The story of Joseph of Arimathea, who began as a secret follower of Jesus, reminds us that people move at different paces in coming to bold faith in Jesus. As Alistair Begg points out, however, no one can hide true faith forever—sooner or later, we must answer the question, “What shall I do with Jesus?” The choice is simple: we will either shrink back in cowardice like Pilate, or finally take a bold step of faith like Joseph.
Our Scripture reading is, as you will not be surprised, in Luke 23. Your Bible opens to Luke 23, now, I know. And we’re reading the final paragraph as we have it, at least, in the NIV. It begins at the fiftieth verse and goes through to verse 56.
“Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man,who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid.It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
“The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.”
And now, just a prayer before we look at these verses that we read:
Father, once again we admit our absolute dependence upon you as we come to the study of the Bible. We know that we’re not interested in the disbursement of information from the mind of a mere man. We want more than this. We ask you for more than this. We ask that we might, in the reading of the Bible, in the hearing of a man’s voice, hear your very Word to our lives. This is our humble prayer, this is our great need, this is our earnest expectation. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, I regard it as something of a triumph to be here at the final paragraph of Luke chapter 23. It appears that it is going to be possible for us to complete Luke’s Gospel before anything untoward happens—although there’s still time. There are some fifty-three verses remaining in Luke chapter 24.
But here we are, at the description provided by Luke of the burial of Jesus. This is one of the little paragraphs in the Bible that we are probably, in our own personal Scripture reading, tempted to move through fairly quickly. We say to ourselves, “Well, all of the dramatic moments have passed, and the drama of the crucifixion is over, and the insights concerning his death, and this is just a sort of little footnote concerning what has happened in regard to his burial.” And there is a sense in which, in terms of the inspiring nature of the text—you will remember the distinction, when we studied Why Bother with the Bible?, that all of the Bible is equally inspired, but not all of the Bible is equally inspiring. And when you come to a little paragraph like this, you may find yourself saying, “I’m not sure that there is a tremendous amount here.” That certainly was my predicament and my situation as I was studying it, but I think I’ve found one or two things that will be worth our attention and a help to us on our journey.
First of all, we should notice that the burial of Jesus—the actual burial of the body of Jesus—was by no means a foregone conclusion, and this for two main reasons. First of all—and I alluded to this this morning—because in Roman law, crucifixion of a criminal was not the end of the humiliation. The humiliation followed the person in their death. They were barred from honor, and they were also barred from any kind of proper burial. And the release of a corpse for burial depended solely on the kindness or on the generosity of the magistrate. So unless somebody went and asked, then the chances were that the body would simply be left there to rot or to be devoured by predatory animals and birds. And consequently, the place would become not only a sorry sight but an ugly place, and if you remember the movie The Killing Fields, with all of the skeletal remains through which the individual at one point was plowing, we may have some kind of indication of what an area, a geographical area of a city like this, could very quickly become. It was no foregone conclusion, because burial was not the right of the condemned.
Secondly, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion because if you look at the passage properly, you realize that nobody was around to make this request on Jesus’ behalf. Who was going to actually ask for the body of Jesus? His friends were gone; the women are clearly unprepared, and probably, in the context of the day, they would not have been listened to if they had gone on behalf of Christ; and there is no obvious leader who is about to step up and take charge in the circumstances. [Norval Geldenhuys], in one of his characteristic little notes, says, isn’t it a shame that “in the hour of crisis it is [sadly too] often the Peters who have sworn loyalty to Jesus with big gestures and fullness of self-confidence, [who] disappoint [us].” “Even if they all leave you, Jesus, I’ll be there with you to the end. Even if they all fall away, Jesus, I’ll be there at the end.” And so he made these bold assertions. And now it is the end, but no Peter, no friend, assigned a place with the wicked in his death.
And then, suddenly and silently, out of the shadows emerges one like Esther, whom you will remember came to the kingdom for just this moment in time. And so it is that here arrives on the stage of history this individual whose secrecy had up to this point been destroying his discipleship, but now he has determined that he’s going to step forward generously and boldly, and here we find him: “Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man,” a man “from the Judean town of Arimathea.”
Now, I hope there’s a sense of excitement when you read words like this. There is for me. I want to find out as much about this character as I can. Why is he even in the Bible? Why does he pop up now? Have I read about him before? I don’t think so. Do I read about him afterwards? I’m not sure that I ever do. Is this the only time I hear of him? Yes, I think it is. Then surely he is to the kingdom for a moment like this.
