July 7, 2024

The Innocent Crucified, The Guilty Freed

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Passage: Matthew 27:11–26

Some of you may know the book/movie, The Count of Monte Cristo. The plot reaches a crucial moment when the noble Edmond Dontès is about to marry his love. But due to his best friend’s jealousy and the desire of one deputy prosecutor to save face, they conspire to falsely accuse Dontès of treason. No trial. No due process. An innocent man gets a life-sentence.

Another story you might know is To Kill a Mockingbird. Southern Alabama town during the 1930s. Racism was prevalent at all levels. Atticus Finch, though, is a principled man and lawyer. He defends a black man named Tom Robinson, who is falsely accused of raping a white woman. In court Atticus proves that Tom is innocent. But despite the evidence, the jury sentences Tom to prison.

Stories like this make our stomach churn. In them we see the miscarriage of justice—the innocent treated like they are guilty. Perhaps some of you have felt the same as we’ve drawn closer to the cross in Matthew’s Gospel. Everything about Jesus is wonderful—he fulfills the law, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, serves the lost, delivers from evil, lifts our burdens. Yet he’s treated like a criminal of the worst kind. That same miscarriage of justice continues today, as Jesus suffers under Pilate. But we also discover, it’s not without a saving purpose. Let’s read it together, starting in verse 11…

11 Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. 15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. 19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” 23 And he said, “Why, What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” 24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.

Our passage unfolds in three parts. Verses 11-14 make up the first part, where Pilate questions Jesus. Then, in verses 15-23, Pilate tries to get himself out of a jam by offering Barabbas. Lastly, in verses 24-26, Pilate delivers Jesus to be crucified.

Historically, we could look at these parts and recount the simple facts. But the Gospels are more than history. They’re also doing theology. They are written in a way that reveals God and his saving plan in history. The main point goes something like this: the King becomes the Servant to free the guilty by giving his innocent blood.

The King Becomes the Servant

Let’s start with the King becomes the Servant. The religious leaders bring Jesus before Pilate. The Jews had no legal authority to put someone to death. They had to convince the Roman courts that someone was guilty of a capital offense. Rome wasn’t interested in Jewish debates on Sabbath and blasphemy. No, if the Jewish leaders wanted to succeed, they must show that Jesus is a threat to Roman power.[i]

That’s why Pilate makes this his concern in verse 11: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Pilate must protect his region from Jewish revolt: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus gives another qualified Yes. He says, “You have said so.”

Now, throughout Matthew, we know that Jesus is the King of Israel. Matthew’s Gospel started by tracing Jesus’ lineage back through “David the king.” He linked Jesus with all the royal promises once given to David. In the person of Jesus, we also learned that the kingdom of heaven was at hand. The lame walk, the blind see, the demons scatter—these were signs that God’s true King had arrived.

Jesus also taught on the kingdom of heaven. As King, he knew God’s kingdom better than anyone else. He came to bring God’s people under God’s rule. In 21:5, Jesus even rides into Jerusalem on a donkey to fulfill the prophet’s words: “Behold, your king is coming to you.” So, as readers of Matthew’s Gospel, we know the answer to Pilate’s question: “Of course, he’s the King of the Jews! He’s King of the world.”

At the same time, he’s not the sort of King that Pilate would expect. Kings that usually threatened Rome came with loud boasts and great armies. Jesus doesn’t come with any of that. To Pilate’s surprise, Jesus doesn’t even defend himself against the accusations brought against him. From the other Gospels, we know the sorts of things they were saying. In Luke 23:2-5, they said things like, “He’s misleading our nation, forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king…He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea.”

But Matthew doesn’t include those details. Perhaps that’s because he’s so struck by Jesus’ silence. Notice the repetition. We’ve seen it once already in 26:63—Jesus remained silent there. But then verse 12 here: “He gave no answer.” Then when Pilate questions him again, it says in verse 14, “He gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.”

There’s something unique about Jesus. He’s not quick to defend himself. He doesn’t retaliate, threatening his accusers. He’s not like the others Pilate has questioned. Pilate is impressed by Jesus’ silence. So is Matthew. Why? What does Matthew want us to consider about Jesus’ silence?

Perhaps it’s Jesus’ humility. He is King of the Jews, but he subjects himself to the worst sort of treatment. He is first, but he becomes last of all. Perhaps he also wants us to see how Jesus suffered willingly. He’s not going to the cross out of defeat. No, this was his choice. His silence is deliberate. But more than anything Matthew wants us to see in Jesus’ silence that he’s fulfilling the Father’s will laid out in Scripture.

