Mark 15:40-16:7. He is risen.

There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. 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. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back— it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Mark has told us about the centurion who saw the way in which Jesus died, and who said of him “Surely this man was the Son of God”. That was the high point of Mark’s Gospel. The structure all builds to that point. But there were more people there at the cross than one. The centurion was there, and so were others. There were some women looking on from a distance.

  1. There were women at the cross, and Mark repeats their names three times. Why does he do that?

  2. Who was Joseph of Arimathea?

  3. Why does Joseph need to “take courage”? What is brave about what he does?

  4. Who is the young man in white by the tomb, and what is the significance of what he says?

  5.  

  1. There were women at the cross, and Mark repeats their names three times. Why does he do that?

Mark tells us about some of the women at the cross. Mark names three of them who were there to see Jesus die in v40, and then names two of those three again in v47 when they saw him buried on Friday evening, and then names all three again in 16:2 when they come to the tomb early on Sunday morning.

These women were “looking on from a distance”. They didn’t dare, or weren’t allowed, to come too close at this point. But they had followed Jesus for a long time, having become his followers while he was in Galilee, and they were still following Jesus as he died. They were obviously very devoted. They had left home and family to become part of Jesus’ entourage, following him up to Jerusalem. This is very odd- Jewish rabbis did not normally have female disciples. (Luke is bigger on this than Mark. Mary sat at Jesus’ feet- Lk 10 or 11). They have stayed with Jesus, presumably all through the day, as he hung on the cross. They have followed his body as dusk fell that Friday evening, watching Joseph as he carries the corpse into his tomb. They have seen Joseph, or Joseph’s men, roll the stone down its little groove into place at the mouth of the tomb- for these sorts of tombs can still be seen around Jerusalem today, with a downhill channel so that the rock can be rolled into place relatively easily, but opened only with difficulty. Then they have waited all through the long Sabbath, and as soon as darkness fell and the Sabbath ended, they have gone out to buy spices to anoint the body. And very early on Sunday morning, as the sun rose, they have set out so as to be at the tomb as soon as they could see enough to do anything useful. They don’t expect to be able to do anything useful- they know that the tomb is sealed, and they talk as they walk there, saying to one another “well, we won’t be able to get it open, will we”. But they go anyway- it isn’t strictly rational, but they can’t do anything else, so they do what they can.

These women were also the first witnesses of the resurrection, as we find in ch 16. They saw Jesus die, they saw him buried, and they were the first there at the tomb to find the body gone. Mark’s deliberate mention of their names each time makes it very clear that they can be identified and asked for their testimony. They would be known to the early Christians (Salome is probably the mother of James and John, cf. Mt 27:56), and their accounts of what they saw would have been told and re-told many times.

That is important. It underlines the trustworthiness of the Gospel narrative. There are good reasons even for those who don’t accept the authority of Scripture to take this as an authentic account of what eyewitnesses saw. Mark isn’t making it up, because if he was he’d have chosen witnesses more congenial and trustworthy than women. To a western 20th century mindset, female testimony is just as admissible as that of a male. Women have equal status to men under law, and a woman can testify in a court of justice. This was not the case in Israel, and Roman society was little different in that respect. Women were second class citizens. This was enshrined in the Temple itself- at least in Herod’s Temple- you have a court of Israel, and a court of the Gentiles. But the court of Israel is only for the circumcised. Women are not allowed further in than the court of the Gentiles. And female testimony was inadmissible in a law court. As witnesses, women had no standing. No Israelite who wanted to fabricate an account of something would make up an event witnessed only by women. But in this account of the burial and the empty tomb, a great deal rests on things seen only by these women.

In contrast to their faithfulness, the key male players are shown in such a bad light. The male disciples, the leaders of the early church, are (to be blunt) boneheads and cowards. No more so than we would have been in their places, but still… They are chosen as Jesus’ disciples, and yet they don’t understand the kingdom they are part of, and they don’t give their king support when he needs it most; they flee instead. Peter boasts about how big and bold and brave he will be, and then collapses when questioned by a servant-girl.

The fact of it being only the women whom Mark shows us as being there at the cross, and only the women who go to anoint the body, also underlines how little the disciples were expecting the resurrection. Despite the fact that Jesus foretold it so clearly and repeatedly, it still came as a huge surprise to his closest followers. The men aren’t on the scene at all, and the women are grief-stricken. These women had followed Jesus ever since the beginning in Galilee. They had seen him as the Messiah, and now, like the apostles, their hopes were crushed. The apostles fled and scattered, but these women- maybe because they were more faithful, maybe because they had less to fear- hadn’t run and hidden themselves. And they saw him die, saw him buried, and were plainly not expecting him to walk out of the tomb three days later.

