THE COURAGEOUS COWARD
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A fireman who was half dead from exhaustion and smoke inhalation, with face dirty and uniform covered with grime, staggers past the crowd and is almost deafened by their shouts and cheers for him. He has just come from a burning building where, at the risk of his life, he climbed to the third story and rescued a trapped child. The crowd watched breathlessly as he walked along the ledge of the building with his precious burden, and finally managed to get back to the ladder and down to safety. The crowd cheered this man more now than they ever thought of doing on the day of the firemen's parade. He marched by then in his freshly cleaned uniform with all the buttons shined. It is obvious why. Even though he was more presentable marching in a parade, that was only a superficial duty of a fireman, but now they had just witnessed his sacrificial duty. He had risked his life, and the awful appearance which he now exhibited was the result of his willingness to perform the hardest, highest, and most sacrificial duty of a fireman. This called for cheers and praise.
We would think people mad if they thought more of him all spic and span marching in the parade than they thought of him now. Yet, it is just this very thing that happened in the last week of the life of Christ. On Palm Sunday when Jesus rode into Jerusalem the crowds cheered him and honored Him like a king. A few days later when He hung on the cross they mocked Him. This was as foolish as mocking the fireman for saving the child. Couldn't they see that the triumphal entry was only the parade, but the cross was the real victory? Here was the king on His throne doing the real and sacrificial duty He came into the world to do. It was on the cross that He was at His best. He came to give His life a ransom for many, and now as he fulfills this greatest and most sacrificial duty of all time, the cheering crowds have become the cruel crowds. They were blind, and they missed the meaning of it all.
What was obvious in the case of the fireman is just the opposite here, but we want to consider the happy fact that not everyone missed it. The Bible tells us of several who were deeply moved by the death of Christ. We have the Roman Centurion, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus. We want to focus on Joseph, for he was the first Christian man we know of who was so moved by the cross that he made an all out commitment of his life. We want to consider his experience in two stages.
I. HIS COWARDICE BEFORE THE CROSS. v. 43
Simon of Cyrene, the penitent thief, and the Roman Centurion, all found Christ at the cross, and they could sing as a trio, "At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light." This was not the case with Joseph of Arimathea. Matthew and John both tell us that he was already a disciple of Christ, but John adds, "But secretly for fear of the Jews." It was not at the cross where Joseph first saw the light, but it was there that the light penetrated deep into his heart, and compelled him to come out into the light of open commitment.
Where was Joseph before the cross? Why don't we hear of him until now? It was because Joseph was one of those men who wanted to eat his cake and have it too. He and Nicodemus were both members of the Sanhedrin, the highest ruling body among the Jews. Most of the followers of Jesus were from the common people. His chosen disciples were mostly uneducated fishermen. You certainly would not expect a man of his standing to come out in an open declaration of his belief in Christ. Just about everyone in his circle of high society was opposed to this Galilean upstart who taught with more authority than they did.
It was too risky to operate in the open, and so Joseph decided he would be a secret disciple. He, no doubt, had all kinds of good reasons why this would be best, such as, I'll be more influence in this position of power; I'll be able to be a silent witness among the elite, the up and outers. John tells us the real reason: He was just plain scared. Nothing is so hard as going against the group.
Joseph was not alone. There were others who were afraid to risk their position and reputation by making an open stand. In John 12:42-43 we read, "Nevertheless, many even of the leaders believed in Him but, due to the Pharisees, failed to confess it so they might not be put out of the synagogue, for they preferred men's esteem to divine approval." Jesus had good cause for saying, "He who denies Me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven."
The fear of what others think is a powerful force in controlling our conduct. A group of boys from good American families broke over 300 windows in a new school building. A famous psychologist was called in to interview each boy separately, and he found that not one approved of the conduct of the group. Each thought that they were the only one who didn't want to do it, but no one was willing to voice his opinion. They were all afraid of what the others would think. All it would have taken is for one with enough sense to call the whole plan a stupid idea. He would have been a welcome leader, and could have prevented the whole thing, but they were all secret disciples of what they knew to be right. A secret disciple is about as useless as a rubber crutch.