Two places come to mind. One is Matthew 12:17-21. Matthew quotes from Isaiah 42:1-3, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”

John Oswalt says this about these verses from Isaiah: “…whereas all the other royal figures who have claimed to set up justice on the earth have done so through a gleeful use of their power to smash and rebuild, this one will be radically different. He is so far from smashing the mighty that he will not even break off the reed that is bent over and cracked. Rather, he will support it and straighten it…The point is plain…God’s answer to the oppressors of the world is not more oppression, nor is his answer to arrogance more arrogance; rather in quietness, humility, and simplicity, he will take all the evil into himself and return only grace. That is power.”[ii]

Another passage is Isaiah 53, which Matthew has also mentioned several times earlier in the Gospel. It’s another prophecy about God’s Servant: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

Jesus is King, but he becomes this Servant. His silence speaks to his willingness to fulfill God’s plan in Scripture. It’s unlike anything we’d come up with. What person would dream up a plan like this? “The most powerful king in the universe—he made all things, commands legions of angels—let him be arrested, falsely accused, and crucified. When the courts falsely accuse him, he’ll be silent.” No way does man think this way! Man says, “Get up! Decimate these guys! Take the kingdom now! Demand your rights! Make them respect you!”—that’s how we think.

But Jesus is tuned to his Father’s will. He knows the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. He knows the cross is the wisdom and power of God for salvation. True power is on display in the one who willingly endures unjust treatment in the path of love and obedience to God.

Some of you have had to endure unjust treatment in the path of obedience—whether from a spouse or coworkers or classmate. Maybe family members have misrepresented you. Or you’ve been falsely accused; others attributed motives to you that weren’t true and used as an attempt to shut you down or control you. Your obedience through the oppression testifies to God’s power, the same power at work in Jesus when he went to the cross. If the Lord sustained Jesus, he will sustain you.

The King Frees the Guilty

Of course, there’s also much about Jesus’ sufferings that are unique to his mission. Why does Jesus go this way, in the way of Isaiah’s Servant? That leads us to something else we see here about Jesus: he becomes the Servant to free the guilty (to stand in their place). Verse 15 mentions an agreement between the Jews and Pilate. Every year at Passover, Pilate would “release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted;” and they wanted “a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.”

Notorious—everybody knows about Barabbas. Luke 23:19 describes him as “a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.” Politically speaking, this guy is a patriot. Barabbas wants to make Israel great again. He wants Israel on top. He’ll even take matters into his own hands and revolt against Rome. He murdered people in the process. The Jews want him released.

So, Pilate makes the most of this and tries to get himself out of a jam. You see, he knows Jesus is innocent. In verse 14, Jesus’ silence amazes him. Verse 18 clarifies that Pilate knew it was out of envy that the religious leaders delivered Jesus up. On top of that, his wife had come to him saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” It’s not clear whether the Lord gave her this dream directly or her conscience about Jesus’ innocence produced it. Either way, we have here a pagan woman who’s more sensitive to justice than these leaders. In verse 23, Pilate also asks the crowd, “Why? What evil has he done?”

Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. At the same time, he doesn’t want a riot. So, maybe the crowd will choose to release Jesus over Barabbas. After all, Barabbas is a known murderer; Jesus is a known healer. “Surely, Jesus is the one they release.” No, the chief priests and the elders persuade the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus; and that’s what the crowd does. They call for Barabbas and demand that Jesus be crucified.

This is insane. All of us can look at this; and see the injustice. To condemn the innocent makes us sick. But you need to know, this is what your sin will do to your mind. You will look at the truth of a situation and suppress it. You will look at justice and then completely ignore it for your own gain. No one in their right mind can look at the life of Jesus and conclude that he deserved to die. But when you’re driven by envy, the truth no longer matters. One commentator defined envy this way: “the displeasure aroused by seeing someone else having what you do not want him to have.”

And it’s not just envy at play—Pilate’s trying to save his own tail. He’s trying to keep favor with the Jews and please Rome. His duty as a governing authority is to punish evil and praise the good. He’s responsible to preserve a just social order. Instead, he’s only concerned for himself. So he doesn’t declare Jesus innocent.

