Christ Above All
Robert C. Shannon
(c)opyright 1989, Robert C. Shannon.
The Hawk and the Dove

    In Matthew 27:15-18, 20 is the following story:
Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.  At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.  So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release for you:  Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?"  For he knew it was out of envy they had handed Jesus over to him.

    But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed (NIV).

    Barabbas was a small-time criminal.  He had organized a little band of revolutionaries, but he was not motivated by any real patriotic fervor.  He only used patriotism as a cloak to hide his schemes to rob and steal.  If somebody got in the way and got killed, well, it was just too bad for them.

    So, Barabbas and two of his followers eventually were caught, tried and sentenced to be executed.  Try to imagine how Barabbas felt.  He is lying in a dark prison cell.  He knows that he is going to be put to death.  Every day he thinks about his execution.

    Then all too soon, he hears the sound of footsteps coming down the corridor.  The door to his cell is thrown open.  "All right, Barabbas. Let's go."  As he leaves the cell, he hears shouting from the streets above.  "Crucify him!  Crucify him!"  He cannot imagine that people hate him so.  But that's what they're shouting - "Crucify him!"  He hears his own name.  "Barabbas, Barabbas."  He is astonished to be the object of such anger.

    Then they lead him blinking out into the bright sunlight to stand beside a total stranger before the crowd.  Then the crowd suddenly cries for Barabbas to be released and for this other man to be crucified!

    To his astonishment, Barabbas is free.  He has been programming his mind for his execution.  Now, suddenly, he is free!  He doesn't know what to do!  Perhaps he wanders the streets in some kind of a daze while his two associates and that other man are led away to be crucified.

    We really don't know much about Barabbas.  In fact, we don't even know his name.  For Barabbas is not a name.  "Bar" in the Bible always means "son of."  Barabbas means "the son of Abbas."  And it may be that that was, in fact, his father's name.  But "abbas" means "father."  So, his name in the Bible, "Son of the father" may have been a nickname.  Many think that's the case.  At any rate, we do not know his name.

    But one obscure manuscript does give us a name for Barabbas.  If it may be believed, that manuscript says that Barabbas had the same name as our Lord.  That when those two people stood before the crowd, there was Jesus of Nazareth and there was Jesus Barabbas.

    That's possible because the name Jesus was a common name at that time.  It was as common as John, Bob, or Bill are today.  Jesus was only a form of the name Joshua.  Many a parent named a child for that great hero of the Old Testament, Joshua.  And it is possible that that was Barabbas name.  In Latin countries you will still find people named Jesus.

    But whether his name was that or something else, only one thing is certain - he exchanged places with our Lord.  Are you surprised that the crowd chose Barabbas instead of Christ?  Are you surprised that they chose the taker of life instead of the giver of life, that they chose the robber instead of the giver, that they chose the man of war instead of the man of peace, that they chose the sinful man instead of the innocent man?  Does that surprise you?

    It ought not.  The world continually chooses Barabbas instead of Jesus.  The world continually opts for power before principle, for force rather than nonviolence, for war rather than peace, for taking rather than giving.

    Now we think that we would have picked the good man.  We always want the honest man, the man of integrity.  But do we really want that?  For example, suppose you are in serious trouble and you need a lawyer.  Do you want an honest lawyer?

    A preacher talked to a man one time who had some problems.  The preacher said, "I know a good man who is a lawyer."  The man replied, "I don't want a good lawyer, I want the crookedest lawyer in town."

    We might not all be that frank about it, but do you want an absolutely 100% honest, straight-arrow man for your lawyer?  Do you want a 100% honest, straight-arrow man for your accountant?  Do you want a 100% honest, straight- arrow man for your friend?  You may sometimes want your friend to lie for you or to cover for you.  We too sometimes pick Barabbas instead of Jesus.

    The plot of the story is that they exchanged places:  Barabbas and Jesus.  That's a plot that you see sometimes in literature and life.

    Maybe you read the story The Prince and the Pauper.  It's the story of two little boys.  One was the child of the king and one was a child of the streets.  They exchanged clothing and they exchanged identity.  The little boy from the slums went to the palace to live with the king.  The little boy who was the king's son went down into the slums to live in a hovel.

    This exchanging of places sometimes happens in real life.  The newspaper told of two sisters who very much resembled one another.  One of the them was found guilty of a crime and sentenced to jail.  She had a family.  Her sister had no children.  So, when the day came for her to begin serving her sentence, the sister came in her place.  Nobody bothered to check the fingerprints.  For a year the innocent sister was in jail and the guilty sister was free.

    Here in the story of Barabbas and Jesus we have a similar thing.  For Barabbas there was no choice.  Jesus did have a choice.  He chose to take Barabbas' place and our place.  We deserved to die on that cross.  The wages of sin is death and We've sinned, but He took our place.  He took our place literally.  He took our place legally.  He took our place spiritually.  Just as He took Barabbas' place, He took our place.

    Let's think about Barabbas, particularly on that Saturday after the crucifixion and before the resurrection.  We know where Jesus was.  He was dead and buried.  Where do you suppose Barabbas was?  What do you suppose he was doing?  Don't you think he celebrated a little?  Maybe he celebrated a lot.  Maybe he found some of his old friends and said, "I don't understand it, but something wonderful has happened and I'm free.  I'm not going to die.  I'm going to live."

