Joseph of Arimathea’s Perception

January 5th, 2009 by

deposition“When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council, who himself was waiting for the kingdom of God; and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.” -Mk. 15.42-43

While on a sabbatical in December of 2005, I stumbled onto the story of Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospel of Luke. Though I had read the story on many occasions over the years, the Lord highlighted it in a fresh way to my heart. In the margin of Luke 23 I wrote, “There is an apostolic sight in Joseph here, and it should be noted how he honored and esteemed the body of Christ.”

While the text is clearly a historical account, and while it was not meant by any of the Gospel authors to be mystified (Joseph’s story is in all four Gospels), the Lord has quickened several things to my heart that go beyond what a natural reading of the text would give us. I believe we need to see a recovery of the kind of perception that was Joseph’s during the historic event of the crucifixion. We’re going to look at it primarily in Mark’s version, though we’ll glean from the other Gospels when necessary. Let’s get into the text to peer into what I believe the Lord is getting at.

“When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea came…”

The crucifixion took place, as you probably know, on the “preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath…;” namely, what we know as Friday. This must have caused a certain measure of haste in getting the body of Jesus down and moving it to the burial site before the sun went down, for the Sabbath was about to commence. Hear Craig Keener on this:

If Jesus died at 3 p.m. and Joseph stopped to seek Pilate’s permission, perhaps only an hour remained before sundown and the prohibition of work. Although anointing and washing the corpse was permissible even on the Sabbath (m. Shab. 23:5), some other elements of the burial could be conducted only in the most preliminary manner for the moment, though undoubtedly hastened considerably through the agency of Joseph’s servants. One could not move the corpse or its members on the Sabbath. (Keener, A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew; Eerdmans, 1999, p. 691)

So this is a crucial note, “When evening had already come…”

There was a measure of urgency in that which Joseph was setting his hand to. He was a faithful member of the Sanhedrin, and did not want to do damage to the Sabbath, so there was little time to work with. Yet there was something driving him inwardly, a holy value, an otherworldly esteem for the One hanging on the cross.

While Rome thought it was fitting for those crucified to hang on the cross for days to be picked apart by scavenging birds and racked by the elements, this was not the desire of the religious authorities in Israel. They sought to bury their criminals by sundown if at all possible. Even murderers and thieves deserved a timely burial in the minds of first century Jews.

The Scriptures make clear, however, that Joseph was not only being driven by customs, or even good human ethics. He was seeing something that the majority of his colleagues were missing, and even most of Jesus’ disciples had withered under the heat of trial that Jesus’ arrest and death presented.

But “…evening had already come, because it was the preparation day…”

I wonder if we realize that evening has already come, and that we are in the midst of the most requiring preparation day that the Church has ever known. In the natural sense Joseph scurried around due to the setting of the sun, and we need to see the recovery of an eschatological consciousness to help us see that evening is already upon us- the end of the age is near. We are in preparation for the greatest times of awakening, glory, tribulation and trial that the world has ever known. Are our lives reflecting this? Are we willing to give ourselves lock, stock, and barrel to the kind of preparation that will fit us for the days ahead?

How aware are we that the evening has already come, and that this is the preparation day?

The apostle Paul said, “…brethren, the time has been shortened, so that from now on…those who use the world” should live as though not to “make full use of it; for the form of this world is passing away.” (1 Cor. 7.29b, 31)

Friends, the evening has already come, and the “form of this world is passing away.” The people of God ought to be marked with a sense of urgency, surrendering their lives to the most ultimate kind of preparation in prayer and fasting, witness, study, and service to family and community. Our dealings and interactions with spouses, children and other saints need again to be counted as “holy unto the Lord.” Are we aware that the evening has already come, or are we treating our days as if they are dispensable, without value, hum-drum and mediocre? If we are going from event to event, restaurant to restaurant, movie to movie, conference to conference, and these things have become the high points of our lives, we have been robbed of the kind of Kingdom awareness that God desires us to live in.

Our every day ought to be marked with eternity, with the Spirit of prayer, with an awareness that the evening has already come, and that this is the preparation day. One prophetic man who became a “grandfather” in the faith to me used to tell me that our days should be “charged with remarkable meaning since there really is a Kingdom at hand.”

