Jesus, Barnabas and Pontius Pilate
Map of Jerusalem. In our Scripture today, we have Jesus bound by the Sanhedrin, convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to death but there’s one problem: only Rome can put someone to death. So after receiving 40 lashes, Jesus is taken before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. It is now 6 AM. On the screen you’ll see a map of the city of Jerusalem and you’ll see Caiaphas’ house. Picture of Antonio Fortress. Jesus is led by the temple guard through the city streets to the Fortress Antonio with the Sanhedrin following behind. Fortress Antonio was built by Pilate adjacent to the temple. It was at the heart of the city and of course this grieved the Israelites that there was a Roman garrison in the heart of the holy city. The walls were shared with the northern wall of the temple mount. Picture of stone pavement. Now if you were go to the Holy Land, you would be taken along the via delorosa, the way of suffering, where you would walk the stations of the cross. This begins at the Sisters of Sion convent. In the basement of the convent, you would see excavations that reveal a stone pavement is the traditional place where Jesus stood when he was sentenced to die. A large crowd is now gathering to see the verdict against Jesus.
Picture of the crowd. In both the trial of Jesus, before the Sanhedrin and now Pilate, Jesus remains virtually silent as he is accused of crimes for which his accusers hope he will be put to death. To be accused falsely and have a death sentence looming over your head and saying nothing, that is strange to say the least. In fact, Pilate is amazed by Jesus’ virtual silence. The silence of Jesus.
King of the Jews. This is the crime for which he has been sentenced. In that time, Caesar was king of the Jews and all the Roman Empire. Anyone who claimed to be king of the Jews was setting himself up to be against Caesar and thus leading an insurrection. As Pilate interrogates Jesus, he asks, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus gives a rather cryptic answer, “Yes, it is as you say.” Then Pilate asked if Jesus wanted to hear the charges against him and to the great amazement of Pilate, Jesus says nothing. This was his opportunity to respond to those charges and Jesus remains utterly silent.
I believe Jesus has in mind a passage of Scripture from Isaiah 53. In Isaiah’s day, these words were spoken to those who suffering in captivity in Babylon, and they believed they were suffering for the sins of the rest of the Israelites. Previous Slide with Isaiah 53:6-7 on it. But in Jesus, this Scripture takes on new life and new meaning. “We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus did not open his mouth and was offering himself as a lamb to the slaughter for the sins of the world.
The silence of Jesus represents his resignation or his determination to die. Jesus is not going to defend himself and try to get out from under the charges. Jesus believed the cross was part of God’s plan for him, that by his suffering and death, he would save all humankind. And so he tells his disciples before he arrives to Jerusalem, “The son of Man will be betrayed and put into the hands of sinners and he will die.” At the last supper, when Jesus says, “This is my body given for you and this is my blood given for you, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” So Jesus understands that his death is necessary for salvation.
The Atonement. How does that happen? That’s the million dollar question with which theologians have wrestled throughout the millennia. The question is, How do we understand the atonement, the fact that humanity was estranged from God and Jesus’ death reconciles us to God? There are a variety theories about the atonement and over the next three weeks we’ll at three different theories of the atonement. The question is, “How does Jesus’ death save us from our sins?” We have one picture of that in our Scripture today.
Christians believe that Jesus’ death was redemptive for the whole world. Jesus didn’t die a disillusioned prophet or as a martyr and that was the end of the story. Christians believe his death was a vehicle by which he was saving the whole world. Now we see an image of this atonement in what happens with Barrabbas. Picture of Barabbas.
Here is a criminal and murderer who is one of the zealots leading an insurrection against the Romans. Now in the time of the Passover, it was the custom of Pilate to release one prisoner to the Jewish people. He has two prisoners before him: Jesus and Barrabas. And both of them are accused of leading an insurrection. Both are accused of wishing to be king of the Jews. Pilate turns to the people and asks, Which of these do you want me to release to you? Is it Barrabbas who has robbed and murdered or Jesus of Nazareth who has taught people to follow God, loved the outcasts and downtrodden and healed the sick and the maim and given sight to the blind. Which if these two do you want me to release to you?
Pontius Pilate expects the people to choose Jesus but much to his surprise they chose Barrabbas and because of that he is released and Jesus is taken in his place. By that afternoon when Barabbas should have been hanging on the cross, Jesus dies there in his place. Barabbas becomes the first sinner for whom Jesus dies. This becomes a picture of the work of Christ’s atonement on the cross. This is what theologians call the substitutionary theory of the atonement. Picture of crucifixion. That is, Jesus takes the place of one sinner. Jesus takes the punishment and dies in the place of one who deserved to die. This is also what Jesus has done for all of us. Christians believe that we have all sinned against God and because of that we have been alienated or separated from God. And the punishment of sin against God is death. “The way of sin is death.” Romans 5:12 But God seeks to close that gap even though our sins against God deserves punishment. God considers us his children and does not want us to be eternally separated but rather to be reconciled to Him. And for this to happen, Jesus must die in our place. This is the theory of substitutionary grace that Jesus suffers and dies on the cross for the sins of human kind. He pays a price he did not owe and as a result we receive a grace we did not deserve.
