The Secret Courageously Revealed

 

Now when evening had come, because it was the Preparation Day, that is, the day before the Sabbath,Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent council member, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, coming and taking courage, went in to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.Pilate marveled that He was already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him if He had been dead for some time.So when he found out from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph.Then he bought fine linen, took Him down, and wrapped Him in the linen. And he laid Him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock, and rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. [Mark 15:42-46]

A series of sermons on people of courage in the scriptures could hardly be complete without Joseph of Arimathea. One might at first disagree, since he had kept his belief in Christ secret [John 19:38]. But one phrase about Joseph in Mark 15:43 makes this lesson almost required: "taking courage, (he) went." We need to know why or how Joseph "took courage."

Joseph of Arimathea is one of those seemingly incidental characters that surprise us with some great truth or encouragement as we study. We are introduced to many of these characters as we study through the Bible. They don't loom large in our view like a King David or Apostle Paul as we see the development of God's plan through their actions. So we are tempted to pass over them. I'm thinking of characters such as the mighty men that fought alongside David or the once timid Mark that labored in the gospel with Paul. But it is my firm belief that the Spirit did not place these people in The Word without good reason and it is with such conviction that we turn our thoughts today to Joseph of Arimathea who shows up as a minor character in the gospels.

There is very little told us about Joseph. There are many legends, but as far as actual history, he only shows up in the four gospel accounts of Jesus' burial. You have to read all four accounts to get much of anything about him. However, what little we are told is quite illuminating.

In the text already read, Joseph is identified as "a prominent council member" (Mark 15:43; also Luke 23:50). This, along with the fact that Matthew says he was a rich man (Matthew 27:57), tells us that Joseph was part of Jewish aristocracy. So Joseph was a man of influence, a man with political power. Now, as a group, that Sanhedrin Council had considerable power. Just a few hours earlier than the event we read in our text, the Sanhedrin had persuaded the governor to condemn a popular and innocent Jesus to die.

But it was not Joseph's work in the council that brings his name into the record. His act of courage was something quite unexpected--and it happened because Joseph himself was something quite unexpected! While he was a member of the Council, he also was a disciple of Jesus! [Matthew 27:57, John 19:8]. Luke and Mark tell us that he "was himself waiting for the kingdom of God" [Luke 23:50-51, Mark 15:43].

In a sense, all Jews were looking for the coming of the Christ. But this special mention indicates that Joseph believed Jesus embodied the kingdom of God come unto men. Jesus himself had said, for example, in Luke 11:20: "But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you." Joseph saw Jesus as the embodiment of the kingdom and was expecting Jesus to fulfill the kingdom promises made by the prophets.

But Jesus is now dead. Joseph is feeling a great sadness now, similar to the two disciples we find trudging home to Emmaus when we read Luke 24. When they were asked about their disheartened look, we can even hear it in the words they say: "But we were hoping that it was He that was going to redeem Israel" [Luke 24:21].

It is very natural to expect Jesus' death to change everything. Who were Jesus' followers to follow now? What about the kingdom Jesus said was "at hand?" It appeared that kingdom building would halt in its tracks.

Indeed, Jesus' death would change everything; this is exactly what God had in mind! But it wasn't kingdom work coming to a halt; it was now really at its beginning. And while the work of the kingdom was about to change, things certainly also changed for Joseph. John 19:38 told us that Joseph was a disciple, "but secretly, for fear of the Jews." But a change is taking place. As we read in Mark, Joseph now is "taking courage" and is performing the very public action of claiming the body of Jesus to prepare it for burial. He now is openly showing his desire to be identified with Christ.

What brought about this great change? Why does Joseph now believe he needs to be publicly associated with Jesus? Where  is he finding this courage?

In thinking about this I remember Jesus' earlier words, "And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all [peoples] to Myself" [John 12:32]. Joseph is now displaying that truth. While viewing Jesus lifted up on the cross, Joseph found his own courage to step up. Joseph had watched Jesus that day, as so many had. He saw Jesus endure the cross and he took it as an example for himself.

The Scriptures testify greatly that Jesus is to be our example and one we follow. This is especially true regarding his submission to the cross, for scripture says we should be "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of [our] faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross" [Hebrews 12:2].

That evening, after Jesus had died, people assessed the day's events. They "looked to Jesus," that is, they thought about Jesus, who had created food for them, controlled the winds, cast out demons, and raised the dead. And they noticed he used none of that power to stop his own death.

Joseph realized the greatness of character on display and responded with like character. Others were also changed, for example, the Roman centurion in charge of the crucifixion detail. After witnessing this sacrifice by Jesus he expressed his conviction, "Truly this Man was the Son of God!" [Mark 15:39]. The thief crucified beside Jesus expressed his belief that Jesus would "come into (his) kingdom" and could there remember him [Luke 23:42].

This did not happen with everyone. There are some very big names conspicuous by their absence in this scene! Where is Peter? Where are Andrew, James, and John? Their fear on this evening is not at all difficult to understand [compare John 20:19], but makes more notable Joseph's discovery of courage. Indeed, we may first be tempted to scorn Joseph that he had previously kept his admiration for Jesus secret [John 19:38]. But consider, it would have been easier for one to have been swept up in the crowds of support for the popular figure of Jesus than it was now to step up through true conviction at this time of apparent desperation.

