Does Barabbas’ Release Illustrate Substitution?

Roman Trial‘When Jesus is held back for execution and Barabbas is set free we have a wonderful picture of substitution.’ Have you heard that before? I have. Perhaps you have even explained this element of Jesus’ trial as an illustration of his place-taking death, which secures release for the guilty. Again, I have. But after working carefully through John’s Gospel in our small groups this year, I am convinced that I was wrong. Substitution is not in view; it is not even an ancillary aspect of Barabbas’ release.

Similarly to Paul’s ‘living sacrifices’ in Romans 12 – which preachers readily tell us is a strikingly strange picture, when really it is not since all sacrifices would be brought to the alter alive (Jonathan More) – we give little thought to this passage in its literary context, hurriedly sharing the pre-packaged theology of substitutionary atonement and old sermons. However, with only a little digging into John’s Gospel we learn that Jesus is not pictured as a substitute for Barabbas. Obviously, Jesus is introduced to us by John the Baptizer as, “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29, 36). Added to this, substitution is clear at points throughout the narrative: Jesus will lay down his life for his sheep (10:11) and his friends (15:13), perhaps in response to Peter’s predictably overzealous promise that he will lay down his life for Jesus (13:37); Caiaphas’ ironic prophecy that it is better for one man to die than for Israel to perish (11:50; 18:14); and Jesus commitment to drain the cup of God’s wrath on the cross (18:11). But Jesus’ messiahship is more than dying on behalf of God’s people.

Interwoven with Jesus’ identification as Isaiah’s ‘suffering servant’ is his authority and power that demands a response from the Jewish nation. As C. H. Dodd has said, in The Founder of Christianity, “zero hour” was upon Israel; “God was confronting men, more immediately, more urgently, than ever before, and an unprecedented opportunity lay before them.” When Pilate presents Barabbas and Jesus (18:39), offering the customary release of a prisoner at Passover, the opportunity and choice reaches its climax. And when they cry out, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” they reject God’s King (18:40).

Andreas Köstenberger, in his essay “What is Truth?”, suggests that a prominent Johannine theme is the trial motif. He proposes that while there is no Jewish trial recorded in John’s Gospel, we can view John’s first twelve chapters as a trial. Jesus comes before the nation of Israel and powerfully demonstrates his divine sonship and authority. Israel is confronting her God. He has come to his own (1:11), full of grace and truth (1:17), fully revealing Yahweh in fleshly glory (1:14, 18). From John’s prologue, the reader knows who Jesus is. And a little later Nathaniel proclaims, “The King of Israel” (1:49). Now, if we return to the Jewish leaders, clamouring in the streets outside of Pilate’s headquarters, we see what John’s purpose is: Will they recognise God’s Messiah? There is immense irony in Pilate’s antagonistic epithet, “The King of the Jews” (18:39). For Jesus truly is.

Roman TrialBut there is more to it. There is an even more striking irony in the Roman trial and the Jewish leaders’ rejection of Jesus. Quoting D. A. Carson, in The Gospel of John, “The chief priests, who would normally have nothing to do with Zealots and…armed rebellion,” request the release of an enemy of Rome over one whom Rome deemed unthreatening (18:36-38). Pilate, in the obverse, and similarly to the Jews, fears for his political position, releases a man who was declared guilty by Rome for murder and insurrection. His conscience and superiors may have allowed him to condemn an innocent man without impunity, but surely releasing a known rebel reveals a lack of political savvy. Finally, the Jews, after rejecting their Messiah in favour of a convicted criminal, exclaim, “We have no king but Caesar” (19:15). Köstenberger notes that this is a pyrrhic success for the Jewish leaders, for in gaining Pilate’s concession they have pledged sole allegiance to the Roman emperor. Confronted by the Son of God the Jews make their choice and it is not God’s Messiah.

Doodle: ‘He’s not Safe, but He’s Good’

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe - LewisThe number of times I have heard that line from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the pulpit defies reason. I say this namely because I cannot remember a single sermon where the respective preacher used it to shed any light. It has been, in my own experience, tantamount to invoking the term “social construct” in debates, as if that settled anything. But if that is not reason enough, then its sheer abuse should convince us that it might be time to lay Mr Beaver’s epithet to rest (see Sammy Rhodes’ article on retiring sermon clichés). Lewis’ dangerous but good Aslan is somewhat opaque and seriously overused. Every time I hear it I struggle not to conclude that the only time the preacher reads is when he is trying to put his children to sleep.

