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When God stands trial

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Luke 23:13-25

A pastor tells how one ingenious mother handled her fidgety seven-year-old son in church: about halfway through the sermon, she leaned over and whispered, “If you don’t be quiet, the pastor is going to lose his place and he’ll have to start his sermon all over again!” It worked.

When we journey to the cross during the Easter season, we start the same sermon all over again. The same event you learned about as a small child, and remember every year during this season. We start the sermon over each year because we need to. Our souls need to remember what happened on the Friday we call Good. What happened to Jesus. What happened to us.

Today we’ll come to the cross through the eyes of Barabbas. Because we are all Barabbas. Let me explain.

Who is guilty?

“Barabbas” most likely means “Son of the Rabbi,” a famous religious leader and teacher in the land. In addition, Matthew’s account (26:16-17) includes in some of the oldest Greek versions the first name, “Jesus Barabbas.” The majority of scholars accept this addition today. So we have “Jesus Christ” and “Jesus Barabbas.” One the Son of God, the other the Son of the Rabbi. Which one deserved to die?

Consider Barabbas first.

This man was a robber and rebel who had committed murder during a political insurrection (Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19, John 18:40). He was a terrorist, joined to the bands then seeking the violent overthrow of Rome. He was willing to do anything to advance his political cause, and his personal fortunes as well.

For his crimes, Rome had convicted him and was holding him for crucifixion until that day when the crowd chose him over Jesus. Jesus Barabbas was a convicted political insurrectionist and terrorist.

Ironically, this was exactly the accusation the authorities leveled against Jesus Christ. Theirs was one of the most illegal trials in recorded history: no formal charge, no defense, bribed witnesses, self-incrimination, and a pre-dawn meeting which violated their statutes. Nonetheless, seven times Jesus was found innocent of all charges.

First comes the Jewish phase of Jesus’ trial.

After his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, our Lord is taken to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest (John 18:12-24). Here they wait for the Sanhedrin, their Supreme Court, to assemble. But Annas can find nothing with which to charge Jesus. Acquittal number one.

Next he is brought to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, to stand trial before the Sanhedrin. Matthew 26:59 says, “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death.” But with this result: “But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward” (v. 60). They can find no guilt. Acquittal number two. Had Jesus remained silent, he would have been freed. So he admits that he is the Messiah, and they convict him of blasphemy (Matthew 26:66).

When Judas sees that Jesus has been condemned, he returns the silver coins of his bribery with the admission, “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood” (Matthew 27:4). They don’t care, and he hangs himself. His words are the third proclamation of Jesus’ innocence.

Next comes the Roman phase, and four more such declarations of his innocence.

The Jews need Rome to inflict the death penalty. So they parade Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of their province. They know he won’t convict on their theological charge of blasphemy, any more than our civil courts would convict you or me of such a charge. So they change their accusation to political subversion, a charge for which they have absolutely no proof. Pilate sees Jesus’ innocence and says, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4). Acquittal number four.

But Pilate learns that Jesus is from Galilee, the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas. Seeking a way out of his dilemma, he sends our Lord to Herod. But Herod can find no charge to make against him, and sends him back to Pilate (Luke. 23:6-12). Acquittal number five.

Now Pilate utters the sixth acquittal: “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” (Luke 23:13-15).

The religious authorities are desperate. Pilate offers the crowd Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ, and they incite the people to choose Barabbas and condemn Christ. Still Pilate wants to release Jesus, so the authorities play their trump card: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). In other words, if you don’t condemn Jesus, we’ll tell Rome, and they’ll condemn you.

Pilate calls for water. He washes his hands in front of the crowd. He shouts, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility” (Matthew 27:24). Acquittal number seven. But Pilate must choose between Jesus and himself. And you know his choice.

Who was guilty—Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ? Who is guilty—us or Jesus? Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” What was the first sin you remember committing? What was your most recent?

Who died?

Romans 6:23 adds, “The wages for sin is death.” The just punishment by a holy God for our sins is death. So who died for our sins?

Now Jesus is handed over to the governor’s soldiers in the Praetorium.

