a monthly devotional journal
Issue No. 125
Too many questions--and now even the kid wanted to know.
I guess it wasn't fair to call him a kid, since he had two kids of his own now. My nephew had his own life, but was painfully interested in mine--especially the life I had left behind so many years before.
"Were you there?"
That's what I thought. He was always bothering me about it.
"Go home. I hear your wife calling."
"I just want to know. Why won't you talk to me about it?"
"It's none of your business."
"Don't you want us to know the truth?"
"It's not my place to explain everything."
"Uncle, you were alive when our faith was born. You were a part of it."
"No! I wasn't a part of it. Jerusalem was a big city--even then."
"I don't want to pass on just rumors to my family. I want to tell them the truth--and you know the truth. Because you were there, weren't you?"
I was beginning to hate the day my sister married. Why couldn't she have gone to her grave without giving birth to this irritating man who wanted me to reveal everything I had for so long kept hidden in my heart.
For I was there, you see. I was witness to it all. I heard the troops march down the Praetorium steps, the jeers and weeping of the crowd during the procession through the city streets. I saw everything--every last, ugly part of it.
"If it is faith," I reminded my nephew, "then it doesn't need history to make it come to life--or keep it alive."
"That's not why. There are different shades of faith, Uncle. Some are like the husk off the wheat--lighter than air, blown about by the wind, so thin the light shines through. Some are more substantial, like the thick homespun of a new cloak. But others are like the stone foundation beneath the temple--solid and strong, resilient. I long for that kind of faith, and if I can learn more about what Jesus went through that day, maybe mine will become more like those temple stones."
My nephew didn't know what he was asking. He was looking for a hard record of something that was, to him, little more than a tale told around a table--a story passed around so many times that the last one telling doesn't even remember the first; a story told so many times that pieces have fallen away, but mostly pieces have been added, piled on like layers in a rock pile, all but covering the first, real layer under rubble.
"What do you expect me to tell you?"
"The truth." He was wide-eyed, naive. Innocent.
"Surely your mother told you."
"Every time I asked, she would only say that you were a hero, someone the people looked up to. But she'd say it with anger, and I never knew why. Not angry with me--but with you. Why would it make her angry that you were a hero?"
"Your mother never understood who I was."
"Who were you?"
Telling him would be like picking open a deep wound that had finally healed over, and I had no stomach for it. But maybe I owed it to him--for his mother's sake. Her silence was the sound of my pain. Her anger was the price of my guilt. Maybe the old wound, so long covered over, had become gangrenous and rotten, festering beneath the surface like a silent cancer. Maybe the best thing was to open it up to the light of day, to the fresh air of a time that didn't know the darkness through which we had passed.
I had laid awake that night, deep inside the cold stone bowels of the Praetorium--Herod's old palace, where the governor stayed when in Judea--listening to them saw and plane the three large pieces of wood. I had watched them many times before, and so now, even though the activity was shielded from my sight, I could see in my mind the callused hands scraping and chiseling the rough wood, taking no pains to smooth its surface, but only shaping it as best they could for its solitary purpose. The pieces--large, heavy chunks, really--would be left splintered and coarse, like rafters in a house that would eventually be covered over with plaster.
Two of these pieces of wood would bear the weight of my compatriots in the next cell, and one would bear mine, for we had been caught cold by our sworn enemies. These chunks of wood would be covered not with plaster, but with our blood and flesh. And after a long, agonizing torture, our death would come as a welcome end.
In the eyes of the Romans we were criminals, guilty of insurrection, theft, and murder. Yes, we had murdered, and stolen property, but only in the name of our nation and people, which is why, in the eyes of our fellow Jews, we were not criminals but heroes, for we actually did the deeds they only wished they had the courage to do.
All of us hated the Romans, and though they governed us by choice, they hated all of us as well. There are few things that can compare to the arrogance of a Roman; in their eyes we were little more than dogs--stupid, monotheistic vermin to be trampled down and ruled with an iron fist. We had few rights, except the right to pay back-breaking taxes to a government not of our choosing.
Then there was an upswell of voices outside the prison wall. The quivering, orange light of torches spread across the floor of my cell as the rhythmic footfalls of marching soldiers passed overhead. Then I heard the voices--a sea of murmuring and shouting that washed in to envelop the walls of the Roman citadel. The soldiers outside ignored the noisy crowd, as if they had been with them for some time, and had ceased hearing them.
