You might remember the true story of Rubin Carter, immortalised in Bob Dylan’s song Hurricane. Rubin Carter was a black middleweight boxer who was wrongfully convicted of triple homicide in 1966.
According to Dylan’s retelling, Carter's “trial was a pig-circus, he never had a chance, the judge made Rubin’s witnesses drunkards from the slums … no one doubted that he pulled the trigger and though they could not produce the gun the DA said he was the one who did the deed, and the all-white jury agreed”. Carter went on to spend almost 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
On Good Friday, we remember one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in human history ... a truly innocent man wrongfully condemned to death.
Having been arrested and tried by the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea. The Jews did not have the authority themselves to execute Jesus, but they wanted him dead. Not only did they believe Jesus guilty of blasphemy (“By calling God his Father, he makes himself equal to God!” John 5:18), they were afraid and wanted to stop his movement in its tracks. And so they handed him over to Pilate.
It’s clear that Pilate doesn’t want to have Jesus put to death. His wife warns him not to have anything to do with this miscarriage of justice against this innocent man, but the Jewish leaders put Pilate in a corner that threatens his authority and allegiance, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12).
Pilate’s assessment of Jesus is crucially important. When the Jewish leaders demand to have him crucified, Pilate replies, “Why? What crime has he committed?” And in John’s account, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”
It’s clear in Pilate’s mind that Jesus is innocent. And indeed he is. He is the only one who could possibly be deemed ‘Innocent’ on the cosmic scales of justice.
As the biblical writers insist, “he is a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19), he was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). Where Adam failed in the garden and all humanity in his wake, Jesus succeeded in perfectly obeying his Father, even though he was tempted in every way as we are. It is indeed his innocence and righteous life which uniquely qualify him to be our substitute, remedying our disobedience with his obedience, and offering himself for our redemption.
On that first Good Friday, the Innocent One was condemned, while the criminal Barabbas was released. On that first Easter, there was truly a Great Exchange, as the innocent took the place of the guilty. A scandalous miscarriage of justice if ever there was one!
And yet, in God’s economy, according to his scandalous mercy, this same Great Exchange is offered to all humanity.
I cannot put it better than the great hymn Before the Throne which so beautifully describes the good news of Easter: “Because the sinless Saviour died, my sinful soul is counted free, for God the just is satisfied, to look on him and pardon me”.