Nicodemus and Joseph both made weak attempts to do something for Jesus. Nicodemus on one occasion said to the Sanhedrin, "Does our law condemn a man without a trial?" Luke tells us Joseph did not consent to the decision to condemn Jesus. He didn't consent, but he didn't fight it either. He was neutral, but to be neutral and silent in the presence of sin is to condone the sin. Someone said, "All it takes for evil to succeed is for good men to do nothing." If he would have risen to the defense of Jesus along with Nicodemus, and other leaders who believed, they could have prevented all the injustice and cruelty Jesus had to suffer, but he remained a secret disciple and a cowardly Christian.
Secret discipleship is a sad development in the life of many a believer. The idea of being a silent witness with your life, without speaking up for Christ, is being shattered these days. It is a fine idea, but it just doesn't work as a major method. Luke tells us that Joseph was a good and righteous man, but that did not do a thing for Christ as long as he was a silent and secret disciple. To be a silent witness is the hard way, and it leads to all sorts of complications. The man who comes right out and lets others know where he stands finds it much easier to live an effective Christian life. Once you make your stand the world expects you to be Christian in your conduct, but until they know they assume you are like them.
The secret disciple has to constantly make excuses for why he does not live like the world. When asked to go to a night club, he has to say he is tired, or has other plans. When asked to play golf on Sunday morning, he has to explain that his wife wants him to go to church, or that he would rather play on Saturday. He has to laugh at their dirty jokes or they will get suspicious. When are we going to learn that the best defense is our offense? The world shrinks in weakness before the man or woman who takes a solid stand for Christ, and for what is right. Even the conscience of the unbeliever is on our side. No one ever took a fort by hiding in the woods. You have to attack to take it. Like a mighty army moves the church of God; the gates of hell cannot stop it. Secret disciples like Joseph are of no help in the battle. Maybe they are not helping the enemy hold up the gate, but neither are they doing anything to beat it down. That is why it is a delight to see what happened to Joseph at the cross.
II. HIS COMMITMENT BENEATH THE CROSS. v. 43
What a sudden change came over Joseph. When Jesus was popular and the crowds cheered him, he was cowardly, but now when it appears that there is nothing but defeat and utter ruin of all the Lord's plans, he becomes courageous. When Jesus was performing miracles, healing the blind, and raising the dead, he was afraid to come out into the open. But now when all his disciples have fled, and he is a picture of complete helplessness and weakness, he boldly goes to Pilate and asks for the body of Christ, and thereby proclaims to the world that he is a follower of this man.
This took more courage then we realize. The Roman practice was to dishonor the bodies of criminals who were crucified. They would let the dogs and birds consume them, or burn them, or throw them in a ditch. For Joseph to go and request the body of Jesus for decent burial was as much as saying, "I think you crucified an innocent man. You did wrong to kill him." It was fortunate for him that Pilate felt guilty, and was glad to grant his wish as another act to ease his conscience. Eusebius, the ancient church historian, tells us that when the Presbyter Pamphylius of Cesarea was sentenced to martyrdom in 309 A. D., his young slave Porphyrius requested that he might be allowed to bury the body. The judge was infuriated and condemned him to be tortured at the stake.
Joseph not only risked his life because of Pilate, but because of the Sanhedrin. What would they do when they heard what he had done to the one they had so despised? At best he would be cursed and ostracized from office. What was it that caused Joseph to do now what he could never do before? I cannot doubt that it was what he saw and heard beneath the cross. If the cross does not bring a man out of his cowardly concealment, nothing will. We see in Joseph the first evidence of the power of the cross. There was a power there that did what even his perfect life could not do. The cross is not only the power that brings sinners to conversion, it is the power that brings saints to commitment.
As Joseph stood beneath the cross of Jesus, and saw the love that He exhibited there, in spite of the hate and mockery against Him, his conscience must have burned within him. His shame must have been almost unbearable when Jesus said, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do." He must have examined Himself and said, "That is right! I don't know what I am doing. I have been playing it safe, and look what He suffers. I've been worried about my position, power, and possessions. My pride has been my master." He saw what folly he was practicing in the light of the cross. Even the Roman Centurion, who did not have the knowledge he did, could see the love of God at the cross.
Joseph could not longer hide his love for this one whose love never failed or faltered, even on the cross.
"For me, I yield, I yield-I can hold out no more.
I come by dying love compelled, and own Him conqueror."
Joseph could have sung from actual experience,
"When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss and poor contempt on all my pride."