 

  1. Who was Joseph of Arimathea?

After Jesus has died, on Friday evening, a man names Joseph of Arimathea takes courage and asks Pilate if he can give burial to the body. He knows he needs to screw up his courage and ask now, or else it will be too late. The Jews reckon days from sundown to sundown, so Joseph is in a hurry because the Sabbath will begin in a few hours, and he doesn’t want the body to remain unburied until the Sunday. Although the Friday (being Passover) was a holy day already, it was a festival day and festival days seemed to have been viewed as less sacred than the weekly Sabbath. So Joseph had about three hours to get permission to take Jesus down, to get hold of a shroud, and to wrap the body and place it in his tomb. He had to make the crunch decision, or leave Jesus on the cross for days, against the prohibition of Deut 21:23..

Joseph of Arimathea was among those few followers of Jesus there at the cross. Either that or he had servants he could have sent to watch on his behalf. He knew that Jesus had died, so somebody who was hanging around watching must have told him. Who was this man? We learn a fair bit about him here. He was a member of “the council”. Since we are in Jerusalem, and since the only council in Marks’ narrative so far has been the Sanhedrin, we understand that Joseph was part of the Sanhedrin. And he was not just any old member of the Sanhedrin, but a prominent member, “respected”. The council has 70 members, just like Moses’ 70 elders of Israel, whom he took up Mt. Sinai (Ex 24). But like any group of people, some will be more respected than others. Their words will carry more weight. They are recognised big players. Joseph is important. He is one of a handful of people who could come to Pilate with this sort of unusual request, and actually have it granted. And he is wealthy, owning a big family tomb cut out of the rock (see Isa 22:16 for background on the sort of man who would have a tock tomb).

But more than that, we read that Joseph was “looking for the kingdom of God”. What exactly does that mean? In one sense, it is a phrase which could be used of any Jew, since all of them hoped for God’s intervention into their history to defeat their enemies and so forth. If a Jew thought at all about religious things, then he must have looked for the coming of God’s kingdom. But the phrase here is used to mark Joseph out from everyone else, so it can’t mean only that. It must mean something more. I should think it means that he really looked for God’s kingdom, and not just for something he had imagined and to which he gave the name “God’s kingdom”. You understand the difference? There are thousands of people- maybe even a majority of people- who, if you ask them “Do you believe in God?” say, “Well, there’s something up there”. But if you ask them about the God they believe in, it is obvious that their god is not the god of the Bible. Their God could be almost anything, but he’s probably a sort of vague power, who nudges things in the right direction, occasionally, on a whim, makes things to go in ther favour, and who isn’t too bothered about letting them do as they wish. In fact, strangely enough, their god agrees with them on almost everything. He shares all their opinions about Global Warming, and people being nice to each other, and what should be done about the homeless, and about how disgraceful it is that Mrs. Biggs down the road tries to force her beliefs onto other people. And if you think about it, you realise that if their god is defined at all, then he not quite like anyone else’s god in the way that they are not quite like anyone else. Because their god is made in their own image. They have dreamed up a god who is just the god they want. The Pharisees were like this. Their god was better defined, and you could say that they had one god in common, because they had the law and the prophets to draw upon. But the Pharisees who would have said “We’re looking for the kingdom of God”, weren’t really. They were looking for a kingdom of men; the kingdom they wanted, with themselves in charge.

Joseph was different. He looked for the kingdom as it really was and not as he fondly imagined it to be. Mark means that he was one of those to whom Jesus spoke blessings in his sermon from the mountain. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth… Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus was talking to those who really were looking for the kingdom, and telling them that now, blessing had come to them. So Joseph hungered and thirsted after righteousness. Nicodemus, Joseph’s his fellow Sanhedrin member, had been told that unless a man was born again, he could not see the kingdom of God.

Joseph and Nicodemus both seem to have been secret disciples. Born again, by the time of Jesus’ death, and able to see that the kingdom of God had arrived, but too timid to follow Jesus openly. They wanted something more than the Judaism of the Pharisees or the Sadducees. They could see that the God of their fathers was a God concerned for holiness, and his kingdom would be a place of justice and righteousness, a place where his people happily obeyed him, loving him with all their hearts- and they wanted that. Joseph looked around him and thought that although this was the promised land, it was a far cry from being happily under God’s righteous and benevolent rule. In effect, Joseph longed for the new covenant to come, and understood the nature of that covenant better than his compatriots. He longed for God to rend the heavens and come down and set up his throne in people’s hearts.

