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A Series of Letters on Bible Study (12)

D Newell, Glasgow

Studying a Character

Dear John,

I thought I’d conclude my little series of letters with one of the simplest and most satisfying ways of studying the Word – investigating character. This is where doctrine becomes wonderfully dynamic. After all, principles are all very well in the abstract, but ordinary folk like us want to see truth worked out in daily life, and the Bible is nothing if not practical. From its very first book it hits us with a sequence of memorable figures, all of whom illustrate instantly recognisable features of genuine, sin-damaged humanity. Well-known names like Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, and Elijah are full of instruction and have been written about extensively by F B Meyer, J H Large, Hamilton Smith, A W Pink and others. Indeed, one of the best ways to learn how to study character is to see it well done by a master. But I shall concentrate now upon a minor figure who rarely gets into the limelight.

The first thing to do with Joseph of Arimathaea is to collect and collate the references to him in the four Gospels. A good method is to use e-Sword and print the passages in parallel columns, thus:

It then becomes easy to highlight the distinctive contributions of each evangelist to the full picture. With this information you can start assembling in your notebook an analytical study of Joseph. The alphabetical headings I am going to use may give you a template to apply to anyone in the Scriptures.

First, consider his appearance – by which I do not mean physical looks, in which the Bible takes little interest, as its prime focus is the heart (1 Pet 3.3-4). No, I mean his sudden emergence in the story. When all the disciples were still in a state of shock, and even the godly women who ministered to the Lord were unable to help, God raised up the unlikeliest of men to take care of His Son’s body and arrange for its loving burial. But then our God does things like that. Out of Pharaoh’s palace came the deliverer of a slave nation (Heb 11.24-26). Even though Joseph is only mentioned on this one occasion, right at the close of the Lord’s earthly life, he comes out with great honour. Calvary, remember, is the touchstone of the heart: it brings out what people really are. One thief reviled the Lord Jesus; the other repented and trusted Him. The emergency makes the man.

You might then wish to investigate his background. We know little of his place of origin, as Arimathaea has not been conclusively identified. But we do know from Matthew that he was rich. We sometimes get the impression that wealth per se is wrong. Certainly, our primary treasure should be in heaven not in the Halifax but, as Paul teaches in 1 Timothy 6.17-19, riches can be used down here for the Lord. Joseph illustrates this point. Further, Mark and Luke tell us he had a significant standing in society as a member of the great Jewish Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Israel. God is perfectly able to use the somebodies of this world as well as the nobodies like you and me! I think it was the Countess of Huntingdon – a devoted Christian lady of the 18th century – who said she was glad Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1.26 that "not many" rather than "not any" noble people were called. Undoubtedly Joseph was called of God, for Matthew and John specifically tell us he was a disciple.

But what of his essential character, by which I mean his nature, his inner qualities? Well, he was clearly a spiritual man who "waited for the kingdom of God" (Mk 15.43). Like Nicodemus, with whom he is associated, and like Simeon and Anna (Lk 2.25,38), he obviously knew and believed his Old Testament, because he was eagerly anticipating the establishment of the promised kingdom age (Dan 2.44; Zech 14.9; Jer 23.5). He was also "a good man and a just" (Lk 23.50). "Good" today may seem a fairly weak adjective, but Luke 18.19 shows how powerful it really is. He was good in his practical concern to ensure a seemly burial for the Saviour, and he was upright in that he dissented from the Sanhedrin’s decision against Christ. Those who have been justified by faith ought to be just in their behaviour and good to all (Gal 6.10). And yet Joseph seems to have been a retiring man (Jn 19.38). His discipleship remained under wraps, perhaps because he feared the kind of ostracism suffered by others (Jn 9.22). But don’t be too hard on him – eventually true belief will out. In any case, better to be a Joseph than a Judas who companied with the Saviour for three and a half years yet at heart was a traitor.

The deed for which he is best known is one of the great prophetic accomplishments in the Gospels. I sometimes wonder whether in fact he was the only man in Israel who could have fulfilled Isaiah 53.9b: "And he made his grave with the wicked [fulfilled at Calvary where the Lord was crucified between robbers], and with the rich in his death". Did Joseph know the passage and realize that he was uniquely equipped to bring it to pass? But then of course it is God who orders all our circumstances. Of this we can be certain: the Scripture cannot be broken (Jn 10.35). Strange, though, how people can change; the outspoken Peter became fearful in the presence of a serving maid, while the timid Joseph became courageous, entering Pilate’s palace alone and "boldly" asking for the body (Mk 15.43). It was costly to identify himself with a crucified criminal and relinquish his own memorial tomb, yet he did it.

His example to us is challenging. For a start it seems that it stirred another quiet disciple, Nicodemus, into action (Jn 19.39). How often the good example of one believer encourages others to follow his lead. That, I think, was the case with Daniel and his three young friends in Babylon (Dan 1.8-12). Joseph’s official request also bore witness to Pilate who, as a result, became aware of the astonishingly early death of the Lord Jesus (Mk 15.44). It is, you see, worth noting that Joseph did not attempt to remove the body furtively, under cover of darkness; rather, he went through the correct channels, showing all respect to the civil powers (Rom 13.1). His action demonstrated real devotion to the Saviour, providing him with a princely burial though the mourners were few. And, like a godly Jew, he made sure he observed Sabbath law (Jn 19.42). Joseph did the right thing in the right way.

My final point is fellowship. Although it seems initially that Joseph stood alone, God raised up another to join him. Joseph and Nicodemus had a number of things in common – materially affluent and socially reputable – but it was love for Christ which truly united them. Their aim was to honour a Saviour who had been rejected by men. Each of them, you will note, had a distinct role: Joseph provided the grave clothes and the tomb, Nicodemus the expensive spices. Yet each worked in glad harmony with the other. Now that’s a lovely picture of what things ought to be like in our local assemblies – different people working together in happy concord for the glory of Christ Jesus.

Not much is said about Joseph of Arimathaea but what is said is, like all the Word, "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (2 Tim 3.16). May these little hints encourage you to dig deep, dig diligently, and dig daily into the rich, inexhaustible mine of God’s Word. You’ll never regret it!

God bless




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