Luke 23:13-25 “Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.’ . . . With one voice they cried out, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!’ (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.’ But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.”
Once again the total innocence of Jesus of Nazareth is underlined for us as Pilate addresses the representatives of the whole Jewish nation. He has assessed the evidence brought against Christ and tells them that he finds no basis for their charges against him, nor has King Herod; Pilate says to them of Jesus, “he has done nothing to deserve death” (v.15). Pilate decided to flog Jesus and release him, though Jesus has done nothing worthy of such barbarism, but the clamour from the crowd was loud and hostile and united; “With one voice they cried out, ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us” (v.18). And they began a chant which drowned any conversation, “But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’” (v.21). When Pilate can get some silence he tells them for the third time, “‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him’” (v.22). The shouts of the mob grew louder and their shouting prevailed. The coward Pilate buckled and gave in. He released Barabbas and surrendered Jesus to them to crucify him.
Everyone has heard of the notable prisoner called Barabbas who was chosen by the people to be released on the morning of Jesus’ crucifixion. He was preferred above our Saviour; he was pardoned and walked free while Christ was condemned to the death of the cross. All the gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John refer to the release of Barabbas.
1. ONE PRISONER CHOSEN BY THE PEOPLE WAS RELEASED AT EACH PASSOVER.
This was an established custom for this Passover feast alone, not for the feast of Tabernacles, nor for Purim, nor the day of Atonement, nor for the Festival of Weeks (which in New Testament days had become known as ‘Pentecost’), but for this feast alone, and the people were very insistent that this old custom should be maintained. It had become one of the talked about events of the Passover period. “Have you heard who the released prisoner is this year?” No, not yet. They say it’s going to be announced today.” This custom was of some long standing; it was not a Roman tradition set up in each nation they conquered because Pilate says to them, “It is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover” (Jn. 18:39). Its roots were in the life of Israel. It was nurtured by a national empathy with state prisoners in this occupied land, but there was nothing in the Scriptures that required one prisoner to be released at the Passover, and even when you read the writings of the rabbis and the Talmud there is no mention whatsoever of this tradition, yet, as I said, each of the gospel writers refers to it. This event actually happened as they record it; there was a real criminal named Barabbas who was given a criminal amnesty on the day Jesus was crucified.
If we ask how the custom came to be accepted so enthusiastically we would guess that it started on one particular Passover as a gesture of good will towards the people of Jerusalem, over a widely felt miscarriage of justice. This was such a popular act that the next Passover and subsequently every other Passover the people demanded that such an amnesty be repeated. Surely it could not have been good for public justice, as Spurgeon points out, “that the ruling authority should discharge a criminal, quite irrespective of his crimes or of his repentance, letting him loose upon society, simply and only because a certain day must be celebrated in a peculiar manner” (‘Barabbas Preferred to Jesus,’ M.T.P., Volume 10, p.585). I suppose it helped oil the wheels of the Roman occupation to release one prisoner of the people’s choice. That would be good PR. The citizens of Jerusalem annually welcomed someone out of Rome’s clutches and this gave them a cause for celebration. However, the gesture fitted in well with the Biblical prophecy that one of the things the Messiah would do when he came would be to bring freedom to the prisoner. Giving one man his freedom at the Passover appealed to the national psyche. The freed man then had a moment of glory; he became a popular hero in the country. He symbolised a whole people who were longing for freedom, in a way that Nelson Mandela’s release from prison spoke to the disenfranchised of South Africa about their imminent right to vote; they would be determining their own destiny.
Of course, the crowd who were yelling for the release of Barabbas weren’t theologians. They weren’t approaching his liberty with insights from the history of redemption. They weren’t analyzing the eschatology of Israel. Festivals take on a life of their own, for example, our Christmas festivities have long departed from the celebration of the coming of the incarnate God. And so it was within the crowded, bustling, feasting city of Jerusalem, this chanting mob weren’t preachers or rabbis; they were the urban proletariat who wanted the release of a Robin Hood. They weren’t the upright keepers of the Passover. These men wanted a dungeon door unlocked, and the prison doors to be opened and a fellow countryman, incarcerated by the hated Romans, freed. Barabbas’ cronies were no doubt leading the chanting.
