Barabbas or Jesus?

Matthew 27:15-26

April 21, 2011 | Ray Pritchard

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“It isn’t right.”

That’s what Roger said after he watched The Passion of the Christ with a group from our church. Roger was in the 7th grade when he saw the movie. He gripped my hand, his eyes filled with tears, his lips quivering. For a long time he couldn’t say anything. Finally, with great emotion he spoke three words, “It isn’t right.”

The way the soldiers treated Jesus wasn’t right.
The way the witnesses lied about him wasn’t right.
The way Pilate cravenly tried to wash his guilt away wasn’t right.
The crown of thorns wasn’t right.
The scourging wasn’t right.

What they did to Jesus was the greatest crime in history. Why did he have to die? To find the answer to that question, let’s take trip back in time to learn about a man named Barabbas who played a key part in the events leading up to Jesus’ death.

Barabbas never speaks a word.
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He never speaks a word in the gospel records.
Yet all four gospels mention him by name.
He story occupies at least 38 verses of the New Testament.

We don’t know anything about his family.
We don’t know if he was married or single.
We don’t know how old he was.

We can tell what we know in three short sentences:

Barabbas was guilty.
Jesus was innocent.
Barabbas lived, Jesus died.

With that we turn to some basic questions about this man and the role he played in the death of Christ.

I. Who Was Barabbas?

All four gospel writers mention him.

Matthew calls him a “notorious prisoner” (27:16).
Mark says he was in prison with the “insurrectionists” (15:7) who had committed murder.
Luke says he was in prison for insurrection and murder (23:19).
John adds that he had taken part in a rebellion (19:40).

When Peter preached in Solomon’s Portico near the temple courts, he called him a murderer (Acts 3:14).

Prison was where he belonged.
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He was a cold-blood killer. As with many terrorists in our day, he may not have looked dangerous. But he was a menace to decent society. When you add the word “notorious,” it means that everyone knew about Barabbas.

Prison was where he belonged. He was there because of heinous crimes. Why would anyone want him to be set free?

II. Who Was Jesus?

The question of Jesus’ identity is not easily answered. It’s clear that Pilate struggled mightily to understand this strange man standing before him. Pilate knew this much:

He was a Jew.
He was a rabbi.
He was not a wealthy man.
He worked miracles.
He spoke in parables.
He made strange claims for himself.
He had a large following.
He had important enemies.

Pilate mulled over all those things in his mind as he considered the case of Jesus who, standing there before him, having been beaten, certainly didn’t seem like a threat to anyone. Pilate was the cautious politician caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

He knew Jesus was innocent.
Or at least any “crimes” he had committed were not crimes against Roman law.
Jesus had done nothing worthy of death.

Three times he says, “I find him not guilty” (John 18:38; 19:4, 6 NLT).

Pilate’s problem can be stated this way. He knew who Jesus was not, but he didn’t know who he was.  He wasn’t a criminal, a crook, a thief, a bandit, a revolutionary, a murderer, or a lawbreaker. As far as Pilate was concerned, Jesus had done nothing wrong at all, certainly nothing deserving of death. But he didn’t know who he was. Was he a mystic, a visionary dreamer, an idealistic teacher, or was he something more? Under pressure from the Jews, Pilate had to make a fast decision.

Pilate stands for all those men of power who lack the courage of their own convictions.
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Looking at Jesus in shock and pity, Pilate says, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10). That wasn’t a boast. It was a statement of sober fact. As the Roman governor of Judea, he alone could condemn a man to death. If it is true that many of the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead, it’s also true that they could do nothing without Pilate’s permission.

That brings us to the bottom line. Jesus had done nothing deserving of death. Hounded by the Jewish leaders, afraid to stand up for the truth, trying to find a way out, Pilate decides to wash his hands of the whole ugly affair.

But of course that never works. After 2000 years we can see him clearly. Pilate stands for all those men of power who lack the courage of their own convictions.

