Can you name a movie or story where the main character is innocent, but is framed, tried and punished for a crime they didn’t commit? There are many. My favorites include: The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Double Jeopardy, The Fugitive, North By Northwest, The Wrong Man, The 39 Steps, An Innocent Man, and Hang ‘Em High.
In high school Minorities class, I heard the story, Cry Freedom. It is a real-life story of Steve Biko, a black South African and activist during the apartheid, and his white journalist friend Donald Woods. Woods learns about the discrimination, political corruption, and the repercussions of violence. After seeing the injustices, he risks his life to expose those stories to the world.
How do these movies or kinds of stories make you feel? We want justice! We cheer for the victims. We fear how we’d respond in a similar situation. It is natural to recoil at the punishment of the innocent. So it is with passages like Luke 23:1-25, we want to stand up for injustices against Jesus, but would we?
INJUSTICES AND IRONIES STAIN JESUS’ TRIAL (vs.1-16)
What makes something unjust (or ironic)? It’s when something unfair or plain wrong happens to someone. In other words, what should happen to Jesus is not (i.e. a fair trial or set free). In fact, the opposite takes place. The trial of Jesus is brimming with injustice and irony. Can you spot it? (I spot at least 6 instances).
First, the religious rulers accuse Jesus of misleading the nation by telling people not to give tribute to Caesar (v.2), when a few days earlier Jesus taught the exact opposite (cf. 20:19-25).
Second, the religious rulers try to ruffle the feathers of the political leaders by saying Jesus claims to be king of the Jews (v.3). Jesus has not directly said so, though He is, but not as they think. He has claimed to be the Son of God who will sit at God’s right hand (cf. 22:68-70); the seat of supreme authority.
Third, the religious rulers accuse Jesus of stirring the people through His teachings (v.5). He did stir crowds with the “truth” and the people were astonished by His teachings (cf. 4:32; 9:43).
Fourth, neither Pilate nor Herod find Jesus guilty of any crime that would deem punishable by death (vs.14-15). He is, in fact, innocent and without sin.1 Ironically, Herod dresses Jesus in gaudy royal robes making a mockery of His and the claim.
Fifth, the religious rulers will trade Jesus’ life for Barabbas, the murderer (v.18). I’ll say more on this later.
Sixth, Pilate volleys for Jesus without success. In a moment, Pilate throws Roman law out the window and give Jesus over to crowd. Unbeknown to him or the crowd, Jesus is being delivered over by the divine will of God. Pilate and the crowd are simply pawns in the hands of God bringing about redemptive history.
Surprisingly, this passage says nothing about Jesus’ friends or family. There aren’t Human Rights activists or picketers holding signs for Jesus release. The only one who stands up for Jesus is Pilate. He’s the highest man in Jerusalem, but he has little power over the cankerous crowd and the hand of God.
The events of Jesus’ trial expose the equal danger of denial and indifference towards Jesus. The religious people are in denial of who Jesus says He is. They say they worship God, but they have placed God incarnate, the Creator of the universe on trial. Pilate is indifferent towards Him. Neither the crowd nor Pilate fear God. The crowd fears the influence of Jesus and Pilate fears Tiberius charge to keep Pax Romana, which is being threatened by the rabble-rousing crowd. In their hearts, they both fear man, and the denial and indifference towards Jesus led to His unjust treatment.
This begs me question my heart too. Have I treated Jesus fairly or justly? Do I see any fault in Him? Do I resemble this sort of denial and indifference towards Jesus? If so, I am just as guilty as the crowd. If I were honest, there are times each day when denial and indifference creep in and kill the authority and power of Jesus that desires to reign in my life. If I were in the crowd that day, I probably wouldn’t cry freedom. I would be joining the crowd chanting, “Crucify, crucify Him!”
While reading this passage, I mustn’t feel guilt, rather I must reveal in the grace of God. No amount of torture, pain, loneliness, mockery, suffering, or injustice stops Jesus from following through with His divine call. Jesus bears God’s wrath, pays for my punishment, so that I will have eternal life, forever freedom, forgiveness, and redemption. Jesus’ injustice bought my shalom.
JESUS’ RESPONSE TO THE INJUSTICES IS SURREAL
Why doesn’t Jesus cry freedom? Why doesn’t Jesus save Himself? Surely, He can. Even during the onslaught of scorn from religious rulers, soldiers, and a criminal hanging next to Jesus, He willingly remains fixed on the cross (cf. 22:35-39). Oddly, all throughout Jesus’ trial and crucifixion He doesn’t say many words. He’s remains silent and confident. He doesn’t save Himself. He willingly goes along with His own death sentence. He could call for swift justice and will, but not yet. An injustice must happen to Jesus for justice to prevail.
Jesus’ response should give us courage to fear God rather than man. In difficult situations or under pressure to speak, sometimes no response is needed, only trust and obedience in God’s providence. Often Christians are the worlds justice police. We see an injustice and we fight for right. We want to see the innocent freed and the criminal hanged. We’ve established organizations like World Vision or International Justice Mission, which do great things throughout the world to give a voice to abused, neglected, enslaved, and imprisoned. Yet it was one of the worlds greatest injustices has ever seen has set us free.
YOU ARE MORE LIKE BARABBAS THAN YOU THINK (vs.18-25)
One of the wildest ironies within Jesus’ trial is the exchange for Barabbas. How crazy and idiotic is the crowd to free a convicted murderer? This shows the irrational trajectory of fearing man. They would rather live with a murderer on the loose than have Jesus in teaching and healing in their streets.
I’ve always detested for Barabbas. I picture him as a scar faced, chip-toothed, scraggly-eyed villain. The kind of guy mom would want you hanging around. However, as I read through this text again a question lingered on my mind. How is the exchange for Barabbas a perfect picture of the exchange of my life for Jesus? It dawned on me for the first time. My sin is just as detestable and punishable by death as Barabbas’, but instead of the crowd it was the Righteous Judge, Jesus, who set me free to live another day. I, like Barabbas, have been released in exchange for the blood of an innocent man.
This passage really hits home. We live among a people in Africa who are all too familiar with injustices and unfairness. Some have seen family members and friends beaten, raped, and/or killed. They are crying for freedom. Only Jesus will minister hope to their fear and despair. He too faced injustices and yet responded with confidence and trust in His Father. And God had mercy on us all through the death of His only Son. Therefore, let us boldly proclaim the Hope of Nations as ones who have experienced and benefit from the beautiful exchange.2
Questions for Application & Reflection: How is the exchange for Barabbas the perfect picture of the great exchange of our life for Jesus? How has Jesus set you free? What gives you the strength to resist fear of man and pressures in your life? How can Jesus be displayed in injustices you face in your ministry? In what ways do you relate to the crowd calling for the death of Jesus?