Perhaps it was Pilate himself who hit on the idea that he might profit from this Passover custom and so maybe he took the initiative and presented Jesus to the crowd as the candidate for freedom. Surely they all knew someone who had been healed by Christ, or inspired by his words. Surely they would seize this opportunity of asking for his release. The Sanhedrin would certainly howl with rage if the crowd began chanting, “Release unto us Jesus!” but what could they do? They’d be stymied by the mob. That was Pilate’s hope, but when he offered them Jesus’ release to his surprise they rejected him; the mob wanted Barabbas. Pilate was being sucked into the manipulative layers of Jewry – the people he was supposed to be governing. He was finding it impossible to avoid giving to the Sanhedrin and the mob what they wanted.
2. BARABBAS WAS THE PRISONER CHOSEN BY THE CROWD.
Barabbas is a mysterious figure. What do we glean about him? From our text we learn that he had been “thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city and for murder” (v.19) – that is murder committed in an uprising, clearly some definite infamous event. Barabbas was the leader of a recent demonstration against the Romans in Jerusalem which had escalated and people had been killed. In Acts 3 Peter refers to Barabbas while he is preaching to the people outside the temple and he nails their wickedness on them, “You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you.” (Acts 3:14). Barabbas was a murderer. So what we know of his character is that he was a criminal, a person to whom human life was cheap, public enemy number one, a man worthy of death according to the law of man and God.
His name first of all, that it was Bar-Abbas. Literally this means ‘son of his father.’ Now this is not a common family name because every man is the son of his father. Now we start speculating just a little; it’s possible that Barabbas was descended from a family of rabbis. You may be aware that a rabbi or teacher was officially addressed by the name ‘father.’ So Barabbas was ‘the son of the father’ a man who had had certain privileges, with some education in his background. We’d say that he came from a middle-class family rather than the slums of Jerusalem. He had acted against Rome with rabbinical pride, and Jewish patriotism, conscious of his ancestral tradition. Matthew tells us that he was a ‘notorious’ or ‘notable’ prisoner. He had a certain fame; he was a popular hero, like the religious Ayatollahs of Iran who led the rebellion against the Shah. There were brave men who led their countries in Africa against colonial rule, were put into prison, but they ended up as presidents of their countries, and having tea in Buckingham Palace with the Queen.
So the name ‘Barabbas’ was also a slogan; it was a cry for freedom, and so immediately Barabbas is winning the election against Jesus. He represents emancipation from Rome, and that is far more tangible than emancipation from the bondage of sin. Look how Marxism swept through industrial South Wales in the last century. “When the state is our shepherd we really won’t be in want,” the socialists preached. The state would take care of everything from cradle to grave. Barabbas represented political revolution; but Jesus represented spiritual regeneration. This contest was, we could say, structural change versus inward change. Of course it is not as simple as that; we give way to no one in our desire for civil justice, but Barabbas represents the illegal use of the weapons of this world to attain structural change; Jesus represents those who use the sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God. To the people Jesus promised many mansions in his Father’s house, while Barabbas offered many mansions here and now. Barabbas walks tall; Jesus is a worm and Caiaphas and Pilate, Judah and Rome are going to walk all over him.
One more fact that’s worthy of a little attention; there are some old manuscripts which give Barabbas the name ‘Jesus’ or ‘Joshua.’ Translators of the New English Bible were confident enough to put that name ‘Jesus Barabbas’ in the text in Matthew 27:16 and 17. This has not won the majority of scholarly approval. None of the recent translations have followed the fifty year old N.E.B. These were just two names on the ballot. Joshua-Barabbas and Joshua of Nazareth. Many people were called ‘Joshua.’ As a consequence of God becoming incarnate Jesus was found in fashion as a man; he was actually made in the likeness of sinful flesh. You would see him in Nazareth running errands for his mother or helping his father in the carpenter’s shop and there would be nothing at all in the appearance of the boy that would lead you to believe that this was the incarnate Son of God. He looked like every other human being; he laughed and bled like any other; his very name was indistinguishable from many other boys who bore that same name. Thousands of men in Israel were called Joshua or Jesus. Even today in this congregation there is probably someone with the name Joshua. Incarnate Jehovah is presented to us with a name that a man in the street might also bear, even a murderer in prison. So in Jesus the eternal Son of God was hidden behind this amazingly effective veil – “the likeness of sinful flesh” See how he’s looking this moment as he stands before Pilate after being beaten up and spat upon by the 71 members of the Sanhedrin and their servants. What veiling of his deity! I ask you to think what he is going to look like after he’s been lashed across his bare back 39 times? What veiling of his deity! But more! How mightily God the Son is concealed when he hangs on a cross dying between two other dying men. How will he look then? Barely human; a lump of meat. What veiling of his deity! This is part and parcel of his abject humiliation. God gave his Son the ordinary name of Jesus or Joshua, a name as common as John and David and Peter are in our own language. Yet we must say this, that when God chose the name it was not that he drew it out of a hat. It was significant. “Thou shalt call his name Jesus for he shall save his people from their sin.” The meaning of his name is Jehovah saves. It is the perfect name for our Lord. It fits him completely.