So he offered the mob a choice.  Jesus or Barabbas? Who will it be?

III. Why Did the Crowd Choose Barabbas?

The gospel writers carefully note that Pilate tried several times to release Jesus. Knowing that at Passover every year a prisoner was released from jail (Passover signified the Jews’ release from bondage in Egypt), he offered them Jesus or Barabbas, thinking that surely they would prefer the popular young preacher (even if he was a bit controversial) to the bloodthirsty killer Barabbas.

Who would choose a murderer over Jesus?

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?

Who sort of people prefer a killer to a teacher of God’s truth?
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Why, indeed? Who sort of people prefer a killer to a teacher of God’s truth?

Lest we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s important to remember that Caiaphas and Annas and the members of the Sanhedrin had evidently made up their minds long ago.

Jesus must die!

So they planned and plotted and schemed, all the while their anger simmered and grew and then finally boiled over.

Jesus must die!

When Judas came with his pitiful offer to betray the Lord, they jumped all over it, offering him 30 pieces of silver. Judas took the money, having sold his soul in the bargain.

Once the religious leaders had Jesus in their grasp, they weren’t going to let him go. They had evidence! Never mind that it was trumped up, mostly lies and half-truths, and statements twisted out of context. None of that mattered.

Jesus must die!

So the “trials” of Jesus had proceeded through the night. They shuffled Jesus from one venue to another, his hands bound so he could not escape. Herod got his chance. So did Caiaphas. Pilate talked to him twice. Through it all Jesus said almost nothing.

He was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth (Isaiah 53:7).

There are times to talk and times when talking doesn’t matter. This was a time when talking didn’t matter. Knowing that the court was rigged against him and the outcome foreordained, Jesus mostly kept silent during that long night. He had his most extended conversation with Pilate, a man who was both fascinated and puzzled by him.

There are times to talk and times when talking doesn’t matter.
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But all of that doesn’t explain the crowd’s choice. Perhaps they were so inflamed by hatred that they actually preferred a murderer to Jesus. Or perhaps they feared Jesus more than Barabbas. 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!”

Jesus must die!

IV. What Difference Does It Make?

In some ancient manuscripts his name is given as “Jesus Barabbas.” That means the choice was between

Jesus Barabbas, or
Jesus of Nazareth.

What a choice it was!

Between a murderer and an innocent man.
Between darkness and light.
Between evil and good.

Consider the consequences of the choice the mob made. For them it meant assuming the guilt for Jesus’ death. “All the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’” (Matthew 27:25). The awesome callousness of those words means that the crowd was given over completely to bloodlust. They wanted to Jesus dead and didn’t care what it meant for them or their children.

For Jesus it meant more suffering and a brutal, bloody death on the cross.

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?

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When Thomas Whitelaw wrote about the crowd’s choice of Barabbas over Jesus, he mentioned seven words that summarize that momentous event:

1. It was popular but the popular choice is often wrong.
2. It was frenzied. “When passion rules, judgment dies.”
3. It was criminal to prefer a murderer over the Prince of Life.
4. It was foolish to choose an enemy and reject a friend like Jesus.
5. It was fatal in that it guaranteed judgment to the nation.
6. It was predicted in Isaiah 53:3.
7. It was overruled by God to bring salvation to the world.

In that final point we see the wisdom and greatness of God who could use the evil choice of a foolish mob to bring salvation to the world. It is the ultimate irony that those who so disrespected Jesus could be saved by the death they chose for him.

V. What Should It Mean To Us?

There are three great players in this drama: Pilate, Jesus and Barabbas. We are very much like Pilate and Barabbas but in very different ways. And those ways both involve who Jesus is to us.

A.   We are all like Pilate.

One of the most striking depictions of Barabbas and Jesus comes from a man named George Tinworth who in the 1870s produced a terra cotta relief called The Release of Barabbas. Pilate stands in the middle washing his hands of the whole sordid mess. To Pilate’s left is Jesus, hands bound, being led away to be crucified. There is about his person a solemn, dignified sadness. But the case of Barabbas is different. He steps forward, as if stepping off the relief altogether. He seems happy, buoyant, his hands stretched out to accept congratulations from the soldiers. His whole demeanor seems lighthearted. Underneath Barabbas are the words, “The World’s Choice.”

