When I lived in San Francisco I knew of two men who had come to recognize Jesus as Lord and Messiah, but who felt that it would be best if they remained in their mosque as secret disciples in hopes of someday bringing their fellow Muslims to know Jesus. In most Christians circles one of the most basic marks of a convert is public confession. Yet if these Muslims made a public confession that they worshiped Christ this would forfeit any audience with friends and family for proclaiming the gospel.
At that time and even now I have willingly lived with the tension of a Christian who has not made a public confession because it seems that this is not something unknown to the earliest Christians. We may say it is one thing to remain in a mosque, and something altogether different to continue worship at the temple (especially since one common mark of early Christology seems to have been the Christ-as-Temple motif), but there may be an analogy here.
Even more explicit is the narrative in Jn. 19.38-40. In this passage we have two men who are influential and authoritative enough to gain an audience with Pilate of whom it is said the following:
“…Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission. So he came and took away his body. Nicodemus, who first came to him by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds in weight. So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen wrappings with spices, as is the burial customs of the Jews.”
Two things to observe:
(1) Joseph of Arimathea was considered a disciple, but one who kept his discipleship secret (κεκρυμμενος). It was enough that he knew Jesus and that Jesus knew him. It was OK that he feared the Jews. This does not cause the evangelist to doubt the authenticity of his discipleship.
(2) Nicodemus is not called a “secret disciple”, but he is connected with Joseph. Similarly, we know from 3.1-12 that the author tells the narrative about Nicodemus’ meeting with Jesus in such a way that one thinks he went away empty handed. This is even more apparent when the evangelist intentionally juxtaposes Nicodemus with the Samaritan woman by putting these two narratives right next to each other (male-female; middle of the night-middle of the day; Jew-Samaritan; high class-low class; right doctrine-wrong doctrine; right worship location-wrong worship location; he comes to find Jesus-Jesus goes to find her; etc.) so that one sees Nicodemus in a similar light to say the rich young ruler. Therefore, literarily, the evangelist has made us think that Nicodemus was not a disciple, yet here he is with Joseph!
So what do we do with these characters and what did the evangelist want us to know? It should be pointed out that someone knew of their status as disciples, otherwise we would not have this story. This means either (a) the evangelist knew or knew someone who knew or (b) they later made a more public confession. But this seems secondary to the reality that the author seems to want to indicate that there was no doubting that Joseph, and Nicodemus, were disciples even without a public confession.
When you read this narrative what does it make you think of people who have come to faith in Christ, but for reasons like the story of the two Muslims in San Francisco, remain silently in their setting living a stealth Christianity? How do you reconcile this (or not) with passages that seem to indicate public confession is essential (e.g. baptism, “confess the Lord with your mouth”)?