Dear radio friends,
As once again we come before the narrative of our Lord’s sufferings as revealed to us in Mark 15, I would summon you to the deepest contrition and deepest thankfulness. If we can read this passage and hear preached to us the Lord’s sufferings without profound humility and exuberant joy, it will go hard for us when we stand before God. We will be condemned.
We read in the book of Lamentations, chapter 1:12, “Is it nothing to you, all ye that pass by? behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow.” We pass by the cross as it is preached to us in the holy Scriptures. Is it nothing to you? Many answer, Yes, it is nothing. For many it was nothing that day and it is nothing today, for they are not given eyes to see sin and they are not given eyes to see the beauty in Christ.
But the child of God, and by this you can know yourself as a child of God, is moved in the depth of his being at the cross of Jesus Christ, for all our salvation is there. There we are filled with self-loathing as we see our sin and our ugliness acted out for us. There, with the grace of God in our hearts, we respond with joy over such a love of God for us (Gal. 2:20), “The Son of God…loved me, and gave himself for me.” Christ died for us, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.
We continue today to follow the narrative of our Lord’s sufferings as revealed in Mark 15. Last week we saw His trial (or the initial trial) as He stands before Pilate in verses 1-5. Today we take up the narrative at verse 6 and follow through verse 14.
There was a custom in place of granting amnesty to a prisoner on the annual Passover feast. Mark 15:6, “Now at that feast he (Pilate) released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired.” How this practice began, we are not told. Evidently Pilate, in a gesture of Roman goodwill, had given this practice of granting pardon to a criminal on the Passover day. And this practice was now fixed. Either it would be one who had been sentenced and was on death row, or one who was accused but not yet condemned and sentenced. And the choice would be left up to the people: whomsoever they desired.
We ask the question, Who brought up this particular practice at this point as Jesus stands condemned by the Jews before Pilate? We read in John 18:38, 39 that it was Pilate who said to them, “But ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover.” It was, then, yet another attempt that Pilate is making to rid himself of this case, to find some easy out. But it is going to be something that backfires upon him and will bring the very opposite. For Mark tells us that the Jews latch on to this idea, “And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them” (v. 8). And, again, we must marvel at the wisdom and the sovereignty of the living God. No matter how this custom began, no matter what Pilate’s motives were in suggesting it to the people, no matter how the Jews are seeking to use it for their own ends, no matter all of those things, God rules over this. This is God’s plan. In His sovereignty God had fixed this custom. And He had done so with reason. He had done so because, according to all of the Scriptures, His Son must be crucified. God is bringing His Son to the cross. His Son must be crucified in such a way that it is plain that He is innocent. Still more. It must be done in such a way as to show the depravity and the accountability of man before God. In demanding Barabbas now to be released and Jesus to be crucified, man shows himself totally blamable.
Pilate presents Barabbas. Pilate’s original suggestion was very clear. “Whom will ye that I release unto you, Barabbas or Jesus?” No doubt Pilate has picked out the most reprehensible, undesirable man in his custody, calculated that there could be little sympathy for Barabbas. Barabbas means “son of father,” and could mean that he was the son of a Rabbi (a religious leader — Father, for the Rabbis loved to be called “father”). Nevertheless, Barabbas was notorious in his day. He was the Osama bin Laden of his day. We read in verse 7 of Mark 15 that he lay bound, that is, he was in maximum security. He lay bound for insurrection, that is, revolt against the Roman government — he was a terrorist, he was a guerilla fighter. And he was ruthless. In the insurrection, we are told, he committed murder. He had no regard for human life. Further, we are told in the Scriptures that he was a robber — he took what he wanted. And he was awaiting just execution. He was considered by society beyond any reclaim. Barabbas? or Jesus? Which one will you have that I release to you today?
A clearer choice has never been presented. Barabbas, who all agreed was guilty of crimes against humanity; or Jesus, God’s Son in the flesh, in sinless humanity, who had said earlier that night, “Who of you convinceth me of any sin?”
