50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. – Luke 23:50-56 ESV
The death of Jesus was a devastating and demoralizing blow to His followers. He had repeatedly told them that His trip to Jerusalem would end in His death, but they had refused to believe Him because His words did not comport with their understanding of the Messiah. Peter had even rebuked Jesus for making such illogical and unacceptable statements. These men had no place for a dying Savior in their Messianic vision. They had been longing for Jesus to curtail His preaching ministry and begin His campaign to destroy the Romans and set up His kingdom in Jerusalem.
Earlier in the week, as the disciples sat with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, they asked Him, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matthew 24:3 ESV). They were distraught because Jesus had delivered some devastating news to them. On their way to the Mount of Olives, they had passed through the eastern gate of the city near the temple mount. When the disciples mentioned the beauty of the temple complex, Jesus surprised them by stating, “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Now, as they sat on the Mount of Olives, with the temple mount in view just across the Kidron Valley, they wanted to know if the destruction of the temple was the sign they should be looking for. They were desperate to know what would be the sign or evidence of His coming as the Messiah. Up to this point, Jesus had done nothing king-like. He had healed, preached, and taught, but none of that was what they expected the Messiah to do. They were looking for some kind of tangible proof that His kingdom was about to begin. But Jesus went on to tell them that things were going to get dramatically worse before they got better. The “sign” they longed for would come, but not when during their lifetimes and not before they would face difficult days.
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” – Matthew 23:9-14 ESV
Everything about the death of Jesus was unexpected and unacceptable to the disciples. They had envisioned a far different ending to the story. In their minds, Jesus should have been seated on the throne of David and not hanging on a cross like a criminal. And yet, it was all according to the will of God. As dark as the moment may have appeared to Jesus’ followers, the invisible, yet sovereign hand of God was evident throughout the narrative. Everything was taking place according to His divine plan – down to the last detail. Every facet of the story was unfolding just as the prophet Isaiah had written centuries earlier.
…he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins… – Isaiah 53:5 NLT
…He was beaten so we could be whole. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT
…He was whipped so we could be healed. – Isaiah 53:5 NLT
…He was oppressed and treated harshly. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT
…He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. – Isaiah 53:7 NLT
…Unjustly condemned, he was led away. – Isaiah 53:8 NLT
…his life was cut short in midstream… – Isaiah 53:8 NLT
…he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. – Isaiah 53:8 NLT
…he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave. – Isaiah 53:9 NLT
And, as Luke points out, the rich man Isaiah prophesied about was none other than Joseph of Arimathea, “a member of the council, a good and righteous man” (Luke 23:50 ESV). Everything about the death of Jesus was unexpected and counterintuitive. It made no sense. And, as further proof, here was a well-respected member of the Sanhedrin, unknowingly fulfilling the preordained will of God. Matthew describes Joseph as “a disciple of Jesus” (Matthew 27:57 ESV). Luke states that “he was looking for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51 ESV). Somewhere along the way, this high-ranking member of Israel’s religious elite had determined that Jesus was the Messiah. He had broken ranks with the rest of his brothers on the high council and begun to believe that Jesus was who He claimed to be: The long-awaited Messiah of Israel. In fact, Joseph had risked his reputation by refusing to give his consent to the council’s decision to have Jesus arrested and crucified (Luke 23:51).
And now, he was further jeopardizing his livelihood and life by asking Pilate for permission to remove the body of Jesus from the cross. Luke provides no insight into the motivation behind Joseph’s actions, other than the fact that he was a follower of Jesus. And it’s interesting to note that the Gospels provide the name of only one other individual who assisted in the burial of Jesus, and he too was a member of the Sanhedrin.
Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. – John 19:39 ESV
This was the same man whose curiosity had compelled him to schedule a late-night, clandestine meeting with Jesus.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 3:1-2 ESV
Jesus had gone on to tell this highly educated Pharisee about the key to seeing and experiencing the Kingdom of God. And it was not what Nicodemus had expected. In fact, Jesus’ words confused him. When Jesus had stated, “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.,” Nicodemus responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4 ESV). None of this made sense to Nicodemus. As a Jew and a highly-respected member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus believed himself to have a permanent place reserved for himself in the kingdom. He truly believed he had earned his rightful place in the coming kingdom of the Messiah. But Jesus revealed that entrance into the kingdom would require far more than good deeds and the right genes.
“…unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” – John 3:5 ESV
And then He added the one vital element that was missing from Nicodemus’ understanding of the coming kingdom.
“…as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – John 3:14-15 ESV
The Messiah would have to die. Jesus would have to be “lifted up” on the cross. And He would later restate this unexpected requirement for the coming kingdom.
“And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” – John 12:32 ESV
Nicodemus had left that night confused and concerned by all that he had heard. But evidently, he had come to the conclusion that the words of Jesus were true and that He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel. He showed up at the cross of Jesus, carrying 75-pounds of spices in order to properly prepare the body of Jesus for burial, and he had gone to great expense and was taking a great risk to do so.
There at the cross of Jesus, these two members of the Sanhedrin carefully removed the lifeless body of Jesus and prepared it for burial. They “took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid” (Luke 23:53 ESV). And then they “rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away” (Matthew 27:60 ESV).
What a remarkable and totally unexpected scene. It’s fascinating to consider that, over the centuries, countless paintings have been created that attempt to depict this event. But most of them portray images that are figments of the artist’s imagination. They show a dejected Mary cradling her dead Son in her arms, surrounded by compassionate and equally mournful disciples. But that is not what happened. Matthew reports that “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb” (Matthew 27:61 ESV). Luke indicates that the women watched as Joseph and Nicodemus prepared and buried the body of Jesus. They took note of where the tomb was located and made plans to return with spices so that they too might anoint His body. But the 11 disciples of Jesus are strangely absent from this scene. It appears that only John was near enough to know the details surrounding Jesus’ burial place, and he reports that “in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid” (John 19:41 ESV).
In the place of death, there was a garden, and in the garden, there was a tomb. And as the lifeless body of Jesus was placed in the ground, a remarkable and unexpected reality was about to take place, just as Jesus had predicted.
“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” – John 12:23-26 ESV
Don’t overlook the fact that it was two Pharisees who buried “the grain of wheat” in the ground. This unlikely pair was given the privilege of sowing the seed that would produce a harvest of righteousness. They served the Savior by placing His body in the tomb. They risked their reputations and their lives so that the Son of God might be given a proper burial. But what they didn’t realize was that they were planting the seed that would produce fruit for generations to come.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.