I recently read a rather bizarre account of a lawsuit, filed in 1970 by an Arizona lawyer named Russel Tansie. The house of Tansie’s secretary was damaged by lightning, but the insurance company had refused to pay for it, deeming it an “act of God.” Tansie, evidently both loyal and a touch dramatic, decided to pursue the matter further. “If it’s an ‘act of God,’” he thought, “then I might as well sue God.” So he did. He filed a $100,000 lawsuit against God.
The story got a lot of press, especially when Tansie fielded questions about the lawsuit. When asked if the lawsuit was a joke, Tansie objected. He said that he actually thought he had a strong chance of winning the lawsuit, because he was pretty sure the defendant wouldn’t show up in court.
As you might expect, Tansie’s case was thrown out. But what was humorously ironic in Tansie’s situation is tragically evident in the actual trial of Jesus. Humanity puts Jesus on trial, but in the end, it is humanity that is truly convicted.
The Apostle Matthew plays up this connection perhaps better than any of the other Gospel writers. Through his narrative, we see several characters involved in Jesus’ trial that represent us.
1. The Religious Leaders: “The Threatened”
The religious leaders were Jesus’ primary opponents throughout his ministry, so it’s no surprise that they were also the primary force behind Jesus’ unjust execution. Matthew points out that they were motivated by “envy” (Matthew 27:18). The presence of Jesus meant that they couldn’t have the control that they wanted, so they did what any group does when their control is threatened: They eliminated the threat.
It’s easy for us to condemn the religious leaders for their heinous crimes. But for many of us, the only reason we haven’t turned on Jesus is that we haven’t yet chosen whether Jesus is Lord or we are. We hear messages about Jesus having absolute control over our lives, and we shout “Amen!” But far too many of us leave Jesus “at church” and run our own lives, without letting him govern a single thought or action.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day thought of themselves as the good guys. They were religiously active. They were moral. They cared about keeping the rules. But rule-followers don’t like giving up control. Rule-followers don’t see their desperate need for God’s grace. So when Jesus forces them to choose, rule-followers would rather crucify Jesus than bow to him.
In every heart there is a throne and a cross: If self is on the throne, Jesus must be on the cross; if Jesus is on the throne, self must be on the cross. If you haven’t chosen yet, one day you will.
2. Pilate: “The Distracted”
I sympathize with Pilate. He recognized that Jesus was innocent, but he also had other pressures weighing on him. He wanted to keep his job. He needed to keep a growing protest from becoming a riot. The pressures weighing on Pilate mattered; they just shouldn’t have mattered more than his decision about Jesus. Pilate exemplifies the warning Jesus gave earlier in his ministry of someone making the terrible trade of choosing “the whole world” over his much more valuable soul.
Pilate represents the people in our society (and in our churches) who know the truth about Jesus—or, at least, they suspect that there’s something important in Jesus. But they have other decisions to make, other ambitions to pursue. So they put the question off indefinitely, thinking they can deal with it some other time. Like Pilate, it’s not unbelief that sends these people to hell. It’s indifference.
I’m afraid that most of the people in our churches are in this category. I want to plead with them to open their eyes, to take Jesus seriously today. Do you not see how foolish it is to put this question off for another day? None of us is guaranteed tomorrow! Why would you gamble with your soul like that?
I know that your life is plagued with stresses, imminent deadlines, and important decisions. But I can guarantee you that a hundred years from now, the only issue that will seem significant is where you stand in relation to Jesus Christ.
3. Judas: “The Despairing”
I’ve read through the passion narrative hundreds of times. But reading through it recently, the placement of Judas’ suicide struck me. Why is Judas’ suicide dropped right into the trial narrative (Matthew 27:3-10)? The entire focus is on Jesus and his trial, but then Matthew presses “pause” to turn the camera to Judas. Any time a passage in Scripture breaks the expected flow of events like this, we should ask, Why?
I think Matthew intended to show us the end result of rejecting Jesus. What we see in seed form in the religious leaders and Pilate is already in full, deadly fruit in Judas. He reminds us that we either choose Jesus’ offer of life or we choose self-destruction.
I can’t help but think of how utterly unnecessary Judas’ suicide was. He felt hopeless and despairing, so he did what many people do in their despair: He ended his life.
Judas was right to feel broken, but he was wrong to let despair win. Judas was no more beyond the scope of Jesus’ forgiveness than the other disciples. Peter, after all, had betrayed Jesus. In fact, every one of the disciples had forsaken Jesus in his hour of need. And every one of them would be forgiven and restored.
Judas could not see the beauty of the gospel—that Jesus came to reclaim the ruined and broken. Judas couldn’t see that Jesus’ imminent death was not just a result of Judas’ actions but intended as the redemption for Judas’ actions.
Many people in our churches are in the same place as Judas, thinking they are beyond forgiveness, without hope, with no future. Despair is their constant companion. Some are even on the cusp of following Judas into suicide. To you I say: Jesus never, ever, ever gives up on you. His grace to forgive is greater than you could imagine, and his power to restore is beyond your wildest hopes.
Imagine how different Judas’ story could have turned out if only he had waited a couple days. If Peter—a fellow betrayer—had found him and given him the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Can’t you just hear Peter pleading with Judas? “Judas, I know you feel like hope is gone, but you’re wrong! Yes, Jesus died because of us, but he did it gladly. And now he’s come back … and he’s looking for you. He wants to forgive and restore you just like he did me.”
There are countless souls in our churches, despairing of life and without hope in the world. If that is you, I want you to know: Jesus is looking for you—to forgive, to restore, and to heal.
Judas could not see that Jesus came to reclaim the broken. If that’s you, Jesus is looking for you—to forgive and restore and heal.
4. Barabbas: “The Spared”
The first three characters all respond to Jesus wrongly. I see myself in all of them, as should you. But here in this last image, Barabbas shows us the gospel more than anyone else.
Barabbas, you see, was a bad man. He was a thief and a murderer, a domestic terrorist, hated by Jew and Roman alike. Yet when Pilate gave the mob the choice between Barabbas and Jesus, they chose to condemn Jesus by setting this bad man free. Barabbas is the first person who could say, quite literally, “Jesus died instead of me.”
Scholars point out that Barabbas’ name is peculiar. Bar means “son of” and Abbas means “father.” So Barabbas simply means “son of a father” or “son of a man.” It’s intentionally generic, because Barabbas is supposed to represent the “everyman.” Barabbas is us.
Like Barabbas, we are rebels against the rule of God. We are condemned before him, in a prison of our own making, slated for a death we rightly deserve. And in the midst of our terrible plight, here comes Jesus, a man of perfect goodness, to die in our place. We, like Barabbas, are shown to the light of day. And we watch, in disbelief, as Jesus takes the cross intended for us.
Oddly, the Gospels never tell us what happened to Barabbas. We know he was set free, but there’s no story of his response. You might expect it: “Praise you, Jesus, I owe you everything!” But there’s nothing like that. He goes free without a word. Why?
Because in Barabbas we’re supposed to see a picture of a bad man going free—and we’re supposed to see that he is us. While we were still sinners—still Barabbas—Christ died for us. Barabbas’ story is supposed to raise the question for us—not merely, “How did he respond?” but more importantly, “How will we respond to such a scandalous sacrifice?”