It is hard for us to understand sometimes. When we look in the mirror, we really don’t see ourselves as such bad people. Bur every now and then we do something that is so awful and we feel so ashamed that we dare not tell anyone. We live under the burden of that guilt and emotional pain and we realize we can really do nothing to alleviate it or remove it. But then we look at the cross and we realize that a price was already paid for us.
Tony Campolo writes in his book, “Speaking My Mind”, “Every time I sin, at that very instant Jesus groans at Calvary. Even as I sin today, He experiences the agony of ingesting my sin into Himself in His eternal now, as He hangs spread eagle on the tree back there and then. This is why it says in Hebrews 6: 6 that when we sin, we crucify Him right now. While spending a few days as the religious-emphasis-week speaker on the campus of a Christian college, I talked with a senior who was quite cavalier about the sins in his life. He told me about having an affair with a married woman. Then he said, “Whenever I commit sin, I remember that Jesus took the punishment for that sin back there on the cross.” In response, I said, “The next time you’re in bed having sex with your lover, I hope you can hear the screams of Jesus from the cross; because at that very moment Jesus is reaching across time and absorbing into His own body the very sin that you are committing there and then. The Jesus who hates sin becomes the sinner that you are. The innocent Jesus becomes the adulterer you are, because in His eternal now, He becomes everything about you that He hates…..all of this should provide a great impetus for living the holy life.” It is when that we are able to see and experience the cost of that grace that we begin to serve God with humble gratitude and long within our hearts never sin again. And yet because of our humanity, we will sin again and call upon the grace of God in our lives. We see ourselves in Barabbas and we walk away free from our sin while an innocent man takes our place.
Each week, we have asked you to identify with the characters in the Passion story. Today, we see ourselves in the crowd. Picture of the crowd. The crowd gathered there at 6 AM to call for the crucifixion of Jesus. And often we think of that crowd and associate them with the Jews of that day. And I have to say that is absolute heresy. Not all of the Jews in Jesus’ day called for his crucifixion. It was perhaps a very small crowd of people, maybe as many as are gathered today in the sanctuary, standing in front of the Antonio fortress and calling for Jesus to be crucified. Who were these people? Most who encountered Jesus saw him as a great teacher, a prophet speaking on God’s behalf, a wonder worker. I believe some of those gathered were the sellers in the temple whose tables were overturned by Jesus and were chased out of the temple by him. They must have felt that their livelihood was being threatened. So they must have cried out as an act of self-preservation to have him crucified. Then there were those gathered who were thugs and rebel rousers and just enjoyed seeing violent things happen. Still others must have been part of the zealots, a passionately committed minority whose desire was not only for religious freedom but political freedom too. They no doubt wanted one of their leaders freed so their insurrection would continue.
No doubt still others had come out of concern for Jesus and had been there at the gates as he processed into the Holy City, crying out, Hosanna, son of David. Blessed in he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. And yet just days later, they call for his crucifixion. How could they have been so fickle? Just like everyone who approached Jesus, they had an idea of what the Messiah was going to be like. Some were looking to Jesus to lead an insurrection and throw off the bonds of Rome and free them from oppression. This had been their hope and expectation and prayer for decades. Jesus was not the first. According to Josephus, the historian, between the time when Jesus was born and when he came to Jerusalem for the Passover, there were at least 8 different persons hailed as Messiah by at least some of the people of Israel. Each of these would gather several 100 or 1000 to fight along side them. But every one of them fought by the sword and understood this was the central task of the Messiah. This was what the people were looking for in Jesus. How he must have sorely disappointed them.
When he began to teach in the temple courts, do you remember what he said, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Blessed are you who suffer for what is true and right. Blessed are the meek and blessed are the peacemakers. If a Roman soldier calls you to carry his backpack for one mile, carry it for two. If a Roman strikes you on the cheek then turn the other cheek. When it came to the oppressive taxes which in some cases exceeded 60% of your income, Jesus looking at one of their coins and seeing the Roman insignia said, Render under Caesar, the things that are Caesar’s and under God the things that are God’s. This is not what the people are looking for, nor what they were wanting to hear. By Friday, they had come to the conclusion that this Jesus was just another wannabe because he went against the grain of what everyone of those people expected. The only way to survive in this world and attain freedom was by force and the power of the sword. Jesus said to them, this is not the way to be free but rather by demonstrating to them sacrificial love.
