Joseph of Arimathea is a relatively minor figure in the New Testament. We don’t think much about him except around Easter when believers remember the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. Yet Joseph’s importance is evident by the fact that he is mentioned in all four gospels (Mt. 27:57, Mk 15:43, Lk. 23:51, Jn. 19:38). And much can be learned from his example.
To distinguish him from other “Josephs” in the Bible, he is identified by his home town, Arimathea. The Gospel of Luke records that Arimathea was a “city of Judea,” or more literally, “a city of the Jews” (Lk. 23:51). In his Onomasticon (144:28-29), Eusebius identifies this city with Ramathaim-Zophim and locates it near Diospolis (near modern Lod). The Crusaders identified it with Ramla, situated on land which had once been allotted to the tribe of Dan. Still, geographers have not been able to locate Arimathea with certainty.
Other than the fact that he was from Arimathea, what else do we know about Joseph?
Joseph was a rich man (Mt. 27:57). Matthew, the former tax collector, points out that Joseph was a “rich” man. While riches can be a hindrance to one’s spiritual life and development, this is not always the case. Both Joseph and Zaccheus (Lk. 19:1-9) are examples of rich men who possessed wealth, but didn’t let their wealth possess them.
Joseph was a prominent Jewish leader (Mt. 15:43). Joseph was a recognized and prominent leader in the Jewish community—a member of the Sanhedrin, the body that ruled the Jews in matters of their religion. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he would have enjoyed the respect of his peers and honor in the Jewish community.
Joseph was a disciple of Jesus (Jn. 19:38, Mt. 27:57). Like other Jewish people in the early first century, Joseph was a student of the Torah as well as the Jewish traditions found in the Mishnah. He had studied the prophecies about a coming “prophet like Moses” (Dt. 18:15, Jn. 1:45, Acts 3:22-26). Joseph had embraced Jesus as the promised prophet and had become a disciple of Jesus. A disciple is a “learner.” Joseph was a student of both the Messianic prophecies fulfilled by Jesus as well as the teachings of Jesus. However, because of his position as a leader of the Jews, Joseph was unwilling to let his faith in Jesus be known publicly. John tells us that he was a “secret” follower of Jesus “for fear of the Jews” (Jn. 19:38).
Joseph had a kingdom hope (Mk. 15:43, Lk. 23:51). Both Mark and Luke point out that Joseph was “waiting for the kingdom of God.” Like most Jews of his day, he expected that God would soon establish His kingdom rule on earth by sending the Messiah to lead a military revolt that would expel the Roman occupiers from Jewish lands. But his understanding of God’s kingdom was no doubt modified by the teachings of Jesus, who preached that the kingdom was a present spiritual reality (Mt. 13) that would have a physical consummation at His return (Mt. 24-25).
Joseph was a courageous man (Mk. 15:43). Although Joseph was fearful for his own reputation and relationship with other Jewish leaders in the community, he was able to overcome his own fears after the crucifixion of Jesus. Mark records that Joseph “gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.” Someone has said that “courage if fear under control.” It must have taken tremendous courage to go before Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus, especially so soon after his colleagues in the Sanhedrin had demanded His crucifixion. Perhaps the words God spoke to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous” (Josh. 1:6), were ringing in his ears as he entered the Praetorium (the governor’s residence) to make his appeal to Pontius Pilate.
Joseph was a generous man (Lk. 23:53). Joseph’s generosity is evidenced by the fact that he freely offered his new, rock cut tomb, as a burial place for Jesus (Mt. 28:60). The bodies of common criminals were often simply tossed into a ravine to be scavenged by wild dogs and carnivorous birds. Joseph was not going to let that happen to the body of Jesus. It took courage to intervene and generosity to provide a decent burial for his honored rabbi. His generosity actually fulfilled a prophecy, “His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death” (Isa. 53:9).
Joseph was engaged in sacrificial service (Lk. 23:53-54; Jn. 19:38). Lastly, Joseph was a man who was willing to sacrifice his own ceremonial purity to remove the body of Jesus from the cross and transport it to his tomb for burial. Touching a dead body would render Joseph ritually impure and mean that he would be unable to participate in Passover with his family (Lev. 11:24-25). For Joseph, there was something more important that enjoying the food, fun and festivities of the Passover Seder. He was willing to forgo all this for the sake of honoring the body of Jesus.
Joseph wasn’t a perfect man. He was fearful and slow to let others know of His faith in Jesus. Yet, as a disciple of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea was able to overcome his fears to honor and serve his Savior. May his example of courage, generosity and sacrificial service inspire us as followers of Jesus today.