An odd atmosphere of tense calm always accompanied the arrival of a special prisoner. The courtyard was normally a loud, clanging place--busy with all the commotion that goes along with the military attachment that guards government. But there was a hushed expectancy whenever someone important arrived--whether friend or foe. A lowly criminal like me would be hauled in with very little ceremony; in the eyes of the Romans, criminal scum was worth only that. But most Romans were essentially political--even down to the first-rank soldier--and the arrival of a political prisoner would silence the din. Likewise, a crowd seldom accompanied the arrest of a low criminal. So the clamor outside the gate, along with the hushed discipline of the soldiers, told me that someone special had just arrived.
I wasn't sorry for the actions that had put me in chains. Mine was a righteous cause: I would do anything in my power to throw off the shackles of Roman tyranny. Israel belonged to God--not Rome. And though the oppressor might consider my acts to be crimes, I considered them to be acts of justice. Ours was a small land, with no designs on any other nation, yet we had been repeatedly invaded, abused, stolen into bondage and exile, and now possessed and humiliated by a heathen nation. God would honor what I had done in His name.
And apparently I would be seeing Him soon, for the Romans were to crucify us this day. There wasn't a worse way for a Jew to die. I was no scholar; my rabbi would beat me about the ears if he knew all that I had forgotten of his teaching. But I knew what every other Jew knew, that it was a hateful thing to die upon a tree. My only hope was that God would credit to my account that it was Roman law that had put me there, and not His law. Besides, killing an evil oppressor wasn't the same as killing a neighbor.
If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance. Deuteronomy 21:22-23
"No, I didn't know Him," was the answer to my nephew's question. "We traveled in different circles."
"Of course you knew of Jesus, though."
"Time has a way of compressing the events of the past. Jerusalem then--as today--was filled with mystics and prophets. They sold themselves on street corners, and every one of them carried around with them a little band of followers that proclaimed their teacher as the only one with the truth. Besides, everyday life isn't nearly so tidy. People were still struggling to feed their families, women were giving birth to new babies, the streets were still a mess, and taxes were too high. How were we to know a Savior had arrived?"
Philip bowed his head to stare at the floor, and I couldn't tell whether he was ashamed of our self-centered lives, or was just saddened by our ignorance. To him, Jesus was everything, and he couldn't understand why everyone else didn't think the same.
"So you didn't know He was there in front of Pilate."
"From the sounds, I knew someone was there--someone of more importance than I. But that was all. They don't give a front-row seat to condemned prisoners."
"I'm sorry, uncle. I forget what it must have been like for you."
And, for the most part, so had I.
A stone-paved courtyard encircled the raised area where the governor--who stayed in Herod's old palace when he was in Jerusalem--held court and made his public appearances. Because of the location of my cell, I couldn't hear anything said by him or the other officials, but I could hear the voices of the people standing on the pavement of the Praetorium. There was a cadence to their shouting-- "Crucify him! Crucify him! Barabbas-- crucify him! Let him be crucified!"
My fate was sealed. There had remained only one last chance for pardon: On Passover the governor could release one prisoner of the people's choosing. As I was known to them, I had hoped they might put my name before Pilate. But maybe I had gone too far this time. Maybe my nationalist spirit had now made my zeal too caustic for the common man, leaving them too vulnerable to reprisals from the Romans. When one of them was killed by one of us, they didn't just punish the murderer, but made life miserable for everyone else. Maybe I had become too dangerous--not just to the Romans, but to my own people.
So when the guards wrenched open my cell door to the scream of rusted iron against stone, I knew it was the scream of death waiting outside. I knew that they would haul me outside onto the pavement, strip me, and chain my wrists to the brackets on either side of the short column they kept for scourgings. After the scourge had shredded the flesh from my back, I would be made to carry the crosspiece of my death to Golgotha, and there whatever was left of me would die--a long, agonizing death.
As they manhandled me out of the cell and down the dark corridor, I realized, with a heavy sadness, that one of the last sensations of my miserable life would be the rotten stink of a dungeon.
The piercing, early morning light blinded me as they pushed open the door to exit the underground labyrinth of cells. The two soldiers that had conducted me out were angry--fiercely so--and I didn't understand why. They should be pleased, I thought, to execute someone who had killed one of their own. They shoved me down to the stone paving, all the while murmuring dark oaths. My shackles were removed, I thought so that I could be chained to the column for scourging.
But they left me there, in a heap on the ground, and, after a few sharp kicks to the ribs for good measure, they turned back toward the building. I didn't know what to make of it. At the moment when I had expected to begin my death, I was suddenly free!
