We live in a society today when death is portrayed in movies and television with all sorts of blood and gore and people are unmoved by it. But on the other hand, in reality, in our day to day lives, we go to great lengths to avoid seeing death. If the average person even saw a steer killed and butchered they would probably be so sickened that they would swear off meat forever.
We have an unrealistic perception of death, and perhaps because of that, we have an unrealistic perception of life. Even in the death of a loved one, it is rare that we really see much of the person as they die, or after they are dead, but rather doctors and nurses and morticians whisk the body away as soon as possible and what we end up seeing eventually at the funeral doesn’t even look real anymore.
It must have been a tremendously shocking thing to witness the crucifixion of Jesus. The savagery of it is something that is hard for us to fathom. The suffering is something that would not be tolerated today even in the execution of the worst criminals. The Romans view of a merciful hurrying of the death of the victims was to break their legs so that they ended up suffocating due to the pain required to push their chest up enough to breath.
Christ, as we saw last week, gave up His life before the suffering or the soldiers finally took it from Him. But that doesn’t mean He didn’t suffer immensely. Not only did He suffer in His flesh, but He suffered shame that only a righteous God could suffer. To be holy and innocent of all sin and yet be stripped naked and condemned by your countrymen to death, and then have your mother and a few friends watch you in your agony is beyond our comprehension. But to have the wrath of God upon you as you take on the weight of the sins of the world is even more incomprehensible for our finite minds.
We are not given all the details of Christ’s crucifixion. Even if we piece together the four gospels there are still gaps in what God has given us. John says that there were many other things that he could have included, but that these were given that we might believe that Jesus was the Son of God and that believing we might have life in His name.
So as we come to this last section, the burial of Christ, it is important that we understand the full significance which John intends for us to gather from this passage. And I think that one of the main things that John wants to illustrate for us in the end of this chapter and the next chapter is the various responses of the disciples to the crucifixion and the resurrection. There are many different responses that are presented in chapter 19 and 20. And I think that John illustrates these various responses in order to show that salvation is an individual response to the gospel. Salvation did not come to all men simply through the cross of Christ, but salvation comes through man’s faith in what Christ did on the cross. Salvation requires more than a head knowledge, or an intellectual assent to the facts, but it requires a response of faith to the cross for it to be efficacious.
To become saved is to not only be justified by faith in what Christ has done for us, but to be saved is to become a disciple. To follow Christ, to follow His teachings, to be led by Him in all walks of our life. Jesus said in Matthew 28:19, “Go into the world and make disciples of all the nations…teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” Discipleship then is the goal of evangelism. Not just to make converts, but disciples. Not just to have people raise their hand or repeat a prayer and then they have been saved from hell, but to have people become transformed into the image of Christ.
Now in this last section of chapter 19, we see two men, who are called secret disciples. I think that is somewhat of an oxymoron. But if we give them the benefit of the doubt, let’s say that they had come to a saving knowledge of Christ, but that faith had not become public, and therefore not transformative. I’m not sure such a thing is possible, but God knows the heart, not I, and He knows what are the intentions of the heart even before we act on them. So if John, under the influence of the Holy Spirit calls them disciples, then maybe they have been saved prior to the cross. However, I will remind you that in John 6, after Jesus said “my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink,” it goes on to say in vs66 that after this “many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.” So there is a sense in which you could be considered a disciple of Christ but not be saved and turn and walk away from the Lord. Not that you can lose your salvation, but that you never had it. You were considered a disciple because you were in the group, but you never truly believed unto salvation.
And I think that this is indicative of many in the church today. They have a head knowledge of Christ, they are following to a degree, holding on loosely so to speak to the things of God, but in times of difficulty they will expose their true nature; they will turn away and stop following. They will turn to something more palatable to their mind. Something not as demanding. And so we have churches filled with people who move from group to group, from church to church, always avoiding the rigors and demands of true discipleship.
So Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were secret disciples up to this point. Whether they had truly been saved or not we don’t know, but we do know that as they came face to face with the crucifixion of Christ they came all the way into discipleship. At the cross of Christ they faced the true nature of Christianity, and they choose to identify and suffer with Christ.