Joseph had a natural urgency because of the setting sun. He wanted to give Jesus an honorable burial, and he did not want to miss or transgress against the Sabbath.

Saints, the “sun” of this age is setting. History’s final pages are being turned. It is the preparation day like never before. Are you preparing for His coming? Is your heart free from the spirit of this age, its allurements, its greed, its lusts, its jockeying for power and position? We need an apostolic kind of seeing in this, for worldly influences are still prevalent in the House of God. The same addictions, bondages and hollow pursuits that the world is caught up with can still be found in the lives of God’s people. The same tactics and earthbound methods that the world utilizes still empower much of what we see in modern ministry. We need to come into the kind of weakness that Paul valued. We need holy perception. We need to value what the Lord Himself values and esteems.

It is not the time to get cozy with the world. It’s time for a baptism of clear seeing to help us find the exit signs in the busy, fast moving train of our culture. We need to find the exits, and flee to some still and quiet place where we can focus on the counsel of the Lord. We need to hear His heart, what He is after in our lives, and give ourselves without reservation to that holy preparation. History’s evening is already upon us, and the midnight hour approaches. How are you preparing for the Day of the Lord?

“…the day before the Sabbath…”

Again, Joseph did not want to miss out on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is a picture of the reign of God in the lives of His people. Jesus demonstrated the reality of the Sabbath by living under the canopy of the Father’s authority and government. He was working feverishly among the sick and diseased, but he was at rest from human striving and self-conscious ministry. He was suffused with the power of God, driven by the love of God, and having His being in the wisdom of God. What can be said of our ministries? Are they mechanical and methodologically driven, or are they being carried out in the wisdom and power of Christ? There is only one kind of ministry in the mind of the Lord, and it’s that which He accomplishes through us, and if it’s His work it will redound to His credit. Who is accomplishing your ministry and who is it unto?

What God was after in the Sabbath was really a preliminary example, or an introduction to the greater Sabbath which came in Christ, and the ultimate Sabbath which will be manifested at the end of the age. When the Lord assumes Kingship over the nations at His return, the entire cosmos will experience a Sabbath that is indestructible, permanent, and beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. The scholars talk about the “indestructibility and inviolability of the covenant,” and we will see its full unveiling during this time, when the Glory of God will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. The government of Jesus Himself will be spreading with force and rapidity, and the nations will know war no longer. Sabbath will be the mark of our existence, righteousness will flow like a mighty river, and justice like an ever-flowing stream (Am. 5). O, how I long for His return! It’s almost the Sabbath, friends. God will come and make His abode with us. Is that what you’re wanting, or are you clinging to something lesser?

Joseph did not want to miss the Sabbath because he valued it, and I wonder if we value the reality of Sabbath. The fact that we are willing to busy ourselves with programmatic ministry, but not to wait on the Lord for His power and life is a statement that we are not really anticipating the great and permanent Sabbath which is to come. Jesus was no doubt busy in ministry, but He was only doing that which He saw the Father doing. “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working.” (Jn. 5.17)

Have we rested from our works and been inducted into a resurrection-empowered ministry through communion with the Father? Or are we only operating through our own ideas and creations? There is a Sabbath reality that we are called to walk in, and it is a heavenly peace and rest, out of which will flow the kinds of works that we see the Father doing.

This kind of sabbath reality in our lives will prepare the way for the greater Sabbath to come, when “…the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21.3-4)

Are you living in the glory of this sabbath now? Are you anticipating the greater Sabbath to come? Friends, it is “the day before the Sabbath,” and the Lord is calling us away from the buzz and hype of this religious age, and to the place of prayer and priestly stillness, where we are able to hear His voice, and thereby do the works of God Himself.

“Joseph of Arimathea came…”

There is something to be said for the nature of surrender and response in the lives of Biblical men and women. We are so accustomed to hollow responses to truth that we hardly know what it means to come to the Lord in reality. When the Lord called to Moses from the midst of the bush, he said, “Here I am.” (Ex. 3.4) From the initial call, the Lord had Moses in totality. From the first call, Moses responded as a man, “warts” and all. He came to the Lord, even with insecurity, as he found it difficult to believe that the Lord would set him apart as a deliverer. But the Lord had him in the first statement, “Here I am.”

