Dwell lonely and apart,
Hiding from all but One above
The fragrance of their heart.
Not all the friends of Jesus were open friends. No doubt many believed on him who had not the courage to confess him. Two of his secret friends performed such an important part at the close of his life, boldly honoring him, that the story of their discipleship is worthy of our careful study.
One of these is mentioned several times; the other we meet nowhere until he suddenly emerges from the shadows of his secret friendship, when the body of Jesus hung dead on the cross, and boldly asks leave to take it away, and with due honor bury it.
Several facts concerning Joseph are given in the Gospels. He was a rich man. Thus an ancient prophecy was fulfilled. According to Isaiah, the Messiah was to make his grave with the rich. This prediction seemed very unlikely of fulfilment when Jesus hung on the cross dying. He had no burying-place of his own, and none of his known disciples could provide him with a tomb among the rich. It looked as if his body must be cast into the Potter's Field with the bodies of the two criminals who hung beside him. Then came Joseph, a rich man, and buried Jesus in his own new tomb. "He made his grave with the rich."
Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin. This gave him honor among men, and he must have been of good reputation to be chosen to so exalted a position. We are told also that he was a good man and devout, and had not consented to the counsel and deed of the court in condemning Jesus. Perhaps he had absented himself from the meeting of the Sanhedrin when Jesus was before the court. If he were present, he took no part in the condemning of the prisoner.
Then it is said further that he was "a disciple of Jesus, but secretly, for fear of the Jews." That is, he was one of the friends of Jesus, believing in his Messiahship. We have no way of knowing how long he had been a disciple, but it is evident that the friendship had existed for some time. We may suppose that Joseph had sought Jesus quietly, perhaps by night, receiving instruction from him, communing with him, drinking in his spirit; but he had never yet openly declared his discipleship.
The reason for this hiding of his belief in Jesus is frankly given, -- "for fear of the Jews." He lacked courage to confess himself "one of this man's friends." We cannot well understand what it would have cost Joseph, in his high place as a ruler, to say, "I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is our Messiah." It is easy for us to condemn him as wanting in courage, but we must put ourselves back in his place when we think of what he failed to do. This was before Jesus was glorified. He was a lowly man of sorrows. Many of the common people had followed him; but it was chiefly to see his miracles, and to gather benefit for themselves from his power. There was only a little band of true disciples, and among these were none of the rulers and great men of the people. There is no evidence that one rabbi, one member of the Sanhedrin, one priest, one aristocratic or cultured Jew, was among the followers of Jesus during his life.
It would have taken sublime courage for one of these to confess Jesus as the Messiah, and the cost of such avowal would have been incalculable. A number of years later, when Christianity had become an acknowledged power in the world, St. Paul tells us that he had to suffer the loss of all things in becoming a Christian. For Joseph, a member of the highest court of the Jews, to have said to his fellow-members in those days, before the death of Jesus, "I believe in this Nazarene whom you are plotting to kill, and I am one of his disciples and friends," would have taken a courage which too few men possess.
However, one need not apologize for Joseph. The record frankly admits his fault, his weakness; for it is never a noble or a manly thing to be afraid of man or devil when duty is clear. Yet we are told distinctly that he was really a disciple of Jesus; though it was secretly, and though the reason for the secrecy was an unworthy one, -- fear of the Jews. Jesus had not refused his discipleship because of its impairment. He had not said to him, "Unless you rise up in your place in the court-room, and tell your associates that you believe in me, and are going to follow me, you cannot be my disciple, and I will not have you as my friend." Evidently Jesus had accepted Joseph as a disciple, even in the shy way he had come to him; and it seems probable that a close and deep friendship existed between the two men. Possibly it may have existed for many months; and no doubt Joseph had been a comfort to Jesus in many ways before his death, although the world did not know that this noble and honorable councillor was his friend at all.
The other secret friend of Jesus who assisted in his burial was Nicodemus. It was during the early weeks or months of our Lord's public ministry that he came to Jesus for the first time. It is specially mentioned that he came by night. Nicodemus also was a man of distinction, -- a member of the Sanhedrin and a Pharisee, belonging thus to the class highest in rank among his people.
A great deal of blame has been charged against Nicodemus because he came to Jesus by night, but again we must put ourselves back into his circumstances before we can judge intelligently and fairly of his conduct. Very few persons believed in Jesus when Nicodemus first sought him by night. Besides, may not night have been the best time for a public and prominent man to see Jesus? His days were filled -- throngs were always about him, and there was little opportunity then for earnest and satisfactory conversation. In the evening Nicodemus could sit down with Jesus for a long, quiet talk without fear of interruption.
