I’ll never forget the first time I felt real guilt. I was in elementary school, and a friend and I had been teasing one of our classmates by stealing his water bottle and hiding it around the classroom. Eventually, this little boy got tired of our silly game and told the teacher that someone had stolen his water bottle. My friend and I passionately promised that we had nothing to do with the case of the mysterious missing water bottle. Our teacher believed us, and we thought we had successfully avoided punishment. That night, I lay in bed racked with guilt. My tossing and turning got so bad that I felt I had no choice but to confess. I crept downstairs and tearfully told my parents I was guilty.
I’ve often told this story as a funny example of how deeply guilty kids can feel about “little” sins. There was something serious going on in my little heart: I knew, deep down, that something in me was bent toward doing wrong.
There is something innate in us that senses that the world is not how it should be: there is darkness, evil, abuse, and injustice. There is also something in us that senses we are not how we should be: we desire evil things, we make intentionally bad choices, and we do things that hurt other people. We may grow up in different circumstances, but we all know the feeling of guilt.
Without the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ, Revelation 20:12-13 is a terrifying prophecy for guilty people. However you interpret the events in Revelation 20 and 21, the truth is that God promises to judge and defeat all evil in the world—and these verses tell us that unbelievers will be judged on the basis of what they have done. Even the “best” among us should rightly fear the judgement of God, for Scripture makes clear that none of us have done good enough to warrant a positive judgement.
However, this terrifying promise is fundamentally altered for those of us who trust in Christ: He placed Himself under judgement and submitted to the punishment for our sin.
Jesus is the only human who ever lived a life that could be truly judged righteous by His deeds, and yet He chose to take on the judgement we deserved. Because Jesus was judged for what He did not do, we are saved from judgement for what we did.
In our reading from Matthew, there is great emphasis placed on Barabbas’ humanity and his guilt. He was a “notorious prisoner” (27:16), guilty of serious crimes. He was also an ordinary man: his name means “son of a father,” a generic description that could apply to anyone. Jesus is punished in his place: the one who is so innocent that even Pilate’s wife knew it (27:19), and the one who is not just any “son of a father,” but the Son of the Father God. Barabbas was a historical figure who was spared punishment because the crowds wanted Jesus. He is also a picture of the position we are all in: spared punishment because Jesus took our place.
Many of us struggle with overwhelming guilt for sins very different from stealing a water bottle. We toss and turn at night because we have hurt other people or harmed ourselves in such serious ways that we can’t even image what forgiveness would look like.
Some of us struggle with the hurt others have inflicted on us: how could Jesus forgive the people who have abused or exploited us? The gospel doesn’t seem like good news if it excuses horrible sins against us.
The tension between these perspectives is what makes Revelation 20:12-13 such surprisingly good news: we are free from the judgement of our deeds because Jesus took on that judgement. Our God does not take evil lightly. He sought our redemption, not by ignoring sin, but by taking our pain and punishment on Himself.
We ended our Matthew reading today with the words, “Then they led him away to crucify him” (Matt 27:31). We do not worship a God who ignores evil and suffering, we worship a God who wanted so desperately to redeem us that He took the consequences of sin upon Himself.
Week 3 Challenge: Justification is a difficult concept. Take some time this week to explore the difference between justification and forgiveness. Share with a friend what you find.
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