April 5, 2015
Nick and Joe's Risky Endeavour
Nick and Joe’s Risky Endevour
April 5th, 2015
I’m not sure what brought you to church this morning. Maybe you’re here because you are doing a special favour for a family member or friend. Maybe you’re here because you want to honour your Christian heritage on one of its most important holy days. Maybe you’re here because you regularly attend church and this is important to your faith. Maybe you’re here because you’re trying to figure out if there really is a God and if so, how the life and teaching of Jesus may relate to God’s existence.
Whatever the case, I’m glad you’re here and hope and pray that something that is said or sung or prayed this morning that will be of interest and value to you.
One of the reasons why Easter is such a big deal for Christians is because the truth of the entire Christian faith hinges on the one single event that took place on this day nearly 2,000 years ago.
The truth of the Christians faith doesn’t hinge primarily on the Bible. It doesn’t even hinge primarily on Jesus’ teaching. And, as important as it is, it doesn’t even hinge primarily on Jesus execution on a cross.
The truth or falsehood of the Christian faith hinges first and foremost on whether or not the resurrection of Jesus was an actual historical event. If Jesus actually rose from the dead it validates the significance of what he said and did and who he claimed to be.
In the words of the late Christian apologist, Henry Morris:
If the resurrection (of Jesus) did not take place, then Christianity is a false religion. If it did take place, then … the Christian faith is absolute truth. Henry Morris
Because of what Jesus had done and taught, there were two groups of Jewish religious leaders that wanted Jesus dead – the Pharisees and the Sadducees, within the last group, the family of the high priest in particular. These two groups also made up the highest Jewish court located in Jerusalem, called the Sanhedrin.
And those two groups had one main reason for wanting him dead.
He challenged their authority and predicted their demise. For example, Jesus condemned the Pharisees publicly for their teaching which made it more and more difficult for the average person to come to God, for wanting to be treated with special honour, for their showy demeanor when it came to giving to the poor, for their judgmental spirit. He warned people not to follow their teaching. And a constant refrain when speaking to them directly was …
… not something that would be very endearing.
And he didn’t deal any less harsh with the high priestly family, who were getting rich, in part by allowing the animal merchants and money changers a place within the temple courts, something that was looked down upon by most of the Jewish populace.
When Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers and drove the animals of the merchants out of the temple court with a whip, his accusation was directed squarely at the high priest and his family:
When Jesus taught about the vineyard and its wicked tenants, a traditional picture of the nation of Israel and its spiritual leaders, he clearly indicated that these leaders will be destroyed by God for their actions:
Or the day the beauty and grandeur of the temple structures were pointed out to Jesus, his reply was:
This too was a prediction about a judgment that would come upon the temple as God’s punishment for the corruption that was there.
All of this wouldn’t have been all that bad had Jesus not been popular with the people. His entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, just a week ago, was accompanied by a large crowd shouting out that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah. As such, he posed a real threat to the religious leaders because he could ask a large number of people to get rid of them or he could draw a violent response from Rome which may have a profound negative impact on all of the Jewish leaders.
This was the reason why the temple guards, a small armed number of Jewish soldiers who were under the commandment of the high priests, were sent out to arrest Jesus at night when he was not surrounded by a crowd.
It is why Jesus was tried during the night in a secret and illegal court case by the Sanhedrin and condemned to death.
It is why these very same leaders dragged him to the Roman governor, Pilate, to have him charged with fomenting a revolt against Rome.
It is why the high priest riled up the crowd to call for the release of a highway robber and murderer (Luke 23:25), Barabbas, rather than have Jesus pardoned (Mark 15:11).
It is why one of these religious leaders shouted to Pilate that he wasn’t a friend of the Roman emperor should he release Jesus since Jesus claimed to be the messianic king in the line of David (John 19:12), enough of a threat that Pilate finally relented and condemned Jesus to be crucified.
