The crowds had watched Jesus of Nazareth die. They had observed the Roman soldiers breaking the legs of the two thieves on either side of our Lord, in order to hasten their deaths. They had also heard the centurion pronounce that Jesus of Nazareth was already dead and did not need to have His legs broken. They waited for the bodies of the three men to be taken down because the next day was a feast day and the Jews did not allow bodies to be left on a cross on a feast day.
It was customary for the bodies of crucified criminals to be taken down from the cross and thrown into a pit, along with other criminals, being buried in a common grave. No doubt the religious leaders of the day relished the thought of the body of this ‘imposter’, as they saw Him, being consigned to a common, disgraceful burial. We can well imagine their shock, therefore, when two wealthy, well-respected members of their own Sanhedrin came out of the crowd, lifted up the cross of Jesus out of the hole into which it had been dropped, laid it gently down on the ground and proceeded to unfasten His body from the gibbet on which it had been nailed. Proceeding to wash the body as best as they could, they wrapped it in fresh clean linen interlaid with generous quantities of spices, and carried it away to be buried in a private tomb. This was not what the Jewish authorities had wanted. How had this been permitted?
Quite some time before the betrayal, trial and crucifixion of our Lord, the Sanhedrin – a body of seventy prominent Jewish men – had warned people that if they believed and followed the teachings of this Jesus of Nazareth they would be excommunicated from temple and synagogue worship. The Sanhedrin had appeared, to a man, to be opposed to Jesus of Nazareth and all that He taught. Yet there were two members of this Sanhedrin who were secret followers of Jesus Christ. One was Nicodemus, who had come at night to see our Lord at the beginning of His public ministry. He it was who had initially been confounded at our Lord’s teaching, ‘Ye must be born again’, John 3. 7. ‘How can these things be?’ he asked. We read no more of his reaction to our Lord’s teaching on that occasion, but we discover later that Nicodemus must have come to some sort of faith in our Lord. John records in the seventh chapter of his gospel that the chief priests and Pharisees had ordered the arrest of this Jesus of Nazareth, but their soldiers had returned without Him in their custody. When the officers excused themselves by saying, ‘Never man spake like this man’, the Pharisees answered, ‘Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers [or of the Pharisees] believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed’. Nicodemus, who, says John, ‘was one of them’, i.e., a ruler of the Jews and a Pharisee, who according to the others did not believe in Jesus, asked, ‘Doth our law judge a man before it hear him and know what he doeth?’ 7. 45-52. Ah, we ask ourselves, is something going on in the heart of Nicodemus of which we know nothing as yet? He it was who stepped forward after the death of our Lord. ‘There came also Nicodemus, which at the first came to Jesus by night, and brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about an hundred pound weight. Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen’, 19. 39, 40. He was not the only one, though, for another member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph from Arimathea, was the other man who took down the body of Jesus, v. 38. John tells us this Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but ‘secretly for fear of the Jews’, v. 38. Both of these men, then, were ‘secret’ disciples, afraid to be publicly identified with Jesus of Nazareth, knowing the huge cost that excommunication from the synagogue would have entailed – loss of business, loss of friends, loss of standing in the top level of Jewish society, loss of a place on the influential Sanhedrin. But the cross changed all that.
We do not know what went through the minds of these two men as they heard about, possibly even watched, the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. All we know is that they were moved to do something. It seems as though they could not face the thought that the One in whom they had come to believe as Messiah, if not as Saviour, should be given a criminal’s burial as well as a criminal’s death. They could not have intervened to prevent the indignity and shame of His death, but they could intervene to prevent the indignity and shame of a common burial. But, in order to do so, they would have to come forward publicly to intervene. There could be no hiding of faith and discipleship now. And so both rich and influential Joseph of Arimathea, and rich and influential Nicodemus, stepped out of the crowds that stood hushed around the cross, and either ordered the taking down of the cross and removal of Jesus’ body, or did it themselves. The cross has turned secret disciples into public ones.
