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My Name Is Barabbas

Tom Pennington • Mark 15:6-15

  • 2017-07-09 AM
  • Sermons


Before His crucifixion, our Lord was arraigned at six different hearings or trials. Three of them were Jewish; three of them were Roman. The first occurred just after midnight on the Thursday night of Passover. It was at that time that Jesus was taken from the Garden of Gethsemane to the private residence of the high priest and his family. There was, first, a preliminary hearing before Annas (a former high priest and Caiaphas' father-in-law), followed immediately by a second, a trial before a quorum of the Sanhedrin where Jesus was found guilty of blasphemy. Both of those first two Jewish trials were finished by 3 a.m. Before the first break of dawn's light on that Friday morning, Jesus was taken from the house of Caiaphas to the official chambers of the Sanhedrin on the temple mount, because it was necessary that a formal trial be held. And so, verse 1 of Mark 15 records it: "Early in the morning the chief priests . . . held a consultation . . . and delivered Him [up] to Pilate." So as light began to break on that Friday morning, the Sanhedrin held a brief but formal, third Jewish trial and officially found Jesus guilty of blasphemy.

When that formality was done, they quickly took Jesus across town from the temple mount to the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate, and three Roman trials quickly followed. The first was before Pilate. It's recorded here by Mark in verses 2 through 5. And Jesus was found innocent of the crime of sedition or insurrection. The second trial was before Herod. It's recorded in Luke chapter 23. Pilate and Herod would have been staying in the great palace built by Herod the Great, which was essentially two separate palaces, separated by a massive compound between them. So, it was just across the courtyard that they took Jesus to Herod. The third trial, then, was back before Pilate again. And John tells us that all three of the Roman trials were essentially over by what he says is about the sixth hour. That would have been about 6 a.m. Now since there were no watches in that day, that could've been as late as possibly 7, maybe even towards 7:30.

This morning in preparation for communion, I want us to reflect on the third Roman trial before Pilate and its significance as it's recorded for us in the passage we just read, Mark 15:6-15. This third Roman trial unfolds for us in three great scenes. The first scene is in verses 6-8. Let's call it a gracious custom, a picture of Passover's story. Notice, first, Pilate's custom in verse 6: "Now at the feast he used to release for them any one prisoner whom they requested." The verb tenses there imply that this was a customary practice. Josephus, the Jew who became a Roman soldier and wrote Jewish history, records similar instances of the Romans freeing a prisoner as a goodwill gesture, sometimes even in connection with a national holiday as it was in this case. It was Pilate's custom to release a prisoner, notice, in conjunction with the Passover celebration. In fact, in John 18, Pilate says, "You have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover." Apparently, this custom even predated Pilate, and when he came, he simply continued it. Makes perfect sense, this tradition, because there was no better picture of what God had done in the first Passover in Egypt. God had moved to release His people from their bondage in Egypt, to redeem them. And so here was a beautiful picture of their freedom from slavery, as a prisoner is set free. What made this custom unique was that the people got to select the one who would be released. Now notice that word release. It's a very important word in the story. The Greek word is a legal word that means to grant acquittal, to pardon. This is not simply about letting someone out of jail. This is about letting someone who has been legally convicted and condemned have a pardon whereby their crimes are erased.

Now, verse 7 refers to the prisoner, Rome's prisoner, notice how he's described: "The man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection." There are several things we know about this man. First of all, his surname, Barabbas, simply means son of abba or son of the father. What's interesting about him, however, is that some early manuscripts of Matthew's gospel tell us that his given name was Jesus. We can't be sure of that, but it's certainly possible. Jesus is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua, which was a very common name in the first century. And so, it's interesting, isn't it, that you have in this story Jesus (potentially, Jesus) Barabbas, son of the father, and you have Jesus of Nazareth, Son of the Father?

