Are You Barabbas? The Crowd and the Christ

Topical Scripture: Matthew 27:15–26

Mistakes aren’t always mistakes.

In 1886 a pharmacist by the name of John Pemberton was cooking medicinal syrup in a large brass kettle slung over a fire, stirring it with an oar. But his syrup didn’t catch on as a medicine, so he tried mixing it with water as a beverage. He spent $73.96 promoting his new drink the first year but sold only $50 worth of the product. Today people drink one billion products a day from the Coca-Cola company.

In 1968, a 3-M researcher tried to improve adhesive tape but made a glue which was only semi-sticky. Four years later one of his colleagues, a member of his church choir, was frustrated that bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal and music in the choir loft. He used the semi-sticky glue his friend had created to invent the Post-It Note. Mistakes sometimes aren’t.

What do you do when they are? When temptation won’t leave you alone? When problems get worse rather than better? When you’re fighting sin and Satan, discouragement and frustration, with no victory in sight? When you can’t find a way to make syrup into Coke or failed glue into Post-It profits?

Let’s ask Barabbas.

Meeting Barabbas

Most people don’t know this, but his first name was probably “Jesus.” This was a very common given name in that day. Some ancient manuscripts call him Jesus Barabbas, and most scholars think this is the correct reading. So we have Jesus Christ and Jesus Barabbas before us today.

His last name comes from two words. “Bar” means “son of” in Hebrew, and “abbas” means “father” (from “abba,” daddy). Or it could be “rabbas” or rabbi. Either was significant socially. No one was given the personal name “abbas” or “rabbi”—they were titles of respect, “the father” or “the rabbi.” Think of George Washington, “the father of our country,” or Billy Graham, “the pastor to America,” and you get the idea. This man was son to someone like that.

And Matthew 27:16 adds that Barabbas was “notorious” to the crowd—the word means to be notable or well-known. He was the son of someone famous, and a celebrity in his own right. Why?

Mark and Luke call him an “insurrectionist” who committed murder (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). John adds that he had “taken part in a rebellion” (John 18:40) against the Empire.

However, the Greek word translated “insurrectionist” can also mean “one who causes strife” (cf. Acts 15:2). And the word for “rebellion” can mean “robber,” as the ESV, NASB and KJV translate it (John 18:40; cf. Luke 10:30, 2 Corinthians 11:26). He may have been a rebel, or he may have been a robber. The latter is more likely.

Many people wonder why Pilate would release a man known to be a rebel, when he is trying to avoid the accusation that he is doing that very thing with Jesus. We now know that “social bandits” were common in first-century Palestine. Like ancient Robin Hoods, they would steal from the wealthy supporters of the Empire and give to those oppressed by Rome. They were extremely popular with the people. And the Greek words used of Barabbas are exactly the words used for them. It would appear that “social theft” and murder was Barabbas’ crime, and his fame.

Choosing Jesus Barabbas

No wonder the crowd chose Jesus Barabbas over Jesus Christ. They were incited by their leaders to do so, of course (Matthew 27:20). But this man was one of their heroes, someone who defied the cursed pagans and stole from the wealthy to give to them. This man would stand up to Rome. He would meet their needs and solve their problems in a way their rabbis and priests would not.

They had thought Jesus would do even more than that for them. When he rode into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, they hailed him as their military Messiah, their royal conqueror, the one who would overthrow the Romans and establish their nation. The palm branches they threw in his way were meant for a conqueror, a hero. They were “rolling out the red carpet,” greeting him in the same way concentration camp survivors greeted the Allied soldiers who came to liberate them.

But now, Jesus has failed. He hasn’t defeated Pilate—Pilate has defeated him, and he stands in Roman chains. Barabbas did more to Rome than this “Christ” even tried to do. He wasn’t the Messiah they wanted him to be. So, release Jesus Barabbas and crucify Jesus Christ.

Now the story takes on special irony.

The word describing Barabbas as a “robber” was the same term used for the two “thieves” who were crucified with Jesus that day (Matthew 27:38). All three were guilty of the same crimes. There was a third cross already prepared, most likely for Barabbas. It would seem that he was scheduled for execution along with them.

