Joseph of Arimathea is one of the unsung heroes of the Bible, but from looking at Christian writings through the centuries, it seems that his heroism has gone largely unrecognized. As we set forth the biblical truth regarding how significant a role this man played in human history, we trust that you will be encouraged by the magnificent precision of the God-breathed Word and also be inspired to fulfill whatever role God sets before you as you walk with Him day by day. As we will see in regard to Joseph of Arimathea, it may turn out to be far more important than you think in the moment.
Except for the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ burial, Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. It is extremely significant that Joseph is the only person who Scripture clearly indicates believed that Jesus would rise from the dead after three days and three nights just as he said he would (there were others who believed that Jesus was the Messiah but were confused by his death). Joseph’s conviction, courage, and commitment to Jesus and to the truth led him to “stand in the gap” when God needed him to do so, and what he did made possible the striking witness of the empty tomb, which was a catalyst for many to believe in the resurrection of the Son of God.
That Joseph is not well known is due in part to two translation errors in the King James Version in Isaiah 53:9, a verse that occurs in the most vivid Messianic prophecy of the suffering and death of Jesus. We will cover these mistranslations one at a time.
Isaiah 53:9a (KJV)
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death…
The word “made” is a mistranslation, and thankfully it is corrected in many modern versions, such as the New International Version.
Isaiah 53:9a (NIV)
He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death…
This correction is one key to the little puzzle we are putting together. The NIV properly translates the Hebrew word nathan as “appointed” (see Exod. 30:16; Num. 35:6; Josh. 20:2; 2 Kings 8:6; 1 Chron. 16:4; Ezra 8:20 et al), and that begs an important question: who appointed Jesus to be buried with the wicked?
The sacrifice of the Messiah had been foretold since Genesis. He was to die for the sins of others, even as was typified by animal sacrifices all through the Old Testament. God had appointed that one righteous man would die for the unrighteous many. This is important: the death of Jesus, and even the way he died, was not an accident. David had portrayed it in Psalm 22 almost 1000 years earlier. Furthermore, because Jesus was hung on a tree, he was “cursed” even as the Law says, “because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13).
Thus, prophetically speaking, it was God who assigned Jesus a grave with the wicked, because culture and custom dictated that criminals were buried apart from the rest of the people, and they certainly were not buried “with the rich.” Knowing that fact brings to light the other translation error in Isaiah 53:9, which few Bible versions recognize, and that is the word “and” in the phrase, “and with the rich.”
It is interesting that the phrase, “and with the rich” is not translated that way in a number of versions. For example, the New English Bible reads: “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, a burial-place among the refuse of mankind….” This translation and similar renderings in other versions are based upon the knowledge that the wicked and the rich were not buried together.
This fact has led to a number of explanations of the phrase, “and with the rich,” by various scholars. Some have suggested that metaphorically the word “rich” stands for the wicked as does “poor” for the godly in some verses of Scripture. With a marginal note to that effect, Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible reads: “And appointed with lawless men was his grave, and with the wicked his tomb…..” Other scholars suggest that the “rich” became rich by oppressing others, and thus were actually wicked. These suggestions by scholars are guesses, designed to make sense of why the Messiah would be assigned a grave with both the wicked and the rich.
Other translations take a different tack, however. The Darby Translation, for example: “And men appointed his grave with the wicked, but he was with the rich in his death….” The New American Standard Bible: “His grave was assigned with wicked men, Yet He was with a rich man in His death…” And it is most significant that the New King James Version changes this verse from the original KJV and reads, “And they made His grave with the wicked – But with the rich at His death….” It is important to know that the Hebrew word translated as “and” in this verse is a conjunction or introductory particle that is translated as “and,” “but,” “or,” “now,” “then,” “when,” “so,” and other ways as well. Thus the translation “but” in the verse is completely appropriate if it fits the context, which it does.
Because the Hebrew text does have the words, “with the rich,” and because there is no reason to make the word “rich” a figure of speech or understand it as anything but literal, we think the above three translations that translate the conjunction as “but” make the most sense. We also believe that because Joseph of Arimathea read Isaiah 53:9 in the Hebrew, he may well have recognized that it was a prophecy about the Messiah’s burial. Although it is possible that Joseph helped to fulfill this prophecy without realizing it, we believe there is a good possibility that God worked in him to realize that he was one person who could do so. How did he do it?
