by Robert Brow
In our Gospel reading two important Jewish men are mentioned. They differed radically about their theology, but they joined together to give Jesus’ body a decent burial.
Read : John 19:38-42
Joseph of Arimathea was from the hill country of Judea. He was well known among the early Christians as "a good and righteous man" (Luke 23:50), and he is honored and mentioned in all four Gospels. He was a member of the Jewish parliament (Sanhedrin) and very wealthy (Matthew 27:57). He probably belonged to the Sadducee party who did not believe in the resurrection of the body, and their main interest was in promoting the political interests of the Jewish people.. We don’t know how he had become a secret disciple of Jesus, but as a result he "was waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God" (Mark 15:43, Luke 23:51).
The other important man was Nicodemus. He also was a member of the Sanhedrin, but he belonged to the opposing Pharisee party. Unlike Joseph of Arimathea he taught that there was a resurrection from the dead for those who became righteous by obeying all the Old Testament laws and customs. He had become the leading Rabbi in the city, but he was fascinated by Jesus’ teaching and he came to him secretly by night to find out more. Jesus told him he needed to be born again and learn to live by the Holy Spirit rather than by the hundreds of Pharisee rules (John 3:1-8).
These two men would have been theologically totally opposed to each other. Until they came to faith in Jesus they lived by two very different philosophies of life. Joseph of Arimathea had believed in salvation by good politics. Nicodemus had taught obedience to the 613 rules which the Pharisees thought summed up the Old Testament law of Moses. But coming from two opposite directions they had both come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. .
So when they heard Jesus was going to be crucified, they both knew something would have to be done for the decent disposal of his body. If nobody did anything, the Roman soldiers would leave the corpse for the wild dogs, jackals, and vultures to eat. And time was short because the Passover celebrations would begin at sundown.
Mark reported that "It was nine o’clock in the morning when Jesus was crucified." Three hours later "When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon" It was "at three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema’ ‘sabach’thani’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’ . . . and he breathed his last" (Mark 15:25, 33, 34-37).
As soon as he knew that Jesus had died, Joseph of Arimathea went boldly into the palace of Pilate the Roman Governor, and asked for permission to dispose of the body. Pilate checked with the Centurion in charge of the crucifixion that the condemned man was indeed dead. Then Joseph must have sent a message to his family that he would be defiled by touching a dead body, and their Passover Seder celebration would have to be delayed a month (according to the rule given in Numbers 9:6-11). He hurriedly bought a linen shroud, and took the body down from where it was nailed on the cross.
Right then, to his surprise, Nicodemus, the great Rabbi, arrived carrying a hundred pound mixture of myrrh and aloes (John 19:39). John’s gospel records that together "they took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews" (John 19:40). Nicodemus must have asked "Where are we going to bury him?" And Joseph explained "I have just had a new family tomb cut out of the rock in that garden over there. It has never been used, and I am honored to have it used for the Messiah. We can lay him in our tomb" (John 19:41-42).
So the two men, who had often opposed each other in theological discussions, together carried the body into the garden, rolled aside the big circular stone that covered the entrance of the rock tomb, laid the corpse inside, and sealed it shut. Mark adds that "Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid." And three days later they came early to the tomb and found the stone had been rolled away (Mark 15:46- 16:4).
From the prominence given to them in the Gospels we can assume that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus joined the Christian community. As the Holy Spirit began teaching them they would have discovered that Jesus’ resurrection made nonsense of the Sadducee explanation that the death of our body is the end. They also discovered the wrongness of the Pharisee explanation that only people who obey all their 613 rules make it to heaven. The Messiah welcomes the worst of sinners, and he has appointed the Holy Spirit to change their hearts for the joys heaven.
How then do the experiences of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus relate to us? Like them, all of us find ourselves disagreeing with other Christians about the interpretation of the Bible. When that happens it is good to remember that both sides of the argument could turn out to be wrong, and Jesus the Messiah has a far more wonderful solution in mind for us. As Paul discovered, "What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him" (1 Corinthians 2:9, which combines Isaiah 52:15 and 64:4).
It is also good to remember that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus coming from different theological viewpoints both came to see that Jesus must be the Messiah. And their faith brought them together at the cross as they shared in his death and burial.
What the two men did not know was that the man who was crucified next to Jesus had said "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." And the believing thief was assured "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise"(Luke 23:40-43). The Greek word Paradeisos is taken from the term for a Persian enclosed garden, and the same word is used both for the garden in Eden and the heavenly garden of heaven.
When Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus came to the end of their earthly life they may have heard, as we hope we will hear on the day of our death, "Today you will be with me in the garden of the heaven that I have prepared for you."
Prayer : Jesus, I am impressed by the way you brought these two men to faith, each in their own way. Free me from the doubts of Joseph of Arimathea about my own life after death. And keep me from the Pharisaic legalism of Nicodemus. Help me to work with others in honoring the life and death and resurrection of the Messiah who loved them both.