Like a prequel, the backstory chronicles events that happened before the primary narrative unfolds. And while it doesn’t change the how or who or when of a story, it certainly changes the why.
The story of Easter is no different. Surely you’re 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 backstory?
Easter’s backstory was the proof for 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 then have that Jesus actually rose from the dead. The legitimacy of the Christian faith hinges on just one event: the resurrection. And without two unlikely heroes in the backstory of Easter, Jesus’ death might have faded into oblivion without so much as a mention in history books.
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 Jerusalem, all by Himself. Gehenna was a terrible place, pungent with decay and burning garbage (so bad, in fact, that its name became associated with the idea of a fiery hell). Historically, when a person was crucified, his body was left on the cross to rot, as a sign of Rome’s authority. Eventually, he would be pried off the cross, thrown in a wagon with other dead bodies, and tossed in a mass grave. No one—not even the family of the deceased—was allowed to mourn his death. It was as if he had never lived. And that’s exactly what would have happened to the body of Jesus, had it not been for two improbable heroes: Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
The legitimacy of the Christian faith hinges on just one event: the resurrection.
These men, who I like to call Nick and Joe, enter the scene early in the ministry of Jesus. We find them among a group of religious leaders whose full-time job was being good. The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus because He wouldn’t keep their rules. But within this group of religious do-gooders existed another small faction so impressed by Jesus’ miracles that they thought maybe, just maybe, He was the long-awaited Messiah sent by God. But they needed more info.
The story picks up in John 3: “Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He 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 if God were not with him’” (vv. 1-2).
Nick was warming up to ask the big question when Jesus did that weird Jesus thing we see Him doing throughout the Gospels—He answered Nick’s question before it was asked: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (v. 3).
I wonder how He knew, Nick must have thought. Because Jesus sees inside hearts, He knew that Nick, and everyone in the world for that matter, wanted the answer to this question: Is there a way we can know for sure that we have entrance into the kingdom of God?
And in typical Jesus fashion, His answer was perplexing. “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nick asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” (v. 4).
But Jesus wasn’t talking about physical birth. He said, “No one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (vv. 5-6, emphasis added). He was saying that if there’s going to be a birth into the kingdom of God, then the Spirit of God has to be part of that new spiritual birth. In other words, just as we were physically born to our parents, there is an internal spiritual birth that connects us to God in a way that can never be undone. Jesus’ answer—that you must be born again—shattered everything the Pharisees believed about how to be holy.
No one stood outside the tomb, expecting the resurrection. Yet Jesus appeared alive, whole, resurrected.
“How can this be?” Nick asked (v. 9). This good Jewish man knew the Torah like the back of his hand. So Jesus brought up the story about Moses in the wilderness when the Israelites’ campsite was overrun with snakes. It was a mess. Snakes slithered into beds, biting men, women, and children. Since they couldn’t just pack up and leave, God told Moses to craft a bronze snake and lift it high on a stake; then, everyone who looked at it would be saved. (See Num. 21: 4-9.) Not exactly the instruction he was expecting, but it wasn’t up for debate.
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,” Jesus told Nick, “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 start of His ministry, Jesus predicted how and why He must die. He, too, would be lifted up on a stake so that anyone who believes in Him—not behaves for Him—can gain entrance into God’s kingdom.
After that, Nick kept a low profile for a time. But he probably discussed the encounter with Joe, and the two no doubt pondered Jesus’ odd teaching, because they apparently kept following Him from afar.
Meanwhile, Jesus continued to teach about belief versus behavior. Spirit versus flesh. Faith versus religion. He continued to heal diseases and gain new followers. The Pharisees grew angrier and angrier until Jesus did the unimaginable—He raised His friend Lazarus from the dead.
Outraged, the Pharisees orchestrated a plan to get rid of Jesus—one that involved betrayal, false witnesses, and an impromptu, illegal court trial. They dragged Jesus to the home of Pontius Pilate, a Roman officer serving under Emperor Tiberius Caesar. Finding no fault, Pilate attempted to pacify the mob by beating Jesus within an inch of His life, but the restless crowd began chanting, “Crucify him!”
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. And a shout came from the crowd: “We have no king but Caesar.” This was problematic because now Jesus was positioned as an enemy of Rome. So Pilate handed Him over to be crucified (John 19:15-16).
Nick and Joe, Mary, Peter, John, and the rest of Jesus’ followers couldn’t believe it had come to this—death by crucifixion! They watched Him drag His cross to Golgotha, where the nails were driven into His hands and feet. They saw Jesus’ head rise slowly above the crowd. Then His neck, His arms . . . And suddenly it clicked in Nick and Joe’s minds. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.”
This is what He meant! This is what He expected! This is part of the story! Surely other scriptures came to mind. 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)?
Nick and Joe decided they couldn’t hide any longer, so they did the unthinkable. After they watched Jesus suffocate and bleed to death on that cross, they boldly asked Pilate for His body. Joe took the corpse to the tomb he had reserved for himself and his family. Then he and Nick together anointed Jesus with myrrh and aloe—75 pounds in total (John 19:39). In accordance with Jewish burial customs, they wrapped Him in spices and strips of linen.
As sundown approached, they rolled the massive stone into place to seal the tomb and left without hope of ever seeing Jesus alive again. No one stood outside the tomb, expecting the resurrection. His friends and family didn’t greet Easter morning with a loud “10, 9, 8, 7 . . .” countdown. Yet to the surprise of even those who’d repeatedly heard Him foretell His death and resurrection, Jesus appeared alive, whole, resurrected.
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 still would have been remarkable. But it would have been explainable: He clearly hadn’t been dead, they’d have reasoned. As it turned out, the actions of Nick and Joe provided 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.
And that’s how two guys named Nick and Joe saved Easter.
Scripture references are from the NIV translation.