JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA hardly knew how he had found the courage to approach the Roman governor. Pontius Pilate was known to be extremely stubborn. Yet, if Jesus was to receive a dignified burial, someone would have to ask Pilate to release the body. As it turned out, the face-to-face meeting was not as difficult as Joseph may have imagined. After ascertaining from an officer that Jesus was dead, Pilate granted the request. So now Joseph, his heart still heavy, hurried back to the execution site.—Mark 15:42-45.
Who was this Joseph of Arimathea?
What connection did he have with Jesus?
And what makes his story worthy of your interest?
A MEMBER OF THE SANHEDRIN
The inspired Gospel of Mark calls Joseph “a reputable member of the Council.” In context, the Council can only be the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court and supreme administrative body. (Mark 15:1, 43) Joseph was therefore one of the leaders of his people, which explains how he could gain an audience with the Roman governor. It is no surprise that Joseph was also rich.—Matt. 27:57.
Do you have the courage to acknowledge Jesus as your King?
As a group, the Sanhedrin was hostile to Jesus. Its members connived to have him put to death. Joseph, however, is called “a good and righteous man.” (Luke 23:50) Unlike most of his Sanhedrin colleagues, he lived an honest, moral life and did his best to obey God’s commands. He was also “waiting for the Kingdom of God,” which may explain why he became one of Jesus’ disciples. (Mark 15:43; Matt. 27:57) Likely, he was attracted to Jesus’ message out of a sincere desire for truth and justice.
A SECRET DISCIPLE
John 19:38 says that Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus but a secret one because of his fear of the Jews.” What was Joseph afraid of? He knew of the Jews’ disdain for Jesus and their determination to expel from the synagogue any who confessed faith in him. (John 7:45-49; 9:22) Being expelled from the synagogue meant being scorned, shunned, and treated as an outcast by fellow Jews. So Joseph hesitated to confess his faith in Jesus openly. Doing so would mean losing his position and his prestige.
Joseph was not the only one in this predicament. According to John 12:42, “many even of the rulers actually put faith in [Jesus], but they would not acknowledge him because of the Pharisees, so that they would not be expelled from the synagogue.” Another individual in the same situation was Nicodemus, also a member of the Sanhedrin.—John 3:1-10; 7:50-52.
Joseph, though, was a disciple, but he could not bring himself to say so openly. That was a serious problem, particularly in the light of Jesus’ pronouncement: “Everyone . . . who acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father who is in the heavens. But whoever disowns me before men, I will also disown him before my Father who is in the heavens.” (Matt. 10:32, 33) Joseph did not exactly disown Jesus, but neither did he have the courage to acknowledge him. Do you?
To Joseph’s credit, the Bible reports that he did not support the Sanhedrin’s plot against Jesus. (Luke 23:51) Perhaps, as some suggest, Joseph was not present at Jesus’ trial. Whatever the case, Joseph must have felt wretched about that dreadful perversion of justice—but he could do nothing to stop it!
By the time of Jesus’ death, Joseph had evidently overcome his fears, and he decided to throw in his lot with Jesus’ followers. That decision is indicated by the words of Mark 15:43: “He took courage and went in before Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”
It seems that Joseph was present when Jesus died. Indeed, he knew of Jesus’ death before Pilate did. Thus, when Joseph asked for the body, the governor “wondered whether [Jesus] could already be dead.” (Mark 15:44) If Joseph had witnessed Jesus’ agony on the torture stake, did that awful scene move him to examine his conscience and finally decide that he ought to take a stand for truth? It is possible. At the very least, Joseph was now stirred to action. He would be a secret disciple no more.
JOSEPH BURIES JESUS
Jewish law required that those sentenced to death be buried before sundown. (Deut. 21:22, 23) As far as the Romans were concerned, though, the bodies of executed criminals either were left on the stake to rot or were thrown into a common grave. But that is not what Joseph had in mind for Jesus. Close to the execution site, Joseph had a new rock-cut tomb. This vault had never been used, which indicates that Joseph had recently moved from Arimathea* to Jerusalem and that he expected to use this property as his family burial site. (Luke 23:53; John 19:41) Burying Jesus in Joseph’s own future tomb was a generous gesture on Joseph’s part and fulfilled the prophecy that the Messiah would be buried “with the rich.”—Isa. 53:5, 8, 9.
Is there anything to which you give more importance than your relationship with Jehovah?
All four Gospels record that after Jesus’ body was removed from the stake, Joseph wrapped it in fine linen and laid it in his own tomb. (Matt. 27:59-61; Mark 15:46, 47; Luke 23:53, 55; John 19:38-40) The only person specifically stated to have helped Joseph was Nicodemus, who brought burial spices. Given the status of these two, it is unlikely that they would have moved the body themselves. It is more likely that they would have used servants to do the actual carrying and burying. Be that as it may, the task that the two men undertook was not trivial. Any who came in contact with a corpse incurred ceremonial uncleanness for seven days, making everything that they touched unclean. (Num. 19:11; Hag. 2:13) Such a condition would require them to be secluded during the Passover week and to miss all its observances and celebrations. (Num. 9:6) By arranging Jesus’ burial, Joseph also risked derision from his colleagues. Yet, at this point, he was willing to accept the consequences of giving Jesus a dignified burial and of openly identifying himself as one of Christ’s disciples.
THE END OF JOSEPH’S STORY
Beyond the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ burial, the Bible mentions Joseph of Arimathea no more, leading to the obvious question: What became of him? The fact is, we do not know. In the light of the foregoing, however, there is a strong likelihood that he openly declared himself to be a Christian. After all, at the moment of test and crisis, his faith and boldness were increasing rather than diminishing. That was a good sign.
This story raises a question that all of us would do well to ponder: Is there anything at all—be it position, career, possessions, family affections, or even our very freedom—to which we give more importance than our relationship with Jehovah?
Arimathea is likely identified with Ramah, modern-day Rentis (Rantis). This was the prophet Samuel’s hometown, located some 22 miles (35 km) northwest of Jerusalem.—1 Sam. 1:19, 20.