So we come to the last eventide of Mark’s Gospel, an eventide that was to be followed by a glorious tomorrow. Consider the passage as follows:
A comparison with the other Gospels makes it clear that Joseph of Arimathaea, Nicodemus and some women were present on this occasion.
(a) Joseph of Arimathaea. Mark says he was “an honourable counsellor” (that is, a member of the Sanhedrim) who was looking for the kingdom of God. Immersed in the Old Testament Scriptures he anticipated the reign of the promised Messiah. He was one of those faithful souls who longed for the coming of Messiah and expected His speedy advent. There were others like him, though the majority of the people were absorbed in the business of the pleasures of life. But he was one of those who were always on the watch for the first sign of Messiah’s approach. They watched eagerly for Him. The man who waits and watches for the Lord does not watch and wait in vain. The vision for which he has watched comes at length to gladden his eyes and bring peace to his soul. Luke says he was a good man and righteous. As a good man we have his own internal disposition, what he was in himself. As a just man we have his external conduct, what he was towards others. His just dealings were the fruit and root of his goodness. His was the belief that knew how to behave. Again, he had not consented to their counsel and deed. John says that he was “a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews”. Matthew says that he was “a rich man … who also himself was Jesus’ disciple”. The Lord was to be “with the rich in his death”, and thus the ancient prophecy of Isaiah 53. 9 would be fulfilled.
(b) Nicodemus. He came to Jesus by night, John 3. 2; he spoke up for Christ in the council, John 7. 45-52. As a fair minded man, although a disciple at heart and afraid to avow his faith, he raised his voice on behalf of the Lord as the Sanhedrim devised measures against Him. The rulers were Christ’s enemies, and Nicodemus raised a point of order in favour of the One from whom he had learned so much. And now he honours Christ in His burial. There is nothing like a crisis to make love avow itself.
(c) The Women. They were last at the cross and first at the tomb. Here was love sorrowing in its loss and helplessness. They gaze intently, not so much to fill their eyes with the sight of what was done, as to empty them in rivers of tears. Blessed women ! They had helped Him while He lived, and now they stand by Him as He had died. There is nothing so unconquerable as the love of a true woman.
What we have here are two notable secret disciples, and the causes and cure of secret discipleship are now considered.
(a) The Causes of Secret Discipleship. Joseph of Arimathaea and Nicodemus were restrained from open avowal of Christ by fear. It is one way of manifesting whose you are by uniting yourself openly to those who belong to Christ and trying to serve Him. There is need sometimes that we should say, “I am a Christian” as well as that we should live like one. It is necessary to accompany the witness of our lives with the commentary of our confession. Both were members of the Sanhedrim. Either they had absented themselves from the meeting of the Sanhedrim which examined the Lord Jesus and formulated the charge against Him, or they had sat silent throughout it all. What a difference it would have made for the Lord if among those condemning, hostile voices one voice had been raised in His support. But Joseph and Nicodemus were afraid. Perhaps they feared that, in doing anything for the Lord, the other members of the Sanhedrim would dismiss them from their council and exclude them from the synagogue. They dreaded ridicule, the loss of position and social ostracism. Do these same things prevent us from confessing Christ boldly before men?
How much these two men had lost : three years of communion with Christ, His teachings and His stimulus, His example, the joy of His fellowship. So it always is. The tragedy was that both had faith, but not faith enough to confess Christ and take the consequences.
(b) The Cure of Secret Discipleship. The sight of Christ’s cross makes the coward spirit brave. It transfigures cowards into heroes. A love will be kindled which will not be concealed. The love that died for me will force me to confess my love. But that love will do more, for it will impel to a joyful surrender. So Joseph gave a place in his own new tomb. Nicodemus likewise brought costly spices. They render a service to Christ that John and Peter could not have done even if they would. The death of the Lord Jesus had done for Nicodemus and Joseph what His life had not done. Now as a fruit of Christ’s atoning death, and love for Him, Joseph had suddenly become very courageous. It was real courage after all for a man in Joseph’s position to risk an association with a Leader already fallen, and thus apparently incapable of benefiting him any further. Simon the Cyrenian carried Christ’s cross and Joseph of Arimathaea carried His body. None of the great things in the crisis of this world was done by the apostles but by hitherto unknown persons. To take part in a burial would render Joseph unclean for seven days and make everything unclean which he touched; read Numbers 19. 11. To do so now involved his seclusion throughout the whole Passover week with its holy observances and rejoicings.