And so Jesus died in Barabbas’ place, on the very day he was sentenced to be executed, bearing the very cross on which he would have died.

With this result: Barabbas was set free. He could never be accused of those crimes again. He could never be tried and sentenced for them again. The debt was paid, the penalty completed, the law’s requirements fulfilled.

Now, Barabbas could have chosen not to accept this grace gift. He could have insisted on dealing with his guilt himself. He could have asked for another trial, claimed innocence, tried to win acquittal, tried to fight the law. Or he could have taken his cross from Jesus and insisted on paying the debt he owed himself. Dying as he had been sentenced, taking the punishment he deserved. The choice was his.

And yours.

Choosing Jesus Christ

Here’s the point: when death has paid the debt, the debt is paid in full. We can continue trying to pay the penalty for our sins ourselves. Or we can accept the payment which has been made on our behalf.

When a friend pays your bill at a restaurant, you can refuse his kindness and insist on paying the bill personally. Or you can accept his generosity. It’s your choice.

To the crowd, Jesus Barabbas represented self-reliance, a celebrity turned criminal who did all he could to free them from the oppression of pagan Rome. You can’t destroy Caesar, but you can steal from those who support him. You can’t free those enslaved by the Empire, but you can improve their suffering a little. Do what you can. Do all you can. Fight the Empire yourself.

Today, you and I live in a country as occupied as Palestine was occupied by Rome. This world is not our home. It is controlled by the devil and his demons. Satan is a roaring lion looking for more people to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Our fight “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

Like Barabbas, we can try to fight back ourselves. We can stand up to Satan and sin, to the temptations and attacks of our spiritual enemies. If we go to church enough, pray enough, read enough Scripture, do enough ministry, we can win this battle.

And when we fail, we can refuse to be forgiven until we have received the punishment we deserve. The guilt, the stain and the shame of our failure. We can refuse to forgive ourselves until we think we have carried the burden of our guilt long enough.

In other words, we can refuse to allow Jesus to die on our cross.

Or we can accept his gift of grace. We can accept the fact that when we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). We can accept what he did at Calvary: “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).

And when sin and Satan attack us, we can ask Jesus to fight them on our behalf. Rather than trying to defeat temptation in our own will power and strength, we can give that temptation instantly to God. We can develop the reflex to pray in that moment, to turn to God in that instant, to claim Jesus’ death as our victory over all sin and all temptation.

We can choose Jesus Barabbas, or we can choose Jesus Christ. There is not a third option.


A mausoleum’s crystal casket in Red Square contains the body of Nikolai Lenin. The inscription reads: “He was the greatest leader of all people of all time. He was the lord of the new humanity; he was the savior of the world.”

Note the past tense.

By contrast, Alice Meynell once observed:

No planet knows that this

Our wayward planet, carrying land and wave,

Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,

Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.

Jesus’ cross is empty; his tomb is empty. He died in Barabbas’ place, and Barabbas was forever free. Then he came down from the cross and up from the grave. So can we.

Or we can choose to fill that empty cross and that empty tomb ourselves. We can choose to fight our own battles against sin and Satan, to be religious and spiritual and godly enough to live holy lives. Then when we fail, we can choose to be punished for our failures, to carry our guilt and shame until we think we have been punished in full.

We can give our temptations and our sins to Jesus. Or we can fight them ourselves. But remember: when death has paid the debt, the debt is paid in full.

Will you be Barabbas today?

Are You Caiaphas? The Jews and the Christ

Topic Scripture: Matthew 26:57-68

Here’s an issue that skeptics often raise about our faith, a question many Christians don’t know how to answer: why did the Jews condemn Jesus? If he really is the Son of God, why did his own people reject him?

We learned last week that everything about the Sanhedrin’s legal proceedings was illegal. But why did they reject him in the first place? Why did they not welcome him with the crowds on that Palm Sunday? Why did they not see him as their Messiah? Why should we? What difference does it really make?

