The Secret Disciples


It is primarily in John’s Gospel that we get information about Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Nicodemus is described as a “ruler of the Jews,” a thoughtful Pharisee who came to Jesus by night and was struggling to understand how a mature adult like himself could be “born again.” Many of us have the same problem, but apparently Nicodemus did finally gain some enlightenment about this mystery and continued as a secret disciple, appearing after Jesus’ death to help give Him a proper burial with ointment and spices.

Joseph of Arimathea is described by John as a rich and noble “counselor” of the Jews, and likewise a disciple in secret. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that he was “virtuous and righteous,” a “distinguished member of the council,” someone “waiting for the kingdom of God.” Joseph in the council meetings “had not consented to their plan of action”; in some way, he had registered opposition to the factions of Jews who wished to silence and/or execute Jesus. Finally, helping Nicodemus at the end, he prevailed upon Pilate to have Jesus’ body entrusted to him to be buried, possibly in the tomb he had prepared for himself, newly cut out of rock.

These two individuals contrast remarkably with the apostles and many of the disciples. While other men and women were openly following Jesus, hanging on His words, bringing their friends and relatives into His circle, often suffering opprobrium, these two gentlemen prima facie were slinking around at night, trying to catch the Master when no one was looking; or else observing at a distance during the day, when they were relatively sure that none of their comrades among the Pharisees or members of the Sanhedrin would discover them, hurting their credibility or position.

What must the apostles — who, as Peter said, had “left everything to follow [Jesus]” — think about these silent disciples who never gave clear declarations of their commitment and were content to “work behind the scenes”? Might not Peter, James, and some of the others wonder, “Why didn’t these men take a stand, support us, and speak up to help prevent the nefarious threats that were looming from the centers of power in Jerusalem?” What about Jesus’ admonition to “let your light shine before others,” and His warnings not to be ashamed of Him?

However, it is not only in John’s Gospel that Nicodemus and Joseph are presented in a positive light (possibly based on personal acquaintance of the writer of the fourth Gospel). Luke praises Joseph as “a virtuous and righteous man, who had not consented to their plan of action.” Mark describes him as one who was “awaiting the kingdom of God,” and praises his courage.


Some of us today may feel a particular affinity with these two disciples. Many of us move largely (maybe even exclusively) in secular circles, among people who consider Christianity a pre-modern phenomenon and Catholicism a widespread aberration connected with medieval folk mores, superstitions, and outdated sexual norms (and, being so obviously “organized,” Catholicism certainly could not be very “spiritual”).

For how many of us have churchgoing habits, prayers, spiritual reading, charitable practices, etc., that are for the most part secret — not just unostentatious, but carried out deliberately in such a way as not to attract attention, so that we might as well be classified as “secret disciples”? How many of us take special precautions to make sure that our regular Christian practices and even beliefs are not noticed among our numerous friends and associates who hold only “politically correct” secular habits (e.g., about observance of Sundays or holy days) and, in the best scenario, would react to our opinions (about contraception, abortion, etc.), if they were known, with polite silence, or simply change the subject?

Like Nicodemus or Joseph, we might argue, probably justifiably, that we can “do most good” by remaining in our present position or occupation, doing what we can to keep the real evil stuff at bay and to promote the good, true, and beautiful in all its various forms. We visualize Nicodemus speaking up respectfully at the meetings of the Pharisees, reminding them that they need to exercise “due process” in applying the laws. He no doubt reminded his colleagues about Jesus’ frequent references concerning respect for the Mosaic law and the prophets, and he certainly would have emphasized that Jesus was no threat to their jurisdiction or their authority.

We also think of Joseph of Arimathea, “not consenting to their plan of action,” probably using his influential position consistently to mollify the anger and resentment that he saw emerging among his compatriots; and, with his wealth, probably contributing substantially but anonymously to the purse that Judas carried, helping toward the sustenance of the growing band of believers.

Needless to say, we “Nicomadenians” who feel relatively more similarities with these two disciples than with some others may appear to lack the mettle of the fervent evangelists and martyrs who are celebrated in the New Testament, and about whom we hear throughout history and even in our contemporary world. But we can remind ourselves (with some justification) that the Spirit has an inexhaustible supply of gifts to mete out; and no doubt a gift like Nicodemianism is valid and commendable — nothing to be ashamed of.

Howard Kainz’s new book, The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct, is available from Susquehanna University Press.


Image: Nicodemus, by Henry O. Tanner


Howard Kainz is professor emeritus at Marquette University. He is the author of several books, including Natural Law: an Introduction and Reexamination (2004), The Philosophy of Human Nature (2008), and The Existence of God and the Faith-Instinct (2010).

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