In our Scripture for this week we run into two “secret disciples” of Jesus, a man named Nicodemus and another man named Joseph who was from Arimathea. I’ve read articles and sermons detailing the scandal of their secret allegiance to Jesus. Preachers quote Jesus to condemn Nicodemus and Joseph for their secrecy. One of the most popular passages is found in Matthew 10:32-33. Take a look at it with me.
32 “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. 33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 10:32-33 NIVO)
There it is, in black and white, as plain as the nose on your face. Nicodemus and Joseph failed to stand up and proclaim their love for Jesus from the rooftops. I wonder if John might have had these two men in mind when he wrote, in John 12:42-43, that “many among the leaders” of the people of Israel believed in Jesus, but wouldn’t confess their faith in Jesus because “they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:42-43).
I have to confess that when I first read our Scripture for this morning and learned about Joseph being a “secret disciple” I had the same thoughts as those who have labeled him a coward, weak, and more in love with his position and power than Jesus. As the week continued I’ve learned about brothers and sisters in Christ around the world who are living in conditions more closely aligned with Joseph than we are. I was reminded of our brothers and sisters in North Korea, Iran, China, and many other nations where to be a follower of Jesus is costly, even costing one their life.
On December 11, 2016, a bomb exploded in the main cathedral in Cairo, Egypt killing 26 people and injuring 50 more. Then, just one month ago, bombs exploded in two Coptic Orthodox churches in Egypt killing 40 and injuring more than 100 on Palm Sunday. ISIS claimed responsibility and sent out a threatening video stating that Coptic Christians were their “priority and preferred prey.” On Friday of this week ten masked gunmen dressed in military uniforms stopped three buses of Coptic Christians heading to St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery for a prayer retreat. The gunmen shot and killed 29 while wounding another 24 people.
I also read this week about the explosive growth of Christianity in Iran, in the underground church, by secret followers of Jesus. Iran’s Shi’a Muslim theocracy has made Christian house churches illegal and anyone who joins one of them will face the threat of imprisonment so the church has gone underground. There are some churches in Iran which are permitted, but they are closely watched and controlled by the government according to Iranian Christians.
Yousef Nadarkhani is a house church pastor who has been arrested many times. On May 13, 2016, Pastor Nadarkhani and three other men, all of them former Muslims who have converted to Christianity, were arrested. The three men were sentenced to 80 lashes for drinking alcohol. The alcohol they drank was Communion wine shared at their house church.
I could go on and on for a week sharing stories with you about our brothers and sisters around the world who love Jesus with all of their heart. They are worshiping Him in the shadows as part of the underground church, sharing their faith quietly, outside of the watchful eye of their oppressive governments. I share these stories with you to help us understand that the freedom we have is not the norm and it hasn’t been the norm for many of Jesus’ followers throughout time. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning and see what we can learn.
30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. 31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” 37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” 38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews. With Pilate’s permission, he came and took the body away. 39 He was accompanied by Nicodemus, the man who earlier had visited Jesus at night. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds. 40 Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen. This was in accordance with Jewish burial customs. 41 At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. 42 Because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and since the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. (John 19:30-42 NIVO)
There is so much in our Scripture for this morning that we could spend weeks taking a look at the details, but I want us to focus our time on Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. There is more to learn about these two men than what we have presented for us in these verses. John tells us Joseph was from Arimathea. John also tells us, “Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews.” We also learn that Joseph got permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body after He had died. With the help of his friend Nicodemus they wrapped Jesus’ body and put Him in a tomb. It’s interesting that Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four of the Gospels and if we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke alongside of John we can learn even more about Joseph. Matthew tells us he was rich (Matthew 27:57). Matthew also tells us that it was Joseph’s garden tomb, never before used, that he and Nicodemus used for Jesus’ body (Matthew 27:60). Mark tells us he was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, he was waiting on the kingdom of God, and that Joseph went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body (Mark 15:43). Luke tells us that Joseph was a “good and upright man,” and that he had not consented to the Sanhedrin’s decision to condemn Jesus (Luke 23:50-51).
Joseph wasn’t the only member of the Sanhedrin who took care of Jesus’ body after he had died. Nicodemus brought the myrrh and aloes, 75 pounds worth, to help prepare Jesus’ body. There are two other instances where Nicodemus appears in the Gospels. The first, John tells us, happened at night. Turn to John 3 with me and let’s refresh our memories.