So there were two names in the air as the Roman Governor announced the that he would release the Passover prisoner, ‘Barabbas’ (who may have been Jesus Barabbas) and Jesus of Nazareth; that is, the son of his father, and Son of the eternal Father God. As Frederick Leahy says, “That was a shameful pairing! The Christ of God was placed on the same platform as a sinner and the people must vote for one or the other. Here was a deepening of the Saviour’s humiliation. Jesus and Barabbas! The difference between them is infinitely great. Barabbas fights for a political freedom that would be immediate – emancipation from the shackles of Rome. Christ came to deliver from the slavery of sin. Barabbas was popular, the people’s man. Christ often antagonized people. He even refused a king’s crown from their hand (John 6:15). Barabbas preached revolution; Christ preached regeneration. Barabbas was carnal, Christ was spiritual. Barabbas wanted to subjugate; Christ came to serve. Barabbas relied on the sword; Christ had no work for the sword to do. Barabbas sacrificed others; Christ sacrificed himself. Barabbas pleased the human heart; Christ offended it. These were the two names on the ballot paper that day. The choice was stark and clear” (Frederick S. Leahy, “Is It Nothing to You?” Banner of Truth, 2004, p.15).
Christ or Barabbas? When Pilate first approached the crowd he placed Christ in a position superior to Barabbas: ‘I find no guilt in him,’ he said (John 18:38). But then facing the remorseless opposition of the mob he brought Christ down and paired him with Barabbas: ‘The Christ or the criminal, which do you want?’ Finally he placed Christ beneath Barabbas; he released the man of violence and ordered the man of righteousness to be flogged. This was not an impartial ballot; it was the worst election in the history of the world, and Barabbas won.
What did Jesus think of all this? Didn’t he protest? Didn’t he decline to have his name put on this ballot with Barabbas? Did he ask for a recount? You think he had no choice? O, but he did! The mob’s hearts were in his hands. If he had wanted them to cry for his own release or for the choice of a better prisoner – what we call a ‘prisoner of conscience’ – he could have. But he did nothing, allowing his name to be paired with a murderer’s. He stood there in the full consciousness of being the Anointed of God; the well-beloved Son of the Father, who had done no iniquity, and in whose mouth there was found no guile. He knew himself to be the Holy and Just One, whose meat it had always been to do the Father’s will. More than that, he stood there in the full consciousness of being the Son of God, the only-begotten, who even at this very moment was in the bosom of the Father according to his divine nature. What shame! Like the most unashamedly rigged of elections in some so-called ‘democracy’ like North Korea where everything is fixed, and a dictator – or someone in a dictator’s pocket – is appointed by 99% of the vote while a righteous man gets the rest. The abominable corruption of it! The unspeakable wickedness of it! Man, mere man, who is less than a dust of the balance, here places the very Son of God on a par with a killer. The will of the people is about to make a choice between the incarnation of the love of God and public enemy number one. “Did Jesus accept this nomination? He might simply have snapped his bonds and disappeared. Or he might have caused his divine glory and majesty to flash forth and consume these men who loved darkness rather than light, but Jesus of Nazareth was silent. He deeply humbled himself and allowed himself to be numbered with the transgressors” (Herman Hoeksema, When I Survey . . ., Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1977, p. 37). Isaac Watts writes,
“His honour and his breath were taken both away,
Joined with the wicked in his death and made as vile as they.”
This is the hour of judgment of the world. God at that moment was sitting on the judgment seat, and the “world,” the world of the “people,” the “world” of the majority, was standing before the tribunal of the Most High. They were not judging Jesus; God was trying them. ‘I’m watching you as you make your choice. All things are naked and open to my eyes.”
