The evangelist Billy Sunday told a story about a Christian who got a job in a lumber camp where the workers had a reputation for being ungodly. A friend, hearing that the man had been hired, said to him, “If those lumberjacks ever find out you’re a Christian, you’re going to be in for a hard time!” After a year, the man decided to return home for a visit. While in town, he met the friend who had predicted that he would receive ridicule and persecution from the workers in the lumber camp. “Well,” asked the friend, “did they give you a hard time because you’re a Christian?” “Oh, no, not at all,” the man replied. “They didn’t give me a bit of trouble—they never even found out!”
There is such a thing as an undercover Christian. Jesus himself said, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (Mark 8.38). In other words, it’s shameful to be a secret Christian. Shameful, but apparently, not impossible. The most famous incognito disciple was Joseph of Arimathea. All four Gospels tell us about Joseph. Matthew tells us he was rich, that he wrapped Jesus’ body in a long sheet of linen, and that the tomb was Joseph’s own.
Mark emphasizes that Joseph was an honored member of the Jewish High Council (the Sanhedrin), and that he was waiting for the kingdom of God. He says that Joseph took courage in approaching Pilate. Luke calls Joseph a good and righteous member of the Sanhedrin, who had not agreed with the decision and action of the council to condemn Jesus. John comes right out and calls him a fearful “secret disciple.” What was Joseph afraid of? The opinions of his peers. Their judgment, perhaps.
He was afraid he could lose status, his social position. Having seen the unjust rush to execute Jesus, Joseph had real reason to fear physical danger. Nevertheless, he was on the council itself—he was in the position to make an actual difference, if anyone could. Had Joseph taken a public stand for Jesus, would it have changed the outcome? Probably not. But at least he would have taken a stand.
He finally reached the point where he would rather face the public danger of coming out for Jesus than to face the private shame of doing nothing. So he steps forward. Coming forward when he does and asking for the body took courage, because in doing so, he was declaring his love for Jesus. The word used in the Gospels indicates that Joseph had to beg for Pilate’s permission. A condemned man had no right to burial—that was part of the shame of crucifixion. It’s shocking that Pilate even allowed it.