More even than that, for Mark, the “kingdom of God” is one and the same with the kingdom of Jesus. Joseph could see that Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom having come in himself was true (Matt 27:57, Jn 19:38). Mark doesn’t call him a disciple, and he hadn’t declared for Jesus openly, but he believed what the disciples believed.

 

  1. Why does Joseph need to “take courage”? What is brave about what he does?

Having been a secret disciple for some time, it is suprising that Joseph would reveal his loyalty now, now that Jesus has been crucified as a criminal! Up to this point, he has not wanted to be a full-on disciple. He was scared to follow Jesus openly. He had a lot to lose- position, power, friends, money, and he kept quiet about his beliefs. Maybe he had a more basic fear- he could see that if he followed Jesus, he might be next in line for death. He wouldn’t have approved of the council decision to try to execute Jesus (see also Lk 23:51), but we don’t hear about him kicking up a fuss over it. And it seems plausible that he wouldn’t have been on the guest list to be roused from bed to attend the illegal night time meeting which condemned Jesus. Political cliques back then worked the same way as they do now.

But now that Jesus had died, perversely Joseph seems to have realised how important he had been and wanted to honour him even after his humiliating death. So Joseph decided to take the plunge. He summoned his courage, and went to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, to give it an honourable burial. Often, the bodies of crucified criminals were left to be a spectacle on the cross for days, before being slung into a common grave. And it wasn’t uncommon for them just to be left up to rot or be eaten by birds and animals. In Roman law, corpses of criminals belong to the state and are not necessarily given decent burial, part of the point of crucifixion being to deter others. It depended on the magistrate- he could give or withhold permission for the body to be removed for burial. A request from the relatives would usually be granted, few governors being so high-handed as to refuse when the grieving relatives came to ask. But a major exception was for high treason, when it was usually denied on principle. There could be no ceremony or public mourning for a traitor.

But Jesus was to share a grave with the rich in his death, as Isaiah has prophesied (53:9). And Jewish law forbade the leaving of bodies hanging from trees overnight- (Deut 21:22)- it was unthinkable to a Jew that burial should be denied to anybody (also see II Sam 21:12-14). So just before the day of Preparation- Thursday sunset to Friday sunset- ended, and the Sabbath began, Joseph went to see Pilate.

Why was this was brave? Not because Pilate would be angry, but because it was a public action. Since Jesus had been crucified as a traitor to Rome, one may have thought on the surface that Pilate would be angry. But Joseph probably knows that Pilate didn’t really consider Jesus guilty, and only let him be crucified because he’d been backing into a corner and had to choose between condemning an innocent man and risking a public outcry and disturbance. Being the sort of amoral ruthless coward he was, he went with the latter. But he wouldn’t be personally affronted if somebody were to want to honour Jesus body with burial. He knew that Jesus wasn’t a criminal. His only concern was that this wasn’t some kind of a trick to rescue Jesus. If Jesus were to appear alive again in a few days and resume his teaching in the Temple, then Pilate would have a situation on his hands. Crucifixion usually took a few days, the criminal hovering between life and death for a long time. So Pilate sent for the centurion who had seen Jesus breathe his last, to confirm that Jospeh was telling the truth. Pilate was surprised to hear that Jesus was dead, but when that was established, he granted Joseph the body- another (tacit) admission that he didn’t think Jesus to be a dangerous criminal at all- for had Jesus really been a dangerous rebel leader, he’d almost certainly have been left up as a warning to other rebels.

It was brave because it would almost certainly be found out, and the rest of the Sanhedrin would not be happy about it. At the moment the Sanhedrin were rejoicing at Jesus’ death, one of their number was declaring his allegiance to the dead man. What made him show his hand now? Why abandon secrecy now, now that Jesus is dead? It seems like the worst possible time for it. But it shows that the death of Jesus had already begun to take effect. Not only had the centurion recognized that this was the son of God, a timid Jewish man was publicly taking a stand for the crucified savior. One explanation is that Joseph really does believe that God will raise Jesus from the dead. The decision was forced on him- he had to act quickly, or it would be too late, for the day was nearly over, and the Sabbath was about to begin.

