John 19:38 Later, Joseph of Arimathea asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Now Joseph was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jewish leaders. 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.
Out of the dark shadows of death step two men— Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. They were most probably members of the Sanhedrin and, as such, were able to use their rank to gain access to the governor. They asked to be given the body of Jesus for burial. Normally those condemned for sedition would have been cast into a common grave, but since Pilate granted the request this may suggest that he did not really accept the sedition charge.
Can one be a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus? Joseph of Arimathea is identified as such— ‘for fear of the Jewish Leaders’. With increasing venom throughout John’s gospel, the Jewish leadership sought to persecute anyone who indicated their support for Jesus. His followers were to be ‘put out of the synagogue’ (Jn 9:22; 12:42-43; 16:1-3), which amounted to ex-communication. From a religious perspective, this meant that they were cut off from the proper worship of God, and with that, the hope of salvation. From a social perspective, this meant becoming an outcast and so treated as a foreigner. Ultimately, the Jewish Leadership were using their power coercively to prevent their people receiving their Messiah. And for some this seemed to work. But now two more men step forward to demonstrate their allegiance to Jesus, by asking to give him an honourable burial.
Nicodemus had previously visited Jesus ‘at night’ (John 3:1-15). This clandestine interview is now shown to have borne fruit— he does believe. Along with Joseph, he has decided that the time has come to declare his allegiance to Jesus, who at this stage appears only to be a ‘crucified prophet’. His status as Messiah and Lord is entirely hidden by his gruesome execution. Any hope of a triumphant resurrection seems far away.
Nicodemus’ burial arrangements are not insignificant— 34kg of expensive spices are to be wrapped in with the corpse within a funerary shroud. As the decay of death proceeds, the odour will be masked (to some extent). And yet, already there is the hint of a new life. The Spirit seems to have given Nicodemus ‘birth from above’ and so he willingly seeks to honour Jesus, even in his death.
Is is possible to be a ‘secret disciple’ of Jesus? It seems the answer is, “Yes, but not for long.” Joseph and Nicodemus show us that ultimately the recognition of Jesus as Lord means that we must step outside of the world’s ways. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Christians will be identified as different because we are fundamentally different— we have been ‘born from above’ (Jn 3:3-8).
Lord Jesus, you said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” Grant me such courage that I might publicly declare that you are Lord, such grace that my manner of life might declare the same, and such perseverance to keep doing so until your Return. Amen.