Revealed By His Presence (Mark 15:1-20)

April 9, 2000 / Mark 15:1-20

One of the things that is evident throughout the Gospels is how Jesus’ very presence tends to expose others for who and what they really are. That is certainly true in the maelstrom of events surrounding the betrayal, trials, suffering, and death of our Lord.

As we move through the final events of the pre-crucifixion hours, the fate of Jesus has long since been sealed. The Jewish authorities had already decided that Jesus must die. They had only been biding their time and waiting for their chance. The only real “wild card” in their deck was the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. Could they get him to go along? Could they somehow have Jesus disposed of through “official channels”? Or would they have to run the risk of plain old mob violence?

My interest is much less in the events themselves, the rules that should have given Jesus relief from injustice, and the like. I’m interested in the people. What were the people doing and thinking in these scenes? How were they reacting to Jesus? What was his bright-light presence revealing about them? For example, where were the apostles during that awful night? When they fled, did they hide out together or go their separate ways? Where is Judas? What made him decide that he had no option beyond suicide? What was Peter thinking? And where were Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus - members of the Sanhedrin who would later bury Jesus’ dead body - during the proceedings of that tribunal?

In our text for today, I want to call particular attention to a couple of people whose situation is revealed with some degree of clarity simply by having Jesus nearby.

Pilate: A Man With No Backbone

First, take a look at Pontius Pilate. He was the Roman procurator - perhaps more precisely at this point “prefect” - of the district of Judea and Samaria. He was the fifth of a series of men who would serve Rome in that office to keep the peace. Since the region under his authority was considered dangerous and prone to revolt, it had not been made a senatorial province. Pilate governed under imperial appointment and was directly answerable to Emperor Tiberius.

Pilate held office from A.D. 26 to 36. Though his official residence and headquarters were in Caesarea, he would come to Jerusalem around festival times in order to keep things under control.

Pilate hated the Jews, and the Jews returned the compliment. Early in his tenure, he had deliberately affronted them by bringing the Roman standard into Jerusalem. Such a “standard” was a pole with a Roman eagle or the image of the emperor at its top. Marching it into the city was a forthright snub of Jewish sensibilities against graven images. He knew that. He just didn’t care. Later he built a Roman aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem. Even this was hateful to the Jews, for he looted money from the temple treasury to finance the project.

Pilate didn’t mind cracking a few heads and shedding some Jewish blood in order to remind the people who was in charge. Jesus once referred to some Galileans whose blood had been mixed with their sacrifices by Pilate (Luke 13:1-2). He was anti-Semitic. He was dishonorable and self-serving. He was morally spineless.

Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, reached a decision. They bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.

The chief priests accused him of many things. So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

Now it was the custom at the Feast to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

“What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

“Crucify him!” they shouted.

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

What a classic case of crowd-pleasing, finger-to-the-wind, focus-group-driven “leadership.” As one writer put it: “People with no moral compass and no moral backbone ask, What am I to do? The answer they usually get is to satisfy the crowd.” But people with principle and character - whether in their public or private lives - are able to rise above public opinion to do what they know is right. Thus an occasional Daniel or Esther in Jewish history. Thus an occasional Stephen or Polycarp or Martin Luther King. Thus this verse in Holy Scripture about justice and fairness: “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd . . .” (Ex. 23:2). Sounds like somebody knew this would be a common path for politicians and other public figures!

Pontius Pilate was the consummate political animal. Oh, he was bright enough. He knew the law, and he knew that Jesus had done nothing that deserved death under Rome’s laws. Several times, he said he found “no fault” (i.e., no proven charge) against Jesus. Mark even comments that Pilate knew that Jesus was in trouble because of the envy and jealousy he had provoked among the Jewish rulers. And Matthew tells us how his wife, Claudia Procula, interrupted the day’s proceedings to send her husband a note about a dream she had had that day about “that innocent man” on trial before him (Matt. 27:19).

Pilate received the formal charge from the Sanhedrin. He interviewed Jesus personally. He knew an innocent man was standing before him. But his fear of the crowd made him an unrighteous judge that day. He wanted to keep his office, and he was not about to give up his job for the sake of doing the right thing by a Jew. What was one more Jew to him anyway?

If Pilate had any conscience at all, though, it must have been prodding him a bit. He hit upon the bright idea of using a Passover amnesty custom and offering to release Jesus. He was looking for a win-win situation that wouldn’t cost him anything, so it seemed like a brilliant move. But the same people who had put Jesus on trial before him on account of their jealousy and hatred prompted the crowd to cry out for someone else to be released and to put Jesus to death. Ah, that other man . . .

Barabbas: Saved By a Substitute

Pilate offered the crowd a choice between prisoners to receive amnesty during that Passover festival. He offered them Jesus of Nazareth or Barabbas. Barabbas is a name like Simon Bar-Jonah, a patronymic name. It means “son of [the] father,” and some scholars speculate that he could have been the son of a famous Jewish leader of the time. There are even some textual variants to Matthew 27:16 that say his full name was “Jesus Barabbas.” It isn’t a well-attested variant, but it raises this interesting possibility for us. Picture Pontius Pilate before the crowd. He is yelling, “Shall I release Jesus Barabbas or Jesus ‘the Christ’?”