There are two roads to God. After forty-five years of following Jesus, I’ve learned that every mistake I’ve committed has come from choosing the wrong road. Every joy I’ve known in Christ has come from choosing the right road. Every one. When we’re finished this morning, you may agree that it’s been the same for you. If you do, I hope you’ll decide to stay on the right road to God this week.

The royal conqueror

At the heart of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin was Caiaphas’ question, “Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). To which he replied, “Yes, it is as you say. But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (v. 64). With this result: “Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘He has spoken blasphemy!'” (v. 65).

Why was this blasphemy? Why was Caiaphas so certain that he was right and that Jesus was wrong? Why did he see the carpenter from Nazareth as such a threat to his people and future that his Sanhedrin must break every rule in condemning him? The answer is found in a concept known to the Jews as “Messiah.”

The Hebrew word translated “Messiah” originally meant “the anointed one.” “Christos” is the Greek translation of the Hebrew, so that “Messiah” or “Christ” mean the same thing and designate the same person. The word referred first to prophets who were “anointed” to speak God’s word, and to priests who were “anointed” for their service. In time it came to relate to the king as the man anointed by God to lead his people.

Finally, there evolved the belief that God would send a special “anointed one,” a special Messiah to be his king on earth, to remake the world and the universe, to liberate his people and restore their kingdom for all time.

In this sense God’s Messiah would be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6). Of him the prophet promised, “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (v. 7). Zechariah proclaimed, “His rule will extend from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zech. 9:10).

When Messiah came, the people would be liberated from their Roman oppressors. They would be freed from slavery, their kingdom restored, their armies empowered. They would rule all nations alongside their King of Kings and Lord of Lords. This was the Messiah, the Son of God.

This was the One of whom Caiaphas asked Jesus, “Tell us if you are the Christ.” When this humble, suffering Nazarene carpenter claimed that he was, it was natural for Caiaphas to reject his ridiculous claim and pronounce him a blasphemous heretic.

His movement must be stopped by the religious authorities lest the Romans stop it for them. If Jesus’ misguided followers attempt to take matters into their own hands, trying to overthrow the Romans in their zeal to follow their pretend Messiah, Pilate and his troops will have all their heads. Caiaphas knows that this Jesus cannot possibly be the One who win such a battle with Rome. And so, his movement must be crushed before the Empire crushes them all.

The suffering servant

If the royal conqueror were the only Messiah promised by God’s word, we would understand Caiaphas’ rejection of Jesus as such a Christ. But there is another stream of prophecy in the Old Testament as well—that God would send a suffering Servant for us, a suffering Messiah.

The prophet predicted that One would come to say, “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1–2).

“Anointed me” is the word for “Messiah,” the anointed one. This “anointed one” will preach good news, bind up hurting hearts, release captives and prisoners. He will serve the souls of God’s people.

When Jesus of Nazareth returned from his wilderness temptations to his hometown synagogue of Nazareth, he delivered his very first sermon. He unrolled the scroll of Isaiah and read this very prophecy of an anointed servant: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).

In this motif, the Messiah will be a servant of the Lord and his people: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight” (Isaiah 42:1). Here the “chosen one” is the Messiah. He would call this servant to be “a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).

And this servant would suffer for those he was sent to save. Think of these predictions in light of Jesus’ sufferings and crucifixion:

  • “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard. I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting” (Isaiah 50:6).
  • “There were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man, and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14).

As you read Isaiah 53:1-10a, it is impossible not to see the cross.

But this suffering Servant would be raised from the dead to win the resurrection of all who would trust in him: “See, my servant will act wisely; for he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted” (Isaiah 52:13; cf. Isaiah 53:10b–12a. All because of what he did for God’s people (Isaiah 53:12b).

This was the promise Jesus fulfilled with his first coming. When he returns, he will be the royal conqueror the Jewish authorities expected their Messiah to be. On that day, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10–11).

Who serves whom?

So, the religious authorities rejected Jesus as their Messiah because they were looking for the wrong messiah. They wanted someone to liberate their land, to make them the rulers of their nation, to give them their kingdom. They wanted their Messiah to meet their needs, advance their agenda, elevate their status. In other words, they wanted God to serve them.

