Monday, October 26, 2015

And Can It Be? (John 18:38-40)


I want to introduce you to a man named Barabbas. He is only mentioned in one verse of John’s Gospel, here in verse 40, where his name occurs twice. Don’t let this fact mislead you, however, into thinking that he is an insignificant character. In fact, he is so significant that he is mentioned by name a total of eleven times in all four Gospels. When we combine the information that we have about him in the four Gospels, we learn more about Barabbas than we know even about some of the Lord’s twelve disciples. But why is the story of Barabbas so significant that it garners this kind of attention from the Gospel writers? It is because Barabbas’s story is our own story. In Barabbas, we find a picture of the saving work of Jesus Christ.

As I examine the story of Barabbas unfolded for us in the New Testament, I am reminded of the words of one of the greatest hymns ever written: Charles Wesley’s “And Can it Be.” Often described as Wesley’s “conversion hymn,” no hymn more vividly portrays the miracle of salvation from sin through faith in Jesus Christ than this one does. I cannot sing it without thinking of the wonders of God’s grace in my own conversion experience. I have a similar experience when I consider this man Barabbas. So, as we look at the Biblical account of Barabbas, I want to do so through the lens of Wesley’s hymn, and lead us to discover together the miracle of redemption and regeneration in Jesus Christ. This miracle has happened to all who trust in Christ, and can happen to whosoever will!

I. Long my imprisoned spirit lay fast bound in sin and nature’s night.

These are the words that Charles Wesley used (in the third verse of the hymn as we now know it) to describe his life before he came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He viewed himself as a prisoner to sin and darkness. Those words are true in a spiritually metaphorical way for all of us in our natural condition. We are born enslaved and imprisoned to sin. Many will protest this and insist that they are “good people.” Indeed, even Charles Wesley could have said this about himself. He was raised in a Christian home as the son of a minister and a godly mother. During his college years, along with his brother John and some of their friends, Charles was part of a group known as the “Holy Club” because of their rigorous devotion to spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, and practical holiness. In 1735, he was ordained to the ministry of the Church of England and set sail for the colony of Georgia where he became missionary chaplain. His stint in the colony lasted just less than a year, and he never found acceptance among the settlers. In 1736, he returned home to England feeling as if the entire venture had been a disaster. In a few short years, Wesley would come to understand that in spite of all of his good deeds and service in the name of Christ, he did not really know Christ. He had never been truly born again, and so he speaks of himself in this hymn as being long imprisoned, bound in sin and nature’s night.

What was true in a spiritually metaphorical sense of Wesley was true in an altogether literal sense for Barabbas. In our text in John’s Gospel, we read that he was a robber. The Greek word here translated as “robber” literally means “one who seizes plunder.” The word, however, was often used in the first century to mean far more than this. It could denote someone who had taken part in a rebellion. Mark tells us that Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder, and Luke tells us that Barabbas had been a participant in these crimes (Mk 15:7; Lk 23:19). He must have made quite a name for himself in the act, for Matthew tells us that he was “a notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16). It is not certain which insurrection effort Barabbas had taken part in, for during the time that Judea was under the control of the Roman Empire there had been many failed attempts. From the perspective of a nationalistic Jew, he would have been known as a guerilla freedom-fighter. From the perspective of the Roman Empire, he would have been rightly regarded as a terrorist. His guilt was evident to all, even to himself. His sentence was imprisonment to what we could call “death row.” We may infer that he was scheduled to be executed by crucifixion on the following day, for the criminals who were executed alongside of Jesus are called by this same title (Mt 27:44; Mk 15:27). The sentence was well-deserved, and he knew it. We do not know how long he had languished in his shackles awaiting the day, but he could say as well as Wesley, “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night.”

My friends, the same could be said by us all. Barabbas and Charles Wesley may well represent two extremes of mankind in his natural condition. One was a notorious murdering rebel; the other a deeply pious and religious man. Yet, what they had in common with each other and will all of the rest of us is their need to be saved. No matter how good or bad you are – a member of the Holy Club, or a terrorist, or something in between – we are all sinners. The Bible says that this is true of every human being and our personal experiences in life confirm it. We are born in a state of rebellion to God, insurrectionists who seek to overthrow His right to reign as Lord of our lives. And we are all worse than we imagine ourselves to be. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Mt 5:28). He said that anger toward another was of equal guilt before God as murder (5:21-22). James 2:10 says that whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point has become guilty of violating the whole law. That means that when we stand before God, in our natural condition, we stand on level ground with Charles Wesley and with Barabbas. No matter how good or bad we think we are, we are all equally guilty sinners before the bar of judgment. We are rebels, with all manner of evil in our hearts, spiritual terrorists, imprisoned in sin and deserving of death and separation from God. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, not even one,” and in 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” That was true of Barabbas; it was true of Charles Wesley, and it is true of you and me in our natural born condition.