Despite this overwhelming hatred toward Jesus by the vast majority of the religious leaders, there were a small number of individuals among the Pharisees who had covert sympathies for Jesus, believing him to be someone who was sent from God. However, they knew that to publicly associate with Jesus would be extremely dangerous for themselves.
At one time, this small group sent a spokesperson called Nicodemus to Jesus in the dead of night so no one would know about it. Nicodemus was not only a Pharisee, but he was also part of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1). We know he represented a group because of what he initially said to Jesus:
Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who came from God because no one can do the miracles you do unless God is with him.
Now Nicodemus never actually asks a question here. He makes a statement about Jesus – the fact that there is a group of religious leaders who have been watching Jesus and who have come to the conclusion that Jesus’ teaching is from God because if that wasn’t the case, he would not have been able to perform the healings and exorcisms that he did.
Yet Jesus replies to that statement as if Nicodemus asked him the same question that the rich young ruler did, which was, “what must I do to inherit the kingdom of God.” In other words, “how do I know that I am right with God?” Or, “is there any way, in this life, that I can have some kind of assurance that I’m God’s child, that he loves me, and accepts me?”
This is probably one of the most fundamental questions that you could ask if you believe in the existence of God.
Maybe Nicodemus had a completely different question for Jesus. Something about the law perhaps. Or maybe something about the Roman occupation. But Jesus bypasses a lot of secondary questions and goes to the heart of the matter. Jesus said,
I tell you the truth, unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of God. John 3:3
Nicodemus didn’t understand, and asked a pretty dumb question, in fact, one so dumb and a so gross, that some scholars think he must have been making a joke. Jesus simply ignored the question and reiterated:
I tell you the truth, unless someone is born of water and spirit he cannot enter the kingdom of God. John 3:5
In essence, Jesus told Nicodemus that there has to be something beyond a physical birth to physical parents. There has to be a spiritual birth through God’s Spirit. It is this that makes someone part of God’s family.
It isn’t your education, ethnic background, social standing, your abilities or physical attributes – it’s none of that – instead it’s this spiritual rebirth. But Nicodemus still didn’t get it. Jesus tries a third time:
As Moses lifted up the bronze snake in the wilderness, so must the son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. John 3:14-15
Now Nicodemus was very familiar with the event as described in Numbers 21. As the nation of Israel was traveling from the Sinai Peninsula north along the east coast of the Dead Sea, poisonous snakes by the masses killed a large number of the Israelites. God commanded that Moses fashion a bronze snake and place it on a pole and whoever was bit by a poisonous snake could simply go and look at the bronze snake and so would not die (Num 21:4-9).
But it is likely that he didn’t understand much of what Jesus was telling him. What in the world could Jesus have meant when he said that the Son of Man, the Messiah, had to be lifted up? And how were people supposed to believe in Jesus when he is lifted up so that they will receive eternal life? In any case, he must reported it back to the small group of those who were secret admirers of Jesus.
This is where the discussion ends. We only hear of Nicodemus twice more. Once was shortly after a botched attempt to arrest Jesus during the day time. Nicodemus asked a question when the high priest and the prominent members of the Pharisees were upset and cursed the common people who didn’t know the Mosaic Law and stood in the way of the arrest.
Does our law condemn a man without first hearing what he has to say and discovering what he has actually done? John 7:50
The reaction was predictably angry and condescending.
During Jesus trial by the Sanhedrin, not everyone was in favour of the death penalty. For one, we read that Joseph, a prominent (Mark 15:43) and rich (Matt 27:57) member of the high court who came from the Jewish town of Arimethea, and secretly considered himself a disciple of Jesus, was opposed to the guilty verdict (Luke 23:51). Nicodemus and others would also have voted against the death penalty as well, but they were simply too few in numbers to make any difference.
And so Jesus is condemned and crucified. By the first century, crucifixion was usually reserved for slaves, pirates, those who had committed the most heinous crimes, and those who were considered to have revolted in some way against the state.