As this crisis had developed through the previous twenty-four hours, other disciples had shown their lack of courage. Peter wilted in the test, even though he had been following Jesus for years [Mark 14:66-72]. The other disciples also deserted Jesus [Mark 14:50]. But Joseph had begun to show his affinity for Jesus' ministry. Luke tells us, "He had not consented to (the Council's) decision and deed" [Luke 23:51]. Whether this means he absented himself from this important Council session or was the cross-examiner that revealed some false testimony during the mock trial [Mark 14:56], it means that Joseph had already opened himself to criticism by the other Council members. Joseph may have been timid before but was now stepping up when the strongest test of discipleship was occurring.

Some might suggest that Joseph only came because God was making him fulfill the prophesy from Isaiah 53:9, "And they made His grave ... with the rich at His death..." But even when events of great import are at stake, God never forced anyone to act in a way contrary to his/her own volition. Compare the encouragement given to Esther that she needed to act, but that if she did not, God could accomplish his will another way [Esther 4:14]. Just as Esther found her courage, we are told explicitly that Joseph acted out of his courage. It was not the result of an irresistible force from God. When we study his courage, we see that it came from a conviction that Jesus is the Christ and it was brought into the open by the impression made upon Joseph when he witnessed Jesus on the cross.

That brings us to the question we must answer. How are we to find our courage? Certainly we are expected to display boldness in the gospel. This was Paul's goal in his ministry [Ephesians 6:19-20]. He also was thankful that others had become bold in their preaching even if it was with a wrong motive [Philippians 1:14]. Plus he exhorted Timothy to not give in to fear or be ashamed of his calling. Rather he should act with the Spirit of God in power [2 Timothy 1:6-8]. We should also desire to boldly act with God's Spirit of power. But how do we accomplish it?

Paul explained that true glory is only in the cross [Galatians 6:14]. This agrees with Jesus' statement that he would draw all people when he was lifted up [John 12:32]. It is our focus on the cross that will bring us true glory. When we "look unto Jesus...who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross" we are looking to the source of our own power [Hebrews 12:2].

Jesus predicted the need for such power when he said we all must "take up the cross and follow (him)" [Mark 10:21]. Joseph was certainly taking up a cross. He was publicly aligning himself with a movement that the Jewish leadership was intent on eradicating. Even the Roman procurator had not stood against them. He had determined Jesus to be an innocent man yet he still sentenced him to death, simply to placate the Sanhedrin.

Yes, we need that power in our lives that only comes to those who love the man that went to the cross. We need that courage in our lives for we are often presented with needs that can only be met by boldness.

Like Joseph, we often find ourselves on the less liked, seemingly less powerful side of many choices in today's society. It requires some measure of fortitude to stand against the pressures of pervasive immorality, liberal theology, or atheism. We find that needed courage by looking to the cross of Jesus. The world may call that folly and kick it out of their way [1 Corinthians 1:23], but we know that submitting to God, as Jesus did, brings power. We know, whatever the immediate consequences, great good will always be the final result of following God.

There are times when, like Joseph, we must act without the support of other disciples. Peter, James, and John, for example, were Jesus' closest disciples and would later be pillars in the church; but at this particular time they were not to be found. The deed was left to an otherwise unknown disciple who performed it on his own. It may be true that none of Jesus' other disciples had the ability to go in to Pilate and ask for the body of their Lord. That would make it all the more important that this one disciple, who before had kept his love for the kingdom of God a secret, now become openly active.

We often find ourselves in the same situation today. Sometimes the leadership of our churches has abandoned the good purposes God gave them. We have seen preachers, elders, youth ministers, and college professors lead the wave of liberal theology washing against the disciples. At other times and places, church leaders have become so involved in worldliness that they do not have time or interest in accomplishing the work of the kingdom. These are times when some other disciple, who may before have been hiding in the background, must step up and lead by example. Whether it be a need to correct false teaching, to act in service to the brothers and sisters of the church, to begin the important task of developing young people into disciples, and on and on, if it isn't being accomplished, it is time for someone from some unexpected place to step up.

If that does not describe your situation, this does: Each of us knows that there is some good in the kingdom that only you can do at this time. When it is your friend or your family member that needs some helping hand or a word of encouragement or of instruction, it is not time for some well-known leader to step up. It is time for you to do what God has placed you at this place to do.

You also never know who you might motivate by your example. With Joseph came Nicodemus. He is only mentioned in John 19:39, but there he is. After Joseph had begged the body from Pilate, Nicodemus came along with him, at great personal expense, to prepare the body for burial. We all know how much easier it is to accomplish something when we are working in concert with someone else. The challenge becomes, who will be the first? "Joseph...taking courage, went in..."

So consider Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. He was lifted up on the cross for you. He endured that cross for the joy it would bring him thereafter, the joy of fellowship with his bride, the church, you and me. Consider that Jesus blazed that trail of faith so that we could walk it too; so that we would have the same courage to go against the tide of society for the sake of what is truly needed, for the good that always comes from doing the work of the kingdom.

You don't have to be someone with an obvious position or power in the church. You simply need to see that there is something you can do or should do and do it. If you are a person with some position or power in the church, like Timothy was, you also need to look to Jesus and fan your flame of courage to a bright fire. When you exercise your courage, you will be changing the world and leading others in the great work of the kingdom.

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