Now, I want to be very clear about this: their decision did not make them Christ-killers. Pilate and his soldiers crucified Jesus, not Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, though Caiaphas forced Pilate’s hand. The authorities did not represent the Jewish people, then or now. The Jewish people are no more responsible for Caiaphas’ actions than you and I are responsible for the Crusades against the Muslim people. Anti-Semitism is always a sin against God and all of humanity.

The Jewish authorities simply did with Christ what many still do today. We want God to serve our needs, to be a means to our end. We come to church, read the Bible and pray so that God will guide and bless us. And God does want to meet our needs and guide our lives. But if we think he let us down, if he doesn’t protect us from harm or answer our prayers the way we ask them, with Caiaphas we feel justified in rejecting him. And many do.

C. S. Lewis asserted, “The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the Bench and God is in the Dock” (God in the Dock 244).

Jesus reversed the situation. Rather than asking God to serve him, he chose to serve God. He chose to be the suffering Servant who would be rejected by Caiaphas and crucified by Pilate. Who would die so we could live. Who would “bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, [and] proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:1-2).

Here’s the surprise: Jesus found far greater joy in serving God than Caiaphas found in seeking a God who would serve him. The book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ crucifixion in this odd, surprising way: “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

There is greater joy in submitting our lives to God’s purpose than there is asking God to fulfill ours. There is greater satisfaction in spending our lives and gifts to accomplish his ministry purpose than we will ever find in asking God to serve us. Caiaphas wanted a God who would serve him. Jesus chose to serve God. Which of the two would you rather be? Which of the two roads would you choose to walk?


How long has it been since you submitted your plans and your future to God as your King? How long has it been since you have experienced true satisfaction and joy in your life and faith? It’s the same question. He is God and we are not. The holy Lord of the universe will not be our servant. He will not stand in our dock. But he will reward his servants with fulfillment and joy we can find nowhere else. The choice is ours.

A wealthy man died without a will, so his estate went to auction. At the end of the day the auctioneer raised a framed photograph, a picture of the family’s only child, a son who had died years earlier in a drowning accident. No one bid on it.

When the auction was over, a maid who had worked at the estate for many years and loved that son asked if she might buy his picture for a dollar, all she had with her at the time. The auctioneer made the deal. She took the picture home, set it beside her bed, and noticed for the first time a bulge in the back. She opened the picture to discover the wealthy man’s single-sentence will: “I give my entire estate to the person who loves my son enough to value his picture.”

Do you love God’s Son?

Are You Pilate? The Trials of the Christ

Topical Scripture: Matthew 27:11–14

Fishermen recently caught a sixteen-foot, 3,000 pound great white shark off the coast of South Carolina. Or, I should say, the shark caught them.

The owner of the fishing charter told reporters, “A 3,000 pound animal is massive. People don’t realize just one wag of the tail can pool a 26-foot boat at that kind of clip. After we started fighting this thing we kind of realized that it was just too much.”

So he called for backup. Other fishermen arrived to help. They were finally able to get the shark to the side of the boat, tag her, and send her on her way.

Sin works the same way. We think we can control it, but it ends up controlling us. It always takes us further than we wanted to go, keeps us longer than we wanted to stay, and costs us more than we wanted to pay.

What is the secret or shame which lives in your past, the guilt that haunts your thoughts, the skeletons in your soul this morning?

Resurrection Sunday is in five Sundays. As we journey to the cross and empty tomb, each week we will explore a different character in the drama of the ages. Along the way, we’ll ask what we can learn from their story. And we’ll find ways to share the Easter story with our culture today.

We begin with the legal proceedings that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s a fascinating story, one most Christians don’t really know. We’ll ask this morning why these authorities condemned Jesus to die. And we’ll learn what to do when our sins condemn us in the same way.

Condemned by Caiaphas

Our Lord’s legal trials began before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. It was made of seventy-one members from the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and elders of the people, its sessions led by the High Priest. A quorum for a trial such as this was twenty-three.

