I am Barabbas
“So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” – Matthew 27:17
Overlooked in the passion story is a man named Barabbas. Yet his story magnifies a wonderful truth to consider. Let’s look at his life, and see how his story magnifies God’s gracious gospel message.
To begin with, Barabbas was a notorious criminal. Matthew 27:16 says that, “At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.” Barabbas was well known for his life of crime. He was certainly not the type of guy you would want your daughter to bring home. If he were alive today, his face would be on the bulletin board at the Post Office, or even appear on “America’s Most Wanted.” He had a long rap sheet. Everyone knew about this guy; for he had developed a notorious reputation for his criminal activity. Secondly, Barabbas was anti-government. Mark 15:7 says, “Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists.” Insurrectionists were those who led rebellions against governmental authority. This obviously did not set well with the Roman officials of that day. Thirdly, Barabbas was a murderer. Mark 15:7 also says he “had committed murder in the insurrection.” We do not know much of the political rebellion Barabbas was involved with, but during the incident, he had committed murder. Finally, Barabbas was a thief. In John 18:40, Barabbas is described as a robber. Once again, we do not know the details surrounding this particular crime, but the Apostle John felt it necessary to provide this information.
And then Jesus enters Barabbas’ life. In celebration of the Passover feast, it was a custom in that day for a prisoner (chosen by the people) to be released (Matthew 27:15). Out of self-interest, the people had been handed Jesus over to the authorities (Matthew 27:18). Pilate, knowing the selfish intentions of the crowd, asked them if he should release Jesus or Barabbas (Matthew 27:21). They cried out, “Barabbas!” Their response was mind-blowing; the same crowd who earlier in the week cried “Hail Him, hail Him!” now cried “Nail Him, nail Him!” Pilate even told the crowd he found no fault in Christ (John 18:38, John 19:4, John 19:6). Yet they only demanded the release of Barabbas all the more. And with their demand, they put their stamp of approval upon the execution of Jesus.
It was an unexpected turn of events. The criminal who was a menace was released back into society while Jesus, an innocent man, was sentenced to death. The crowd’s decision contradicted the overwhelming evidence; a guilty man was set free while an innocent man was charged and sentenced to death. Jesus had been a blessing to society while Barabbas had been a menace to society. Jesus was a law abiding citizen while Barabbas had tried to overthrow the government. Jesus gave life while Barabbas took life. Jesus gave to people while Barabbas had stolen from people. It was in that fateful moment that the gavel of injustice fell and had permanently left its mark upon human history.
Yet it is in this chapter of the passion story where we clearly see the gospel of God. We are Barabbas. We are notorious sinners with a long rap sheet and we are guilty as charged. And Jesus, who knew no sin, took our penalty and our place (2 Corinthians 5:21). Just as sinless Jesus substituted sinful Barabbas, He does the same for us. He bore our sins and took the punishment that we so rightly deserve. And just as Barabbas was release from prison, we too are released from the prison of sin when we trust in Christ as Savior and Lord.
You might not care for the comparison to Barabbas, but it is certainly a fair comparison. You are more like Barabbas than you realize. The human heart is desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9) and is capable of committing a vast array of sins (Galatians 5:19-21). Before conversion, you were shackled in the prison of sin with a death sentence, and the only way that you could be set free was for Jesus to take your place.
With these things in mind, I pray that you see Barabbas in a fresh new way. And as you identify with Barabbas, I pray it magnifies the beauty of God’s gracious act of love as He sent His Son Jesus to take your place!
– Pastor Eric