The Bible tells us of strange things happening when Jesus died on the cross: Darkness fell when their should have been daylight, the temple veil was torn in two, earthquakes shook the land, tombs split open with dead rising from them (Mat 27:45-51). But another very strange thing that happened was that two members of the council that put Jesus to death took down the body of Jesus from the cross.
At the most important moment in all of history, the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus all the disciples become secret and two secret disciples Joseph and Nicodemus become bold and open. Strange things are happening.
These two men were part of the Sanhedrin, the group that orchestrated the crucifixion of Jesus. Here we find this elite religious council of seventy looking for false evidence against Jesus to put him to death. This council went to extremes to humiliate Jesus when they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. (Matthew 26:59, 67) A council involved in this abhorrent activity would seem the least likely place to find two bold heroes standing for up Jesus.
Joseph of Arimathea is identified to us specifically as a secret disciple of Jesus (John 19:38). Another member of the council, Nicodemus is very strongly implied to be a secret disciple of Jesus too. Not only do we find two extraordinary disciples of Jesus among this infamous council, but also we find them at the forefront during the most critical three-day juncture of human history.
The Sanhedrin: Where we find secret disciples of Jesus. Let’s look at what an incredible council this Sanhedrin really was. The Sanhedrin was composed of seventy
members made up of the chief priests, scribes and elders. The presiding officer of the Sanhedrin was the Jewish high priest. This council was the highest and final court of appeal for matters regarding Mosaic Law.
We find the Sanhedrin influencing the circumstances of Jesus arrest and trial for their purposes. They wanted to see Jesus put to death. Even without the direct authority to execute anyone (John 18:31) this council managed to manipulate Pilate to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus.
It was the Sanhedrin that persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus. They even mocked Jesus while He was hanging on the cross. Out of this heinous Sanhedrin emerged Joseph of Arimathea the secret disciple and Nicodemous who much earlier had approached Jesus at night under the cover of darkness.
Just who is Joseph of Arimathea?
Joseph of Arimathea is one of the few who is mentioned in all four Gospels. His deed of giving his own tomb for Jesus burial was foretold by Isaiah in the suffering servant passage. (Is.53:9) “He made his grave with the rich.” The crucifixion is full of irony in that the anointed Messiah was a suffering servant, despised and punished. Another more overlooked irony is a disciple of Jesus was found among the Sanhedrin. Not only was Joseph of Arimathea a member of the exclusive seventy, Joseph was a prominent member of the Council. (Mark 15:43) We are also told that Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man. (Matthew 27:57)
Many commentaries do not place Joseph of Arimathea in favorable light. They emphasize the one negative statement of his “fear of the Jews.” There are numerous positive aspects mentioned in the Scriptures about Joseph. He was a good and upright man. He had not consented to the Sanhedrin decision and action to see Jesus executed. Luke describes Joseph of Arimathea much like he did old Simeon who blessed Joseph and Mary when they took Jesus to the temple. Joseph of Arimathea was waiting for the kingdom of God. He acted at the right time, in the right way, to the right degree to bring glory to God.
Joseph of Arimathea is the main figure in the burial of Jesus. Every Gospel writer is familiar with Joseph and each writer mentioned he is of Arimathea. Nowhere else in the Bible is Arimathea mentioned, outside Jesus burial account and in reference to Joseph. Biblical background experts do not even know where Arimathea is. Luke tells us it is a Judean town, but you won’t find Arimathea on a Bible map.
The Burial of Jesus
After Jesus death Joseph asked Pilate for the body. Mark mentions that he went boldly to Pilate when he asked for Jesus body. Pilate was careful because members of the Sanhedrin had manipulated him once already this day. Pilate was not going to simply take this good and upright man at his word. Joseph of Arimathea was, after all a member of the scheming Sanhedrin. Pilate summoned the Centurion and was surprised to hear Jesus was already dead and then ordered the body be given to Joseph.
With Pilate’s permission, Joseph took the body down from the cross with the help of his fellow council member, Nicodemus the same who earlier had visited Jesus at night. (John Chapter 3) This is also the Nicodemus who opposed his fellow council members when he found they were condemning Jesus in a way contrary to the Mosaic Law. (John 7:50-52).
Nicodemous brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes weighing about seventy-five pounds and along with Joseph they wrapped Jesus body with spices in strips of linen, in accordance with Jewish burial customs. The tomb where Joseph buried our Lord was his own new tomb, hewn out of solid stone. It was, in accordance with scripture, the tomb of a rich man. This is an amazing fulfillment of prophecy, considering Jesus had just died a criminal’s death. They placed Jesus body in Joseph’s tomb and then rolled the stone against the entrance of the tomb.
Joseph compared to other disciples
There is an amazing contrast here between the public disciples of our Lord and his secret disciples. At this time one of Jesus twelve disciples, Judas was exposed as a betrayer. All along he was pretending to be a follower of Jesus, but stealing money from the treasury and really being no disciple at all.
When the secret disciples were lovingly preparing Jesus body for burial, Peter was weeping in shame for denying the Lord. The other members of the Sanhedrin remembered that Jesus prophesied that he would rise again in three days and appealed for the guard at the tomb (Mathew 27: 62). This motivated them to make their own visit to Pilate to request the tomb be sealed. Here Joseph could have bumped into the Jews he feared.
There is no record of the public disciples taking any encouragement from this resurrection prophecy after Jesus death and they had all suddenly become the secret disciples. On this Crucifixion day, considered the pivotal day in history, the secret disciple Joseph went publicly and boldly to approach Pilate. His fellow secret disciple Nicodemous was also acting courageously on the Crucifixion day.