Now the gospel writers are clear, however, that this man was nothing like Jesus. They're very clear about the kind of man he was. Matthew, in his gospel, chapter 27, verse 16, describes him as "a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas." The word notorious literally means outstanding. And it's used in both the good and the bad sense. So here was a man, Barabbas, who was outstanding in the negative sense; in the extent of his crimes and in the horrific nature of them.

John 18:40 adds that Barabbas was a robber. It's an interesting word robber. When we hear that word, we tend to think a burglar or someone who is simply greedy and after stuff or money. But Josephus uses that very same word to describe anti-Roman insurrectionists. So, understand, Barabbas was not an ordinary house burglar or a robber. He was an armed revolutionary, a guerrilla. In modern terms, he was a terrorist. In fact, that's how he's described in verse 7, notice: "The man named Barabbas who had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection." He was involved in an event, here simply called the insurrection. That's not uncommon in first-century Palestine. In fact, between the years 6 AD and 70 AD, Jewish zealots led countless armed revolts against the Roman occupying army. Barabbas had been part of one of these. In fact, the very reason that he's singled out may very well be that he was the leader of this particular insurrection.

And during this armed revolt, notice verse 7 says, "[he] had committed murder." This is not likely to have been his loyal, fellow Jews. This is far more likely to have been those well-placed Romans who were in the land or those Roman sympathizers among the Jewish people. People like the tax collectors who took advantage of their people for their own sake. Verse 7 also tells us, notice, that Barabbas had been captured by the Romans along with several of his fellow insurrectionists and likely his followers. And the final thing verse 7 tells us is that they had all been, the group of them, had been convicted of murder and insurrection, and they were imprisoned awaiting execution. That's the prisoner.

Verse 8 gives us the crowd's request: "The crowd went up and began asking him [that is, Pilate] to do as he had been accustomed to do for them." Now, John tells us where these events were unfolding. John 18:28 says, "They led Jesus from Caiaphas [that is, from the temple mount where that third Jewish trial had occurred] into the Praetorium, and it was early, and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover" on that Friday. The Praetorium was simply the governor's official residence. You see, during Passover and other notable Jewish celebrations, Pilate would leave his normal residence, which was at Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast, and he would come up to Jerusalem. And in Jerusalem, he stayed at the palace that Herod the Great had built on the upper west side of the city. There are modern models that you can see today in Jerusalem, models of the ancient city that have followed Josephus' descriptions. The Jewish leaders stayed just outside the Praetorium. John 19:13 says, "Pilate . . . brought Jesus out [that is, out of the large compound that was Herod's palace where he and Herod were staying] and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement." The Pavement was a stone pavement or mosaic. Josephus explains that just outside of Herod's palace there was a large open market paved with stone. And on that open market was also a raised platform on which sat the bema seat, the judgment seat.

While Pilate had come out of Herod's palace through the gate into that open market and was sitting there on the bema seat on the edge of that large open market, verse 8 tells us that a group of people approached him. And they ask him to do what he had customarily done during the Passover season, and that was to pardon one criminal. So, in Pilate's custom, then, a custom he no doubt inherited from his predecessor, there was a beautiful picture of the Passover story, a story of redemption from bondage.

Now that brings us to the second scene which picks up in verse 9. Let's call it a graphic choice, a picture of man's sin. Pilate, the consummate politician, saw in this request from the people an opportunity for him to get out of his dilemma and to release Jesus. In fact, Peter says in Acts 3, he had already decided to release Jesus. But in what Pilate did next, we see just the kind of man he was, because he treats Jesus, a man he believes to be completely and entirely innocent as if He were on the same level with a condemned murderer and a terrorist. And he presented the people with a graphic choice, notice verse 9: "Pilate answered them, saying, 'Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?'" Now, Matthew tells us that Pilate deliberately offered a choice between two alternatives. Matthew 27:17 says this, "Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" Barabbas or Jesus? That's your choice. It was a graphic choice. It was a choice between a king and a rebel; between justice and injustice; between a godly man and the worst of sinners; between the Prince of Life and a murderer; between a lifelong respecter of all human authority and an insurrectionist; between a keeper of the Law and a convicted felon; between a man who claimed to be God Himself and a man who had turned his back on the God that he grew up claiming.

