There were Jews and Gentiles. There were political and religious elites — the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and the Jewish priests. And there was the crowd, the great mass of unnamed people who turn the wheels of history in every age. And there was a beaten, bloodied man, who’d claimed to be a king but was being tried as a criminal. His name was Jesus.
In Luke 23, Luke shows us this universal scope in order to invite us to locate ourselves within the story. We’re drawn to put ourselves in the shoes of the different characters. We’re challenged to ask ourselves: of all the people there that day, who am I most like? Who represents me?
And Luke’s provocative answer is: all of them, except one.
You are Pontius Pilate
Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. In verse 20 he wants to release Jesus, and in verse 22 he responds to the cries of the crowd: ‘I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty.’ But he won’t simply free him, because he doesn’t want to anger the Jewish leaders who think he is guilty. And so, in the end, he hands Jesus over to be crucified. Pilate has the power to protect the innocent; instead, he sends him to his death. It’s at this point that Matthew’s Gospel includes the famous detail of Pilate washing his hands of the whole affair (Matthew 27.24).
It’s easy to condemn Pilate. Surely we could never do anything like that… could we? If the innocent Lord of creation had stood before us, we would never have sent him to his death… would we?
But what is Pilate’s crime, ultimately? In verse 23, Luke tells us ‘their voices prevailed’. Pilate ‘decided to grant their demand’ (v.24), and so he ‘surrendered Jesus to their will’ (v.25).
Pilate is forced to make a decision: will he do the right thing, or the popular thing? Will he fear God, or fear man? Let’s pause to ask ourselves: have we ever chosen to do what was easy rather than what was right? Ever compromised on our convictions, or kept silent when we should have spoken, or just decided that it would be better to go along with the crowd? Ever backed down from treating Jesus as King because it happened to be a little inconvenient?
The honest answer, for all of us, is ‘yes’, isn’t it? At those moments we were in Pilate’s shoes… and we did what Pilate did. We wanted to do what was popular more than we wanted to do what was right. So while we’ve probably never done anything as awful as what Pilate did, that’s only because we’ve never had the opportunity.
Breaking the power of cowardice
It’s hard to be honest enough to recognise our own cowardice. It’s still harder to break its hold on our hearts. How can we do it?
First, we need to fear God more. Fearing God means worshipping him, knowing his holiness, and trusting in him. For those who live shamelessly for Christ in this life, fearing God isn’t about abject terror, because ‘the Son of Man will … acknowledge him before the angels of God’ (Luke 12.8). Fearing the Lord is about being more concerned with God’s judgment than the judgment of our peers.
Second, we also need to love people more. When we fear other people, we can’t actually love them; we only want them for their approval. It’s really quite selfish. We withhold from people the things that they need from us, because we fear that they might cut us off from the things that we want from them. Love has the power to displace cowardice.
But ultimately, believing the gospel is the key. If you grasp the magnitude of what God has done for you in Christ, then he will become the primary object of your love and affection. His gaze will be the most important in your life. When you understand that Christ’s death secures your total acceptance and approval before God, then you won’t be so concerned about what other people think about you.
And when you no longer need everyone else’s approval, you can be free to love them truly and care for them selflessly.
You are the crowd
Pilate proclaims Jesus’ innocence, but Luke tells us that ‘with one voice they cried out’ (v.18) for Jesus to be crucified. Who are the ‘they’? It’s the chief priests, the rulers and the people — everyone else.
They all cry out together. This is a universal, unanimous verdict from people of every walk of life and social class. Everyone cries out: ‘Get rid of him!’ Why? Surely there is some mob mentality there—people do crazy things when the crowd is going in that direction. But perhaps there is something deeper going on, because in that shout we see most clearly the natural state of man. We are, at our core, God’s enemies. There, in the howling hatred of the crowd, we see something of our natural attitude towards God. When it came down to a choice, they prefer to have a murderer live among them rather than God himself.
There is no middle ground. God is perfectly holy. We were created to know him and enjoy him and obey him and worship him and be satisfied in him. But we have all rebelled against that. We have all looked for fulfilment in other places. We have done whatever seemed right to us rather than what God has told us is right.
And so now we are God’s enemies. We are rebels against him and he is a threat to our way of life. He stands between me and my desire to run my world the way that I want to. And every time I decide to live my way instead of under Jesus’ rule, I am wishing he did not exist; that he were dead. I can see my own face in that mob. The tragedy of our race is that every human being has divine blood on their hands. The wonder of history is that the divine Son shed his blood for this same human race.
You are Barabbas
The murderer Barabbas is the opposite of the people we’d like to be, and like to think of ourselves as. But for a moment, put yourself in his shoes. You are sitting in a Roman jail awaiting your death. You know you will be crucified for your crimes. And, in your more honest moments, you know you deserve it. There aren’t many worse ways to die. And so day after day you sit in this jail, anticipating the nails, the mockery, the excruciating pain, the blood filling your lungs, the breaking of your legs. That’s your future. You don’t know when it’s coming, but you know it is coming.
And then on this fateful day you hear a mob outside. Something is going on. Has word gotten out that today is your day, your day to die? It sounds like it: you can hear the crowd screaming: ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’
Imagine what you’d be thinking! Finally, the Roman guards come and get you. They drag you out in front of the angry mob and… you are set completely free.
As you stand there, you watch another man stumble off under the weight of the cross — the cross you’d pictured yourself carrying. You discover as you ask some bystanders that it was him they’d demanded be crucified; it was him the shouts were directed at, not you. You ask what he’s done, but the people near you are surprisingly hazy on that. But they chose you to live, they say, and him to die. Somehow, you are going free because that man is going to die.
Jesus bore the guilt and shame and curse and disgrace and death that Barabbas deserved, while Barabbas received the release, the freedom, the life that Jesus deserved. Barabbas was now a free and innocent man as far as the law was concerned. Jesus was the condemned one.
You really are just like Barabbas! You and I are sinners; we sit in a spiritual prison, helpless, awaiting the day where we get the just punishment that we deserve. But then Jesus dies in our place. He gets what we deserve: we get what he deserves.
This is the glory of the cross; that God the Father sent God the Son to die for men and women like Barabbas; men and women like us. We won’t grasp or appreciate the events of Good Friday unless we stand in Barabbas’ shoes, and find that they fit us.
This article is an edited extract from Passion: How Christ’s final day changes your every day by Mike McKinley, published by The Good Book Company (£6.79, ISBN 9778 1 908 762 061) — http://www.thegoodbook.co.uk/passion
(This article was first published in the April 2013 issue of Evangelicals Now. For more news, artciles or reviews, subscribe to EN or contact us for more information.
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