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Free At Last

Date: Jan. 15, 2017

Author: Michael Mark

Matthew 27:11-26

Key Verse: Matthew 27:26

“Then he released Barabbas to them.  But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”

Welcome back to all of the students, I hope your first week back to school was great!  And as many of you might know, this coming Monday is Martin Luther King Day, and most students will have the day off.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a leader in the civil rights movement in America, and pushed for the equal treatment of African Americans, who even after being declared free from slavery in 1863, were not being treated equally as human beings.  His most famous speech, called “I Have A Dream,” was given in 1963, about 54 years ago from today, addressing the issues of racism, hatred, oppression and even the violent treatment of black people in those times.  In those times segregation and discrimination were actually part of the law.  His dream was that racism and hatred would come to an end, and that the whole nation would come together, join hands and sing in one voice: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last!”  This oppression, this persecution, this injustice or sometimes violent treatment we do to one another is a reflection of our slavery to sin.  It is sin that causes us to rebel against God, against his laws and consequently against one another.  As we come back now to the book of Matthew we continue with the events that occur during the last day of Jesus’ life here on earth.  In these final moments he is carrying out his greatest work – to become a ransom sacrifice for us so that we may be saved from our sins.  In today’s passage Jesus appears before Pilate and is on trial for his life, but we will also see a prisoner set free as a glimpse of the hope we have in him.

The passage takes place sometime between 6am and 7am on a Friday morning, around 2000 years ago.  Earlier in the night Jesus was arrested while praying with his disciples, and he was taken to the house of the High Priest in Jerusalem.  It was a sham trial, and they brought in several false witnesses to testify against Jesus.  From early on in his ministry, they wanted to kill him, and they were finally able to put their plan into motion.  The religious leaders agreed in that trial that Jesus was worthy of death.  They had no authority to sentence someone to death, but the Roman government did, so they took him to the palace of the Roman authority Pilate.  Look at v.11, “Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied.”  What?  Think about how crazy this might look to Pilate right now.  Here is Jesus, tossed in front of Pilate his own people, and they hate him!  He has no army and no friends to come to his defense.  He is probably wearing a common person’s clothes.  Is he a king?  But he says to Pilate without hesitation, “You have said so.”  He is indirectly saying, “Yep, I am the king of the Jews – [those people out there, but they have no idea] (paraphrase mine).”  If you read the account in John’s gospel, he explains further that his kingdom is not of this world.  Pilate cannot believe him, and does not.

So why does Jesus affirm that he is the king of the Jews?  Because he is.  The Messiah would be the eternal King of God’s chosen people, and the one to bring the nation of Israel to glory.  God promised that a Savior would come, all the way from the time of Adam and Eve, and he gave predictions and prophecies about who he will be and what he would do.  When the time was right, he would arrive.  Jesus is the promised Messiah because he fulfilled all that was written about him.  The prophet Isaiah spoke about the Messiah being a suffering servant.  In Isa 53:7 he wrote, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”  In verses 12-14 of the passage the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law kept accusing him, but Jesus made no reply – to the amazement of Pilate.  Why wouldn’t Jesus open his mouth to defend himself?  Now was his chance to get himself out of this situation, Pilate knew he was innocent.  In the midst of all this commotion, Jesus was calm, like he was determined to do something.  Jesus was in fact, doing something.  He was fulfilling his mission to be the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.  Now was the time.  It was the Passover.  He had proven to thousands of people that He was the Son of God through his miracles.  He had taught his disciples everything they needed to know for now.  And now was his time to be lifted up so that he would draw all people to himself.  The scene might look chaotic, with people hurling accusations at Jesus, and Pilate not knowing what to do, but God is always in control.

The Friday that this trial was taking place was the day of Passover, a day commemorating the Israelite’s liberation from slavery in Egypt 1500 years ago from that time.  On this day a Jewish family was to bring a year old male lamb to the temple to sacrifice and eat at night to celebrate.  The lamb had to be spotless, without blemish or defect.  The Passover celebration and meal was just a picture of the reality.  Jesus is the reality and the fulfillment of the Passover.  He is the real deal.  Just as the blood of the Passover lamb saved the Israelite firstborn from the angel of death, the blood of Jesus saves us from the angel of death.  And just as the lamb was without spot, blemish or defect, Jesus was perfect, righteous and sinless.  God would not accept an imperfect lamb as a sin offering for Passover.  It is impossible for the blood of animals to take away sins.  To take away the sins of man required the sacrifice of a perfect man.  Jesus was that perfect man: he was absolutely blameless and sinless.  He was completely innocent and did not deserve any punishment.  In verse 19 Pilate’s wife calls him an innocent man.  In verse 23 Pilate objects to the crowd’s call for crucifixion, saying, “Why? What crime has he committed?”  Through different ways and different people, God wanted to make one thing clear: Jesus was completely innocent.  Though he was tried and will suffer like a criminal, he was never ever in the least bit guilty.  You ever see your friend get yelled at by their mom?  Like really get yelled at?  You might think, man, I don’t know what he did, but he’s guilty.  He did something bad.  But Jesus here, though he is suffering all kinds of criminal embarrassment, was completely innocent.  We don’t need to be ashamed of the suffering and punishment Jesus went through.  I don’t think many of us are.  But in those days, the temptation was great to be ashamed to be associated with Jesus.  Jesus was righteous, innocent and blameless, and he had to be in order to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