Again God in all of His sovereignty has brought all of this to pass. This is exactly the way it has to be now. We must behold the condescending mercy of God and the great humiliation of God’s Son for us. Think about it. How would you like it if you were placed on a duo with some prisoner in the State pen — some child molester, some murderer, one who deserves no mercy but only punishment? You would be outraged, would you not, at the very suggestion that you be placed on a duo with such a person? Here is God’s blessed Son. Hebrews 1 tells us that He is the brightness of the Father. Hebrews 1 goes on to tell us that all the angels of God worship Him. But here He stands identified with the grossest sinner. Even as we read in Philippians 2, out of His eternal grace and love for us, the Son of God made Himself of no reputation, and humbled Himself even unto death, the death of the cross, for us.
Behold how clear God makes the choice. There cannot be a mistake. And that is always the case. Let us see that.
Sin always tries to make what is clear murky. We ask the question: Should I be chaste, should I be honest, should I indulge, should I go there, should I drink, should I think this? Sin wants to make it look gray and difficult to determine. People of God, children, parents, youth, here is the question: Jesus or Barabbas? Will you have Jesus — total, consummate devotion to God, submission, obedience, love, purity, right, and true? Or Barabbas — insurrection against God, ruthless self-determination, enthroning of man upon the throne of your heart? I said sin tries to make it deceptive. But it is not! Let God put sin out in the light of the sun so that you cannot miss it, so that you can never say, “I didn’t understand, I didn’t mean it.” Jesus or Barabbas? God worked it that way to make it abundantly clear what sin is — it is the deliberate, it is the willful, it is the spiteful choice of what is clearly evil. And it is the rejection of what is clearly good.
The choice that they made: release unto us Barabbas; away with this man, we have no king but Caesar; crucify Him, crucify Him.
Are you shocked? Do you weep? Are you shocked in seeing what sin, our sin, really is? Do you see yourself? Do you hear yourself? Yesterday, when you went the way of evil; yesterday, when you got angry against your mother and you lipped of; yesterday, when you lusted after the woman in the store; yesterday, when you hated your brother; yesterday, when you lied to cover up your tracks; yesterday, when you were ashamed of confessing the name of Jesus — do you hear it now? Release unto us Barabbas! Crucify Him! Do you see your sin? And do you see your Lord and the amazing grace of God?
The choice that the people made that day was emphatic. It was repeated and there was no misunderstanding. It was shocking and horrible. They responded three times. Let us follow the text. The first response is in verse 8, “And the multitude crying aloud began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them,” meaning that Pilate had made them the offer of Barabbas or Jesus and they had responded: Barabbas! Now, Pilate, do what you have “ever done” before — give us Barabbas.
Pilate shows himself somewhat reluctant. He has already declared that Jesus is innocent. He has offered to have Him beaten. He suggests now that Jesus be released instead of Barabbas. And the crowd begins to cry aloud. Pilate responds (vv. 9, 10), “But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews? For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy.” Now there are a number of things to see there. Pilate understood the envy of the Jewish leaders against Jesus. He knew the popularity of Jesus and that the religious leaders were envious of Him and that was at the bottom of their giving Him over. He knew that the charges that they were bringing against Jesus were all a sham. Still more, Pilate understood that the multitude had at least at one point accepted Christ as some sort of king. For it was on Palm Sunday, just a few days earlier, that they had cried out to Jesus, “Hosanna to the Son of David; blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord.” So Pilate is saying, Don’t you want the one you praised only four or five days ago? Surely you want Him instead of this public threat, this public menace called Barabbas?
So we come to the second response (v. 11), “But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.” We have a picture now of the chief priests, a number of them, recognized religious leaders of the church, beginning to mingle among the crowd to form the attitude and to control the emotions. There is one there and one here working the crowd, orchestrating: “Ask for Barabbas. Don’t ask for amnesty for Jesus. Cry out, ‘Release to us Barabbas.’” And the people begin to chant as they are drummed up into a fervor by the chief priests.
