How could Joseph of Arimathaea be a disciple of Jesus and, at the same time, a member of the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus?
Mark 15:43 and Luke 23:51 call Joseph of Arimathaea a “counselor … who waited for the kingdom of God” The Greek word for counselor is “bouleutes” which means “a senator or member of the Sanhedrin; the supreme council of the Jews.” He also “waited for the kingdom of God”, which means that he was looking for the Messiah.
Matthew adds that Joseph, “also himself was Jesus’ disciple” (Matt 27:57) and believed, as his friend Nicodemus did; that Jesus performed miracles and was sent from God. Because he was a disciple of Jesus, he expected that God’s kingdom would come through Jesus Christ.
Though Joseph of Arimathaea was a member of the Sanhedrin, he (… had not consented to the counsel and deed of them) (Luke 23: 51) He didn’t agree with the high priest Caiaphas’ conclusion, “that it was expedient that one man [Jesus] should die for the people.” (John 18:14) However when the Sanhedrin condemned Jesus, it was described as unanimous. “Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.” So, either Joseph was silent in not consenting to the condemnation, or he was absent from that specific assembly.
Luke adds that Joseph as an “honorable counselor”, which means he was “elegant, graceful, becoming in speech and manner, influential and respected by others.” Joseph had the respect of the Roman authorities, the members of the Sanhedrin as well as the society at large because of the good deeds that he did with his wealth, yet he was also a secret disciple of Jesus, which brought conflict into his life.
Why was Joseph a secret disciple?
John describes Joseph as “being a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (Jn 19:38). The word “Jews” refers specifically to the ruling members of the Sanhedrin and their strict followers. What was Joseph afraid the Sanhedrin would do to him if he openly professed Jesus?
As Jesus’ fame increased, the intolerance of the rulers of the Sanhedrin also increased. “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (Jn 12:42) To be expelled from the synagogue meant being scorned, shunned, and treated as an outcast by fellow Jews.
So, even though Joseph of Arimathaea waited the Kingdom of God and was a disciple of Jesus, he kept his beliefs to himself. Joseph was a respected pillar of the community, a man who had worked his lifetime to achieve what he had. To come out publicly as a disciple would have meant losing his position and his prestige and the destruction of the life that he and his family enjoyed. Joseph, was unwilling to profess Jesus openly and therefore he was a “secret” disciple because of his “fear of the Jews.” He “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.“
This is also why Nicodemus visited Jesus in the darkness of night. (John 3) Joseph and Nicodemus decided that it was too risky to publicly follow Jesus. Though they were disciples and believed that God was with Jesus (vs2), they were content to identify with Jesus privately in their own heart. Perhaps they reasoned that there would have been no advantage for them to risk ridicule and rejection and to tarnish their reputation. They were enjoying the best of both worlds.