Either the crowd was gone, or they were somewhere else in the area, for the large open pavement was mostly deserted. But there was a small gang of soldiers clustered around the short column they used for scourging prisoners. One of them was chained there, an arm on either side, which presented all of his back to the soldier wielding the scourge. He was laying into every stroke, and his companions were enjoying the wretched entertainment. I could hear their cursing, their black remarks about Jews, and something about a 'king of the Jews.'
I didn't recognize the prisoner, but I was close enough to confirm that it wasn't one of my Zealot brethren. I didn't know what strange magic had purchased my release, but I prayed that it would work for them as well. This one I had never seen before. Even as he winced under the strokes there was an odd serenity about him. Another man would have cried out, but as this man's back and shoulders were laid open by the scourge, he uttered not a word. Instead of cursing his persecutors, he took their abuse; instead of struggling against the unbearable pain, he only gazed up into the sky, as if his spirit had already left his body.
Nowhere is the air sweeter than outside the walls of a prison. Like a drowning man breaking through the surface of a wet grave, I sucked as much as I could of that air into my stagnant lungs. Just moments before, I had thought I was on the way to my death--and now, here I was walking the streets of Jerusalem, free.
A short distance from the Praetorium, a hand reached out and jerked me into an alleyway. Ananias was a comrade--the only one to escape arrest on that fateful day that had sent the three of us into prison. He kissed me in greeting, but also, I was sure, to confirm that I wasn't a ghost. Thus assured, he drew me further back into the shadows.
"It's dangerous for you to be out on the streets today," he said furtively.
"Why? I've just been released. I'm a free man!"
"That may be, but there's a dark spirit passing through this city today, and it's not really safe for any of us."
And I recalled the rhythmic shouting I had heard from my cell: "Crucify him! Crucify him! Let him be crucified!" I had thought it had been for me, but then I was mysteriously set free.
"Ananias, they were beating a man at the pavement when they released me. Who was he?"
"You don't know?"
"I wouldn't be asking if I did," I said angrily.
"He's a prophet that was arrested last night. They say he claims to be Messiah--King of the Jews."
"But why did they release me?"
"Pilate gave us a choice. He wanted us to release Jesus--"
"The prophet. A Galilean. They say he hails from Nazareth. Pilate offered him as the one to be released for the Passover custom. But I was there. I was in the crowd, and saw the priests lobbying the people to shout out your name instead. Every time Pilate offered Jesus, the people answered back with your name. He finally gave in. You were set free--and Jesus was sent to the cross."
"My cross," I muttered as the truth of what had happened sank in. "They're going to hang him from the cross they were making for me."
"I suppose they are," Ananias said matter-of-factly, just like a man who had never experienced a miraculous reprieve.
"What of Caleb and Naboth?"
His face grew dark and angry. Tears began to fill his eyes. "Nothing has changed. They're going to be crucified along with the Galilean."
"It's not right!" What can we do to save them? There's got to be a way."
But Ananias grabbed me by the shoulders in his tight grip. "There's nothing we can do. We've been up all night, plotting for some way to turn this around. But there's nothing we can do. We can't stop their deaths."
"Have they left the Praetorium yet?"
"They should be on their way."
We used back streets that would take us around Herod's palace, to a point between it and the gate that was used to leave the city for Golgotha--the rocky outcropping just outside the city wall that was used for executions. Those back streets were quiet; normal life was still taking place in most of the city: women swept off stoops, babies wailed behind windows, and children played in the streets. But as we approached the main street that wound through the city from Herod's palace to the Antonia Fortress, where the Roman troops were billeted just outside the temple mount, the noise and commotion of a procession filled the air.
Dust from a thousand feet clouded the avenue, and the wide street was reduced to a narrow passageway by the hundreds of people that crowded between the procession and the walls of the buildings. The soldiers that escorted the condemned were not gentle in how they cleared the way, but used their short swords and spears to full effect, shoving and bruising their way toward the city gate.
I searched first for my comrades--the ones who had been left behind when fate had been kinder to me. My heart stirred with a noxious brew of anger and pride to see Naboth--dark, fiery, dependable Naboth--leading the way, his strong back defiantly straight and proud under the weight of the heavy crossbeam that had been lashed to his arms. Last came the gentle and intelligent Caleb--the bright one of our group, the thinker--and my heart broke to see him struggling under the weight of the wood. Caleb wasn't a strong man, and while I ached to think of him dying so horribly upon the cross, I knew it would be a short death, since his frail body surely wouldn't last long.