Those crucified were stripped naked before being nailed or tied to the cross. During Roman times it was considered the most shameful and disgraceful form of execution – and the most slow and painful – which is why our word “excruciating” originated from this practice. It was such a barbaric form of execution that those with Roman citizenship were exempt from it (beheaded or hanged).
Nicodemus and Joseph - Nick and Joe - were likely among the members of the Sanhedrin who were there when Jesus was placed on the cross and spikes were driven through his wrists and feet. Not the hands because the nails would eventually tear through it.
They were there when the cross was hoisted into place and here they see, Jesus lifted up on a wooden pole, just like the bronze snake during the time of Moses. It would have reminded them of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus. This is what he meant about being lifted up.
Roman soldiers were only allowed to leave the scene of the crucifixion after the person being executed had died. The dead were left to hang on the cross to decompose and be eaten by vultures, crows, and, because the feet of those crucified were often only a foot from the ground, by dogs and other animals.
Burial of the remains was almost universally forbidden. Portions of the body that remained would be carted off and dumped into some mass grave or a pit dug for garbage.
So Jesus dies a horrific death on the cross. It is 3 in the afternoon. He had “only” hung on the cross for six hours. His disciples and followers had scattered. Only some of the women remained and watched from a distance. The Roman guard (centurion & 4 soldiers) was still waiting for the other two who were crucified at either side of Jesus to die. Afternoon turned to evening (Matt 27:57).
Up to this point, Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus had been deathly afraid of the potential backlash from the other spiritual leaders should they go public with their support of Jesus. But something had happened. And neither wanted to hide any longer.
Joseph of Arimethea did something unheard of. He plucked up the courage to approach Pilate in order to ask for Jesus’ body. In doing so, Joseph exposed himself not only to ridicule by his peers, but he also placed himself in the very real danger of being ordered arrested as a follower of Jesus by the man who had condemned him to death.
But something even more miraculous happened. Pilate actually agreed that Joseph could take the body. That is something that just didn’t happen. Crucified bodies were left on the cross as a deterrent – they weren’t taken down, and they surely didn’t get a proper burial.
Joseph, accompanied by Nicodemus, took down the body of Jesus from the cross. Joseph had bought the linen cloth that body would be wrapped in (Mark 15:46) while Nicodemus had purchased 75 lbs of ointment (John 19:39). Ointment was placed on the burial cloth and the body was wrapped from head to foot in this cloth.
Ointment was incredibly expensive. 75 lbs would have cost a small fortune, indicating that, like Joseph, Nicodemus was a man of means. And the one and only reason why anyone would spend a lot of money on ointment was to cover the smell of decomp which was certain to come soon in that climate.
If Joseph and Nicodemus had any hope that Jesus wasn’t dead they would have never done this. If Jesus wasn’t dead already, the wrapping around the head and face would have smothered him. Both men were convinced that Jesus was dead and did not expect him to come back to life.
Near the place of execution Joseph owned a family tomb that had been hewn into sandstone. It had not been previously used. He and Nicodemus placed Jesus’ wrapped body in the tomb and rolled a heavy stone in front of the entrance, sealing it, in the assumption that Jesus was dead and there was no hope that he would ever be seen again. A few women followed them in order to see where the body had been lain.
Had they not done this – Jesus’ body would have been maimed by vultures and dogs and thrown somewhere unknown. The women who wanted to know where the body was would not have had a place to go. This was Nick and Joe’s risky endevour – to provide a final resting place for the one they believed had come from God.
The apostle Peter and the other disciples, the women who had followed Jesus as he travelled and taught, Jesus’ own family … they all thought it was over. Their dreams of a Messiah had died on the cross. They were hiding out, laying low, afraid that their association with Jesus might land them in trouble with the authorities.
