Between February 23 and March 6, 1836, Colonel William Barret Travis and Colonel James Bowie commanded a ragtag, volunteer collection of 200 English-speaking Texans and Spanish-speaking Tejanos. They defended a mission near San Antonio de Béxar, known as the Alamo. Among the volunteers was a former U.S. Congressman, David Crockett of Tennessee. The defenders were surrounded by a Mexican army of 2,000, commanded by President General Antonio López de Santa Anna.
The Mexican army raised the blood-red flag. Drums sounded the pulsating rattle of rolling thunder. Buglers sounded El Degüello, the signal for no quarter, a fight to the death, the complete destruction of an enemy without mercy. Travis responded with a blast from the Alamo’s largest cannon. The siege of 13 days had begun.
On March 5th, the day before the final assault, Colonel Travis sounded the assembly, and gathered his men together. Standing before his 200 volunteers, Travis informed them of their dire situation, and said that each man could leave now, without reproach, or choose to stay with him to defend the Alamo. With his sword, he drew a line in the sand, and asked for those willing to cross the line to stand with him to fight, and die, for Texas. All but one, crossed the line.
The next day, at 5:30 in the morning, the Mexican assault began. Travis rushed to his post yelling, “Come on boys, the Mexicans are upon us and we’ll give them hell!” As he passed a group of Tejanos, he shouted “¡No rendirse, muchachos!” (“No surrender, boys”). Santa Anna had given orders for his soldiers from Béxar to be excused from the front lines, so they would not be forced to fight Mexican men from their own families defending the Alamo. Within an hour, on the third assault, the defenders were overwhelmed, and the fight for the Alamo was over.
Some one thousand, eight hundred years earlier, in the Roman province of Judaea, two Jewish men crossed a line of their own. It was sometime between the years 30 and 33, during the rule of Pontius Pilate, fifth governor of Judaea, from 26/27 to 36/37, under the Emperor Tiberius.
That was when Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus crossed the line.
In the time of Jesus, during Second Temple period, the Sanhedrin, the Council of 71, was the universal Jewish authority in the long chain of Biblical tradition from the time of Moses. The Sanhedrin legislated all aspects of Jewish religious and political life.
Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin. He was a “rich man” and a secret disciple of Jesus (Matthew 27:57; Luke 23:50). Joseph is described as an “honorable counselor, who waited (“was searching”) for the kingdom of God” (Mark 15:43). He is described as “a good man, and just” (Luke 23:50).
Nicodemus was a Pharisee, a Teacher of The Law of Moses, and also a member of the Sanhedrin. Nicodemus had gone secretly, in the dark of night, to visit with Jesus, and listen to His teachings (John 3:1–21). Nicodemus feared the wrath of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin, if they should find out about his meetings with Jesus.
According to the Gospel of Mark, on the day of His Crucifixion, Jesus died at the 9th hour (about 3 pm). Following the death of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea “asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission” (John 19:38).
Joseph purchased a linen shroud (Mark 15:46) and Nicodemus purchased myrrh and aloes (John 19:39). Joseph and Nicodemus then went to Golgotha, also called Calvary, the place outside Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified. Golgotha is an Aramaic word, meaning “skull”. The four Gospel writers use the Greek word, Kraníon, meaning Cranium, the part of the skull enclosing the brain, that is translated Calvariæ in Latin, and Calvary in English.
There, they took the body of Jesus down from the cross. They wrapped the body in clean linen, with the spices purchased by Nicodemus. They carried the body of Jesus to a cave tomb in the garden of Joseph’s nearby house, and placed it in a “new” tomb, Joseph’s own unused tomb (Matthew 27:60). The hurried burial preparation of Jesus was only partially completed, “for the Sabbath was drawing on.” (Matthew 27:55–61, Matthew 28:1–10, Mark 15:40–16:11, Luke 23:50–24:10, John 19:38–20:18).
When Joseph of Arimathea personally requested and received permission from Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, to remove and care for the body of Jesus, Joseph crossed the line. When Nichodemus readily joined with Joseph to care for the body of Jesus, Nichodemus, also, crossed the line.
The Sanhedrin, the Council of 71, regarded Joseph and Nichodemus as traitors. Caring for Jesus was viewed as an affront to the dignity and authority of the Sanhedrin, an act of treachery.
Joseph and Nicodemus openly allied themselves with Jesus and His followers. They were members of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leaders who orchestrated the Crucifixion of Jesus, but they chose the opposite path. Joseph of Arimathea and Nichodemus openly crossed the line.
In the time of Jesus, the Sanhedrin met in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, in a building called the Hall of Hewn Stones. The Sanhedrin convened every day, except for festival days, and Shabbat, the sabbath day.
At this time of year, every Easter, I think about what it must have been like for Joseph and Nichodemus to return to their seats in the great hall of the Sanhedrin on the next working day after the Crucifixion of Jesus. Can you imagine what it may have been like?
Members of the Sanhedrin are gathering in groups. The white marble hall is noisy with animated discussions of the recent troubles about that imposter, Jesus. His followers are claiming He is risen from the dead? Really? What rubbish! Did you hear about Joseph and Nichodemus? What traitors they are. They desperately need to be punished. How shall we do it?
As Joseph and Nichodemus quietly enter the great marble hall, the noisy chattering gradually begins to subside. Soon the great hall is quiet. Dead quiet. In the place where eyes meet eyes, toxic looks surround the two friends of Jesus.
Unfortunately, the Gospels do not record anything more about Joseph of Arimathea and Nichodemus after the burial of Jesus on Good Friday. The Gospel record is silent.
Jesus said, “Take up your cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23). To people of the first century, the cross meant death by the most painful and humiliating means possible. In Jesus’ day, the cross meant death in the most excruciating, slow and painful manner imaginable, on the very last day of a person’s life on earth. The Romans forced convicted criminals to carry their own crosses to their own place of crucifixion. Taking up your cross means carrying your own unique manner of death with you, while facing derision, laughter, and ridicule all along your own personal path to death.
What we know, for sure, is that crossing the line has never been easy. It is making the honorable choice, when no one is watching, when everyone is watching, when no one cares, when everyone cares. It is making the honorable choice, because Jesus cares. Amazingly, for more than 2,000 years, millions of His followers have made the choice . . . to cross the line.