In ancient times, funerals were performed by Egyptians who strongly believed in an afterlife. They thought that a deceased person crossed over to the land of the dead and continued ‘life’ there. For that, they needed to recognize their body so they could be reunited with it. Therefore, the body must be preserved as long as possible, leading to elaborate embalming. Then deceased person might have been buried in a tomb with all their possessions for use in their afterlife.
Other cultures had different ideas about death and the afterlife, if they believed in one. However, the people of God had been promised life after death. Job knew that after he died, he would, “in my flesh see God.” Yet the Israelites did not embalm; their deceased were buried as soon as possible.
This was true when Jesus died. I’ve not had time to research this, but it seemed that in His time, the event of death was a bigger issue than focusing on the body as the Egyptians did. Still, the body needed to be taken care of, and oddly enough, His mother and family did not do that, but a prominent member of society.
And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. (Mark 15:42–46)
In those days, a devout Jew highly valued the nation (God’s chosen people), obedience to the Law of God, the temple and their faith in one God. Jesus challenged all four values every time He had anything to do say about Gentiles, told them they missed the major purpose of the Law, predicted the destruction of their temple, and told them He was the “I am.” It is little wonder that they hated and crucified Him.
But not all rejected His teaching. Joseph of Arimathea was one of the devout that listened to Jesus. He asked for Jesus’ body, and then took care of the burial. Courage was needed since the disciples had scattered, rightly fearing that they would be next to die because they followed Jesus. But this Joseph took courage.
What was it that made the difference? The passage says that he was “looking for the kingdom of God.” In those days, that anticipation meant a restoration to Israel of their former glory resulting in their rule over all oppressors, Rome in particular. Did Joseph believe that? Or did he understand that the kingdom of God was as Jesus said and not about political sovereignty?
Matthew’s Gospel says this man was rich, and also a “disciple of Jesus.” Luke says he was “a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God.” John said that Joseph made this request secretly “for fear of the Jews.”
This tells me that Joseph believed what Jesus said about the kingdom. He knew that it was about the rule of God and concerned the spiritual condition of humanity, not their physical or political circumstances. By believing this, which was so contrary to popular thought, no doubt he also believed what Jesus said about their religious value system. Like Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea was going against the tide. His life may also have been in danger. Courage indeed!
All of this makes me think of the cushy life I have; no threats from the authorities, no worries that I will be strung up by the thumbs for believing in Jesus. The worst I’ve ever experienced is the wrath and ridicule of ‘religious’ people who think that faith in Christ is about being “good” and about chalking up points with God. My faith in Christ and in the grace of God is a challenge to their value system, something like Jesus’ challenged the ‘devout’ in His day yet I’m protected by ‘civil rights’ — at least for now.
Joseph also points to the power of truth. Jesus embodied it and declared it, and when He did, many believed it and many still do, regardless of popular thought and opinion. Faith in Christ continues today because truth changes lives and gives people courage to go against the tide.