Indeed he is.

The world takes care of its own.
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The world always chooses Barabbas because it prefers the lawbreaker to “the Good Shepherd,” the inscription under the figure of Jesus. Tinworth wants us to know that the world takes care of its own. Even the soldiers prefer Barabbas to Jesus.

As it was then, so it is today. Christ could never have been “the world’s choice,” which is why they crucified him.

We may feel glad that we don’t have to make the same decision Pontius Pilate did on that tumultuous day in Jerusalem. But the question he asks still hangs in the air:

“What shall I do then with Jesus?”

The choice before us is far more difficult because we know so much more than Pilate ever knew. He believed Jesus to be innocent but caved under pressure and set a criminal free. What will the end be for us who know the truth about Jesus and still prefer Barabbas?

No one can escape that question.

We each have our own Passion Week where the truth crowds in upon us.
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So long as Christ is popular, then going along with him, following him, choosing him is easy. But the moment of hard decision comes sooner or later to all of us.

We each have our own Passion Week where the truth crowds in upon us. The world has made its choice.

Jesus must die!

We must make our own choice. Will it be Jesus or Barabbas?

B. We are all like Barabbas.

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.

I am Barabbas. Every man is.
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Barabbas stands for every Son of Adam who has ever walked on planet earth.
Barabbas stands for me.

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:

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.

That verse captures the whole problem of the human race-“mine, mine was the transgression.” We’ve done well in that department, haven’t we? Our sins have cut us off from God so we are left to our own feeble devices. Most of us think of ourselves as pretty good people, or at least we’re not as bad as the fellow next door. And it’s true in one sense. We haven’t done every terrible thing that others have done. But still our hands are not clean. We have cheated. We have lied. We have gossiped. We have falsely accused. We have made excuses. We have cut corners. We have lost our temper. We have mistreated others. 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.

Our hands are not clean.
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The beauty of the Christian 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.

Isaiah 53 contains the good news we all need. He was bruised-for us. He was wounded-for us. He was beaten, betrayed, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified-all for us. Our sins drove Jesus to the cross. But he did not go unwillingly. If our sins drove him there, it was his love for us that kept him there.

In the great wisdom of God what should have been a catastrophe (the death of God’s Son) provides salvation to the world.
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If you want to go to heaven, pay attention to Isaiah 53:6. In the King James Version it reads this way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Notice that it begins and ends with the word “all.” One man gave his testimony this way: “I stooped down low and went in at the first ‘all.’ Then I stood up straight and walked out at the last ‘all.’” The first “all” tells us that we are sinners; the last “all” tells us that Christ has paid the price for our sins. Go in at the first “all” and come out at the last “all” and you will discover the way of salvation.

After Calvary, God has nothing left to prove to anyone.
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After Calvary, God has nothing left to prove to anyone. How can you doubt his love after you look at the bleeding form of Jesus hanging on the cross? J. C. Ryle put the matter this way:

Let us freely confess that, like Barabbas, we deserve death, judgment and hell. But let us cling firmly to the glorious truth that a sinless Savior has suffered in our stead, and that believing in him the guilty may go free (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, vol. 2, p. 459).

Finally we are left with the question Pilate asked: “What shall I do then with Jesus?”

You can stand back and say, “I don’t care about him.”
You can push him away and say, “Leave me alone.”
You can open your heart and say, “Lord Jesus, I welcome you into my life.”

That is the best thing you can do. It is the safest thing you can do. Trust him. Run to the cross and lay hold of Jesus who loved you and died for you. What more could you do than what he has done for you?

Jesus or Barabbas. The choice is yours. May God give you grace to believe in Jesus and crown him as Savior and Lord.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?