Without delaying at all, a biographical sketch will include these details. You can find them as easily as I can, but I’ve done the work, so I needn’t ask you to call out the answers. What do we know? We know that he is from Arimathea, this Judean town. We know from Matthew’s record that he is rich. Matthew actually says in 27:57 that he was “a rich man.” We know here that he was a “member of the Council”—that is, the Sanhedrin, the people who had been responsible for going to Pilate and pressing for the death of Jesus. Actually, Mark tells us in Mark 15 that he was not simply a member of the Council, but he was “a prominent member of the Council.” We also know that he was “good” and that he was “upright”; that’s what verse 50 says. We know that he was a secret disciple; John tells us that. His record, incidentally…
I should pause. You can find the story in Matthew 27, Mark 15, John 19, as well as in Luke 23. So when you hear me saying something, you’re saying, “But that’s not here,” I can pretty well guarantee you that it’ll either be in Matthew or in Mark or in John—or else, of course, I just made it up for effect. All right? Okay. So that’s where it’s coming from. But just so that, if you’re going to allow your fingers to do the walking: Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 19.
And John tells us that he was a secret disciple, that he had become a disciple of Jesus but that he was afraid of the Jews. We also know that “he was waiting” here—verse 51—“he was waiting for the kingdom of God.” And we also know from verse 51 that although he was a member of this Council, he had not consented to their decision nor their action—i.e., he was a member of the Council, c-i-l, who rejected the counsel, s-e-l. I write things like that down; it helps me to remember. Clearly, the way you’re looking back at me, you don’t even understand what I said. He was a member of the Council, with a c-i-l, who rejected their counsel, s-e-l. No better the second time. Okay, I just leave it alone. All right? The fact of the matter is that he was probably missing from the strategic meeting. Because we read elsewhere that they acted in unanimity, so if they acted in unanimity and he wasn’t consenting to their action, then presumably he wasn’t present for the final vote.
All of that falls under the category of a biographical sketch.
The second heading I wrote down was simply “A Bold Move,” because that’s what we have in verse 52: a bold move. “Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body.” Mark actually uses the word bold; he said that he “went boldly to Pilate.” And, of course, he did, because fear had previously silenced him; fear had previously controlled him. And now he casts fear to the wind, and he steps up. Somehow or another, the cross had brought him out in the open. What the life of Jesus had done, what the teaching and miracles of Jesus had done, was to attract him and to bring him to the point of belief, but somehow or another, he was still clandestine. He was still going about his business in a secretive way. He was still moving amongst his colleagues, believing in Jesus and yet somehow unable to let other people know.
You may find a point of identification with that tonight, some. That may actually describe you: to this point in your life, a secret disciple; believing, but afraid, really, to let anyone know—sometimes those closest to you. But something had happened. Jesus had said, “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to me,” and we already saw this morning that the centurion found that something distinctive had happened at the cross, and now, here, the same is happening to this individual.
And so he makes a daring request, asking for the body. “Why are you asking for the body?” would’ve been the obvious question, and the obvious answer was “Because I am committed to this condemned and crucified man. I have failed to stand up with him when he was alive, and I’m not going to miss the chance now that he has died.” And Mark alone tells us that “Pilate was surprised.” You can read this in Mark 15:44–45. Joseph goes and says, “Can I have the body?” and Pilate says, “What, the body? You mean to tell me he’s already dead?” “Oh yes,” says Joseph. Then says Pilate, “I need to verify this,” sends for our friend the centurion; the centurion comes in and verifies the information. Remember we said this morning that crucifixion often lasted sometimes up to three days, and so it was a remarkable way in which Jesus’ life had come to an end.
So the body’s released. And that gives way to urgent activity. Urgent activity. The pace of this is quite remarkable: “Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body,” and “then he took it down.” We need to remember that it is by now the middle of the afternoon on the Friday of Passover Week. Middle of the afternoon. Jesus died around three o’clock. Remember, the darkness came at noonday, lasted for three hours. At the end of the darkness, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” and “he breathed his last,” so that’s three o’clock. If we allow a little time, it’s moved on from there. The commencement of the Jewish Sabbath was 6 p.m. Therefore, this individual, if he’s going to abide by the Jewish law, now has a window of opportunity that is less than three hours. So he has less than three hours to accomplish everything that needs to be done. If the burial is going to take place, it’s going to have to take place swiftly.
