if sundown marked the beginning of the Sabbath, and Joseph began this lengthy process at or after 3:00, then he was doing something that would have been seen as cutting it so close that no observant Jew would have risked it. “Joseph would have risked ceremonial uncleanness,” says The Anchor Bible Dictionary, “to say nothing of his political and religious careers, for such a criminal as Jesus.”
What this means is that when Mark says that Joseph “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (or “went boldly”) this was as much a reference to the risk Joseph was taking before the council of Jerusalem as it was to the risk Joseph took before Pilate. “The statement ‘went boldly’ should not be taken lightly,” writes James Brooks, “because there was great risk in associating oneself with a person who had been executed for treason.”
And the question is, “Why?” Why was Joseph willing to risk everything? Why now, when Jesus was dead?
I believe the answer is that Joseph of Arimathea saw in Jesus somebody and something worth risking his all for. Enough was enough. Joseph had played it safe long enough. He would at least risk for Jesus. He would risk everything for Jesus. It was one thing for him to quietly dissent from the council’s decision to condemn Jesus to death. But he would not sit by while the body of Christ hung exposed on a cruel cross without a burial.
I think there was more. I think that Joseph dared to believe that in ways he could not understand the movement of Christ and even the person of Christ would not be defeated by the cross. I do not say that Joseph had any concept of the resurrection of Jesus per se. I only say that there appeared to be within him something more than the mere desire for propriety, for a decent burial. There was something about this Jesus that stirred hope in Joseph of Arimathea, that led him to consider as possible things that he previously considered impossible. Did that include the possibility that Jesus might rise from the dead? Who knows? But Joseph acts like a man on a mission.
Oh church, what a disservice we do when we do not call one another to risk all for Christ! His disciples were hiding in the dark, but Joseph, this member of the council, at least dared to do something for Jesus. In this, and at this point at least, he did more than those who had walked openly with Jesus the past few years.
What about you? What have you risked for Jesus? What price have you been willing to pay? Where is the line for you, that line over which you simply must act? Does that line exist, or do you stay forever quiet, forever in the shadows, forever a secret disciple? In this congregation, are there any who will say, “I will risk my life, give my life for this Jesus! I will stand with Him!”? Is there one who would say, “I will do something for Jesus! I will at least do what I can do!”? Are you that one?
Joseph of Arimathea saw in Jesus somebody worth sacrificing for.
Ultimately, Joseph saw in Jesus somebody worth sacrificing for.
46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.
In addition to the risk of his career, his name, and possibly even his life, Joseph was willing to sacrifice for Jesus. Notice the personal cost to Joseph:
- Joseph buys a linen shroud (not an easy to thing to do so close to Passover).
- Joseph puts Jesus in a tomb.
We learn more about this tomb from Matthew and John.
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away.
38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
Here we see these further details:
- Joseph was rich.
- The tomb was new.
- Joseph had had the tomb cut into rock.
- Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in this task.
- Nicodemus brought seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes!
- Joseph and Nicodemus apparently anointed the body of Jesus.
- The tomb was in a garden.
Joseph therefore can be seen, along with Nicodemus, as having personally sacrificed in order to ensure a proper burial for Jesus. He did not skimp on this. He did not cut corners. Joseph took on the full responsibility. James Brooks observes of this:
Release of a body to someone who was not a relative was unusual. Joseph, however, may have been the only person who was willing and able to bury Jesus. The disciples had fled; the women were not in a position to ask for the body or bury it; Jesus’ mother evidently had left the scene (cf. John 19:26-27); and there is no evidence that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were in Jerusalem at this time.
Joseph was able, it is true, but more importantly Joseph was willing. Why? Because in Jesus Joseph found something more important than his wealth, more important than his comfort, more important than his possessions. Why? Because if Joseph could not sacrifice for Jesus when Jesus had sacrificed all for Joseph, then life truly had no purpose.
Marks seems to be making this point in one of the creative ways that he often employs in his gospel. Let us go back to this linen shroud.
46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb.
Mark twice refers to the linen shroud in verse 46: Joseph bought the linen shroud and Joseph wrapped Jesus in the linen shroud. Interestingly, there is only one other occasion in Mark’s gospel when he uses this word, “linen,” and there, too, he uses it twice. Do you remember? It was in the last chapter, Mark 14:
51 And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, 52 but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked.
Once again we see Mark linking interesting words together in order to make a point. The young man in the garden runs away from his linen cloth in order to avoid death. Jesus runs toward His linen cloth in order to embrace death. And if Jesus is that kind of King, then Joseph of Arimathea is willing to give all that he has to honor Him.
What about you? What have you laid at the feet of the crucified and risen King, this King who runs towards His burial cloth…then leaves it behind in Easter triumph? Are you seeking to protect your life, to hoard your possessions, to stay safe, to stay comfortable? Or like Joseph, the other Joseph, Joseph of Arimathea, are you willing to risk all and give all in order to stand with King Jesus?
Do you feel like Joseph of Arimathea: quiet, secretive, staying in the shadows? Then see here the example of Joseph. Move. Act. Risk. Sacrifice. Dare to stand with Jesus. Dare to lay down your life for this Jesus.
Come out of the shadows.
Be moved by the sight of the cross and stay in the shadows no more.
 F.L. Cross and E.A. Livingston, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Third Edition Revised. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005), 906.
 Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark. Hermeneia. Ed., Harold W. Attridge. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 775.
 David Noel Freedman, ed., The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 3 (New York, NYU: Doubleday, 1992), p.972.
 David E. Garland, “Mark.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Gen. Ed., Clinton E. Arnold. Vol. I (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.305.
 Ronald J. Kernaghan, Mark. The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. Ed., Grant R. Osborne. Vol.2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), p.337.
 David Noel Freedman, ed., 972.
 James A. Brooks, Mark. The New American Commentary. Vol. 23 (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991), p.266.
 James A. Brooks, 266.