The King Condemned – Mark 15:1-15
Ian McEwan’s masterful book Atonement (also made into a movie) is the story set in Britain around 1935 of an arrogant teenager named Briony Tallis, who singlehandedly destroys a family with her false accusations of a young man named Robbie. Robbie is the housekeeper’s son and is in love with Briony’s older sister Cecilia. Her actions ruin Cecilia’s life as well, as Robbie, who was supposed to be a doctor, is sent to prison and ends up going off to fight in the war.
As Briony grows older, she is ridden with guilt. As a result, though is a gifted writer, leaves that possible career to go into nursing. McEwan says that no matter what “humble nursing” she did or “how hard she did it, she was unforgivable” and can “never undo the damage.” She realizes if something happened to Robbie in the war that would just compound her crime. Briony at one point says, “The only conceivable solution would be for the past never to have happened.” But the past did happen. She says she longed to “have someone else’s past…[with an] unstained life stretching ahead…” But to Briony, it appeared that “her life was going to be lived in one room, without a door.”
By the end of the novel we find that a much older Briony has finally written a book that details her life story. We find that in her novel, Robbie came back from the war and got back together with Cecilia and they told Briony to talk to the family and retract all of her accusations, to which she agrees.
Then we find out that the truth was Robbie actually died in the war and Cecilia, waiting and waiting for Robbie to come back, died in a bombing of a train station. Why did Briony make up the other story? It was her way of atonement that as a writer, she says, she can re-write the story and be like a god to decide the outcome she wanted. McEwan, an atheist himself, says that there was no one Briony can appeal to for forgiveness. It was an impossible task, so atonement can only happen in a fictitious story. 
McEwan makes a good point. The sad reality is that our attempts at self-atonement are never enough, partial at best. We cannot atone for ourselves. Our pasts have happened. Guilt is real. Some of us live in constant shame. Some of our relationships are deeply fractured. We have deep insecurities. Some of us live in constant guilt due to addiction. Others of us live in bondage to something someone said about us, whether our parents or spouses or people. We play that tape over and over again in our minds.
Due to our guilt and shame and insecurities, some of us make life for people around us really miserable. We try really hard to protect what people can see about us. We become obsessed with our careers, our looks and our weight. We are all working on projects of self-salvation, trying to re-write our stories to pay for our sins and find a way to hide our shame.
Brennan Manning says, “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games.” We say with the Apostle Paul, who as a believer said, “What a wretched man that I am! Who can deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). He himself gives the answer as he preaches the Gospel to himself: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
Today we are finally brought to Good Friday in Mark 15. We will spend the next two weeks here and look closely at “The King Crucified.” It is through the Gospel, we will find that God has truly re-written the story to help us broken Briony Tallis’ find freedom, hope, forgiveness, restoration and love. Let’s start with this one point:
I. Barabbas: Jesus stands in my place (vv.1-15)
As we pick up the story in Mark 15, we find that the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Israel, made up of 70 religious men (71 if you include the high priest), has condemned Jesus to death with a mock trial. Around 3am the “trial” ended. From 3-5am, they hold Jesus. Sunrise is 5am and they hold a “consultation” meeting. What is this meeting about?
The Sanhedrin did not have the right to execute a person convicted of a capital crime since Israel was under the rule of Rome. So that right was reserved for Roman authorities, especially when dealing with popular figures. So the “Sanhedrin would be required to convince the governor that Jesus had committed a capital offense under Roman law.” The Romans did not care for accusations of blasphemy, so “by twisting things just a little, they [can charge] him with claiming to be king, a heinous offense in Roman eyes.” They bind him. This is silly because Jesus is not violent. Again, they want to give the appearance that this guy is a thug and a rebel.
Finally, they hand him over to Pilate in the early morning, probably interrupting his breakfast. Who was Pilate? Mark doesn’t give us much information because his readers would know who Pilate was, unlike us. So some things we know about him:
- 5th Roman Governor of Judea from 26 AD- 36 AD.
- He was “in charge of the army, collecting the taxes for Rome and keeping the peace.”
- Historians says he was “cruel and without any sensitivity for Jewish religious beliefs or practices.”
- Pilate’s normal residence was in Caesarea, but he happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover festival to help keep the peace.
