We first met Nicodemus several months ago in chapter three in my sermon “Whoa! Man of the Night”. In this sermon that not only did Nicodemus come by night, he also left in the night. To the Apostle John, darkness is often associated with a lost condition that rejects the truth of God, especially in relation to the person of Jesus Christ. There is no indication at this time of any change in Nicodemus. But the seed was planted, and the Gospel of John traces the development of this seed. In John 7:40-53 which we examined in the sermon “Would You Be Jesus’ Lawyer?”, we see a slight improvement in Nicodemus’ condition. He makes an attempt to stand up for Jesus’ right of a fair hearing in front of the Sanhedrin. Was this simply the mind of a fair minded Pharisee, such as we see of Gamaliel in Acts 5:34-40, or were the words of Jesus starting to grip his heart? We just don’t have enough information to make any kind of decision, but even if the most positive view of this event be taken, Nicodemus still fell far short of a confession of faith in Jesus. If Nicodemus was present at Jesus’ trial, then there is no record of his standing up for Jesus. So to this point, the prospects for Nicodemus’ salvation looked bleak.
It was the Passover day according to the chronology of John. It was the day the Passover was to be eaten. John 18:28 shows that the Jews were concerned about remaining ritually pure so that they might be able to eat the Passover. To go into a Gentile place such as Pilate’s judgment hall would render them unable to eat the Passover. There might have been other defilements besides this outward one, if they were truly concerned, such as a night trial, betraying a fellow Jew to the Romans, and the passing of a death sentence itself. Nicodemus as a Pharisee would have been aware of these matters and as a Pharisee would have been more scrupulous about the matters of internal purity more than the skeptical Sadducees and priests.
There is one more Scripture that I want to reference this morning before looking into the text itself. This is Numbers 19:11 which states that whosoever touches a corpse shall be unclean for seven days. Surely a Pharisee who was not just any kind of Rabbi, but was referred to as “THE teacher of the Jews (John 3:10), would be aware of this.
Exposition of the Text
In verse 38, we are introduced to Joseph of Arimathea who was a wealthy Jewish businessman. This man is introduced to us here as a “secret disciple” of Jesus. He was afraid to come out and make a public profession of faith in Jesus because he feared the Jews. But this secret profession of faith was about to become very public.
Just a few hours earlier, Jesus was the rage of the town. From the leaders of the Jewish nation down to the common crowd had demanded the death by crucifixion of the Lord Jesus. The leaders had insulted Him on the cross. The eleven, apart from John who was with the women at the cross, had fled in terror and locked themselves in for fear of these same Jews.
It was not a particularly opportune time for Joseph to make a public profession of faith. But something must have happened to Joseph since the trial before the Sanhedrin the night before. At that point, he was still a very secret disciple. He was a wealthy and respected Jewish businessman. Besides having a reputation to protect, a confession of faith in Jesus at the trial might have subjected Joseph to the same penalty as Jesus Himself. He, as a follower of the condemned Jesus might have been condemned himself to carry his cross after Jesus to Golgotha. Conspirators were often subjected to the same fate as the leader as an example to the people not to buck the system.
Something happened at the cross. Although we would love to know exactly what had happened, but after Jesus had died and the spear thrust into Jesus’ dead body, Joseph came to faith in Christ. We can go back to John 3:20 and be reminded that the person who does evil hates to come to the light lest his deeds be exposed. This is the condition that all people are born in. We have all been guilty of repressing the truth and trying to keep or deeds hidden. Joseph was no exception to this rule. But if we look at the second half of this verse we can see that the one who acts truthfully comes to the light. In the gospel, Jesus calls Himself the light of the world (John 8:12). So coming to the light is synonymous to coming to Jesus. Coming to the light means that one’s deeds become known because they have been wrought in God. Perhaps it is better said, “wrought BY God”, taking the prepositional phrase in Greek instrumentally which fits well with the rest of Scripture which asserts that it is God “who works in us to will and to do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
This verse tells us that Joseph came to Pilate to request the dead body of Jesus. Whether or not he did this as a secret disciple at this point, I do not know. But when he was granted permission he went out to claim the accursed dead body of Jesus very publicly. He could no longer stay in the dark. This is proof that Joseph was a changed man. The text says he came and took the body of Jesus.
Verse 39 says that Nicodemus joined Joseph in this process. We cannot be sure whether this was before or after Joseph took the dead body of Jesus off the cross. I tend to think that Nicodemus joined Joseph in this venture, but if not, it says he wrapped the dead body of Jesus and added the expensive burial spices himself (verse 40). All that has been mentioned about Joseph was equally true of Nicodemus. He had come out into the light with his faith. His actions, like Joseph, were as it is described in Reformed circles, were the badge of election to God’s people. He touched the most accursed of dead bodies. He could not eat the Jewish Passover. But he had partaken of an even greater Passover.
