He prayed fervently every time his car approached a border guarded by antagonistic Soviet soldiers as he sought to enter a closed country, Bibles stashed in his belongings. “Lord, in my luggage I have Scripture I want to take to Your children. Do not let the guards see those things You do not want them to see.”
Brother Andrew, known as “God’s Smuggler,” was responsible for sneaking millions of copies of the Word of God behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War and helping plant the seeds of hope in places bereft of gospel witness, places ruled by Communist governments that restricted Christianity and persecuted Christians. His ministry, Open Doors, has a presence in 60 countries around the world and continues to advocate for persecuted followers of Christ.
Today in the West, we enjoy the precious gift of religious freedom. In some places it is even popular to be called a Christian. It can get you an audience, a job, and book contracts. Politicians even claim Christianity in order to win votes. So it can be difficult to grasp what it means to have to keep our faith a secret. But let us meet two characters in the Easter story in whom secret disciples around the world might find inspiration. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were marginalized believers in a different sort of way. They enjoyed power and prestige among the religious elite—but had to keep their love for Jesus quiet.
We know from the Gospels that Jesus’ ministry provoked mostly widespread opposition from religious leaders, both the Sadducees and the Pharisees. But the Bible also shows specific examples of religious leaders who earnestly sought to understand Jesus and eventually became followers of Christ. Of these, Nicodemus is perhaps the most prominent. Nicodemus was a Pharisee but held a seat on the Sanhedrin, the prestigious, 70-member ruling body dominated by Sadducees. We first meet him in the pages of John’s gospel as he seeks out a secret meeting with Jesus at night and probes the itinerant teacher with a series of questions.
It’s easy to question why Nicodemus came to Jesus at night, away from the crowds. Those of us who have never faced any opposition for our Christian faith, who probably have more fish stickers on our cars than we do unbelieving friends, might not get what it is like to live as a Christian in a desperately hostile environment, but we would be foolish to consider Nicodemus a coward in this moment.
Even to meet with Jesus at night was an act of courage, a willingness to obey that small voice of faith. To be seen with Jesus carried enormous risk for such a prestigious religious leader. The Pharisees would soon cast off anyone from their synagogue if they professed faith in Jesus (John 9:22), something Jesus would later warn his disciples of in his Upper Room Discourse (16:2).
Jesus never rebuked Nicodemus for his slow, secret quest. R. C. Sproul says this is in keeping “with our Lord’s refusal to put out a faith that, being mingled with fear, seems to be a smoldering wick (Isa. 42:3).”
We should be thankful for this smoldering wick, for Nicodemus’s probing questions of Jesus inspired perhaps the most beautiful words in all of Scripture: Jesus’ declaration of his mission, words the Spirit of God has blown into the hearts of so many in the millennia since this fateful encounter. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). By these words, many smoldering wicks, many Nicodemuses, have met Jesus in their own dark nights of the soul and have emerged as children of the light.
We don’t know if Nicodemus converted that night, but he shows up again in John’s gospel (John 7:50–51), defending Jesus in what seems to be a private discussion among religious leaders. The Pharisees were angry that Jesus had declared himself to be “living water” at the Feast of Tabernacles, a sacred rite that commemorated God’s faithfulness in the desert (Lev. 23:42–43). Jesus invited the Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem that day to believe in him and find “streams of living water” (John 7:38, CSB), a fulfillment of the prediction by the prophets of the coming of the Holy Spirit (Isa. 55:1; Joel 2:28). His claims of deity caused some to believe but also enraged many Pharisees at what they considered blasphemy. Nicodemus urged them to resist a rush to judgment on Jesus’ deity, reminding them that the law required doing due diligence.
Again, we don’t really know the state of Nicodemus’s faith at this point. Was he still a seeker just pleading for a full hearing for Jesus? Was he speaking of his own journey, of his own personal investigation of the claims of Christ? We cannot say. But he shows courage in standing up to the crowd. Months later, Jesus would not get a fair hearing from the very ruling body, the Sanhedrin, that Nicodemus served with such distinction.
