Be advised: this sermon takes the form of a first person narrative.
I thought it had to be a mistake. A case of mistaken identity or something. The crowd loved me, of course, because I was one of them. I was a Jew who had made a strong case for resistance to Roman authority. I had attracted a crowd of followers, and in the end, I was betrayed by a friend and imprisoned on charges of sedition.
The Roman guard approached my cell and removed my chains. “Follow me,” he said, and I was sure I was being led away to my death. Imagine my surprise when I found myself standing in a balcony overlooking a large crowd of people, next to Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, and some other fellow I didn’t know.
Pilate raised his hands to quiet the crowd. When there was silence, he spoke to the people, his voice ringing out in a courtyard that had been built to amplify his voice. “It is your custom that a prisoner be released in honor of your Passover holiday,” he said. I found this odd. I had never heard of this custom before, and I was wondering what he was playing at. “I present you with a choice,” he continued. “Whom shall I pardon? Jesus, the Son of the Father, or Jesus, your so-called Messiah?”
He was asking the wrong question; it was bound to cause confusion! Even I didn’t know who he was talking about! My name is Jesus, that much is true, and because I was a leader who preached resistance to the Roman establishment, I had been declared the Messiah by some of my followers. That was why I was arrested. But the mistaken identity concerned my last name. See, I was known as Jesus Bar-Abbas, which in Hebrew means “Jesus, Son of the Father.” So was I the messiah Pilate mentioned, or was I the son of the father? I gathered that the man standing beside Pilate was the other Jesus, but I never talked to him, so I didn’t get his story.
In retrospect, I don’t think Pilate wanted the other Jesus killed at all. First of all, he tried to talk the crowd out of it. When he first asked the question, “Which Jesus do you want?” the crowd seemed confused. “Do you want the Son of the Father, or do you want the Messiah?” I know I was confused. It seemed to me that I was both. As we stood there, a messenger came with word from Pilate’s wife that he should steer clear of the righteous man, because she’d had some kind of dream about him. Now, if you ask me, I would call myself a righteous man. I wasn’t a violent criminal or anything—I was just trying to win Israel’s independence from Rome. But I knew Pilate’s wife meant the other Jesus. The Romans were pretty clear about what they thought of insurrectionists like me, and she’d never have described me as righteous!
While this was going on, I noticed members of the Sanhedrin working the crowd. Pharisees, temple priests… those sorts. I don’t know what they were telling the people, but the crowd got worked up about something. The crowd, in their confusion, hadn’t given Pilate an answer yet, and I suspect that the members of the Sanhedrin were coaching them on their response. After dismissing the messenger, Pilate turned back to the crowd and shouted, “Well? Which will it be?”
And the crowd shouted back, “Give us the Son of the Father!” The other fellow looked relieved, which only made me more confused. Was this guy also a messiah, or were there two guys named Jesus Bar-Abbas in Jerusalem? If he was a messiah, I had never heard of him. But why the crowd’s asking for Bar-Abbas would make him feel relieved is beyond me unless that was his name, too.
This apparently wasn’t the answer Pilate wanted to hear, which only added to my confusion. Pilate wanted me dead, no doubt about that. The crowd had asked that Jesus Son of the Father be released. I took it from Pilate’s hesitance that they meant me, and that Pilate wasn’t happy about their decision. But then, that meant the other Jesus was the messiah who would be killed. That should have been great news for me… so why did the other Jesus look relieved? Was he as confused as I?
“Then what should I do with the Jesus you call the messiah?” Pilate asked.
Everyone said, “Let him be crucified!”
“Why?” Pilate asked. “He hasn’t done anything!”
“We don’t care!” the crowd responded. “Just give us the Son of the Father!” The crowd started pressing in on the palace a little then. There were plenty of guards surrounding the grounds, but you could just feel the energy of the throng of people, and I was becoming nervous that things could get nasty.
Pilate stalked into the antechamber inside, and then reemerged with a bowl of water. Making sure that every eye in the courtyard could see what he was doing, he washed his hands in the bowl and wiped them with a towel. “You’re not going to pin your messiah’s death on me!” he shouted. “I wash my hands of the whole affair!”
