I grew up in the church. The Easter story is familiar.
Jesus died. Then, Jesus rose from the dead.
But my familiarity with the story caused the story to lose its gusto. Consequently, Jesus got a casual, “Thank you”, and it was back to life as usual.
But recently, I approached the Easter story with a fresh perspective and looked at four inconspicuous character that had previously alluded my attention. These four folks had been largely overlooked in my experience. But their stories jump off the page and give us new insight into a familiar story.
“Now at the feast of the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas…Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus…The governor again said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas.’” Matthew 27:15-23
Barabbas is likely the most well-known of the four. He was the insurrectionist, murderer who was on trial before Pilate. Here’s a guy who deserved punishment for his crime, yet he’s set free by the masses in exchange for Jesus.
Interestingly enough, Barabbas’s name literally translates “son of the father”. That’s profound when you consider that Jesus claimed to be the “Son of God”. When you contrast Jesus and Barabbas you have two sons of the father—one is a criminal deserving punishment and the other is innocent.
The crowd frees the murderer. Jesus dies a murderer’s death.
On the surface, I get the imagery. The guilty man is freed and the innocent man is put to death. In short, Jesus died for sins He didn’t commit. And while that is tragic, it isn’t quite potent enough. That is until I realized that I was Barabbas.
I am a son of the Father.
Now, I may not have committed murder, but I have killed people’s spirit with harsh words. I may not be an insurrectionist, but I have certainly allowed my agenda to hijack my actions.
Barabbas isn’t simply the guilty man who was freed. Barabbas is us. We’re the sons and daughters who are blemished. Yet the God of all creation is willing to say, “Free Barabbas.”
Simon of Cyrene
“As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross.” —Matthew 27:32
Jesus has been beaten beyond recognition and his body was in tatters. He’d lost a considerable amount of blood and he was likely in shock. Carrying a 40-pound cross was nearly impossible. I imagine that he continued falling in the dirt as the blood and sweat mixed in the sand.
Insert Simon of Cyrene.
Cyrene is a long way from Jerusalem. 783 miles to be exact—about a 32-day journey. Curiously enough, Simon would have had to travel through Egypt, the same route that God’s people had followed thousands of years earlier when they were freed from captivity, in order to be in Jerusalem for Passover.
Simon reminds us that true freedom requires that we carry our cross. Of course this is something that Jesus said, but something that most Christians conveniently overlook. We’re ok with Jesus being crucified for us, yet we’re unwilling to pick up a cross for Him.
We hate suffering. As a result, we orchestrate our entire life to avoid it. But the truth is, it’s in the suffering, in the struggle where faith is forged. So if your faith is less-than-desired, pick up a cross.
“When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” —Matthew 27:54
A centurion was a Roman solider in charge of 100 men. He was a prominent man, a leader. And he had seen hundreds if not thousands of deaths. But here, as Jesus is being crucified, this man reaches a breaking point. He is moved to the point where he proclaims not only Jesus’s innocence but His divinity as well.
The centurion was a Gentile—a non-Jew. This moment is profound for the majority of us as Americans because we’re largely non-Jewish as well. The point is, Jesus’s death wasn’t just for the Jews, it was for all of us. God’s covenant with his people was now available to the world.
The question is, are you, like the centurion, willing to be in awe of Jesus?
This year, instead of watching Easter as a spectator, allow yourself to be in awe. And, one more thing. Those around the centurion were in awe as well. His leadership trickled down to those around him. That’s good news for you and me. We literally become a contact point for people to experience what it’s like to be in awe of Jesus.
The question is, are you willing?
Joseph of Arimathea
“When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock.” —Matthew 27:57-60
This guy is my favorite. He’s a member of the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin. The same council that put Jesus to death. But secretly, quietly, he’s following Jesus. And when Jesus is crucified, he comes out of hiding to make the impossible happen.
For Jesus to be crucified, buried and raise again in three days was challenging to say the least. He wasn’t a prominent, wealthy figure, so He shouldn’t have received a prominent, wealthy tomb. And, His followers were commoners that would have never had access to acquire His body so quickly.
But Joseph of Arimathea did.
Joseph was a rich, prominent man who leveraged his prominence for Jesus’s sake. He secured and prepared Jesus’s body and he provided his own tomb for Jesus’s burial. Here’s a man who risked everything for Jesus.
Point blank, the resurrection was made possible by the obedience of this rich man and the power of God. Joseph of Arimathea is a picture of those of us who are willing to leverage our lives for Jesus. Our obedience paves the way for the power of God to be unleashed on the world.
So if you’re worried about risking it all for Jesus, Joseph reminds us that’s a risk worth taking.
Making the Gospel Real
This Easter, I invite you to sit with the story of Easter. Contemplate these four characters and consider how it influences your faith.
In Barabbas we see that Jesus died the death we deserved. In Simon of Cyrene, we’re reminded to pick up our cross. The Centurion teaches us what it’s like to be in awe. And finally, Joseph of Arimathea shows us that nothing is lost when you risk it all on Jesus.
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