I sometimes think about the first person Jesus saved when He went to the cross. We do not often consider this person as he is not a main character in the New Testament. He is a bit character in the drama of the crucifixion. Though the part he played was brief, his place in history provides some lessons for us to consider.
The Jews put Jesus through the illusion of a judicial process to deliver a sentence of blasphemy and the punishment of a death penalty. Under Roman rule they could not carry out the death sentence so they brought Jesus within the Roman judicial system to be tried for treason and put to death. The Roman officials Pilate and Herod each examined Jesus. Though their men treated Jesus with contempt, they found no reason to execute Him, Luke 23:13-16.
Pilate fought for Jesus’ release. He knew that Jesus had been delivered into his hands because the Jewish leaders were envious of Him. He even had Jesus violently beaten and presented before the people. Perhaps Pilate thought a near-death beating would satisfy the blood lust of the crowd and perhaps draw some pity out of their hearts for the abused man presented before them. But their hearts were not touched. Read John 19:1-16
It was Pilate’s custom to pardon a criminal during the feast. On most occasions, one might imagine a popular individual whose case inspired sympathy but could not be dismissed as a subject of pardon. The people would get someone they liked and Pilate could receive some appreciation from the people. It would be a great political strategy most years to appease the Jews.
“Give us Barabbas!”
In Pilate’s attempt to free Jesus it seems that he introduced a person he hoped the people would hate more than Jesus: a notorious criminal named Barabbas. Barabbas was part of a revolt and committed murderer in the insurrection. John also refers to him as a robber. Certainly the people would prefer to have Jesus released than a notorious hated criminal like Barabbas back on the streets. It seemed like a good strategy to bring a violent criminal as an alternative to Jesus. Pilate would force the people to choose the outcome he preferred: the release of Jesus.
However, the people took Pilate by surprise and asked for Barabbas to be released. Think about this: the people asked for one who took life instead of the one who gives life. They chose someone who embraced violence and chaos to the Prince of Peace. When the people called for Barabbas Pilate is shocked and amazed asking about Jesus, “Why? What evil has he done?” The people did not answer Pilate, the demanded Jesus. Fearing the people, Pilate released Barabbas and crucified Jesus.
Barabbas became the first person Jesus saved by going to the cross. Barabbas was saved crucifixion and even a continued prison sentence for his crimes and was allowed to go free. Jesus saved Barabbas from the penalty due for his crimes by taking his place on the cross.
I’ve often wondered if Barabbas was affected by Jesus taking his place. We do not know what he knew about Jesus. I imagine him having drinks that night with his criminal friends asking what crimes were committed to make the people hate Jesus more than him. Perhaps he laughed at how dumb the mob was and began planning a new insurrection and returning to his criminal lifestyle. It could be that Barabbas took his second chance seriously and obeyed the law from that point forward.
We do know that Jesus was crucified: a just punishment for Barabbas but not for Jesus. We know that Barabbas got a second chance at life because Jesus went to the cross. We all can have a second chance because Jesus went to the cross. That day in Jerusalem, Barabbas literally experienced what we all can enjoy spiritually. Barabbas was condemned to death but Jesus took his place. Barabbas was guilty but did not have to die for his crime because one who was innocent died in his place.
Likewise, Christ died for us though we deserved to die:
- Romans 5:6-10 – Christ died for us when we were enemies
- Isaiah 53:4-6 – The Lord laid our iniquity on Him
In the Old Testament, an innocent being killed for the sake of the guilty was understood in the sacrifice of animals for sin: Leviticus 16:6-10; 15-16. Though we deserve death for our sin, Jesus took our place so we could have life.
What will we do with the second chance we have been given? How will we live since Jesus sacrificed Himself to save us when we did not deserve it?
Many have seen the World War II movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Because of the language, if you watch it I would recommend viewing it on network TV where the language has been edited. Some networks show it all day on Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day. If you are not familiar with the story, it is about a group of soldiers that venture into hostile territory to find the only remaining son of a woman whose other sons were killed in battle. When the soldiers find Private Ryan, he is sad that his brothers have died but he does not want to abandon his comrades with whom he has fought. The group who searched for Private Ryan stay with him and they fight the enemy together.
In the end, in a fierce battle against a strong German force, many of Private Ryan’s buddies and the men who risked their lives to find him were killed. As reinforcements drove the Germans back, Captain Miller, who led the search for Private Ryan, and a character whose leadership and courage inspired the soldiers, was sitting on a bridge dying from his battle wounds. The captain looked around at the dead and dying, and the carnage of war, then looked at Pvt. Ryan and said, “Earn this.” He wanted him to make something of his life as a result of their sacrifice for him.
These words, “Earn this”, echoed in Private Ryan’s mind as he stood at the grave of the captain many decades later. Standing with his wife, with his family in the background, he stares at the captain’s grave and asks his wife for reassurance that he lived a life worthy of the sacrifice of Capt. Miller and the other men: “Tell me I led a good life. Tell me I was a good man.”
We are indebted to so many people who died to make our country free. Their sacrifice should inspire us to use the opportunities we have in this country to make the world a better place. However, we have a greater obligation to make something of our lives for the one who died to give us life. In this sense, when we see Jesus on the cross, dying for our sins, the thought “earn this” should ring in our ears. As sinners who rebelled against a loving and holy God we don’t deserve such mercy and sacrifice. Yet Jesus hangs there between earth and sky as an offering for our sins on a cross we deserve.
Walking Worthy of the Sacrifice
“Earn this.” Live a life worthy of this sacrifice. Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way implying that godly living earns us the sacrifice of Jesus. We could live the most heroic lives as Christians and gain worldwide attention for our good deeds and not earn one drop of the blood of Jesus. But the sacrifice of Jesus should change the way we live in profound ways.
Paul says to walk worthy of the calling made possible because of the cross, Ephesians 4:1-3. John urges us to walk as Jesus walked, 1 John 2:5-6. We were bought with a high price; therefore, we must live in a way that reflects our gratitude for such a high sacrifice.
If a person’s life was saved by another giving his life, the survivor will likely find all he could about the person who saved him and do something to honor their memory.
Our life should be a lived as honor to respect the one who died to save us. We should desire to know all we can about Jesus since He gave Himself to save us. Understanding the sacrifice of Jesus and the sense of debt we should feel towards him helps us to also understand the tragic end and punishment of one who turns his back on Jesus, and does not consider Christ’s sacrifice as anything special, Hebrews 10:26-29.
We don’t know what Barabbas did with his second chance. What will you do with yours? Will you live worthy of the love and sacrifice offered to give us life? Will you be apathetic about Jesus’ sacrifice and do nothing to honor Him?
Honoring Jesus with the Lord’s Supper
Every Sunday Christians approach a table set with a memorial feast in the shadow of a cross. In the bread and the fruit of the vine is a reminder of so great a sacrifice made for us. Reflect on the body and blood of our Lord. As you consider Jesus on the cross, let His sacrifice strike deep in your heart and feel the love and mercy of the God who would die for you to save you. “Earn this.” Let His death mean everything in your life and let it transform the core of your being, the thoughts of your mind, the intents of your heart, and the work of your hands.
Honor the one who gave His life to save you as you thoughtfully and reverently partake of the supper of our Lord. And honor Him by returning to the table, and to His cross, each first day of the week as He commanded until He comes again. Honor Him with your life as you leave the table and carry your cross into the world.