Secret Disciples?

After the death of Jesus on the cross, we read about two individuals who apparently were “secret disciples” of Christ (John 19:38-42). The Apostle John describes Joseph of Arimathea as a “disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews.” Nicodemus is also mentioned, and John can’t help but remind his readers that it was this man who had “come to Jesus by night” (John 3:2). Both of these men were part of the ruling body of Israel known as the Sanhedrin. They were most likely wealthy men who held positions of power and prestige. Up to the crucifixion of Christ, it appears that they were living in the shadows, afraid to make their commitment to Christ known publicly for fear of ridicule and most likely the loss of position.

But at the cross and death of Jesus, it seems clear that John had the intention of showing that while these men may have been “secret disciples” in the past, they were now both public disciples and were now unafraid to come out into the open. Both of the men together went to great efforts to care for the body of Jesus. Joseph purposefully made a request to Pilate to take the body away and bury him, which was typically not allowed according to Roman custom. This request would have certainly made Joseph associated with Jesus and His movement. Both men were active in taking the body of Jesus down from the cross. Furthermore, both men spent a great deal of their own money to care for the body of Jesus. Nicodemus bought one hundred pounds of spices to use at the burial. Joseph donated his own tomb for Jesus’ burial (Matt 27:60). These were definitely not activities sanctioned by the Sanhedrin. These were the actions of those who had a love and compassion for Jesus. These were the actions of men who had finally and decisively made a choice to associate with Jesus and risk the danger of losing their powerful and prestigious positions. These were the actions of “public disciples.”

Secret Discipleship is an Oxymoron
It is really oxymoronic to say that someone could be a “secret disciple” of Jesus Christ. Certainly, there are those Christians who are genuinely born again, but their faith is weak. Their weak faith in Christ and the Word of God prevents them from coming out of the shadows, and loosing their locked lips in public. But no true Christian should remain in such an immature state. When the Holy Spirit entered the Apostles on the day of Pentecost, they all began preaching the Gospel with incredible boldness (Acts 2:14, 4:31). Becoming witnesses of the resurrection and the empowerment of the Spirit radically transformed them all. This should also be true of every believer. The Apostle Paul encouraged young Timothy that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7).

In fact, the most dangerous place for any Christian to be is a place of fearfulness and possibly embarrassment of Jesus. A requirement for being a disciple of Jesus is that one would “deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow” Christ (Luke 9:23, 14:27). One can hardly say that they are a disciple of Jesus if they are not willing to openly follow Christ. The Apostle Paul declares very clearly that for someone to be saved, they must be willing to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised [Jesus] from the dead” (Rom 10:9-10). There must be a willingness to confess Jesus before men. This is why public baptism is so important. It is one way that the Church recognizes those who are willing to publicly identify with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. While it is clear that baptism does not save anyone, the refusal to be baptized publicly may very well indicate a person’s true heart condition as being unregenerate. Following Jesus requires denying oneself and publicly identifying with Christ. Jesus warned in Matthew 10:32-33, “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”

The Importance of Having a Friend
It is important to note that Joseph and Nicodemus became public disciples together. This shouldn’t be ignored. It is important to have the fellowship of another believer. Jesus Himself knew the weakness of humanity, and as a result sent out His disciples into the world not as lone rangers, but He sent them out “two by two” (Mark 6:7, Luke 10:1). This reality should not be underestimated. It is vitally important to have a companion who can stand alongside to give each other courage and boldness. While some may have an unusual strength to stand alone, most need others to uphold them. Pray that God would give you a friend who would stand with you in public!

Every Christian should strive to make Jesus known to the people who are in their lives. We should pray that the Lord would unlock our lips so that we can freely speak of Jesus who we love. If many who surround us on regular basis are not aware that we are Christians, then something is radically wrong – not with them, but with us. We should check our hearts to see if we are being controlled by fear in some way. Instead of being fearful, we must learn to trust the Lord with our lives. It is inevitable that we will be mistreated in this world. We should expect the world to hate us and ridicule us (John 15:18-25). Like the Apostle Paul, we say, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:16).

Practical Ways to Go Public
Maybe you are struggling with ways to “go public,” as it were, with your faith in Christ. I would recommend that you pray and ask the Lord to give you opportunities to speak about Jesus. If you are struggling, here are a few ways to begin breaking the ice. Notice that all of these suggestions are really indirect methods.

  • When you hear about difficulties in the lives of others, offer to pray with them not just for them. Then pray in that moment out loud in Jesus’ name for them and begin a conversation with them about their soul’s condition.
  • Ask others what they are going to do over the weekend. When they ask you, tell them that you are going to be worshiping Jesus on Sunday and invite them to attend with you.
  • When difficult topics come up, be ready to give a biblical response (1 Pet 3:15). Quote Scripture in answer to their questions.
  • When tragedies arise (i.e. Kobe Bryant dies in a helicopter crash), take the opportunity to speak about death to those who are talking about it.

These are just a few ways to slowly become public with your faith. Being public with your faith doesn’t mean that you have to stand on the corner of your desk and begin preaching. It does mean however, that you realize that you have a mission (2 Cor 5:11-21) and you are willing to be involved even if that means that you will be ridiculed. And remember that “going public” is a lifetime activity. Every day we should look for opportunities to make Christ known to those who are lost and on their way to an everlasting separation from Christ in hell. Like the early Apostles, we cannot remain silent! Instead we must be compelled to tell what we have “seen and heard” (Acts 4:20).