“But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead” (Mark 15:11).
I am thankful for the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ. I have often been struck by the request of the mob for the release of the unsavory, probably creepy, Barabbas. (That mob was made up of the same fickle, ungrateful people who—only one week before—had been shouting “Hosanna!” anticipating He would lead the long-expected, final rebellion that would result in His crowning and rule over all of Israel’s enemies—Jesus had other plans).
There is an inescapable irony in this. Jesus’ purpose in dying was to satisfy the justice of Righteous God by dying in the place of all who would bend the knee in humble repentance before Him. His purpose was to make a way for the vilest and most wretched of sinners to be forgiven, purified, made fit for the presence of Almighty God in heaven.
And here we have a vile and wretched sinner being released, and a gentle, innocent, loving, healing, forgiving, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent Man sentenced to death instead. The crowd chose the guy in the black hat instead of the One who could wash them white as snow. I can’t help but wonder how many of those same people in that same mob had been healed by Him. How many had been blind, and now saw? How many had been lame, sick, dying, dead, who now walked, were healthy, were alive and whole? Well done, people. Way to be grateful.
And now for Barabbas. What do we know about him? The Gospels paint a rough portrait of that man. Matthew tells us that he was “a notorious prisoner” (Matthew 27:16). Notorious is not an adjective that most people would want inscribed on their tombstone. Mark said he “had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection" (Mark 15:7). Insurrectionists are not the best choice of companions, and I wondered when I read this if he was merely tagging along, or if he was a full participant in the crimes committed. Luke cleared that up with this parenthetical statement. “He was one who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection made in the city, and for murder.” (Luke 23:19). So he was in it up to his eyeballs. He had been tried and convicted of insurrection and murder. He was a dyed-in-the-wool thug of the lowest degree. John’s description is very simple, but it brings in a final piece of the puzzle, making the picture complete. “Now Barabbas was a robber.” Robber of goods, robber of political power, robber of life.
How could this be? How could the crowd manage this unthinkable, unscrupulous trade? It was a little tradition that Pilate had put into place to try to appease the Jews.
Matthew said as an aside, “(Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people any one prisoner whom they wanted)” (Matthew 27:15). Mark added, “Now at the feast he used to release for them any one prisoner whom they requested” (Mark 15:6). Luke inserted, “[Now he was obliged to release to them at the feast one prisoner.]” (Luke 23:17).
John gives us a fuller account: Pilate said to (Jesus), “‘What is truth?’* And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, ‘I find no guilt in Him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?’ So they cried out again, saying, ‘Not this Man, but Barabbas.’ Now Barabbas was a robber” (John 18:38–40; the verses preceding this quote are worth your time. You should go read them. Click on this link to read the full interaction between Jesus and Pilate and the mob: John 18:28–40).
Something I have often wondered about that Barabbas. I have wondered if he robbed again. Did he murder again? Once he was released, did he become a model citizen. Did he change his stripes? Doubtful, unless…Unless Jesus’ substitutionary death touched his hardened heart as it did the thief on the cross (Luke 23:40–43). Unless the Holy Spirit convicted, convinced, and caused him to repent as he realized the magnitude of the injustice of having the only truly innocent Man ever to live, die in his place. This is something the Bible does not reveal. I have always thought it possible, since—in real time—Jesus took Barabbas’ place on the very cross he should have died on, but I won’t know for sure until eternity.
Barabbas was a notorious, robbing, murdering insurrectionist. But guess what? He was no worse than you or I. ALL sin is heinous in the eyes of a holy God. And ALL of us are sinners. We all deserve to die. Not just physical death—on a cross, in a car accident, of a heart attack, in war, from eating a poisoned apple—but eternal death, the second death, eternal punishment in hell, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Eternal darkness. Eternal separation from God. We all deserve death as sure as Barabbas did and Jesus didn’t. And we all need to recognize our sin, throw ourselves at the feet of Jesus, repent, confess, be forgiven. That is hope. That is something to be thankful for! Jesus’ substitutionary death was died for you. What are you going to do about that?
*Truth was standing right beside him. Truth was about to be scourged, mocked, spat upon, beaten, and nailed to a tree. What is truth indeed, Pilate? Who is Truth? Jesus said Himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me” (John 14:6). Truth was literally staring you in the face.