Our text tells us that Joseph was looking for the kingdom of God. Could it be that even the penitent thief played a part in Joseph's sudden commitment? This thief said to Jesus, "Remember me when you come into your kingdom," and Jesus said, "This day thou shalt be with Me in paradise." This was certainly a challenge to Joseph. Here was a thief who saw in Jesus a king. He believed that Jesus had a kingdom, and that he could be a part of it, and Jesus assured him he would be. Joseph must have wondered at his own folly. He was looking for the kingdom, and here was the king before his very eyes. He had been counting the cost of coming out in the open for Christ, and he thought it was too high a price to pay, but now he begins to consider the cost of remaining silent, and he came to the conclusion that he would count all else as loss that he might win Christ. He threw all fear to the wind, and made an open stand. Jesus said, "It is finished," and Joseph said in his heart, "Amen, and so is my secret discipleship finished."
The death of Jesus did something in Joseph just the opposite of what it did to the disciples of Jesus. They took it as the final blow, and they slunk away in defeat to weep in despair. Joseph, in contrast, came out of hiding, threw off his mask, and boldly said, "I love this man enough to give him my tomb for burial." He took a stand as shocking to all who knew him as it would be to us if a member of the Supreme Court gave his burial plot to one that the court had just condemned to death. If you think that would make headlines, what about the story of Joseph? It would spread like wildfire through the land of Israel. He would be branded for life. Tradition says he was removed from the Sanhedrin for his action. How would we feel if the Supreme Court judge who gave his plot, gave it to one who was condemned as a traitor of our country? That is how the leaders of Israel looked at Jesus, and at Joseph who gave him a place of burial."
It took the crisis of the cross to change his cowardice into courage. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring out a man's true faith. Foxe, in his book of martyrs, tells of Christians who trembled in fear as they sat in prison thinking of being burned at the stake, but when the time came they faced it bravely. Some Christians are like Peter who was courageous when all was calm, but who turned weak in the hour of crisis. Others are like Joseph who was cowardly, but who became courageous in the hour of crisis.
Joseph was the first in a long line of men of God who were compelled to risk all in complete commitment due to a crisis situation. Savonarola was preaching the Word of God with such boldness to the Italians that the corrupt church tried to stop him by advancing him to the position of Cardinal. When the messenger of Rome arrived with the offer of the Cardinal's purple, Savonarola asked him to come to his next sermon and receive his reply. In that lenten sermon of 1496 he said, "I desire neither hats nor mitres, be they great or small. I desire naught save that which thou hast given to thy saints; it is death; a crimson hat, a hat of blood I desire." That is what he got, for he chose the cross rather than compromise, and to be a coward.
Before the great anti-Christian outbreak in China, an official who was a secret believer was ordered to send a message to an inland governor telling him to kill all Christian missionaries. This was his hour of crisis, and, as it was with Joseph, it led him to open commitment. He sent instructions to the governor to protect the Christians, and in so doing he risked all that his life offered him, and that is what it cost, for he was soon put to death. It is costly to be committed to Christ. But Jesus did not call us to raise roses, pick posies, cultivate carnations, but to carry the cross. The Christian life is not a cinch, but a challenge that calls for courage. As the hymn says,
Ye that are men now serve Him,
Against unnumbered foes:
Your courage rise with danger,
And strength to strength oppose.
Leaders of any cause know that there must be a challenge in their cause if it is going to succeed. Napoleon once built a battery in such an exposed position that his artillery officers said he would never find men to man it. Napoleon was wise. He set a placard by it which read, "The Battery Of Men Without Fear." He never lacked men to man that battery.
If we read between the lines on the placard over the cross, we see written there, "Jesus Christ the King of the Jews-those who would follow Him must be willing to risk everything. Joseph of Arimethea accepted that challenge, and made the most important decision of his life-the decisions to end his secret discipleship of cowardice, and become an open witness whatever the cost.
As we consider the cross before our communion service, we too must face its challenge. We cannot remain neutral before the cross of Christ, and we ought not to want to, for every man's heart cries out with George Eliot who said, "I don't want to be a bit of driftwood on the current of things." We want our lives to count, and if they count for Christ, they count for eternity. A decision for him gives direction to life; gives determination to make life useful, and gives a destination for our life worth striving for. Everyone of us stand at the cross of crisis, and it is the hour of decision: Will we be cowards, or will be courageous?