You probably don’t know me. I guess I wouldn’t expect you to. I’m not exactly some big-name apostle who can fill up an amphitheater. “For 1 night only! Peter, the Rock!”
No, I’m just a footnote. The answer to a trivia question.
But I will say this about me: I did The Job No One Wants. I handled Jesus’ body between his death and his burial. I was there. I did it. I saw everything that happened. And it changed me.
Let me tell you about it.
It was afternoon on the day before Passover. Maybe about 3:30 in the afternoon. I looked and saw that the sun was already getting lower in the sky. If I didn’t go now, it would be too late.
But I couldn’t move. I was standing right near the door, but it felt like my sandals were nailed to the floor. I felt paralyzed with fear. Have you ever felt that way?
My wife saw me standing there, not moving and said, “What’s wrong?” “If I do this,” I told her, “if I stick my neck out like this, we could lose everything.”
I should probably explain, I sit on The Great Sanhedrin. Probably like your Congress and Supreme Court, put together. I am one of only 71 people. We sit in a semi-circle, inside the chambers of the Temple itself, and we decide every matter of importance for our people.
But if I did this, if I took that step out the door, I will probably be forced off the council. I will lose my influence; I will be stripped of my power. I could do so much good if I stayed on!
And I don’t want people to be turning away from me, when I come down the street. What am I thinking? What am I doing?
My wife didn’t know what to say. And the sun was slanting ever lower. It was now, or never.
I found Pilate in the imperial hall, sitting 3 steps up, on his marble throne. “Most Honorable Prefect, the rabbi known as the King of the Jews is now dead.”
“Already?” Pilate motioned for a messenger. “Summon the Centurion on the execution detail. Immediately.”
While we waited … the room became filled with an awkward silence. I knew Pilate was wondering what I was up to, why I had come. So I thought I should volunteer something, “I would like to remove the body before the Sabbath—for the purity of our Passover.” It sounded good. And other members of the Sanhedrin would accept that reasoning.
But Pilate had been a prefect too long. He was sniffing for more. “You want the body of that troublemaker?” “It would be best, yes.” “Well, if he’s dead, you can have him. But there may not be much left.”
I walked out of the hall, and only then did it dawn on me: I need somebody to help. I can’t do this on my own. I can’t carry that much dead weight. But who? Who would want to get tangled up in this with me? Who would let themselves do that?
But then I thought, what about Nicodemus? A week ago, when we sent the Temple police to arrest Jesus, the rabbi from up north, most of the council thought, “He’s a deceiver” or “He’s under God’s curse.”
But Nicodemus said, “Does our law condemn someone before they’ve had their hearing?” I wondered about that. Was he just being careful about legal procedures? Or was there something more going on?
I didn’t have time to figure it out, and there was no one else I might be able to trust. So I sent a messenger to Nicodemus: “Meet me at Golgotha. As soon as you can.”
Up on that rocky, skull-shaped hill, I looked for a patch of shade in the late-afternoon sun. I was there by myself. I had the ladder I’d brought. The longest linen sheet I could buy. And three bodies. The soldiers had gone back to the barracks. The bystanders had drifted away. There was nothing to do here now except the job I had come to do.
In the distance I saw Nicodemus coming toward me and I realized he had a couple men with him. “Oh, no. I don’t want anyone else to be involved in this! The more people, the more mouths that can talk.” But as they got closer, I realized the two men were carrying heavy clay jars on their shoulders. As they got near me, They set them down with an oomph.
I said to Nicodemus, “There must be over 50 pounds here!” “75” he said. “What? That’s enough for a royal burial.” He didn’t say anything, but he nodded.
Suddenly I realized, Maybe I wasn’t the only person following Jesus in hiding.
I stood at the base of the stake, and I looked up. I grew up with money. I know how to get things done through people. Somehow, I needed to do this job myself.
I took the ladder around to the back of the stake, set it on the ground firmly, leaned it up against, and started up.
Crucifixions are horrifying, and I had never been this close. There were bruises all over the body. Pilate’s soldiers had done whatever they wanted. The hands and the feet were already turning blue.