Still, for all of Pilate's weaknesses, he undoubtedly hoped that this ploy, this choice that he presented the people with, would allow him to free Jesus, which he had decided to do. Why? Notice verse 10: "For [the reason he offered Jesus to be pardoned, to be set free, was] he was aware that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy." The chief priests is a title for the current high priest, in this case, Caiaphas, as well as all of those who were still living who had occupied that office. At that time there were five of them. There was Caiaphas, the current high priest. There was Annas, his father-in-law. And between Annas and Caiaphas there had been three additional high priests who were still living at that time: Ishmael, Eleazar, and Simon. These five men and their powerful families controlled the high priesthood in the first century. They controlled the temple, and most importantly of all, they controlled all of its commercial enterprises. And Pilate knew that their real issue with Jesus was not that He'd done something wrong. It was their envy. They resented Jesus. They resented His popularity. They resented the size of His following. They resented His teaching, His ability to teach with authority. They resented His miracles which affirmed who He was. They resented everything about Jesus. And Pilate knew they were just trying to get him to do their dirty work, to get rid of Jesus that they envied. And so, he offers this graphic choice.

But before the people could respond to Pilate's offer, as he sat there on the bema seat, he was interrupted suddenly. Matthew tells us why, Matthew 27:19: "While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, 'Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.'" While Pilate is reading and addressing the note from his wife, the message sent from his wife, the leaders were canvassing the crowd. Notice Mark 15:11: "The chief priests stirred up the crowd to ask him [Pilate] to release Barabbas for them instead." We aren't told what arguments they used. Maybe they told the crowd that in their private sessions Jesus had blasphemed and claimed to be God Himself. Maybe they praised the courage of Barabbas, a true patriot who was standing up to the Roman occupying army. Maybe, as they often had before, they simply tried strong-armed intimidation. Whatever method they tried, it obviously worked, because Matthew records the crowd's answer, Matthew 27:21: "The governor said to them, 'Which of the two do you want me to release for you?' And they said, 'Barabbas.'"

What a remarkable scene. You see, in this scene, Pilate, and ultimately God Himself, present the people with a graphic choice. Their choice, ultimately their decision, is a profound picture of human depravity because both leaders and people choose sin over righteousness. It shows mankind's unwavering commitment to self and to sin. You say, why would they have made this choice? Well, there are different reasons, different motives. The motive of the people seems to be simply unthinking, spiritual indifference, and their own personal advantage. They would get in good graces of the leaders. Perhaps out of fear of what might happen if they didn't. The motive of the religious leaders is clear in verse 10. It was envy. In fact, six weeks before, you remember, after Jesus raised Lazarus (just over the hill two miles there in Bethany), word got to the Sanhedrin; they held a secret session. It's recorded for us, probably told by Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, who were there and eventually came out as true followers of Jesus. And the words are reported that in that secret session, Caiaphas said this, "If we don't do something about Jesus, we're going to lose both our position and our nation." That was the issue. Pilate, it's clear what drove him, verse 15 makes that very clear: "Wishing to satisfy the crowd." You see, Pilate was driven by the fear of man. He was driven by self-promotion and by personal advancement. Different motives, same core reason: sin.

The graphic choice that Pilate presented the crowd and their decision paint a dark portrait of their sin and ours. You say, "How does this at all describe me? I wasn't there. I wouldn't have made this choice." I mean, think about the choice that was presented to them in sort of more modern terms. Can you imagine if you were given a choice between the execution of Jesus and Osama bin Laden? The execution of Jesus and Hitler? Can you imagine choosing for Jesus to die? And the answer is yes, you can. I can. We all can. You say, how do you say that? Well, let me just ask you this simple question, a sobering question I had to ask myself often this week. How many

times in your life have you chosen your sin over Jesus? That was the choice they made. And it was a picture of the darkness of sin.