Joseph and Nicodemus took Jesus’ body to Joseph’s own tomb to lay the body of Jesus. It had been the end of a remarkable day. Nicodemus and Joseph joined the thief on the cross (Luke 23:43) and the Roman Centurion (Mark 15:39) on the rolls of the saved.
What does this text teach us? First of all, it teaches us to be patient in our witness. We are to be the seed planters and nurturers (! Corinthians 3:6), not the cause of growth which is the prerogative of God. If we had been the person Nicodemus had come to by night, we would not have let him go without an altar call. Or even worse, we might have assumed that Nicodemus was a pretty good person and not evangelized him at all and asked him to join the church as is. It would behoove us as God’s ambassadors to do things the way the Lord instructs us to do them, rather than acting like Peter did at times, as chief advisor. Surely God knows what He is doing. I would not dare to make the same claim for ourselves.
We then should take notice of the words contained in the gospel song “Rescue the Perishing” which says “patiently win them”. Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus produced good fruit in God’s time. So let us not be discouraged if we feel rebuffed by others when we witness to them. We need to tell the poor “wanderer that a Savior has died”, in particular that Jesus Christ the Lord died for our sins and rose for our justification. If we will be faithful to what God tells us to do, to proclaim Him and His Word, then the same Lord who spoke all creation into existence can speak the Word again, and as Charles Wesley noted, then “new life the dead receive”.
Secondly, this text tells us that we cannot be secret disciples of Jesus. Sooner or later, we must come to the light. Romans 10:9-10 demonstrate the twofold nature of salvation. These two verses form a chiasmus, which is a literary structure in an ABB’A’ format. When you look at these verses you start with public confession (9a), then belief in one’s heart that God raised Jesus from the dead (9b), then belief in the heart unto righteousness (10a), then confession again which leads to salvation. The emphasis in a chiastic structure is found in the middle element which is faith. Indeed this must come first. But from faith comes its firstfruit, which is public confession. True faith in one’s heart will lead to open profession. We don’t know exactly when Nicodemus and Joseph believed, although it was in close proximity to the death of Jesus. This came first. They were not saved because of their care for the body of Jesus. Rather it is because they were saved that they did these things.
Thirdly, it was, is, and always shall be, so long as we are in this present evil age, highly dangerous to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. We can think of the passage where John and James’ mother asked Jesus to put her sons in the position of honor on the left and right when his Kingdom came (Mark 10:37). She wanted her sons to have the glory without the cross. But Jesus tells her that she is clueless in what she is asking for. It seems to me that Jesus answer to her was that her sons would indeed be at His right and left. But as Jesus was to come to the cross, then instead of positions of glory, James and John would find martyrdom. We have already referred to the idea that the Romans liked to crucify the co-conspirators with their leader. Because of this, I tend to think that the two thieves that were crucified with Jesus were Barabbas’ fellow conspirators in a revolt against Rome. So the next time we sing the hymn “Lord, we are able, our spirits are Thine”, think a little about the ramifications of following Jesus. There is a cost to discipleship. Bonhoeffer, the German martyr, saw this cost of discipleship as a call to “come and die”, not “come and dine”. The dining part comes after the cross.
Finally, this text tells us that following Jesus is dirty work. Think of Joseph, and probably, Nicodemus having to take the messy body of Jesus off the cross in plain view of everyone else. Their clothing would have had to have been stained with the blood of Jesus. Then they had to do the task of washing the blood of Jesus from His body. That was all right, for they had been washed in the blood of the Lamb. In Numbers 8:21, when the priests encountered defilement, they washed their garments in water. They wanted to restore their garments to whiteness. Here the defiled garments of Nicodemus and Joseph which were stained with the blood of Jesus which would bring massive defilement to the Jew, were actually made clean. We think of Revelation 7:14 that mentions that the saint’s garments were made white by washing them in the blood of the Lamb. Who, using the least bit of common sense, would think that one could remove stains from a pure white garment by washing it in blood? But God who says that His ways and thoughts are not ours (Isaiah 55:8) ,takes what the world considers foolish to confound the wise (! Corinthians 1:27).
The mission statement of the United Methodist Church calls upon its members to be “risk-taking disciples of Jesus Christ. In addition to this we are called to humble, sometimes humiliating service for our Lord. Rescue the perishing; care for the dying. Are we ready to join Him in this work?