Wednesday, March 09, 2016

No More Secrets! (John 19:38-42)


A popular theme in literature and movies is that of the person with a secret identity. Clark Kent is the unassuming journalist, until a crisis arises and he whisks into a phone booth to become Superman. By day, Bruce Wayne is an eccentric billionaire; but by night he is Batman, the clandestine warrior for justice. Other examples abound, and I am sure we could all name plenty. The secret identity, however, is not limited to realms of fantasy and fiction. All around us everyday, we are unknowingly surrounded by some who maintain their secret identity at great lengths. Unlike many in our stories of crime-fighting heroes, however, these never let down the masquerade and show off their true identity. We can respect those like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne who rise to the occasion and demonstrate great ability in a moment of crisis. But what of those who never rise to the occasion? What would we think of Clark Kent if Superman never showed up to save the day? What would we think of Bruce Wayne if he turned a blind eye to injustice? Yet, this is exactly how many of the real-life examples of those with secret identities conduct themselves. In a world that is perishing in sin and shame, there are far too many Christians who are content to keep their identity as followers of Jesus a secret and never step up to be a voice and agent of God in a world gone haywire. Maybe you know some of them. Maybe you are one of them. We meet two such individuals in our text today.

Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned in all four Gospels. In all four Gospels, he is mentioned only in connection with the burial of Jesus. From the information that is imparted in the four Gospels, we know this much about him: he was from the Jewish city of Arimathea (Lk 23:51), but the exact location of that city is not certain); he was rich (Mt 27:57); he was a prominent member of the Council, that is, the Jewish Sanhedrin – the ruling body of Israel (Mk 15:43). In addition to these details, Luke tells us that he was a good and righteous man (23:50). These words likely mean that, contrary to many of his colleagues among the religious leadership of Israel, Joseph’s faith in God was genuine, and his piety was heartfelt, exceeding the ritualistic external charade of others. It is probably for that reason that Luke tells us that he had not consented to the plan and action of the Pharisees regarding the crucifixion of Jesus (Lk 23:50). Luke and Mark tell us that he “was waiting for the kingdom of God” (Lk 23:51; Mk 15:43). There were those in Israel who rightly understood the prophecies and promises of the Old Testament and who were eagerly awaiting the salvation that the Lord God had promised to bring. Joseph of Arimathea was one of them.

Concerning Nicodemus, outside of the Gospel According to John, nothing more is known of him. He must have made quite an impression upon John, for he mentions him three times. We meet him in John 3 when he came to Jesus by night to converse with Him. There, Nicodemus is described as “a man of the Pharisees,” and “a ruler of the Jews” (3:1). Jesus called him “the teacher of Israel” (3:9). Jesus spoke at length with him of the need to be born again. All of the ritualistic religiosity of his traditions could not bring him one step closer to heaven. If one were to see and enter the Kingdom of God, a new birth by the Spirit is necessary (3:3-8). That new birth, Jesus said, would come about through the gift of God’s only begotten Son (3:16), who must be lifted up even as Moses had lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (3:14). Jesus assured Nicodemus that those who believed in God’s Son by faith would be saved and have eternal life (3:15-18). Nothing is recorded of Nicodemus’s response to Jesus’ words on that night, but we know that Nicodemus remained somewhat intrigued by Him. In John 7:50, we find him offering something of a defense of Jesus against the unjust plan of the Pharisees to apprehend Jesus, albeit an unpersuasive one. He emerges for the final time here in our text today, where John reminds us that he is the same one who had come to Jesus by night.

What is most surprising here in the moments following our Lord’s death on the cross is that these two men emerge from the shadows to reveal that they had somehow, and at some time, become believers in Jesus. Of Joseph it is said specifically; of Nicodemus it is merely implied, but the implication is almost unmistakable. Perhaps Joseph had heard Jesus speak and heard reports, perhaps seeing with his own eyes, the marvelous works that Jesus had done. Here was One who accorded perfectly with the Redeemer that the Lord had promised. If ever One had come from heaven to earth to establish the Kingdom for which Joseph had been longing, surely it must be this Jesus. For Nicodemus, perhaps it was the sight of Jesus hanging on the cross that brought his memory back to that night when he spoke at length with Him and heard Him speak of being lifted up as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness. Whenever and however it was, they had decided to become followers of Jesus. But John tells us concerning Joseph, and by extension and implication, perhaps concerning Nicodemus as well, that their relationship with and faith in Jesus was something that they had kept secret until that point.