Now who were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus? Well, I’m sure most of you are familiar with Nicodemus. We met him in the third chapter, he came to see Jesus at night. And we are told there that he was a ruler, that means a member of the Sanhedrin. Jesus calls him a teacher. John also calls him a Pharisee. That means that he believed in the afterlife, and he practiced the law to the nth degree. In that famous discourse in chapter 3, Jesus told him that he needed to be born again of the Spirit. And so we can assume that message resonated with Nicodemus, and eventually produced saving faith.
There is one other note about Nicodemus in chapter 7, around vs 50, we see Nicodemus coming to the defense of Christ that He should be given a fair hearing before they judged Him. And in that passage, the Pharisees rebuked him for that defense. So at that point there is an indication of the Spirit at work in him, but he has not yet come forward completely as a disciple.
The other man we know less about. Mark tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin as well. Matthew says he was a rich man. And Mark also adds that he was waiting for the kingdom of God. That means he was looking for the Messiah. Some traditions say that Joseph and Nicodemus were actually brothers. They both were rich men, they both were members of the Sanhedrin. They both were very prominent in Jewish religion and society.
And because of those things, they had a lot to lose for becoming disciples of Christ. John says that Joseph was a disciple, but secretly for fear of the Jews. He doesn’t mean just the Jewish people at large necessarily, but the Jewish leaders, the ruling party. There were 70 men that were part of the Sanhedrin. And there were undoubtedly thousands of Pharisees. These were the leaders of the community, and these two men were considered the most prominent of the leaders. And so to come out publicly as Christ’s disciples meant the possible loss of their positions in society, their careers, and their wealth. So up to this point they hid their growing faith.
I think that it’s obvious God does not save us, He does not shine His light in us, that we might hide it under a basket. Jesus said in Matt. 5:14, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” So we are not saved to hide our discipleship, but to reflect the light of Christ.
The application to disciples today should be pretty obvious as well. Christ died to save us not just to escape hell, but that we might shine His light through us to the world by looking like Christ, by acting like Christ. That the world might see our good works, and bring glory to our Father in heaven.
What stops us from doing that? Well, it’s the same things that stopped Joseph and Nicodemus. They feared the excommunication of the ruling party. They feared what their community might say if they really stepped out and followed the Lord. They were afraid they might lose their friends. Lose their social standing in the community. And I’m afraid that the same concerns keep many of us from truly following Christ today. If we really gave Christ 100% it would cost us friendships or jobs or money or something that we hold dear.
You know, tradition says that these men did eventually lose all those things. Not as much is known about Joseph, but there are traditions about Nicodemus that say that as a result of his coming forward to claim the body of Christ and becoming a true disciple that he lost his position in the Sanhedrin, he lost his wealth, and one historian recounts one of his daughters being so destitute that she was seen picking grain from manure.
Jesus speaks of what it means to truly follow Him, to be a true disciple. In Matt. 16:24
Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me.”
So I think that Joseph and Nicodemus were at the cross. They would have had to have been there, to be able to respond so quickly to Jesus’s death that they were able to appeal to Pilate for His body and prepare His embalmment before nightfall and the Sabbath began. It’s ironic, all His disciples save John had fled Him in the darkest hour. And yet in the providence of God, these two fearful, secret disciples are the ones who are there to take Him to a tomb and prepare Him for burial.
Somehow in the death of Christ, these men’s reservations fell away. When they saw the way that He died, they must have come to the same conclusion that the Roman centurion did, saying, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”(Mark 15:39) All their reservations fell away. And in that moment, they realized that they had participated in some way in the crucifixion of the very Son of God. They knew that their sin had caused the death of God’s Son. And in light of that realization, they knew that their lives meant nothing if they were not sealed in Christ.
I can’t help but think that Nicodemus remembered what Christ had told him back in chapter 3:14, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up; so that whoever believes will in Him have eternal life.” When He saw Jesus lifted up on the cross, I’m sure this statement came flooding back to him, and He realized not only the fulfillment of prophecy, but also realized that for the deathly sting of his sin to be removed, he had to look unto Christ as his Savior and Lord. That instead of death from the serpent’s sting he might receive the eternal life that God promised to those who believe in Him. And so I believe Nicodemus and Joseph came to complete discipleship when they saw Jesus hanging on that cross for their sins.
