We all have criteria which we use to measure other professing Christians. Some of these are clearly scriptural, while others are based on conclusions which we only think come from the Bible. I am obviously more spiritual than you because I am wearing a tie this evening while you are not. On the other hand, we all know a brother who declares that the opposite is true. But the fact is that wearing, nor not wearing a tie, has nothing to do with a man’s spirituality. Sometimes we are totally accurate in our assessment that someone is not the kind of Christian that the world needs and Christ wants. But those same people can later become great servants of the Lord, and we have to change our opinion. Sadly, some of us are very slow to correct our earlier assessment. Like those early Christians who refused to give converted Saul of Tarsus the right hand of fellowship. As we look at, and sometimes condemn others, we need to see ourselves as others might see us. WE are sound in the faith and have our lives rooted in righteousness. But can we become stale and essentially useless in the fight for the glory of the Lord? O, our doctrine may continue to be scriptural, and we may pray aright, but we no longer actually DO anything for the Lord. Are WE the serviceable saints that we once were? Nothing more clearly illustrates these questions like Joseph and Nicodemus in the light of the 12 disciples.
The cross is the only context in which we read of Joseph of Arimathaea. He is mentioned briefly in all four gospels, with bits of information given to us in each of them. It appears that he was a man of influence, enabling him to walk right in to speak to Pilate. The Bible suggests that he was a member of the Sanhedrin. There is also some suggestion that he had wealth, because not everyone could afford their own personal or family tomb. How and when he first met Christ Jesus is being left to Heaven for our discovery. John tells us he was a secret disciple “for fear of the Jews.” But as noted by Luke, although he was on the council, he did not agree with the decision to send Christ to the cross.
As for Nicodemus, we met this man back in John 3. He was one of the rulers of the Jews – again, that probably means he was a member of the Sanhedrin. He came to Christ looking for a blessing from God. And he was given a lesson on the nature of salvation, some of which we have recorded in that chapter. We are not told whether or not the man went away rejoicing in the grace of God, if he was angry, if he was dumbstruck or confused. It appears that at some point, he was born again by the grace of God. But like Joseph, there is no indication that he came out to boldly declare his allegiance to Christ Jesus. He too, apparently, was a “secret disciple.” At some point, perhaps in Jesus’ trial, these men came to realize that they were Christian brothers.
Let’s use these men as illustrations of weak discipleship – very weak discipleship.
The Bible calls them “disciples,” but until now they didn’t display much evidence. What kept them from openly avowing the Messiah? What kept them from forsaking all to follow Christ? John tells us that it was fear, but exactly what form that fear took, we can only surmise. Did they fear what their families might say? Did they fear their loss of position in society and what wealth they might lose? We remember that the priests had attempted to ban people from the temple if they made professions of faith in Christ. John says that Joseph feared – not the Romans – but the Jews. But what was the likelihood that he would have been beaten or murdered? It was not likely – at least as yet.
Our problems today are not quite the same as those of Jerusalem two thousand years ago. But it seems to me that there are parallels. You and I have no problem claiming to be “Christians,” because this is a “Christian country.” Most of our neighbors are Catholics, Christian Protestants, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh day Adventists or whatever. Even if we have a Buddhist or Muslim acquaintance, he is outnumbered by the professed “Christians”. He is not going to criticize us for our profession of Christ – he is not going to persecute us. Even ninety percent of the atheists are quite content to let us foolishly believe in a long-dead Saviour. In Nicodemus’ day, it was acceptable to say that someone believed in the coming Messiah. Perhaps not all the Sadducees would agree, but there were enough Pharisees around to silence them. It was fine to being either a Sadducee or a Pharisee. It was expected that everyone was one or the other. Ah, but let’s not get more specific than that. You’d better not say that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah. You’d better not forsake your synagogue to begin walking the dusty roads of Galilee, listening to the words of this weird rabbi. That is going a bit too far. It is one thing to be a Christian, but it’s another to be a Sovereign grace, Landmark Baptist.
As we are all well aware, it is perfectly permissible to be a Christian on Sunday – but on Monday? At home we may be believers, but in the Sanhedrin the rules are more strict, so we need to stay quiet. It is fine to tell your children that homosexuality is unacceptable behavior, but you had better be ready to bake a wedding cake if that homosexual couple demands it. There are dozens of social issues, intellectual ideas, and religious doctrines about which we are supposed to tremble before the Sanhedrin of our society. And sadly, most professing Christians are PC and fearful to speak up. Last week, I mentioned the universal misunderstanding and praise given to the New England Puritans. I wonder if I would have been so bold with my cousin, if I hadn’t thought he already knew the truth? I didn’t bring it up when I talked to the pastor of that church after the performance. Was my reticence just politeness, convenience or was it fearfulness? A few weeks ago, there was a stamp show in Spokane, and I was there for an hour or so. When I came in the door, one of the more obnoxious members of our club saw me and started teasing me about spending money. For some reason he thought that I worked for the Post Office, and in a very loud voice said that I should spend some of my big government pay check. Because of the noise in the room, I had to raise my voice to answer him. I told him loudly enough to be heard for several feet in all directions, that – “I am a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.” I said that I didn’t have a lot of money to spend, but I was expecting a pretty good retirement. Why is it that I immediately felt foolish and just a bit embarrassed? Was it a little touch of Arimathianism?
