Courage at the Cross

At Gages Lake Bible Church, we’re going through the gospel of John. This Sunday, we’re finishing up chapter 19, covering verses 31-42. This is an interesting part of Scripture where John describes, with great detail, the burial of Jesus. There are great themes here with Jesus fulfilling prophecy even in his burial, the symbolism of water and blood (sanctification and justification) as well as the importance of Jesus actually being dead. If he wasn’t dead, He didn’t really rise and we are, as Paul says, “of all men most miserable” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

But there is a subtle secondary application, one that I didn’t catch until this time through John 19. It’s a great lesson on the real meaning of courage. Who really had courage at the cross? (Besides Jesus who willingly took the cup of God’s wrath?). Ironically it wasn’t the outwardly bold Peter. It wasn’t John who famously asked Jesus to call down fire on the bad people (Luke 9:54).

Ironically, the real courage might have been  displayed by the guys who previously seemed to have exhibited the least amount of courage: Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus. Now many commentators and preachers throughout the years have made hay of the fact that Joseph and Nicodemus were “secret disciples.” I’ve read a lot of stirring material on the importance of boldly living out your faith, counting the cost, etc. This is true. But I’m not convinced in the case of Joseph and Nicodemus.

All the gospels seem to take a pretty high view of these guys. They were members of the San Hedrin, who convicted Jesus of blasphemy and marshaled him to the Romans and to the cross. But clearly Joseph and Nicodemus objected to this. In fact, we have the record of Nicodemus defending Jesus before the San Hedrin (John 7:50-52). It seems to me that perhaps this arrested Joseph’s attention and they found common cause as disciples of Jesus in a hostile environment (the San Hedrin). Perhaps they were planning carefully their “coming out” as disciples. We don’t know.

We do know that Nicodemus, though being an esteemed teacher of the law, was curious about Jesus and met him at night (John 3). We also know that Luke describes Joseph this way:

Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God.(Luke 23:50-51 ESV)

Now John did describe Joseph as being “fearful of the Jews.”  Of course this text is typically the launching pad to say these two men were more fearful of man than God and should have boldly come out and declared their allegiance. Now perhaps they should have, but perhaps they were being “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” Courage doesn’t always have to be displayed loudly, and with conflict. Plus we know that Jesus, at times, even cautioned his disciples to be circumspect in their display of their faith in Him. Sometimes this is the wisest course of action. I think of Christian missionaries in countries where the Christian faith is illegal. Most operate secretly, underground, so as to not attract attention.Would they die for their faith? Sure they would. But they’d rather do their work quietly until they are forced to stand trial.

Joseph and Nicodemus did eventually act courageously when they took care of the body of Jesus. This would forever mark them as followers of Jesus. They’d surely lose esteem in their social circles and perhaps risk their position on the San Hedrin. Perhaps they’d even be in danger of violence or death. But they just chose to display this courage at the right time when it was needed most. God gave them the courage to stand up for Christ, when it was needed and not a minute too soon. The big story is that God worked through these men to fulfill the Scriptures (Isaiah 53:9). But Joseph and Nicodemus became part of the story by applying wisdom to their faith.

Regardless of your opinion on Joseph and Nicodemus, there is here, I think, a terrific lesson on courage. We typically attach courage to men like Peter who grab a sword. But in the end, Peter lacked the courage he needed. We typically associate “manliness” and courage with hairy-chested, angry outbursts. But the Scripture shows us that courage is less about personality or an action, but about the willingness to wisely stand up for what is right when it is needed.

I’m thinking this is a great application for those who live and work in an environment hostile to their faith. The courageous Christian doesn’t obnoxiously declare Christ every day and annoy his coworkers. He just lives it out and when the time comes to stand up, when he might even lose something, Christ gives him the strength to do it. And his courage is respected, because its something real.

I thought this lesson on courage was something worth pondering as we head into Easter.

When words are many, transgression is not lacking,
but whoever restrains his lips is prudent. Proverbs 10:19