So on Sunday morning, a group of women came to the tomb – and, we are told that they too brought spiced ointment to embalm Jesus’ body – you know, because, after all the two men likely didn’t do it right – ‘cause they were men. And they were worried because they knew that even combined they couldn’t roll away the stone – well, maybe men are good for some things after all.
But the stone was already rolled back when they arrived, which allowed them to look inside. And they didn’t say, “the Lord has risen from the dead!” No, Luke tells us, probably one of the understatements found in the NT, “they were perplexed.”
In fact, John tells us that when they first report back to the Peter and the others, they said “someone took Jesus, body from the tomb and we don’t know where they put it” (John 20:2).
Luke also tells us that the disciples didn’t believe the women (Luke 24:11). They thought the women were hysterical and their story was “an idle tale.” They didn’t believe them, so Peter and another disciple ran to the tomb, looked inside, saw only the grave clothes. Peter didn’t yell, “Jesus rose from the dead”! No, we read instead that Peter “wondered what had happened” (Luke 24:12).
The missing body in and of itself was remarkable, but that wasn’t what changed the course of history. It actually wasn’t until the risen Jesus revealed himself to those who had never expected him to rise from the dead.
First it was to Mary Magdalene and the women with her, then to 2 of his followers who were traveling to a town called Emmaus, then to 10 of his apostles, Thomas being absent, then to the 11 a number of times, and to many others. In his letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul recounts some of these appearances:
Jesus appeared to Peter, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at the same time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to (Jesus’ half-brother) James, then to all the apostles. Last of all … he appeared also to me. 1 Corinthians 15:5-8
Those who saw the risen Jesus collectively underwent an undeniable change. Immediately following His crucifixion, they hid in fear for their lives. Following the resurrection they took to the streets and the temple, boldly proclaiming the resurrection despite intensifying persecution.
What accounts for their sudden and dramatic change? It certainly was not financial gain. The Apostles gave up everything they had to preach the resurrection, including their lives. Why would they all knowingly cling to such an unprofitable lie in the face of persecution, imprisonment, and death?
Like many early Christians, the apostle Paul suffered impoverishment, persecution, beatings, imprisonment, and execution for his steadfast commitment to Christ’s resurrection.
Commenting on the difficulties that he faced as someone proclaiming the message that Jesus is the Messiah who rose from the dead, Paul writes:
If the Messiah has not been raised from the dead, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is meaningless. … your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. … If we have hope in Christ for this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. …. If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.
1 Corinthians 15:14,17,19,32
But for Paul, this was not even a real option.
But in fact Messiah has been raised from the dead, the very first of those who have died … and by him has come the resurrection from the dead. … In the Messiah, all will be made alive.
1 Corinthians 15:20-22
When Peter and Jesus’ followers emerged from their hiding place and, on the day of Pentecost, addressed a large crowd gathered in Jerusalem, proclaiming that they were eyewitnesses that God had raised Jesus from the dead and that Jesus, as God’s Messiah, had sent the Holy Spirit to make spiritual rebirth possible, guess what those who were touched by the message asked?
They asked, “what do we have to do?” (Acts 2:37) In other words, if you are right, how do we become part of God’s family? How can we be born again into God’s family? How can we enter God’s kingdom? Peter answers them – you have to make a choice.
You have to choose to accept Jesus for who he said he is, to recognize that he died, as he said he would, to take our guilt upon him and so make us right with God, and that he rose from the dead to give us the Spirit so that we can experience the spiritually rebirth he told Nicodemus about … and subsequently reorient our lives toward God and his will.
And this openness to needing God’s forgiveness and subsequently reorientation life, this has been the message of the church for the last 2,000 years. It hasn’t changed.
If you’ve been coming for a while and you have been searching and you realize that you want to be born again in order to enter into a relationship with God and into life eternal, it is the same now as it was in the first century.
What exactly do I believe about Jesus?
Prayer of conversion. Transfer my trust from my personal goodness to Jesus. Receive me into your family. Receive me into your kingdom.