"Joseph of Arimathea, an honourable counsellor, which also waited for the kingdom of God." -- MARK xv.43.
The crucifixion of our Lord produced strange and startling effects in moral experience, as well as in the physical world. The veil of the Temple was rent from top to bottom as if a hand from heaven had torn it, in order to teach men that the ancient ritual was done with. Darkness covered the earth, suggesting to thoughtful minds the guilt of the world and the mystery of the sacrifice which atoned for it. Concurrently with these physical phenomena were spiritual experiences. The Roman centurion who, in command of four soldiers, had the duty of seeing the sentence of the law duly executed, was so profoundly moved by what he saw of the Divine Sufferer and by His dying cry, that he exclaimed, "Truly this was the Son of God," and thus he became the first of the great multitude out of all nations who give honour to the Lamb that has been slain. The women, too, who were sometimes despised for weakness and timidity, proved themselves in this crisis to be heroines. And Joseph of Arimathea, who up to this moment of shame and apparent defeat had been content to remain a secret disciple of our Lord, now boldly avowed his love and loyalty.
The "even" had come, the second evening of the Jews, and the last streak of golden light was beginning to fade from the western sky. Three lifeless bodies were still hanging on the crosses at Golgotha, but according to Jewish custom they were about to be taken down, and flung into a dishonourable grave, when Joseph "went in boldly to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus," caring for our Lord in death as another Joseph had cared for him in infancy.
This man is described as an "honourable counsellor," which doubtless means a member of the Sanhedrim. He is also spoken of as "a good man and a just," which could not have been said of many of his fellow-counsellors. On this occasion his action was sufficiently important in its relation to prophecy, and in its bearing as evidence of the reality of the burial and of the resurrection of our Lord, to be mentioned in each of the Four Gospels. Yet neither by this nor by social influence, nor by brilliant gifts (if he possessed them), did he become prominent in the early Church. Probably he was a man of practical sagacity and ready resource, rather than of great spiritual force. He could not stand on the same level with Simon Peter, the fisherman, whose honour it was so to hold the key of the Kingdom as to open the door of it to the Gentiles; nor did he ever attain influence comparable to that of Paul, who shook the citadel of paganism to its foundations, and planted amid its fallen defences the seed of the Kingdom, even the word of God. Joseph must be regarded as a common soldier, rather than as a general in Christ's army; but when the officers had fallen, or deserted their Leader, he bravely stepped to the front and proved himself a hero. Perhaps all the more on this account some study of his character and conduct may encourage those who are not prominent in the Church to cultivate his fidelity, promptitude, and courage.
If we piece together the few fragments of his biography which are scattered through the Four Gospels, we shall gain a fuller and more accurate conception of the man.
It is clear that Joseph had already protested against the wrong done to our Lord by the Sanhedrim, though he had been powerless to prevent it.
In this protest no doubt Nicodemus would have sided with him, but he was probably absent, for Joseph seems to have stood alone in his refusal to condemn the prophet of Nazareth. This was not easy. He would be urged to vote with his fellow-counsellors on the ground that their ecclesiastical authority, which had been defied, must be maintained, and that loyalty to the Sanhedrim demanded that all members of it should sink their private opinions in its defence. To hold out against an otherwise unanimous council would be the more difficult if Joseph had but recently attained the honour of membership, and this is probable, for the allusion to his "new grave" seems to imply that he had not long resided in Jerusalem. It was difficult, and possibly dangerous, to assert his independence; but he did so by vote, if not by voice, for he "had not consented to the counsel and deed of them."
Right-minded men are not infrequently placed in a similar position. A policy may be initiated which they disapprove, and yet their protest against it may wreck the party and even displace the government, so that they naturally hesitate between party loyalty and enlightened conscience. Others who are engaged in business, or in professional affairs, have sometimes to confront doubtful practices which, though sanctioned by custom, unquestionably tend to the lowering of the moral tone of the nation. Their own financial interests, their fear of casting a slur on some known to them, who, though guilty of such practices are in other respects honourable men, and their dread of posing before the world as over-scrupulous, pharisaic men, who are righteous over-much -- all urge them to keep quiet, especially as such a custom cannot be put down by one man. Yet is not conscience to be supreme, even under such conditions? The cultivation of the required moral heroism, which is sadly lacking in all sections of society, must begin in youth; and in this, elder brothers and sisters as well as parents and teachers of all grades have serious responsibility. Occasionally the moral atmosphere of a whole school becomes corrupt, and practices spring up which can only be put down by some right-minded lad or girl running the risk of unpopularity and social ostracism, yet it is under such conditions that God's heroes are bred; and books like Tom Brown's Schooldays have done much to foster the development of the heroic temper.