So, from our text today, we want to examine the “secret discipleship” of Joseph and Nicodemus – the cause of it, the test of it, and the disclosure of it – even as we consider ourselves in this regard. Some of us perhaps are like them – secret disciples of Jesus, who believe well enough in Him, but who are afraid or intimidated to be known publicly as His followers. Surely the temptation is ever present for us all. So why are we prone to keep our identity as followers of Jesus a secret? How is that secret challenged? And how can the secret be broken so that there would be no more secrets?

I. Fear is the most common hindrance to declaring our faith publicly!

Joseph of Arimathea is not the first “secret disciple” we encounter in the Gospel of John. In John 12:42-43, he writes that “many even of the rulers believed in Him, but because of the Pharisees they were not confessing Him, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the approval of men rather than the approval of God.” Perhaps Joseph was one of these, but he was not the only one apparently. Notice that it was fear that hindered them. They feared that they would lose the approval and esteem of their peers, and that they may become socially outcast. Being put out of the synagogue would mean complete ostracism in that society. For the Jewish religious leaders, it would mean a loss of position, stature, security and reputation. Notice there in John 12 that this fear was a serious problem. They believed, but fear kept them from confessing Christ and their faith in Him. That’s a bigger problem than one might realize. After all, confessing Christians are the only kind of Christians there are. Paul said, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Rom 10:9). That’s both/and, believe and confess, not either/or. There is no genuine unconfessed belief in Christ. So fear was actually keeping them from eternal life!

Joseph had also fallen prey to this same kind of fear. John says that he was secretive about his discipleship “for fear of the Jews.” It may also have been this kind of fear that prompted Nicodemus to come to Jesus “by night,” when no one would notice him fraternizing with Him. And it is this same kind of fear that threatens to silence so many of us from publicly declaring our faith in Jesus. We are prone to fear what others will think of us, or how others will treat us. Increasingly in our society, we may fear that identifying as a follower of Jesus will limit our opportunities or present challenges in our jobs, our communities, or even our families. Isn’t it ironic? Once upon a time in America, there was a social pressure to identify as a Christian even if a person was not a Christian. There was a fear to be considered something other than a Christian. And today, the table has turned completely to the point where genuine Christians are intimidated and fearful to make their faith known.

In addition to the fears already mentioned, there are other fears that tempt us to bite our tongues rather than openly acknowledging our faith in Christ or sharing the good news of Jesus with others. We may fear not knowing what to say or how to broach the subject with someone. We may fear being asked a question we don’t know how to answer. And so we battle the temptation to remain secret disciples, just as Joseph and Nicodemus did. Fear is the most common hindrance to declaring our faith. We see it in our text, and in our lives.

From this we move on to see how …

II. Crises present an opportunity for the proving of our faith.

Considering how John spoke of so-called “secret believers” in Chapter 12, it is a wonder he included anything about Joseph or Nicodemus at all here in this passage, much less the fact that they had been secret disciples. But John was in a unique position to observe something commendable about these men. Remember that when Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospels record that all of His disciples abandoned Him (Mt 26:56; Mk 14:50). Peter followed from a distance until he denied the Lord in the courtyard of Caiaphas. But when it came time for Jesus to die, only John had returned to the scene. John could not help noticing that, in this critical moment, as Jesus’ lifeless body hung on the cross, when no one else would step forward to do anything for Him, Joseph and Nicodemus did.

In that day and time, the remains of executed criminals were typically given to the next of kin. In the case of those who had been crucified for charges of sedition, as Jesus was, it was different however. Their bodies were left on their crosses, exposed as a warning to all passers-by. To increase the shame and humiliation of their earthly fate, they were left for vultures and other carrion birds and wild beasts to devour, until at last whatever was left of them would be thrown into a common pit with other criminals outside the city. In some rare instances, the family or friends of a crucified man may buy back the body in order to provide a decent burial. But even still, it would have been considered taboo to bury a crucified person in a family tomb, so other arrangements would have been necessary. Jesus’ family would not likely have had the means to acquire His body, nor would they have been likely to gain an audience with Pilate to do so. As for His friends, they had all forsaken Him.