The answer is found in the Four Gospels. Although Joseph is mentioned in each of them, we will not look at all four because the records are quite similar.
(57) As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus.
(58) Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him.
(59) Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,
(60) and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away.
(61) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
Jesus died at what would be 3 p.m. our time, and the Passover (a special Sabbath [John 19:31], not the weekly Sabbath) would begin at sunset. Joseph knew that he had to act quickly, and John 19:38 tells us that he went to Pilate “secretly for fear of the Jews.” Given what Scripture says about Joseph, this does not mean that he was a fearful man. Rather, it is saying that he was prudent.
Luke 23:50 and 51 says that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Judaism, and that he had not voted for the execution of Jesus. Perhaps he was the lone dissenter. In any case, the council must have known of his allegiance to Jesus, and, given their propensity for evil, he knew that they would stop at nothing to eradicate the memory of this man who had so threatened their evil empire. Therefore, Joseph acted wisely, and went to Pilate without their knowledge. He also knew that Jesus was a public figure over which there was much dispute, and since there was little time to get Jesus into the grave before sunset, he did not want there to be a public debate over what to do with the body.
In Matthew 27:58, the word “asked” means to boldly implore (the KJV reads “begged”). Joseph’s going to Pilate and persuading him to give him Jesus’ body was no small feat. As a Jew, entering the court of a Gentile like Pilate would have made Joseph ceremonially unclean to eat the Passover the next day, and touching the dead body of Jesus would compound his uncleanness. What a testimony to how much Joseph loved Jesus and how focused he was on seeing the truth of God’s Word come to pass, even at the expense of his being able to celebrate the most sacred of Jewish holidays. Perhaps Joseph recognized that Jesus was the true Passover Lamb that year.
Jerusalem was about 25 miles from Joseph’s hometown of Arimathea, so why would he have had a tomb cut out of the rock there, and why was it so close to Golgotha? Once again, we assert it was because Joseph believed that Jesus was the Messiah, knew that he must be buried “with the rich,” and fully expected him to rise from the dead after 72 hours. As we will see, it was this act of faith that made possible the witness of the empty tomb in a prominent place where everyone would know about it. Criminals and the indigent were not given much of a burial, if any, and usually in a place provided by society or government for that purpose, because such burial grounds were unclean. Had Jesus been buried “with the wicked” in an obscure place, no witness that he had actually been raised from the dead would have been possible then or throughout history.
Properly understood, Matthew 27:59 confirms the fact that Joseph did not expect Jesus to be in the grave permanently. It says that he took Jesus’ body and “wrapped it in a clean linen cloth.” The Greek word for “wrapped” means that Joseph “rolled up” the body, and the word for “cloth” is sindon (like a sheet), a different word than that used of the traditional burial wrappings that were strips of cloth wound around the body after it had been covered with ointments and spices.
It is significant that verse 61 says that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there watching what Joseph did. They saw that Joseph did not bury Jesus according to custom. It is also necessary to understand that Jesus was not crucified on what we would call Friday, because in that case he could not have been in the grave “three days and three nights” (as Scripture said he would be and was) and have been up from the dead before sunrise on Sunday when the women came to the tomb. [For further study listen to/read, The Last Week of Christ’s Life.]
John 19:31 specifically says that the day after Jesus’ crucifixion was “a special Sabbath,” that is, not the weekly Jewish Sabbath, which fell on what we call Saturday. Putting together Scripture with the calendars available today, we see that in the year Jesus died, the Passover was on a Thursday. Jesus died at 3 p.m. on Wednesday and rose from the dead on Saturday between 3 p.m. and sunset. This had to be because according to the Jewish reckoning of time, the next day, the fourth day, started at sunset, and Scripture said he would rise “the third day.” Thus, when the women returned to the tomb before sunrise on Sunday, he was not there —“He is risen!” (Note that the angel did not say to them, “You just missed him!”).
