Secret Believers

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : John 19:38-42

After this [that is, after the death of Jesus] Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him leave. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus also, who had at first come to him by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds’ weight. They took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.

John 19:38-42 rsv

This is a story about two men: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Neither is mentioned often in the Gospels and only in John 19 do they appear together. But they have several striking things in common.


First is their fearfulness. Nicodemus, you may remember, was a ruler of the Jews who, early in Jesus’ ministry, showed great interest in the Lord and His teaching. He said to Him once, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no man can do these miracles that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Quite an affirmation for an elder statesman in Israel to give a young, unlettered visitor from Nazareth. Nicodemus was himself a member of the Sanhedrin, a respected leader among the people, but here he is honoring Jesus as a God-sent teacher, in whom the Almighty is evidently at work.

But the Gospel writer twice makes special mention of the fact that Nicodemus came to visit Jesus at night. The clear implication seems to be that the ruler wanted his visit to remain a secret. He was reluctant for others to know that he had taken such interest in the controversial teacher from Galilee. He had respect for Jesus, admiration for Him. He even felt a kind of awe at His ministry, but he was not willing to risk open identification with Him. If he was a believer at this point, he was definitely a secret believer.

In this respect, Nicodemus was very much like the other man, Joseph of Arimathea. We don’t know a great deal about Joseph except for the little town from which he came, the note that he was wealthy, that he served on the Sanhedrin, and was a reverent man living in the expectation of God’s kingdom. It was said of him that he was a disciple of Jesus, “but secretly, for fear of the Jews.”

Joseph’s weakness here is clearly named. He believes in Jesus; he has become one of His disciples, but he hasn’t let anyone know about it. Why? For fear of his countrymen. What was that fear? Perhaps he was afraid he would lose his position on the Sanhedrin if his allegiance to Jesus became known. Perhaps he was afraid even of being expelled from the synagogue. Maybe he shrank from the scorn that might have been heaped upon him by those who hated Jesus. He didn’t want to be laughed at by those who held the Nazarene in contempt. Perhaps it was simply the dread of standing alone, owning an unpopular cause, siding with someone despised. At any rate, open allegiance to Jesus was more than Joseph could manage.

What do you think about men like Nicodemus and Joseph? I’ve sometimes heard them roundly condemned, held up to contempt as cowards. But I don’t sense an indictment upon these two in what is said about them in the Gospels. Their weakness is frankly exposed, but they are not viewed with scorn. I, for one, cannot look on them in that way. Maybe it says something about my own weakness and lack of fortitude, but I can’t be sure that I would have done any better had I been in their place, feeling the pressures they felt. Someone has said that, “No man can answer for his courage who has never been in danger.” Who can say that he, had he been serving on the Sanhedrin at that time, would have stood against the rest in defending Jesus?

In our ministry at Words of HOPE, we beam the gospel into many parts of the world where it is difficult and dangerous to confess Christ as Lord and Savior. I heard the other day of a listener who had written several times in response to our Arabic broadcasts. The young man’s father discovered what he had been doing, beat him unmercifully and threatened to kill him if he wrote again. But the young man wrote anyway, asking that subsequent literature be sent to a different address. He’s trying to remain a secret believer but he’s risking his life even at that. What if professing Jesus meant for you to be disowned by your family, rejected by your culture, subjected to abuse, imprisonment and possible death? Would you let it be known that you are a Christian or would you remain a secret believer?

But far more important than our estimates of the situation, how does Jesus see it? We know about His words that whoever will confess Him before men, He will confess before His Father in heaven, and whoever will deny Him before men He also will deny. But what of those who neither confess nor deny, who are His followers incognito? Does He reject them, disown them? What do you think?

I see Jesus coming to one of His followers, Simon Peter, a man who had denied three times publicly that he even knew his Master. The Lord gives this man another chance to profess his faith and devotion. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Apparently, there is forgiveness and restoration even for those who deny Jesus, if they don’t persist in that denial, if they come back. The Lord surely looks on the heart. He knows if there is a desire there to name His name.

It would be grand if all who come to faith in Jesus would boldly proclaim that allegiance, no matter what the cost. And many, praise God, have done that. We honor their memory. But for those who haven’t quite been able to do that yet, let’s at least reserve judgment. Let’s not put them down; let’s not rule them out, especially when we remember Joseph and Nicodemus.


Actually, before the events we read about today, both men had taken some kind of stand. There was a time, you remember, when the chief priests and Pharisees had decided to arrest Jesus and sent out officers to bring Him in. When they came back empty-handed, the leaders asked, “Why did you not bring him?” The officers answered, “No man ever spoke like this man!” The Pharisees then inquired, “Are you led astray, you also? Have any of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, who do not know the law, are accursed” (John 7:45-49). Then, surprisingly, the secret believer Nicodemus spoke up. “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (John 7:51). Nicodemus was scorned at that point and his bid for fairness was rejected. But he said to him, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and you will see that no prophet is to rise from Galilee” (John 7:52). “Nicodemus,” they seemed to say, “are you on this man’s side? You ought to know better.” We know nothing more about that interchange but we are sure that on this occasion Nicodemus spoke up in defense of Jesus. We can call his question feeble, oblique, and low-risk, but it was something. He at least put in a plea for open-mindedness toward Jesus and His claims.

