When God gave the Passover meal to Moses, it was intended to be a retelling of the exodus story and a foretelling of the Easter story. The family was to gather together on one special night of the year for a special meal. The youngest child in the room was to ask the question, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” And then the oldest male was to tell the story of how God delivered the people of Israel from bondage to slavery in Egypt and brought them into the land of promise (see Exodus 12.24-27). This was to happen year after year after year, and it was the exact same meal that Jesus shared with His disciples on the night of His arrest.
So, in keeping with the spirit of the Passover meal, I would like to tell you the Easter story, or at least the beginning of the Easter story. Before we celebrate the empty tomb, before we celebrate the resurrection on Sunday morning, we need to hear the story of how He was “pierced for our transgressions,” how He was “crushed for our iniquities,” how we are healed by “his wounds,” and how He humbled Himself to be obedient to death, even death on a cross.
The entire life of Christ had been leading up to this week. Beginning with the incarnation, and the marvelous birth in a manger announced to shepherds and magi, all the way through the three years of ministry where He taught as one who had power, cast out demons, and healed so many from their diseases. All of the things that brought amazement to the crowds was now being funneled into one very important week, what the Bible calls the “fullness of time.”
The week begins on Monday when Jesus entered Jerusalem for the last time. The crowds had heard about this miracle worker and were hoping that He might be the one who would finally liberate them from Roman rule. The Jews were looking for a Messiah who would establish the throne of David in Jerusalem, cast out foreign rule, bring genuine and lasting peace, and cause YHWH to be worshipped by all. Hopes were high that day, and the people welcomed Him with joyful praise as they cried out, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 19.38).
For the next few days, Jesus would be found constantly in the Temple teaching. He drove out the money changers and those who were using the Temple courts for commerce. His teaching was not exactly the kind of thing the crowds wanted to hear. They wanted to hear someone move them to action, to take up arms against the Romans, to organize a rebellion. Instead, Jesus was speaking of a different kind of kingdom, a kingdom not of this world. He prepared them for a way of salvation that they had never thought of, that the Messiah would suffer and die for their sins. He spoke about the consummation of history, when the Son of Man would return. But in the mean time, there would be more suffering and persecution by the people of God. And by the end of three days of teaching, the same people who had welcomed His arrival in Jerusalem were now convinced that He was another “messiah wanna be.” He would not be the one to deliver Israel.
On Thursday night, Jesus gathered with His disciples to share the Passover Meal. The Passover Meal was a memorial meal to help the people remember the exodus story and to look forward to the redemption of Israel. There was always one empty chair at the table, a chair reserved for the prophet Elijah because he would come before the Messiah. The hopes were that this might be the night that Elijah would arrive, so the people were to be ready.
Jesus gave that meal new meaning. Instead of the usual blessings that the disciples had heard all of their lives, Jesus spoke new words. When He broke the bread, He said, “This is my body given for you.” When He poured the wine, He said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which is poured out for you.” Surely, the disciples were amazed at these strange words, but there had been so many times that Jesus had tried to teach them things, and they didn’t understand. And even on this night, they didn’t quite get it. During the meal, another disturbing thing happened. Jesus announced to the twelve that one of them would betray Him. But that didn’t bother them too long for they soon got lost in a discussion about which one of them was the greatest.
After the meal, they sang a song together and then set out for the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane. For the whole week, Jesus had been teaching in the Temple by day and sleeping in the mountains by night. These nights in the mountains had been a time of private teaching. No doubt, Jesus had explained to them what some of His parables had meant. But this night was a little different. It was going to be a night of prayer, not a night of rest. Jesus asked His disciples to pray, and then He took Peter, James, and John off by themselves. He asked them to pray, and then Jesus went further into the garden to pray alone. The humanity and deity of Jesus wrestled in prayer that night. He knew what lay before Him, and He asked the Father to take it away from Him if there was any other way to take away the sin of all humanity. Knowing there wasn’t, He submitted Himself to the Father’s will.
The prayer meeting was interrupted by the sound of soldiers and the light of torches. One of the twelve identified Jesus with a kiss to the soldiers, but his betrayal was much deeper than just pointing Him out to the soldiers. The whole of Jerusalem knew who Jesus was. No, the betrayal was that Judas provided insider information that would allow them to charge Jesus with blasphemy, sedition against the Roman government, refusal to pay taxes to Caesar, breaking the Sabbath, and teaching against the law and the ways of the Temple. Judas provided the information that proved Jesus was guilty of breaking both Jewish and Roman law.