The truth is, that, wherever we are, in this world where evil widely prevails, fidelity to conscience must occasionally inspire what seems an unavailing protest against the practice of the majority. But we must see to it on such occasions that a real principle is at stake, and that we are not moved by mere desire for self-assertion, nor by pride and obstinacy. If, however, we are consciously free from these, and bravely protest against a wrong we cannot prevent, we may at least look for the approval of Him who carried His protest against evil up to the point of death, even the death of the Cross.
In thus taking up our stand against what we believe to be wrong, we may be, imperceptibly to ourselves, emboldening others, who are secretly waiting for some such lead.
If Joseph required bravery on the council, he needed it still more when he went into the presence of Pilate to beg the body of Jesus.
The Roman procurator was a man to be dreaded by any Jew, and was just now in a suspicious and angry mood. But Joseph not only braved a repulse from him. He knew he would have to confront the far more bitter hostility of the priests. Theirs was a relentless hate, before which Peter had fallen, and Pilate himself had quailed. Yet this man Joseph, brought up though he had been in circumstances of ease, went in boldly to Pilate and deliberately ran the risk of their savage hatred, which would not only bring about as he believed his expulsion from office, but in all probability cruel martyrdom. It was a bold step; but no sooner did he take it than another rich man was by his side -- Nicodemus by name -- who also himself was one of Christ's disciples, though secretly, for fear of the Jews. The act of Joseph had more far-reaching consequences on the conduct of others than he expected.
Most heroic actions are richer in results than is expected by those who dare to do them; though the immediate effects may seem disappointing. Elijah learnt to his amazement that although all the people on Carmel had not been converted, more than seven thousand faithful men had been emboldened by his conduct. And when John plucked up courage to go right in to the palace of the high priest, Peter, who till then had followed Jesus afar off, went in also.
The truth is, that we all have influence beyond the limits of what we can see or estimate -- parents over children, employers over their young people, mistresses over servants; for what we are these are encouraged to be, whether for good or for evil. Indeed, even a child who fearlessly speaks the truth, a servant who does her work thoroughly and cheerfully, an obscure lad who in a small situation is faithful to honour and truth, will effect far more than is imagined. Others who are unperceived are emboldened, and range themselves on the side of righteousness.
Joseph discovered, as many have done since, that when he steadfastly set his face towards duty he succeeded far better then he expected. When he went into the palace of Pilate he foresaw that he might be asked to pay an enormous ransom, for that would be only customary; or possibly his request might be scornfully refused by the procurator, who was angry with himself and with the Jews. But, doubtless to his amazement, no such thing happened. Without delay, or bartering or abuse, Pilate at once gave him leave.
History is crowded with similar incidents. How helpless and hopeless the Israelites were when they found themselves face to face with the waters of the Red Sea, while the army of Egypt was rapidly overtaking them; yet they soon discovered that their danger was to prove their means of deliverance; for the waters which barred their progress to liberty soon overwhelmed their enemies. In other spheres of experience such deliverances have come, and will continue to come, to trustful souls:
"Dark and wide the sea appears,
Peter had a similar experience when in prison. He arose and followed the angel, and safely passed through the first and the second ward; but the great iron gate seemed an insuperable barrier, yet that opened to them of its own accord, and he stepped through it into liberty. Thus it was with the women who as they walked, while it was yet dark, towards the grave of their Lord, thought of one difficulty which seemed insurmountable, and asked one another, "Who shall roll us away the stone at the door of the sepulchre?" Still on they went, with faith and courage, and when they reached their imagined difficulty they found that it had vanished; for they saw that the stone was rolled away.
A similar experience is constantly met with. It is shared by a young man who is expected to undertake some doubtful transaction, but from conscientious scruple hesitates. He fears what the result of a refusal may be, but resolves to risk it; perhaps to find that the order is not pressed, or that some new incident opens up for him a way of escape. True, God does not always deliver a conscientious man from the special danger before him, but in the forum of conscience, and before the judgment-seat of Christ, he will be righted.