We can expect to find secret disciples in the most unlikely places. Those whom God chooses may seem unlikely to us. If the Lord has secret disciples of Jesus in prominent positions among the Sanhedrin, then there is no religious facet or council that could be beyond the limits for God. Our Lord has worked and is still working in the most unlikely of places. Joseph and Nicodemus were active in their protests of the wrongdoings of their council peers. In the same way God has many Joseph of Arimathea types in very influential and unlikely places.
God uses secret disciples to accomplish His purposes. Joseph of Arimathea was in just the right place of influence to act at just the right time to fulfill Biblical prophecy and accomplish the purposes of God. Joseph acted in the worst of places at a low point in human history. We can assume in our day that God has his chosen instruments among them. Expect secret believers to rise up in the right place at the right time for the purposes of God to be accomplished.
A secret disciple is often surrounded in Mystery. Joseph is from Arimathea, which is a place not known to us. There are many aspects that the public disciples did not know and probably would not have understood about Joseph. We who publicly follow Christ will probably not fully know and not even understand many aspects of the secret disciple.
Secret believers are often moving along in a process of faith. After Nicodemus had his clandestine encounter with Jesus he went through a progression in his faith. We see evidence in scripture that he became more and more convinced that Jesus is the Messiah. It was not until some time after meeting Jesus that he spoke out regarding his Sanhedrin mishandling the Mosaic Law concerning Jesus. In the same way Joseph protested to the council before he went boldly to approach Pilate. If the secret believer today found among the Hindu world is open to the Lord they will be moving along in faith, as is every disciple in the process of sanctification. It may take months or years before they have moved along to the point that they can boldly approach a high official for the honor of Christ like Joseph of Arimathea did.
Secret believers point others in their community to examine the claims of Christ. We can assume that as Nicodemous began to raise issues with his own Sanhedrin that this became the seedbed for Joseph’s faith. We also may conclude that because of the stand Joseph and Nicodemous took that the Sanhedrin more carefully investigated how the Scriptures point to Jesus as the Messiah. Especially when they were challenged by a prominent member of the council as Joseph was. The World Christian Encyclopedia, estimates there are about 112 million secret disciples or “churchless Christians” worldwide, about 5 percent of all adherents, and projects that number will double by 2025. If we look at the secret believers in India today we find a common characteristic that others around them are quietly challenged to examine the claims of Christ. In almost every case the secret believer in India has been influential to a family member or acquaintance to look at the claims of Christ and become a follower of Jesus.
Secret believers have much to lose. Joseph and Nicodemous served on the most prominent position possible. Secret believers in India may be religious leaders, wealthy businessmen or even academic scholars. Others who do not have position of influence may find it hard to understand why secret believers would keep so silent with their faith. Our biblical example in Joseph and Nicodemous compares to what we see in the lives of many secret believers. Secret disciples in India are willing to take a stand when the issue and time demands it. It may be at the very time the public disciples have lost heart because of persecution. Another important category of secret believers in India are those who are not influential. A secret disciple may often be the wife of an abusive husband and she would be severely punished for announcing a faith outside the family traditions. All secret disciples, weather influential or not, have much to lose by taking their faith in Christ to the public realm.
Even after a Secret believer makes a bold stand, they will continue to move behind the scenes. Following the heroic deed of approaching Pilate and taking the body of Jesus down from the cross, Joseph and Nicodemus remained behind the scenes. It was Peter the public disciple who denied Christ, not Joseph or Nicodemus that the Lord used to preach the Pentecost sermon. We never hear of Joseph of Arimathea or Nicodemus mentioned again in the New Testament. You will find those secret believers in India who have made a significant impact for Christ preferring to maintain a low profile and a behind the scenes role in their faith.
The worse the religious establishment behaves the more secret believers rise up. Secret believers rise up in militant communist governments or in oppressive religious regimes. In times of persecution secret believers appear within the establishment as Joseph and Nicodemus did. It was while Jezebel was killing off the Lord’s prophets that Obadiah had secretly hidden a hundred prophets in two caves (I Kings 18:4). There is a rise in religious fanaticism all across the globe and in South Asia that calls out the good and upright men to turn to Jesus as secret disciples.
Secret disciples have public moments and public disciples have their secret moments. In times of persecution public disciples engage in secret service. In persecution many public disciples may act in secret by Bible smuggling or as the Apostle Paul did, by sneaking out of a city. On the other side of the spectrum a secret disciple has their moments to act boldly and publicly. We can expect secret disciples today to stand publicly for Christ at opportune and critical times. Even if it is limited to a close circle of friends at some point the secret disciples of Jesus share their faith with others.
We need to see the opportunities regarding secret disciples. Jesus must have known the potential in his encounter with Nicodemus. We could never have imagined that when Nicodemous came under darkness that this would later lead to a critical moment in time when Nicodemous was almost the only living soul faithful to Jesus. Who would have thought this man who came at night would take down the body of Christ from the cross and lovingly anoint and wrap his body according to the proper customs. We need to look for opportunities for the many who are asking deep questions about following Jesus. These moments are some of our most open doors of opportunity to see a person begin to follow Jesus.
God has used secret disciples of Jesus in ways we would not have thought. It is stretching for us to think that among the Sanhedrin such disciples of Jesus would emerge. Joseph of Arimathea took action when the public disciples who had spent time with Jesus lost heart. Joseph of Arimathea has left his legacy for us.
We must also keep in mind that not every secret disciple of Jesus receives the approval given to Joseph and Nicodemus. We find a general condemnation for the secret disciples who enjoy the praise of men more than praise from God. (John 12:42-43)
The cross is the turning point of all history when our Lord laid down his life only to be raised on the third day according to the scriptures. It was the secret disciples who were the heroes that day. Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus body in his own tomb. We may never know the full extent of all that secret disciples have done to serve and honor our Lord.