The ultimate prisoner exchange: the Son of God pays the price so the guilty can go free — Charles Gardner

Engraving of Pontius Pilate releasing Barabbas to the crowd during the trial of Jesus, based on a Terra Cotta Panel by George Tinworth

In view of the war in Israel, it was perfectly appropriate, though not intentional, that our church sermon on Sunday focused on Jesus’ claim to be the truth.

It was part of a series on the “reason for the season” in respect of Advent and the approach of Christmas, though the passage on truth from John’s gospel also touches on the exchange of prisoners – now taking place before a global audience.

So why do Christians make such a fuss over an event which even pagans use as an excuse for fun and feasting?

Because it’s an annual reminder of how God himself came to Earth to live among us. And if Jesus is God, as we claim, the importance of Christmas goes far beyond tinsel, turkey and parties.

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When he came before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, at his trial, Jesus said: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” — John 18:37

Pilate did not believe Jesus was guilty of anything worthy of death, though he eventually succumbed to the shouts of a baying mob. So, looking for a possible way out of his dilemma, he offered a prisoner exchange, which was the custom during the feast of Passover.

It came down to a choice between the one who fulfilled all the prophecies and requirements of their Messiah-King – and a terrorist called Barabbas!

So they chose the terrorist! Sound familiar? But their hearts were hardened (and blinded) for a good reason because Jesus had to die as the Passover Lamb sacrificed for the sins of the world – not only for his fellow Jews but also for Gentiles and all who (metaphorically speaking) mark the doors of their hearts with the blood he shed for us. His death for our life. The innocent pays the price while the guilty go free. That is the wonderful grace of divine justice.

God did not reject his chosen people because of their rejection of his Son at this trial. And the exile that followed also came with many promises to bring them home.

Yet now they are back, the tables have turned. A worldwide outcry has erupted against the Jewish people while imprisoned terrorists are released to further fan the flames of antisemitism and flood the world with “violence” (which is what “Hamas” means in Hebrew and Arabic).

But there is good news. Jesus rose again and is alive today! On returning from church, I came across the story of Hezbollah1 fighter Afshin Javid, to whom a brightly shining man appeared in his prison cell, saying: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (See John 14:6)

Now, through his Christian ministry, Cyrus Call, Javid is promoting friendship between Persians and Jews with a simple message: “God didn’t design us to hate.”2

Around the time I was reading this exciting story, our hearts were further lifted by news of the release from Hamas captivity of two sisters, Dafna and Ella, aged 15 and eight, who had apparently lost their parents and brother in the October 7 massacre.

Our church had been praying for them especially after contact was made with a family member in Israel. As the Bible says: “no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.” — Isaiah 64:4

I understand many in Israel are turning to God, as well they might at such a time of distress.

Some 2 700 years ago, Isaiah also wrote: “God’s people could have rest in their own land if they would only obey him, but they will not listen.” — Isaiah 28:12 (NLT)

The key to it all, the answer to the peace for which they are searching, is found just four verses later, where the Lord says: “Look! I am placing a foundation stone in Jerusalem. It is firm, a tested and precious cornerstone that is safe to build on. Whoever believes need never run away again.” — Isaiah 28:16 (NLT)

Who or what is this foundation stone? It is none other than the prisoner who stood before Pilate, saying: “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

1A Lebanon-based terror group, like Hamas, also committed to Israel’s destruction and backed by Iran
2New Life, December 2023 – see www.newlife.co.uk

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