Joseph wins this victory over himself where we win all our victories, within the shadow of the cross. There the heart of Joseph is strangely and suddenly transfigured. He will no longer stifle his convictions or hide them in silence. He will confess the dead Christ even though he had feared to confess the living One. He will link his own name, in the open day and in the glare of the court, with the Name of the Crucified, well knowing that this would nail his own proud self to the cross by the side of his Lord.
So he summoned up courage, Mark 15. 43. It required courage to go to Pilate. Pilate had just been driven by the Sanhedrim to put an innocent Man to death - a humiliating experience for the official representative of Rome. He could not be expected to be gracious to a member of that court. Joseph had no legal claim to the body for he was not a relation. He would therefore have to explain why he was interested, and that would amount to confessing that he was a disciple of “the King of the Jews”. Moreover his request would become known, and this might bring him into serious collision with the hierarchy. We are best known as Christ’s by what we will do for Him, especially when our service involves sacrifice.
Nicodemus was there, too, to bring a tribute that all men could see. He brought about 100 pounds weight of spices - a rich man’s proof of devotion, and possibly of remorse for timidity in the past which now seemed without remedy. The fear and hesitation were gone. Those who had been afraid when Jesus was alive, declared Him in such a way that all could see now that He was dead. The Lord had not been dead even for an hour when His own prophecy came true - He began to draw all men unto Him, John 12. 32. It may be that their silence or absence from the Sanhedrim had grieved Christ, but it is certain that He knew the way in which both Nicodemus and Joseph would cast their fear aside after the cross, and it is certain that already His heart was glad, for already the power of the cross had begun to operate drawing all men unto Him. So “Joseph … besought Pilate … and there came also Nicodemus”, John 19. 38, 39.
(c) The Consequences of Avowed Discipleship. Boldness in confessing Christ is likely to have at least two results, and they are seen here:
(i) it makes the adversaries cowards. We do not read that Joseph got himself into trouble by his action on this occasion, or that the Sanhedrim immediately commenced a persecution against him. It is one of the great advantages of those who stand up for Christ that they have the consciences even of their adversaries on their side.
(ii) It makes others confess Him. It brings out confession from others who had not had in their hearts enough fire to make them act, but are heated up to the necessary temperature by example. So the example of Joseph evoked the loyalty of Nicodemus.
Concern was expressed by two groups:
(a) By Those who Hated Christ. The other Gospels fill in the details for us. Pilate wished to ascertain the truth of the matter of death from the centurion, John 19. 31-36. A Roman centurion had seen too many deaths to be in any uncertainty about such a fact. And so Pilate gave the body to Joseph. The burial proves the death of Christ. If He had risen immediately it would have been said that He had never died at all - that He had only fainted. But that supposition is rendered untenable by the facts recorded. The hierarchy then overreach themselves in their precautions. They ask Pilate to secure the tomb; “Make it as sure as you can”, he replies. It is as if Pilate all unconsciously said “Keep Christ in the tomb, if you can”. They set their watch ; they sealed the tomb. They had not realized one thing - there was not a tomb in the world which could imprison the Risen Christ. Not all men’s plans would bind the Risen Lord. How vain their actions I Had they not set the watch, then they might have claimed with some semblance of sense that He had been taken out of the tomb. But all that they accomplished was to increase the number of those who could bear witness to the resurrection. And these additional witnesses had to be bribed to give false witness. They spread the ridiculous story that His disciples came by night and stole the body away, “while we slept”. How could they know what happened while they were asleep?
(b) By Those who Loved Christ. From the moment of His dying none but loving hands touched Him, and from the moment of His burial none but loving eyes saw Him. That holy body was to receive no more indignities. It was not thrown, as the chief priests probably expected, into some dishonoured grave with the two malefactors. No, He “was with the rich in his death”. The very loving care for the body of the Lord showed that Joseph had no belief in the resurrection; but then, neither had the apostles.
It is singular that a Joseph was associated with Jesus at His birth, and another Joseph with Him at His death. The patriarch Jacob had called his first son by Rachel, Joseph (meaning “He will add”), in the belief that other sons would be his by Rachel. And did God add? Yes, Benjamin, “the son of the right hand”. And there was Joseph at the sepulchre. Would God add once more? Yes, and whom would He add? Surely “the Son of my right hand”, for with glad acclamation He has been received in a triumphant resurrection and ascension back into His presence with the words, “Sit on my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool”, Heb. 1. 13.
Blessed, glorious, Man at God’s right hand!
Conclusion of the series.