Now, this chap moves into action. Again, what you almost need to do is take all the Gospel records and write down all the phraseology, and if you put it down almost in a diagrammatic form, you get this picture—if we were doing it in a movie, you might even fast-forward it, you know, and have the people moving around Jerusalem very quickly. Then again, you may not.
But he took the body down. Luke tells us that he “wrapped it in linen cloth.” Mark tells us that he went and bought the linen cloth. Okay? So he took the body down, he bought the linen cloth. Actually, Mark says he bought the linen cloth, then he took the body down. You understand how reporters work, don’t you? Say, “Well, did he this or did he that?” Doesn’t really matter which he did first; it’s not the main things and the plain things. And the body would have to be washed. None of them mention that. They perhaps all take it for granted, because Jewish law demanded that a body would be washed before it was embalmed. And then we’re told in John that it was wrapped; the linen cloths were wrapped together with some seventy-five pounds of spices. And then the body was placed in a newly cut tomb, and then a big stone was rolled in front of the entrance, and then Joseph went home for his tea.
You say, “Well, it doesn’t say that.” No, I just made that part up. But what I’m trying to get across is this was, like, all in an afternoon’s work. He goes boldly to Pilate: “May I have the body?” “Yes, you may.” And from the moment that he says, “Yes, you may,” all of this activity takes place. Think about it. This is remarkable! Who was this chap? I’ve seen some of you at the grocery store. I’ve waited for some of you outside the grocery store. It’s like I celebrated a birthday waiting on you coming back. What is going on in there? How can that take so long? Look what Joseph of Arimathea was able to do in far less time!
Well, I wrote another phrase down in my notes. I wrote down, “He didn’t act alone.” He didn’t act alone. Clearly he didn’t act alone. We know there was at least one person with him, and we’ll come to him in just a moment, but presumably there were others. He was a rich man, he was a prominent member of the Council, he was the kind of chap that would’ve had influence, and you can imagine him getting his servants together and saying, “Now, let’s just divvy up these various bits and pieces.” For example, taking the body from the cross—we can’t imagine that he did that all by himself. It doesn’t really make any sense, does it? He would’ve had help there. The purchase of the linen, the location of the tomb, the making sure that entry and access was possible, and all of these different things.
But the one helper we know of for sure is our friend Nicodemus. And this is just so lovely. I love this in John 19:39, the way it just creeps into the text: “With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away,” and then, “He was accompanied by Nicodemus.” “Oh!” says the reader, “Nicodemus! Haven’t heard of Nicodemus for seventeen chapters.” And John says, “He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night,” just in case anyone has forgotten or gets it mixed up with any other Nicodemus.
Well, you know, birds of a feather flock together, don’t they? And there was a man called Nicodemus who went to Jesus by night, under the cover of darkness, secretly, quietly, asking his questions, discovering this glorious answer: “The wind blows and you can’t tell about it, and the work of God is the work of the Spirit. It is unique and wonderful, Nicodemus.” And he walks out of the text in John 3, and we wonder to where, and here in John 19, he steps back.
You can understand why the two of these chaps would hang out together, wouldn’t you? Both of them scaredy-cats, both of them influential in their own way, both of them believing in Jesus, both of them somehow or another just not managing to pluck up the courage to let everybody know. And I imagine them getting together and saying, “Well, we can definitely honor him in his death, can’t we, Nicodemus?” Nicodemus says, “Yes.” And then when I read the Gospels, I was intrigued. Because Joseph is only mentioned with the linen cloth. Nicodemus is only mentioned with the spices. And here you see the first principles of economic theory, the division of labor: “You get the spices. I’ll get the cloth. I’ll meet you back at the graveyard.”
And so, Luke, along with Matthew and with Mark, mentions also the presence of the women. In fact, he’s very careful to make sure that we know that these ladies were present. In Mark’s Gospel it’s very brief: “Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus saw where they had put him.” In Luke there’s a wee bit more information: “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee”—he’s already used that phrase in verse 49—they “followed Joseph,” they “saw the tomb,” they saw “how his body was laid in it,” and “then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes.” Well, John’s Gospel says that they took approximately seventy-five pounds of spices and mixed them with the linen cloths, embalming the body. And then Luke tells us that they saw the tomb, they saw how the body was placed in it, then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. So the commentator, trying to resolve this potential difficulty, says to me as I read him, “Clearly, they didn’t see everything that took place in the tomb. I mean, they saw that the body went into the tomb. They saw that Nicodemus and Joseph were taking care of that. But they obviously couldn’t have seen all the business with the spices; otherwise, they wouldn’t have gone immediately to prepare the spices and the perfumes.”
