By Pastor Glenn Pease
The danger of making a hero out of a man who does a great thing after a long time of doing nothing is that you give the impression that there was nothing lost by doing it that way. A man lives a life of sin, or of indifference to God's will, and suddenly he sees the light and is wondrously converted. If he has been a well known sinner, or a famous unbeliever, there is a tendency to make a great deal of it, and make such a person an example. But there is often a failure to point out what a great lost was suffered by his delayed decision. Some have pointed out that it is of no credit to Paul that God had to beat him down and blind him before he submitted to Christ.
Joseph of Arimathea became a hero by his last minute change from cowardice to courage. But we want to point out something of the loss he suffered by not making his decision earlier. We want to look at 2 aspects of his experience and see the loss which he suffered, and the love which he showed.
I. THE LOSS WHICH HE SUFFERED.
What is said here will not be taken as statements out of the text, but as inferences from other passages of the Bible. First he suffered loss because his discontent came to late for the greatest good. When he stood before the cross he became thoroughly discontent with his superficial secret discipleship. But this discontent should have characterized his life from the start as a believer. Discontent is an essential factor for effective Christian growth.
But didn't Paul say I have learned to be content in whatever state I am. Yes, but Paul was speaking of being content with much or little, with hard bed, in danger, or soft one in the home of a friend. He was talking about being content with whatever life brought in his service for Christ, whether it be good or bad. But when it came to the spiritual, Paul was not content. Paul was as near perfect as we can imagine, yet called himself chief of sinners, and cried out, "Oh wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me from this body of death." Paul was constantly pushing onward and upward trying to apprehend that for which God had apprehended him. He was never content to stop and be satisfied with where he was in his spiritual growth.
If there is no discontent, there will be no drive to move ahead. Contentment with one's spiritual life is a curse. It has been one of the greatest curses in the history of the church, and was such also in Judaism. Dead orthodoxy is the fruit of contentment. The Pharisees were content with their system of salvation by works. That is why they despise Jesus and wanted to kill Him. That is why the established church has killed so many who were excited about doing the will of God. Men like to get everything all wrapped up in a creed and call that Christianity. This was the case with the state churches of Europe. They were perfectly content to let the people live for the devil just as long as they memorize the creed. But God raised up men who would not be content with that kind of Christianity.
We need to be careful in our use of words like liberal. Remember that the men who were the fathers of what we now call orthodoxy were once the liberals. They were the discontented liberals who could not stand dead orthodoxy, and so they rebelled. There needs to be constant reformation, for the orthodox has a tendency to settle back into contentment. It is only as we are constantly discontent that we can keep orthodoxy alive. Whenever a Christian is content he is in danger of backsliding, but a discontented Christian grows. We need to distinguish, however, between discontent and discouragement. Discouragement drags down, but discontent pushes us on.
I have said all this as background to explain what Joseph missed by experiencing his discontent so late. If he had felt this all along, there is no telling what he may have accomplished among the leaders of Israel, and especially among those other secret disciples. If only they had a leader who was discontent enough to speak out and organize them. This is what Joseph lost-the honor of organizing a band of disciples among the elite, and thereby winning many more to Christ.
St. Augustine was one who lived long in sin before he came to Christ. Once he said, "All too late have I loved thee." This was Joseph's experience as well. What he did was great, but it was too late for the greatest glory. Mary of Bethany demonstrates for us that when we love it ought to be shown. While Jesus sat at the table she came an anointed Him with expensive perfumes. Judas rebuked her, but Jesus praised her and said that what she had done would be spoken as a memorial for her wherever the Gospel is preached. She gave her gift and showed her love while Jesus was alive. Joseph waited until He was dead, and when it was too late for Jesus to appreciate it.
The contrast is between those who send flowers to the living, and those who only send them to the dead. Edgar Dewitt Jones told of a man who had to leave his invalid mother to work in the city. Every week he sent flowers home. Some felt this was a waste, for she had flowers all over the house. But the mother eagerly awaited them each week. They were concrete expressions of his love, and they made her happy all her days until she died. The Judas mind says it is such a waste, and the Joseph mind says why not wait until she dies. But the Mary mind says express your love now and never put it off, and she was the only one whom Jesus praised, for her philosophy is the only one that acts when the greatest glory can be gained. An unknown poet maybe too hard on Joseph, but here are some lines he has written:
Strange quite man, what impulse in your breast
Involved your kindness to the Master whom
You had not dared to join? He wanted rest
Within your heart, but found it in your tomb.