Then Nicodemus came first only as an inquirer. He was not then ready to be a disciple. "Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God," was all he could say that first night. He did not concede Jesus' Messiahship. He knew him then only by what he had heard of his miracles. He was not ready yet to declare that the son of the carpenter was the Christ, the Son of God. When we remember the common Jewish expectations regarding the Messiah, and then the lowliness of Jesus and the high rank of Nicodemus, we may understand that it required courage and deep earnestness of soul for this "master in Israel" to come at all to the peasant rabbi from Galilee as a seeker after truth and light. It is scarcely surprising, therefore, that he came by night.
Then, at that time the teaching and work of Jesus were only beginning. There had been some miracles, and it is written that because of these many had believed in the name of Jesus. Already, however, there had been a sharp conflict with the priests and rulers. Jesus had driven out those who were profaning the temple by using it for purposes of trade. This act had aroused intense bitterness against Jesus among the ruling classes to which Nicodemus belonged. This made it specially hard for any one of the rulers to come among the friends of Jesus, or to show even the least sympathy with him.
No doubt Nicodemus in some degree lacked the heroic quality. He was not a John Knox or a Martin Luther. Each time his name is mentioned he shows timidity, and a disposition to remain hidden. Even in the noble deed of the day Jesus died, it is almost certain that Nicodemus was inspired to his part by the greater courage of Joseph.
Yet we must mark that Jesus said not one word to chide or blame Nicodemus when he came by night. He accepted him as a disciple, and at once began to teach him the great truths of his kingdom. We are not told that the ruler came more than once; but we may suppose that whenever Jesus was in Jerusalem, Nicodemus sought him under the cover of the night, and sat at his feet as a learner. Doubtless Jesus and he were friends all the three years that passed between that first night when they talked of the new birth, and the day when this noble councillor assisted his fellow-member of the Sanhedrin in giving honorable and loving burial to this Teacher come from God.
Once we have a glimpse of Nicodemus in his place in the Sanhedrin. Jesus has returned to Jerusalem, and multitudes follow him to hear his words. Many believe on him. The Pharisees and priests are filled with envy that this peasant from Galilee should have such tremendous influence among the people. They feel that the power is passing out of their hands, and that they must do something to silence the voice the people so love to hear.
A meeting of the Great Council is called to decide what to do. Officers are sent to arrest Jesus, and bring him to the bar of the court. The officers find Jesus in the temple, in the midst of an eager throng, to whom he is speaking in his gracious, winning way. That was the day he said, "If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink." The officers listen as the wonderful words fall from his lips, and they, too, become interested; their attention is enchained; they come under the same spell which holds all the multitude. They linger till his discourse is ended; and then, instead of arresting him, they go back without him, only giving to the judges as reason for not obeying, "Never man spake like this man."
The members of the court were enraged at this failure of their effort. Even their own police officers had proved untrue. "Are ye also deceived or led astray?" they cry in anger. Then they ask, "Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this multitude which knoweth not the law, are accursed." They would have it that only the ignorant masses had been led away by this delusion; none of the great men, the wise men, had accepted this Nazarene as the Messiah. They did not suspect that at least one of their own number, possibly two, had been going by night to hear this young rabbi.
It was a serious moment for Nicodemus. He sat there in the council, and saw the fury of his brother judges. In his heart he was a friend of Jesus. He believed that he was the Messiah. Loyalty to his friend, to the truth, and to his own conscience, demanded that he should cast away the veil he was wearing, and reveal his faith in Jesus. At least he must say some word on behalf of the innocent man whom his fellow-members were determined to destroy. It was a testing-time for Nicodemus, and sore was the struggle between timidity and a sense of duty. The storm in the court-room was ready to burst; the council was about taking violent measures against Jesus. We know not what would have happened if no voice had been lifted for fair trial before condemnation. But then Nicodemus arose, and in the midst of the terrible excitement spoke quietly and calmly his few words, --
"Doth our law judge a man, except it first hear from himself and know what he doeth?"
It was only a plea for fairness and for justice; but it showed the working of a heart that would be true to itself, in some measure at least, in spite of its shyness and shrinking, and in spite of the peril of the hour. The question at first excited anger and contempt against Nicodemus himself; but it checked the gathering tides of violence, probably preventing a public outbreak.
We may note progress in the friendship of this secret disciple. During the two years since he first came to Jesus by night the seed dropped into his heart that night had been growing silently. Nicodemus was not yet ready to come out boldly as a disciple of Jesus; but he proved himself the friend of Jesus, even by the few words he spoke in the council when it required firm courage to speak at all. "He who at the first could come to Jesus only by night, now stands by him in open day, and in the face of the most formidable opposition, before which the courage of the strongest might have quailed."
