The Cross through the Eyes of a Secret Believer: A Message on John 19

This post is a message I recently shared at a local church in South Asia. Subscribe to this blog to receive updates in your e-mail about No Cousins Left!

Secret believers are a common phenomenon in Muslim ministry. A few years ago, a friend and I were going village by village in a rural area looking for Muslims whose hearts were open to the gospel. Most people were resting in the heat of the day, but one man saw and invited us into his shop. Naseem was the village doctor and was curious about why we were there. My friend and I shared the gospel with Dr. Naseem, but he was not convinced. I left him with an Injeel (Urdu for the New Testament) and challenged him to read it. I did not expect ever to see Naseem again.

When I woke up the next morning, I saw that I had more than ten missed calls. All of them were from Dr. Naseem. He had been calling me from about 1-5 am, but my phone was on silent mode. When I called him, Dr. Naseem told me that he had not stopped reading the Injeel from the time I had left his shop. He had not eaten nor slept. I could tell that he was troubled on the phone. He told me that he knew that the Injeel was true and asked me, “What do I need to do?”

Unfortunately, Naseem was not willing to count the cost to follow Jesus fully. Naseem regularly goes to the mosque for prayer and has never worshipped with a group of Christians. He keeps his Bible secretly hidden and studies it when he has the chance. He has been unwilling to meet with Christians in his village. He has told me that he has not even told his wife that he believes the Bible is true. When I visit Dr. Naseem, we meet outside of his village, where his friends and relatives cannot see him studying the Bible. 

The Story of Nicodemus

In the Gospel of John, we encounter a secret believer named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was part of the religious leadership of Jerusalem (John 7:50). He was a Pharisee (John 3:1), meaning that he was a religious teacher with significant knowledge about the Law of Moses (John 3:10). Being in the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus was in the room when Pharisees and chief priests met during Jesus’ life and ministry. 

In John 3, we read Nicodemus’ encounter with Jesus. Nicodemus went to Jesus at night, no doubt, out of fear. He knew that the Pharisees were angry with Jesus and could not be seen consorting with the enemy. Nicodemus said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2). Jesus famously responded, “Truly I tell you, unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). Nicodemus left his encounter with Jesus realizing a need to be born again. Although he was a religious leader, he knew that he did not know God after meeting Jesus. A little later, Jesus left Judea to go into Galilee because the Pharisees had heard he was baptizing so many people (John 4:1). No doubt, Nicodemus was in meetings of the religious leaders when they tried to decide what to do with Jesus. 

In John 7, Jesus returned to Jerusalem and began to teach during a major festival. In John 7:32, the chief priests and Pharisees sent men to arrest Jesus because the crowds started to wonder if He was the Messiah. However, these men did not stop Jesus. Instead, they returned to the Pharisees and said, “No man ever spoke like this!” (John 7:46). The Pharisees were angry and began to speak to one another against Jesus. In that meeting, Nicodemus stood up for Jesus, saying, “Our law doesn’t judge a man before it hears from him and know what he’s doing, does it?” (John 7:51) Nicodemus wanted to hear more from Jesus, while the rest of the Pharisees tried to silence Him. Nicodemus was probably thinking about his own spiritual need when he defended Jesus and his own desire for spiritual rebirth.

In John 9, the Pharisees attacked Jesus for healing a blind man on the Sabbath. A miracle like this caused a separation in the hearts and minds of the people in Jerusalem. Some used it as an opportunity to attack Jesus for breaking the Law of Moses. Others saw this miracle as a sign that Jesus had come from God. When Nicodemus first met Jesus, he said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform these signs you do unless God were with him” (John 3:2). While the Pharisees attacked Jesus for this miracle, it moved Nicodemus closer to faith. However, Nicodemus was still not ready to fully follow Christ. 

Now, before we condemn Nicodemus, we must realize that he was a broken man, a sinner, just like each of us. The Scriptures say that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23). Each of us has some hardness in our heart, like Nicodemus, and require repentance. What amazes me about the story of Nicodemus is God’s faithfulness towards this man. Jesus continued to perform signs and miracles for men like Nicodemus. Jesus taught publicly so that men like Nicodemus had many chances to hear the Word of God. He continued to provide opportunities for him to repent and believe. The story of Nicodemus reminds me of my friend, Dr. Naseem. I hope that Dr. Naseem’s story ends as well as Nicodemus’!

