The Bystanders: Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus

By Chad Hershberger

This week, as we continue to observe the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I invite you to join me in being mindful of God’s gifts. We’ll have a series of blog posts that look at the eyewitnesses of the Crucifixion and how the events of this week still have meaning to us today.

Two unlikely bystanders: Joseph of Arimathea, a secret disciple of Jesus, and Nicodemus, who had first some to Jesus by night. They played a role in our Crucifixion story that may seem minor but has great significance.

Joseph went to Pontius Pilate and asked if he could have Jesus’ body. He had an unused tomb to place Christ and Pilate gave him permission. He was a Pharisee, and a respected member of the council.

He and Nicodemus took the body to the tomb. Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes and they brought linen cloths for the body. These were part of the Jewish burial customs. It was the Jewish Preparation Day, so they laid Jesus in the tomb and departed.

If you ever wondered what else happened to Joseph after John’s gospel account, you can read more in the Gospel of Nicodemus. Jewish elders were angry that Joseph buried the body of Christ. They captured him, according to this account, and imprisoned him. He told them that God could deliver him from prison. When the elders returned later, Joseph was gone, with the seal of the prison still in place. They found him in Arimathea and talked to him when he told them.

On the day of the Preparation, about the tenth hour, you shut me in, and I remained there the whole Sabbath in full. And when midnight came, as I was standing and praying, the house where you shut me in was hung up by the four corners, and there was a flashing of light in mine eyes. And I fell to the ground trembling. Then someone lifted me up from the place where I had fallen, and poured over me an abundance of water from the head even to the feet, and put round my nostrils the odor of a wonderful ointment, and rubbed my face with the water itself, as if washing me, and kissed me, and said to me, Joseph, fear not; but open thine eyes, and see who it is that speaks to thee. And looking, I saw Jesus; and being terrified, I thought it was a phantom. And with prayer and the commandments I spoke to him, and he spoke with me. And I said to him: Art thou Rabbi Elias? And he said to me: I am not Elias. And I said: Who art thou, my Lord? And he said to me: I am Jesus, whose body thou didst beg from Pilate, and wrap in clean linen; and thou didst lay a napkin on my face, and didst lay me in thy new tomb, and roll a stone to the door of the tomb. Then I said to him that was speaking to me: Show me, Lord, where I laid thee. And he led me, and showed me the place where I laid him, and the linen which I had put on him, and the napkin which I had wrapped upon his face; and I knew that it was Jesus. And he took hold of me with his hand and put me in the midst of my house though the gates were shut, and put me in my bed, and said to me: Peace to thee! And he kissed me and said to me: For forty days go not out of thy house; for, lo, I go to my brethren into Galilee.

    —Gospel of Nicodemus. Translated by Alexander Walker

As for Nicodemus, he’s the one who came to Jesus at night in John 3, asking questions. He also appears in John 7 when he reminds his Sanhedrin colleagues that the law requires a person be heard before being judged.

Both these men remind us of the gift of truth. They had learned to know Christ and believed in him, despite their positions. They were at times “secret” about it, but they knew God’s simple truth.

Following this year’s Holy and Easter Week, how will you share the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection? How will you not be secret about what you believe?