In the gospels, the unjust trial of Jesus is presented. He is illegally arrested under the cover of darkness. Throughout the night, Jesus is mocked and tortured. In the morning, false witnesses are secured. However, despite their best efforts, two influential judges declare Jesus to be not guilty. Pilate and Herod both hear the case against the renegade rabbi, and they both throw out the charges. Luke presents this in his record of the court proceedings:
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us … (Luke 23:13-15)
Jesus should be released and sent on his way, but the kangaroo court continues. They do not wish him dead, but they will not let him go. Therefore, hoping to find some middle ground, Pilate again declares Jesus innocent but promises to flog him:
… Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him. (Luke 23:15-16)
Jesus is to be unjustly and ruthlessly flogged but within an inch of his life and then released. But the peer pressure put upon Pilate by the Jewish Council is too great to be ignored. They are not going to be pacified with a mere beating, so Pilate tries another scheme to ultimately release the “not guilty” Jesus. It is his annual custom to pardon a criminal. He gives the Jewish populace two options. Pilate will either pardon the innocent Jesus, or he will pardon Barabbas — a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. (23:19) With these two options before them, the Jews make their desire known, “They all cried out together, ‘Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas.'” (23:18)
Pilate again declares the injustice of this action; Jesus is innocent:
Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.” But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that he should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. (Luke 23:20-23)
But the will of the crowd is firm, and Pilate submits himself to their unjust demands. Jesus is to be further harmed. An innocent man is incarcerated. An innocent man is mocked, beaten, stripped, and crucified. In addition, a guilty and vile felon is set free from death row:
So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will. (Luke 23:24-25)
This is a gross injustice. It is bad news for Roman justice. It is bad news for Roman society. It is bad news for Pilate. It is bad news for the Jewish leadership. It is bad news for Jesus.
However, this gross injustice is a glorious injustice for Barabbas. He, a guilty man, is pardoned and sent home because Jesus becomes his substitute.
Friends, this gross injustice is also a glorious injustice for sinners like you and me. We have been tried by God and found guilty. We are out of appeals and eternal condemnation awaits. We are dead men wallowing in bondage. We are on death row, and there is no escaping the all-seeing eye and all-powerful hand of the Executioner. But God, who is both just and the justifier of guilty men, crucified himself that vile sinners might be pardoned, declared sinless, adopted into the sacred family, united with God, filled with the Holy Spirit, destined to enjoy paradise, and inherit the world. Yes, in this ancient Roman story of judicial misconduct and strange pardon, the Gospel is both provided and pictured. Jesus dies. Barabbas lives. Because God loves sinners, a gross injustice is foreordained, and sinners like you and me have been glorying in it ever since.
I do not know how Barabbas responded to the substitutionary work of Jesus. I hope he responded with repentance and faith. I hope he was filled with wonder, humility, thanksgiving, and affectionate worship. I hope he responded with repentance and faith. It would be wonderful to see him in paradise one day.
However, I do know how we should respond:
- Let us respond with repentance and faith. If we have not called upon Christ to be our Savior and Lord, let us do so right now.
- Let us be filled with wonder all the days of our life. Why would God choose to show such undeserved love to vile wretches like you and me?
- Let us be humble all the days of our life. We know what we deserve. We know what we are receiving. We know who has done all the work to secure our eternal benefits. Who are we to be arrogant in any way?
- Let us pour forth affectionate worship. Can we ever get weary of hearing the Gospel week after week? Would we really consider the Gospel to be old news that we no longer need to keep before us? Let us glory in the cross. Let us worship Jesus with wild passion and reverence.
- Let us dutifully serve him every day. We are his bride; let us love our Groom. We are his servants; let us do his work. We are his priests; let us build his church. We are his disciples; let us burn ourselves out keeping his Great Commission.
- Let us walk with confidence. Since we are fully pardoned and declared innocent of any and all sins, let us not ever pretend we are anything less than saints. What a slap in the face to the one who paid all our sin debt.
Friends, we cannot pay him back; we should not even try. However, we can respond with repentance, faith, wonder, humility, affectionate worship, dutiful service, and internal confidence. He was grossly mistreated for our sake, and this is glorious news for all his unworthy but incredibly loved children.