And Joseph, bless him, did something like that too. Luke tells us that when the Sanhedrin had voted to put Jesus to death, Joseph of Arimathea had not “consented to their purpose and deed.” We don’t read that he registered a negative vote but at least he didn’t go along with the ugly thing they wanted to do. Again, that wasn’t a fearless crusade, a ringing word of protest, but it was something. He wouldn’t vote against his Master.

Now again, some of the books I read and some of the sermons I hear tend to make light of these gestures. They focus on what Nicodemus and Joseph did not do. They blame them for faint-heartedness. Obviously, they have a point. Who can deny that these men might have done more? But it seems to me unbecoming and unkind to deprecate what they did. We are urged in Scripture not to despise the day of small things, not to break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax. Not everyone can play the hero and risk all on one confrontation. I feel thankful also for those who with soft voices and timely silences show that they believe and care. I see in men like Joseph and Nicodemus something wonderful and promising. They’re not all they ought to be yet, nor all they want to be, but they’re on the way. You have the feeling that “down the line” they’re going to really come through.


And in the events we read about today, that’s exactly what happened. These two Sanhedrin members, both of whom had been berated for their cowardice, proved braver than the most loyal of the twelve. Where were Peter and Andrew, James and John after the death of Jesus? We don’t know, but the first we learn of them afterwards is that they are huddled together in hiding, locked in an upper room for fear of the Jews. But strangely, Nicodemus and Joseph seem at this point to have gotten over all their fears. Joseph, imagine this, goes right to Pilate, the Roman governor, and asks for custody of Jesus’ body. Now, remember, this had been a very controversial case, edged with political overtones, burning with racial and religious animosities. But Joseph wants to take the body of Jesus down. The Romans are going to know about this. The Sanhedrin will surely be aware of what’s happened. All the enemies of Jesus will know that Joseph has done for Him the service of a friend. But he doesn’t seem to care about that any more. He has loved this man Jesus, if only from afar, and wants Him to have a decent burial. Nothing else matters to him now. He’s going to do it, no matter what all the world may think. Isn’t that magnificent?

But there’s more. Joseph happens to own a burial place, a newly hewn tomb in the rock, right in the vicinity of Golgotha. It’s a sepulcher that Joseph has prepared for his own use. No one has ever been buried there. Joseph wants to put the body of his master in his own tomb. That’s a token of great courage, respect and devotion – perhaps of even more. Maybe Joseph is saying by that action – better than he knows – “Here is One who died in my place.” People can call this man a coward, if they will, but he’s on my list of real heroes.

And what about Nicodemus? Do you know what he did? He went with Joseph to take the body of Jesus down, brought with him a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes, fragrant materials to be enclosed in the linens wrapped around Jesus’ body. What’s striking here is the amount he brought. A little of that goes a long way. This was an enormous provision. It seems like an extravagant act of devotion, or more deeply, the kind of thing that would only be done for a king. Maybe Nicodemus was realizing now that this Jesus had been more than a teacher come from God, that the inscription on His cross had spoken the truth. He was of all God’s people, the rightful king. And so they did it, these two secret believers, Nicodemus and Joseph, the beautiful deed. They cared for the body of Jesus tenderly, reverently, and laid Him in a brand new tomb.

What made the difference, do you suppose? What changed these somewhat timid disciples into men of such open and touching allegiance to Jesus? It was without doubt His crucifixion. Maybe they watched it. Maybe they stood there silent and weeping while others on the high court mocked the suffering One and roared with laughter. Maybe they heard Him say, “Father, forgive them.” Maybe in His mortal agony He looked upon them. We don’t know. But something of His self-giving love had won their hearts and freed them from their fears. They were secret believers no longer. Everyone knew now just where they stood.

My task today, and that of any preacher of the good news, is to get you to look where they looked, to behold the crucified One. Oh, realize today that what happened there was more than a barbarous act of human cruelty. It was that. But it was also the most marvelous sign imaginable of God’s love for us. If you will believe in this Jesus, crucified and now risen for you, if you will remember how much He gave and suffered on your behalf, then maybe it can happen for you and me as it did for Joseph and Nicodemus. We unlikely disciples may yet find the courage to be secret believers no longer but out and out for Christ. Oh, may it be so!

Let us pray: Father, we thank You for Jesus Christ, incarnate, crucified, risen for us, for all that He gave and suffered so that we may have life. May that encourage us to be open and courageous in our testimony to Him and His salvation. Amen.