Verse 12 introduces the third and final scene in this drama: the great exchange, a picture of Jesus' substitution. In verses 12 to 15, we really get to the heart of this passage. Notice verse 12: "Answering again, Pilate said to them, 'Then what shall I do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?'" Pilate fully expected the people to ask for Jesus. And when that didn't happen, he then in turn, says to them, "OK, what do you want me to do with Jesus?" It's possible, as he says this, that he was actually giving them another opportunity to ask for Jesus' release in addition to Barabbas. Remember, Peter tells us he had already decided to release Him. And so perhaps he's extending a second opportunity to ask for Jesus to be released, a request he might very well have granted. But in verse 13: "They shouted back, 'Crucify Him!'" That word shouted means exactly what it says. It's to cry out in a loud voice. It's even used in some contexts to scream. This crowd screamed for Jesus' crucifixion.

Why? Who are these people? Who's in this crowd? Well, this crowd gathered in that open marketplace at 6 a.m. on that Friday primarily consisted of three groups. There was, first of all, the Jewish Sanhedrin: 70 plus the high priest, 71 and their entourage. Remember, they had met in council on the temple mount, and they had brought Jesus en masse. Except for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, they had unanimously voted for Jesus' death. And they bring, together now, they bring Jesus to Pilate. They're there and, of course, their entourage: their bodyguards and their soldiers and their protection and servants and all of those who'd have been with them. Remember too, this is a market. So, there are those who are there simply to buy and sell. Remember, it's the feast. It's Passover. Perhaps they had more guests come in than they expected, or their guests consumed more food at the night before than they had thought they would, and so they're there for the supplies for that day. And then there's a group, verse 8 tells us, that had come to seek the release of the prisoner as Pilate customarily did. It's possible that some of those people were even friends of the insurrectionist, friends of Barabbas.

And they all cried out together, shouted under the pressure provided by the leadership of the nation, for the death of Jesus. Verse 14: "Pilate said to them, '[Why?] Why, what evil has He done?' But they shouted all the more, 'Crucify Him!'" Pilate is shocked, I think, at their response to Jesus. He's trying to understand this, but the crowd, notice, screamed out all the more. It's an interesting Greek expression. It means beyond measure, with an exceptionally high degree of intensity. William Hendriksen writes:

Over and over again these terrible words are yelled until they become a monotonous refrain, an eerie, ominous chant: "Let Him be crucified! Let Him be crucified!" The crowd has become a riotous mob, an emotion-charged, screaming rabble.

Now, in reporting the inner weaving of the life of Barabbas and the life of Jesus, the gospel writers go out of their way to present us with two contrasts. And to really understand what's going on here, you have to see these contrasts. First of all, there is the contrast between the guilt of Barabbas and the innocence of Jesus. The guilt of Barabbas and the innocence of Jesus.

Consider Barabbas' guilt. Here's what the gospel writers say, Matthew 27:16, "A notorious prisoner, called Barabbas." Luke 23:19 "He . . . had been thrown into prison for an insurrection made in the city, and for murder." John 18:40: "[He] was a robber." And notice verse 7, he was an insurrectionist, in other words, he was a terrorist and a murderer. That was Barabbas. Here's a man who is wicked, evil, deserving of exactly what he gets.

But contrast that with Jesus' innocence. Turn over to Luke 23. In Luke 23, Pilate gives us a summary of the first two Roman trials. Notice what he says, verse 13, "Pilate summoned the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and [he] said to them, 'You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion.'" Stop there for a moment. That's a very important statement, because if you remember the story, in the three Jewish trials particularly the last two, what was the issue that Jesus was convicted of? Blasphemy. You remember? At that late-night trial, Caiaphas stood up in desperation. Not having found any reliable witnesses to bring a charge against Jesus, he stands up, he comes into Jesus' face, and he says this to Him: "Tell us plainly, 'Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?'" To which Jesus says, "I am." He, Caiaphas, tears his robe, and he says, "It's blasphemy. You've heard it. Is He deserving of death?" And unanimously, except for Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, they conclude that He's guilty of blasphemy and therefore guilty of death. So, the crime the Jews convicted Him of was blasphemy, but when they bring him to Pilate, they change the charge. Why? Well, ostensibly because Pilate isn't going to care about their religion and their claims. But insurrection, now that's something he'll be concerned about. So, notice what he says. Verse 14:

You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him.