Integrity and wealth
In the Christmas story, we meet an unknown man named Joseph who helped care for Jesus in his birth. In the Easter story, we meet another unknown man named Joseph who helps care for Jesus in his death.
Joseph of Arimathea shows up in every gospel account of Jesus’ death. He is described by Matthew as a “rich man” and a “disciple of Jesus” (Matt. 27:57–60). Mark describes him as a “prominent member” of the Sanhedrin and someone who was “waiting for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:42–46). Luke calls Joseph “a good and upright man,” a “member of the Council” who didn’t agree with their decision to seek Jesus’ death (Luke 23:50–51). John calls him a “disciple of Jesus” who kept his faith secret due to fear of his fellow religious leaders (John 19:38).
Joseph’s hometown was the Judean village of Arimathea, a town in the hilly region of Ephraim, 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Some scholars think this was also the hometown of Samuel, Israel’s celebrated prophet and priest.
The gospel writers are clear that Joseph, like Job, was known for both his integrity and his wealth. This is a good reminder that riches and righteousness are not always mutually exclusive. God often calls the poor and ignoble of this world, but that doesn’t preclude him from calling wealthy Christians to use their means for the kingdom of God. Joseph was one of those men.
Like every faithful Pharisee, he was looking for the kingdom of God, but Mark’s gospel tells us that while many of his peers found that “kingdom” in obedience to the law and personal piety, Joseph saw the fulfillment of those kingdom promises in Jesus. But as a Sanhedrin member, he had to keep his allegiance a secret.
The lives of Nicodemus and Joseph converged as they became unlikely actors in God’s redemptive drama. These two had a lot in common as Pharisees on a Sadducee-dominated Sanhedrin. Pharisees were minorities among Israel’s elite leadership, even as they were the majority sect among the people.
We can imagine how Nicodemus, Joseph, and other Pharisees on the council must have winced at the elitism of their peers and fought for the voice of the people among the corruption and self-dealings of the leadership class. Pharisees resisted the worldliness of the Greco-Roman culture and loathed their Roman occupiers. They wanted Israel to live up to its calling by God to be a distinct people. They eagerly awaited the kingdom of God and the resurrection at the end of the age. The Sadducees were much more sophisticated, preferring accommodation with the Romans, even purchasing power through corruption and backroom deals. They held the seats of power, including the chief priest roles. And they rejected belief in miracles and the afterlife.
But it was Jesus, even more than the Sanhedrin, who would bring Nicodemus and Joseph close. To believe in this itinerant rabbi and his claims to be the Son of God put them at odds even with their Pharisee brethren. We can’t imagine the wrestling in their souls as they straddled their identity as proud Pharisees and the tug of the Spirit on their hearts as they investigated the claims of Jesus. These two men, strong in integrity and righteousness, could not escape the conclusion that would put them at odds with their synagogue, their families, and their community.
But how providential of God to have Nicodemus and Joseph find each other. We can imagine the hallway conversations and the late-night sessions discussing Jesus. And we can then imagine the terrible discomfort each would feel as Jesus was arrested and stood trial before their august body. Did they push back among other members of the Sanhedrin? Did they reiterate Nicodemus’s plea that his fellow religious leaders resist the rush to judgment and give Jesus a fair hearing? Luke tells us Joseph disagreed with the decision, but how strongly did they voice that dissent, and were they silenced?
How powerless these two powerful men must have felt! Yet what they couldn’t know and didn’t yet understand was that Jesus’ march to the cross was not really the work of the Sanhedrin.
Somewhere between the trial before the Sanhedrin and Jesus’ crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus made a decision to take their private faith public with an extraordinary gesture. Perhaps exhausted by the long days, disillusioned by their fellow Pharisees’ embrace of injustice, or grieving the loss of the one upon whom they’d rested their messianic hopes, they decided to give Jesus in his death what Israel had refused him in his life: acknowledgment as King. He would be buried not in an empty field but in a rich man’s tomb, fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 53:9).