Pilate asks him the one and only question that interests him and probably emphasized by the Sanhedrin: “Are you (emphatic) the King of the Jews?”The emphatic pronoun carries with it a touch of mockery, perhaps suggesting that Pilate had anticipated meeting someone more impressive (i.e., “You? You must be kidding!”).  Jesus responds cryptically, “You (emphatic) have said so.” What does He mean? Most scholars think it is best understood as a yes answer but with a qualification attached. As Messiah, Jesus is the King of the Jews but His concept of kingship differed from that implied in Pilate’s question (cf. John 18:33–38). The chief priests all try to help Pilate and hurl accusation after accusation at him. Jesus remains quiet as the Suffering Servant (Is. 53:7). Notice the irony. The Jews wanted a political Messiah who would kick the Romans out and Jesus had disappointed them. Now He is condemned for the very thing He himself refused to be.
Supposedly the Jews had a tradition, where they can release one prisoner during the holiday. Pilate does not really seem convinced that Jesus is this bad guy that the chief priests are making him to be. Look down at verse 10. He senses that this whole thing is out of envy of Jesus’ influence, popularity and power. One commentator notes, “Pilate’s appeal to the crowd is believable if his goal was to embarrass the chief priests, elders and scribes rather than to save an innocent man.” This is also Pilate’s opportunity to use this as an opportunity to display his power.
Now we have Barabbas. His name literally means, “Son of the father.” Who was he? We don’t know much, but it seems like he was “a notorious freedom fighter, robber (John 18:40), and murderer, along with other insurrectionists. He may have been a Zealot, a nationalist who stirred up opposition against Rome. Now he was awaiting execution.”
There was a sizable crowd now and Pilate actually presents Jesus as the candidate for release in v.9. The chief priests are sneaky and instigate among the crowd to let Barabbas go, much to Pilate’s surprise. He asks, “What has this man done?” Did you notice they ignore the question? “Crucify him!” “What has this man done?” “Just crucify him!”
Were there none in this crowd who experienced this Savior feeding them? Were there none who were healed by His gracious hands? Were there not one who had a relative miraculously delivered from demons? For which of these deeds of love do you accuse him? What has this man done?
They don’t even answer the question. They know He’s innocent. They just want Him dead. Pilate’s job is to keep the peace and so the last thing he wants is a howling mob rioting under his care. So he releases Barabbas. The Romans come and take off his chains and he walks down from the platform. I wonder what he’s thinking? My people love me! I don’t know who this Jesus guy is, but sorry dude. Stuff happens. And his thug friends all hug him. Pilate hands over Jesus to be crucified, after having him flogged, a normal prelude to Roman execution.
Look again at this proposal by Pilate. There is a tragic irony in Pilate’s amnesty, for a convicted murderer is set free, and in his place the innocent Son of the Father is condemned to death. See what’s happening? Barabbas stands as one who has taken a life. Jesus stands as one who has given his life. Barabbas is a rightful prisoner. Jesus is truly innocent. Here’s the innocent and here’s the guilty. But switch them. Substitute them. Put the innocent where the guilty should be. Put the guilty where the innocent should be. Take the innocent one and punish him. Take the punishable one and treat him as if he’s innocent.
What is going on here? Substitutionary sacrifice. This is the Gospel. The late pastor Donald Barnhouse says, “Now Barabbas was the only man in the world who could say that Jesus Christ took his physical place. But I can say that Jesus Christ took my spiritual place. For it was I who deserved to die.” When I was studying this, I was angry at Pilate for being so self-centered and the Sanhedrin with their self-interests as well, but I was furious at Barabbas.
He seems to have just walked away like he deserved the freedom. No gratitude or conscience or anything! Doesn’t he realize what Jesus just did for him? If I were Jesus, I would have found him after the resurrection and made him pay for being so ungrateful. Jesus is surrounded by evil people who are consumed by their own self-interest. I was furious at all these people, until I realized…that’s how I am. I am the crowd of scoffers as well. I am Barabbas.
We are Barabbas. All of mankind is Barabbas. We are the true criminals who have rebelled against God. You say, “Well I didn’t murder anyone.” No, but Jesus said hate in your heart is equivalent to murder (Matt. 5:21). We are guilty. We were his enemies (Rom. 5:10). Listen to Spurgeon: You and I may fairly take our stand by the side of Barabbas. We have robbed God of his glory; we have been seditious traitors against the government of heaven: if he who [hates] his brother be a murderer, we also have been guilty of that sin. Here we stand before the judgment-seat; the Prince of Life is bound for us and we are suffered to go free.
God the Father is treating Jesus like Barabbas and treating Barabbas like Jesus. Granted Barabbas still needed to repent and know Christ because there is another judgment coming for him. But God sets free someone who doesn’t even thank him or realize it was grace.