This brings us to the second consideration …

II. He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace.

With these words, in the second stanza of Wesley’s hymn, the divine origin of the Lord Jesus Christ is set forth. From His infinite treasure of love and mercy, in the free grace of unmerited kindness toward the human race, He came forth from heaven to earth. In the incarnation of Jesus Christ, God became a man. He came to do what no man in all the history of creation, from Adam and including him to the present day, has ever been able to do. He lived a life completely free of the guilt of sin. Not only was He totally free from all sin, but He was completely, and perfectly righteous. That is, He not only never did wrong; He always and only did what was right, what was pleasing to God the Father and in perfect accordance with His will.

In the exercise of His earthly life and ministry, Jesus confronted evil wherever it was found. And in first century Judea, a dark heart of evil lay covered by the external piety of the Jewish religious leaders. He called them out as hypocrites, as thieves, and as spiritually blind guides who were not only ignorant of God’s truth, but also inventors of evil under the guise of religiosity. Under the pretense of righteousness, they tried to brand Him as a blasphemer because He claimed equality with God. To be sure, when one claims equality with God, it is the highest form of blasphemy – unless, of course, the claim is true. And Jesus had proven the truth of His claims by His many miracles and His teaching which set forth the heart of God and the true meaning of God’s Word. Never able to outmaneuver Him with Scripture or logic, the religious authorities had one final recourse to silence Jesus, and that was to put Him to death. This they could not do without Pilate’s ruling. Knowing that Pilate would not be willing to intervene in debates about Jewish religion, they manufactured charges against Jesus that would portray Him as an insurrectionist – a threat to Roman authority, stability, and peace in the land.

Pilate examined Jesus thoroughly. John only records a portion of the exchange, but the other Gospels contain more information. Luke records that Pilate even shipped Jesus off to Herod Antipas in an attempt to recuse himself from the responsibility of rendering a verdict. As tetrarch of Galilee, Herod was the senior Jewish political official in the land. This maneuver backfired as Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate. The decision had to be made. And Pilate ultimately made a decision and announced it to the crowd: “I find no guilt in Him.” In Luke 23, the statement is fuller: “I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. … and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him.” Thus we must all conclude if we consider the full truth about Jesus.

Throughout the Bible there is a link between sin and death. In Genesis 2, God commanded that Adam must not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, saying, “in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” In Romans 5, Paul says that sin entered the world through one man (Adam), and “death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” In Romans 6:23, it is stated as succinctly as possible: “The wages of sin is death.” And Pilate’s testimony of Jesus is as true a statement as any man ever made: “I find no guilt in Him.”

Jesus was not guilty and did not deserve to die. Barabbas was guilty and deserved to die. Barabbas stands guilty and deserving of the sentence of death because of His rebellion against Roman authority. If Barabbas deserves death because of His rebellion against Rome, how much more do we all deserve death because of our sinful rebellion against the God of the universe. Barabbas deserves this. We deserve this. Jesus does not. In the words of Charles Wesley, “He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite His grace. Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race.”

Now we can begin to see more clearly how it is that Barabbas presents us with a picture of redemption, and how his story parallels our own.

III. And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood? 

In the hymn’s opening stanza, Wesley speaks of gaining an interest in the blood of Jesus. Writing, as he did, in the middle of the 18th Century, the word “interest” would carry something of the idea of a “benefit.” He is said to have begun writing this hymn within days of his conversion, and the opening line expresses his amazement that the blood which Jesus shed in His death could be of some benefit to him personally. I imagine that the very thought of it would have been just as overwhelming to Barabbas.

Pilate was caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he couldn’t knowingly condemn an innocent man. Had he simply announced his verdict and proclaimed the matter settled, he might have gone down in history differently. But, Pilate also had an interest in appeasing the Jewish leaders. His political position depended on his ability to keep a volatile region under control and at rest. So, he seized upon a loophole that he was sure would get him out of the fix. He says in verse 39, “But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover.” His obvious assumption was that the people would see the folly of condemning an innocent man, and so he set the matter before them in this way: “Do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?” How surprised he must have been that the crowd demanded the release of Barabbas instead!

The other Gospels tell us that the chief priests and elders had persuaded, had stirred up, the crowd to ask for Barabbas. They had a twofold reason for persuading the crowd in this direction. Jesus was a threat to them because He spoke the truth. Barabbas was a threat to Rome, having already committed murder in an effort to liberate the nation from Rome’s oppression. The exchange of Barabbas for Jesus was a win-win situation for the religious leaders of Israel. But why did the crowds comply so willingly? As a preacher of a bygone era put it, “The memory of all the gracious words and life-giving actions of Jesus did not subdue the raging passion of their lust; they could neither see with their eyes, nor hear with their ears, nor understood with their hearts. The light that was in them was darkened. … Human power and popular feeling and corporate conscience reached the bottomless abyss of destruction.”[1]

Barabbas, a man who actually did pose a threat to Rome, would be set free, while Jesus, whom Pilate was convinced posed no political threat to Rome, would go to the cross.
Isn’t it striking that the accusation that sent Jesus to the cross was the same one that threatened to send Barabbas there? Barabbas was an insurrectionist, complicit in a murderous, bloody rebellion to overthrow Rome. This is the very same charge that was falsely applied to Jesus – that in claiming to be the Son of God, He was setting Himself up as a deity (in defiant opposition to the Roman Emperor’s claims to deity) and as the true King of Israel (in opposition to Rome’s oppression of Judea). And it was for those charges – charges that were true of Barabbas, but not of Jesus – that Jesus was crucified.