Like nearly all legal courtrooms, the Sanhedrin operated by strict legal standards:

  • No criminal cases could be tried during the Passover season.
  • All criminal cases must be conducted during daytime and completed during daytime.
  • Only if the verdict was “not guilty” could the case be finished during the day in which it began. Otherwise a night must intervene before sentencing, so feelings of mercy could arise within the judges.
  • No decision was valid unless the Sanhedrin met in its designated meeting place, the Hall of Hewn Stone in the temple precincts.
  • All evidence must be guaranteed by two independent witnesses who were interviewed separately and showed no evidence of contact with each other. False witness was punishable by death.
  • The accused could not be made to testify against himself. He had the same rights against self-incrimination as our Fifth Amendment provides today. And he was permitted to bring all evidence of his innocence before the court before any evidence of guilt could be heard.

Now Jesus of Nazareth came before the court. And the Sanhedrin violated each of its regulations in condemning him to die. This was the Passover season; the trial took place at night; the court met in the home of the High Priest, not at its designated Hall; witnesses were all demonstrated to be false; Jesus was permitted no opportunity to speak in his own defense. The guilt was all on the court, none on the accused.

Finally, in desperation, Caiaphas pled with Jesus to incriminate himself: “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). Jesus answered the High Priest’s question: “Yes, it is as you say” (v. 64). He then quoted Daniel 7:13, clearly claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God.

He knew the court would consider his claim to be blasphemy. And he knew the penalty for such: “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16). Unless it isn’t blasphemy. Unless the person truly is the Son of God.

Violating its regulations, the court moved immediately to the sentence of death, and began to carry it out that same night with their own physical abuse against Jesus. Now, who was guilty in the Jewish trial—Jesus or Caiaphas?

Tried by Pilate

The Jews were not permitted by Rome to inflict the death penalty. The ius gladii, the “right of the sword,” could be pronounced only by the Roman governor, and carried out only by the Roman authorities. So, they took their convict to Pilate.

They knew that the Roman governor would give no attention to their theological charge of blasphemy. So, before Pilate they changed their charges completely, claiming that Jesus had incited rebellion against Rome, taught the people not to pay their taxes to Rome; and claimed to be a King (Luke 23:2). These were accusations which their own court had not heard or proven, showing further the illegality of their actions.

Why did Pilate consider their false charges? The gospel writers and their readers all knew the story, in the same way Watergate is familiar to us. But you may not know what they knew. Here’s the sordid tale.

Pilate was by title the “procurator” of the province of Israel; we would call him the governor. He became procurator in AD 26, and held the office until AD 35, when he was recalled by the Emperor.

From the start, Pilate was contemptuous of the Jews and their traditions. His initial visit to Jerusalem set the stage for all that would follow. The Roman capital of the region was at Caesarea. When Pilate marched into Jerusalem with his detachment of soldiers, he ordered them to carry military standards—long poles on top of which were affixed small statues of the Roman emperor.

Now the Jews considered such to be idolatry. And so, each governor before Pilate understood their religious objections and deferred to them; but Pilate refused. The people revolted. Pilate threatened to kill them. They bared their necks to the Roman swords. Not even Pilate could order such a massacre. He was beaten, and ordered the standards withdrawn. Such was his beginning as governor of the Jews.

Later he stole money from the Temple treasury to improve the water supply in Jerusalem. Again, the people rioted. His soldiers killed many of them. His rule was endangered.

The third incident was worst of all. On one visit to Jerusalem, Pilate had shields made on which were inscribed the name of Tiberius the Emperor. The people rebelled; Pilate’s own advisors counseled him to remove the names from the shields; but Pilate refused. The Jews reported the matter to Emperor Tiberius, and he ordered Pilate to remove his name from his shields.

So now Pilate was on record in Rome as an incompetent administrator. One more protest from the Jewish authorities could well mean his removal or even worse. His job and future were on the line here, and everyone knew it. When Jesus stood before him, who was the guilty party?