I thought about that for a minute, and then I said, “No, I reject that idea completely.” I think it is more probable that they saw exactly what took place in the tomb. And they saw Joseph of Arimathea, prominent member of the Council, and Nicodemus, a highflyer too, fiddling around with this embalming process. And they nudged one another, and they said, “Men can’t do this. They’re making a complete mess of the thing. Don’t let’s say anything. Don’t say anything to them. They’ll just get annoyed. But why don’t we just slip off, and we’ll come back immediately after the Sabbath, and we’ll do this properly?” Now, wouldn’t that be just like ladies? And wouldn’t it just be like two men to make a royal hash of the process? Of course, we’ll have to wait for a while to figure whether that’s fact or fiction.
Well, that’s all of the material really there. That’s all that’s there. So what do we learn from this? Let me tell you what I’ve been trying to learn or hope to learn.
I’m reminded that the good news touches both the rich and the poor. And certainly the emphasis in the Gospel of Luke has been that Jesus comes for the least and the last and the left out, that he has a unique concern for the poor, and that that would be a mark of those who bear the good news. But sometimes people get hung out on that notion, and it becomes almost a crusade which leaves behind anybody who doesn’t fit the category of focus. And the Scriptures are wonderful in reminding us at just the right time that the good news is no respecter of persons, and that it is as needful for a rich man called Joseph to find Christ as his Savior as it is for the woman at the well, whose life has been devastated by multiple relationships, to find love in the one right place.
It teaches me too that God’s providence is at work all the time and everywhere. He was preparing Joseph for this very moment. In fact, Joseph’s secrecy—which was all his own secrecy. It wasn’t that God made Joseph secretive. It wasn’t that God made Joseph fearful. Joseph was fearful, Joseph was secretive, by personality, by dint of his fledgling faith. That’s how he was. And if he had been other than that, then he would already have been in full-flown usefulness and involvement long before this. It was the very fact that he was the way he was, that his steps had been ordered, ’cause even our foolishness and even our ineptitude and even our secrecy and even our fearfulness—God, in the mystery of his providence, is working all these things together “for the good of those who love him, [and] who have been called according to his purpose.” And it was God’s express purpose that his special servant Joseph, having missed so many opportunities, would be present on this day for this opportunity. God is wonderful in the way he works.
I’ve learned here also that these proceedings continue to fulfill the words of prophecy of Isaiah 53—53:9: “And there he was,” it says of the Suffering Servant, “with the rich in his death.” These tombs, these carved-out areas—some of you’ve been in Jerusalem—they were often reused once the body had decomposed. They would then take it away; after about a year they would gather it up and they would put it, essentially, in a burning zone, and a form of… Yeah, cremation. And a form of cremation would take place. (The word was gone completely there.) And so the tomb could be reused, and it may be reused on multiple occasions. But the rich wouldn’t reuse the tombs. And Christ, who had nothing and nobody, didn’t have much of a chance of any kind of decent burial. But his Father saw that he was put in this lovely place, albeit briefly, but nevertheless, properly.
Two final things by way of observation. I tried to learn from this passage that not everyone arrives as quickly as others do at the place of bold discipleship. Not everyone arrives as others do at the place of bold discipleship. Some of us who by dint of personality are more extrovert than others have little patience with those who find themselves less confident or less bold. And it’s a lesson, I think, that is here in Scripture—in part to remind those of us who may be too quick to press others to what may be nothing more than that which makes us feel better about circumstances than enhances their walk with Christ—that not everybody moves at the same pace as another. And the gestation period, as it were, between coming to a convinced belief in the saviorship of Jesus and the preparedness to nail his colors to the mast, in nautical terms, was longer than we may be prepared to suggest as being plausible.