It was a blatant perversion of justice. Proverbs 17:15 says “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” And yet, this travesty of injustice took place under the sovereign oversight of God. Reflecting back on the murder of Jesus, the early church prayed to God in Acts 4, saying, “truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Ac 4:27-28). If the question is how such an injustice could have ever happened among civilized people, the answer is that God willed it! Why would God do such a thing … such a thing that He Himself had declared to be an abomination? It is because in this act of substitution, God Himself was bearing the condemnation of our wickedness in our place, so that we could be set free from our imprisonment from sin and actually made righteous by faith in Him.

You see, Jesus not only took upon Himself the charges that stood against Barabbas, but He took upon Himself the charges that stand against us all. We have gained an interest in the Savior’s blood because He died to take our penalty, that our sins could be condemned in Him as our substitute, and we could be granted a pardon for our sins, and declared righteous. This is how Barabbas’s story becomes our own. Like Barabbas, we are guilty under the curse of condemnation because of our sin. But it was not the whims of the crowd, but the will of Almighty God that His only begotten Son might go to the cross we deserve so that we could be set free. In 2 Corinthians 5:21, it is written that God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

Frank Mead gives us a beautiful and imaginative picture of Barabbas.

Barabbas, the brigand, shook his chains. … Tomorrow Roman nails would pierce [his] hands. Barabbas had been caught red-handed at rebellion, and he had to die. His cross was ready. … [But] his door flew open and light streamed in. “Come out … Barabbas; you’re free! Jesus of Nazareth will die in your place.” … They led him to the prison door and turned him loose in the sunny street. He walked off, blinking, afraid to laugh, afraid to cry.[2]

At verse 40 of our text, Barabbas exits the stage of biblical and secular history. Nothing more is known of him. Did he ever comprehend what Jesus had done for him by dying in his place? Only in heaven will we find out. For if he ever did understand it, he will be there. And so will all who receive this pardon that has been made available to us through the substitutionary death of Jesus. But not all will.

Consider the unusual case of George Wilson, who was sentenced to death in 1829 for murder and the robbery of mail trains. In 1830, Wilson was offered a pardon by President Andrew Jackson. For some unfathomable reason, Wilson refused the pardon. The legal wranglings over his right to refuse the pardon eventually came before the Supreme Court of the United States. Chief Justice John Marshall wrote in the majority opinion, “A pardon is an act of grace … which exempts the individual, on whom it is bestowed, from the punishment the law inflicts for a crime he has committed. … A pardon is a deed, to the validity of which delivery is essential, and delivery is not complete without acceptance. It may then be rejected by the person to whom it is tendered; and if it be rejected, we have discovered no power in a court to force it on him.”[3] As a result of his refusal of the pardon, Wilson was hanged.

Like George Wilson, many have refused the even greater pardon of the Judge of the Living and the Dead, Jesus Christ. He has satisfied the wages of their sins by receiving in Himself the penalty upon the cross. And yet, when the free offer of grace is extended, they refuse it. Did Barabbas receive the pardon? It is nothing but a matter of historical trivia at this point. But, it is infinitely more important that you decide whether or not you will receive the pardon.

J. C. Ryle said this: “We are pardoned, though guilty, because of what Christ has done for us. We are sinners, yet counted righteous. Christ is righteous, yet counted a sinner. Happy is that man who understands and believes this …, who has laid hold on it by faith for the salvation of his own soul.”[4]

Have you understood and believed that? Charles Wesley did. Wesley understood that all of his righteous deeds were but filthy rags before the Lord, and he, like Barabbas, stood guilty and condemned before Almighty God because of his sin. And on the evening of May 21, 1738, after much consideration of the promises of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Wesley said, “I gave myself to Christ, assured that I was safe. … I now found myself at peace with God, and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ. I saw that by faith I stood.”[5] Two days later, he began to compose these words:

And can it be that I should gain an interest in the Savior’s blood?
Died He for me, who caused His pain – For me, who Him to death pursued?
Amazing love! How can it be, that Thou my God, shouldst die for me?

He left His Father’s throne above, so free, so infinite grace –
Emptied Himself of all but love, and bled for Adam’s helpless race:
‘Tis mercy all, immense and free, for O my God, it found out me!

Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray – I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed Thee.

No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in Him, is mine;
Alive in Him, my Living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine,
Bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown through Christ my own.





[1] H.R. Reynolds, in H.D.M. Spence, ed., The Pulpit Commentary (Vol. 40; New York: Funk and Wagnalls, nd.), 398.
[2] Frank S. Mead, Who’s Who in the Bible (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1976), 224.
[3] United States v. Wilson, http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/a2_2_1s29.html. Accessed October 22, 2015.
[4] Quoted in Arno C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of John (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1965), 353.
[5] http://www.songsandhymns.org/hymns/detail/and-can-it-be. Accessed October 22, 2015. 

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