Condemned by Pilate

When Jesus was brought before the Roman governor, Pilate examined him privately (John 18:33). At the conclusion of his investigation he announced: “I find no basis for a charge against him” (v. 38). No basis whatsoever for any kind of charge. This is a full and complete exoneration, beyond which there should have been no further process. When the governor pardons you, you cannot be accused of that crime again.

Three more times Pilate would render the same ruling: “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:4); “As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him” (19:6b); “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (19:12). John saw it all happen, and gives proof that Jesus was innocent of all charges.

But the Jewish authorities were equally adamant that this man must be convicted and crucified. How will Pilate pacify them and keep his job? And how will he at the same time be just to this innocent man?

He tried several strategies.

First, he attempted to evade the entire matter, telling the Jews to judge him themselves and then sending him to Herod. But both refused.

Next, he tried to use the custom of releasing a prisoner to the people during the Passover. But the authorities incited the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus.

Now he attempted compromise. He had Jesus scourged, a horrific act of torture. Now surely the Jewish authorities would consider the man punished sufficiently and would allow Pilate to set him free. But no: they shouted all the more, “Crucify! Crucify!” (John 19:6).

Once more he appealed to them: “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (v. 12a). Then the authorities played their trump card: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (v. 12b).

Here was their threat: if you release this man, you have released a rebel, a threat to the Empire. This was the most egregious failure Pilate could be accused of committing. He would instantly be recalled by Rome and could face his own execution as a traitor. It came to Jesus or Pilate. And we know who he chose.

So, who was guilty in the Roman trial—Jesus or Pilate?


Why did the authorities execute Jesus? If he was guilty as charged, his death could pay no one’s debt but his own. So, remember the illegality of the Jewish trials. Remember Pilate’s four proclamations of his innocence. Here’s the one point of this morning’s message: Jesus died not because he was guilty, but because we are.

Some years ago, I was speaking in Huntsville, Texas, where I met Warden Joe Fernall, a brilliant and godly man. He showed me the prison, and its execution chamber. I stood where prisoners are strapped to the gurney and lethal injections end their lives. I’ll never forget that blue-green brick walled little room where those convicted of capital offenses pay for their crimes.

In the execution room of first-century Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth died. Not to pay for his crimes, but for ours. Not because he was guilty, but because we are.

Before his death he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Because his death paid the debt for the crimes we have committed against God, his Father could. And he still does.

Now, think back to that secret sin which won’t release your heart, that shame which won’t let go. Don’t try to pay for it yourself, by punishing yourself with guilt. Instead, confess it to your Father. Claim the forgiveness for which his Son prayed. The next time your guilt attacks you again, claim that forgiveness again. And again, and again, until it lets you go.

And it will.

Are You Simon? The Cross of the Christ

Topical Scripture: Matthew 27:45–54; Mark 15:21

Whom do you trust? Ninety-three percent of Americans say that they and nobody else determine what is and isn’t right in their lives. Eighty-four percent say they would violate the established rules of their religion if they thought those rules were wrong. Apparently, we trust ourselves. However, 91 percent of Americans say they lie regularly. One in five say they can’t make it through a single day without lying.

Who do you trust? You have to trust somebody with your future, your family, your finances, your relationships and dreams and plans. Who will it be?

You expect me to suggest God. But I can’t prove he even exists, or what he’s like. I point to beauty in creation, and you can point to diseases and disasters. I point to good in people, and you can point to scandals and wars. I point to the good churches do, and you can point to church fights.

Who do you trust?

Who was Simon of Cyrene?

The New Testament records that “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (Mark 15:21).

This Simon was from Cyrene (Tripoli, Libya today) in northern Africa. No doubt he had traveled from that far off land for Passover, saving for years to come. This would be the highlight of his year, perhaps his life. He brought his sons with him for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Then he was pressed into Roman service. Palestine was an occupied country, so that any Roman soldier could tap a man on the shoulder with the flat of his sword or spear and make him do whatever the soldier wanted. What was it that Rome asked of this unwilling participant?

Well, a man had been condemned to die by crucifixion. The convict was placed in a hollow square of four soldiers. In front marched the soldier with the board stating the man’s crime. They took the longest possible way, so that as many as possible would see and take warning. Then the man was crucified on the crossbeam he had carried to his execution.