So both names for this election were put on the ballot, and they preferred a murderer to Jesus who is called the Christ. They preferred a killer to the one who healed all the sick. They preferred a criminal to the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount. The one who forgave sins was condemned as a sinner. The one who healed broken lives was sent to be broken on the cross. The one who raised the dead was himself put to death. He who had wronged no one was himself wronged in his trial. He had brought fullness of life to all who turned to him, and yet they took his life away and let a killer go free.
3 HOW WOULD YOU HAVE VOTED ON THAT DAY?
You say, “Simple; I would have voted for Jesus to be freed.” Please consider my question again. Knowing what you know today, as a redeemed sinner, as someone washed in the blood of Christ, your desire, you say, would have been for Jesus not to die? Are you sure? You who glory in the cross of Jesus Christ, would you have delivered Christ from the cross? You say that you couldn’t bear the thought of him being crucified, that you love him too much to think of him being nailed to a cross. So do I, but I don’t want to be like Simon Peter at Caesara Philippi, horrified at our Lord’s prophesying his own suffering. We know that he has come as the Lamb of God. We know that he has to go Golgotha, and why his last breath must be on a cross:
He died that we might be forgiven,
He died to make us good.
That we might go at last to heaven
Saved by his precious blood. (Cecil F. Alexander, 1823-95).
For this reason Jesus had come into the world, so how can I vote for him to be freed? Did Christ want them to vote for him? No, because if he had they would have all been inwardly constrained to vote for him. Mighty Christ, the Lord who opens men’s hearts, would have seen to that. Did Jesus want to be delivered from the cross? No. Did he want the cup he had determined to drink be taken away from him? No. Did he want his deliverance from death be dependent on democracy, more people voting for him than voted for Barabbas? No; for the rest of his life as Jesus would have wandered around Galilee he would be labeled as one of the ‘Passover Amnesty Men’, chosen by the people to be saved from a terrible fate. Grandfathers would point him out to the grandchildren as he shuffled down a street his eyes on the ground. That is not what Jesus wanted. As he stood before the mob and Pilate he was choosing to save the people from a terrible judgment by dying for them. He wanted Barabbas to be freed. Christ is not going to receive the amnesty as the people’s gift. It is we sinners who are going to be offered an amnesty from God as Christ’s gift. Christ has to earn that amnesty by being bound to the cross, bound to sin and its punishment and bound to death.
Let us look again at these two men but now with all we know of Christ as the sin-bearer, even then entering the anathema of God. Who bears the greatest guilt? Barabbas is guilty of insurrection and murder and probably other crimes and many sins too, but Jesus is made guilty of every sin. The Lord is laying on him the iniquity of us all. He has been made sin for us. He is bearing our transgressions in his own body. We would look again at these two men and we would see the greyness of Barabbas’ life, but there is no grey in Christ. He is all black, as ebony. He is not engaged in some theological transaction on Calvary. He is involved in a real transaction. He is really receiving the punishment for actual sins, not for a murder and insurrection alone but for every commandment of God which we have broken. God demands it; that is the nature of the Deity. The Son of God is standing there in the guilt of David’s murder and adultery, and Abraham’s deceit, and Jacob’s trickery, and Paul’s violence and torturing and in the guilt of all my sins. There before us are two men, but even Barabbas a hardened criminal fresh out of the vileness of prison life would have been stunned if he had walked to Golgotha later that day, and had seen that central cross which may have been destined to be the place of his own execution and Jesus nailed there. He would have been shocked I say to have seen there – had the Holy Spirit opened his eyes – the unmitigated wickedness that had been imputed to Jesus of Nazareth. It was to deliver us from that vast guilt and sin that Jesus Christ would not change the hearts of the mob but would rather take all this wickedness into the blackness of Gethsemane.
So, you who stand with the world that Good Friday morning and see these two men standing before you – gentle Jesus, meek and mild but here made sin, and the murderous Barabbas – who do you want to vote for? What is you choice? What a dilemma for Christ’s people; their love for him prompting them to cry for his release. Of course. They couldn’t vote for a murderer. If they were silent they’d be voting in effect for this criminal; they’d be voting against Christ; they’d be driving him to his death. But to vote for Jesus means to turn him away from his eternal destiny of laying down his life as the Lamb of God. What dilemmas there are in the Christian life!
4. WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH JESUS, THE MESSIAH?
Pilate was not a disciple, and Pilate must not be silent. I am not pleading with unbelievers to be silent. He didn’t know what you and I know as Christians, but he did know that Jesus was a good and blameless man. The question facing him was this: what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ? It is a vital question. On 13 February 1938, Eric Nash (widely known as ‘Bash’) a clergyman and school teacher, came to give a talk to the Christian Union at Rugby School. His text was the question of Pilate’s: “What then shall I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?” A teenage boy called John R.W. Stott, son of a Harley Street doctor, was in the small group of boys listening to him. This was his reaction, “That I needed to do anything with Jesus was an entirely novel idea to me, for I had imagined that somehow he had done whatever needed to be done, and that my part was only to acquiesce. This Mr. Nash, however, was quietly but powerfully insisting that everybody had to do something about Jesus, and that nobody could remain neutral. Either we copy Pilate and weakly reject him, or we accept him personally and follow him. After talking privately with Nash and taking the rest of the day to think further, that night at my bedside I made the experiment of faith, and ‘opened the door’ to Christ. I saw no flash of lightning . . . in fact I had no emotional experience at all. I just crept into bed and went to sleep. For weeks afterwards, even months, I was unsure what had happened to me. But gradually I grew, as the diary I was writing at the time makes clear, into a clearer understanding and a firmer assurance of the salvation and lordship of Jesus Christ.’
Like John Stott Pilate initially tried to avoid that question. He didn’t want to put his whole life on the line for the sake of Jesus of Nazareth, but he didn’t want to put Jesus on the cross. He wanted to remain neutral; he wanted other people to make a choice while sitting on the fence and avoiding the issue. So he first sent Jesus off to Herod, and when that failed he told others that they should decide between Jesus and Barabbas. But no matter what he did, Pilate couldn’t avoid the question. Pilate had to decide, to bow before the Son of God or be against him.
Likewise, you and I can’t avoid this question, what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ? You can’t go on trying to be neutral about the Son of God because he claims he’s your Creator and will be your Judge; he has authority to put you in hell, but he is ready to be your Saviour. You must respond in some way to Christ’s claims. They are the words of a mad man, or an evil man, or a demon, or they are the words of God the Son. If they are true you must give up everything for him, or you must reject him completely if he is a wicked liar. There is no middle ground. When Pilate pretended to be neutral, he ended up authorizing the murder of Jesus. When you pretend to be neutral, you’re really spurning Jesus and rejecting his claims. Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23).
If you say that you’re not really against Jesus but you’re not for him either, you’re saying, whether you realize it or not, that Jesus has no claim on your life, that you don’t recognize him as Lord and God. You’re saying that you don’t want his love, that you don’t need his blood to cover your sin, that you can get along without his resurrection life. The Bible says, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3 KJV) Neglecting his salvation is no better than rejecting his salvation. When you try to be neutral toward the Lord Jesus Christ, when, like Pilate, you try to avoid going one way or the other, what you’re really doing is rejecting him and destroying yourself in the bargain. What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ? It’s a question we can’t avoid or be neutral about, and it’s also a question that won’t allow us to plead ignorance.
So before you try to answer all your other questions, first answer this one: “What shall I do with Jesus, who called Christ?” First respond to the gospel truths you know, what you’ve already heard. Repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour, the Son of God and the Lord of the universe.
You may hesitate because of what it could cost you. Pilate was afraid that if he stood up for Jesus, he would lose his position. He would. Count the cost, Jesus said. You may have similar fears. If you started living for Jesus, your new way of life and your refusal to make moral compromises might hurt you in your employment. You might run into new problems in some of your personal relationships. A commitment to Christ could cost you.
If, like Pilate, you put your own success first, you’ll turn away from Jesus. If you base your response to Jesus on how you think it will affect your immediate future, you’ll end up siding with evil, and in the long-term future, you’ll lose your soul eternally. As Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
If, like Pilate, you refuse to make a personal commitment, if you wash your hands of Jesus and just go along with whatever the crowd tells you to do, you will lose your only hope of salvation. Jesus wasn’t on trial before Pilate. Pilate was on trial before Jesus. And so are you. Your response to Jesus reveals your destiny. God’s word says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
What will you do with Jesus? Neutral you cannot be.
Some day your soul will be asking, ‘What will he do with me.’
What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ? How does your heart respond? “Let him die”, or “My Lord and my God”?
25th November 2012 GEOFF THOMAS