Since we are in the middle of Passion Week, I wanted to discuss two unlikely heroes in the Easter Story.
Every story ever told, has a back story.
And while it doesn’t change the how or who or when of a story, it certainly changes the WHY.
The Easter Story is no different.
Surely your familiar with the primary narrative:
Two thousand years ago when a handful of Jesus’ followers showed up to his grave to mourn His death and care for his body, the tomb was empty.
But do you know the back story?
The back story was the proof for the first-century Christians that when they saw Jesus walking around in the weeks following His crucifixion, they weren’t seeing a ghost.
It’s the proof generations of believers since that time have used to declare that Jesus did in fact rise up from the grave in Resurrection.
The Legitimacy of the Christian faith hinges on just one event:
But what I want to point out today is this…
Without two unlikely heroes in the back story of Easter, Jesus’ death might have faded into oblivion without so much as a mention in the history books.
Thats right, the worlds most famous burial, would not have even rated important enough for one single sentence in the history books without our two heroes.
Here’s what would have happened:
Jesus would have risen from the dead in a mass grave, in a garbage dump, in a valley called Gehenna, outside the walls of Jerusalem all by himself.
Gehenna was a terrible place, the air was filled with the smell of rotting corpses and burning garbage.
Historically when a person was crucified, his body was left on the cross to rot. This was a sign of Romes power over the people. Eventually, when the body was pried off the cross it would then be thrown into a wagon and hauled to the “dump” along with all the other rotting corpses.
No one- not even the family of the deceased- was allowed to mourn the death.
It was as if a crucified person never even existed at all.
And…That my friends, is exactly what would have happened to the body of Jesus if it had not been for our two unlikely heroes:
Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
In order to discover how these two men became the unlikely heroes of the Easter story, lets go back to the early days of Jesus’ ministry.
We find both of these men early in the story of Jesus. They were among a group of religious leaders whose full-time job was being good.
The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus because He refused to keep their rules.
Within this group of religious do- gooders existed a small faction that were impressed by Jesus’ miracles. They wondered if maybe he just might be the long- awaited Messiah sent by God.
But they needed more information.
In John 3, the story picks up when a man named Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and said, ” Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing unless God was within him.”(v.1-2)
Nicodemus was warming up to ask the big question when Jesus did that weird thing we see him doing throughout the Gospels…answering a question before the question is even asked.
He told Nicodemus that “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” (v.3)
Nicodemus asked him how someone can be born when they are old? Surely they cannot enter in a second time into their mother’s womb to be born. (v. 4)
Jesus answered him that “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh but the Spirit gives birth to Spirit.” (v. 5-6)
And so the conversation continued. Jesus talks about Moses in the wilderness when the Israelites were overrun with snakes. It was a big mess.
Snakes were biting and killing the Israelites. Moses prayed and was told to put a bronze snake on his staff and lift it up, and all who looked on the snake with faith would be healed. (Numbers 21:4-9)
Then Jesus said, ” Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.” (John 3: 14-15)
From the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus predicted how and why he must die.
He too, would be lifted upon a stake so that anyone who believes in Him- not behaves for him- can gain entrance into God’s kingdom.
After that Nicodemus keeps a low profile for a time.
Jesus continues to teach about
BELIEF versus BEHAVIOR.
Spirit versus flesh.
Faith versus Religion.
He continued to heal disease and gain new followers.
The Pharisees grew angrier and angrier until Jesus did the unimaginable…
He raised Lazarus from the dead.
Outraged the Pharisees orchestrated a plan to get rid of Jesus once and for all!
Their plan was a good one…
it involved a betrayal, a false witness, and an impromptu, illegal court trial.
When Pilate was backed into a corner and had no choice but order the crucifixion, Jesus’ family, friends and followers looked on in disbelief.
They watched Him drag his cross to Golgotha, where the nails were driven into his hands and feet.
They saw as His head was slowly raised above the crowd. Then his neck, his arms…
And that is when it clicked in the mind of Nicodemus, and in the mind of Joseph of Arimathea.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of man must be lifted up.”
That is what he meant!
This is what he expected!
This is part of the story!
I can only imagine the HUNDREDS of prophesies flooding into their minds in that instant.
The instant when they both knew for CERTAIN that they were looking at the Son of Man, the Messiah, the God of all creation, lifted up for all to see.
Hadn’t the prophet Isaiah said, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5)
This is when they both must have decided that they had enough power, influence, and wealth to try and salvage what little they could out of this situation.
So here is the decision they made that changed the ending of the story.
They boldly asked Pilate for his body.
Joseph took the corpse to the tomb he had reserved for himself and his family. Then together he and Nicodemus anointed Jesus with myrrh and aloe in accordance with Jewish burial customs. (John 19:39)
As sundown approached, they rolled a massive stone into place to seal the tomb, placed guards at the entrance, and left with no hope of ever seeing Jesus alive again.
Lets just pause for a moment in this story and ponder the pain and loss of hope that they were experiencing. Jesus had claimed to be God, yet was easily murdered by man. Their hopes had been dashed.
Nobody stood by the tomb awaiting the resurrection.
His friends did not greet Easter morning with a loud celebration counting down the moment when the stone would roll away and he would emerge alive and well.
In their mind he was gone. Dead. Finished!
Faith, courage, and concern for the Lord’s body made it possible for first- century bystanders in Jerusalem to believe without a shadow of a doubt that Jesus had indeed been dead and was once again alive!
If Jesus had risen from the ashes of Gehenna and walked into town covered in rat bites and reeking of trash…that would have still been remarkable.
It would have been explainable: He clearly hadn’t been dead, they might have reasoned.
But like I said at the beginning, every story has a back story…
And in this case, the back story, and two men – provided us with irrefutable proof that Jesus had in fact, RISEN!
Without their public proclamation of belief,
without their disregard for position or popularity,
without their compassionate care for the body of Jesus,
this would be a very different story.
So this year as you celebrate the resurrection, stop and take a moment to thank our two unlikely heroes.