Be the result what it may, we must be true to conscience, which, however, is but another form of saying, we must be true to God; and instead of peering into the future, and picturing to ourselves all possible evil results, we must learn to take the next obvious step in the pathway of duty, trusting that God will make the next step clear, possible, and safe. When a tourist is climbing a difficult mountain, his guide sometimes rounds a corner, or climbs up to a higher level, and for a time is lost to sight, having left his charge behind him; and he, unaccustomed to such an expedition, dares not look down, and fears to stir another step, till feeling the rope taut between himself and the guide, and hearing his cheery voice, he ventures forward, to find that the danger was not so great as he imagined. Thus made bolder by each difficulty surmounted, he begins to feel the exhilaration of a mountain climb, which braces the nerves more than anything besides. If we are really anxious to be in God's appointed way, and boldly take it when it is made clear, we may be sure that He will answer the prayer: "Hold up my goings in Thy paths, that my footsteps slip not."
There are crises in the experience of every one when the whole future is determined; and such a crisis came to Joseph of Arimathea.
He had been for some time a disciple of Jesus, but had never avowed the fact. But after standing on Calvary and seeing the death of his Lord, sorrow, shame, and indignation so stirred him, that at once he went in boldly unto Pilate. It was the turning-point in his history, when obedience to God-given impulse decided his whole destiny. The spiritual influences which play upon our souls are not even in their flow. There are times when one is strangely moved, although in outward environment there is little to account for it. The sermon listened to may be illiterate, the hymn sung may be destitute of poetic beauty, the friendly word may be spoken by a social inferior -- yet one of these sometimes suffices as the channel of divine power, which shakes the soul to its very depths. We have known the unexpected avowal of love to Christ on the part of one obscure scholar set all in the class thinking on the subject of personal responsibility to God, and to His Church. And sometimes the sorrow of leaving home for the first time, or the death of a dearly-loved friend, has sufficed to arouse the question, "What must I do to be saved?" We must beware of allowing such opportunities for decisive action to slip away unimproved. When a vessel has grounded at the harbour-bar, she must wait till the tide lifts her, or she will not reach a safe anchorage; but when the tide does flow in, no sane man will let the chance go by, lest a storm should rise and wreck her within reach of home.
It is noteworthy that Joseph was moved to decision and confession by the crucifixion of the Lord; for this might have been expected to seal his lips. It would seem to have been easier to follow the great Teacher when listening crowds gathered round Him, and multitudes were being healed of whatsoever diseases they had, than to acknowledge loyalty to Him when He was crucified as a malefactor. Yet it was from the Cross that this man went into the Church. The light came to him when darkness seemed deepest. It was in the presence of the crucified Saviour, of whom even the Roman centurion said, "Truly this was the Son of God," that Joseph learned to say, "Because thou hast died for me, I will henceforth live for Thee." This was one of the earliest triumphs of the Cross, in which Paul gloried, and of Him who died thereon -- dying for us all, that we who live should not henceforth live unto ourselves but unto Him. In the presence of that memorable scene we are called on for more than admiration or adoration, even for a passionate devotion to Him who gave Himself up for us all.
It may be that some of His professed followers may again fail Him, and that others will step in to do the service which He requires. In the hour of darkness all His recognised disciples forsook him and fled; and when the tragedy on Golgotha was over, it was not Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, who rendered Him the last service, but holy, humble women, and Joseph and Nicodemus, who up till then had not been reckoned as disciples at all. There are times in the history of the Church when our Lord seems "crucified afresh, and put to an open shame," while His so-called disciples remain silent and hidden. Superstition and sin still join hands to put the Christ to death, to bury Him, and seal His sepulchre. But secret disciples are meanwhile avowing themselves; coming from the east, and the west, from the north, and from the south, to fill up the vacant places, to do the needed services, and to rejoice in a risen and glorified Lord. Better by far the doing of a simple act of love to the Saviour who died for us -- such as Joseph did -- than loud professions of loyalty, or accurate knowledge of creeds. Hear once more the solemn words of Jesus: "Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of My Father which is in heaven."
"And that voice still soundeth on