This is obviously a theme in Lewis’ magisterial Narnia; when the children first meet Aslan we are told, “People who have not been in Narnia sometimes think that a thing cannot be good and terrible at the same time. If the children had ever thought so, they were cured of it now” (p168). Later, when Mr Beaver is warning the children against pressing Aslan or tying him to their kingdom he says, “He’s wild you know. Not like a tame lion” (p194). They are moving words for those familiar with Aslan, and inadvertently the God of Scripture, but used alone and apart from the context of Lewis’ work such sentiments are little more than mere sentimentalism. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is rich narrative that boasts compelling truth, evokes genuine feeling, and draws the reader into another world in a way few novels achieve. But we are fooling ourselves if we think a few quotes about Aslan’s indomitable but inviting nature do any justice to Lewis’ intention, or assist our own.

There is so much more to the novel (and all of Narnia) than these almost common quotes convey. Let me offer an example, which I would love to unpack further in a sermon or writing, touching on John’s Gospel. While the Witch gloats in Aslan’s death, to redeem Edmund and restore Narnia, some of Jesus’ last words before the cross come to mind, “Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). A little later the Lord says, “The ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me” (John 14:30-31). Before Susan and Lucy the supposed King of Narnia is shamefully shorn and cruelly slain on the Stone Table, and before Jesus’ disciples their supposed Messiah is mocked and executed; both events suggest the triumph of evil and the defeat of good. But hear Aslan’s words when the astonished sisters ask Aslan what (can only be described as) his resurrection means, “Though the Witch knew Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before Time dawned…She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards” (p185). In his surrender to the evil powers of the world, he overcomes them.

Lord of the Rings - TolkienFinally, if that brief and slightly shoddy unpacking has not excited you to revisit Narnia then, please, for the sake of your congregation, drop Lewis’ overdone words; I will even provide you with a sacrificial substitute, from The Lord of the Rings. After Gandalf retells how he saw, and was indeed spotted by Treebeard, in the forest, Gimli remarks, ‘You speak of him as if he was a friend. I thought Fangorn was dangerous.’ ‘Dangerous!’ cried Gandalf. ‘And so am I, very dangerous: more dangerous than anything you will ever meet, unless you are brought alive before the seat of the Dark Lord. And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion. Certainly the forest of Fangorn is perilous – not least to those that are too ready with their axes; and Fangorn himself, he is perilous too; yet he is wise and kindly nonetheless’.

A Light that Shines in the Darkness

Shelob, Frodo and SamI’ve been reading Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and have loved his narrative. One of the remarkable capacities of story is its emotive power and I’ve been thinking about how to utilise this in preaching. In the second book of the trilogy (The Two Towers), Sam and Frodo come to Cirith Ungol – home of Shelob, the mother of all spiders (literally and  idiomatically). In trying to make their way through her lair, the hobbits inevitably encounter this terrible creature. There is no escape for them, Shelob is at home in the darkness and her webs line the caverns which are stiflingly dark to the hobbits’ eyes. Frodo then remembers the gift he received which is essentially a bottled star; “a light when all other lights go out”. This he produces from his cloak and they see their dreadful foe and her mountainous eyes. As the light strengthens in Frodo’s hand and flares out to all the crevices of the cave Tolkein writes the following observing Shelob’s eyes:

They wavered. Doubt came into them as the light approached. One by one they dimmed, and slowly they drew back. No brightness so deadly had ever afflicted them before. From sun and moon and star they had been safe underground, but now a star had descended into the very earth. Still it approached, and the eyes began to quail. One by one they all went dark; they turned away, and a great bulk, beyond the light’s reach, heaved its huge shadow in between. They were gone.

It’s been difficult to read Tolkien and not think of the Bible. As I read this all I could hear was:

4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … 9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.

Imagine hearing a sermon on John 1:1-13 that brings its audience into the kind of story that Frodo and Sam find themselves in at Cirith Ungol. In which the audience realises that the spiritual darkness they live in is not unlike Frodo and Sam’s:

the air was still, stagnant, heavy, and sound fell dead. They walked as it were in a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought. Night always had been, and always would be, and night was all.

The darkness in which we find ourselves is not passive in it’s lightlessness; it increases the depth of darkness in our minds and our hearts. And living in that darkness which is itself our enemy, is the mother darkness who wishes to devour us. We must flee but we are blind and trapped. We must see but it is impossible. We are in desperate need of light or not only will we never find the way but we will be consumed.

But what light can be hoped for in this deep shadow?
What brightness could ever penetrate the place we find ourselves?

Well there is a light of all mankind that shines in the darkness. A light that even the deep darkness cannot overcome. The true light that gives light to everyone, a light that descended from the heavens into the very earth and at its approach, the darkness quails.

It is not mere narrative: darkness quails!

Admittedly, this is poor exegetical work on John. Nevertheless, given due exegetical time, I would find such delivery compelling. I wish preaching were more like this.