But then, finally, surely the passage is a reminder to us that no one can remain a secret disciple indefinitely. Nobody can remain a secret disciple indefinitely. Eventually circumstances will conspire to demand that we stand up for what we believe and we take our stand with whom we’ve determined to follow. And Joseph is in the company of one other individual on the pages of human history in respect to this, isn’t he? There are two people here who, within a twenty-four-hour period, essentially are immortalized in human history. One is Joseph, and the other is Pilate. And the reason that they’re both known in the pages of history, and certainly in the biblical record, is simply because of their reaction to Jesus. Both of them apparently thought that they could delay their response to Jesus. Pilate was a pontificator. Pilate was a procrastinator. Pilate was trying to put it off, trying to send the decision away to someone else: “Go to Herod. Come back later. I don’t know about this. I don’t know about that. I can wash my hands of this.” And Joseph, from another perspective, operated in much the same way: “There will be a time when I get to it. I’ll get to it later. I’ll let somebody know someday.” And they apparently thought they could delay their response indefinitely, but the events of life overtook them. And the question which was uppermost on Pilate’s mind and on his lips in Mark 15, “What shall I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?”—that was the question they both had to face. That was the question they both faced. They both made their choice. And eternity will reveal the choice they made.
So, there is no other place to finish except to say: perhaps tonight, young man, young girl, perhaps tonight is the night when the secrets of your heart will be revealed. Way back in Luke chapter 2, when [Simeon] takes the baby in his arms and he speaks over him and he says, you know, “Let your servant depart in peace because my eyes have seen your salvation,” and he says, “This child will be for the rising and falling of many in Israel. He will cause the division between people”—and then he essentially says, “And by means of him the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” And that’s exactly what happened here for Joseph of Arimathea. Suddenly, when he saw the cross, he said, “That’s it. I can’t be in secret any longer. I will go to Pilate. I will ask for the body. I’ll do whatever it takes. I have failed to honor him in his life, but I will not fail to honor him in his death.”
Is there somebody here tonight, and you believe in your heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead? And in saying that, you believe that the reason that God raised Jesus from the dead was because God was accepting the sacrifice for sin that Jesus had offered. And furthermore, you believe that that was a necessary sacrifice, not just for the sins of men and women but for your sins, and that you have come to Christ in the silence of your heart and mind, perhaps on a journey that you took on your own, perhaps in your bedroom, perhaps somewhere just out walking, and you said, “Lord Jesus, I believe in you. I trust in you.” But only you and Jesus know, because somehow or another, you just can’t get it out.
Well, I want to give you the opportunity tonight to take what you believe in your heart and make it really yours by saying, with my mouth, “Jesus is my Lord.” Because “if you confess with your mouth, [that] ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God [has] raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” And you need to be.
If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.
Let us pray together:
Lord Jesus Christ, it is so very easy to hide in the shadows. We understand how quickly fear ties our tongues and seals our lips. Some of us have wondered why it is that we find ourselves in a kind of spiritual no-man’s-land: we believe, and yet we seem to make so little progress. And it dawns on us that we’re where Joseph was, and we want, in the light of the cross, to take our stand with Christ. He bore shame, scoffing, stood in our place, and we’re afraid to stand in the lunchroom for him? That he bore these nails and had a crown of thorns on his head and in public was humiliated, and still our testimony of faith dies on our lips when a business colleague on a flight asks us to give the reason for the hope we have? Forgive us, Lord Jesus, and help us, we pray, to bow beneath your lordship and to live our lives in the full light of what it means to follow you. For we pray in your precious name. Amen.
 Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke, New International Commentary on the New Testament (1950; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 619.
 Matthew 26:35 (paraphrased). See also Mark 14:31.
 See Isaiah 53:9.
 See Esther 4:14.
 Mark 15:43 (NIV 1984).
 See John 19:38.
 Mark 15:43 (NIV 1984).
 John 12:32 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 23:44–45.
 Luke 23:46 (NIV 1984).
 See Mark 15:46.
 See John 19:39–40.
 See Matthew 27:60.
 John 19:38–39 (NIV 1984).
 See John 3:1–9.
 Mark 15:47 (paraphrased).
 See John 19:39–40.
 Romans 8:28 (NIV 1984).
 Isaiah 53:9 (paraphrased).
 See Luke 23:4–25.
 Mark 15:12 (paraphrased). See also Matthew 27:22.
 Luke 2:29–30 (paraphrased).
 Luke 2:34–35 (paraphrased).
 Romans 10:9 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.