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 himself 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.
Not every member of the Jewish Council agreed either with the decision they had made concerning Jesus or with their subsequent actions. Joseph, a good and upright man from Arimathea, was one who clearly thought a serious wrong had been committed. He was outvoted. There was nothing he could do about their decision. But there was something he could do and needed to do to avoid being implicated in it. It was not enough to dissent in private. He needed to disassociate himself from their decision in public and demonstrate where his true loyalty lay. Neutrality was not possible, even if he desired it.
And he didn’t. He wasn’t just a good and upright man. He was a man who believed the Old Testament prophets and was waiting for the kingdom they had promised. As John tells us in his account, Joseph had come to a private faith in Jesus as the Messiah. But the public rejection of Messiah by the council and Jesus’ subsequent death meant that remaining a disciple in secret was no longer an option. He now needed to demonstrate his loyalty to Jesus in public. He chose a very significant way of doing it.
He went directly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body, taking responsibility for his burial, from removing the body from the cross to placing it in a tomb that had never been used before, hewn out of solid rock. With this action Joseph made it clear both to Pilate and his colleagues on the council exactly where he stood with regard to Jesus.
Joseph achieved something else by his action. He established clearly and publicly, with every movement being carefully observed, where exactly Jesus’ body was buried. Had Joseph not done this, Jesus’ body would have simply been tossed into a common grave, along with the bodies of the other criminals. That would have made it impossible for the disciples later to talk about the “empty tomb” as evidence of Jesus’ resurrection.
Joseph’s action also gave the lie to those who would later dispute the resurrection on the grounds that the disciples simply went to the wrong tomb, found it empty and claimed that Jesus was alive. Joseph certainly knew where the right tomb was. So did the women who were watching on. And so, of course, did all involved in the burial, including the guard of soldiers who according to Mark and Matthew, ensured that the tomb was covered with a large stone and then sealed with an official seal.
I really admire the careful, deliberate and courageous stand that Joseph took. No doubt repercussions would come as his colleagues in the council realised what his decision said, in public, about the ‘justice’ of their collective decision as well as about their spiritual and theological assessment. It makes me wonder also if I, as a follower of Christ, have always been as clear in public about where I stand in relation to Jesus.