For however many years it was that he had been a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph of Arimathea had been a secret one, ‘for fear of the Jews’, John 19. 38. How often had his tongue remained tied in the Sanhedrin meetings? We know it was so at least once, for the scripture tells us of ‘a man named Joseph, a counsellor; and he was a good man, and a just: (The same had not consented to the counsel and deed of them;) he was of Arimathea, a city of the Jews: who also himself waited for the kingdom of God’, Luke 23. 50-52. Was his objection to the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus kept secret? It hardly seems to have been public, for he is still described at the crucifixion as being ‘a secret disciple’. But, again, the cross changed that. ‘And now, when the even was come … Joseph of Arimathea … came and went in boldly unto Pilate’, Mark 15. 42, 43. Note that word ‘boldly’. W. E. Vine writes that it signifies, ‘to dare to do, or bear, something terrible or difficult’. Strong says it implies doing something ‘through the idea of extreme conduct’. The cross has turned a man who had kept in the shadows, who was afraid of public scandal, into someone who demanded access to Pilate – something only a member of the Sanhedrin could do – and marched boldly in to face the Roman tyrant to ask for the body of a criminal. Can we imagine how much he agonized over having to do this terrible, difficult, thing? But there was no one else who could do it, so it had to be done. A coward has become a brave man.
And what does rich and influential Joseph do before Pilate? He, ‘craved the body of Jesus’, Mark 15. 43, Matt. 27. 58. Once again we turn to W. E. Vine for help. ‘Crave’ ‘suggests the attitude of a suppliant, the petition of one who is lesser than he to whom the petition is made’. One can see Joseph, on bended knee before Pilate, begging for the body of Jesus of Nazareth and refusing to go until he receives permission to have it. He has to wait in the presence of Pilate, too, until the centurion in charge of the crucifixion has been summoned to confirm Jesus of Nazareth is dead. Only then does he receive what he has begged for – ‘when [Pilate] knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph’, Mark 15. 44, 45. The cross has turned a proud, self-sufficient man into a beggar on his knees before a hated ruler.
So we return to the foot of the cross. Crowds wait for the bodies to be taken down by Roman soldiers and cast into a criminal’s common grave. But wait, two men hurry forward, no longer afraid to be associated with Jesus of Nazareth, enduring the incredulity and mockery of fellow members of the Sanhedrin. Gently, loving, believing hands unfasten the body of the Son of God from the cross. The scripture stresses ‘he took him down’. Joseph had brought fresh, fine linen to wrap the body. Nicodemus had brought ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight’, John 19. 39. Together, they took Him away to be washed, perfumed, wrapped in fresh linen interwoven with spices that in value were fit for a king’s burial, and then loving, believing, reverent hands placed the body in a quiet, unused, private tomb belonging to Joseph himself. The spices, perhaps bought for Nicodemus’ own burial, and the tomb intended for Joseph’s burial, were freely given to the Son of God.
How important was it that these men stepped forward to be associated with our Lord? So important that Joseph’s actions here are mentioned in every single one of the Gospels. It was of supreme importance that they stepped forward, because only they could fulfil the scripture, ‘[They] made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death’, Isaiah 53. 9. This prophecy indicates that, though men had intended for His beloved Son to be buried in the common grave of the wicked, tossed in along with the thieves and covered with a shovel of lime, God would have Him buried with the rich. The actions of Joseph and Nicodemus remind us that God has His people in secret places. It may very well be that not all are as brave as others. But when the disciples, being humble Galilean fishermen, had no right to demand entry into the presence of Pilate, and when our Lord’s family, being as yet unbelievers, had no desire to ask for His body to bury it, God had His men, waiting, worrying, yet, in the end, willing to step forward and do what needed to be done. God is never caught unawares.
And what difference has the cross of Christ made to us? Paul would say, ‘God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ’. ‘Love, so amazing, so divine, demands [and should demand] my life, my all’. Why cherish dignity, when Christ lost His for us? Why shun shame, when Christ was shamed for us? Why long for reputation, when ‘he made himself of no reputation’. We may not like the sentimentalism and sacerdotalism of the hymn, The Old Rugged Cross, but its sentiments should be true. ‘To the old rugged cross I will ever be true, its shame and reproach gladly bear; then He’ll call me some day to my home far away, where His glory forever I’ll share’.