Well, then, I guess the body of Jesus will just be left to the buzzards and heaved into the pit then, right? God forbid. And I mean literally, God forbid! For God had declared two very specific things in the prophecies of the Old Testament regarding the body of the crucified Savior. First, in Psalm 16:10, David speaks in a way that foreshadows his Messianic offspring, saying, “My flesh also will dwell securely. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; nor will You allow Your Holy One to undergo decay.” The phrase “undergo decay” could be translated as “see corruption” or “the pit.” Had Jesus’ body been left to the scavenger beasts and carrion birds, and then thrown to the pit, this promise would have failed. But God has never uttered a promise that failed and so He made a provision for the care and handling of the body of His Son. That provision came in fulfillment of another Old Testament prophecy. In Isaiah 53:9, the prophet says of the Messiah, “His grave was assigned with wicked men, yet He was with a rich man in His death.” Indeed, Jesus died between two criminals and otherwise fulfilled every other aspect of Isaiah’s rich imagery of His sacrificial death. But where was this rich man to be found? God raised up Joseph of Arimathea, described by Matthew as a rich man, to come and beseech Pilate for the body of Jesus in order that it would not undergo decay.

In this critical moment, when the very promises of God were at stake and all the faithful had forsaken the Lord, the previously secret faith of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus was proven as they step out of the shadows of secrecy and into the spotlight of public scrutiny, unable to hide their allegiance to Christ any longer. The crisis of the moment was a proving ground for their faith. And my friends, though you may have been ensnared by fear and intimidated to voice your allegiance to Christ in the past, the current cultural climate is critical enough to call you forward. Calvin astutely comments here, “Not that all fear, by which believers guard against tyrants and enemies of the church, is faulty, but … weakness of faith is manifested whenever the confession of faith is withheld through fear.”[1] If the crises of our present day, when it seems that everyone else is unafraid and unashamed to come out of the closet and boldly announce their sin, do not compel us to come out of hiding and boldly proclaim the Savior, we have to wonder what crises ever will compel us to do so? If you have been waiting for the “right time” to tell the world you are a follower of Christ, then I suggest that the right time is “such a time as this.”

So, we have seen that fear is the most common hindrance to declaring our faith, and that crises are opportunities for proving our faith. But now we move on to consider what it was that prompted such a demonstration of faith from Joseph and Nicodemus here in our text.

III. The death of Jesus compels us to bold action for His sake.

When the sun rose on the morning of Good Friday, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus seemed content to keep their true identity as followers of Jesus a secret from the world. But before sundown, something had happened to embolden them to forsake all fears and step out of the shadows and into the spotlight, unashamed to be known as His disciples. That “something” was the death of Jesus. Calvin says of their otherwise inexplicable transformation, “It is therefore certain that this was carried out by a heavenly impulse, so that they who were afraid to give Him due honor while He was alive now run to His dead body as if they had become new men.”[2] And indeed, they had. The death of Jesus enables us all to become new men and new women. It was by this death, in which the Son of God was lifted up like Moses’ serpent in the wilderness, that the new birth which Jesus had spoken of to Nicodemus was made possible as He bore our sins under the flood of God’s judgment that we might be saved. One look to the Savior on the cross, and these men were transformed. Notice how radical the change was.

They made an audacious request. Joseph had the audacity to approach Pilate – surely it was not an easy thing to do. As a member of the Sanhedrin, he was probably the last person Pilate wanted to see at that moment. And then to ask for the body that his very council had demanded the execution of? But Mark says that Joseph “gathered up courage and went in before Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

They took a courageous action. Not only were they unashamed to be known before Pilate as followers of this Crucified One, they also were willing to bear the reproach of their peers, their colleagues, indeed their entire nation as they bore the body of Jesus to its burial place.

They made a costly sacrifice. And by costly, I mean here, literally. It likely required a price to be paid to Pilate, and one could suspect a significant one, in order to secure the body of Jesus. Not only this, but there were the spices that Nicodemus brought. A mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about a hundred pounds (literally a hundred litrai, which would be about 65 pounds on our standard). Mark tells us that Joseph bought a linen cloth in order to wrap Jesus. This was, of course, in keeping with Jewish burial customs as John says in verse 40, but it exceeded what was customary. The amount of spices brought was fit for a king. And it was a tribute to their king. Jesus had spoken to Nicodemus about the kingdom of God, and Joseph was described as waiting for the kingdom of God. It seems that they found in the crucified Savior the King of this everlasting kingdom and paid tribute to Him with the costliness of these materials. Not only this, but Joseph made an additional sacrifice. John says that nearby was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. The rapidly approaching sunset, which would initiate the Sabbath necessitated that Jesus be buried quickly, and in God’s providence there was a tomb nearby. But Matthew tells us that it was Joseph’s own tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock. He was willing to give up his final earthly possession for Jesus. 

