Gen 23:3-9, Gen 23:17-19; Ps 16:5-11; Isa 53:1-9; John 19:38-42
People may debate whether the gunman in the recent American massacre actually targeted Christians, but what is not debatable is that the government of Victoria will not allow faith-based organisations to opt out from arranging adoptions for same-sex couples.
The cost of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus is growing.
As far as I can see such anti-Christian pressures is the one thing that can bring us closer to the spirituality of the New Testament.
Joseph of Arimathea is one example of what it cost and so what it meant to follow 2,000 years ago.
Everything we know about this man is contained in a few verses the Gospels concerning Christ’s burial. (Stories about Joseph’s missionary journeys have no historical credibility.)
Status and Character
The first thing we are told about Joseph was that he was “a rich man” (Matt 27:57).
Wealthy people rarely associated with Jesus, after all one of his most famous comments was, ““It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”” (Mark 10:25 cf. 1 Cor 1:26-31).
Owning his own personal stone tomb meant Joseph was one of the elite in Israel, and when Joseph and Nicodemus laid Jesus’ corpse to rest they used spices equivalent to roughly what an average worker would earn in 100 years (30,000 denarii John 19:39). These men treated Jesus as a king.
We are also told that Joseph was “a respected member of the council… a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action” (Luke 23:50-51).
The council in question is the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of Israel made up of chief priests, scribes and elders who had power to legislate in religious and civil cases. Joseph was a senior leader who had not agreed with the other dignitaries that Jesus deserved to die a blasphemer’s death (Mark 14:63).
When Luke calls Joseph “a good and righteous man” he puts him in the company of godly Jews such as Zechariah, Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, who appeared at the time of Jesus’ infancy (Luke 23:50). What makes Joseph notable however is not any moral purity but his desire to experience God’s reign upon the earth.
Seeking the Kingdom of God
Two of the Gospels tell us that Joseph was “looking for the kingdom of God,” (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:51).
In the Gospels kingdom-seekers always receive Jesus’ approval: Jesus promised “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and he will give you everything you need.” (Matt 6:33).
Joseph had no material needs but he recognised he had plenty of spiritual need. While Joseph was “seeking” the kingdom of God he was not yet “in” the kingdom of God.
There is a lot of confusion about the meaning of “the kingdom of God”, and some of it stems from the history of English translations of the Bible. The K.J.V. translated some of Jesus’ words to the Pharisees as “the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21)
Since the Pharisees hated Jesus there is no way he would be telling them that God’s powerful rule lived in them. Modern versions correctly have “the kingdom of God is among you” (NRSV; ESV etc.).
The kingdom of God was amongst the Pharisees because Jesus himself was in their midst.
When we meet as a church in Jesus’ name his kingly presence is amongst us; but that does not mean that the power of Christ’s kingdom is living in everyone here today.
As we go on looking at the story of Joseph it will become clearer what it means to belong to the kingdom of God.
There is a statement about Joseph in John’s Gospel that is truly remarkable, he “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).
How on earth can someone be a “secret disciple”?
Surely if you are a disciple of Jesus you want everybody to know about it so that they might come to know and love him too.
But Joseph was hiding his faith “for fear of the Jews/Pharisees”; this statement always appears in John when people keep their faith in Jesus to themselves out of fear of being thrown out of the synagogues (7:13; 9:22; 12:42 cf. 20:19).
Excommunication from the synagogue meant being disowned by family and friends, a fate faced not only by early Jewish Christians but one that must be endured by new believers in many Moslem, Hindu or Buddhist nations today.
Persecution is considered “normal” in the Bible; as Jesus said, ““If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first.”” (John 15:18 cf. 2 Tim 3:12).
I am deeply concerned about how the world has come to treat Christians as harmless and irrelevant.
When I first came to Christ my family though I had gone nuts and had joined a cult so they soon turned up at the Pentecostal Church to protect me! (With time they all came to Jesus and became members of the same church.)
Something was different in those days, something not easy to describe.
It was not unusual to hear the testimonies of young people being baptised of how their families had rejected them for following Jesus.
Somehow our Christianity has become too domesticated, too tamed.
Someone once said Christianity has performed a greater miracle than Jesus, “Jesus turned water into wine but we have turned the strong wine of the gospel back into water.”
What occurs next in the Joseph story reflects the transformation that can happen to us to make us the sort of public disciples of Jesus others can imitate.
Honour and Dishonour
Joseph “asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body.” (John 19:38).
Joseph’s request might seem to us simply the decent thing to do; but to understand how this step was a life changer for this once “secret disciple” we must re-enter the culture of those times.
Firstly, this public act jeopardised his whole identity as a Jew.
According to the Old Testament law a hanged man is “cursed by God”; someone who is no longer a part of God’s chosen people (Deut 21:23).
For Joseph to identify with Jesus would mean the loss of all his political, social and religious status among the Jews.
In touching Christ’s bloodied and excrement covered body he would become unclean and excluded from the celebration of the Passover for a month (Deut 28:26 Num 9:6-11).
Excommunication from Israel was bad enough, but the risk to Joseph from the Romans was even more severe.
In Mark’s version of events he “took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43).
He needed courage because the Romans were cruel people.
At this time the burial of condemned prisoners was officially prohibited by the emperor.
In asking for Jesus’ body Joseph was presenting himself as a friend or patron of a man condemned by Rome for setting himself up as a rival king to Caesar (John 19:12-16).