Did you not dare to love Him, He who sought
To give you life, nor asked for recompense?
What pity that in finding Him you brought
Your laggard love in death's cold cerements!
II. THE LOVE WHICH HE SUFFERED.
Hate has had its hour, and now love steps in to close the day. Maybe Joseph was late with his love, but it was of great significance when it came. It is of interest to note the similarities of the burial of Christ with His birth.
1. When He was born the rich came to worship. When He was buried it was in the tomb of a rich man.
2. When He was born the main characters were Mary and Joseph. When He was buried the main characters were Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea.
3. Joseph would be the first to touch the baby at birth, and Joseph was the last to touch the body in burial.
4. In birth He had a borrowed cradle, and in dead a borrowed grave.
Jesus did own things, for He was a carpenter and had to have tools. But He was greatly dependent upon others in His ministry. He preached from a borrowed boat; He rode on a borrowed colt; He ate the Last Supper in a borrowed room, and was buried in a borrowed tomb. He had nothing lasting on earth, for He laid up all His treasure in heaven. The only thing He had of permanent value was His life and He gave that for us.
In comparing His birth and burial Wordworth said, "One Joseph was appointed by God to be the guardian of His body in the virgin womb, and another Joseph was the guardian of His body in the virgin tomb, and each man is called a just man in Holy Scripture." A poet has put it,
How life and death in Thee agree;
Thou hadst a virgin womb and tomb,
And Joseph did betroth them both.
Some critics go too far in their criticism of Joseph and say that he only took Jesus down from the cross because he was concerned about obedience to the Jewish law, which said in Deut. 21:22-23, "When a man who has committed a crime deserving of death, is executed and you hang him on a tree, his body must not be permitted to remain on the tree over night; you must bury him on the same day." (Berkley). This is going too far, for if that was his only concern, why did not take care of the two thieves as well? Not only that, if he was worried about the law he would not be there defiling himself by touching a dead body on the night of the Passover Feast. He was a rich man and could have hired someone to do it. The fact that he and Nicodemus were there, and cut themselves off from the feast by defilement, is proof enough of their real love.
John tells us that while Joseph was getting permission to take the body of Christ Nicodemus went to buy a 100 pound weight of spices. It is of interest again the myrr should be used, which was one of the gifts the wise men brought at His birth. When they came to take down the body of Jesus and prepare it for burial the women who had been there watching followed them, and Mary Magdalene was among them. They, no doubt, wondered what was happening, for they did not know these two men were disciples of Jesus. They had been secret disciples. It must have been a pleasant surprise for them to see these two take the body to a beautiful garden tomb and prepare it for decent burial. They would have done it themselves, but they could never have gotten permission to take the body. Here was the amazing providence of God in having a man of wealth and position ready just when he was needed.
In taking Jesus to His new tomb Joseph was fulfilling the prophecy of Isa. 53:9, which said, "Men made His grave with the criminals, and He was with the rich in His death." The tomb of Joseph must have been in a beautiful garden with many plants and flowers. Man began in the Garden of Eden with perfect life, but soon he turned it into death. Jesus now lays in the garden of Joseph dead, but will soon turn it into life. The beauty of the location was symbolic of the joy and glory of the Easter message.
It is more than guess work that makes us visualize the beauty of Joseph's garden. If you recall, Mary Magdalene on the first Easter morning saw a figure nearby when she was weeping because her Lord was gone. It says that she supposed him to be the gardener. It is highly unlikely she would think any such thing unless this garden was a beautiful estate calling for a great deal of care. Joseph was a rich man, and no doubt did have a gardener to keep this place neat and beautiful, and so it was perfectly natural for Mary to think that is who she saw.
Thanks to the love of Joseph, Jesus received the burial of a king and fulfilled several prophecies. One of them was that the body of Jesus was not to see corruption. Thanks to the new tomb where none had been laid, and to the spices that Nicodemus bought, his body did not see corruption. The Christian is to regard the body with respect and car, but not to worship it. Some say just throw it away as worthless, and others say honor it as an idol. These extremes are both wrong. The body is to be loved and respected, but whatever happens to the body does not make a difference in terms of the resurrection. Jesus had a decent burial, but the thief on the cross was likely thrown into a ditch somewhere, but his spirit went to paradise with Jesus just the same. Whatever be the grave of a saint it is a resurrection field.
Joseph was late in his expression of love, and because of that he suffered loss, but he illustrates the truth of the saying that it is better late than never. Joseph will always be remembered for the love which he finally showed that did play an important role in the respect given to the body of Christ.