They spared no expense. They regarded no other concern. They went to great lengths. Why? Because they had beheld with their eyes and with the eye of faith the One who died, and died for them and their salvation! This same Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame for our sake as well. Therefore, like Joseph and Nicodemus, we must be bold in our appeals. The Apostle Paul said that we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us. And that appeal is this, in Paul’s words: “We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:20-21). We must make this appeal boldly to the world around us. You may say, “They don’t want to hear it!” Friends, the world never has wanted to hear this message. In Acts 4 (vv19, 29-31), we read of how they threatened the early church to cease speaking in the name of Jesus, and what did those Christians do? They replied, “We cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard!” And then they went to the Lord in prayer and said, “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence.” And after they had prayed, the Bible says that they began to speak the word of God with boldness! We most be bold in our appeal to a lost and dying world!

And because Jesus has died for us, we must be courageous as we identify publicly with Him. There has been much clamor in our society about how people “identify.” People want to “identify” as a different gender or different ethnicity, and so on. It is time for us to be courageous and identify to a different nature of who we are and have become in relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus said, “[E]veryone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:32-33). Are you willing to be known publicly as a disciple of Jesus? Jesus warns us that if we do not recognize ourselves as such, neither will He. It will require courage, but it always has.

Because Jesus has died for us, we must make great sacrifices for His cause. Innumerable billions are perishing in our world apart from access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And what is happening to change that? Our International Mission Board, for the first time in its history, has had to decrease the size of our missionary force! Over the last five months, more than 1,100 Southern Baptist international missionaries have had to leave their work. Why? Because there are not enough funds to support the work! This is not the time for reducing the work of Christ in the world! This is the time to make great sacrifices so that more laborers can be thrust forth into the harvest field! This is the time to reexamine our church budgets and our personal giving so that more and more resources can be devoted to reaching lost people! And this must not be done begrudgingly! Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:6-7, “he who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each one must do just as he has purposed in his heart, not grudgingly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” With confidence in the God who is able to meet our every need, we must joyfully give of our own resources to ensure that no one steps from this life into eternity without an opportunity to hear about the Christ who died for them.

And because He has died for us, we must act urgently. A Chinese Christian in the 20th Century said, “When small men begin to cast big shadows, it means that the sun is about to set.” I don’t know that we could find any statement more descriptive of our day. The sun is setting on this fallen world. Our eternal Sabbath rest approaches. But before the sun goes down and no more work can be done, we must act with urgent haste to serve our Lord while it is day, testifying openly of Him and His power to save. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the cure for this world’s ills, but the world will perish if we keep that message and the testimony of our faith in Him a secret. It is far too late in the day for us to be secret disciples anymore. There must be no more secrets! Because He has died for us, we must live for Him.

Let me conclude finally by again quoting Calvin. Speaking of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus as we find them in our text, he writes, “We must learn from their example what duty we owe to Christ. Those two men, as a testimony of their faith, not only took Christ down from the cross in great danger, but boldly carried him to the grave. Our slothfulness will be base and shameful if, now that He reigns in the heavenly glory, we withhold from Him the confession of our faith.” He speaks of those who try to continue on as secret disciples, comparing themselves with men like Nicodemus who kept their faith in Christ a secret. Calvin says, “In one thing, I admit, they resemble him, that they endeavor, as far as lies in their power, to bury Christ; but the time for burying is past, since He has ascended to the Father’s right hand, that he may reign gloriously over angels and men and that every tongue may proclaim His dominion.”[3]

The hour is late. The sun is setting. The Sabbath draws near. Christ does not now need burial. He has risen! Now is the time for every knee to bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Php 2:9-11). For Christ’s sake, let there be no more secrets!

[1] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 439.
[2] Calvin, 438.
[3] Calvin, 438. 

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