The governor found himself forced to consider the death penalty for an innocent man. Powerful political forces pressured him to make an unjust decision. But the governor knew he couldn’t live with himself if he allowed an innocent man to be executed.
The governor prided himself on his training, his knowledge of the law and his sense of justice. He had to resolve the dilemma. He did not want to order the execution of an innocent man.
He paced the floor. Yes, he was concerned for the innocent man, but the real problem was his own conscience. How could he live knowing he had ordered an innocent man’s execution? What about his career? Could such a decision return to haunt him and jeopardize his future?
Maybe there was a way. His plan began to unfold as he continued pacing.
It was his tradition to set a prisoner free at this time of year. He could let the people decide who would go free. Let the people bear the ultimate responsibility. The innocent man he was pressured to execute would be the first candidate to be set free. To make sure the choice was obvious, the other man he would offer to the people would be the most notorious criminal on
Relieved to find a solution, the governor stopped pacing and called for the guards. “Find out the name of the most infamous man on death row,” the governor commanded. The guards came back with the name: Barabbas.
Matthew tells the story in his Gospel account:
Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Matthew 27:15-26)
Saved from the cross
Barabbas walked the streets of Jerusalem, a free man. He had been chosen by the people—a jury of his peers— to receive a pardon. He owed them his freedom.
He had escaped death, but he couldn’t escape thinking about the One who now stood in his place. Jesus of Nazareth was on that cross between two thieves. Jesus stood in his place. Jesus had substituted for Barabbas, thereby giving him his physical freedom.
But even more significant, Jesus died for Barabbas’ sins. The Bible doesn’t tell us if Barabbas ever accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior. We can only speculate. But we do know that we, like Barabbas, are all sinners. Barabbas is every man and every woman. Each of us individually, and all of us collectively.
Jesus took our place so he could deliver us from sin and death. He did something for us that the blood of bulls and goats could never do for the children of Israel (Hebrews 10:1-10). Jesus paid for our sins on the cross. He dealt completely, once and for all, with the problem of sin.
Whatever had to be done, he did it. Whatever penalty had to be paid, he paid it. Whatever the law required, he fulfilled its legal requirements. Justice was done. The penalty was paid.
The problem of sin in the Old Testament era was dealt with by substitutes. The Old Testament substitutes were animals like sheep, goats and bulls. They were sacrificed, and their blood offered by priests. The entire sacrificial system was a type, symbolizing the One who went to the cross in Barabbas’ place.
The Israelites were taught that the sacrifice of an animal removed their sins from the record. They believed in the power of sacrifices and offerings. They believed that the blood of animals helped to make up for their sins, and restore them to God.
The most important offerings for sin were made on the annual Day of Atonement. The high priest, on this day, and only on this day, entered the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle or temple with a blood sacrifice. It was to make atonement for the sins of Israel.
Salvation and atonement were rooted in the old covenant. But numerous Old Testament references show that the sacrifices in and of themselves were unable to atone for sin (Psalm 51:16-17; Hosea 6:6; Micah 6:6-8).
Many passages in the books of Leviticus and Numbers say that offenders, sinners and lawbreakers are held responsible and bear the consequences of their sins (see, for example, Leviticus 5:1, 17; 7:18; 17:16; 19:8; 20:17, 20; 24:15; Numbers 9:13; 14:34). Until the sin or transgression was removed by sacrifice and offering, the sin had to be carried by the lawbreaker. But the Old Testament provides a glimpse that these sacrifices were only pointing to the greater reality of Christ.
Isaiah prophesied of the “servant,” the Messiah, the Savior who “bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:11-12). Peter spoke of the suffering that Christ endured for us: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). “Bearing our sins” is the language of substitution, of taking the place of another.
What atonement does
“Atonement” is an old Anglo-Saxon word, not commonly used in everyday communication today, except to refer to the work of Christ. His work of atonement enables human beings to be reconciled to God, to be justified, forgiven and made righteous in God’s sight.
God does not overlook sin. The penalty of sin must be paid, and Jesus took our sins upon himself and suffered the penalty for us. Not only did Jesus pay the debt of sin on our behalf, but he also shares with us his righteousness.
A righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. (Romans 3:21-25)
The key point of the work of Jesus Christ involved him taking our place. He accepted the punishment of our sin, bringing us pardon and reconciliation with God and the righteousness of Christ. Paul captures the essence of the atoning work of Christ. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
The Lamb of God
The lamb was the most-often-used animal for sacrifice, and it became a symbol of forgiveness and justification. Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist, identified Jesus with the sin-bearing lamb. “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
This was no ordinary man whom John identified as the Lamb of God. No mere mortal could take away the sin of the world. It’s rare when a legal system will allow one human being to substitute his or her life for a guilty party. But even then the substitution would be only one life for one life. But one man’s life for the sins of the entire world? What kind of human being was he?
Jesus was much more than just a teacher, a good role model. He was not merely a messenger God sent to deliver a divine announcement. He was not just another prophet with a message from God. C.S. Lewis, in Mere Christianity, comments:
I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: “I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.” That is the one thing that we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come up with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (pages 40-41)
As God in the flesh, as our Creator, Jesus atoned for our sins on the cross. Fully human and fully divine, he became the substitute for all sin and for all sinners. It is that supreme act of love that saves us. We look to the cross and the atoning work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. We believe what he did is sufficient to save not only us but the whole world. Because he was not a mere man, but God in the flesh. “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
As the Lamb of God, Jesus bore our sins. He took them upon himself and carried them, becoming our substitute. Just as surely as he was substituted for Barabbas, he took the place of everyone who accepts him and believes in what he did.
The central question for each of us is—do we believe? Do not misunderstand the nature of this question. The question is not about “easy belief” or “cheap grace.” The question searches our hearts and asks for our response to the action of Christ on our behalf.
Jesus Christ went to the cross for each of us, unconditionally committed to us, firm in his resolve to die for our sins. He did not hold back. If we believe in him, we can only answer his love for us with our unwavering devotion.
You may have heard the expression, “I don’t do windows.” Apparently it was originally used by housekeepers and cleaners to convey a limit on the amount of work they would do for the contracted price. “I don’t do windows” has come to be a qualification used to express restrictions and boundaries of work, effort and service. It is an expression of limitation, a
disclaimer of responsibility and obligation.
As Christians, we cannot give some equally lackluster response such as “I don’t do windows” to our Lord and Savior. He went to the cross for us in total commitment. We must respond to him by taking up our individual crosses and following him, without any limitations.
A brief survey of men and women of God in the Bible will reveal that their faithfulness to the calling of God was without reservation.
David didn’t say, “I don’t do giants.”
Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego didn’t say, “We don’t do fiery furnaces.”
Noah didn’t say, “I don’t do arks and animals.”
Mary didn’t say, “I don’t do virgin births.”
The reason we can be reconciled to God, pardoned of our sins, and have the righteousness of Jesus Christ given to us is because Jesus didn’t say, “I don’t do crosses.”
Author: G. Albrecht