Between my friends was the man Ananias called Jesus--the Galilean. He was a mess, and though I didn't know him, my heart broke over how the Roman dogs had treated a fellow Jew. The back of his robe was soaked with blood, so the scourging had been long and thorough; his arms were bruised and cut, and his face was puffy and misshapen from the pummeling he had received; and jammed into the top of his head, like a sick joke only a depraved beast would enjoy, was a crown woven from acacia thorns.
The behavior of the crowd lining the street was mixed: some were enjoying the show, throwing stones and epithets at the walking dead, while others wept over their treatment and ultimate fate. Here and there I noticed men standing erect and silent at the edge of the crowd, as if members of a secret sentry, staring straight ahead through eyes filled with tears.
Passing through the gate, the procession was soon at the crest of the outcropping everyone in Jerusalem called 'The Skull.' The soldiers had performed the same routine many times before, so their movements were mechanical and efficient. They laid each of the men onto their back, positioning the crosspiece beneath their arms and shoulder blades. With my two friends, they lashed cords around their arms to hold their weight by the crossbeam, but with Jesus--who, by all appearances, was being treated as a special case--they used the alternate form of hanging a condemned from the cross. With practiced blows, the executioner swung a hammer to drive an iron spike through each of the man's wrists. Then several soldiers took hold of him and the crosspiece to which he was pinned, lifted him up off the ground, and slid the piece of wood down over the projection at the top of the permanent post. Swiftly, the executioner shoved up his feet, bending his legs at the knees, and drove a final spike thro ugh both feet and into the vertical post.
What evil mind had devised such a death? I wondered miserably. To see a fellow countryman humiliated in such a public way filled me with a rage that was difficult to swallow. This wasn't the time or place to betray what was in my heart, but I vowed then to make the Romans pay--and pay dearly--for this injustice.
Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. "Hail, king of the Jews!" they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. Matthew 27:27-31
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals--one on his right, the other on his left. Luke 23:32-33
There is an anger so wretched, so leaden and deep, that it cannot bear its own weight. There is a despair so profound that it cannot be sustained without destroying its author.
If the depravity and misery of Sheol had been painted into plaster by the finest artist, it still would not have captured the depravity and misery of the scene in which I stood. Two brave men--my comrades and friends--hung dying, gasping for breath upon the implements of their destruction. Yes, they had taken life. Yes, they had broken the laws of both the land and their God. But for them to die in such a hideous manner was more than I could bear.
For I knew that if they were guilty, then so was I. I had taken life. I had broken the very laws that had set our people apart from every other nation. Had our zeal for justice blinded us to the injustice in our own actions? Had we finally set ourselves above law and right, in the name of an anger that even now burned like a furnace in our bellies?
On the left was Naboth--brave, defiant Naboth. Even now, as he struggled to fill his tortured lungs with air, he used what little air he had to curse the lives of his Roman executioners. For a moment my heart filled with pride at his unwillingness to bow--even in death--before our oppressors. But then he turned to the man called Jesus, and spat his venom at him. In his fierce struggle to sustain his life, he was now reviling a fellow innocent, and I wept over what my friend had become.
"They say you are the Christ," Naboth sneered at Jesus. "You say you are the Christ. Well? Save us then! If you really are the One--save all of us!"
Jesus remained silent, as he had the other times I had seen him. But poor little Caleb, struggling to upright himself to force air into his sagging lungs, hanging there like a limp doll to the right of Jesus--Caleb gasped at Naboth, "Are you mad? Give it up, man!" My friend sagged in exhaustion, then heaved himself back up to speak. "Have you no fear of God in this hour? We deserve this death--we've earned it. But this man is innocent!"
Naboth turned away, still angry, still struggling not only for life, but to free himself from the bonds that held him in place. If he could only free himself, he might die with honor, fighting hand-to-hand those he despised.
But Caleb turned his gaze back toward the one hanging between them. "Jesus," he gasped, "Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom." And then the frail, helpless body of my friend sagged in defeat.
Then, for the first time, I heard the voice of Jesus--a voice so tender, yet strong--a voice though human, seemed to be borne on wings of light. "Believe me, my friend, today you shall be with Me in Paradise."