Jesus knew that even if every Jew raised a sword against the Romans, they would be crushed. In 66 AD there was a man by the name of Menachem ben Judah who led an insurrection and they routed the Romans out of the Antonio fortress and then a legion of soldiers which came from Syria and they were routed and the Jews began to believe this is the Messiah and this is the time. But then Rome sent 60,000 well armed and highly trained soldiers from the north into Galilee and they killed 100,000 people. They marched to Jerusalem and for 3 ½ years the people held out barricaded in Jerusalem. By the time the Romans laid siege, they destroyed the city and burnt it to the ground. You can still see the flames on the rocks today. Picture of burnt house dig. Before the Romans were done, 1 million Jews had been put to death. You see, it was not by the sword that they would have victory over the Romans. Jesus knew this. The only way to overcome them is by showing the love of God to them and praying for them and letting them see in you the God you worship. You are to be a light unto the nations and when they experience the love of God through you, their hearts will be changed. And as they are, you have conquered them not by the sword but by your love. When Paul and many others began to talk about a God who loves his children so much that he gave his only son as a sacrifice to live for them and die for them, this idea was so powerful that the faith spread like wildfire, so that by the early 4th century the Roman Empire now recognized Christianity its official faith. They had indeed been conquered by the cross of Christ.
Image of Pilate, Jesus and Barabbas. Now on that day when Pontius Pilate stood before the crowd, he had two would be Messiahs and are charged with leading a rebellion or insurrection against Rome. So he plans to release one prisoner. This was his custom each Passover. Now one interesting thing is that we can’t find any evidence of this happening anywhere else in the Roman Empire. Why would he do this? The Scripture puts it this way: “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them…” And so Pilate may have released an insurrectionist to quell the rebellion and maintain the peace. Matthew’s Gospel tells us both have the same first name, Jesus Barabbas and Jesus ben Joseph, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus means God saves. So you have Savior of Nazareth and Savior Barabbas. Which of these Saviors do you pick?
Which of those do you pick? If you had the opportunity to have a Savior who is going to lead by force and throw out the Romans and allow you to save your money from their oppressive taxes and ensure freedom for the first time in your life or a Savior who says love them in your midst and serve them, which do you choose? If you have two presidential candidates to choose from: one who says there is peace through strength, that we need to be as strong as possible so that no one will dare cross us and if they do, we will go to war and fight for what is right. Or do you vote for the one who says we will not fight. We will serve the poor and show love and kindness and grace in every way possible. And if they strike against us, we will turn the other cheek. Which of those is going to get elected? There’s no question really is there? I don’t know anyone who would vote for the latter. What I’m trying to get across to you is that Jesus was so counter cultural that it is easy to see why the crowd would choose Barabbas. Strength through the sword or change the world through love, grace and service.
Split Screen of MLK and Malcom X. Think of the difference between Malcolm X vs MLK. Malcom X believed that sometimes injustices were so grave that it should promote in our hearts anger and hate and that could be a powerful tool for changing society. And violence was a necessary response to accomplish what you needed to do. Martin Luther King took a different tact. He believed in love and peace, not violence. In his sermon Strength to Love, he said, this is what we are going to do: we are going to shame you into giving us civil rights. We are going to show you by our willingness to suffer that there is a different way. You can hurt us and threaten us but we are still going to love you. No matter what you do to us, we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer but we will win the victory by demonstrating love. In the end, what finally won the victory for civil rights? Was it power and hate or sacrificial love? Can you live that way in a world still marked by hate and violence? Can a nation survive by love and sacrifice rather than strength, might and power? I don’t know. All I do know is that this is how we are called to live as individual believers. We are called to choose between Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus Barabbas.
Picture of Pilate. And finally, how are you like Pilate? Pontius Pilate had been the Roman governor of Judea for several years when Jesus was brought before him. He ruled from 26-36 AD. Pilate had also already killed 100’s of Jews when Jesus was brought to him. He was a hard and cruel man, who had killed several would be messiahs and in 36 AD he killed a would be messiah along with the 6000 men who followed him. It was for this that he was relieved of his office. So it is interesting that this man who has killed Jews without blinking an eye now is troubled by this decision of what to do with Jesus. Matthew tells us it is his wife who warns Pilate to not have anything to do with Jesus. In Mark’s Gospel he asks the crowd, what should I do with this man. I don’t see any reason to kill him. He even washed his hands of this decision. Luke reports to us that he sends Jesus to Herod Agrippa, the king of the Galilean Province, and says, You deal with him! But Herod sends him back and says I find no reason to kill him so you deal with him.
Pilate knows what should happen, knows what is just and right but he sought to satisfy the crowd. He released Barabbas for them and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.” Pilate knew what the right thing to do was but he felt pressure to satisfy the crowd. Do you see yourself in Pilate? When have you done the thing you knew was wrong but you longed to satisfy the crowd, or you wanted to fit in and be accepted. It is so hard to say no when everyone else is doing it. Peer pressure is not just for kids. Adults feel it too as the culture is going one way and we choose to fit in rather than follow our faith. What is the crowd asking you to do? When is it you have given into the crowd even though you knew it was wrong? That’s why the church is so important because we can draw strength from one another because that crowd’s voice is so strong and the culture is so alluring that we can have difficulty saying no.
We all are like Pilate who know what is right but instead bow to the pressure of the crowd. We all are like the crowd who have would rather have physical prosperity and strength through peace than to lay down our lives for others. And we are all like Barabbas who had one man, innocent though he was, died I his place and yet continued to go against the ways of God.