March 21, 2008
He could sense that dawn was approaching, a dawn he feared more than anything. No sunrise could brighten the darkness in that musty, gloomy, foul-smelling room, darkness so intense he felt his soul being crushed beneath its weight. Slowly, methodically he paced back and forth, the sound of his footsteps accompanied only by the scraping of chains across the stone floor. From somewhere in the darkness a voice rang out.
“Sit down! How can anybody sleep with you rattling your chains all night?”
He answered with a curse, a brief release of an overwhelming anger that had been held captive far too long. Sleep? How was that possible at such a time as this? There would be plenty of time for sleep later, after… No! He would not allow himself to think of the horror soon to come. He must fill his mind with other thoughts, memories of far better times. But all he could squeeze out of his tortured mind were recollections of a wasted life, a bitter childhood, unreturned love, countless rejections, isolation, and poverty. Then there was the ever-present, deeply rooted hatred for the government, for the wealthy, for religion, and even for God. His thoughts would not allow a peaceful sanctuary for him. There would be no rest for his weary soul, not on this evening.
In his mind he replayed his trial. Robbery, murder, rebellion, the prosecutor had done his job well. He was helpless to mount a defense against such charges. He could still hear the judge’s verdict ringing in his ears. “Guilty!” Even now the word sent a chill down his spine and he began to sweat despite the cold of early morning.
Morning! Already? Like a dam bursting in his mind he could no longer hold back the flood of thoughts concerning what was about to happen. The humiliation, the pain, the torture, the agony, the mocking, the nails, the cross! The sound of footsteps in the corridor made him jump with fright. Keys rattled, the door burst open, light flooded the cell, and two soldiers grabbed his arms and roughly dragged him outside. His heart pounded harder than he thought possible. An unthinkable horror, the torturous final act of his miserable life, was about to begin…or so he thought. Keys rattled again and his chains fell to the ground with a clang that startled him out of his nightmare.
“Go on, get out of here!” shouted the centurion. “You’re free to go, by the order of the governor.”
“What! How can this be?” He asked, unable to fully comprehend the sound of the word “free.”
“It’s Passover,” grunted the centurion not even trying to hide his disgust. “According to custom, every year the governor sets one prisoner free at this time. This year, you are the lucky one. The prophet of Nazareth is taking your place. Look, there he goes, carrying your cross!”
The dumbfounded, just released prisoner stares in disbelief as a noisy procession passes by in front of him, a parade of death. In the midst of the crowd is a bruised and bloodied figure struggling beneath the weight of a large wooden cross. For one brief moment the eyes of the newly-freed meet the eyes of the now-condemned. Expecting to see hatred, he finds only love looking back at him, a love that seems to cry out, “This is for you!” The innocent is taking the place of the guilty, and the guilty falls to his knees in amazement and awe. It is a day he will never forget.
Who is this fortunate criminal? If you answered Barabbas, you are only partially correct. He is a fascinating, obscure character in the Passion narrative, yet his bit-part in this drama is highly significant. The Bible gives us tantalizingly few clues as to his personal life, but from the list of his crimes we gather that he was awaiting a just punishment. The name, Barabbas, means “son of the father” and he will be forever remembered as the one who was released in place of the only begotten “Son of the Father.” But he was not the only convicted felon who escaped punishment that day. My life was also spared, and so was yours. For we, too, have been accused of grand larceny (robbing God of our time, talents and money), murder (hate is the equivalent of murder in God’s eyes), and rebellion (all sin is rebellion against God). The verdict is in; the jury cries, “Guilty!” “For all have sinned and fall short of the Glory of God.” – Romans 3:23. And the sentence has been pronounced. “For the wages of sin is death…” – Romans 6:23.
But, wonder of wonders, the prison door is opened, the keys of grace rattle, and our chains of sin fall to the ground. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” – Romans 5:8. The prophet of Nazareth is carrying our cross. Let your eyes connect with His and experience the unconditional, unfailing, all-encompassing love that cries out, “This is for you!” The Innocent has taken the place of the guilty and we fall to our knees in amazement and awe. The only begotten Son of the Father has paved the way for you and me to also become sons of the Father.
“Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” – John 1:12-13. “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:14-16.
He was sentenced to our punishment, bound by our chains, and nailed to our cross. He bore our sins, endured our pain, suffered our shame, and died our death. And in the process, we have been offered a full and complete pardon. The incongruity of it all is unfathomable and we are caught up in the most profound sense of awe. Only the purest form of love would willingly make such an offer, and only a fool would refuse it. The thrill of our new found freedom is tempered by the knowledge of its terrible price. The relief of our last minute reprieve is couched in the memory of the One who suffered in our place. The joy of redemption is bound by our love for the Redeemer. It is a day we will never forget…a day we call, Good Friday.
Bill, another son of the Father in awe of His grace