That night in the garden was only going to get longer and longer. They dragged Jesus to the home of Annas. Annas was no longer the High Priest for he had been deposed by Rome, but the people still regarded him as the official High Priest. So, they took Jesus to see Him first. Then they drug Him before Caiaphas, the current High Priest. They quickly set up a night time trial before the ruling elders, a group known as the Sanhedrin. Though it was illegal for them to meet at night, they didn’t care. They brought in witness after witness, but none of their stories agreed and none of the accusations were justification for them to do what they really wanted to do, which was to execute Him. Finally, the High Priest took matters in his own hands. “If you are the Christ, tell us…Are you the Son of God?” Jesus simply said, “I am,” and that was all the Sanhedrin needed.
Charged with blasphemy, and determined worthy of death, they began to beat Him and mock Him and strike Him on the face. The unruly mob surely wanted to take Him outside the city walls and stone Him to death in the middle of the night, just like they would do to Stephen in a few years. But that was not good enough for them, and it was not the plan of God. They wanted to prove to the world that Jesus was nothing more than a common criminal. So they brought the condemned man to the Roman authorities in Jerusalem.
When day broke on Friday morning, they dragged Jesus before the governor of Judea. Pilate must not have been very excited to see the mob at his door. Pilate was already on a short leash with Rome. Several riots had occurred under his rule, mostly because of his stubborn insensitivity to the ways of the Jews. He knew they hated idols and images, but he loved to post images of Caesar all around Jerusalem. The people had rioted on a couple of occasions, and he handled the riots by dispatching his soldiers to kill the rioters. When word of this finally reached Rome, he was given one more chance to bring order or he would be deposed. On this Friday morning, the riotous crowd on his doorstep was one more opportunity for him to fail, and he was determined to do whatever it took to keep the people from rioting.
But Pilate was in a pickle. The crowds thought the accused to be guilt of a horrible crime, worthy of death. But as he examined the man and investigated the case, he found the man guilty of nothing deserving of death. If he refused to execute the man, the crowds might riot, but if he executed an innocent man, Rome would not be happy. When he found out that the accused was from Galilee, he thought he had found the perfect way out, so he sent the whole case over to Herod who was governor of Galilee. Unfortunately, Herod was too inept to handle the case and sent it back to Pilate. Pilate was going to have to figure a way out of this mess.
His first try was to simply declare the man innocent of any wrong doing, but the people would have nothing to do with that. Then he offered to have the man scourged or whipped nearly to death, but that was not enough for the crowds. They cried out, “If you release this man, you are not a friend of Caesars” which Pilate knew was a veiled threat.
But Pilate had one more trick up his sleeve. One custom that governors had used in the past to make the Jewish population of Jerusalem happy was to issue a pardon to one prisoner during the week of Passover. Pilate wasn’t real smart at doing things to make the Jewish people happy, but he pulled this one out in just the nick of time. But in order to make it work, he needed to present the people with an offer they couldn’t refuse. He needed a criminal so despicable, so hated by the general population, accused a crime that would make every citizen’s blood boil. Then, he would take that vile piece of humanity and set it up against Jesus and make the people choose one of the two to be released. Surely the people would not want a vile criminal roaming free on the streets of Jerusalem. Surely they would choose Jesus to be released.
It just so happened that Pilate had the perfect criminal in his prison: Barabbas. Barabbas was a notorious prisoner. His reputation for misdeeds began with the simple charge of being a thief, but went all the way up to being a murderer. There had been an insurrection in the city not too long ago, and in the melee, this man had murdered some of his own citizens. We would probably use the term “terrorist” to describe Barabbas today. Pilate’s plan was to make them choose between Jesus and a terrorist. Surely they would choose Jesus.
But he underestimated the anger of the crowd. They asked him to release Barabbas. “What shall I do with Jesus,” Pilate asked. In unified anger, the crowd shouted, “Crucify him.” The only way out now for Pilate was to release Barabbas and to sentence Jesus to be flogged and then crucified.
