Murderers, mobs, dictators and the gospel


In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus was before the ruling Jewish council, he made a reference to his divine status. To the ruling council, this was taken as blasphemy. Within Rome, they didn’t have the authority to execute Jesus for his action, so they took him to Pontius Pilate, who was the governor of Judea

Pilate questions Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. (Matthew 27:11-14).

There was a tradition that Pilate would release one prisoner each year during the Passover. He gave the crowd the option between Jesus and a man named Barabbas. He was a “notorious prisoner.” The gospel of Mark says he had been imprisoned for murder and insurrection.

But when given the option, the crowd wanted Barabbas freed.

The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”
-Matthew 27:21-23

In a symbolic act, realizing what the crowd wanted, Pilate attempted to absolve himself: So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”

And the crowd is all too happy to assume responsibility.

What strikes me about this account is that there are three people or groups to focus on. There’s a guilty crowd, a guilty leader, and a guilty man.

1. A guilty crowd

This mob wanted Jesus to be crucified for the blasphemy of making claims that could only be true of God. The irony is that the crowd was the actual party committing blasphemy by wanting the eternal son crucified.

When Pilate washed his hands, the crowd said: “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matthew 7:25).

Part of the issue with the crowd is the grievous sin they’re committing and they don’t even know it. If they had truly understood the Old Testament, they would have recognized who Jesus was. So many people in our world refuse to acknowledge sin. There are people who find the idea offensive of a righteous God who could judge. In effect, people make themselves the judge over God, reasoning that it is God who is worthy of judgment for having the audacity for not accepting someone who doesn’t have faith. They mock God’s holiness and gospel. They’re blind to the reality of Jesus.

For the whole sequence of events in this trial, Charles Spurgeon appropriately summarized it

The crucifixion of Christ was the crowning sin of our race. In his death we shall find all the sins of mankind uniting in foul conspiracy. Envy and pride and hate are there, with covetousness, falsehood, and blasphemy, eager to rush on to cruelty, revenge, and murder.

2. A guilty leader 

Pilate said he was washing his hands of the situation. But just because he did that didn’t mean he was free of culpability. Our actions don’t make us clean. We can’t wash our hands, because they are permanently stained apart from Christ. It is not through our actions or behavior.

Not only are we unable to make ourselves clean of sin, we aren’t forgiven on our own terms. Just because Pilate said “I am innocent of this man’s blood” didn’t make it so. So many of us have heard the call to repentance and to turn to Jesus, but we look for another way. Most commonly, our way of washing our hands of guilt is through being good people, of tipping the moral scale in our favor. And while this idea might be popular, Jesus said that he was the way, the truth, and the life, and that no one comes to the father except through him (John 14:6).

3. A guilty man 

Barabbas was the one who deserved to be crucified. He was a murderer. He was also guilty of insurrection. Ironically, insurrection was the auspice of why the crowd had brought Jesus before Pilate. They knew it would make no difference if he committed blasphemy to a pagan ruler, but they tied this with the idea that he claimed to be a king which meant that he was loyal to another besides Caesar.

An innocent man taking a guilty man’s punishment. This is the gospel. All sin and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). All are guilty. But in this event, Pilate sits at the seat of judgment (Matthew 27:19) who gave a guiltless man for a guilty man. There’s a God who sits on the judgment seat of heaven who gives a guiltless savior for a guilty world, for people who couldn’t wash their hands.

We must recognize our need for a savior, and submit to God’s way of salvation, instead of wanting to approach him as a god we’ve made in our own image. Jesus takes the penalty for the guilty.


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