Date: March 26, 1931?

Now, at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired. And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection. And the multitude, crying aloud, began to desire him to do as he had ever done unto them. But Pilate answered them, saying, Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews? For he knew that the chief priests had delivered Him for envy. But the chief priests moved the people that he should rather release Barabbas unto them. And Pilate answered and said again unto them, What will ye, then, that I shall do unto Him whom ye call the King of the Jews? And they cried out again, Crucify Him! Then Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath He done? And they cried out the more exceedingly, Crucify Him! And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged Him, to be crucified.Mark 15:6-15

WHEN we call the crucifixion of our Savior the greatest miscarriage of justice history has ever known, even this does not adequately describe the appalling enormity of the injustice to which our Savior was subjected. Practically every phase of His suffering was caused by a direct violation of the laws framed to guide Jewish criminal procedure. First of all, the arrest of Jesus was illegal because it took place at night and because it was brought about through the agency of a traitor, or informer. The private examination of Jesus before Annas was illegal because Hebrew law did not permit the preliminary examination of prisoners and because no judge sitting alone could legally examine an accused person. The trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin was illegal because, in direct defiance of the prescribed procedure, it began long before the offering of the morning sacrifice; because it was held on the day preceding a Sabbath and on the first day of a great festival, when no Jewish court could lawfully convene; and because, in direct contravention of the statutes which forbade haste in such investigations, the entire trial was concluded in one day. And finally the sentence which was passed on Jesus was illegal; for, aside from a long list of more technical considerations, it was based on the contradictory statements of perjured witnesses, the judges were disqualified, and the merits of the defense were completely swept aside.

Thus one injustice, malicious, brutal, blood-hungry injustice, follows upon another; and the Holy One of God, in whose mouth there was not a syllable of guile or deceit and whose whole life was a living monument to truth and love and perfection, goes down to destruction as the victim of the most glaring, damning, heaven-shrieking injustice that debased and debauched humanity has ever committed.


Yet of all the instances in which the demands of justice were thus brutally shattered, the rejection of the Savior by the great mass of His own fellow-countrymen, assembled before the Roman governor’s palace on Good Friday morning, is the most appalling in its depth of ingratitude and inhumanity.

You will recall that the Savior, during a seemingly interminable night, in which the fury of malice reeked its vengeance on His stainless purity, was brought from Annas to Caiaphas, both high priests; then, as the gray morning dawned upon the blackest day of human history, He was led to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor; then to Herod, the king; and then back again to Pilate.

There it was that Pilate, inwardly convinced of the Savior’s innocence, yet lacking the moral courage to let justice prevail over priestly jealousy, tried to evade the responsibility of his office by making one last desperate attempt to deter the enemies of Christ from demanding that He be crucified. It was a custom that annually, on a certain high festival, the Roman governor would exercise clemency, just as the President of the United States and many of our governors issue pardons on New Year’s Day. The time had come when Pilate was to exercise this clemency; and to him it appeared to be a very opportune moment, for he cherished the secret hope that, if the choice of a prisoner’s release were left to the people, there might be some way of winning their sympathies for the Christ, whom he had several times declared to be innocent.

So he summoned from the imperial prison a notorious criminal, one Barabbas, whose name meant “Son of a Father,” but whose vicious character was unworthy of any father’s name. He was a confirmed criminal, a rebel, a murderer captured in a street-brawl. And now, since it was the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on which the annual amnesty was pronounced, Pilate put this alternative before the people of Jerusalem: “Whom shall I release unto you, Jesus or Barabbas?”

Under any other situation there could have been no doubt as to the popular decision; but hardly had Pilate’s proposal become known when the priests (repeating the age-old tragedy which gave rise to inquisitions and bloody persecution, when churchmen became murderers of men’s bodies instead of rescuers of their souls), these Jerusalem priests, who arrogantly prided themselves on being preeminently the servants of God, had the word passed around that Barabbas must be freed. So in the last opportunity that was given the Jews to express themselves either for or against Christ, the powers of priestly sin and popular corruption united in formulating the demand, “Away with Jesus! Give us Barabbas!” Even though Pilate, warned by the womanly intuition of his wife, hesitated more than ever; even though he protested, “I find no cause for death in Him”; even though he permitted Jesus to be scourged with lacerating lashes, robed in the mockery of purple, and caricatured with the crown of cutting thorns in the hope that the abject picture of His emaciated frame might move their hearts with the feeling of sympathy which even animals seem to share; even though he took recourse to ridicule and once more presented his silent Galilean prisoner to the morbid crowd with the words, “Behold your King!” the tumult became more raucous and the protests more vehement with every step that he took to liberate Jesus. So the Roman governor washed his hands, but not his conscience, of the blood of “this righteous person,” as he himself called Jesus; and giving way to the hoarse, inhuman “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” screamed out of the same throats doubtless that but a few days before had raised glad hosannas to welcome the coming King, he released Barabbas, the seditious murderer, and handed Jesus over to the venomous hatred of His blood-crazed enemies.