We are more apt to give heroic responses and make emotional commitments, but to decay and diminish in the first season of trial. We will commence heroic fasts, or blast off with some impressive outreach, but we are not accustomed to coming to the Lord in totality, where He has us in the valleys as much as He does on the mountains. But the Biblical men knew what it was to come, and even in weakness, their coming was something more than a hollow response.

I love it when Abraham says, “Here I am.”

When Isaiah says, “Here am I, send me…”

When Elijah says, “The Lord, before Whom I stand…”

When Paul asks, “What would You have me to do?”

When Jesus says, “Not My will, but Yours…”

There you see, that though they are vessels with weaknesses, they respond to the Lord as men, not as religious performers. We need to see the recovery of this kind of totality in surrender. We need our ‘Yes’ to be ‘Yes’ and our ‘No’ to be ‘No.’ Joseph’s situation was the same:

“Joseph of Arimathea came…”

Why was his coming significant? Why was it something more than the common experience of coming and going? Because his coming was not by choice of pleasure, nor was it self-driven. He was coming as a man who was willing to give honor to One who had been dishonored on a national scale. He was going against the tide of his generation to show value to Someone who had the highest esteem in the invisible courts of Heaven, but was despised in the courts of men. I wonder how brash and biting the wind was against the face of Joseph. What did it require of his soul to follow what he knew to be true of Jesus? He was a prominent member of the Council, but his associates were not tracking with him at all. In fact, they were in an opposing stream, and he was required to swim against the tide.

“Joseph of Arimathea came, a prominent member of the Council…”

I don’t believe that this is an unimportant detail. There is a principle being laid out here. It is very possible that Mark is getting this information from the apostle Peter, as many consider him to be Mark’s primary resource. Perhaps this point was inserted by Peter and Mark to show us the manner of man that Joseph was.

He is called a “secret disciple” in John’s account, and he remained a secret disciple out of fear of his colleagues and kinsmen who did not receive Jesus in the way that he did. So there is a remarkable tension mounting here. You have Joseph, a prominent member of the Council of the Sanhedrin, moving along with his associates during the event of the crucifixion. His heart is breaking as he watches his own colleagues make mockeries of the Messiah, pulling out sections of His beard, spitting upon Him, and hurling abuses at Him with the very Scriptures that were meant to magnify Him.

Joseph is walking alongside persecutors, seeing a live example of the deception that comes upon men when they function in a religious system that lacks the reality of God. He sees that men have put the Son of God in chains and depreciated His Manhood. They have been blinded to His deity, and defaced His humanity. The Son of God is being utterly despised in ways beyond description, and here you have a “prominent member of the Council” whose soul is cracking and breaking on the inside. I can almost see him at the back of his circle of colleagues, vision blurred by tears as he looks upon the Man on the cross, while heckling men shout blasphemies that echo down the hill. Joseph is weeping and trembling inwardly, for another wisdom is moving on the inside of his heart. He is losing sight of his prominence, and a love for the Crucified One is rising in His soul.

I don’t think Mark is mentioning this to hype up the Christian testimony. In other words, he is not using the “fame” or prominence of Joseph to validate the Christian witness. I believe he is trying to tell us that Joseph was being compelled to break out of the “course of this age,” and to do something that could bring reproach and shame upon him, perhaps even threatening his career and future provision.

Therefore, when “Joseph of Arimathea came,” his coming was not an insignificant detail in the story. He was surrendering to the truth that was flowing like waves through his inner-man. He treasured this Man too much to let Him go without an honorable burial. He did not have the book of Romans to undergird his Christology, but he knew this Man was worthy of honor. He knew that he was seeing something that the others were not seeing. He believed Him, though the disciples had fled and his colleagues had bitterly opposed Him. He had a sight that enabled him to value and esteem that which was being despised by men all around him.