1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council. 2 He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs you are doing if God were not with him.” 3 In reply Jesus declared, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” 4 “How can a man be born when he is old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely he cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb to be born!” 5 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit. 6 Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. 7 You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ (John 3:1-7 NIVO)
Nicodemus, as well as Joseph, were both members of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus, we are told, was also a Pharisee, like Paul, before he came to faith in Jesus. Did you notice how Nicodemus addressed Jesus? He called Him, “Rabbi.” Nicodemus acknowledged that Jesus was a teacher who had come from God. He had been watching Jesus, listening to Jesus, and he had concluded Jesus was a teacher who had been sent from God.
The next time we run into Nicodemus is in John 7:50-52. The Pharisees had evidently sent out temple guards to bring Jesus in, but they had failed to do so. When they were asked why they didn’t bring Jesus in, one of the temple guards said, “No one ever spoke the way this man does” (John 7:46 NIVO) The Pharisees were livid and I can only imagine the loud conversation that was taking place among those in the Sanhedrin. Then Nicodemus spoke up. Turn to John 7:50-52 with me and let’s read together.
50 Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus earlier and who was one of their own number, asked, 51 “Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee, too? Look into it, and you will find that a prophet does not come out of Galilee.” (John 7:50-52 NIVO)
And the last time we hear about Nicodemus is when he was carrying the myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus. It’s important for us to know that typically the Romans would leave the crucified bodies hanging on the crosses long after the person had died. Roman law did allow the relatives of the victim to claim the body of their loved one who had been crucified unless they were crucified for crimes against the Roman Empire. In that case, the body was left to be picked apart by vultures, to rot, and then thrown into a common grave. Jesus was charged with sedition, crimes against the Roman Empire, the most heinous of all crimes.
Dr. Bart Ehrman is professor at UNC at Chapel Hill. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Ehrman renounced his faith in Jesus, but it seems like all of the books he’s written are about Jesus. In his book, “Why Romans Crucified People,” he makes this statement about Jesus’ crucifixion.
The crucifixion of Jesus was a forceful and unmistakable demonstration of Roman power. They humiliated him, tortured him, nailed him to a cross so that he couldn’t raise a hand in his own defense, let alone overthrow the ruling Roman authority. It is what Romans did to insurrectionists and prospective insurrectionists, to anyone who opposed their power by proposing to set up their own kingdom. The humiliation and show of force was not limited to a six-hour (in Jesus’ case, somewhat unusually, if the Gospels can be trusted on this point) torture. To show what Roman power is, the body would be left on the cross, so everyone in that public place could see what happens to anyone who thinks they can cross the power of Rome. There was no quarter, no mercy, no sympathy. Instead, there was public humiliation and torture and the public display, for days, of the bodies of those who think that they will start their own kingdom. (Ehrman, Bart. Why Romans Crucified People.)
I share this with you to drive home the point that Jesus was the worst of all criminals, an insurrectionist, in the eyes of those who looked upon his lifeless body. Jesus’ own family never thought to ask for His body. Jesus’ disciples were nowhere to be found, except for John, and he didn’t ask for Jesus’ body. Out of the shadows stepped the secret disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Supreme Court of Israel, the most powerful body of Jews in all of Israel. Mark 15:43 tells us Joseph “went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body.” With such a severe crime on His record how could Pilate have released Jesus’ body to someone who wasn’t even part of His family? Well, I’m glad you asked. Remember, Pilate had said three times that Jesus was innocent, he could find no reason to charge Him. That, coupled with Joseph’s position as a member of the Sanhedrin, a wealthy and powerful man, must have led to Pilate’s release of Jesus’ body.