And as I got to the top I looked down at Nicodemus: “Are you sure? Are you sure you’re ready to do this?”
I had already accepted, I would have to touch a dead body. I would be unclean. I would miss the Passover with my family. But I didn’t know if he would pay that price. But he nodded, and we set about our work.
I threaded a sheet under Jesus’ armpits, around his chest, then up over the cross beam, and tied it—to hold his weight, while I worked to get the arms free, and Nicodemus worked on the feet.
The arm was cold to the touch. The blood was still wet. Can I do this? But there’s no way I can let them put this body into a pit or into some mass grave for poor people. I came here to give him a decent burial, and I will.
We finished freeing the limbs, and then I untied the sheet and gradually lowered down the body to Nicodemus and his men, grunting a little as I did, until they set him down.
I climbed down the ladder. We spread out the sheet on the ground, and repositioned his body onto it. I sent Nicodemus’s men to go get some water. And I stood there. It felt surreal. We were hurrying, like we were grave robbers. It felt like we were doing something wrong. Maybe for the first time in a while I was standing up for something right.
I dropped to my knees on one side of the body, and Nicodemus kneeled across from me. I tore off a piece from the linen cloth I’d brought and dipped it in the water jug. Starting with the feet, and handling them gently, even though I knew he was out of pain now, I washed him. I cleaned him. There would be no crusted blood anywhere, not if I could help it.
As I got to the head, I motioned to Nicodemus to lift the head, while I pulled off the ring of thorns. Some sadistic crown. I threw it away as far as I could.
Then we set about wrapping his body with linen—and after every strip, we sprinkled on some powdered myrrh and aloes. Actually, we sprinkled a lot. We had a lot to work with. This would definitely keep the body from smelling so bad in the heat.
At the face, I paused. I took one last look, into those eyes fixed open. There was something about them: Whenever I’d seen them when he was alive, I always felt he could look right through me. Now I gently closed the eyelids and placed a coin on each one to keep it closed.
A final piece of linen to cover the face and head, and we were done.
We’d been working in silence, but now I blurted out,“Nicodemus, how did we get here?” “Well, I can’t speak for you,” he said, “but I know what it was for me. As a Pharisee, I just want to call our people back to God. And I could see that Jesus was doing that. Not always in the way I like, though, so one night I went to talk to him about it.” “Wait a second!” I said, “you actually went to see him?“ “Well, at night, of course. I couldn’t be too careful.” “At least you went. I committed too late.”
“What convinced you?” Well, my father and his father before him—we’ve waited our whole lives for God to rescue our people. And one day, I thought, “What will it look like when that happens?” And I thought that someone giving eyesight to someone who never had it—it would look like that.”
I eyed the sun, and it was touching the horizon. We were racing it to the Passover. I nodded to the men, and they got on each end of the sheet and lifted. I led out, and they followed. I knew where I was headed.
About two years ago, I found a perfect place for a family burial site, a face of limestone rock, clear and tall. And surrounded by a garden. Perfect.
The cost to cut out a tomb would be high, even for me, but it was worth it to honor my descendants. And now it was finished, but no one in the family had used it yet. Now—it would be his.
We stooped a little to enter the burial chamber. And there we laid his body on the bench carved from the rock. We stood for a moment without moving, just looking at the body wrapped in linen. It was quiet, dark, still.
But I shook inside. I had just gone public. To vote against the death penalty for Jesus, that was risky. But I could say I’d done it for procedural grounds. To ask Pilate for the body was really risky. But I could say that just like every other member of the Sanhedrin I wanted the body taken down before Passover.
But placing the body of Jesus in my tomb! My family tomb! My family tomb that cost me so much. That could not be explained. There was nothing I could say to hide that. Everyone would know exactly what that meant.
I backed out of the tomb and looked back in. We signaled Nicodemus’s men. It took both of them to roll the 5-foot doorway into place. It rolled closed with a thunk.
As we all turned to go, tn the shadowy twilight, I didn’t feel like talking. So I didn’t. But as we walked away, I was thinking. “I didn’t give Jesus a place in my life when he was alive. But at least I gave him a place now that he is dead.”
It was little. It was late. But it was real. I was his follower now.
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,