“Fine!” the people shouted. “The messiah’s blood will be on us and our children!” I started feeling panicky, my palms were sweating, my heart was racing. I looked over at the other Jesus, and he was just standing there, looking calm, though he seemed to have tears in his eyes. I… I think he thought he was about to be released—after all, hadn’t they just condemned me, the Jesus known as a messiah?
Pilate muttered something to the guard standing behind him; I didn’t catch what it was. But then the most shocking thing happened. The guard approached me, unlocked my shackles, and led me down to the courtyard below, where I was released.
The confusion continued. My friends and followers were clapping me on the back, all smiles, but there were many in the crowd who looked mortified, as if some terribly wrong had just occurred. They kept looking from me to the other fellow, still in the balcony. They seemed to realize the wrong man had been released! As for me, what did I care? I’d just had my death sentence commuted—I was saved!
When I turned and looked up at the balcony, it was empty. Pilate and the other Jesus had disappeared. Word spread that he’d been taken to the back of the palace to be flogged. I should have left; I should have been rejoicing with rich foods and fine wines! But I felt sick to my stomach, and I followed the crowd, who had begun moving around the building to watch the goings-on.
We got around to the back, and there was the other Jesus, tied to a post, being whipped by guards. I jumped with every crack of the whip, and I had to stop watching long before they’d finished. And to think, it should have been me tied to that post. It should have been me being whipped. I was the one who had broken the law, not that guy!
They finally finished beating him, and they dragged him back inside. When they came back out again, Jesus was dragging a huge cross, and they headed out toward Skull Hill. I couldn’t watch as they nailed him down to the wooden cross and then hoisted him up into a hanging position, but I heard the hammer and the sound of his screams as they drove the nails. When they were finished, I wandered closer to look. They had stripped him; I don’t know what happened to his clothes. It didn’t take long for him to die—a few hours, maybe. Honestly, that’s a mercy. A lot of people hang for a long time before they die; it’s part of the fun for the Romans. As they started pulling his cross back down, and wrenching the nails out of his arms and legs to be reused on another day, I broke down in tears. There was his mother, and some other woman, and a man whose name I didn’t catch. They had been standing there the whole time, talking to Jesus and trying to reassure him as he hung there. I’m amazed they had the stomach for it. When they claimed his body, they treated it with such reverence, such love. I have loyal followers, but none of them love me as these folks loved him.
Long after it was over, and the crowd had gone home, I continued to be haunted by the look on Jesus’ face when the crowd asked for Bar-Abbas. I still think there was some confusion—certainly the crowd seemed angry when I was released instead of the other Jesus! I was the criminal; I was the wanted man; I was the one who had transgressed the law. According to the law, I deserved death for what I had done. But that other Jesus died on the cross that had been reserved for me. He didn’t protest, didn’t put up a fight, didn’t point out to Pilate that there must be some mistake! He just sighed and looked at me as I was led away and given my freedom.
Some time later, I heard a fellow preaching in the courtyard of the temple, and talking about a crucified Jesus. This caught my attention, and I stood close and listened as he taught that Jesus had been crucified to glorify God and as a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the world. This Jesus had died in the place of sinners, the preacher said. “He died for you, and he died for you, and he died for you, so that you might be forgiven for your sins and be reconciled to his Heavenly Father.”
His Father! He’d called himself “the Son” all the time, and referred to God as his Father! Then all my worst fears were true! The wrong man had been released! The crowd had been calling for him, and not me! I remembered the words of the crowds as they rejected the so-called messiah, “Fine! The messiah’s blood will be on us and our children!” They were assuming responsibility for what they thought would be the crucifixion of a criminal… but then I’d been released. I thought of what the preacher said: that it was by his sacrifice that the people’s sins were forgiven. They had no idea the truth of what they said, when they shouted, “His blood will be on us!”
As the preacher continued to speak about Jesus as the messiah foretold in scripture—even foretold by David himself—I called out to the man, “Brother, what then should we do?”
The preacher looked at me and said, “Repent and be baptized in Jesus’ name, so that you may receive the Holy Spirit. He died for your sins, brother.” I looked at him in stunned silence, and then, as I stumbled away and began to weep, all I could say was, “You have no idea.”