And Pilate responds (v. 12), “And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?” Now we must not think that Pilate is defending Jesus. He is simply saying, “You called Him your king. Isn’t there a little room in your hearts for Him? You want a cold-blooded murderer? You want a vicious, ruthless thief instead of this man? You can see Barabbas walking free? Well, what will I do to this man who is called Jesus?”
And that brought the third response (v. 13), “And they cried out again, Crucify him.”
Now the word is in their mouth. Now all pretense is gone. “Pilate, we want the worst possible method of capital punishment at your disposal. We want (they are not conscious of this, but nevertheless God rules now — the Scriptures will be fulfilled, “Cursed is he that hangeth on the tree”) the death that God calls accursed!”
Pilate responds, “Why, what evil hath He done?” Pilate is no longer functioning as a judge, but a pitiful, plea-bargaining attorney instead of a judge. “He hath done nothing worthy of death. What evil hath He done?” And the response: “And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify him” (v. 14). They turn up the decibels. The mob goes into a frenzy, not mere mob frenzy, not merely a crowd out of control. But this is human depravity. Now the heart of man is laid bare and exposed by the very hand and scalpel of God. Here is man’s choice. Here the choice is made. Here is your choice. Here is my choice: Crucify Him! That is sin, right there (you see, you are not born neutral toward God; you are not born in between and undecided; but by nature we hate the light of God in Christ). If you object to what I have just said you do not object to me, you object to the very sentence and Word of God concerning yourself, “This is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). It is the grace of God that gives us to humble ourselves and see the awfulness of our own sin.
“So Pilate,” we read, “willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified.” Pilate gave Him over? Yes. But God gave His Son for us His children.
We read of a very terrible thing that happened. Jesus was scourged and then delivered to be crucified. This scourging was not the same as chastening with rods. This scourging was something that could never be done to a Roman citizen. It was reserved only for the basest of men, for the most foul among men. A whip with a piece of bone or metal tied to its tip would be laid to a man’s back. The person would be stripped of his clothes. The body would be bent forward across a low pillar. The back would be stretched and exposed to the blows. The person’s hands and feet would be secured. And his back would be laid opened with bloody furrows. God’s Son is scourged and given over to be crucified. God’s Son, by eternal grace, stands in the place of His sheep, given to Him of the Father, to bear the blows that are deserving to them and to die the death that their sins deserve in order that we might live forever.
Do you see your sin? You ask, “What is man like?” There is no place that reveals what man is like as does the cross. Not Dachau, not a red-light district of a city. But you must go to the cross. There alone you will see what man is. There you have the hideous revelation of your sin. Maybe you have never really seen your sin clearly before. No, I have not spoken much of specific sins today. I have not talked much of how they work. But look here. You want to see what your and my sin is? “Release unto us Barabbas! Crucify Him!” That is the language of every sin I have committed or imagined.
And they deserve something far worse than scourging. They deserve eternal death. Sin is the willful, deliberate rejection of the light and the love of darkness.
But this is the gospel. This is why Jesus Christ has placed Himself in the hands of men in order that He might be condemned and crucified. For the gospel is clear. Who is condemned? Whose back is laid bare? The innocent One, declared by God to be innocent. God had said, “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” And who are they who are freed? The guilty, the justly condemned. We are the guilty. We fell in Adam. We are guilty of insurrection against God. And all the punishment that He is to endure upon the cross justly belongs to us.
God gives His Son over in the place of His children, chosen of grace, that they might live. Does God bring you to the cross? Does God show you your sin? Does God make you contrite and broken and humble and thankful? By the power of the gospel, let us hear Christ crucified for totally worthless, depraved sinners, given to Him of His Father from eternity.
And hearing that gospel, let us go to our house saying, “The Son of God loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Father in heaven, we thank Thee for Thy Word. We pray that it may be written upon our hearts. In Jesus’ name, Amen.