“So Pilate decided to grant their demand and released the one they were asking for, who had been thrown into prison for rebellion and murder. But he handed Jesus over to their will” (Luke 23:24-25).
We can tell what we know in three short sentences:
Barabbas was guilty.
Jesus was innocent.
Barabbas lived, Jesus died.
We don’t know anything else about Barabbas, except that today we would call him a terrorist. Prison was where he belonged. He was there because of heinous crimes. Why would anyone want him to be set free?
But Pilate severely underestimated the hatred the Jewish leaders had stirred up against Jesus. He thought that his declaration of this man’s innocence would be enough. Plus he couldn’t think of a reason to kill him. Why would you kill a man like Jesus?
In sane times this would not make sense, but those were not sane times. When a crowd has been whipped up into a frenzy, they will believe the worst about the best, and the facts don’t matter. Mark 15:11 says the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have them choose Barabbas. Matthew adds that “the elders” were involved, meaning the older men, the graybeards most likely to gain a hearing. Any student of crowd psychology knows how this works. It only takes four or five men in strategic places to start the chant, “Give us Barabbas! We want Barabbas!”
Sensing the mood of the crowd, Pilate makes one last, feeble attempt at justice: "What shall I do then with the one you call the king of the Jews?" (Mark 15:12). But it is too late now. The crowd begins to shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Fulton Sheen remarked on this scene:
“Right is still right if nobody is right, and wrong is still wrong if everybody is wrong. The first poll in the history of Christianity was wrong!”
It was the greatest miscarriage of justice in history. Jesus must die because of one man’s moral cowardice.
For Barabbas it meant that he the guilty would go free while Jesus the innocent would die in his place. One ancient tradition says that after he was released, Barabbas went to Golgotha to watch Jesus die. There is nothing implausible about that. Why wouldn’t he go and watch the man whose death set him free?
We have not read this story rightly if we think that Barabbas is bad because he was a criminal, and we are good because we are not like him.
I am Barabbas. Every man is. Murderer, thief, criminal, insurrectionist, lawbreaker, rioter. Justly imprisoned, rightly condemned, freed from punishment by a substitute who died in my place.
Barabbas stands for every Son of Adam who has ever walked on planet earth.
Barabbas stands for me.
When we finally get a glimpse of the cross of Christ, we see how great our sin really is. In the light of Calvary, all our supposed goodness is nothing but filthy rags.
The beauty of the gospel shines forth from this story. Jesus the innocent takes the place of Barabbas the guilty.
A sinner goes free.
An innocent man dies.
Thus in the great wisdom of God what should have been a catastrophe (the death of God’s Son) provides salvation to the world.
What a Christ!
What great salvation!
It is said that Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century first penned the words to the hymn O Sacred Head Now Wounded. The second verse speaks to the issue of our sin and the death of Christ. Let’s make this verse our prayer for today:
What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on me with thy favor, and grant to me thy grace.