In John 11, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. “So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and were saying, ‘What are we going to do since this man is doing many signs?'” (John 11:47). Nicodemus was likely in that council. I am sure that Nicodemus’ heart was screaming, “We should repent and believe in Him” but his mouth remained silent. 

Instead, Nicodemus sat silently in fear as the Jewish council conspired to put Jesus to death (John 12:10). 

In John 18, the Pharisees found their opportunity to arrest Jesus. Judas Iscariot led a group of soldiers and religious leaders to Jesus at night. I wonder if Nicodemus joined that group to see what would happen or stayed home, awake all night knowing what was going on. After his arrest, Jesus was brought before the religious leaders of Jerusalem. Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin, would have been in that meeting. Again, Nicodemus stood silent as Jesus was mocked and beaten. Likely, Nicodemus was there when they brought Jesus to Pontius Pilate to stand trial. However, his fear continued to silence him. He was afraid of what his friends and neighbors would say if he stood up for Jesus. He was scared of arrest or death or persecution. Perhaps he would share the same fate as Jesus.

However, by the end of that day, something would change in Nicodemus’ heart. In John 19:38-42, we read,

38 After this, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus — but secretly because of his fear of the Jews — asked Pilate that he might remove Jesus’s body. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and took his body away. 39 Nicodemus (who had previously come to him at night) also came, bringing a mixture of about seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes. 40 They took Jesus’s body and wrapped it in linen cloths with the fragrant spices, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 41 There was a garden in the place where he was crucified. A new tomb was in the garden; no one had yet been placed in it. 42 They placed Jesus there because of the Jewish day of preparation and since the tomb was nearby. (John 19:38-42)

Taking the body of Jesus and burying Him was not a secret event. Receiving the body of Jesus required standing before Pilate and requesting it. No doubt, all of the religious leaders were appalled that these two were honoring Jesus in this way. Who knows what persecution followed against these men! It was no secret that Nicodemus brought over 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes was a quantity fit for a king and a significant expense. Remember when Mary came and anointed Jesus with just a fraction of this amount that Jesus’ disciples were scandalized at the financial waste. Joseph and Nicodemus took great care of Jesus’ body. In this act of properly caring for Jesus’ body, these two men stood publicly in Christ for the first time. 

What changed? Just hours earlier, Nicodemus cowered in fear because of the Pharisees. Now, he was willing to risk everything for his crucified Lord! There is only one thing that changed. Nicodemus witnessed the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross.

When Nicodemus saw Jesus on the cross, his life was changed. In Roman culture, many would have stood and watched Jesus slowly die a horrible death. The text does not tell us, but I imagine Nicodemus standing at a distance and watching Jesus die as the Spirit of God transformed his life. During that day, Nicodemus was born again. He realized that he was a sinner whose life was broken. He saw that He was far away from God. During that day, Nicodemus became a follower of Jesus. 

John 19 through the Eyes of Nicodemus

Having set the scene, let us walk through John 19 and see what Nicodemus experienced. As we can see in Nicodemus’s life, it is a life-changing experience to reflect upon the death of our Lord Jesus. When we look upon the cross, we need to remember that this work of Jesus was necessary because of our sin. When we choose to sin, we dishonor the death of our Lord. Today, as we hear the story of the death of Jesus, I want to challenge you to take this opportunity to repent. If there is any secret sin in your life, make today the day that you turn away from it. If there is anger or bitterness in your life, bring it to the cross today. If your mind is filled with anxiety and worry, cast it upon our crucified Lord. If you are like Nicodemus and have always stood at the edge of the faith without repenting and believing, make today your day to give your life fully to Christ.

In John 19, Nicodemus stood outside of the government headquarters. They had been there since morning while Jesus stood trial before Pilate. Nicodemus could feel the anger in the others. His heart was conflicted about what to do.

1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.

Pilate was the Roman governor over the Province of Judea. After arresting Jesus in the middle of the night, the Jewish religious leaders questioned Jesus at the high priest’s home. Early in the morning, they brought Jesus to stand trial before Pilate. They had already been there for hours while Pilate investigated what was happening and questioned Jesus. Pilate tried to release Jesus, but the Jewish religious leaders had chosen to free a revolutionary named Barabbas instead. 

