Let’s return to that fateful day known in Christendom as Good Friday.
As we saw in the last post (Barabbas – Part I) Barabbas was released by Pontius Pilate and disappeared into the boiling crowd of people visiting Jerusalem for the holiday. Jesus, along with two petty thieves, have been crucified outside the city gate and are hanging there on public display. It is afternoon now. The crucified victims have already been hanging on their crosses for hours.
Barabbas urged his friends to come with him just outside the city and see this man hanging on the cross that was to be his. He spun it as a way to savor the zealot’s victory over Rome, yet deep inside he was simply insanely curious. His friends all declined the invitation. After all, many of them, fellow zealots, were wanted men. Bands of murderous rebels simply don’t go out and stand in large crowds to watch public executions, unless of course they intend to stir something up.
“No,” they told Barabbas, “It’s the Passover. Let that rabbi, Jesus, take the pressure off of us for awhile.”
Barabbas was disappointed that nobody would go with him, but still decided to quietly sneak out on his own. He pulled his cloak up over his head to conceal his identity and eased out into the crowded street.
“I must be careful,” he thought as he walked through the gate in the city wall. “If those Roman guards recognize me, they still might just run me through with a sword. After all, I was released, but not pardoned!”
As soon as he stepped through the Gennath Gate, the atmosphere of the Passover celebration vanished. A short distance in front of him was a somber crowd. Some were wailing in mourning, but most were milling around and quietly talking to each other. An unnatural darkness, unlike anything he had ever seen, appropriately set the mood.
On top of a small round hill were the three crosses. Set here of all places so that they would be highly visible to all. Anyone coming into Jerusalem through this gate could not help but see the gruesome display and be warned of Rome’s iron grip. As he caught sight of the three filthy, beaten men pinned up on the crosses, Barabbas stopped and shuddered. They had been stripped of all but a loincloth. They were now clothed in dust, blood, and shame.
“Mercy,” Barabbas thought. It was the only word he could formulate in his mind. “Someone show them mercy! Even a pig should not suffer such cruel indignity.”
The brush of someone passing close by alerted Barabbas that he was standing alone on the path. “I’d better mingle. I won’t be recognized in the crowd.”
He pulled his cloak tight around his face and moved along quickly. He soon arrived in a part of the crowd that was mostly mourners. Some were prostrate and wailing. Some sat up, quietly sobbing. Some stood in small huddles hugging each other. Barabbas sat down by himself behind a group of wailing women. “Perfect,” he thought as he eyed the mourners nearby, “Nobody will notice me among these whimpering fools.”
And there he sat for what seemed like an eternity, watching the men on the crosses struggle for every breath. It gave him a sense of deep appreciation to think how close he came to being up there with them.
Then, rather suddenly, Jesus pulled himself up straight and rigid. The deliberate movement caused an expression of agony to contort his face, but it was necessary in order for him to exhale and speak. And with that movement, he turned his face to the sky and shouted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Then, crying out something which Barabbas could not quite make out, Jesus fell limp. His expression had no purpose, like it did only moments before. The color of his skin turned ashen and he no longer struggled painfully to breath. Yes, without a doubt the rabbi was now dead.
“Whew! It’s over,” Barabbas muttered as is tense body relaxed. Up until this point, he felt like he was watching himself die up there. But now that Jesus was dead and Barabbas had not died along with him, the mutual suffering was over. His feelings of pity and longing for mercy for Jesus now changed to feelings of loss.
“What a shame. He didn’t deserve to die like that. I did…well, maybe…but not him.”
Oddly, he felt no such remorse for the thieves.
Barabbas slowly rose to his feet, shaking off the stiffness of sitting too long, and dusted himself off. The crowd had long since thinned out and gone back inside the city. There were restrictions to how far you could walk on the Sabbath, which began at sundown, so nobody wanted to been seen breaking the law on the Holy Passover Sabbath. The serious mourners who had stayed this long were now beginning to leave as well.
As each body was taken down from their respective crosses under the watchful eye of the Roman guards and the Pharisees, Barabbas focused on the lifeless body of Jesus. His size and build were nearly identical to his own. Even through all the filth and bloody wounds, Barabbas could detect a lean sinewy body. Not what you’d expect in a rabbi. For just a moment, Barabbas imagined that they were lowering his own lifeless body down from that cross. For just an instant, he saw his own death from the point of view of a bystander, and felt that cross should have been his.
Then he gasped and flinched as he felt a man’s arm firmly wrap around his shoulder. It made him jump rather violently, yet he did not pull away as the unknown man drew Barabbas near. Barabbas, who was used to trusting nobody, somehow sensed that this man was no threat. First was the touch: a gentle but firm arm around the shoulders that produced more of a hug than a grip. Second was his face: a face he had never before seen, yet one that was as pleasing as an old friend.
The strange man smiled at Barabbas and said, “I know how you feel, Barabbas. He died for me too.”
And with a little squeeze, he released his arm and walked away. Barabbas stood dazed. “Who was that? How did he know who I was? Was it one of Jesus’ Disciples? Was it one of the priests?” The man was now lost in the group of people crowding back in through the city gate.
Who was that unknown sympathizer?
It could have been you. It could have been me. It could have been anyone who places their hope of salvation in the merits of Jesus Christ.
“For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” 1 Peter 3:18