There's Jesus' innocence. That is Pilate, the judge over Jesus' case, saying the conclusion of the first two Roman trials is absolute innocence of sedition.

Matthew tells us, several of the gospels tell us, about the outcome of the third Roman trial. Matthew 27:19, you remember, in the in the midst of that, Pilate's wife sent him the note: "Have nothing to do with that righteous Man." But in verse 14 of Mark 15, where we've been looking together, you'll notice verse 14 says, "Why, what evil has He done?" But the third Roman trial ends with this statement by Pilate. It's in John 19:4, Pilate says, "I find no guilt in Him." He's not guilty. In fact, I wish I had time to show you. In his official capacity as the Roman prefect, Pilate publicly declared Jesus to be innocent five separate times. But the key point I want you to get is this. Barabbas was condemned in God's providence for the exact crime of which Jesus was found completely innocent: insurrection, rebellion, sedition. So, there is a deliberate contrast, then, between the innocence of Jesus and the guilt of Barabbas.

But there's also an intentional contrast in the gospel records between the pardon of the guilty and the condemnation of the righteous. Look at Mark 15:15: "Wishing to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified." In an unthinkable act of injustice, Pilate sacrificed an innocent life on the altar of his own personal ambition.

What changed his mind? Remember, he was planning to release him? So, what happened? Well, John tells us. John 19:12-13:

Pilate made efforts to release Him [Jesus], but the Jews cried out, saying, "If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar." Therefore, when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out [and the crucifixion followed].

You see, implied in their words to Pilate was a threat: if you let Jesus go, we're going to file a complaint against you with Caesar; we will argue that you have condoned treason against Rome. Now this was the exact place for them to go after Pilate, because Pilate had been the prefect for many years, and he had a number of ticks against his record with Rome. He was on shaky ground with Caesar already, and he couldn't afford another problem in this upstart, troublesome area that he oversaw. He had spent years working up through the ranks of the Roman army. He wasn't about to let one little life, even a righteous life, stand in the way of his career. So, when it became obvious to him that he couldn't spare Jesus' life without great personal cost, he symbolically, you know what he did, he washed his hands. Matthew 27:24-15:

When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this Man's blood; see to that yourselves." And all the people said, "His blood shall be on us and on our children!"

And then Pilate committed the greatest travesty of justice in human history. Try to let the contrast of verse 15 sear into your soul. Look at it: "Pilate released Barabbas for them. [Remember the word release? Pilate didn't just let him go. He pardoned him of murder and rebellion and treason against Rome and let him go.] And after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified."

There is hideous torture, unimaginable suffering, contained in that single word scourged. The Greek word is a loaned word from Latin, flagella. It was a horrific punishment from which Roman citizens were exempt, but which was inflicted on slaves and provincials after they were sentenced to death. This terrible treatment was inflicted with what was called a flagellum. It was a short wooden handle with leather straps attached and woven into the straps were pieces of lead and brass and shards of bone. The victim was stripped to his waist, bent over a short pillar, and either tied or held in place. Usually, two soldiers inflicted the punishment, lashing the victim from one side and then the other. The first few blows softened and lacerated the back like a meat mallet would a piece of meat. The next blows cut deeply into the flesh leaving it in ribbons. Josephus claimed that while he had still been a military commander for Rome, he had some of Rome's enemies in Galilee scourged until their organs were exposed. Eusebius, the church historian, describes those "torn by scourges down to deep-seated veins and arteries, so that the hidden contents of the recesses of their bodies, their entrails, and organs, were exposed to sight."