I’m sure you can easily understand that Joseph’s action posed an incredible risk for him. Joseph was from an insignificant Judean town that we don’t even know where it was located except that it was in Judea. He had studied hard, advanced through the ranks, and found himself seated with the 70 members of the Jewish Sanhedrin. Now, he was willing to risk it all for the lifeless body of Jesus. We have to remember, it was Jesus’ lifeless body Joseph went to claim. Joseph, Nicodemus, nor any of Jesus’ disciples had any hope that Jesus would actually rise from the dead. Joseph was so moved that he was now, following Jesus’ death, ready to come out from the shadows and risk it all. What was he risking you might ask? Well, he most certainly would have lost his prized seat on the Sanhedrin, he would have been ostracized from the synagogue, and his standing in society would have plunged like a rock. Joseph not only went to a Gentile, Pilate, for permission to take Jesus’ body, which would have made him unclean for Passover, but then he was so bold to lay Jesus’ body in his own family tomb. What could have moved Joseph to throw caution to the wind and take such an incredible risk? There were certainly no earthly rewards to be gained from his actions.
I have a theory I want to run by you to see if it makes any sense to you. Joseph was part of the Sanhedrin, those who had plotted and planned to have Jesus killed. Joseph was part of the inner-circle. He knew what they were doing and he knew it was wrong. He had not consented to the plan. Then he saw how his peers had purposefully worked the crowd to stir them into a frenzy so they would ask for the criminal Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. The final straw had to have been seeing Jesus hanging on the Cross after suffering such brutal treatment from the Romans. The Cross had to have affected Joseph in the same way it affected the Roman centurion who looked upon Jesus hanging on the Cross. We can read his words in Mark 15:39.
39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39 NIVO)
Surely Joseph and Nicodemus were affected in the same way. It’s like watching and hearing about some injustice that is taking place in society and we know it is wrong, but we know that from a distance because we don’t want to get involved. Then something happens and we cannot remain silent any longer. We have to speak up. The Cross drew Joseph from the shadows and caused him to risk it all for Jesus, even though Jesus was now dead. Pastor Spurgeon once wrote, “If the Cross does not bring a [person] out, what will? If the spectacle of dying love does not quicken us into courageous affection for him, what can?”
I want you to stop and think about something I’ve been thinking about this past week. We hear all of the time that the Bible was merely written by people, just another book like any other book. Well, if you or I were writing one of the Gospels for others to read, wouldn’t it be better if we had left the story of Joseph and Nicodemus out? Wouldn’t it have been better to say Peter, Philip, or Thomas showed great courage in asking Pilate for Jesus’ body? These were the guys who had followed Jesus for three years. They were the ones who would carry the Gospel to the world following the resurrection. It just would have read better, it would have been better PR if one of these guys had shown such courage wouldn’t it? It’s embarrassing that a member of the Sanhedrin, a man who had been a secret disciple, was the one who demonstrated such courage. By the way, where were Peter, Philip, and Thomas? Peter was still down in the dumps for denying Jesus at the most critical moment of His life. Philip and Thomas? Crickets. They had scattered. They had become secret disciples themselves.
Joseph threw caution to the wind and stepped out of the shadows knowing that he would lose everything that had been meaningful to him throughout his life. It reminds me of another prominent Jewish man. Paul wasn’t a man who hung out in the shadows. He was passionate about his faith as well as his opposition to Jesus and every one of His followers. Paul, or Saul, as he was called before he became a follower of Jesus, was a Pharisee. Not just a sit-in-the-back-pew-and-sleep-through-class Pharisee, but the head of his class Pharisee. After he became a follower of Jesus, he became the greatest missionary in the history of the world. He was writing to the believers in Philippi and warning them about the Judaizers, Jewish Christians who were telling the believers in Philippi they still had to follow Jewish law.
Then, in Philippians 3, Paul laid out his resume to say he had every Jewish credential those men did. He was “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (Philippians 3:5-6 NIVO) Now that’s a resume! But Paul followed his credentials with something far more important. In Philippians 3:7-9 he writes,
7 But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ– the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. (Philippians 3:7-9 NIVO)
Like Joseph from Arimathea, Paul came to the place in his life where those things that had meant so much to him in the past now meant absolutely nothing. The reason they lost their value was because his eyes had been opened to Jesus. It has been my prayer for you this week that your eyes will be opened to Jesus this very morning. What is it that is holding you back? Is it your status, your position, a relationship that you fear will go away if you come out from the shadows and truly surrender your heart, mind, and will to Jesus? I want to urge you my friend to look to the Cross. See the love He demonstrated in giving His life for you and for me. Won’t you open your heart to Jesus this morning?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
May 28, 2017