13Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16Therefore, I will punish him and then release him."[c]
18With one voice they cried out, "Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!" 19(Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)
20Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
22For the third time he spoke to them: "Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him."
23But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.
26 As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus.
A few months back we went to an amazing exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum which was dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of ancient writings of the Qumran community that laid silent and undiscovered for nearly two thousand years until they were accidentally stumbled upon by some goat herders in the early 1950’s. The amazing thing about the Scrolls is that we still know very little about the people that wrote them and there is much dispute and debate as to who was even responsible for writing them. The exhibit was full of mysteries and people that have been lost to history. They are little more than nameless and faceless ghosts who have gone the way of the vast majority of human beings following their death. We live for a short while and then fade away, lost into history.
But as we came around one of the corners in the exhibit I saw something that would have been easy to pass by without paying it much mind. In fact, most people that day were streaming by this small, rather plain box under a glass case in the corner of the exhibit. It was a small ossuary, a bone box, with an inscription on it which read, “Alexander, the son of Simon of Cyrene.” I was simply stunned and overcome with awe. Here I was, standing before the bone box of the son of Simon of Cyrene. He was the young boy that was present when his father was suddenly thrust into the middle of the most important event in the history of the world (see Mk. 15:21). Many historians agree that Simon’s sons are mentioned by name in Mark’s Gospel because they had later both become Christians and so the mention of their names was a way to identify them as eyewitnesses. As I looked at that box, though, I was struck with two things. The first was that I was standing so close to history. Here I was right next to the bone box of someone who was present when Jesus was being led to the Cross. The second thing that struck me was that I even knew who Simon of Cyrene was. Despite the long, cruel march of history as it quietly erases the names and memories of billions of people, here in this passage we have two rather unimportant men in the annals of history whose names and memories will never be forgotten. Their lives merely intersected with Jesus’ life for a moment and they will, in some respects, live forever. It surely is a fitting reminder and picture of what happens to those who lives are connected with the death and life of Christ; they will inherit the eternal life of the age to come.
As we read through the account of the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, we have to begin to wonder how many times someone can be found innocent of the charges against him before he is released. Pilate already found no basis for any death penalty to be brought against Jesus and sent him to Herod who found Jesus to be disappointing and worthy of being mocked, but not someone worthy of his attention or of even being put to death. As Jesus was brought back to Pilate again, Pilate seems to sense somehow that this man was no danger. Jesus was not the kind of wild-eyed revolutionary that was a danger to Rome, yet there was such a pressure on him from the chief priests and those loyal to them, that Pilate was hesitant to let people go. He cared, in the end, more about his own political position than he did in finding any sense of justice for Jesus. He would have preferred to let Jesus go, but there were bigger and stranger forces at work here. A man who had been found innocent three separate times would still not go free. He deserved freedom, but that was not his vocation according to God’s will.
Pilate’s somewhat cowardly and compromising solution would be to severely flog Jesus with the metal-tipped leather flogs used by the Romans. He would exact some blood from this innocent man and be done with it. Surely he thought that would appease everyone and he wouldn’t have to put to death this man in whom he clearly must have saw something that stirred him in his soul to know that he was much more than an expendable human being who could be put to death without a second thought.
The crowd was determined to have more than just a little blood in punishment. They wanted Jesus completely out of the picture. It was such a stark contrast to warm and kingly reception that was given to Jesus a week earlier when he arrived in Jerusalem that it has led some to propose that this crowd was a smaller mob that consisted more of those loyal to the chief priests and teachers of the law, while the crowd that greeted Jesus and welcomed him into Jerusalem consisted more of the common people. Luke, nor any of the other Gospel writers, give any clear indication of this, though. That is a plausible explanation that explains some things but it is still likely that to one degree or another, the fickle nature of crowds had been turned from being caught up in the hype of Jesus’ arrival to being part of the frenzy to kill him as a false prophet.