But in Jesus' case, it wasn't just about the physical suffering. There was a great spiritual significance. Isaiah 53:5 says, "He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being [shalom] fell upon Him, and by His scourging, we are healed."

But I don't want you to miss the great exchange that happens in these verses, because it's the point of the passage. By God's design, this story is a picture of Jesus' substitution. It portrays the condemnation of the righteousness One in the place of the guilty and the condemned.

Remember, Barabbas had been imprisoned, condemned, and ordered executed along with his followers. The Greek word that describes Barabbas, robber, is used herein chapter 15. Look down in verse 27: "They crucified two robbers with Him, one on His right and one on His left." Do you understand what happened that day? Not only was Barabbas pardoned and released and Jesus condemned, but Jesus literally died in Barabbas' place. He died on the very cross meant for Barabbas, between two of his accomplices. And that was no accident. That was by divine design because God wanted us to have forever a living picture of what Jesus was accomplishing spiritually on that day. The design was substitution. Jesus was dying, literally, in the place of a guilty, condemned sinner, Barabbas. And that's exactly what He was doing for us; in our place, so that God, not Pilate, could pardon us.

The great events unfolded in this paragraph were happening on two different levels, both here on earth and in heaven. At the human level, the Jews and the Romans conspired to condemn an innocent man in the place of a guilty one, to condemn someone found completely innocent of insurrection in the place of someone found guilty of insurrection. But at the divine level, God Himself was condemning His own innocent Son in the place of guilty sinners. Jesus was and is perfectly righteousness; we are guilty and condemned before God and His Law. In fact, Romans chapter 3, as we saw in verses 19 and 20, says that we live like Barabbas on death row all our lives. But in the gospel, God planned this great exchange. The righteous One is condemned and executed, and the guilty are completely pardoned. Do you see why this story is here? Barabbas is a perfect picture of Jesus' substitution for you. You have been found guilty already of specific sins. God knows Jesus to be completely innocent of those very sins. But God condemned Jesus for your sins. By God's design, Jesus died on the cross meant for you. He suffered the divine wrath that should have been yours. Your name is Barabbas. My name is Barabbas.

I don't know if Barabbas himself ever came to faith in Christ or not. The gospel writers don't tell us. But I can tell you this, every day of his life he was reminded that someone who was completely innocent of the very crimes he had committed died in his place. And that's exactly, Christian, what you and I should remind ourselves of every day as well. First Peter 2:24 says, "[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His [own] body on the cross." Notice, it doesn't say our sin in some generic sense. Our sins. Individually. Every breach of God's Law. Think of your sins. If you're in Christ, Jesus died in your place for those sins. First Peter 3:18: "Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust so that He might bring us to God." May we wake up every day remembering this great exchange. And may we remember in worship this great exchange even now as we remember Him in the way He gave us to the Lord's Table. Take a moment and prepare your heart as the men come.

Our Father, how do we begin to thank You for such grace? Not only the grace that moved You to offer Your Son in the place of condemned and guilty sinners but even Your grace that would give us such a powerful picture, that would in Your providence arrange the events of His death to show us in living color, in high definition, what He was doing spiritually that day. Lord, we love You, and we bless You. We thank You, Lord Jesus, for what You did for us. Help us now to worship You from our hearts, remembering Your substitution. And Father, I pray for those here this morning and I'm sure there are some who don't truly know You; Lord, some who know that and are here, really, with a rebellious heart like Barabbas, insurrectionist against Your authority in their lives. Father, others perhaps who are self-deceived, who have professed Christ but who've never really acknowledged Him as Lord. Father, I pray that whomever is here this morning that doesn't know You that You would bring them to a true knowledge of Yourself. Give them repentance and faith. And Father, for the rest of us, help us to truly worship in this act of worship that is the Lord's Table. Cleanse our hearts. Lord, each of us individually confess our sins, so that we can partake of the Lord's Table in a way that honors Him and what He did. Forgive us for His sake and receive our worship. We pray in Jesus' name, amen.