So many times we are like Barabbas, though we should know better. We walk away from this scene without realizing that He was taking our guilt upon himself. He was taking our sins upon himself. He was taking our evil upon himself and being treated the way we should be treated. He died that we might live. He was bound that we might go free. But we walk away and it all becomes too familiar. It doesn’t move us anymore. We don’t appreciate what He did for us. We don’t really believe that He loved us to take our place. Even this week I felt so paralyzed by my own self-pity and insecurity. I felt like I was resisting grace. I wasn’t even seeking it. God was gracious to encourage me but I didn’t even appreciate grace even after I received it. Then I don’t even want it because I felt guilty for abusing it. And yet amazingly, it still comes to us.
But that is what grace is. Grace comes to those who do not deserve it, who do not seek it, who continually resist it, and who do not appreciate it even after they receive it. It is a river that cannot be dammed. A sun that refuses to go dark. A mountain without a peak.
If you’ve read the book The Hunger Games or seen the movie you’ll know the plot revolves around a horrible contest fought between young representatives of twelve futuristic districts. The winner of the Hunger Games is the last one standing as the contestants are forced to kill each other to stay alive. When the authorities come to choose the contestants—one boy and one girl—from District 12 for the 74th annual Hunger Games, the name of Primrose (or Prim) Everdeen is plucked from a large bowl containing all the children’s name. As the authorities lead Primrose away, her older sister Katniss suddenly intervenes and shouts Prim’s name. The guards stop Katniss from approaching Prim, but Katniss shouts, “No! I volunteer! I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!” So Katniss becomes the representative for District 12.
Katniss provides a moving example of courage and sacrificial love. After all, she voluntarily substitutes herself for another human being. But it’s also an understandable substitution. She does it for her little sister. It’s admirable, but it’s the kind of thing we hope we’d all do for our younger siblings or our children or our spouses.
But Jesus’ substitution doesn’t work like that. Whose place does Jesus the Messiah take? He takes the place of people like the cowardly disciples, the scheming religious leaders, and spineless politicians. He takes the place of people like the blood-stained Barabbas and the cursing criminal. The people are the reason that Jesus has to drink the cup of God’s wrath. We’re the reason that Jesus is dying. How could we ever take this for granted? And yet, grace comes to us as we have taken the Gospel for granted.
Briony Tallis in Atonement could only make up a fictitious story to atone for her sins. Tim Chester writes, “But what if it is God who writes the story? And what is the story is for real? And what if God steps into the story? What is God is not simply the narrator, but has also now become part of the story? In Jesus God enters our story, shares our humanity, suffers our pain, dies our death, pays our penalty, atones for our crimes.
‘She longed to have someone else’s past,’ McEwan says of Briony (288). But that is precisely the offer of the Christian good news: we can have the sinless, righteous past of Jesus. He takes our past with its crimes, its evils, its wrong, and its errors and atones for them in full on the cross. And he gives his ‘unstained life’. A life ‘lived in one room, without a door’ can be transformed into an ‘unstained life stretching ahead’.
Grace is love that took my place knowing like Barabbas, I had nothing to give in return. As Pastor Tullian Tchividjian says,
Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. Grace is irrational in the sense that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called “gifts” (whatever they may be).
Grace gives and from our vantage point, it always gives to the wrong person. We see this over and over again in the Gospels: Jesus is always giving to the wrong people—prostitutes, tax collectors, half-breeds.. It doesn’t keep score. It refuses to be controlled by our innate sense of fairness, reciprocity, and evenhandedness. It defies logic. It has nothing to do with earning, merit, or deservedness. It is opposed to what is owed. It doesn’t expect a return on investments. It is a liberating contradiction between what we deserve and what we get. Grace is unconditional acceptance given to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver. It is one-way love.
Jesus came to liberate us from the weight of having to make it on our own, from the demand to measure up. He came to emancipate us from the burden to get it all right, from the obligation to fix ourselves, find ourselves, and free ourselves. Jesus came to release us from the slavish need to be right, rewarded, regarded, and respected. Because Jesus came to set the captives free, life does not have to be a tireless effort to establish ourselves, justify ourselves, and validate ourselves.
Once this good news grips your heart, it changes everything. It frees you from having to be perfect. It frees you from having to hold it all together. In the place of exhaustion, you might even find energy. No, the Gospel of grace is not too good to be true. It is true! It’s the truest truth in the entire universe. God loves us independently of what we may or may not bring to the table. There are no strings attached! No ifs, ands, or buts. No qualifiers or conditions. No need for balance. Grace is the most dangerous, expectation-wrecking, smile-creating, counterintuitive reality there is.
As the hymnwriter says,
“His love has no limits, His grace has no measure,
His power no boundary known unto men;
For out of His infinite riches in Jesus
He giveth, and giveth, and giveth again.
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McEwan, I. Ibid.
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