The Easter story is a familiar story that many of us have heard since childhood. And we’ve seen it portrayed on countless felt boards in churches throughout the Western world. But I’m afraid it has lost some of its gusto. I guess the felt-board characters haven’t aged very well. Bunnies and chocolates have taken center stage in this modern-day version. Consequently, Jesus gets a casual, “Thank you.” Then, it’s back to life as usual.
But this year, I approached the Easter story with a fresh perspective. Four inconspicuous characters, that had previously alluded my attention, jumped off the page. These four folks have been largely overlooked in previous accounts, but they have given me a fresh and powerful insight into the story. In addition, I have felt a newfound energy in my faith life.
In the midst of egg hunts, smock outfits, seer sucker and family photos, take a minute to pause and consider a new perspective on an old 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”. So here you have two sons of the father—one is a criminal deserving punishment and the other is innocent. The crowd frees the murderer. As a result, 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 may not have committed murder, but I have killed people’s spirit with harsh words. And 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 ones who are blemished. Yet the God of all creation was and 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
Simon of Cyrene is the guy standing on the roadside who is recruited to carry Jesus’s cross.
At this point in the story, 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.
I think the point is, true freedom requires that we carry our cross. Of course this is something that Jesus said, but something that Western Christianity largely overlooks. We’re ok with Jesus being crucified for us, yet we’re unwilling to pick up our 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, try picking 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.
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. I like the sound of that.
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, I’d say that’s a risk worth taking.
Making the Gospel Real
This Easter, I invite you to make the gospel real in your life. These four characters give you a clear picture on what that actually looks like. Take a moment to go beyond the bunnies and seer sucker this year.
Jesus died in your place and he’s called you to pick up your cross. That’s something that’s worth your awe. In the end, isn’t that worth the risk?