A study of all the verses related to this subject shows that the women saw that Joseph did not embalm Jesus (on Wednesday), so they went home to prepare the proper spices to do so, which they could not do on Thursday (the High Sabbath) or Saturday (the weekly Sabbath). They believed that Jesus should have a proper burial, but the Sanhedrin had made sure that the tomb was sealed and guarded for three days (Matt. 27:63-66). That meant that the earliest they could get into the tomb was Sunday morning. As would be expected given their close relationships with Jesus, they were there as early as possible.
Late Wednesday afternoon (the day of preparation for the Passover), when Joseph and the women had left the tomb, Nicodemus entered the picture, and what he did is recorded only in the gospel of John. As with the subject of the four others crucified with Jesus (Five Crucified), the principle of narrative development is crucial to understanding how to put together the different Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ burial and get the whole picture of what actually happened.
In John 19:38 and 39, the NIV blurs the fact that Nicodemus (the same man in John 3 and 7) came to the grave later—after Joseph had left. As a man of means, he would have had plenty of help to do what verse 40 says “they” did—“wound the body in linen clothes with spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury” (KJV). The Greek word for “clothes” is othonion, which means “grave wrappings or bandages.” Therefore, “they” could not be Joseph and Nicodemus, because we already know that Joseph simply wrapped the body in a sheet (sindon). It is also noteworthy that the women saw Joseph but not Nicodemus. The women watched Joseph, saw that he had not given Jesus a “proper burial” and went off to buy the spices to do it themselves. Then, after Joseph and the women had gone, Nicodemus and his helpers came (you would want helpers if you were carrying 75 pounds of spices and a bunch of cloth) and they gave Jesus a more formal burial, but one that did not anticipate his resurrection.
What Nicodemus did is why, when Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb, they saw the othonion (John 20:5), the mummy-like linen grave wrappings that had been around Jesus but were then empty. Nicodemus also loved Jesus very much, and in order to honor him with a proper burial he was willing to make himself unclean for the Passover by touching Jesus’ dead body, but he apparently did not believe Jesus would rise from the dead, as evidenced by his embalming his body. Although Joseph did not anoint Jesus’ body according to custom, it was he who most honored him by believing his words that he would rise from the dead.
Let us summarize the sequence of events. On Wednesday afternoon, as soon as Jesus was dead, Joseph went quickly to Pilate, persuaded him to give him the body, took it to the nearby tomb he had had cut in a rock, wrapped it in a sheet and rolled the stone in front of the opening. The women, who dearly loved Jesus, saw what he did and went home to prepare the spices for a proper burial. Shortly after they left, Nicodemus came and prepared the body according to the Jewish burial custom. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday passed, and early Sunday the women returned to the tomb, only to find the empty tomb—Jesus had risen from the dead.
The heroism of Joseph of Arimathea in the burial of Jesus stands out vividly in His-story. Quite a number of other people did come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, but when Jesus died they were caught off guard and confused. Since childhood, their Jewish culture had taught them that the Messiah would live forever (John 12:34). They expected him to get an army together, conquer their Roman oppressors, oust the Pharisees and Sadducees, and rule the world. When Jesus died on the cross, they did not know what to do, and many were scattered. In contrast, Joseph believed that Jesus would rise from the dead, and as we have seen, acted accordingly, burying him “with the rich.”
Suppose that Joseph of Arimathea had not stepped up and followed God’s leading based upon the prophecies in His Word? Suppose that Jesus’ body had been buried in the ground in an obscure and unclean area? Would that have stopped God from raising him from the dead? Absolutely not.
But it would have negated the reverberating witness of the empty tomb!!!
And that is why Joseph of Arimathea is a true hero.
One man, a man with strengths and weaknesses like all men, a man whose heart was no doubt pounding like a piston as he approached Pilate’s palace, but a man who kept going because he loved Jesus and believed that he was who he said he was. One man who was prepared for both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. One man who stayed when even the disciples closest to Jesus had fled. One man who believed the Word of God, having no idea of the centuries-long ramifications of his obedience.
Joseph was the only Joseph God had. What about you? You are the only you God has. You too can believe the written Word of God and act accordingly. Who knows where the resurrected Lord Jesus will lead you in your walk with him? Who knows the everlasting impact of your following him day by day into whatever situations he knows you can handle with his help?
The witness of the empty tomb still beckons to you—Jesus is alive, and he wants to live his life in you as you live for him. What else is there to do?