So, Pilate took another step to appease the Jewish leaders by having Jesus flogged. A flogging means that Roman soldiers savagely beat Jesus with a whip. It is most likely that this flogging was public. I imagine that Nicodemus winced every time he saw the whip strike our Lord. A flogging would not have meant one or two blows from the whip. The Jewish people often gave thirty-nine lashes during a flogging. The Romans often did even more! By the end of this event, Jesus was bloody and bruised. 

2 The soldiers also twisted together a crown of thorns, put it on his head, and clothed him in a purple robe. 3 And they kept coming up to him and saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” and were slapping his face.

The mockery of Jesus continued. Imagine how Nicodemus’ heart broke as he watched the crown of thorns pierce our Lord’s head, causing even more blood to run down His face. Nicodemus knew that Jesus was innocent! How could an innocent man be treated this way! They mocked Jesus and called Him “king of the Jews,” which was exactly who He was. Jesus is referred to as the King of the Jews eight times in John 19. Jesus’ only “crime” was that He was the Messiah who had come to save His people from their sins.

4 Pilate went outside again and said to them, “Look, I’m bringing him out to you to let you know I find no grounds for charging him.” 5 Then Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the temple servants saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!”

Pilate had no interest in killing Jesus. He seemed to hope that this savage beating would satisfy the anger of the Jewish religious leaders. I wonder if Nicodemus felt broken at this point. I wonder if he realized that Jesus was suffering as a payment for his sins and the sins of the whole world. This scene reminds me of a famous Urdu song.

Jo krus pe kurbaan hai, vo mera Masiha hai(The one who is upon the cross, this is my Messiah)

Har zakhm jo uska hai, vo mere gunaah ka hai. (every wound that is applied to Him is because of my sin)

6b [To the crowd’s demands to crucify Jesus], Pilate responded, “Take him and crucify him yourselves, since I find no grounds for charging him.” 7 “We have a law,” the Jews replied to him, “and according to that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God.”

In Matthew 26:63-64, the high priest told Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Nicodemus would have been in that meeting and heard the high priest’s question of Jesus. Jesus answered the high priest, “You have said it. But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” When he heard Jesus’ statement, the high priest tore his robes and declared Jesus a blasphemer. In that room, I wonder if Nicodemus wondered how a blasphemer could teach God’s word so powerfully. How could a blasphemer open the eyes of the blind? How could a blasphemer raise Lazarus from the dead?

8 When Pilate heard this statement, he was more afraid than ever. 9 He went back into the headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus did not give him an answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you know that I have the authority to release you and the authority to crucify you?” 11 “You would have no authority over me at all,” Jesus answered him, “if it hadn’t been given you from above. This is why the one who handed me over to you has the greater sin.”

Did you know that Jesus could have stopped His crucifixion right here? When Jesus was arrested, He said, “do you think that I cannot call on my Father and He will provide me here and now with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53) Our Lord Jesus willingly gave His life on the cross. Jesus had the authority and the power to stop this all. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But Jesus knew that He needed to give His life for us. Hebrews 12:2 that for the joy before Him that Jesus endured the cross and despised the shame. This verse tells us that Jesus joyfully gave His life on the cross for us. His life was not taken! He gave Himself for our sins.

12 [After Pilate spoke to Jesus,] Pilate kept trying to release him. But the Jews shouted, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar!” 13 When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside. He sat down on the judge’s seat in a place called the Stone Pavement (but in Aramaic, ‘Gabbatha’). 14 It was the preparation day for the Passover, and it was about noon. Then he told the Jews, “Here is your king!”

This trial had begun at the break of dawn and was still going at noon. Jesus had not slept nor eaten. He had been mocked, beaten, and stood before them in His crown of thorns and purple robes. Pilate tried to release Him. But the Jewish leaders were crafty. They knew that anyone claiming to be king was considered a rebellion against the Roman Empire. If word got back to Caesar that Pilate gave leniency to a man leading a rebellion, he would also be executed. 

15 They shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”

Imagine Nicodemus during this scene. The other Jewish religious leaders were his friends and relatives. He had known them for many years. He respected and loved them. But during this scene, he did not know what to do. He saw Jesus, His King, mocked and beaten, an innocent man whom Nicodemus knew was the Messiah. But the Pharisees, who were Nicodemus’ friends and family, wanted Jesus dead. All around Nicodemus, they cried out, “Take Him away! Crucify Him!” 

