Have you ever heard a sermon featuring Barabbas? Likely not! He is viewed, and rightly so, as a despicable character in the Scriptures: The man the Jews preferred over Jesus, when Pilate offered to free one prisoner during the Passover observation, John 18:39-40. Doesn’t seem to be one we’d look to for instruction; but even negative examples can be valuable. So let’s look closer at the man and his story.
It really begins with the Jewish leaders: Long story short, they wanted Jesus dead. But they had a problem, and Jesus’ innocence wasn’t it—they had long since put their spin on that, convicting Him in their own court by way of false witnesses and twisted testimony, Matthew 26:59-66. Their problem was, the Roman occupation had removed Israel’s power to execute criminals. John 18:31, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death”—by Roman law. So they had to appeal to Pilate, the Roman governor, to get it done. But Pilate wasn’t a pushover; he was aware of their ulterior motive (envy, Matthew 27:18) and didn’t care to be used by them. Still, he was charged with keeping the peace, and didn’t need a provoked Jewish leadership stirring up trouble. It was a dilemma for him. But he came up with a plan, and its name was Barabbas.
The custom of the day was, as a good-will gesture to the Jews, to release one Jewish prisoner to them at the annual Passover observance, John 18:39. Now it’s important to note that the Roman governor would set forth a choice of prisoners, but it was the Jews who made the final decision concerning the one to be set free.
There were two things at work here:
Jesus was innocent of all charges, and Pilate knew it. He examined Him to his satisfaction, and reported his findings to the Jews: Luke 23:14-15 “I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this Man touching those things whereof you accuse Him: no, nor yet Herod: for I sent you to him; and lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto Him.” He said, v. 22 “I have found no cause of death in Him”; John 18:38 “I find in Him no fault at all.” He called Him a “just person”, Matthew 27:24, as did also Pilate’s own wife, v 19.
Barabbas was as guilty as Jesus was innocent! And Pilate knew that too. Barabbas was a “robber”, John 18:40 says—but that doesn’t begin to describe the extent of his crimes. Peter later would call him a “murderer”, Acts 3:14, with good reason. Mark 15:7 adds Barabbas was “lying bound [in prison] with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.”
Good information here: Barabbas was part of a group of at least 3—Barabbas being one, “with them” being at least two more—of insurrectionists, rebels against Rome, fanatical enough in their cause to commit murder (assassinations?) in its furtherance. In fact he was apparently the leader of his little group, “a notable prisoner,” Matthew 27:10. Most likely they were part of the larger “Zealot” political movement dedicated to throwing off the Roman yoke and reclaiming independence for the nation of Israel.
Incidentally, on a side note, one of Jesus’ apostles, Simon, had been formerly of that same party, Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13. There’s a pretty powerful lesson right there; for another apostle, Matthew (Levi), had been a publican—tax-collector—for that very government Simon was working to overthrow! These two had left behind their respective lifestyles and opposing philosophies to follow Jesus in perfect harmony. This aspect of Christianity is surely that about which Isaiah prophesied: Isaiah 11:6 “the wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion and the fatling together…” We are all “one in Christ Jesus”, Galatians 3:28.
But back to the point: Barabbas was actually guilty of the charges falsely brought against Christ! Luke 23:2 “perverting the nation, forbidding to give tribute unto Caesar…”; v. 5 “stirring up the people.”
So Pilate knew what he was doing—he had a plan. He would use the Jews’ own custom to escape the horns of his dilemma: Give them a choice of prisoners to release according to the Passover custom—but be sure the “other choice” was one so heinous, evil, dangerous to the people, that they would really have no choice but to name Jesus as the One to be freed. So he presented to them Barabbas, the insurrectionist, whose very philosophy and activities was a greater threat than Jesus had ever been to the Jewish leaders wishing to preserve the status quo. It was a good plan. Surely the Jewish leaders would not allow the release of a convicted rebel whose movement could cause the Romans to “come and take away our place (read: positions of power) and nation,” John 11:48. They would choose Jesus, Pilate would release Him according to custom, and his troubles with Him would be over.
It was a good plan. But Pilate hadn’t counted on the insane hatred the Jewish leaders held toward Jesus. They were apparently past the point of rational thinking, running on the blind emotion of hatred. They didn’t even think about it: Matthew 27:21 when Pilate “said unto them, Which of these two will ye that I release unto you?…they said, Barabbas.” When Pilate hesitated, Luke 23:18 “They cried out all together, saying, Away with this Man (Christ), and release unto us Barabbas…”; “Not this Man, but Barabbas,” John 18:40. So he ultimately caved. “Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged Him, to be crucified,” Mark 15:15. Pilate ceremoniously “washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see ye to it,” Matthew 27:24, but it didn’t change a thing; his guilt remained, along with the Jewish leaders. I don’t suppose there has ever been a greater perversion of justice—truly “His judgment was taken away,” Acts 8:33.
But there is a deeper layer to all this: The Romans had prepared three crosses for that execution day, none of which was intended for Jesus—He was a last-minute unexpected development brought before Pilate just that morning, Mark 15:1. So who were the intended three crucifixions? It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the three crosses were prepared for—Barabbas and his small group! We know the two men crucified with Jesus were “thieves”, Matthew 27:38. Luke 23:33 calls them “malefactors”, the Greek word denoting “one who does evil work”. Even Matthew’s word “thieves” is a special word in the Greek (lestes) denoting “to take by violence.” The usual word for “thief” is kleptes, describing a “thief in the night” (notice our “kleptomaniac”). The difference might be likened to the modern terms “burglar”, a sneak-thief, and “armed robber”, one who takes by violence. These two thieves were violent men. And if they were the “them” arrested with Barabbas, Mark 15:7, then it is equally likely the middle cross had been meant for Barabbas himself.