And in that moment my senses at last burst free of their bonds of anger and pride. In that awful moment I realized, to my hope and dismay--I was staring at God. This was no ordinary man hanging before me. Everything about Him was of another place, another time, another plane of existence. While we all bore on our backs the weight of our own arrogance and pride, He bore all of that and more. Having none of His own, He bore instead the weight of man's depraved devotion to self. Being God, He could not sin, so instead took on all the sin of everyone else.
I fell to my knees in shame. On my face in the dirt, every bit of arrogance leached out of me. Every bit of pride and boasting and conceit spilled out and flowed to mix with the blood spilling down from that hideous cross. In a moment I revisited all of my sins: my wretched life, the pain and death I had caused in the name of my own righteousness. I was the most base among a people that were base, and I realized that of all people, it was I that deserved to be hanging from that cross. I could not control my weeping, but sobbed my helpless grief into my hands.
The ground beneath me trembled, and the sky exploded with a fierce concussion. All the spectators were beginning to flee the site, heading back into the city. I looked up at the three crosses. Naboth's face still glared his defiance, but he was struggling for every breath, and was now silent. Caleb, my dear friend, had withered into a lifeless rag. How I had loved him. How I wished I could have died alongside him. How I longed for those days of innocence and joy, before we were what we had become.
Between my two friends, the agony of the cross was written across the face of Jesus. There was nothing in Him that would turn away from the pain of dying as one of us. There was also in that face an agony I could not explain, or even identify--something far higher and more terrible than anything I might imagine. But even in that, Jesus retained all of his faculties; the insanity of the cross had not purchased His soul.
Instead, even in the final moments of His clarity, while all hell was breaking loose around Him and heaven stood before Him, Jesus turned to look down upon me. Without saying a word, without uttering a sound, His quiet gaze bore down into the very depths of my heart, as if to say, "I'm dying for you, Barabbas. I'm dying for you."
Not a word passed between us during the long silence that followed the telling of my story. My nephew sat slumped, staring at the ground, while around us the sounds of family life returned an air of normalcy to what had been a tortuous recollection from another time.
I expected him to hate me. Just as he had been steadfast in his desire to know about my past, and its relationship to Christ, I expected him now to be steadfast in a new desire to have nothing to do with me. What would he tell his children about the uncle who had been imprisoned for killing fellow human beings? What would he tell them about someone who stood by and watched his friends die for crimes of which he himself was guilty? And what would he tell them about the uncle who was set free from prison so that their Savior--God Himself--could be tortured and killed?
"Uncle?" The voice was small, timid, yet packed with emotion.
"Is it all true?"
"It's all true. Every word."
More silence, as he kept his head lowered. Then, "Uncle?"
"I've never said this before."
"Said what before?"
My nephew slowly raised his head to look into my eyes. "I've never told you that I love you. But I do. I love you with all my heart."
Now I really didn't know what to say. My worst fears suddenly evaporated. Like a cool mist on a summer morning, they just lifted away.
"I--I thought you would hate me."
"Uncle," his face slowly brightened, "you've been given a gift--a precious gift." He paused to choose his words carefully. "On the cross, Jesus took on Himself the penalty of sin for every person who ever lived. He became, in that moment, what John the baptizer called Him: the 'Lamb of God.' The one--and final--spotless sacrifice. In that moment He bore the sins of us all.
"But you--the one whose place he took on that cross--you, uncle, were every man. You stood before that cross in your helpless shame and represented every person for whom Jesus died. That really was your cross--just as it was mine, just as it was Mother's, just as it will be my children's. You stood there that day and represented us all!
"And for that I owe you a debt of gratitude."
For thirty years I had lived with my guilt. Oh, as sure as there is a God in heaven, I became a believer that hard day. One could not look upon the death--and, more than that, the resurrection--of Jesus without believing that He really was the Son of God, and that He had died for my sins.
But I had still lived with the guilt. I had lived a life of faith without joy, belief without a sense of victory. My heart was changed, my life saved, but my mind still labored under the weight of that awful exchange.
Now I was free. For the first time since that terrible day so long ago, I was truly free. Barabbas was free!
Issue No. 125
Aspects is Copyright © 2001 David S. Lampel.
Permission is hereby granted for this original material to be reprinted in newsletters, journals, etc., or to be used in spoken form. When used, please include the following line: "From Aspects, by David S. Lampel. Used by permission." Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture is from the New International Version. NIV quotations are from the Holy Bible: New International Version, Copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the International Bible Society. Used by permission. NASB quotations are from the New American Standard Bible Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by The Lockman Foundation.
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