    But maybe on Saturday night when the celebration was over, Barabbas started to think about what had happened to him, Maybe he started to think about that "other man" who now was dead.

    Suppose that you have committed a serious crime.  Someone else is arrested, charged with your crime, found guilty and sentenced to die.  How would you feel?  Every day you would open the newspaper and there would be the story of efforts that people were making to spare him from the electric chair.  And all the time you would know that he is innocent and that you are guilty.

    Then one day you'd open the paper and read that the sentence had been carried out.  He's dead and you're alive.  You committed the crime and he was innocent.  How would you feel?

    We have a little taste of it in this country.  It is no secret that we are free in this country because somebody died to make it possible.  The name Nathan Hale comes to mind.  He died for American freedom.  But, of course, there were thousands.

    The battlefield of Blue Licks is where the last battle of the American Revolution was fought.  It was a battle that never should have been fought.  It was a battle that was fought when the war was over.  We had already won the war for American independence.  The news had not yet reached the frontier.  There, in Kentucky and West Virginia, the battle still went on.  There is a stone at the battlefield of Blue Licks with the names of the men who died in the battle.  In that list of names was the name Robert Shannon.  One of my ancestors died in the Battle of Blue Licks for my freedom.  That makes it a little more touching to me.

    All of us need to focus sharply when we think about someone who has died for our freedom.  To speak of thousands doesn't move us nearly as much as to focus on a single individual or two.  Perhaps many of us can do that.

    For me it has always been Bobby True.  He was the same age as my sister.  He was a genial, affable, gay-hearted young man who went off to fight in France and died before the age of eighteen for my freedom.

    I also think of Gene Martin who was my age.  We went to school together.  He went to Korea and died on Pork Chop Hill.  If I can focus on these individuals, then I can appreciate a little more what it means that somebody died so that I can be free.

    We focus on a person.  We focus on a place.  That's why we have Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  People go there and take their children there.  They say, "This is where it happened.  This is where our freedom began."

    In England they don't go to a building, they go to an empty field, Runnymede, where King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta.  The Swiss go out to an empty field.  Ruth Meadow was where the Swiss Confederation was born.  The Irish go to a jail!  Of all the shrines of national liberty in the world, none is more striking than that.  They go to a jail in Dublin.  There on a sunny Sunday morning a group of Irish patriots were led out into the courtyard and executed.  That's the focus of their political freedom in Ireland.

    With regard to our spiritual freedom, can we not focus just that tightly on a certain place - Golgotha?  On a certain person Christ?  Without Him and what He did there, we could never be free from guilt, never be free from the burden of sin, never be free from the power of sin!  This is where our spiritual freedom began.

    In Grant county, Kentucky, there was an unusual tourist attraction.  Along the highway someone had set up the last gallows on which anyone had been hung in the state of Kentucky.  People would stop and gawk at that gallows.  Suppose that you know absolutely nothing about the Christian religion.  It is all totally new to you and you walk into church some Sunday morning and they start talking about a cross.  A cross is no different than a gallows or an electric chair.  What a strange symbol for our religion!  Can you imagine people going around with a little gold gallows on a chain?  Or a little gold electric chair on the lapel?  That's just how strange it would seem to you if you were hearing it for the first time.  We've heard it so often that we miss the impact of it.

    The fact is that the cross was the key that unlocked the chains that bound us to sin.  The cross set us free and there is nothing like that freedom.

    Skydivers say that it is a marvelous feeling of freedom to step out of an airplane into the sky and just float there for a while.

    Glider pilots say that when the tow plane cuts them loose and they fly free, soaring like a bird, silently through the air, it is a great sense of freedom.

    The longing to be free is something that is deep within us.  But the greatest freedom we need is the freedom from sin, the freedom from guilt, the freedom from the powers of darkness.  It is accomplished for us in the death of Christ and only in the death of Christ.  Not only do we find our freedom there, we find our life there.

    Suppose that you have a serious kidney ailment.  You must have a kidney transplant.  Some close relative of yours volunteers to donate a kidney to you.  Then you learn that he has only one and has offered to donate it to you.  How would you feel?

    It may be that your mother died giving you birth.  If that's the case, how did you feel when you first heard about it?

    Edwin T. Dahlberg was a celebrated Baptist minister in St. Louis, Missouri.  He said that he had an older brother who had the same name as he a brother who died in infancy.  He said that when the baby died his mother was inconsolable in her grief until she learned that she would have another child.  So, when he was born they gave him the same name as the child that had not survived.  He said that all of his life he had heard about Edwin that lived and Edwin that died.

    He said that he'd stood in the cemetery and looked at the tombstone that had his name on it - Edwin T. Dahlberg.  He said, "I never stood there without the feeling (once definitely confirmed to me by my mother) that if he had not died, I would never have lived."

    We all have such an elder brother.  We wear His name.  We live in the certain knowledge that if He had not died, we could never have lived.


The Fox and the Lamb
Table of Contents
The Robber and the Redeemer

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