But this man could carry the cross no further. The convict began the procession carrying it himself (John 19:17) but had now collapsed under its weight. Why?

He had been arrested the night before, dragged in chains before the Jewish Supreme Court, made to stand trial all night, condemned, and beaten by the Jewish guards. He was then dragged in the morning before Pilate, then to Herod, then back to Pilate. Finally, the Roman governor “had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).

His flogging must have been especially severe since he could not carry the crossbeam to Calvary and would die in only six hours on the cross.

So, Simon was forced into his place. He saw firsthand what this man had suffered. How did what he saw affect him? We’ll return to his story in a moment.

How did Jesus die?

Jesus’ death is a matter of historical record. Even without the New Testament, we know that he lived and was executed. Thallus the Samaritan, Mara bar Serapion, Tacitus, and Pliny the Younger tell the story fully: he was arrested, crucified by Pontius Pilate, and worshiped as the risen Lord by his first followers.

Research has revealed much about the manner of his death.

Victims were typically nailed to the cross through their wrists, as nails through the hands could not support the weight of the victim. For instance, in 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of one Johanan, a victim of Roman crucifixion during the Jewish uprisings of AD 70. A nail seven inches long was still embedded in his heel bones. Nails had also been driven between the radius and ulna bones in his wrist; the radius was worn smooth by the victim’s pulling himself up to breathe.

If the Romans wanted the person to suffer longer, they could tie the arms to the crossbeam with ropes. They would then nail the hands to the cross, as the ropes would support the body’s weight. Since Jesus was being crucified before Passover, it is likely that the soldiers drove the spikes through his wrists to hasten his death.

Simon carried the cross on which this man died. He likely watched what happened on it. How did what he saw affect him? Again, we’ll return to his story momentarily.

Why did Jesus die?

Why did it happen? Why did Jesus die on the cross? Here’s what God says:

He died to pay the penalty for the sins of humanity: “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” (Isaiah 53:6).

God warned Adam and Eve that sin leads to death. The Bible is clear: the soul that sins shall die (Ezekiel 18:4). James teaches that “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). Sin leads to death, from the Garden of Eden to today. So, someone had to die as a result of our sin. Someone had to pay the penalty.

He died to substitute for us: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'”(Galatians 3:13).

And so he died to make possible our salvation: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). The Message translates Hebrews 10:14: “It was a perfect sacrifice by a perfect person to perfect some very imperfect people.”


Now, what became of Simon of Cyrene, the man who saw it all happen? The man who witnessed Jesus’ scourged and flogged body more closely than any who ever lived? The man who watched his horrific crucifixion firsthand? The man who saw what this One suffered? How does it all connect? And what difference does any of this make?

Mark names him “the father of Alexander and Rufus.” He tells us nothing more about them, indicating that his readers were so familiar with their stories that their names alone were sufficient to identify them. If I were to identify “Rodney” or “Stephen,” you would know them by that name alone though the rest of the world (regrettably) would not.

Now the plot thickens. Mark’s gospel was written first for the church at Rome. In Paul’s letter to the same congregation in Rome he asks, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too” (Romans 16:13). Early tradition held that this was Simon’s son, a man who went on to be of remarkable significance to the church. And that Simon’s wife became Paul’s “mother,” giving him personal assistance and support in his ministry.

Acts 13:1 later lists prophets and teachers in the church at Antioch, among them “Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene.” Simeon is another spelling of Simon; “Niger” means a man of swarthy skin from Africa. Early tradition identified this man as Simon of Cyrene, here with Lucius (also from Cyrene), one of the leaders of the most significant missionary church in Christian world.

So, what happened to the man who carried the cross of Jesus? It would appear that he chose to bear it the rest of his life. He found someone he could trust with his boys, his wife, his future and his eternity. He learned this simple fact: you can trust the One who died for you. You can trust his will for your plans, your possessions, your dreams. You can trust him with your life. And with your eternal life.

Jim Elliott, the missionary martyred by the people he went to serve, wrote in his journal these famous words: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” Do you agree?