So Joseph requested permission from Pilate, the Roman governor, to take Jesus’ body off the cross. The request caught Pilate by surprise. Typically, a criminal would be dumped into an empty grave or pauper’s field, buried ignominiously under a pile of rocks. So this was highly unusual. Perhaps Pilate was relieved that this Jesus problem was finally taken care of. But more than that, he was probably surprised to see a member of the Sanhedrin standing before him, willing to risk position and reputation to give an enemy of the state, one convicted of treason and insurrection, a king’s burial.
There were many important considerations for Joseph and Nicodemus and for the women who accompanied them to the burial of Jesus. It was important not only to get the body off the cross but also to bury it quickly before sundown and the start of Sabbath on Passover week, when work had to cease. Joseph’s tomb made sense as a burial spot, likely near Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified, but outside the city walls.
Both Joseph and Nicodemus made great sacrifices—Joseph in giving up his tomb and Nicodemus in paying for costly burial spices and ointments. John 19:39 says it was 75 pounds, an extraordinary amount, reminiscent of Mary’s extravagant display of washing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume (12:3).
Peeling Jesus’ bloody body off the cross and carrying him the distance to the tomb was a difficult task. He had to be carefully wrapped in bandages and anointed with both myrrh as a preservative and aloes and perfumes to minimize the stench of decomposition. This was an act of love for Joseph and Nicodemus: two high-ranking religious officials stooping low and exhausting themselves to honor their Lord. You imagine their friends, their families, wondering why these two men of stature would take such care for a rejected Messiah, a despised enemy of Rome.
We can’t know exactly what they were thinking as they performed this thankless task—whether, for instance, fear and doubt were creeping into their hearts. But we know that their private faith, the secret they whispered to each other in the halls of Jerusalem, would now be public.
It’s easy to wonder why Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were so quiet about their faith. But I think this perspective is unfair and shortsighted. Courage looks different on different people and in different situations.
At times Jesus did not speak or move about openly, knowing his enemies were seeking him but that his time had not yet come. There are situations where prudence is the best witness: Think of Christians in closed countries, working to slowly plant seeds of gospel witness. Or Christians in prominent leadership roles who must weigh their words in order to steward their influence. This isn’t always cowardice. Sometimes we need a Dietrich Bonhoeffer faith, willing to suffer death for our convictions. But other times we need a Brother Andrew faith, stealthily working underground to advance God’s mission.
This is hard to comprehend in an age when we think every thought has to be expressed all the time on every medium. Public proclamation is important, but so is the need to “make it your ambition to lead a quiet life” (1 Thess. 4:11) and to be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
Nicodemus and Joseph showed courage when it mattered, and not a moment too soon. Their inclusion in the Easter story shows us how God works in mysterious ways to accomplish his purposes in the world; it shows the gospel’s power to work in the most surprising places. The Sanhedrin seemed the last place to find disciples of Jesus. Even as the kingdom of God was moving among the poor and the outcast, it was also moving among the powerful, in the very councils that wrote his death sentence, flashing pinpricks of light into a dark world.
Some of the most important evidence for Jesus’ resurrection would be gathered by members of the very body that sent him to the cross. Nicodemus and Joseph both saw him physically dead, a lifeless corpse leaking blood and water. And they buried him in a prominent place where nobody could mistake the miracle, so much so that Jesus’ enemies had to bribe the Roman soldiers assigned to guard Jesus to lie about it (Matt. 28:11–15).
God used Nicodemus and Joseph in creating the most important apologetic of the Christian faith. Without the empty tomb, we are, to quote Paul, “of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19, KJV). The secret disciples, by their quiet acts of faithfulness, shouted the good news of God’s redemptive love to the world.
Daniel Darling is senior vice president of communications for the National Religious Broadcasters and a teaching pastor at Green Hill Church in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. This article is adapted from his book The Characters of Easter: The Villains, Heroes, Cowards, and Crooks Who Witnessed History’s Biggest Miracle (© 2021). Published by Moody Publishers. Used with permission.