It is the whole world that is in bondage to sin.  Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt of a world where racism and hatred were wiped out, and we all lived peacefully in love for on another.  Through his work and activism, the racism laws were abolished and you can now be charged with a hate crime for racism.  In many ways the nation is a better place.  Unfortunately, racism and hatred still exist.  We still see headlines of people mistreating one another because of race.  Why?  Because of sin. The world will never be a better place unless sin is addressed.  Sin is rebellion against God.  It is a violation of his laws.  As we have heard, God’s law can be summed up in these two: first to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul with all your mind and with all your strength, and second to love your neighbor as yourself.  Because we are sinners, we break these laws all the time, every day.  Our sinful natures are always looking for ways to rebel against God, always looking for ways to serve ourselves.  But what is the result?  Guilt, guilty consciences, shame, despair, anger and envy, and ultimately, death.  There is always pain involved.  Why can we never escape?  As a whole, as a human race, why can’t we ever overcome sin?  Because sin has enslaved us and masters us.  We have no control over sin, rather, it controls us.

Why was Jesus on trial before Pilate?  Because of sin.  Verse 18 says “For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.”  The older NIV translation says it was out of envy that they handed Jesus over.  It was not because Jesus had committed any crimes, but because of self-interest and envy the religious leaders wanted him dead.  Jesus was teaching with more authority, increasing in popularity and he opposed their traditions.  He rebuked them for their self-interest and corruption.  They were jealous of him, and hated him without reason.  See how sin blinds and harden the heart of man.  These were the leaders of God’s people – they had a knowledge of God’s law, they had the prophecies of the Messiah, but when Messiah came they rebelled against him.  Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years, and the first thing the Jewish leaders said to him was, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.”  Jesus came to show them the way of righteousness, but instead of repenting they rejected him.  They would rather follow the traditions of men, rather than the commands of God.  The desire of their hearts was to have God silenced, and we see here how they are carrying out the desires of their hearts, led by sin.

The crowds had no control either, but bent their will to a minority of influential people.  Look at v.20, “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.”  The crowds seemed to be re-thinking their condemnation of Jesus, but their leaders reasserted control, and had to persuade them.  There was a custom during Passover where the governor would release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.  This isn’t found in the Law of Moses, but may have been a tradition the Romans started to win some favor from the Jews.  Usually the crowd gets their pick, but Pilate was starting to work hard to free Jesus.  Instead of letting them pick, he gave them two options: Barabbas or Jesus.  It was like the illusion of choice.  There were other prisoners, but Pilate gave them the option to either release Barabbas or Jesus.  Barabbas was a well-known prisoner.  In the older NIV it says Barabbas was a notorious prisoner.  Being notorious is not exactly a good thing.  Being notorious is being well-known in a bad way.  Gangsters like to be called notorious, like the notorious B.I.G.  Barabbas was known for starting rebellions, but was also known for robbery and murder.  He might have been those types to use political excuses to commit crimes.  Like Al Capone, a notorious Chicago criminal, known for illegally supplying alcohol, gambling and prostitution, claimed he was doing a “public service” for Chicagoans, saying “90% of the people of Cook County drink and gamble and my offense has been to furnish them with those amusements.”  Pilate though for sure the people would come to their senses, and release Jesus, not Al Capone (Barabbas).  But who did they ask for?  They religious leaders wanted the notorious criminal to be released and persuaded the crowd to ask for him.

