I figured we could all use a break from my book club, so what better day to do that than Easter Sunday? Every year for the last 2 years I’ve made it a personal challenge to find something new and beautiful in the Easter and Christmas stories. This year, I’ve chosen to look at the scene where Pontius Pilate puts a decision to the crowd to choose Jesus Christ or Barabbas for the Pascal Pardon.
Over the years, this piece of the story has been used by a lot of Protestant groups to demonize the Jewish people both historically and in modern times. By seeding racism from this incident, I feel like there is so much missed.
Let’s start with the obvious- racism (all of it, not just anti-Semitism) is dumb. If you’re using this incident (or any other scripture, for that matter) as a reason to hate on the Jewish People, get over yourself. Historically, we Gentiles were just as evil as they were, and at times worse. It’s not a matter of whether or not Gentiles knew that God exists either. Let me give you 3 examples:
- Balak readily affirms that YHWH exists, and asks the Prophet Balaam to curse the Israelites. When that doesn’t work out, Balak convinces Balaam to help him make Israel blaspheme against God.
- Jezebel was made very aware of God’s presence, and maintained her treachery until the end.
- Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar, watches his own father go through hell because he had gotten arrogant and God decided to put him in his place. But when Belshazzar takes over, he gets very arrogant and throws an unspeakable feast- which God makes an appearance in and writes upon the wall. The night after Daniel delivers the interpretation, Belzhazzar is killed.
The Bible tells us mostly about the Israelites, but there are stories and hints around the evils of gentiles too. No race gets a pass. None. So throw that racism to the 4 winds and look at this scene with a different set of eyes.
Everything had to align so that God would be glorified in such a way that no one could argue He is King above all gods (Psalm 95:3)
‘From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day. Then Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You!” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.”’
Peter didn’t want this for his friend. But Jesus rebuked him. Christ later, in Gethsemane, asks for God to change His mind, but that if He will not God’s will be done. All of this to make a point- nothing, absolutely nothing, could be done to change what the future held for Christ- except God.
This isn’t the first time that God has put things into motion so as to assure an outcome. In Egypt He literally took away Pharaoh’s free will:
“And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt…And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the children of Israel from among them”
God sends a lying spirit into King Ahab’s prophets so that Ahab will go into battle:
I Kings 22:19-23
‘Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord : I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord , and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ The Lord said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the Lord said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’ Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you.”’
Finally, we know that in order to fulfill what God had set into motion, the people of Christ’s time were shut off from the truth:
‘And the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do You speak to them in parables?” He answered and said to them, “Because it has been given to you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For whoever has, to him more will be given, and he will have abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. Therefore I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. And in them the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled, which says: ‘Hearing you will hear and shall not understand, And seeing you will see and not perceive; For the hearts of this people have grown dull. Their ears are hard of hearing, And their eyes they have closed, Lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, So that I should heal them.’’
If you recall, during Isaiah’s time (Isaiah 6:9-11), God didn’t want Israel to repent of their sin because He didn’t want them to be healed. But here, it’s not about not wanting them to be healed, it’s about ensuring that the world would be healed through Christ’s sacrifice.
So you see, this exchange scene has two very important messages. The first is that the people who were seeking to crucify Christ were intended to do exactly as they were doing. God set everything up, and one could easily argue that He was convicting their souls to do exactly this, just as He had done with Pharaoh. Thus, we cannot hold anyone in this crowd accountable for their actions prior to the crucifixion, only their actions after Christ had risen and was proclaimed by the Apostles.
The second story here, is the exchange itself for someone who was considered a criminal. This exchange is at the heart of what Christ came to Earth to accomplish- exchanging His life for the life of sinners. In effect, it was a very public display of Christ’s ability to give us all another chance at redemption even when the odds seem against us. Whether Barabbas took it or not, we are not told. His decision doesn’t really matter though, what matters is the option bestowed to him. Though, I must admit, if Barabbas didn’t take his second chance to turn his face to God, perhaps that would have driven home this point of Christ’s love for all of us, and a testament to God’s ever-inspiring grace and patience.