Joseph could not predict what Pilate might do to him, a judge who had the innocent Jesus put to death for purely practical reasons might do anything to advantage his own position. Roman law treated people executed for treason, like Jesus, as less than human.
The cruelties of crucifixion and the subsequent treatment of dead bodies were aimed to maximise the dishonour of the executed person.
In popular parlance such people were, to quote from the time, “food for crows” and “scraps for dogs”.
For Pilate to release the crucified body of Jesus could make it appear that he acknowledged that Christ’s death was an unjust one.
Joseph’s request was a dangerous one.
For us to fully appreciate the cost to Joseph of identifying with the dead Jesus I need to say some more about attitudes to crucifixion in the ancient world.
Two thousand years of respectable Western Christianity has domesticated the scandal of the cross.
Donna and I were in jewellery stores this week and there were dozens of ornamental crosses in there.
But here is what the Roman statesman Cicero had to say for his time;
“the mere name of the cross, should be far removed…from the persons of Roman citizens—from their thoughts, and eyes, and ears…the mere mention of (these things),—is unworthy of a Roman citizen”. Cicero was a member of the nobility, but in the ruins of ancient Rome rough graffiti has been uncovered showing what the average pagan thought of the worship of a crucified god
(see image at end of sermon). “Alexamenos worships [his] god” c. 200A.D. – slide at end of document showing a Christian worshipping a crucified man with a donkey’s head. This is a picture of sheer mockery. Jews and pagans despised the cross (1 Cor 1:18ff.).
In some countries the cross is just as much reviled today as in Roman times.
When a mob in Egypt last year spied a cross hanging on the rear vision mirror of young woman they proceeded to maul her to death.
Her Church issued a declaration,
“Oh how lucky you are, Mary, you who are beloved of Christ. They tore your body because of the Cross. Yet they offered you the greatest service and gave you a name of honour as one who attained the crown of martyrdom.”
I remember being at a saints’ day celebration in rural Egypt a few years ago watching a toddler have a cross tattooed on his arm (he was screaming); every Coptic Christian carries the mark of the cross on their body as an emblem of pride (Gal 6:17).
To all his friends Joseph must have appeared as a crazy man who had lost all his life achievements to honour someone crucified as the worst sort of criminal.
What about family pressures?
His large and expansive tomb was designed to serve generations of family members to come. In giving away his tomb Joseph fulfilled prophecy and made it clear that his love and honour for Jesus were greater than that for his family (Isa 53:9; Matt 10:37).
Putting Jesus before family is a hard thing. Without my knowledge my mum once bought me a block of land and proudly presented me with the deed so I could “settle down” with Donna and our two young children. I immediately handed it back to her explaining this was not what God wanted; she was offended for quite some time. Let me explain what I think this was all about.
Some years ago as I stepped off a plane in Tonga for a prayer assembly I was told I would be preaching at a local church in a couple of days. As I started to pray about what to say a couple of Mormons walked past, Mormonism has become very big in the South Pacific. Immediately I knew what I had to preach, Jesus had a reputation for associating with those in society that were disrespected (Luke 7:34). To own your own home in Australia is highly respectable, to follow a crucified Lord will always lead you to make decisions that are not respectable.
By one simple act Joseph passed from being a “scaredy –cat” disciple to being a model of the discipleship for us to today. On the face of it he had everything to lose and nothing to gain by identifying with the crucified Jesus. His heart transformation from fear to courage can only be explained in one way.
Whatever he had previously experienced of Christ’s teaching and miraculous power it was only what he saw and heard at Calvary that strengthened his heart to publicly take up the way of the cross, whatever the cost (Luke 9:23).
In seeing Jesus die Joseph had a life changing vision of the love of God.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16).
“For the love of Christ leaves us no choice, because we are persuaded that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.” (2 Cor 5:14-15).
What is it that is keeping so many Australian Christians as “secret disciples”?
Secret discipleship however is not a fixed sentence; if the Lord could transform a man like Joseph of Arimathea, when everything was stacked against him, we who know the resurrection can also risk everything to identify with Jesus.
When I was a young Christian the Church in the Soviet Union was fiercely persecuted.
Prominent Christians would be kidnapped by the KGB placed in mental asylums and drugged into mindlessness.
I remember listening to a preacher from Melbourne share about how the Lord prepared him to go into Russia. Before crossing the Iron Curtain he stayed for a time in a convent in West Germany where his fears of suffering for Jesus began to torment him.
Then one day he was walking in the convent garden through its Stations of the Cross.
As this brother walked amongst the Stations he experienced a most amazing transformation, from fear of suffering for Jesus he began to desire to honour Jesus at whatever cost. Paul puts it like this; “it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death.” (Phil 1:20).
Or more pointedly, “But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14). Possessions, reputation, family and respectability will all pass away but whoever identifies with the crucified Christ will live forever.
If you look around the walls of St Mark’s you will see that we are surrounded by the Stations of the Cross portraying the suffering and death of Jesus (traditionally) climaxing in Joseph of Arimethea’s role in the story of Jesus.
As God had a special role for Joseph 2000 years ago in Jerusalem so he has a special role for us in the ongoing story of Jesus in “Bassendean and beyond”. Joseph made a decision that he would no longer be a “secret disciple”, that whatever it was going to cost him he was going to honour Jesus.
Each of us is faced with a decision, to be a person living a life of costless discipleship or to be someone who knows Jesus intimately and is misunderstood and dishonoured in the eyes of the world.
Will we glory in the cross?