Friday afternoon was a long day for Jesus. Before the horror of crucifixion, He had to endure the horror of the flogging. Flogging, or scourging, was a brutal form of punishment. The soldiers would take the condemned and tie both of his hands to a post about shoulder height. The soldiers would then take turns whipping him with a “cat of nine tails.” This was a whip with several strips of leather. Nails or glass or rocks were embedded in the end of each strap, and as the soldiers brought the whip down on the back of Jesus, the nails would dig into the skin. When the soldier would yank the whip, it would bring bits of flesh and muscle with it. This process was repeated over and over on the back, shoulders, and legs of the prisoner. At the end, the skin of the one being scourged look a lot like ground hamburger meat. Most prisoners did not survive the scourging to even make it to the crucifixion; it was that horrible.
But Jesus did. Scourged within an inch of his life, Jesus was then forced to carry the cross beam on which He would be nailed from the middle of Jerusalem outside the city gates to the Golgotha, the hill of crucifixion. The beam weighed anywhere between 80 to 100 pounds, if not more. Jesus had been beaten so badly, that one of the onlookers was forced by the soldiers to carry the heavy beam most of the way. When the procession finally arrived at the place of the skull, they laid Jesus on his back against the heavy beam. His arms were stretched out, and a nine inch long metal spike was driven between the bones of each wrist. They placed both of his feet together and drove another long spike through both feet. This was not done haphazardly. The arms and legs were given enough slack to make the crucifixion as painful as possible.
Victims of crucifixion did not die from the pain or from the loss of blood. They died from asphyxiation. As they hung on the cross, the pericardium would begin to fill with fluid making it hard to exhale. In order to get a full breath, the victim either had to push up on his feet or pull up on his hands, either of which would be incredibly painful. Inevitably, the victim would no longer have the energy to exhale, and he would slowly die due to a lack of oxygen. Crucifixion was not meant to kill. It was meant to torture.
The Romans made one major concession to the Jews regarding crucifixion. They would not allow the victims to remain on the cross after sunset. So, to hasten the death process, the soldiers would break the legs of the victims to prevent them from being able to push up to breath. But when they came to break the legs of Jesus, they didn’t need to because He was already dead.
But the sun was setting quickly, and the Sabbath would begin at sunset. After Jesus was declared dead by the Romans, He was hastily buried before sunset. Joseph, a member of the Sanhedrin and a secret follower of Christ, asked Pilate for his body. The body of Jesus was hastily prepared for burial. There was no time for the proper embalming, that would have to wait until after the Sabbath was over. Jesus was quickly wrapped in a cloth and placed in a borrowed grave before the sun set on Friday afternoon. The Sabbath would end on Saturday night, but nothing could be done in the dark. So, the body of Jesus would have to wait until Sunday morning for the proper embalming procedures. At sunset on Friday night, the followers of Jesus left him in a borrowed tomb and left in total disbelief.
With the benefit of hindsight, and with the apostle’s teachings in hands, we now understand the words of Jesus on Thursday night before all of these horrible events began. “This is my body broken for you.” “This is my blood which is poured out for you.” Jesus was the Passover lamb, the one who took upon Himself our iniquities and our punishment.
Perhaps no other image is more powerful than the image of Barabbas. Here stood Barabbas. Notorious prisoner. Thief. Murderer. Terrorist. Vile specimen of humanity. Waiting before him was the most brutal forms of punishment that the Romans could imagine. He would be scourged to the point of death. And if he survived that, he would be put to death through a tortuous process called the crucifixion. And he deserved it all. His way of life had earned it.
And yet Jesus took his place. The scouring that belonged to Barabbas fell upon the shoulders and backs of our Lord. The nails that should have pierced the hands and feet of Barabbas were driven through innocent flesh. The sword that should have been plunged into the side of Barabbas to see if he was dead was plunged into the side of the Holy One.
But more than that. The exchange that took place in Pilate’s palace was an exchange of all of humanity. The wages of sin is death. What we deserve for rebelling against the Most High God is His wrath. And yet He made Him who knew no sin to become sin for us that we might have the righteousness of God in Him. Not only did Jesus take the place of Barabbas. He took my place. And your place.
Tonight, we will leave this place and return to our comfortable homes. But tonight, Jesus will leave this place and be betrayed by one of his own, be falsely accused by the High Priest, be beaten and scoured by soldiers, and then be tortured to death by professional killers. And He will do all of that because He loves you. He will be pierced for your transgressions because He loves you. He will be crushed for your iniquities because He loves you. He will be wounded to bring you healing because He loves you.