The religious leaders were so desperate to have Jesus killed that they reacted quickly to Pilate’s suggestion of punishing him severely and then letting him go. They immediately appealed to a tradition that is little attested to outside of the Gospel accounts. Evidently the Roman governors, or at least Pilate, had taken to letting one prisoner go free as a small token of peace during the Jewish people’s most important holiday, Passover. Letting Jesus go was simply unacceptable. Rather than have that happen, they would prefer to let the revolutionary Barabbas go. This man was involved in an insurrection of some kind and had taken a life. He was involved in the very kind of violence that they were trying to charge Jesus with. The crowds chanted for the release of Barabbas, and as they whipped themselves further into a frenzy of hate and bloodlust, they began to accost Pilate with cries of crucifying Jesus. Crucifixion was the most shameful and dehumanizing death that Rome had to offer. It was illegal to crucify Roman citizens and was a punishment that was generally reserved for traitors and rebels. This is what they wanted for Jesus.
It is a fascinating detail that Barabbas’ name literally means “son of a father.” He was a nobody; he would have been long ago forgotten and lost to history if he had not had his life forever connected to Jesus. He was just the son of a father. He could have been anyone of us. Barabbas was guilty of rebellion and murder, no one seemed to deny that. He deserved death on a cross. And yet the crowds wanted Jesus, who was charged with the types of crimes that Barabbas had committed, but was completely innocent, to die the death of shame on the cross. Don’t miss the significance of the fact that Jesus was going to the cross to die the death and take the punishment that rightly belonged to this son of a father. Barabbas would be the first, but certainly not the last, to have Jesus take the punishment that was rightly his. He could be us, for certainly we are the sons (or daughters) of a man and worthy of death, only to see Jesus step into our place and bear our iniquities upon himself (Isa. 53:4). Jesus had said that he would be numbered among the transgressors (Lk. 22:37) and now he was surely suffering the fate that should have belonged to the man who was being set free. Barabbas was gaining life and freedom, despite his lack of deserving any such thing, because Jesus would die in his place. We find that when we respond to Jesus in faith and enter into his life at baptism (Rom. 6:1-10), that he has died in our place as well.
Luke has already given us so many scenes in which Jesus was found in the company of tax-collectors, outcasts, and sinners. He has been seen with sinners. He has allowed sinners into his presence and enjoyed table fellowship with them. He has let sinners anoint his feet and has even entered into the home of sinners but now he will do precisely what Isaiah had predicted so long ago in Isaiah 53. “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth” (v. 9). He would die the death of a sinner, a violent insurrectionist.
Pilate well knew that Jesus deserved no such death. He had the power in his hands to let Jesus go, but he valued his own tenuous political position more than doing what was right. He had stared truth in the face and blinked. Jesus followed God’s will and marched obediently towards his own death. He would lose his life, but in the end he would save it (Lk. 9:24). Pilate, on the other hand, would do the will of the religious leaders rather than God (v. 25). He would seek to save his own life, but in the end, he would lose it (Lk. 9:24).
As Pilate sent Jesus to his death, Luke tells us that Simon of Cyrene was plucked from the crowd. Normally a prisoner that was being led to his own death would carry the cross beam that would be placed on the pole to form the cross on which he would die. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly why Jesus needed Simon’s help to carry the cross, but it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that the exhaustion from praying in the garden, going without sleep, a particularly savage beating, and a barbaric whipping all combined to leave Jesus weakened. Just as Barabbas was a picture of what Jesus would do for us, so is Simon a picture. Jesus had told his disciples that “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23) and that we could not be his disciple without following behind him with our cross (Lk. 14:27). This is precisely what Simon would do. He would pick up the cross and follow Jesus and serve as a picture example of what we are called to do as we reverently and obediently lay down our lives, pick up the cross, and march behind Jesus to our own deaths, to the only place where we will truly find life.
There is no way that Simon or Barabbas woke up that day knowing what would happen to them. They could hardly have imagined that they would be caught up in events that would lead to their names being forever memorialized in the annals of history. Their names will never be forgotten and their stories will never fade away. Our names may never be remembered like theirs have been, but when we embrace the fact that the man of peace died a violent death in our place and that we may truly follow him, carrying our cross, we find that we can become part of the ongoing story of God’s people and his kingdom in ways that will continue to ripple on throughout history and that it will matter in ways that we can never imagine.
Carrying your cross in those days meant that you were completely losing control over your own life and marching to your death. Are you truly living a life that could be characterized by following behind Jesus while carrying your cross? Have you given total control of every area of your life to God’s will? Take a sober look at your own life. Does it look more like the picture that Luke has given us of Pilate, who bowed to the will of the religious leaders rather than God, or more like Simon who followed behind Jesus carrying his cross?