Some people have heard about Jesus Christ, and they believe. They’ve read the Bible, and they know that the Bible is true. They believe, in Mark’s sense rather than the centurion’s sense, that Jesus is the Son of God. But they don’t want to stand up and be counted… at least not yet. They’ve too much to lose- or so they think. It takes commitment to be a Christian- and indeed it does. And they’re not ready to take that step. Joseph was like that. But he couldn’t stay a secret disciple for long, and neither can anyone else. The secrecy will kill the discipleship, or the discipleship will kill the secrecy. There comes a point when the secret disciple has to burn his boats. Maybe when others publicly reject Jesus, and force the disciple into the open. Maybe when the disciple realises once more Jesus’ significance, and summons up courage to step forward and be counted.

People say that faith is a deeply private matter. Well, Christianity is personal. But it is also public. You can’t truly believe that Jesus was the Son of God, and died for the sins of all who come to him, without giving up everything for him. It shows in the life. The Bible sometimes does give details of the conversions of individuals. Joseph is not one of those. We have details of Levi’s conversion in Mark, of Lydia and the Jailer in Philippi, of Saul’s remarkable and dramatic conversion. But there are plenty who appea as believers. And we know that they are believers because their lives tell us so. By their fruits shall you know them, said Jesus. And “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples- if you love one another. How people came to trust Jesus Christ in a way, doesn’t matter. It matters that they do trust, and therefore do obey. And anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame.

 

  1. Who is the young man in white by the tomb, and what is the significance of what he says?

The women, as we have said, come to the tomb first thing on Sunday morning, and they come expecting to find a sealed tomb with a dead body inside. They carry spices for the body, and they talk about how they hope somebody will be around to roll the stone away and let them go in. Joseph has buried Jesus in a hurry. John tells us that Nicodemus had come with spices before the burial, to be included with the body in the burial shroud (19:40), but the women don’t seem to have witnessed this, and so they come with their own spices early on the Sunday morning, thinking that the body had been buried unprepared.

Instead of a closed tomb and a body, they find an open tomb and a young man seated there. Is this an ordinary young man, one who has come to visit the tomb like the women, but arrived first and found it empty? Mark might call him a “young man”, but he is no human. Angels often appear as men, and are often described according to their appearance, even when the one giving the description knows exactly what they are (Gen 18:2; 19:5 etc.). His clothing is white like Jesus’ garb at the transfiguration (Mark 9:3, whiter than humanly possible, see also Rev 6:11; 7:9,13 for white clothing as a mark of the purity of heaven). Matthew identifies this figure in white at the tomb as an angel (28:3). Johns tell us that there were two of them, and that they were angels (John 20:10). Luke speaks of two “men” at the tomb (24:4) who are later identified as angels (24:23), and the same usage is found in Acts (1:10; 10:30). This young man, all in white, is a messenger from heaven.

If he is a messenger, what is his message? He gives them five short sharp sentences. He begins with reassurance, addressing their emotional state. They were afraid at the sight of him (v5), and he calms their fears (v6). They didn’t stay unafraid (v8), but this sort of reassurance is a commonplace of angelic appearances (Daniel 10:12,19; Matt 28:5; Lk 1:13,30; 2:10; Acts 27:24).

But the real substance of what he wants to say is that Jesus of Nazareth, whom they seek, is no longer here. He has risen. The tomb is empty, as they can see. Jesus breathed his last on the cross, and his corpse was taken down and buried. But his life has come back into his body, and Jesus has been raised. He is living and active once more, going ahead of his disciples into Galilee to meet with them there.

There is no description of the resurrection itself, either in Mark on any of the other Gospels. The Gospel narrative tells only of the discovery of the empty tomb, and the post-resurrection appearances. The actual resurrection happened in a sealed tomb, hidden from human eyes.

But, “He has risen”, is possibly the most important statement ever made. The resurrection changes everything. Jesus is alive. Death has no hold on him. He has defeated even death, the last enemy. When the women first heard it, nobody had even begun to work out the implications of this, and it has so many. The curse under which the earth has laboured so long is revoked for one man at least. He has overturned it. Now all joined to him, though they die, they shall live. The end of the story is in view, and more than that- is guaranteed. The resurrection is life and hope and certainty of the new heavens and the new earth, the home of righteousness.

The risen Jesus has a message for the disciples, and especially for broken Peter. He wants them to meet him in Galilee. This too is reassurance and hope. These disciples have all deserted their master, and Peter’s desertion has come after strong professions of loyalty even to death. But Jesus, through the angel, shows them that he knows their desertion is only temporary. They might have abandoned him to his death, but now that he is alive again, he will not abandon them. Rather, he wants them all, including Peter, to come and meet him. They too will be filled with new life and power.

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