Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon at the Good Friday Tenebrae service, 4/15/2022. The service was not broadcast due to ongoing technical difficulties. The bulletin is available as a PDF: Tenebrae Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel reading. To read the Bible texts for Good Friday, click here.
Reflecting on the crucifixion of our Lord, St. Peter wrote
He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. 1 Peter 2:24-25
The word St. Peter used, which is translated as “stripes” in the KJV or “wounds” in the ESV, is singular. It is the word for a welt or a wound. The Roman lash was a mophead of straps embedded with bits of bone and metal. Jesus’ back wasn’t striped with many different cuts. It was one giant, open wound. Even if they hadn’t crucified Him, it is certain that He would have soon died from the lashes.
But then, having opened His back in this way so that He is bleeding and dying in total agony in front of you, they took Him to the barracks, slapped Him, and pushed down a crown of thorns upon His head. What sort of evil could cause one man to do this to another? How is that even possible? You’d have to search high and low to find a sociopath who would do it even to a dog.
The cruelty here baffles even the selfish and cruel Pilate. He sees through the pettiness of the priests. He recognizes their motives and he, a veteran of Rome’s brutal legions, is moved to something akin to pity. He does not know that Jesus is the Messiah, God in the flesh; but he knows the priests are evil and that Jesus is no political threat.
Yet look how the crowd rallies for blood. Sadly, the priests are better politicians than Pilate. And while they were transparent to him, that didn’t keep them from manipulating him. He should have heeded the advice of his wife and had nothing to do with Him.
So, Barabbas goes free, and Jesus is condemned. Barabbas is a generic sort of name, which means “son of the father.” He is a known insurrectionist and murderer. I have posited before that this could make him a hero to some, perhaps the zealots; but there’s another perspective that considers him through the eyes of the common folk. If they were around today, they might call him a terrorist; but that is almost too tame. For all they suffer on account of him and his ilk, he may as well be a pornographer, a serial killer, a rapist, the cause and perpetrator of the Holocaust, and a killer of pandas and baby seals. Barabbas is whatever is most repulsive in mankind.
In contrast, Jesus is a known healer and giver of food in the wilderness. Even when they accused Him of having a demon, they themselves didn’t believe it. Everyone knows that Jesus is good, but they demand He be executed because He claims to be the Messiah, and that supposedly false claim makes Him a threat to Caesar. Yet they insist that Barabbas, the man proven to be a threat to Caesar, be freed.
How can Pilate have no courage against them? What sort of a governor releases a terrorist and executes a man who is, at worst, a harmless fool? Pilate. He gives in to their evil desires, and water, without the Word, will not wash his hands clean. Regret without faith will see him to hell.
The Church, however, has long had traditions and legends concerning both Barabbas and Pilate. It isn’t surprising, really. Both witnessed the grace of Christ’s sacrifice. Especially since they were both so directly involved, it has been thought that the Holy Spirit moved in these events and created faith in both of them.
With Barabbas it is particularly obvious. Christ died as his substitute in the courts of heaven and the court of Caesar. He doesn’t die under Pilate as justice demanded. Pilate’s rehabilitation also kind of makes sense when considered according to the character of grace.
Like unto St. Stephen’s forgiveness of those who stoned him, what could be more fitting than Pilate being washed with water and the Word, and being given not simply a second chance but the benefit of Christ’s sacrifice, for which he was directly responsible, but which was also for his benefit?
It is a strange story, full of sad events, but in this way the Scripture is fulfilled. Satan is cast out. The cherubim guarding paradise are removed.
Here is the great mystery: The evil lust of the crowd and the will of the Father are one. The Father and the Son desire that the thief go to paradise, that sinners be offered a place in heaven and become sons of the Father by grace. The beloved Son was willing to give up His rightful place to make room for them and for you. The Father forsook the Son for Barabbas, for Pilate, for Caiaphas.
He forsook the Son for you.