So here’s the scenario: Barabbas was a principle man in the rebellion against Rome, having committed all kinds of atrocities—robbery, murder—in support of his cause. He had been arrested with two of his henchmen, convicted and sentenced to die by crucifixion. Rome designated a day and had the crosses prepared for them. Then this whole episode with the man Jesus cropped up, putting a monkey wrench into the planned works, with the Jews’ choice reluctantly accepted by Pilate. Now Barabbas was about to be a free man, and his cross available for Jesus.
Now: Put yourself into Barabbas’ shoes: Here you are, on the Romans’ version of Death Row, awaiting your crucifixion. You know your guilt is real (later, Luke 23:41, your compatriot on the cross would say “We’re in this condemnation justly; for we receive the due reward for our deeds.”) You were willing to risk it for the Cause, but you knew as soon as you were arrested this would be the end. You’re fully expecting it; you have no hope. But then word comes—every year Pilate frees one prisoner for the Jews at their Passover, and wonder of wonders, they’re calling for you! It sounds too good to be true. But then you hear it’s official: By some fluke, the crowd has asked for you to be released, and by a further fluke Pilate has agreed. You’re going free! Further, you hear about another prisoner freshly condemned—they’re taking the cross prepared for you and giving it to Him. Perhaps you even hear His name: Jesus. Being a Jew, you’ve heard the rumors that He’s a prophet. Some even say He’s the promised Messiah! You’re bound to wonder: Why are they releasing guilty you and condemning innocent him? Then you hear “the rest of the story”: The choice presented to the people was—you or Him. You realize, He’s taking your cross—substituting for you! You’re going free, but as a direct result, He’s going to that cross meant for you.
The idea of a righteous Man dying in your place is hard to ignore. As a Jewish man, acquainted with the Scriptures, you might even think of Isaiah 53:5, of the One who “was wounded for our transgressions, and bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed.” Food for thought at the very least.
Now step back out of Barabbas’ shoes: Let’s start at another place and work our way back to him: Leviticus 16 records ceremonies involved in the Jewish “Day of Atonement”: vv. 7-10 “(Aaron) shall take…two goats, and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of the congregation; and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord, and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat upon which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer him for a sin-offering. But the goat, upon which the lot fell to be the scapegoat, shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make an atonement with him, and to let him go for a scapegoat into the wilderness.” Two goats—one chosen for sacrifice; the other set free. Leviticus 14 tells of a similar arrangement related to the cleansing of leprosy, but with two birds: one to be killed, its blood used in a ceremonial cleansing; the other set free.
Can’t we see in these arrangements, a cosmic hint of the ultimate Gospel plan? Jesus chosen to die in our place, while we are set free from the guilt of sin. Hebrews 9:12 says not with “the blood of goats and calves, but through His own blood (He) entered in once for all into the Holy Place, having obtained eternal redemption.” It’s a beautiful picture, first rooted in the Mosaical Day of Atonement ceremonies, the leprosy-cleansing ceremonies: “The Old Testament is the bud; the New Testament is the blossom.” “The Old Testament is the Gospel concealed; the New Testament is the Gospel revealed.”
But look back at Barabbas: There he stands, between those two great laws. The Old Testament used animals, and their physical sacrifice or freedom respectively. But here’s a man—a descendant of Adam—standing in their place. This wasn’t yet the final revealing of the system; that would wait until the Day of Pentecost, Acts 2; we’re still only talking about physical life and death. But it was one more step. God didn’t intend to stop with animals as the Mosaical Law commanded: In Barabbas He showed there was something in this symbolism in store for mankind. In the gift of physical life to the man who stood condemned, He foreshadowed the gift of spiritual life to all mankind, equally condemned by their own sin.
So, what can we learn from all this? Step back into his shoes one more time, for you—are—Barabbas! And so am I; so are all Christians. Our path follows his exactly. Barabbas’ case is a perfect parallel in the physical World with our salvation in the Spiritual. Think of the parallels:
Like him, we were guilty and knew it. We were condemned by our own heart, I John 3:20.
Like him, we were without hope, terrified of death, mostly avoiding thinking about it.
Like him, we learned about the Judge accepting someone else to bear our punishment for us. We learned about His innocence, that He didn’t deserve our sentence of death. We wonder why He would even do that for us.
Like him, we took the opportunity to avoid condemnation anyway, whether we understood the “why” or not. And surely like Barabbas, we felt (and feel) unmeasurable gratitude for the gift of life so given us.
Did Barabbas leave that prison cell a changed man? There is no way of knowing; he’s never mentioned again, in the Bible, or history, or even tradition. One of his fellow rebels did change, though, on his cross, Luke 23:42—so it is a distinct possibility. We can not know; but this we can know: Every person today freed by Jesus’ death is a changed person, a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). The very word “convert” means just that: “To change; transform; turn; transmute.” It is a pleasant thought that perhaps—just perhaps—the man Barabbas was included in those. Surely one of the joys of Heaven will be to learn of such things. Learn from Barabbas!