If this was a ploy by a conscience-stricken man who was trying to spare Jesus of Nazareth, it was a really stupid one! In has him saying, in effect, “Do you want a nationalist freedom-fighter - perhaps the son of a famous figure among you - set free? Or do you want a man who claims he is the messianic king - but whose demands of humility, repentance, and holiness will require you to embrace a new lifestyle?” Right! So they cried for Barabbas to be pardoned and for Jesus to be crucified. In the process of what happened next, Barabbas would become the perfect exemplification of a central theological concept - substitutional atonement or being saved by having someone else die in your place.

Mark lets us know that Barabbas “was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder” in an uprising against Pilate and his Roman troops of occupation. This isn’t a lot of information. Was he a Zealot, one of the anti-Rome nationalists who was always plotting insurrection? Was he the sort of person we are acquainted with still who functions as a terrorist to “make a statement” against political systems he hates?

What we know for sure about Barabbas is that he believed in self-redemption. He wasn’t waiting for the Messiah, God’s Christ. Prayer, waiting, and suffering in the meanwhile weren’t his style. He would fix his own situation! He would join the ancient equivalent of Hamas or the P.L.O. and get rid of those blankety-blank Romans! And in doing that for himself, he would save both himself and those who saw him as their redeemer. So he made his plan. He got some others in on it. He got some daggers and maybe some swords. He likely stole and robbed to finance his operation. Then the time came, and he moved! He put his plan to work, set out to throw off the yoke, and “committed murder” (15:7; cf. Luke 23:19; Acts 3:14) in the process. But the plan failed. And he was on death row for his trouble.

Why would anybody ask for Barabbas over Jesus? The simple truth is that more people think like Barabbas than Jesus. They believe in this world, not the one to come. They believe in self-redemption, not redemption through God’s grace. They believe the best way to right wrongs is to take things in their own hands, not wait, suffer, and trust God.

My late teens and early twenties were lived in the American ’60s. Angry blacks cried, “Black power!” Frightened whites replied, “White power!” Cities burned, and students were shot on university campuses. Vietnam pitted “flower power” and power at the end of a rifle - in our own streets. Then came the guerilla warfare against “the capitalist military-industrial complex.” Barabbas would have felt right at home!

Things haven’t changed a lot at the turn of a new millennium. We simply have new issues. In what our communication technology has reduced to a global village, we are fighting Middle East tensions in New York City. We are playing out the America-Cuba standoff not with Russian missiles but with a little boy who survived his mother’s death trying to reach Florida. Dignity now! Power now! Money now! Barabbas could join the mobs screaming the slogans!

I wonder if Jesus ever met him? I wonder if they were put in the Roman equivalent of holding cells near Pilate’s Judgment Hall - or perhaps in the same cell? Did Pilate have the two men on his balcony and point at the flesh-and-blood options being offered the crowd? And if the two men ever did meet, I wonder if anything was said? Did Jesus try to calm him? Did he say, “Barabbas, it’ll be all right - for you. Don’t worry.” Did he simply catch his eye at a distance and smile?
Barabbas, you’re going to get out of this! Barabbas, you’re going to discover that your hope was not in your dagger but in Jesus! Barabbas, you are going to live because he is willing to die! And that makes me feel like your brother, for I too am living because he was willing to die for me.

Conclusion

Anthony Quinn was cast as Barabbas in the 1961 movie based on this event. Arrested for theft and murder, he was about to be crucified. At the last minute, he was set free, and Jesus went off to die. In the movie, the criminal then struggled to understand why so many people - including Rachel, the woman he loved - believed Jesus was the Son of God. The film traces his attempt to find out about Jesus, to find out what Jesus’ death was supposed to mean about the meaning of his own life. His life was changed forever by the man who died in his place.

What are you putting your hope in today? Medicine? Money? Connections? Education? Power? Politics? Guns? Counselors? Preachers? Church? Suppose you live in good health to 120, have a happy marriage, get tax relief and full Social Security benefits, and are recognized for the genius you are - and die without Jesus? You lose! Suppose you die too young, have only a so-so marriage or get divorced, pay far too much of your hard-earned money to a bureaucracy-bloated government, and never get recognized for your ability - but die saved? You win!

So what is the most important thing in all the world? It is to stand in the Barabbas place! Exposed as a criminal perhaps, a sinner certainly - and worthy of death. “The wages of sin is DEATH” (Rom. 3:23). But you know that Jesus has been substituted for you. He arranged it himself! And because he has died for you, there is no fear of “double jeopardy.” You can’t be punished for the sins for which Jesus has already been put to death! Unless, that is, you reject what he did through your unbelief.

I suppose Barabbas didn’t have a choice that day. Pilate and the crowd settled the matter quite independently of his wishes. But you can be saved if and only if you choose it, want it, come to Jesus voluntarily to receive it.

So will you repent of your Barabbas-like trust in saving yourself - and turn to Jesus? Will you trust him - and him alone? Will you be baptized in his name? Will you walk with him? Will you confess him? Will you let others know about him? Will you - like the fictional character in the old movie based on this story - spend the remainder of your forever-changed life trying to fathom why such an exchange should have happened for you?

Now, as then, the very presence of Jesus reveals us.

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