When God Stands Trial
Dr. Jim Denison
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?
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.