Persecution, Secret Disciples, and Acknowledging Christ
“Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 10:32)
Several years ago, as most of you know, elder Whitaker and I had the privilege of traveling to China to teach pastors. It was an eye-opening experience that has led me and others to hold these dear believers close to our hearts—and to admire them greatly. These Christians are suffering for the Lord, while we seldom do. Yet, they do not hide their faith in secret.
I was reminded of this again recently when I read an article that spoke about torture and attempts to brainwash Chinese Christians who do not bow to their Caesar.
If you were faced with this prospect, might you either soft-peddle the faith or privatize it altogether? That is a recurring temptation. There were and are people who seek to avoid suffering and persecution by telling themselves they can be secret disciples. Such, Jesus and the Gospels do not approve.
Nicodemus is mentioned three times in the Gospel of John purposefully to show us how God-implanted faith outgrows doubt. Like many of us, Nicodemus’ faith did not begin at Olympic pace. He started slow, haltingly even. In his first visit to Jesus in the dark of night (John 3), he was afraid of being seen. After Jesus told him of the necessity of being born again, Nicodemus pondered that; however, he did not at that time begin to associate with the disciples. He kept his seat on the Sanhedrin, probably telling himself that he could do more good there.
Later in John 11, he appears a 2nd time—still seeking to be a covert disciple. This time, he ever so mildly defended Jesus before the Sanhedrin. He raises a question about procedure, and that question gives Jesus a respite. But at this point, Nicodemus is far from a public follower of Christ.
Nicodemus did not take a public and decisive stand with Jesus until after Christ’s death. John. 19:38-39 mentions that he and Joseph of Arimathea went and requested the body of Jesus, so as to give him a decent burial. It appears that Nicodemus finally comes out of the closet and takes a public stand with Christ.
Prior to that, he’d been a doubting Nicodemite? Interestingly, at the time of the Protestant Reformation, there was a group, a religious party of Protestant sympathizers, who tried to remain in the Roman Catholic church and called themselves Nicodemites. Henri Blocher describes them: “Just as Nicodemus came to Christ ‘by night,’ presumably to avoid being seen by ‘the Jews,’ and therefore remained a secret disciple until the Cross, many French evangelicals imagined they could be inwardly at peace with God, have salvation, be free from superstition, even keep attending Mass, and still remain outwardly Roman Catholic. A mixture of beliefs and compromises converged to support this clever way of escaping the vicious persecution that was raging (for oneself and for one’s family).”
The Frenchman John Calvin realized that such a compromise would entail the absorption of the clear Gospel witness by the Catholic system. He preached the cost of discipleship, the way of the Cross, and full commitment as the only proper response to the Grace of Christ who gave himself unreservedly on our behalf. Calvin astutely considered the course taken by these as a betrayal of the Gospel. He viewed this compromise with deadly seriousness. In 1544, Calvin severely rebuked their compromise:
What shall I say of those who, after having tasted the gift of God, instead of opposing this insufferable tyranny with all their force as they ought, conceal on the contrary, despite their real opinions, the sad state of the [persecuted] Church. Out of consideration for their reputation or for their wealth they suffer in silence those iniquitous judgments, and they would regard it as dishonour if they were to be the objects of the least suspicion.
They told themselves that they could remain covert disciples and need not radically forsake false religion, since only the heart and inward ideals mattered. Calvin admonished those who professed belief not to put their candle under a bushel.
Calvin also had a clear understanding about the conversion of Nicodemus. He noted on John 19:39 that Joseph and Nicodemus were actually acting with “heroic magnanimity” since when things were “at the lowest ebb, they fearlessly” took a public stand to bury Jesus.” Seeing Christ clearly, finally “quickly extinguished all the passions belonging to the flesh. So long as ambition and the love of money reigned in them, the grace of Christ had no charms for them; but now they begin to dis-relish the whole world.” Can that be said of you?
Calvin warns “the false Nicodemites” not to flatter themselves “by pretending to give their consent to wicked superstitions [and] do all that is in their power to deny that they are disciples of Christ.”
Jesus said, ““Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven.” (Mt. 10:32)
Let’s acknowledge him before men as we sing in worship, as we speak in our homes, as we witness to our children and to co-workers.
We really don’t need more secret disciples.