I have heard whispers throughout my lifetime as a Christian that hints at the fact that a person can be a Christian yet be a “secret disciple.” The primary example all fingers point to is Joseph of Arimathea, the “secret disciple” which asked for the body of Jesus. Is this true? Does the Bible teach that we can be “secret disciples” of Jesus Christ?
When we read in John 19:39 about Joseph being a disciple but “secretly,” we are not reading a narrative of approval. If we want to know how John felt (underneath the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) about those that “believed” on Jesus but didn’t confess Him openly, we must go to the book of John Chapter 12:42 – 43. It states:
“Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.” (Emphasis added).
The chief rulers here included those that are typically known as the Sanhedrin, which Joseph was an “honorable” member of (Mark 15:43). What John reveals here is the symptom and the disease. The symptom is that they did not confess Christ before men. Why? Because the disease is that they loved the praise of men MORE than the praise of God. Interesting. Moreover, if you were to consider what John says about Joseph in light of these verses, it is plausible to deduce that he felt the same way when he exposed why Joseph was a “secret disciple” in the first place. It says in John 19:38 that he was a disciple secretly “for fear of the Jews.” If someone is trying to justify that it is possible to be a “secret disciple” because it says so here, they would also have to consider the exposition of the rest of the verse and ask themselves whether or not this is a badge of honor. That is like saying, “Hey, I am proud to be a secret disciple because I’m scared.” While maintaining the position of being a secret disciple, it is inevitable that you would be biblically declaring your sin. Now, even though I have revealed all this, there are some good things that we can learn from Joseph’s mistake despite him being secretive about his belief in Christ.
Let us first consider that Joseph was known as being honorable and having a good reputation (Luke 23:50). Apparently he was also rich (Matt 27:57) and was held to a prominent position in the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43). It is also worthy to note that his faith in the Old Testament Scripture was genuine as well understanding that he was looking for the Kingdom to be come and be fulfilled (Mark 15:43). Finally, he was also of those among the Sanhedrin that did not consent to the unjust manner of Christ’s trial and death (Luke 23:51). So what we are dealing with here is an individual who was indeed sincere in his dealings, just in his judgments, and desirous to be a disciple of Christ, but he was confronted with what every person who wishes to follow Christ is confronted with – fear of man.
In my book, “Apocity: The Greatest Omission,” I reveal why the sin of not evangelizing (apocity) is caused by fear. Fear is one of the giants that seek to slay us when it comes to our open confession of Christ in any shape or fashion. But can we continually be a fearful “secret disciple” and still be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ? I think the Scriptural answer is no! Here’s why. As we already stated, Joseph is not painted in a positive light when it says that he was secretly a disciple. The Scriptures and history teaches us pretty plainly how one is portrayed when they deny Christ in any fashion. Also, when you read how John portrays Joseph asking for the body of Jesus, it is clear that John is making a parallel. In order for Joseph to ask for the body of Christ, he essentially had to do two things:
- He had to forsake his worries concerning what the Jews were going to do and boldly ask for the body of Christ. Some Greek expositors say that Joseph literally had to “summon the courage.” Why? Because he knew that doing this was going to cost him his position, his reputation, and his standing among the Jews.
- In forsaking his position as chief priest, he willingly defiled himself with a dead body, even though Leviticus 21 teaches that priests are not to do so.
The only dead bodies priests were allowed to make contact with were the bodies of their immediate relatives (see Lev. 21:1-4). This presents a spiritual illustration that is powerful if you have ears to hear. That being said, we clearly see a bolder Joseph. Although I am speculating by saying this, it seems to me that John was somewhat putting his stamp of approval upon Joseph at this point. It is kind of like saying, “this man, who was once a ‘secret’ (insert sarcasm here) disciple, now boldly and unashamedly asked for the body of our Savior, even though he knew it would cost him everything!” Finally, John points out how even Nicodemus, “who first came to Jesus by night” (John 19:39), is now also putting himself at risk by day! This is what we should exemplify! Not secret discipleship! If you are of the persuasion that you can continually follow Christ secretly, here is my final plea.
When someone justifies their apocity (in other words, their reluctance to share their faith in any way) by using Joseph of Arimethea as an example, it should sadden us considering the much happier and bolder ending to this man’s story. When we take the negative aspects of a person’s character in Scripture and we use that as an excuse as to why we can continue in sin, whether apocity or any sin, we miss the mark of what Scripture is teaching us. God’s word shows us our flaws so that His grace can abound, and so His goodness can lead us to repentance. Not only that, it serves as a warning to us to be obedient and NOT make the same mistakes (Romans 15:4). Although in the grand scheme of things, a person who is a professing believer will have seasons of shame, if the Holy Spirit truly resides within them, they can’t but speak the things which they have seen and heard (Acts 4:20). So if you are reading this, and you believe you can be a faithful witness of Jesus Christ “secretly” through fear, I beg you to consider the sin which you are justifying. Do not think that just because Scripture exposes Joseph of Arimethea as being secretive that you can continue in the same fashion. There is no shame in being a Christian. The shame we feel only comes when we refuse to openly declare that we are Christians, knowing that Christ openly bought us, bearing our shame that we deserved.
Special note: I foresee some making an clamorous rebuttal to what I have stated above by revealing the work of those in foreign countries whose work in the gospel in very “secretive.” The problem is context. Those who are “secretive” are so in a difference sense than Joseph of Arimathea. To point out the covert work for the sake of the gospel is not the same as being silent for fear of man. Not only that, shame on those that try to use the work of those who are missionaries overseas as a means to justify our fearful silence in America. It does not compare. Let’s remain steadfast in our witness. It’s one thing to use discretion concerning when to speak the gospel, it is quite another thing to succumb to fear. I pray the Holy Spirit will teach you the difference.