What about you, friend? Are you feeling the resistance of this world’s view of Jesus and the Gospel? Are you willing to go against the tide of this age and to value and treasure the Man on the cross? Do you see the glory of the cross, or is your soul finding treasure in some other place?

Joseph gave away one of his own reserved family tombs to make a place for the body of a Man who had been marked a heretic and a deceiver. It was a lavish place for burial, and one wouldn’t give away a tomb of that quality unless there was a unique appreciation for the one being buried. Joseph was unconsciously fulfilling prophecy, and demonstrating a wisdom that this world cannot fathom or make sense of. When we are seeing by the Spirit, we too will unconsciously fulfill prophecy, and the world will not know what to make of it.

“…who himself was waiting for the Kingdom of God…”

Here we get another glimpse into the kind of man that Joseph was. Though surrounded on every side by religious power and pomp, he had a spiritual longing that grafted him into a continuum with the prophets of old. He is described as was Simeon in Luke’s Gospel: one who was “waiting for the Kingdom of God.” Isn’t it remarkable? Simeon had the discernment to recognize the presence of Israel’s King in a little Jewish infant. Amid the cries of other children being circumcised that day, he saw the “light that lightens the Gentiles and the glory of the people Israel” in the weakness of a common Carpenter’s newborn Son.

Joseph too recognized the glory of Israel, but in a mangled, bloody and bruised, terribly marred Man who was being crucified between criminals. Simeon valued Him in his babyhood, and Joseph valued Him at the place of His death. The incarnation and the crucifixion are the greatest displays of the nature and character of God, and it is utterly impossible to recognize their glory unless you are “waiting for the Kingdom of God,” and have learned to value what He values.

Are we that sensitive to the presence of the Lord? These men recognized and esteemed Him when men walking in natural wisdom did not even acknowledge His presence. They rejoiced in Him, cherished Him, and exalted Him when there was no logical reason to declare Him as King. Are we missing His presence in the everyday affairs of life? Are we like Simeon, led by the Spirit to acknowledge Him in the midst of the temple traffic, or are we like the men who circumcised Him, caught up in another religious service- one among many that are all too common, mundane, and devoid of awe and wonder?

Have we placed any measure of trust in our own righteousness, in our ability to produce successful Christian programs, or in the power of democracy or other man-centered political paradigms? Simeon and Joseph were waiting for the Kingdom of God on both ends of Jesus’ earthly life, and they were granted a vision into His heart that few were able to see. They valued what He valued, were required to go against the tide of their generations, and were privileged with honor from the Lord. Their names will always be known in annals of Heaven’s history. Where would we like our names to be known?

Are we “waiting for the Kingdom of God,” or are we hoping for ministerial success so that our bank accounts and reputations will be bolstered up? Are we God-centered servants, or are we being fueled by human influence and prestige? If we are being moved by the praises of men, we may well find ourselves in the same shoes as Joseph’s colleagues, thinking we are doing God’s works, accurate and prominent in leadership attributes, but having a hand in crucifying that which He loves and esteems.

If we are waiting for the Kingdom of God, we will value what He values, even if it is presently mangled and without human attractiveness.

“…and he gathered up courage and went in before Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus.”

I don’t know what was required for Joseph to come to this kind of intentionality and resolve. He was bent on burying Jesus honorably, and while it is unlikely that he had a place of influence before Pilate’s throne, he gathered up courage and went before him.

Now Pilate is far from a type of the Lord, but there is something we can draw out of this, and it will require a courage that we have yet to come into corporately.

In the same way that Joseph valued the body of Christ, though it was mangled and disfigured, we have a holy calling to value and esteem Israel and the Church no matter how immature, incomplete, and unattractive they are. It’s not a humanistic, seeker-sensitive value. It’s an intimate enjoinment of our lives and prayers with the life and prayer of Jesus Himself. He is jealous over His people, and while He has severe correctives for the Church in our generation, He is still at the right hand of the Father, ever living to “make intercession” on our behalf.

