Two men were present in Jerusalem during the closing days of the earthly life of the Lord Jesus, each of whom had been concealing the truth about his relationship to the Saviour.
Judas Iscariot had appeared to be a loyal disciple of Jesus, when secretly all the time he had been the son of perdition. Joseph of Arimathaea had appeared to be a loyal counsellor on the Sanhedrin, when secretly he had been a disciple of Jesus. The discipleship of Judas had begun with great promise but had declined over the years until he committed a deed of treachery by which he will always be remembered. The discipleship of Joseph had begun in weakness and fear but had developed until at last he performed a deed of devotion by which he, too, will always be remembered. Judas delivered the living Christ into the hands of His enemies. Joseph removed the crucified Christ out of the hands of His enemies. Judas had enjoyed great advantages as a close companion of the Saviour, but he failed lamentably in the end. Joseph had suffered great disadvantages, especially his wealth and his association with the Sanhedrin, but he triumphed gloriously in the end.
. In the early stages of the Lord’s public ministry, Judas must have been promising material for discipleship, for it is unthinkable that the Lord would have recruited a man in whom avarice and treachery were already outwardly developed. The twelve were empowered to cast out demons, to heal sick-ness and to preach the gospel. Judas must have done all these things. As the months progressed he listened to the Lord’s teachings, watched His miracles and observed His holy life.
We cannot know with certainty what caused him to abandon the loyalty for the Saviour which must have characterized his early days as a disciple, but the evidence strongly suggests that avarice lay at the heart of his downfall.
So far as Joseph of Arimathaea is concerned, Matthew says that he was “Jesus’ disciple”. Mark adds that he was an “honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God”. Luke enlarges further by recording that he was a “counsellor … a good man, and a just”, adding the important statement that he “had not consented to the counsel and deed of them”. This indicates that, as the Sanhedrin had discussed and decided on their course of action in seeking the Saviour’s death, he had expressed his opposition. To have taken this stand in the face of such calculating wickedness cannot have been easy, and of course he was over-ruled.
Joseph was not alone among the leaders in his appreciation of the Lord. John records that, as the Lord’s ministry was closing, “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God”, 12. 42-43. Perhaps prior to the Sanhedrin’s actual plotting of the death of Christ, Joseph had been in this position, for John describes him as being “a disciple … but secretly for fear of the Jews”, 19. 38. That fear, which he had suppressed earlier during the council’s deliberations, seems to have been finally dispelled at Calvary, for John’s narrative strongly conveys the impression that Joseph was there– “and after this (i.e. the piercing of the Saviour’s side, v. 34), Joseph … besought Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus”. It was clearly intolerable to Joseph that the Lord’s body should be cast into a common grave, which normally would have taken place. With Pilate’s permission, and in spite of the disapproval of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin, he made his way to the centre cross. Carefully, gently and tenderly, he lifted down the tortured and dislocated body. It was not an easy task, but who can measure the Father’s pleasure at this devoted conduct after all the cruelty and callousness with which men had handled His beloved Son that day?
Ponder the contrast between these two men. First, Judas furtively leaves the disciples so as to align himself with the Lord’s enemies. Then Joseph publicly disassociates himself from the Jewish leaders and aligns himself with the Lord’s friends. Satan had drawn Judas from among the disciples to do his work. Then God drew Joseph from among the Jewish leaders to do His work. It is touching to think that at the Saviour’s birth a lowlier Joseph had been at hand to care for Him. Now in His death this wealthy Joseph, also described as a “just" man, ministers to Him.
Peter’s words in Acts chapter one indicate that Judas died a horrible death. Thus does Satan finally ruin his servants. The Jewish leaders, with typical hypocrisy, used the money returned by Judas to buy a burying ground for strangers. Those murderers never lost their pride of race. They did not want non-Jews to be buried among the chosen people. But Peter says a striking thing, that Judas "purchased a field with the reward of iniquity”, Acts 1. 18. The betrayer’s money bought the field, even though he presumably died before the transaction was made. This then was his final bequest; a field for the burial of dead Gentiles, bought by a dead Jew with the price of the blood of a dead Saviour. It was unwittingly a memorial to two acts of unparalleled human wickedness,, one of betrayal and the other of murder.
Joseph also provided a burial place. It was not a field for the burial of the strangers of earth, but a sepulchre for the burial of the Stranger from heaven. Joseph did not lend the sepulchre. It was not a borrowed tomb. It was a gift to his Master.
The actions of Judas and Joseph were foretold in scripture (Ps 41. 9 and Isaiah 53. 9). Men do not take God by surprise. Judas was no more predestinated to be the betrayer, than was Joseph to bury his Lord; but each man will reap the harvest of his deed.
Think now of the conduct of Israel’s leaders. They traded twice with the pieces of silver described as “the price of blood" and as “the price of him that was valued”, Matt. 27. 6, 9; firstly to purchase the help of Judas, and then to buy the potter’s field. What a barren provision Israel’s leaders thus made for the strangers in their midst! They offered them nothing in life; merely a cemetery for their dead. They could not evict the Gentiles from their land, but sought at least to exclude them from their cemeteries.
But the blood of Christ has been valued in heaven as well as on earth. It is involved in a divine transaction, from which sinners may derive rich benefits. It has purchased eternal redemption for them. The potter’s field was meant to hold Gentile bodies until the resurrection which will precede their judgment. But when sinners step on to redemption ground they are brought to life and placed beyond the reach of death and judgment. The potter’s field was meant to separate dead Gentiles from dead Jews, Redemption ground unites believing Jews and Gentiles into glad, living fellowship with the Father and the Son.
Joseph cannot have expected that, in burying his Lord, he was setting the scene for the most staggering, epoch-making event which the world would ever witness apart from the crucifixion itself. The account of the loving care with which he and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial, and the closing of the sepulchre with the great stone, suggests a finality which the third day utterly reversed. A disciple can never know what repercussions may follow the simplest act of sacrifice which he performs for his Lord.