Pilate was at a loss.  He said to the crowd, “What shall I do then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?”  Pilate did not want to sentence or condemn Jesus, but he could not keep the situation in control.  The crowd was also losing control.  “Crucify him!” They all answered.  All of the people answered, “Crucify him!”  The crowd had turned bloodthirsty.  Pilate protested, “Why, what crime has he committed?”   And the people shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”  They were about to erupt into a riot, and were starting to lose self control.  Look at v.24, “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd.  ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said, ‘It is your responsibility.’”  Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere.  Nothing was working with this crowd: they wanted one thing and one thing only.  So what did he do?  He gave in.  He caved.  He was not able to do his will, but gave in to the will of the crowd.  He participated in this gross perversion of justice by setting free a notorious criminal, and condemning an innocent man to death.  He was the only one at this point with power to save Jesus’ life, but he used it to condemn him.  He washed his hands in front of the crowd.  This may have been a Jewish custom, and the whole crowd saw and recognized it – he was cleaning his hands of this immoral act and told the crowd he was not responsible.  He was only deceiving himself.  He could not clean his own hands, and will be held responsible.  It’s actually recited every week in the Apostle’s Creed, that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.  He has been held responsible.  Now we might think, “Pilate, how could you?”  But the power of sin is very strong, and very oppressive.  Pilate himself, may not have been an upright man.  Allowing Jesus to live might cost him his career, maybe even his life.  He gave in to fear, and the power of sin prevailed.

Look at the crowds chilling response in v.25, “All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and our children!’”  Though Pilate was not innocent, they would not blame Pilate, and accepted responsibility for Jesus’ death.  They took full responsibility for murdering Jesus, and brought their children into the crime as well.  History in the past has blamed the Jews for the death of Christ – but look again at who is responsible.  The Jews had a hand in it, and Pilate, a high ranking Gentile of the most powerful empire in the world, was also responsible.  Jews and Gentiles, the whole world is responsible for the death of Christ.  Let’s look at the final result of the trial in v.26.  Can we all please read v.26 together:  “Then he released Barabbas to them.  But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”  There’s the verdict, the decision, the final result of the trial.  Jesus was judged, and condemned to be crucified.  An innocent man was condemned to now undergo the most shameful punishment in all of history.  Even Romans abhorred the thought.  Here’s what the Roman philosopher Cicero said about punishing his own people: “It is a crime to bind a Roman citizen; to scourge [flog] him is an act of wickedness; to put him to death is almost parricide [killing your parents or relatives]: what shall I say of crucifying him?  An act so abominable it is impossible to find any word adequately to express.”  Barabbas was set free, but Jesus was condemned.  It sounds tragic, but thankfully, the story does not end there.  With God, there is good news.  There is a glimmer of hope we can find in v.26.

Think again about why Jesus was there in the trial before Pilate.  He was there for us.  He was there for you.  He was there because of sin, and he was there to take away our sin.  He was being treated as a sinner in our place.  It is so important to remember that he was innocent and blameless.  He did not deserve any of what he was getting.  He did not deserve to be shamed.  But we should be ashamed.  He was there, absorbing our shame.  He did not say a word, but he took it upon himself.  He did not deserve to be condemned as guilty.  We are guilty of breaking God’s laws.  What can we say except that we have sinned against God and against one another.  Jesus was there, and he took our guilt and condemnation.  He didn’t have to, but he did.  He did not deserve to die.  Not one iota of sin was found in him.  He died, for you.  He was innocent, blameless – he could live for all eternity, but he came to shed his blood to become a sin offering for you.  It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.  The only sacrifice that would please God was the sacrifice of a perfect man.  His blood is sufficient and has atoned for all your sins: past, present and future.  Jesus was treated as a sinner, so that you may be treated as a saint.  He died, and God was satisfied with his sacrifice.  Having been approved, the work was finished, Jesus Christ rose from the dead, defeating the power of death, and enabling us to receive his righteousness.  This righteousness is not our own.  It is given to us by grace, not by our works.  It is not something for us to earn, but by faith in Jesus, anyone can receive the righteousness the comes from God.

Romans 8:1 says, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Your guilt has been cleansed.  There is no more reason to fear, because your sins will never be brought to judgment before God.  And because you have the righteousness of Christ, you also have the promise of the resurrection from the dead, and eternal life in heaven, free from all sin.  You see that hope in v.26 – Barabbas was released, though Jesus was condemned.  We are like Barabbas, sinners, who have been set free by Christ who took our place.  In Christ you are free from guilt, free from condemnation, and free from death.  You have been set free from the power of sin.  Jesus Christ is our Redeemer.  He is the one who sets us free from captivity.  You are no longer slaves to sin.  If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed (John 8:36) !!  Martin Luther King’s dream cannot be fulfilled by human power.  All the human might in the world could not accomplish his dream.  But his dream has been fulfilled by Christ.  In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, all are one in Christ.  There is no envy, nor hatred nor fear, but peace, love and joy in unity.  As Christians, when we look at Jesus we can praise God and say, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we are free at last.”

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