The Innocent for the Guilty
Mark 15:6–15 (ESV)
Now at the feast Pilate used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
Yesterday we heard about how secular rulers often use power for their own advantage. In a democracy, the "tyranny of the majority" is also a real danger. Pilate looked out at the crowd and heard their loud cries against Jesus and decided to give them the customary release of a single criminal in celebration of their festival. This was a favor extended by the Judean governor to pacify the people and avoid conflict.
The crowd of people used its voice to obtain the power of execution from Pilate. Even in an autocracy like the Roman Empire, in which governors like Pilate represented the emperor’s total authority over the provinces, the people often had strength in numbers and could use force to overthrow local rulers.
“Democracy” means that power is in the hands of the people. The United States enjoys much stability with its government functioning as a representative democracy, with checks and balances, but outside the governor’s palace, we see democratic power at its worst, when the people use their influence to bring about wickedness. The crowds demanded that Barabbas, who had committed murder during an insurrection, be set free instead of the innocent Jesus. The chief priests goaded them on.
Pilate did release Barabbas, which provided that criminal with a unique perspective on Jesus’ death, if he stayed around to watch the crucifixion: Barabbas goes free, while Jesus dies in his place, so he has Jesus to thank for his freedom.
While Jesus dies in place of Barabbas to spare his earthly life, the Gospel is that Jesus died in the place of all sinful humans in order to spare them from eternal damnation. God made Christ “to be sin” in place of us sinners even though He had no sin, so that in Christ “we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21), saved for everlasting life. Jesus “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), that is, so we may escape the fate of this condemned world and enjoy life in the new heavens and new earth. The innocent Christ became an accursed criminal on the cross, condemned under God’s Law, so that we guilty sinners may be forgiven and set free from the eternal consequences of our misdeeds.
“Crucify!” the crowd shouted to Pilate, and he consented. Jesus would undergo a humiliating and excruciating death on the cross. He willingly endured the pain and shame to save us.