There’s also some political idolatry going on. The crowd wants a man who’s willing to incite an insurrection against Rome: “Yeah, he’s got some character flaws (you know, murder!). But at the end of the day, he’ll help our nation way more than this Jesus guy who calls us hypocrites and then thinks he can win the world by a cross.”

The problem here isn’t an intellectual one; it’s a moral one. Envy, self-preservation, political idolatry, sin—it’s all causing them to suppress the truth about Jesus. Jesus is the innocent, righteous one. But they don’t care. The religious leaders just want him gone. The crowds just want their political freedom-fighter. Pilate just wants to keep his position. It’s the greatest miscarriage of justice. Jesus is the pure and holy one of God; yet he’s treated as someone who’s worse than a Barabbas.

The disgust you feel about this injustice is the same disgust you ought to feel about your own sin—your envy, your desire to save face, your political idolatry, your (fill in the blank). Do you see that this is what sin leads to—the crucifixion of the Son of God? Shai Linne has an album called Atonement. One of the tracks is titled, “Were You There [when they crucified my Lord]?” Part of it goes like this:

Like Pilate, we see Christ and find nothing wrong with Him
But when the world chooses the wicked, we go right along with them
Despite His kindness, we seek to do our Maker violence
The fallenness of humanity at its finest
So now He stands before the crowd doomed to die
An angry mob who’s yelling out “crucify”
The way they treat the Lord of glory is debased and it’s foul
But you miss the point if you don’t see your face in the crowd

We’re all guilty. To commit sin is to raise a fist against the perfect Lord of glory and say, “Crucify him! Release the guy who puts me first!” That’s the way our sin talks, when we see it for the rebellion it truly is.

But that’s also why Jesus chooses this path. Pilate, the religious leaders, this crowd—they all commit a great injustice against Jesus. But what they intended for evil the Lord intended for good. Matthew is showing us more than just everything that’s wrong and jacked up in the trial of Jesus. He’s also revealing why Jesus goes to the cross like the Servant of Isaiah’s prophecy—he goes to take the place of guilty people like you and me. Several clues lead me to think he’s showing us more.

For starters we’ve got the allusion to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, which we’ve already seen in verses 12 and 14; and that Servant is depicted as one who is innocent suffering in the place of the guilty. We also have a deliberate contrast between Jesus—who’s called “that righteous man” in verse 19—and Barabbas—who’s called “a notorious prisoner” in verse 16. And later in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is crucified between two other criminals who are described like Barabbas. In other words, Jesus hung on the cross where Barabbas should’ve been hanging.

So, in the end, as these events unfold historically, they’re also illustrating something theologically. Jesus became the Servant to stand in the place of the guilty. Barabbas deserved the punishment, but Jesus stood in his place. The righteous suffers for the unrighteous. The innocent suffers for the guilty. Yeah, human hands killed Jesus. But in and through these events God’s love was at work; he was offering up his only Son on our behalf. Jesus is going to the cross to set the guilty free—guilty ones like you and me.

The King Gives His Own Innocent Blood

There’s one more piece to this picture. The King becomes the Servant to free the guilty by giving his own innocent blood. In verse 24, Pilate sees that he’s gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning. So, he takes water and washes his hands before the crowd saying, “I’m innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answer, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.

Spilling innocent blood is a big deal in the Scriptures. When someone killed an innocent person, God considered the land polluted.[iii] Serious curses fell on those who spill innocent blood.[iv] Proverbs 6:17 mentions six things the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination; and among the first three are, “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood.” Pilate and the Jews are guilty of innocent blood; and in many ways, they represent what all humanity is like in their sins, guilty.

This is the third time in Matthew, though, that innocent blood comes to mind. The first was 23:35. Jesus rebukes the Pharisees: “I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify…so that on you may come all the righteous [or innocent] blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah.” Not only do we get the words “innocent blood;” we get two concrete examples, one of which is Abel from Genesis 4.

Remember that story? Cain gets jealous of Abel and kills him. God then confronts Cain and says, “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.” Cain spilled innocent blood and that blood cried, “Guilty.” These Pharisees would be guilty. Innocent blood would cry against them.

The other place we find “innocent blood” is with Judas in 27:4. After betraying Jesus, Judas changes his mind, returns the silver, and says, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood”—Jesus being the innocent one. But as Colby showed us last Sunday, Judas couldn’t bear his guilt and comes to a very tragic end.

