The Third Joseph

Anyone who has ever been to many Sunday School classes has heard of the first great Joseph of the Bible, how he was favored by his father to the jealousy of his brothers, about his coat of many colors, how he was sold into slavery and wound up a high ranking official in Egypt. His poor treatment became the salvation of his family when the land was hit by a famine and they needed food. Joseph moved his people to Egypt, cared for them, and they grew into a large population there. Through all of his trials, he remained true to his faith. Joseph was a good man.

The second Joseph was the husband of Mary. Again, Sunday School or paying any attention at all to the nativity story as it is recited each December would give some appreciation for the role of Joseph as the earthly father of Jesus. He was a carpenter, and apparently very devout in his faith. When confronted with the pregnancy of his betrothed bride, he did not make a spectacle, but under the allowance of the contemporary Jewish law, he was going to quietly divorce her, to save his reputation, obviously, as well as hers. He was advised against that course in a dream, and he chose well in maintaining the marriage. Joseph was a good man.

The third Joseph is one of the few peripheral characters mentioned in all four of the gospel accounts. He was Joseph of Arimathea. Exactly where Arimathea was is unknown, but it was said to be in Judea. Joseph was wealthy, a member of the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, and at least secretly a disciple of Jesus. It was said that he did not consent to the actions of the Jews in their plot against Jesus, that he was awaiting the kingdom of heaven. Legend has it that he was a tin merchant and traveled to England, where after the resurrection, he returned and built a church, perhaps in the vicinity of Glastonbury. In some Arthurian legends, he was said to have been the first keeper of the Holy Grail, the nature and existence of which has been discussed and debated in many forums. None of these legends can be historically attested or substantiated. Each gospel account, though, identifies him as the man who requested the body of the slain Messiah from Pilate, and laid it in a new tomb that he had apparently prepared for himself or his family. John says he did this with Nicodemus, who brought embalming resins, spices, and materials for the burial.

There are several significant things to note about Joseph of Arimathea. First, although he was wealthy, he was a disciple. This calls to mind the discussion that Jesus had with the rich young ruler, as he is often called, in Luke 18. The young man was devout in his faith, having kept the law well from his youth, and wanted to know what else he must do to receive eternal life. Jesus knew he had something that would stand between him and making that life-changing decision: his wealth. He told him to sell all he had and give to the poor, and then come and follow him. Joseph of Arimathea was also devoted to his faith, maintained his wealth, and he still was a disciple. His wealth was not keeping him from following the Christ.

But according to John, he kept his devotion to Jesus a secret, for fear of the Jews. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he was in a position where his influence could make a difference. To openly proclaim his faith in Jesus may have led to his ouster. Nicodemus was apparently of similar persuasion, and we know that between Jesus’s initial discussion with Nicodemus and his work with Joseph after the crucifixion, he had also tried to be a voice of reason, as the Pharisees were beginning to plot against Jesus when he attended the Sukkot feast days in Jerusalem.

Neither Joseph nor Nicodemus were open about their allegiance to Jesus. But then, at that time, not even Jesus was completely open about his teaching and identity, the fact of which is attested by the challenge of his disbelieving brothers in the opening of John 7. But his time had not yet come. From the record, it became apparent that the time did come for both of these men to reveal their discipleship. When the Sanhedrin enlisted the aid of the Roman occupiers to kill a righteous man, they let their loyalty be known, albeit after the deed had been accomplished.

It was after Jesus’s death that Joseph took courage to appear before Pilate and request the body. Mark says that Pilate was surprised that Jesus was already dead, so perhaps in order to prevent his followers from rescuing him, he had the death confirmed by a centurion. When the fact was established, he allowed Joseph to proceed.

Joseph freely gave some very important gifts to his teacher: He provided the resting place where Jesus would be laid, awaiting his reawakening at the appointed time, observing the Sabbath, as his Father had instituted. Jesus rested from his labor of earthly ministry, even as his Father had rested from his labor of creation. Joseph bought the linen shroud that would cover his master’s beaten and brutalized body. He could have walked away, kept his discipleship a secret, continued as a member of the Council, and his life would have been as rich as before. But his soul would have been impoverished beyond imagination. No, he made his decision, he stood tall, and he did what perhaps none of Jesus’s other followers could have done at that time.

But while the dignity afforded by the borrowed tomb was worthy of a great man, and the new linen to wrap the body was far more than would have been used for an executed criminal, Joseph gave Jesus gifts far greater than these tokens. What he did, he did not do out of any sense of obligation. He gave his love and offered honor and glory to the man, the Master, the Teacher who had turned the world upside down, and taught the people to look outward and upward instead of inward.

Joseph of Arimathea did not bury a dream that day: he planted the dormant seed of hope. That hope would rise in only a few short hours, burning away the darkness of what must have been the darkest, longest Sabbath of all, the day that Jesus slept. It must have been interminable for those who loved the one called Immanuel, those who believed in the promised Messiah, those who had given up all they had for the Christ. Doubt crept into their thoughts: although they knew Jesus said he would live again, nature was a hard teacher to ignore. They may have been preparing themselves for darker days ahead as the forces of evil had won this pivotal battle, and those forces no doubt rejoiced in their hollow victory.

But hope was on its way. And darkness would never win.

What happened to Joseph of Arimathea after that is unknown. The legends place him far away from Jerusalem. What he did, where he went are all lost to history. But we know he loved Jesus enough to risk his position, his life, and livelihood. He will be mentioned in passing by many as the donor of the tomb where Jesus was buried. But for those who take the time to think about the man and his actions, they know the truth. Joseph was a good man.

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