Today we wonder how the hearts and minds of those people of Jerusalem could have become so perverted that they rejected the Christ who lived among them as a Friend in every need, the Physician of their souls and bodies, the mighty Miracle-worker, the Preacher without parallel, the Fulfilment of all their prophecies, the very Incarnation of the eternal Godhead,—how they could reject Him and choose in His stead a thief and murderer notorious even in that cruel age. It has been conjectured that Barabbas was a popular criminal, the kind that we meet so frequently in our supposedly advanced age, when dapper desperadoes are idolized, murderers showered with lavish attention, and racketeers and gangsters honored with funerals which in their imposing display far exceed the burials of some of our eminent and esteemed citizens. It may be that Barabbas was one of these idolized, pampered ne’er-do-wells, but there is not the slightest intimation of this in the facts which the Bible presents. And I tell you that, if Barabbas were a thousand times blacker and more outrageous than he actually was, if he had committed more atrocious crimes than any man ever known in history, those shrieking voices would have screamed, “Give us Barabbas, give us Barabbas!” with the same insistent vehemence.

We need look no longer for an explanation of this amazing selection because the same choice has been made down through the ages and is being repeated in this very day and hour, when the world finds itself confronted by these two opposing forces, the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the unbelief that denies and ridicules this truth. When men and women today are asked to choose between these alternatives, the truth personfied in Christ and the wrong and falsehood represented by Barabbas, the choice of humanity often falls just as it fell on the first Good Friday morning; the world declares itself for Barabbas and crucifies Christ.

That is why today, with all the joy and beauty and happiness that faith in Jesus Christ offers, people prefer to grovel in the sordid sins of sensuality. That is why today, with all the truth and light radiated by the Bible, we witness the deep deluge of antichristian literature promoting a hatred of Christ and of the Bible quite parallel to the hostility that moved those throngs in Jerusalem to demand the crucifixion of Christ. That is why today, with the Cross of Jesus Christ as the divine and complete answer to all the concerns of human existence, pulpits are prostituted, scientific truth is outraged, educational trusts are violated in the persistent cry for the Barabbas of godless materialism and in the equally unrelenting demand that the Christ of the Bible be crucified on the cross of unbelief which modern skepticism has built.

But this rejection of Christ and this choice of Barabbas becomes the more disastrous when we pause to picture to ourselves the impressive significance of the fact that the sinless Son of God goes down into death as the Substitute for one who is steeped in the scarlet stain of many and terrible sins. Do you realize that in Barabbas you behold a symbol of the entire human race helplessly sunk in its sin, the perishing victim of its own staggering vices? Do you realize that in Christ you are face to face with that heaven-born Truth which tells you that in order to bring humanity from death to life, from the sorrow of destruction to the joy of regeneration, God decreed that the Holy One should suffer for His unholy children, the Just for the unjust, the Innocent for the guilty, the Pure for the impure, the Truth of God for the lying falsehoods of men, the eternal, glory-crowned Christ for the brutal, bloody Barabbas? Do you know that you are Barabbas and that your pardon was pronounced by Christ’s captivity, martyrdom, and death?


This choice: Jesus or Barabbas? comes to every one of us. I ask you to remember this: If you decide for Christ, you have allied yourself with the greatest and noblest forces in the world, the most heroic figures in human history, the most exalted aspirations of the human mind. You stand shoulder to shoulder with those pioneers in righteousness who have blazed the trail of human happiness upward to the heights on which we now rest. You are united with that world-wide movement of Christian charity and brotherly love that down through the centuries has been happy to extend the helping hand of Christian comradeship in building hospitals and asylums, in caring for the widowed and the orphans, in providing for the poor and the aged, and in dedicating itself to raise the downtrodden masses of humanity that lie hopeless and helpless in the gutter of life. If you decide for Christ, you are cooperating with the agencies which alone can offer the inner incentive and the spiritual basis for the moral improvement that this generation, as few in our country before it, needs; you are laboring for the retardation of crime, the cleansing of our political life, the establishment of true equity in our courts, the increasing of a harmonious relation between capital and labor, the minimizing of war, the promotion of home happiness, and in behalf of many other issues by which constructive Christian minds have applied the Bible, as the one and only divinely appointed means of increasing the sum total of human happiness.

But infinitely exalted above all this, as the spiritual fountainhead from which all these material blessings flow—if you take Christ, you have that which is beyond the power of human disposal, above the reach of human ingenuity. You have Heaven’s answer to the particular problems of your own sinful life, the assurance that stills the condemning voice of your conscience, the promise that answers the accusation of the holy Law, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” with the Christ­centered cry of triumph, “Where sin abounded, grace did much more abound; that, as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

But if you decide against Christ and for any Barabbas of our modern life, let me warn you that you have identified yourself with those dark and destructive forces that war against human welfare. Let me tell you that, although you may follow in the footsteps of brilliant agnostics and widely reputed infidels, you are definitely cooperating with some of the most diseased minds and the most degenerate criminals that have ever walked the face of the earth. Let me remind you that you have cast your lot with those who in Russia are trying to tear down the pillars upon which free and popular government rests; with those who in this country are endeavoring to ruin our Christian family life and to destroy the sanctity of the American Christian home. Let me tell you, above all, that you are throwing away your hope of heaven; for Christ says, “Whosoever shall deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father which is in heaven.”

Whom, then, shall we choose? Blessed with the assurance (and let this conviction be written with letters of gold into the deep recesses of your heart, and never let any powers of earth or hell tear one letter of it out of your vivid, trusting confidence) that the divine life of Jesus Christ was sacrificed for every one of us, we answer this question by asking it. For what else can any one do who has beheld Christ with eyes of faith than to love that Savior with his whole consecrated heart and soul? What other answer can he give to the question that is put to all who hear these words, “To whom shall we go?” than the answer which is immortalized on the pages of everlasting Truth, “Thou, O Christ, hast words of eternal life”? Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.