15b Pilate said to them, “Should I crucify your king?” “We have no king but Caesar!” the chief priests answered. 16 Then he handed him over to be crucified.

Each step along the way, Nicodemus’ heart broke more and more. A large crowd would have stayed and watched the crucifixion of our Lord. I imagine Nicodemus standing silently at a distance. I suspect that his heart was broken over his sin and hypocrisy. Despite being a religious leader, he was not close to God. He stood by silently, while the Messiah, God’s messenger, was being mocked and killed! Imagine Nicodemus watching the crucifixion at a distance while the Holy Spirit worked on transforming his life. 

Today, I hope that the Holy Spirit is doing the same thing in your life. “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor 15:3). The only reason that Jesus suffered in this way is that each of us has sinned. Sin is when we choose to disobey God. When we remember the cross of Christ, we recognize that this is the saving power of Christ for our lives. Remember today that Jesus loves each of us right where we are. “God demonstrates His own love towards us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus did not wait until we put our lives together. He died for us to make us right with God.

16b Then they took Jesus away. 17 Carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called Place of the Skull, which in Aramaic is called ‘Golgotha’. 18 There they crucified him and two others with him, one on either side, with Jesus in the middle. 19 Pilate also had a sign made and put on the cross. It said: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Don’t write, ‘The king of the Jews,’ but that he said, ‘I am the king of the Jews.'” 22 Pilate replied, “What I have written, I have written.”

I wonder if Pilate wrote this on the sign merely to spite the Jewish religious leaders. However, I imagine Nicodemus starring at this sign all day long, knowing that Jesus was the king of the Jews. While this sign meant to mock our Lord Jesus, Nicodemus knew that it was true. During that day, Nicodemus repented. He turned away from his sins. He chose that day that Jesus was his Lord and King. 

Similarly, each of us needs to repent when we hear this story. We need to turn away from our sins and follow Jesus. Every time we look at the cross of Christ, we gain this opportunity again. Every time we choose to repent and believe, we grow closer to Christ. This is the power of the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord Jesus gave us this simple act so that we would remember His death on the cross every time we take it. As we come to the cross, again and again in the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives.

We will finish today by reading just one last paragraph of this story. Please go forward with me to verses 28-30.

28 After this, when Jesus knew that everything was now finished that the Scripture might be fulfilled, he said, “I’m thirsty.” 29 A jar full of sour wine was sitting there; so they fixed a sponge full of sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it up to his mouth. 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then bowing his head, he gave up his spirit.

It is finished. The wrath of God the Father was fully satisfied. It is finished. The sins of the world were paid for in full. It is finished. The suffering of Christ was now finished. It is finished. The work of man’s redemption and salvation is now completed. It is finished. Jesus “erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing to the cross” (Col 2:14). It is finished. Jesus “disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them at the cross” (Col 2:15). It is finished. By His work on the cross, Jesus “rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom [of God]” (Col 1:13). It is finished. “now he has reconciled you by his physical body through his death to present you holy, faultless, and blameless before him” (Col 1:22). It is finished. “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast” (Eph 2:8-9). Jesus’ life was not taken from him. With joy, Jesus freely gave His life for us. 

All of human history changed at this moment when Jesus bowed His head and gave up His Spirit. Nicodemus’ life also changed. He and Joseph of Arimathea boldly requested Jesus’ body. They gave Him the burial of a rich man. Nicodemus’ secret life went public. He chose to stand with His crucified Lord. 

What about you? As you look to the cross today, what is Christ calling you to do? Are you standing on the edges, like Nicodemus? Today, commit yourself to the Lord. Look at what Jesus did for your salvation! Do you have a secret sin in your life? Look at what Jesus did for your sins! Today if you hear His voice, do not harden your heart! Cry out to God and ask Him to change your life. Go to a brother or sister today and ask for help in following Jesus. Is your heart filled with gratitude today as we remember what Christ has done? Go and proclaim Christ’s work on the cross! Like Dr. Naseem, there are multitudes who need to hear the good news of what Jesus did on the cross. Let us go and tell them. 

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