They strip him and flog him, using a whip of leather strips in which is embedded pieces of lead and sharp shells. The flogging splits his skin and lays his back open—many men died under it.

Now Jesus has been up all night, paraded around Jerusalem in chains. Flogged, suffering from exhaustion, shock, and blood loss, he is led down the “via dolorosa,” the way of suffering.

The soldiers make him carry his own crossbeam, and endure the mocking of the crowds along the way. The same people who had cried “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday now shout “Crucify.” Their palm branches are replaced with curses and taunts.

He falls under absolute exhaustion and physical shock, and a man named Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry the crossbeam the rest of the way.

They make their way to Golgotha, which means “the place of the skull.” So named because so many crucifixions occurred here, and because the hill looks so much like a skull. The soldiers drove their spikes through his wrists into the crossbeam. They secured it to the upright beam and nailed his heels to it. Now he must use his pierced wrists to support his weight and to breathe.

From the cross Jesus utters his famous “seven last words.” Seven acquittals—seven replies. At 9:00 a.m., “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Two hours later, to the thief at his side, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Twenty minutes later he said to Mary and John, “Dear woman, here is your son;” “Here is your mother” (John 19:26-27).

At 1:30 p.m. comes the moment of separation from his Father, as he bore the sins of all of humanity in his innocent holiness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 27:46). At 1:45 p.m., “I am thirsty” (John 19:28). An hour later, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). At 3:00 p.m., “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

A Mayo Clinic pathologist has determined that our Lord died from blood loss, exhaustion, exposure, shock, and suffocation. Joseph of Arimathea claims his corpse; he and Nicodemus pay for his burial in Joseph’s tomb. The Romans place a rock over it, and a wax seal upon the rock. They set their guards on duty.

And Good Friday ends. For Jesus, for Barabbas, for us.

Conclusion

Who was guilty of sin—Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ? Who died for that sin—Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ? Who is guilty of sin—you or Jesus? Who died for that sin—you or Jesus?

I found recently a story which moved me. The unnamed author of the story says:

“In 1967, while taking a class in photography at the University of Cincinnati, I became acquainted with a young man named Charles Murray who also was a student at the school and training for the Olympics of 1968 as a high diver.

“Charles was very patient with me as I would speak to him for hours about Jesus Christ and how he had saved me. He was not raised in a home that attended any kind of church, so all that I had to tell him was a fascination to him. He even began to ask questions about forgiveness of sin.

“Finally the day came that I put a question to him. I asked if he realized his need of a Redeemer and if he was ready to trust Christ as his own Savior. I saw his countenance fall and the guilt in his face. But his reply was a strong ‘No.’

“In the days that followed he was quiet and often I felt that he was avoiding me, until I got a phone call from him. He wanted to know where to look in the New Testament for some verses I had given him about salvation. I gave him the references to several passages and asked if I could meet with him. He declined my offer and thanked me for the scripture. I could tell that he was greatly troubled, but I did not know where he was or how to help him.

“Because he was training for the Olympic Games, Charles had special privileges at the University pool facilities. Some time between 10:30 and 11:00 that evening he decided to go swim and practice a few dives.

“It was a clear night in October and the moon was big and bright. The University pool was housed under a ceiling of glass panes so the moon shone bright across the top of the wall in the pool area.

“Charles climbed to the highest platform to take his first dive. At that moment the Spirit of God began to convict him of his sins. All the scripture he had read, all the occasions of witnessing to him about Christ flooded his mind.

“He stood on the platform backwards to make his dive, spread his arms to gather his balance, looked up to the wall and saw his own shadow caused by the light of the moon. It was the shape of a cross. He could bear the burden of his sin no longer. His heart broke and he sat down on the platform and asked God to forgive him and save him. He trusted Jesus Christ some twenty feet in the air.

“Suddenly, the lights in the pool area came on. The attendant had come in to check the area. As Charles looked down from his platform he saw an empty pool which had been drained for repairs. He had almost plummeted to his death, but the cross had saved him.”

And Barabbas, and you, and me. Are you grateful?