This is a challenge to all who are “waiting for the Kingdom of God,” and are jealous for truth, holiness, and the fullness of Christ. When we look upon the Body of Christ, we usually see disfigurement and something less than what we would expect from a royal priesthood. In fact, many of the descriptions that the Scriptures give of God’s people (e.g., “body,” “army,” “family,” “holy ones,” “community,” etc.) do not seem to match what we commonly see in the Church, no matter what segment or movement you look at. Within our own fellowships, if you have relationship with the saints you will find so many idiosyncrasies, tensions and childish thought patterns that you could grow discouraged at the condition of the Church real fast. There are divisions throughout, compromises, bad doctrines, and faulty teachings much akin to the condition of the Church at Corinth in the 1st century. Yet Paul’s manner of relating to them was not professional, condescending or stand-offish. It was fatherly. He knew that he was looking upon a mangled and disfigured Body that was in need of further death and burial before a resurrection glory would result. For that reason he called them “saints,” “sons,” and “holy ones,” and confronted the erroneous teachings and morals out of an apostolic humility. It was not a humanistic, manipulative attempt at external humility. It was the very experience of the cross. “Death works in me, so life in you.” He was seeing “after the Spirit,” and like Joseph of Arimathea he had the grace to value the Body of Christ though the natural man would see little or nothing that was worthy of esteem.

We have to realize that the Body is radically connected with the Head, even if that reality is not being manifest in full as of yet. It has been pointed out by numerous teachers that when Saul of Tarsus encountered his Messiah on the road to Damascus Jesus revealed the intensity of His connection to the Body when He asked, “Why do you persecute Me?” Rather than asking, “Why do you persecute my followers,” He revealed His intimate identification and union with them, and Saul trembled unto salvation.

There ought to be a certain trepidation about our dealings with brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. If you find it easy to heckle and defame fallen leaders, teachers with imbalanced messages, or saints from another stream or denomination than your own, you may well be operating in the same spirit that rested on Joseph of Arimathea’s colleagues. In your attempts at being “correct,” you may well be speaking out against the Body of Christ, and thus Jesus Himself. If you do not have a value and esteem for those believers for whom you carry ‘concerns,’ you are likely ill-fitted to address or bring correction to them.

When Jesus set out to correct the waywardness and error of mankind, He sealed the deal by spilling all of His blood on our behalf. He did not open His mouth in defense or correction, even when he was being portrayed in an inaccurate way. He set the human race aright through death. Can you say that you are looking upon the Body with that kind of mercy and sacrifice? Until you are aligned with His own love, you are incapable of bringing the kind of correction that the Lord appoints. He is still at the right hand of the Father, interceding for us amidst our immaturity and blemishes, and He is requiring the same kind of mercy and intercession from us. Where corrections are needed they will come in His time and through the vessels that He chooses, but our first responsibility is to come into alignment with His heart in the place of prayer. Have you got that kind of selfless value for the Body, though it is currently a bloody mess, emaciated and unattractive?

Though Pilate is no type of the Lord, it will require the same type of courage for us to lay aside our arrogance, personal kingdom building, religious correctness and self-will to go before the King of heaven and “ask for the Body of Jesus.” If we are not “waiting for the Kingdom of God” we may be satisfied with asking for the success of our own ministries. We may be satisfied with feeling like our doctrine is superior to “those other guys in that other movement.” But if we have Joseph’s perception, we will go against the tide of religious prestige and the arrogance of heady knowledge to gather up courage, prostrate our lives before the King, and ask for the Body of Jesus, which is “…the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way.”

I don’t know about you, friends, but I’m not interested in starting my own movement or denomination. I want to see the fullness of Christ expressed through a people comprised of saints from every tribe and tongue. I have my own spiritual disfigurements, my own fellowship has immaturity and imperfect doctrines, and so does the rest of the Church. “We see in part.”

But if we are “waiting for the Kingdom of God,” if we want His glorification only, we can look with forbearance upon our fellowships, and upon other Christian movements and denominations. We can gather up courage to intercede for the Body of Christ, “until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.” (Eph. 4.13)

I’m asking for the Body of Christ, and I want to treasure it, even in its dying, so that a resurrection can result. There is no resurrection without death, and if we have hopes of reviving something that has never before experienced true life we negate the necessary process of God. There must first come a death to our self-seeking and self-reliance if we want to see Christ magnified in His Body. But we ought not think that we have that life by the accuracy of our paradigms or ecclesiastical conclusions. There is only one gateway to the resurrection life of Christ, and it is through death. Death to our arrogance, death to our achievements, death to our uppity correctness.