It is beautiful to see young Christians, as the days pass, growing more and more confident and heroic in their confession of Christ. At first they are shy, retiring, timid, and disposed to shrink from public revealing of themselves. But if, as they receive more of the Spirit of God in their heart, they grow more courageous in speaking for Christ and in showing their colors, they prove that they are true disciples, learners, growing in grace.
The only other mention of Nicodemus is some months after the heroic word spoken in the council. What has been going on in his experience, meanwhile, we do not know. There is no evidence that he has yet declared himself a follower of Jesus. He is still a secret disciple. But the hidden life in his heart has still been growing.
One day a terrible thing happened. Jesus was crucified. In their fright and panic all his friends at first forsook him, some of them, however, gathering back, with broken hearts, and standing about his cross. But never was there a more hopeless company of men in this world than the disciples of Jesus that Good Friday, when their Master hung upon the cross. They did not understand the meaning of the cross as we do to-day, -- they thought it meant defeat for all the hopes they had cherished. They stood round the cross in the despair of hopeless grief.
They were also powerless to do anything to show their love, or to honor the body of their Friend. They were poor and unknown men, without influence. None of them had a grave in which the body could be laid. Nor had they power to get leave to take the body away; it required a name of influence to get this permission. Their love was equal to anything, but they were helpless. In the dishonor of that day all the friends of Jesus shared.
What could be done? Soon the three bodies on the crosses would be taken down by rude hands of heartless men, and cast into the Potter's Field in an indistinguishable heap.
No; there is a friend at Pilate's door. He is a man of rank among the Jews -- a rich man too. He makes a strange request, -- he asks leave to take the body of Jesus away for burial. Doubtless Pilate was surprised that a member of the court which had condemned Jesus should now desire to honor his body, but he granted the request; perhaps he was glad thus to end a case which had cost him so much trouble. Joseph took charge of the burial of the body of Jesus.
Then came another rich man and joined Joseph. "There came also Nicodemus, he who at the first came to him by night, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pound weight. So they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as the custom of the Jews is to bury." It certainly is remarkable that the two men who thus met in honoring the body of Jesus had both been his secret disciples, hidden friends, who until now had not had courage to avow their friendship and discipleship.
No doubt there were many other secret friends of Jesus who during his life did not publicly confess him. The great harvest of the day of Pentecost brought out many of these for the first time. No doubt there always are many who love Christ, believe on him, and are following him in secret. They come to Jesus by night. They creep to his feet when no eye is looking at them. They cannot brave the gaze of their fellowmen. They are shy and timid. We may not say one harsh word regarding such disciples. The Master said not one word implying blame of his secret disciples.
Yet it cannot be doubted that secret discipleship is incomplete. It is not just to Christ himself that we should receive the blessings of his love and grace, and not speak of him to the world. We owe it to him who gave himself for us to speak his name wherever we go, and to honor him in every way. Secret discipleship does not fulfil love's duty to the world. If we have found that which has blessed us richly, we owe it to others to tell them about it. To hide away in our own heart the knowledge of Christ is to rob those who do not know of him. It is the worst selfishness to be willing to be saved alone. Further, secret discipleship misses the fulness of blessing which comes to him who confesses Christ before men. It is he who believes with his heart and confesses with his mouth, who has promise of salvation. Confession is half of faith. Secret discipleship is repressed, restrained, confined, and is therefore hampered, hindered, stunted discipleship. It never can grow into the best possible strength and richness of life. It is only when one stands before the world in perfect freedom, with nothing to conceal, that one grows into the fullest, loveliest Christlikeness. To have the friendship of Christ, and to hide it from men is to lose its blessing out of our own heart.
"To lie by the river of life and see it run to waste, To eat of the tree of heaven while the nations go unfed, To taste the full salvation -- the only one to taste -- To live while the rest are lost -- oh, better by far be dead!
For to share is the bliss of heaven, as it is the joy of earth; And the unshared bread lacks savor, and the wine unshared, lacks zest; And the joy of the soul redeemed would be little, little worth If, content with its own security, it could forget the rest."
In the case of Nicodemus and Joseph, Jesus was very gentle with timidity; but under the nurture of his gentleness timidity grew into noble courage. Yet, beautiful as was their deed that day, who will not say that it came too late for fullest honoring of the Master? It would have been better if they had shown their friendship while he was living, to have cheered him by their love. Mary's ointment poured upon the tired feet of Jesus before his death was better than the spices of Nicodemus piled about his body in the grave.