When you look at the story of the crucifixion, you see Jesus. And you should. He’s the center of the story.
But as the creative type that I am, I love seeing characters within stories and interactions they have with the central flow of action. There are characters other than Jesus who play an important role and from whom we have a lot to learn. Believers and non-believers, some government officials, a couple criminals.
This post is about those characters. My hope is that, the next time you read the crucifixion account, you think about these things and get a bigger grasp on the story of Jesus’ death and what lessons we can take from it and apply to our own lives.
I’ll be using the account in Luke 22:66-23:56. The link goes to the ESV version of the story. If you want, I encourage you to follow along. I’ll cite the Scripture in here if you can’t or don’t want to.
CHARACTER(s) NO. 1: CHIEF PRIESTS AND COUNCIL (22:66-23:2)
These are the villains of the story, and while there’s no sympathy for them to be given here in this tale, we can get a couple insights into their motivations and their mindset.
The first is in verses 67-68:
(They said” “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer.”
The CPCs (chief priest and council people) were wanting proof that Jesus was who He said He was. And He was straight up with them and said, “Look, even if I tell you that I am, you won’t believe me. So why even ask?” In today’s culture, we see many people like this who are looking for proof of God and say that they’ll believe in Him when they see proof. But even when proof is given to them, they don’t believe.
This is evidence to me of one thing: real salvation and real life-change can only be brought about in the heart by the work of the Holy Spirit. God can use our evangelistic and even apologetics-based efforts in that process, but the real work is done by the Holy Spirit.
The second is in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 23:
Then the whole company of them [CPCs] arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”
Except for the last charge, everything else the CPCs accused Jesus of were false accusations. In fact, Jesus was leading people in the right direction, towards God. He also was not forbidding them to give tribute to Caesar, but instead said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25).
Critics of Jesus bring false accusations to the table that have no real foundation. We Christians often do the same thing when we get angry at God. We say He is things that He is not and He is not things that He is. We say He doesn’t have our best interests in mind. We say He is a liar.
CHARACTER NO. 2: PONTIUS PILATE (23:3-16)
This has always been the most interesting character to me in this story. Let’s see his first contribution, in 23:3-4 —
And Pilate asked him [Jesus], “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”
Pilate has the right view of Jesus, at the start and to a point. Pilate is the guy who looks at Jesus and sees nothing wrong with Him. This is half of the Gospel, that Jesus was sinless and did no wrong. However, Pilate’s view is only in the legal sense. But he carries this view throughout the whole of the story. Heading down to verse 14, after sending Jesus to be judged by Herod:
…and (Pilate) said to them [CPCs], “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him.”
Pilate saw right through the CPCs’ false accusations and saw Jesus as He truly was. That is a praiseworthy thing in itself. So while he often gets a bad rap, let’s give him some credit. But here’s where he falls short: he gives into the demands of the crowd. The image in Matthew 27 of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ blood stands out.
We can be people who see Jesus as He actually is but do nothing about it, not let it have any effect on our lives, our choices, our character, anything. Pilate is a great example of that. He had the right mindset, but He missed what that mindset was supposed to do to his life.
CHARACTER NO. 3: BARABBAS (23:18-25)
Barabbas is one of two silent characters in this group, and the only one who does not play an active role in Jesus’ death story. He is passive, and its his passivity that’s most important to us. He’s also incredibly symbolic. This is where the characters begin to look a little better.
He’s only mentioned once in the Luke account, in 23:18-19 —
But they [CPCs] all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas” – a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.
We don’t know much more about Barabbas other than that he was pardoned and Jesus literally died in his place. Barabbas was set for execution, but thanks to a Passover tradition, he got to go free. We see the contrast and the ludicrousness of it in verses 24-25:
So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.
Let’s do a little character replacement here. Replace the CPCs with God and Barabbas with you, Christian. God demands you. Justice says that you are the one who needs to die for your sin, the one who must pay the price for what you’ve done against Him. But God demands, insists, that He must have you free. Who will replace you on the execution block? Why, it’s Jesus.
That’s the Gospel. Barabbas is the literal Gospel come to life. He deserved to die for his sin, but Jesus literally died in his place. He is the first recipient, in a way, of the grace of Jesus. So next time you read, put yourself in the shoes of Barabbas and consider how that might have felt, what that must have meant, in a way.
CHARACTER NO. 4: REPENTANT CRIMINAL (23:39-43)
Skipping over a chunk of the story, we fast-forward to Jesus hanging on the cross, planted between two criminals hanging on crosses on the hill of Golgotha. Let’s get to it:
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
I love this because this is the Christian. The Christian is someone who realizes that he deserves punishment for his sin and Jesus is perfect. Realizing this, he seeks Jesus for entry into eternal life.
This is who we should desire to be in this story. This is the only time we meet him, the only chance we get to interact with him, but he is the one person who goes through any part of this process and his life is changed by it, the one that we know of at least. He saw Jesus as He was and, unlike Pilate, his life was changed by it.
This is the appropriate response to meeting Jesus, seeing your sinfulness and realizing there’s no other way to find eternal life but through Him. I am the repentant criminal. By God’s grace, I’m not the unrepentant criminal but the one who repented.
CHARACTER NO. 5: JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA (23:50-53)
I noticed something about my boy Joey here this most recent time I read this story. Let’s see here in verses 50-51:
Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God.
I had not noticed before that he was part of the CPCs. Joey was against the actions of the council and was seeking after God and saw that Jesus was the way to the kingdom of God.
It’s possible to be a Pharisee and love Jesus, apparently. It reminds me of growing up in the church and being around a lot of law-insisting and righteousness-seeking. Then, you meet Jesus and you’re seeking after the kingdom of God in the right way. I would love to talk to Joey to see what it was like to be in this situation as this character.
Were there any rarely- or under-discussed characters that I missed? Any thoughts on the characters I mentioned? Comment below!