In the valley of the dry bones of Israel, Ezekiel was asked, “Son of Man, can these bones live?” We would be quick to give the Lord a verse about the resurrection, or to say, “Yes, Lord. Remember Lazarus? If You can do it for him, surely You can do it for them!” Ezekiel was on a whole different plane. He was not responding out of a pre-packaged correctness. He was utterly dependent upon the resurrection life of God, so he replied, “Lord, You know.”

It was that radical hope in the God of resurrection that caused the Lord to put the ball back into his court, “Prophesy to these bones…” When Ezekiel refused to play the know-it-all, the Lord said, “Ah. He knows something about dependency. He knows something about his own limitations. He knows something about my wisdom and power. He is fit to bear the authority to prophesy to the dead bones of his nation- to command life to come back into them.”

We think we’ve got the New Testament model of Church all hemmed in. We think our groups are superior to the others, our books are the most anointed, our services are the most impressive. We think we know what it means to be apostolic and authentic. The Lord is looking down upon our presumption and saying, “They won’t be fit to prophesy until they are broken and completely cast upon the Rock.” We’ve got to be able to say with Ezekiel, “Lord, You know.”

Can you pray for that death to have its full work in the Church without looking upon her with condescension? This is the mystery of apostolic sight. Paul could call the saints at Corinth “holy ones” (1 Cor. 1), though they were far from complete or mature. He gave himself to intercessions on their behalf, that Christ might be formed in them.

It’s easier to criticize and write negative articles than it is to come into this kind of identification with a Body that is mangled, disfigured, and unattractive to our religious hopes. But the Son of God displays another wisdom, and we see glimpses of it in Joseph of Arimathea.

It’s going to require courage, friends. We’ve never prayed quite like this before. We’ve never ascended Golgotha to this altitude before. But the joy is set before us. For after this process played itself out, “he granted the body to Joseph.” (v. 45b)

If we identify with the Son of God in His intercessions for the Church, we will see the formation and emergence of His Body, and it will be a witness unto Israel and the nations. It will bear His own nature and character. It will be immersed in the Scriptures, walking in holy power, Divine love, and true Godly meekness. It will be marked by the fear of the Lord and the beauty of His holiness. Men will take notice and be transformed, some will fear and oppose it, but the reality of God will again be known in the earth. The powers of darkness will again be made to tremble, as they did when God’s wisdom was openly displayed on the cross.

Since Joseph valued the body of Christ, even in death and disfigurement, a context was provided for the resurrection glory to spring forth from. Death is not the end, friends. Death is a gate to eternal glory. Just as Jesus was raised by the Father, so shall the Church be raised up, fit to overcome in the midst of the most trying times mankind has ever known. We will be fit to bear witness to the love of Christ, even to the point of death.

Friends, God is coming to the earth. We need to cry out for a heavenly perception.

Are you aware that “evening has already come?”

Are you giving yourself to Him in this “day of preparation?”

Are you willing to forsake whatever “prominence” you have if it hinders or impedes God’s desires and purposes?

Are you “waiting for the Kingdom of God?”

Are you “asking for the Body of Jesus?”

O, for Joseph’s perception! O, that God may have a people who walk in the fear of the Lord, demonstrating the mercy and wisdom of God until Christ “shall be all in all.”

Father, we ask for the recovery of Joseph of Arimathea’s perception, for the willingness to go against the tide of this age and all it represents, to value that which You value. We recognize our weakness. We are waiting for the Kingdom of God, for there is no other answer to the predicament of the nations. Would you breathe upon the Church, in all of our immaturity and incompleteness, and give us a Kingdom view? Would you take away our blindness, and give us Your perception? We are not willing to pursue mere success in ministry, and we are weary of being absorbed with our personal callings and destinies. We are asking for the Body of Jesus. Give us the right perception, give us courage, and let Your name be glorified from this time forth, and forever. Amen.

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