I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
Poem XXIX. Hab. ii. 14. For the Earth shall be filled, &c.
Augustus Toplady (1740–1778)
Bring thy kingdom, Lord, make haste,
Bring on the glorious day,
From the greatest to the least,
When all shall own thy sway:
When the convert world with grief,
Shall see the error of their ways,
Lay aside their unbelief,
And yield unto thy grace.
In thy gospel-chariot, Lord,
Drive through earth’s utmost bound;
spread the odour of thy word
Through all the nations round:
Fill the darken’d earth with Light,
Thine own victorious cause advance;
Take the heathen as the right
Of thine inheritance.
In our Day expose to view,
The standard of the lamb;
Bid the Nations flock thereto,
Who never knew thy name:
Let them quit the downward road,
Compell’d thy saying to receive;
Turn’d from Satan unto God,
With one consent believe.
—The Complete Works of Augustus Toplady (Sprinkle Publications, 1987).
After these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away His body. 39 Nicodemus, who had first come to Him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 Therefore because of the Jewish day of preparation, since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.
There is a peculiar interest attached to these five verses of Scripture. They introduce us to a stranger, of whom we never heard before. They bring in an old friend, whose name is known wherever the Bible is read. They describe the most important funeral that ever took place in this world. From each of these three points of interest we may learn a very profitable lesson.
We learn, for one thing, from these verses, that there are some true Christians in the world of whom very little is known. The case of Joseph of Arimathæa teaches this very plainly. Here is a man named among the friends of Christ, whose very name we never find elsewhere in the New Testament, and whose history, both before and after this crisis, is completely withheld from the Church. He comes forward to do honor to Christ, when the Apostles had forsaken Him and fled. He cares for Him and delights to do Him service, even when dead,—not because of any miracle which he saw Him do, but out of free and gratuitous love. He does not hesitate to confess himself one of Christ’s friends, at a time when Jews and Romans alike had condemned Him as a malefactor, and put Him to death. Surely the man who could do such things must have had strong faith! Can we wonder that, wherever the Gospel is preached, throughout the whole world, this pious action of Joseph is told of as a memorial of him?
Let us hope and believe that there are many Christians in every age, who, like Joseph, are the Lord’s hidden servants, unknown to the Church and the world, but well known to God. Even in Elijah’s time there were seven thousand in Israel who had never bowed the knee to Baal, although the desponding prophet knew nothing of it. Perhaps, at this very day, there are saints in the back streets of some of our great towns, or in the lanes of some of our country parishes, who make no noise in the world, and yet love Christ and are loved by Him. Ill-health, or poverty, or the daily cares of some laborious calling, render it impossible for them to come forward in public; and so they live and die comparatively unknown. Yet the last day may show an astonished world that some of these very people, like Joseph, honored Christ as much as any on earth, and that their names were written in heaven. After all, it is special circumstances that bring to the surface special Christians. It is not those who make the greatest show in the Church, who are always found the fastest friends of Christ.
We learn, for another thing, from these verses, that there are some servants of Christ whose latter end is better than their beginning. The case of Nicodemus teaches that lesson very plainly. The only man who dared to help Joseph in his holy work of burying our Lord, was one who at first “came to Jesus by night,” and was nothing better than an ignorant inquirer after truth. At a later period in our Lord’s ministry we find this same Nicodemus coming forward with somewhat more boldness, and raising in the Council of the Pharisees the question, “Does our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” (John vii. 51.) Finally, we see him in the passage before us, ministering to our Lord’s dead body, and not ashamed to take an active part in giving to the despised Nazarene an honorable burial. How great the contrast between the man who timidly crept into the Lord’s lodging to ask a question, and the man who brought a hundred pounds weight of myrrh and aloes to anoint His dead body! Yet it was the same Nicodemus. How great may be a man’s growth in grace, and faith, and knowledge, and courage, in the short space of three years.
We shall do well to store up these things in our minds, and to remember the case of Nicodemus, in forming our estimate of other people’s religion. We must not condemn others as graceless and godless, because they do not see the whole truth at once, and only reach decided Christianity by slow degrees. The Holy Ghost always leads believers to the same foundation truths, and into the same highway to heaven. In these there is invariable uniformity. But the Holy Ghost does not always lead believers through the same experience, or at the same rate of speed. In this there is much diversity in His operations. He that says conversion is a needless thing, and that an unconverted man may be saved, is undoubtedly under a strange delusion. But he that says that no one is converted except he becomes a full-blown and established Christian in a single day, is no less under a delusion. Let us not judge others rashly and hastily. Let us believe that a man’s beginnings in religion may be very small, and yet his latter end may greatly increase. Has a man real grace? Has he within him the genuine work of the Spirit? This is the grand question. If he has, we may safely hope that his grace will grow, and we should deal with him gently, and bear with him charitably, though at present he may be a mere babe in spiritual attainments. The life in a helpless infant is as real and true a thing as the life in a full-grown man: the difference is only one of degree. “Who hath despised the day of small things?” (Zech. iv. 10.) The very Christian who begins his religion with a timid night-visit, and an ignorant inquiry, may stand forward alone one day, and confess Christ boldly in the full light of the sun.
We learn, lastly, from these verses, that the burial of the dead is an act which God sanctions and approves. We need not doubt that this is part of the lesson which the passage before us was meant to convey to our minds. Of course, it supplies unanswerable evidence that our Lord really died, and afterwards really rose again; but it also teaches that, when the body of a Christian is dead, there is fitness and meetness in burying it with decent honor. It is not for nothing that the burials of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph, and Moses are carefully recorded in holy writ. It is not for nothing that we are told that John the Baptist was laid in a tomb; and that “devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.” (Acts viii. 2.) It is not for nothing that we are told so particularly about the burial of Christ.
The true Christian need never be ashamed of regarding a funeral with peculiar reverence and solemnity. It is the body, which may be the instrument of committing the greatest sins, or of bringing the greatest glory to God. It is the body, which the eternal Son of God honored by dwelling in it for thirty and three years, and finally dying in our stead. It is the body, with which He rose again and ascended up into heaven. It is the body, in which He sits at the right hand of God, and represents us before the Father, as our Advocate and Priest. It is the body, which is now the temple of the Holy Ghost, while the believer lives. It is the body, which will rise again, when the last trumpet sounds, and, re-united to the soul, will live in heaven to all eternity. Surely, in the face of such facts as these, we never need suppose that reverence bestowed on the burial of the body is reverence thrown away.
Let us leave the subject with one word of caution. Let us take care that we do not regard a sumptuous funeral as an atonement for a life wasted in carelessness and sin. We may bury a man in the most expensive style, and spend hundreds of pounds in mourning. We may place over his grave a costly marble stone, and inscribe on it a flattering epitaph. But all this will not save our souls or his. The turning point at the last day will not be how we are buried, but whether we were “buried with Christ,” and repented and believed. (Rom. vi. 4.) Better a thousand times to die the death of the righteous, have a lowly grave and a pauper’s funeral, than to die graceless, and lie under a marble tomb!
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.