The Rylands Library Papyrus P52 is perhaps the oldest surviving fragment of the New Testament. There isn’t a clear consensus on the exact date but scholars agree that it is very old. Most people believe John wrote his Gospel shortly before his death near the end of the first century and since P52 was recovered from Egypt and dated around 125 AD that is very impressive indeed. It is actually on public display in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester and it is something I would like to see one day. It is only a small fragment of papyrus 8.9 by 6 cm and it has writing on both sides. Interestingly, all of the material is to be found in today’s reading.
The fanatics or the Jewish authorities were bent on having Jesus executed. Some may argue that these were just men who didn’t understand what was going on. They wanted a quiet life and were frightened of a rebellion against the Romans which would cause great suffering to the people and crucially, destroy the temple. Jesus’ first interview by Annas seems to back this up when he asked Jesus about; ‘his teaching and his disciples’ (18:19). They were not honest in their dealings with Pilate. He knew they were motivated by self-interest (Matthew 27:18). When they are given a choice between Jesus and a man who was actually a murderer (Luke 23:19) and had taken part in a rebellion, they were quick to demand that Jesus be crucified. It should not be a surprise, so many will believe in anything other than the Gospel.
The pragmatist Pilate just wanted things to run smoothly. He knew Jesus was innocent, he knew the motivation of the fanatics but he wanted a neat solution. Jesus spoke more to Pilate than to anyone else after his arrest. Pilate’s words “What is truth?” could have been uttered today and ironically the truth was right in front of him in the person of Jesus. As we shall see tomorrow, pressure increased on Pilate from all sides throughout this trial and he did try to have Jesus released but in the end it came down to a choice between keeping the fanatics happy and justice. Sadly, he chose the former.
The sinner Barabbas was a pawn in the game of power between Pilate and the high priests. We know very little about him except that he was a condemned man set to die on a cross. We can imagine his last night as he waited for his final dawn. Bear in mind that Pilate was looking for a way to save Jesus, so surely he must have chosen the most unpopular man available to stand against him. He could not have known that Jesus would die on a cross prepared for him. Did the experience change him, did he surrender his life to Christ or did he run away as fast as he could without even a backward glance? We don’t know but we know that there are millions who know the truth of the Gospel and have never responded.
The Saviour, Jesus is the only one in control. The fanatics are desperate for Jesus to be crucified. Their own method of execution, stoning, would not do. They wanted Jesus crucified because it meant he would come under a curse (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) and this would put the whole; ‘is he the Messiah?’ argument to bed. How could he be the Messiah if he was cursed? Jesus is in complete control, he had already spoken of the way he would die (3:14, 12:32-33), he had already quoted Isaiah 53:12 (Luke 22:37) and would quote Psalm 22:1 from the cross (Matthew 27:46). He had stood there whilst he was punched by the servant, he had stood there blindfolded while the fanatics lined up to punch him in the face (Mark 14:65), he will stay as he is mocked and abused by the soldiers, he will hang there on the cross and he will become a curse so that sinners like me can be set free.
‘Come and see, come and see,
Come and see the King of love.
See the purple robe and crown of thorns he wears.
Soldiers mock, rulers sneer,
As he lifts the cruel cross.
Lone and friendless now he climbs towards the hill.’ (Graham Kendrick)