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Good evening, everyone. Go with me to John 18, starting in verse 1. That’s John, chapter 18, starting in verse 1.
On Good Friday, we remember the passion of Christ, his final day before his death at our hands, and I have only one point for this homily: Jesus died in our place. Jesus died in our place, and we say that, we assent to that, but it’s a phrase that’s lost meaning, like in-Jesus’-name-we-pray, or the word awesome. But it’s vitally important that we grasp, Jesus died in our place, and I want to look at four men in this story who should have died, but Christ died instead of them: Peter, Caiaphas, Pilate, and Barabbas. Jesus died for them, and we are these three men, so Jesus died for us.
I’m going to read the entire passage through the end of chapter 19, which is a long section, and then my comments will be brief; because tonight is the night we remember these things, and it’s good from time to time that I say less and the Scriptures are allowed to say more. Read with me, starting in John 18:1.
Pray with me. Lord, this is your word, and we thank you for it. You are the truth who meets us in Scripture. I pray that you will help us to know you, and that your truth will set us free. Amen.
When I say that Jesus died in the place of each of these four men, I mean that they all committed crimes for which the punishment is death, but Christ died for each of them in turn and so that they might live.
First, Peter in 18:10. He draws his sword and attacks a servant of the high priest, and why? He knew this was the moment Christ would begin to work salvation for Israel, but he misunderstands the kind of salvation Christ would bring. He wanted a revolution; he wanted blood, so he took out his sword and committed an act of treason against Rome. For that, he would have been condemned to die, except that Christ gives himself over to the soldiers in Peter’s place. Then, again and again, as Christ is dying in Peter’s place, Peter denies him to save his own life. Again and again, Peter allows Christ to die in order to save his own life.
Second, Caiaphas in 18:28, we read that he wouldn’t enter the governor’s headquarters on the day of passover. Why not? Because it would make them unclean. This has to do with the Old Testament laws, but only vaguely. There is a concept in the Old Testament that, even though every day should be lived in worship of God, when you gather together at the temple, like when we gather at church, you are expecting to encounter God in an intimate way, and so you want your mind, body, and soul to be clean, to be prepared, for this encounter with God. But, there is no law against entering a Gentile’s house; Caiaphas is avoiding even the perception that he might be unclean, because if he is unclean, then he won’t be able to lead the passover feast.
Yet, by the same law that Caiaphas is so careful to fulfill, he deserves to die. In the Torah, if you accuse someone falsely of a crime, the false accuser bears whatever the penalty is for that crime. Caiaphas is knowingly bringing false charges to kill an innocent man, so by the law, Caiaphas deserves to die. By perception, Caiaphas is the cleanest man in Israel, but no one can see, his heart is stained. He’s like a washed tomb in a cemetery—the outside is spotless, but the inside is death and decay. The only reason he survives is because Christ goes willingly to the cross. So Jesus died in Caiaphas’ place.
Third, Barabbas in 18:40. We know only what’s said of him in this text, that he was a robber, or some translations may have that he was an insurrectionist. Either way, he’s set to die; either way, he’s not content with his life, with what he has, and he’s willing to take it by force. Barabbas needed something to change now; he wanted to rise up, to overthrow, to rule. Barabbas’s name literally means “son of a father,” which is John’s way of saying that this could be anyone, that we have all been guilty of something, but we’ve been released while Jesus was condemned.
Fourth, Pilate, in 19:16. He delivers Christ to be crucified, even though he knows him to be innocent. We spoke on Sunday about Pilate’s power, but we didn’t talk about the precariousness of his position. Being assigned to rule over Judea was a kind of threat from the emperor. Judea was known for rebellion against foreign rule, and if Pilate ever failed to quell rebellion, Rome would remove him from his position. At best, this was humiliating—but often, it was a death sentence.
