CHRIST DIED FOR THE UNGODLY: BARABBAS
Sermon Text, St. Mark 15:12-14. Pilate answered and said to them again, “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of Jews?” So they cried out again, “Crucify Him!” Then Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!”
Lord, this is Your Word and these are Your words. Sanctify us by the truth. Your Word is truth. Amen.
Dear fellow redeemed in Christ Crucified:
The question, “Why (crucify Him), what evil has He done?” sounds like Pontius Pilate is only asking them about Jesus. But you have to picture this scene the way it happened. Jesus is not the only one standing by Pilate. There’s someone else there too. Right before this, they brought out Barabbas.
Our text tonight begins in Mark 15, verse 12. If you go back a few verses it says: “And there was one named Barabbas, who was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion. Then the multitude, crying aloud, began to ask [Pilate] to do just as he had always done for them.” Pilate knew what this was about. It explains, in Matthew: “Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.”
So, if you picture the scene, it’s like this:
Pilate knows about this custom, the Jewish leaders know that he knows it, and everyone knows that the worst candidate – as Matthew says, a “notorious” one — is Barabbas. So then we come to the last verse before the beginning of our sermon text, Mark 15:11, which says: “But the chief priests stirred up the crowd so that he should rather release Barabbas to them” – instead of Jesus – for Pilate had just said to them: “Do you want me to release to you the King of Jews?”
At this point, we can picture Barabbas being brought out. Pilate wants to get them to agree to have Jesus set free because he can see the mess that’s on his hands and he wants a way out. But the chief priests have the people shouting out Barabbas’ name. So Pilate has no choice. He must have the prisoner Barabbas brought out.
So now picture them standing next to each other, up where Pilate is, where everyone can see them: Jesus who had committed no crime but on the contrary had commanded His disciples to put away their swords and had even healed the man they wounded, and Barabbas who had committed murder and had led countless others to do violent acts along with him. It’s at this point that Pontius Pilate says to the crowd: “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” (Mt 27:17)
We still aren’t up to the point of Pilate’s question which we’re considering tonight. There’s one more detail. After Pilate gives them the choice between Jesus and Barabbas, Matthew says, “The chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.” Instantly they shout out “Barabbas!”
So this is the scene, which brings us to our text in which Pilate says to the crowd, “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of Jews?” and they respond, “Crucify Him!” If we picture this scene, we know that Pilate’s question is not just about Jesus. It’s also about Barabbas. The emphasis is: “What, this one? Why not that one?” So really Pilate is saying: “Why (crucify Him), what evil has He done?” That is, in comparison with Barabbas, what evil has Jesus done?
See, we don’t get the full picture if we just see Jesus standing in the dock. We get the full picture only if we pull back and see Barabbas next to Jesus – for then, we’re in the picture. Who is the “notorious criminal?”
Was it for crimes that I had done He groaned upon the tree?
Yes, yes it was! What’s a criminal? Someone who’s broken the law. We’ve done that. We’ve broken all God’s laws, all the commandments. “For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jam 2:10). Being sinners actually makes you a criminal. You’re guilty of doing evil, and leading others down that road. We’re “notorious” – as guilty as anyone. Each of us can say with St. Paul: “I am chief of sinners” (1Ti 1:15). We haven’t sinned against society, or against ourselves, or merely against others, or against respectability or public opinion. We’ve sinned against God – in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds.
Who is the “prisoner?” We are. You are. Barabbas and Jesus both are bound. Do you want to see what your sins really do to you? Barabbas gets led out. He isn’t free. As long as the chains are binding him, he’s bound for death. This is true of our sins. They imprison us, yes they do. Why can’t we stop being “repeat offenders,” doing the same sins over and over? Why does one sin lead to another? Why can’t you do the good you want to do? Why is our sadness over death like being stuck in the mud, unable to get out? Why can’t you deal honestly and in humility but you have to put on a false front, and your foolish pride leads you to act worse and worse? Why can’t we get away from our guilty conscience? Because as a sinner you’re really imprisoned. It’s why the Bible calls having sins being “bound.” And the Bible’s word for forgiveness says that you’re being “loosed” or freed from sin. We can’t get out. We can’t get free. Just like Barabbas.
Barabbas, placed next to Jesus, is a picture of us. He didn’t defend himself. He had done the evil deeds, was already convicted. Like him, we can’t defend ourselves. You’ve done the evil you shouldn’t have done, and haven’t done those things you should have done. There’s no way out.
Except for one thing. Barabbas was put next to Jesus. It means everything! Jesus takes Barabbas’ place. Then Barabbas’ hands are set free. He goes free, laughing all the way. And Pilate is dumbfounded. “Why, what evil has He [Jesus] done?” Jesus hadn’t Himself done any evil. In His thoughts, words, and deeds, Jesus remained without a single sin. He was the only one ever to do so. He was holy and innocent.
The sinless Son of God must die in sadness;
The sinful child of man may live in gladness.
Jesus gets what Barabbas deserves, and Barabbas gets what Jesus deserves. But none of this is accidental. The important part of Pontius Pilate’s question is the very first word: “Why?” It’s because He loves us. He loves you. Did Jesus love Barabbas? Yes. Nobody else did. They might have said Barabbas was unlovable. That’s exactly the point. Barabbas represent all sinners. We are, actually, unworthy of love in and of ourselves. That’s hard to hear. But because of our sinfulness, that’s how it is. We deserve nothing but punishment. “There was no spot in me by sin untainted.”
So, as Pilate says, “Why?” Why would Jesus do this? Why would He let a criminal go free? It’s undeserved. That’s just the point. It’s undeserved love. That’s the definition of grace. What happens to Barabbas represents what happens to you. It was grace that Barabbas went free. He didn’t deserve to. Also, you’re freed from the guilt of our sins, from being punished for our sins, not because you deserve to, but by grace.
Also notice: Barabbas had nothing to do with it. Jesus didn’t look over and say, “This OK with you, Barabbas?” So also Jesus didn’t ask your permission to make this blessed exchange, to take your guilt and give you His innocence. But He did it. He did it out of great love for you. The freeing us from our sins – the forgiveness of all our sins, of all your sins too – took place when Jesus paid the full penalty for everyone including you. When He died, everyone’s sins – your sins – were all forgiven.
The way we all get the benefit of this is by faith alone, by faith in Jesus. We make use of what Jesus did! We do this by asking our heavenly Father not to look upon our sins, but to put holy Jesus next to us, and to look only at Jesus taking our place, and for His sake to forgive our sins. And He does! Amen!