This Week’s sermon is called Secret Disciples: Causes and Cure, and is based on John 19:38-42. Following a two week hiatus from John to look at our faith verses for the summer, Romans 3:20-27, we are back this week to look at the burial of Jesus from this passage. Here is the text for Sunday, from the ESV:
38 After these things 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 permission. So he came and took away his body.
39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight.
40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths 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 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
As I look at this passage, I see three primary reasons why John wrote it as he did:
1. John wanted to establish that Jesus was fully dead and was put into the tomb in such a state, perhaps to answer developing docetism and gnosticism in the early church.
2. John wanted to show how Jesus continued to fulfill prophecy even in His burial (Isaiah 53:9; Psalm 16:10).
3. John wanted to highlight the actions of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus and show how the cross moved them from being secret disciples to being willing to go to Pilate for the body of Jesus.
I could have comfortably gone in any of these three directions in the sermon, but since I had covered the themes in 1 and 2 in previous sermons from John 19, I thought it would be best to focus on the issue of secret discipleship and consider it from this passage, bringing in other relevant texts from John and the other Gospels. So I am planning to briefly touch on 1 and 2 in the sermon but spend most of the time on 3.
Issues Related to the Text
Were Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea true followers of Jesus?
The text is clear that Joseph was, though secretly for fear of the Jews. The text is less clear about Nicodemus, though by his actions he shows obvious allegiance to Jesus. We see Nicodemus three times in John: in chapter 3 seeking to understand Jesus, in chapter 7 pleading with the religious leaders to give Jesus a fair hearing, and in our present text. There seems to be some movement in his life from seeker to believer, but there is not enough information to say with absolute certainty. It is certainly possible that he and Joseph were included in the number of leaders in 12:42-43 who were secret believers.
Were Joseph and Nicodemus wrong for their secret discipleship?
I would argue from the text that Joseph and Nicodemus were wrong because they were acting out of fear of man (19:38; 12:42-43). Now it would not have been easy for them to be public in their allegiance to Jesus. Perhaps they stood to lose more than most of the other disciples, yet Jesus Himself made it very clear that there was a great cost in following Him. For a time, these two were not willing to pay that cost. Finally, and thankfully, they come out of the shadows after Jesus’ death to give Him a proper burial.
Is There Ever a Time When Secret Discipleship is Appropriate?
I would make a distinction between secret discipleship and wise discipleship. In some places in the world, a person can be put to death for being a Christian. In these cases there may be appropriate reasons to “go underground” and keep our discipleship somewhat secret. On the other hand, we may at some point be led to face prison or death for the sake of Christ. Even if we are underground for some reason, I still don’t think in most cases there is a place for a secret disciple, in the sense that we are not joining with other believers in any meaningful sense. There may be exceptional cases but they are exceedingly rare and normally temporary.
Certainly in America there is no virtually place for secret discipleship. To not publicly live for Jesus because someone might make fun of us or think us narrow-minded is a shame and shows how little we care for God’s glory and how much we care for our own reputations.