So in verse 8 of chapter 19, when John tells of Pilate’s fear when faced by a mob, you can understand what might be running through Pilate’s mind. And at the end of our passage, when the crowds shout that he’s no friend of Caesar, you can see what he decides. He knows that Jesus is innocent, but he decides to trade Jesus’ life for his own. So Jesus died in Pilate’s place.
Friends, listen, we are these four men. Like Peter, we decide to advance the kingdom by force. We align our churches to political powers and play political games to push our agendas, things we know are good, but we aren’t content with the way of peace, because the way of peace leads to a cross. No, we choose Christendom over Christ. Even within our churches, we ask ourselves how we can get our way, because we’re sure our way is the way of Christ, but we don’t stop to think if he would use the words we use to win the argument, words that cut and rend, we don’t ever stop to think if he is drawing our swords as we draw ours—we take our eyes off him to focus on the fight. We are Peter, and Jesus died in Peter’s place, so he died in our place.
Like Caiaphas, we are so focused on making sure people perceive us as religious and righteous, that we pay no attention to our souls until they die and begin to rot. We show up to every festival and at the church every time the door opens, and we wash our whole bodies just to make sure we seem clean, but there is blood on our hands. We’re glad to sin so long as it can’t be seen, so long as no one knows, and we make excuses for why it’s not that bad, and why we aren’t to blame, like Caiaphas who just went to court, and then to church. He wasn’t the one driving the nails. But it is that bad, and we do share the blame for the injustices of our society. We are Caiaphas, and Jesus died in Caiaphas’ place, so Jesus died in our place.
Like Barabbas, we are unsatisfied. We take what we want, and we call it winning. We don’t worry about providing for our own needs, much less being a help to the people around us, because we’ll just live on the labor of others, and if they don’t give it to us, we’ll call them ungenerous and unchristlike, and move on to the next person who might allow us to take what we want. And when we escape the cross because some other person gave his life for ours, we don’t turn to praise him for salvation, we take it as a sign of our own strength and luck that we won again. We are Barabbas, and Jesus died in Barabbas’ place, so Jesus died in our place.
Like Pilate, we’ve come to think that the things we have been given by God are ours, and they are part of who we are. If we were to lose our place, or lose our pride, pay some kind of cost, we would lose a bit of ourselves, and we’re unwilling. We’ve come to think that our high place places us above the rest of humanity, that we can’t learn anything from those beneath us; we believe it so thoroughly that we would ask “what is truth?” to Truth himself, thinking we are teaching him about the world. Every day we use our privilege to wash our hands and act like we can’t really help you, when really helping would just mean lowering ourselves in society or following Christ to the cross. Jesus died in Pilate’s place, and we are Pilate, so Jesus died in our place.
Before we close, I want to point something out: this whole time, I’ve been saying that Jesus died in our place, and I want to be clear what I mean when I say that. I mean that millions of people in the world today are bearing the weight of other people’s sins, taking the place of others. How many people, through the ages of our world, have died because of the whims of extravagant people, or for the sins of tyrants? Or for the sins of the church, when we’ve taught false and violent doctrine?
For example when powerful people have used Scripture to uphold racism, then and now, or an ungenerous form of capitalism. They haven’t suffered for their sins. Their sins have fallen onto the poor and oppressed, who take their place, and bear the punishment due to the kings of this world.
It’s not unusual that someone would end up on a cross for the sins of another man. In fact, it’s the most common thing in our world. What’s unusual—unheard of, really, almost offensive—is a king taking the place of the weak and the poor, dying so they might be able to live and suffering so they might be able to have an abundant life. As far as I know, that’s happened only once, and this is what I mean when I say that Jesus died for us, that he took our place.
We—like every rebel, every false religious leader, every robber, every tyrant ever to live—have sinned and brought suffering into the world. A just God would return that suffering to us, but our God is merciful. He takes our place. He made himself a slave so that we can be free, and he died so we can live. He’s taken our place. Praise him, today, because Christ took your place. He died so that we can have abundant life. Praise him today. Pray with me.