And that is where true discipleship starts for us as well. When we consider the horror of our sins, when we consider the Son of God taking my penalty by His death, when we consider the shame and suffering that we deserved, placed upon Him who did not deserve it, then the least that I can do is to follow Him in forsaking my sin, being willing to give up my hold on this life, so that I might have real life, even eternal life through Him.
So I think that Joseph and Nicodemus not only got a vision of the cross, but they considered the cost of discipleship in light of what Christ did for them, and they realized that whatever it cost them, He was worth it all. In Mark 15:43, it says Joseph went in before Pilate and gathered up his courage, and asked for the body of Jesus. I think it took a lot of courage to do that. Pilate had after all just condemned Jesus to death. What prevented him from doing the same to Joseph for revealing he was Christ’s disciple?
But it also took a lot of courage because it would have been known to all his colleagues in the Sanhedrin. With this one bold act, he pretty much sounded the death knell on his career. That kind of courage and commitment to Christ no matter how great the cost is what is required of disciples. Jesus said in Matt. 10:37, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me.” So to take up your cross means to count the cost, and consider as Paul said the things I once thought valuable in this life as nothing but rubbish for the sake of knowing Christ. Phil. 3:8
“More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ.”
That kind of abandon in following Christ is illustrated in two sacrificial gifts that each man gave to the Lord in His death. First of all, Joseph gave Jesus his own personal tomb. If not for this act of love on the part of Joseph, Jesus’s body would have been dragged off to Gehana, a trash pile outside of town that was always burning. It was a picture of hell that Jesus had often referred to. But Isaiah 53:9 had prophesied that “His grave was assigned with wicked men,Yet He was with a rich man in His death, Because He had done no violence, Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.”
John gives us some information about this tomb. It was a tomb fit for a King. He says that no body had ever been laid in it. And he also mentions that this tomb was in a garden. It’s interesting that when the first Adam sinned it was in a garden, and when the second Adam atoned for that sin, He is laid to rest in a garden.The fellowship that had been broken by sin in the first garden was restored by atonement in the second.
So Joseph’s gift to Christ was fit for a King. A new tomb, in a garden. An extravagant gift to honor Christ as his King in death. And of course God used this gift of Joseph to prove conclusively that the resurrection of Christ had taken place. If Jesus’s burial had not been well known, there would not have been the numerous witnesses to His resurrection.
And then Nicodemus also gives an extravagant, sacrificial gift suitable for a king. John tells us that he brought a hundred pounds weight of spices, made from myrrh and aloes. Myrrh was brought at the birth of Jesus as well, by the wise men, who noted that a King had been born and came to worship Him. Now in Christ’s death, another wise man brought myrrh to honor the King. A hundred pounds weight would have represented a fortune in perfume. Much more than simply sprinkled in the folds of the shroud, it would have filled the tomb where Jesus’s body was laid.
And so I suggest that a true disciple is known by his extravagance, by sacrificial giving to honor God. Material things are recognized as merely offerings we give back to God. Whether it be our time, or treasure, we realize that no sacrifice is too great, when we consider the sacrifice He gave first for us.
When Joseph and Nicodemus stepped up to full discipleship, they claimed Christ’s body and boldly took on all the associations that came with that. So we too as Christians must claim His body, His church, and embrace all the associations that come wth that. All the stigma. All the social rejection. There is no cost too great for the sake of Him who suffered for me. It requires stepping out of our comfort zone. It requires fellowship in His suffering. It requires sacrifice of time, money and resources for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Being a true disciple requires that we lose our identity, and claim our identity with Christ. And when we give up our hold on this life and follow Him completely in true discipleship, then we will know the real, abundant life that God promises to those who trust Him.
I would ask you to consider your relationship to Christ this morning. Are you living in effect as as secret disciple? Are you trying to hold on to control of your life? Are you holding onto things that are keeping you from fully committing to the Lord? True discipleship demands our all, renouncing sin and clinging to the cross of Christ. And when that kind of commitment has been made in our life, then it will be revealed in an extravagant love for Christ that considers anything that was once considered gain as loss for the sake of knowing Him. I pray that today you see clearly what Christ did for you at the cross, and that you fully commit to take up your cross as well and follow Him.