Now we have Pilate saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” implying that he believes Jesus is innocent, even though he’s not going to stop them from shedding his blood. Judas killed himself trying to escape the guilt. Pilate washes his hands trying to escape the guilt. But neither action can truly clear their guilt. What can clear their guilt? What can clear your guilt? Nothing you can do. The only thing that can clear someone’s guilt is the blood of Jesus, received as a gift of God’s grace.

The spilling of Jesus’ innocent blood isn’t without a divine purpose. According to Matthew, Jesus was born for this moment. 1:21, they called his name “Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus is the “mediator of a new covenant” and his “sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (Heb 12:24). Abel’s innocent blood could only say, “You’re guilty!” The innocent blood of the prophets could only say, “You’re guilty!” The blood of all the innocent ones throughout the Old Testament could only say, “You’re guilty!”

But the innocent blood of Jesus speaks the better word, “You’re forgiven!” That’s how the guilty go free. Jesus gives his own innocent blood; and in and through his death, God clears the guilty. If you repent and believe that Jesus gave his innocent blood for you, then your guilt stands cleared before the Lord.

This crowd of Jews shouts crucify him! They are guilty of spilling innocent blood, the blood of God’s only Son. But listen to what Peter tells them in Acts 3. This is after Jesus is risen from the dead. The disciples are spreading the gospel message. Peter has just healed a man, and is now explaining what that means; and he says this:

“The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you [Jews] delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses…”

But then Peter continues with this appeal in Acts 3:17, “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” Are you kidding me?! Talk about grace upon grace! He’s talking to the people who hung Jesus on the cross, the people we just read about in Matthew’s Gospel: “Your sins,” he says, “can be blotted out.”

In the first century, the ink used on ancient papyrus wouldn’t etch itself into the material. It sat on top, somewhat like writing on wax paper. Blotting it out was to take a wet sponge and wipe the document clean.[v]  When we repent and turn to Christ, God so wipes away our sins that there remains no trace of them. The sin itself, the guilt for the sin, any reminders of the sin—all wiped away in Christ.

They’re not just crossed out—like you can still see them listed behind the line, as if to say God still holds the list and says, “Ah, don’t forget this one.” If that’s how you see the cross, then you’re missing the beauty of the gospel. The gospel says that in Christ your sins are blotted out and your penalty was paid for in total by Christ. It’s all erased forever, never to be used against you in God’s court.

Brothers and sisters, we have a wonderful Savior. Twenty-five years ago, I watched a reenactment of this passion narrative. It was my senior year in high school. A couple months before, I told a group of Christians that I didn’t think God existed, a classmate that her belief in God was a stupid crutch, and my dad that if God wanted my money he could come and take it. So arrogant.

But some friends from school invited me to watch Jesus’ passion. I remember getting angry that an innocent man was hanging on the cross. I thought the story was dumb…until the pastor explained why Jesus, the innocent one, died: “the righteous suffered for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” I was guilty and running headlong into sin. I was like Barabbas on death row, awaiting the punishment. I was like Pilate wanting to save face. I was like the crowds wanting my own way. But the Lord saved me that night, using this scene from the Gospels.

Maybe he will save someone else, when you share this good news with others as well. Despite even the greatest of our sins, his own innocent blood is sufficient to clear your guilt and set you free. The King became the Servant to make this happen. In the end, Pilate had him scourged—where they take a whip and rip the flesh off your back. Then he released Jesus to be crucified. But in these events God was loving us dearly. Jesus was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:5).


[i] When John’s Gospel tells the story, we learn how the Jewish leaders were saying things to Pilate like, “Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12).

[ii] John Oswalt, Isaiah, NICOT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 111.

[iii] Deut 19:10; 21:8-9.

[iv] Deut 27:25. One reason the Lord destroyed Israel and sent them into exile was that they spilled innocent blood (2 Kgs 21:16; 24:4; Ps 106:38; Jer 7:6; 19:4; 22:3, 17).

[v] See the discussion in BDAG, s.v. “exaleiphw.”

other sermons in this series

Jul 21


The Death of Christ

Speaker: Bret Rogers Passage: Matthew 27:45–54 Series: The Gospel According to Matthew

Jun 30


Judas’ Tragic End: A Betrayal of Innocent Blood

Passage: Matthew 27:1–10, Zechariah 11:12–13 Series: The Gospel According to Matthew