How often do you dare to be singular? Are you willing to be the only genuine Baptist in the room, or do you hide behind the Protestants? Can you tell the blasphemer that you are offended by his words? In what manner will you speak to him? Do you have to be really angry before you say anything at all? What if he is a person whose business or friendship you need for some reason? Look at the Lord Jesus, hanging there upon the cross. Listen to the verbal abuse thrown against Him. He accepted it all on our behalf, but that doesn’t exclude us from accepting our fair share. Now that burly soldier is coming to break His legs. What is he carrying? Is it more ridicule? No sir, it is a lot more substantial than that. “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names, slander, ridicule and profanity cannot hurt me.” Why do we fear it so?
We cannot condone the former silence of these two men. But at the same time we cannot condemn them too severely because in the process we condemn ourselves.
Can we picture any of the miseries of being secret disciples?
We have no idea when it was that Joseph came to know the Lord, but with Nicodemus it is another matter. John chapter 3 comes before chapter 5 and chapter 10. Nicodumus had the opportunity to serve the Lord for perhaps three years before Jesus’ death. How much had these men lost during those hidden months? How much communion? How many wonderful Bible lessons? How much simple fellowship? Joy? What stories they might have had to share with their grandchildren, IF they had walked with the Lord. They threw it all away because of their fear of a few gray-bearded Pharisees.
The secret disciple limits his communion with the Lord. For what reason did Christ establish His church? Years ago I preached a short series of messages in an attempt to answer that question. The importance of the Lord’s church is huge. To ignore the blessings of fellowship with Christ in the institution which He established for that purpose is detrimental to the soul. Most Christians get 90% of their Bible knowledge by listening to Biblical teaching and preaching. The Church of Christ is “the pillar and ground of truth” – it is also the herald and sound system of the truth. Mature in age and earthly position, Joseph and Nicodumus were nevertheless babes in the faith, because they chose to remain secret disciples.
We aren’t told anything about the families of these two men. But it’s reasonable to assume that they were married and they probably had children. What did their families know of Christ through the secret discipleship of these men? Had any of their closer loved ones died since John chapter 3? Were they able to share the gospel message – the Messianic message – with any in their family? Would anyone have listened to them, since they had so little evidence of Christ in their lives? And if they had suffered the loss of loved ones, was their comfort confined to Jewish sources or social supporters? What a sad state.
But wait, don’t we see a change in them?
Can we say that these men learned to be ashamed of their former cowardice? Their silent tongues have been loosened and they now are willing to be bold for Christ. Joseph boldly marches up to the palace of Pilate, demanding an audience with the Romans. Nicodumus is right there when he comes out. What brought about this change in these men? Did they feel any sense of responsibility for the death of Christ? What brought about this change in their lives now?
Isn’t the answer – the death of Christ? The sight of the cross turns the coward into a brave man. Someone might wonder why I am so minutely dissecting Matthew 27 and the other related chapters. The answer is that there is power contained in these words, which cannot found in any other place – even within the pages of the Word of God. For those who are listening – truly listening with open hearts, this is a life changing portion of God’s word – even for those who already profess to be Christians.
To watch the Saviour courageously die should drive away our cowardice. To see Him, high and lifted up, not only gives us something / someone in whom to TRUST, but it also gives us someone to LOVE. When we bring the cooling ember of our hearts into closer proximity to the blazing glory of Christ’s love, we should be reignited ourselves.
Why had Joseph been semi-silent for all those months? Could part of the problem been selfish greed – an unwillingness to relinquish position, power, money? The death of Christ taught the man about the importance of surrender and sacrifice. Did he understand or expect the resurrection of Christ? I rather doubt it, because of his lack of New Testament training. So when he offered his own newly-hewn tomb, there was some degree of sacrifice involved. “Here Lord, I give myself away; ‘Tis all that I can do.” If openly following Christ involves sacrifice those sacrifices will be sweet. Joseph may have given up a spot in his tomb for Christ, but when it becomes his turn to be laid down in there, who will he be with? Christ Jesus.
Now, I’ll close by returning to the beginning of the message. By what measure do you judge the spirituality of others? I can just hear Peter, for example, railing on the disciples at the periphery of Christianity, refusing to follow Christ. “Then answered Peter and said unto him, Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore?” But where is Peter while Christ is breathing out His last? Where is Peter when the body of the Lord is being taken down? Here I see “secret disciples” stepping forward, where the formerly forward disciples, were still in hiding. I am not praising or encouraging Christian laxity, but I’m not encouraging blatant condemnation either. “Let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; (for he is faithful that promised;) And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching.”