We Are All Barabbas
By Nathan Jones
Let’s take a look at the story of Barabbas as it relates to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. How does Pilate’s release of a criminal relate to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus?
For a fascinating teaching which reveals the deeper insights concerning the purpose of the resurrection of Jesus found in the story of Barabbas, we invited Doug Greenwold, a Bible scholar who serves as the senior teaching fellow for a ministry called Preserving Bible Times, to our television program Christ in Prophecy. Doug uncovers often missed insights into dramatic biblical stories by digging deep into the overall biblical context that provide poignant spiritual applications to the reader today.
Son of the Father
Doug Greenwold: Let’s consider Barabbas. Some things we know about him. For instance, his story is mentioned in all four Gospels. How very rare that somebody is mentioned in all four Gospels. Barabbas gets more ink than even Judas Iscariot does.
The first thing that jumps out involves linguistics. Let’s evaluate Barabbas’ name. Where is Barabbas’ first name? We read of a Simon Bar-Jonah, meaning Simon son of Jonah (Mat. 16:17). Bar means son in Hebrew. So, for Barabbas, his name starts with bar, so his name means “the son of Abba or Abbas,” depending on the Aramaic or Hebrew. Well, we’ve run across this word before. Abba means father, so Barabbas’ name actually means “Son of the Father.”
Let’s put a plural on this. Maybe Barabbas represents the sons of all the fathers. Theology hold to the notion called the federated person, or the federated man. Adam is considered to be the federated man, in that he existed as the best possible man to stand for humanity, and when he fell, we fell as well. I want to suggest to you that Barabbas was the federated man for the Passion of Jesus. He is our best possible representative for the Passion of Jesus. Barabbas is us.
Barabbas was likely so well know that no one needed to mention his first name. Just Barabbas is all you needed to say because he was a well known seditionist at the time of Christ. Barabbas was also a murderer and a thief. He’d been tried in a Roman court of law and found guilty, sentenced with a perfectly fair verdict.
Fate of the Seditionist
Now Barabbas had been thrown into a cell, either in the Praetorium or in the basement of Herod’s palace where Pilate had been holding court. Either could be one of the two sites where this story unfolds.
Barabbas awaited execution, and because his crime was sedition against the Roman Empire, his death would be by crucifixion. Rome could not tolerate sedition.
Israel played a special role in the Roman Empire. The nation acted as a buffer state between the Parthians or Persians in the north and the Egyptians and all the grain production in the south. Rome couldn’t ever let the Parthians steal their grain. Some 95% of the whole Roman Empire was run on Egyptian grain. And that is why they couldn’t tolerate sedition in Israel. The province was just too strategic. Any rebellion then must be immediately crushed.
Imagine you’re Barabbas. You are sitting in a dank cell. You’re shackled. The rats are nipping at your feet. Its pitch dark. You sit all alone waiting for your death. But, you have no complaint whatsoever. You’re guilty and you know the consequences.
Let’s pause here to consider what another theologian once said: “When the holiness of God is the yardstick, the difference between you and I and Adolf Hitler gets lost in the rounding.” That means we don’t ever want to think too highly of ourselves. That’s why I think we need to identify with Barabbas during Passion Week.
So, there Barabbas sat waiting to die a horrible death. Meanwhile, outside, unbeknownst to Barabbas, a chess game waged on between the Roman governor Pilate and the Jewish Sanhedrin, who were the Jewish authorities at the time, on what to do with Jesus. Pilate didn’t want anything to do with having the blood of Yeshua on his hands. And so, he sent Jesus to Herod Antipas. Antipas ruled the Galilean district and recognizes the political treachery of this. He also didn’t want to touch this case, even though Jesus resided in his jurisdiction. So, Herod Antipas sent Jesus back to Pilate for final judgment.
Not able to pass the buck, Pilate decided on a good idea. This would become his master stroke. There was a tradition that the Jews had at Passover to release one prisoner. Pilate ordered his administrative staff to find the worst possible prisoner in the system that they could find. Pilate wanted to offer Jesus as compared to this worst criminal, Barabbas. He believed the crowd would see the murderous Barabbas and then decide to save Jesus. If Pilate’s plan would save Jesus, the governor would be off this political tightrope he’d been walking on with the Sanhedrin.
This plan would, of course, backfire. If you are going to give a crowd an offer, you’d better understand your crowd. This crowd was not the crowd that sang “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday. Those people loved Jesus. I’d imagine 90% of the people had loved Jesus ever since Jesus taught, “Blessed are the poor.” No one ever said “blessed are the poor” in that day.
No, the crowd that gathered in Pilate’s courtyard of Herod’s Palace consisted of 200 or 300 handpicked people who had been coached by the aristocracy to say a certain thing at a certain time. When you get into the original meaning of the word for crowd, the underlining word means “a gathering of people.” So, the crowd gathered before Pilate was not the same crowd from Palm Sunday. That distinction has often been lost, so it’s important to note here. The crowd Pilate faced consisted of paid protesters. They’d been coached and trained by Israel’s religious leaders.
So, Pilate offers the Jews, “Okay, here’s my new idea. You have this tradition, so I’m going to give you a choice. We can crucify Barabbas, or we can crucify Yeshua. One will be set free.” Pilate expected everyone to say, “Save Jesus!” But, instead the crowd cries, “Give us Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!”
Meanwhile, back in his pit, from his cell Barabbas heard, “Give us Barabbas! Give us Barabbas!” He had no context for that phrase. I can imagine he took it personal. “Man, they are so worked up they want to kill me as fast as they can.” And then a couple minutes later Barabbas heard, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Not knowing that this demand was directed to Jesus by the crowd, Barabbas also took it personally. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Barabbas concluded, “It’s all over for me.”
Then Barabbas heard the shuffling of the jailer coming down past the cells. He finally stopped at Barabbas’ door. The jailer proceeded to swings open the door and said, “Barabbas,” and his life is over in his eyes, “you’re free!”
If you’re Barabbas, what’s going through your mind? “What?! I’m free? How can that be?” The jailer answered, “Someone took your place. Come with me now, okay?”
Barabbas may have asked who took his place. The jailer responded, “His name is Yeshua.” Barabbas incredulously inquired, “You mean that rabbi? The one that many people claim is the Son of God? He’s taken my place?” The tired jailer murmured, “Yep. You’re free.” And then, unshackle, unshackle, unshackle. Barabbas has been freed!
Barabbas could have stood in the doorway asking, “Where can I see this Jesus?” And the reply, “Well, last I heard Jesus was winding towards Golgotha. They’re going to crucify Him.”
“Oh, no!” So, Barabbas works his way through the crowd. He gets there a little bit late, but in time to see Jesus crucified. He cries out, “Those are supposed to be my hands. He really did take my place.” Of course, I don’t know whether Barabbas actually witnessed Jesus crucified, but he could have.
Setting the Prisoners Free
Ask yourself, “If you were Barabbas, how would that scene have affected you?” After all, we are Barabbas. We have to identify with Barabbas.
Freeze that thought. Let’s go to the old video tape days. Push rewind. I want to go back into the cell. Okay. I’m Barabbas. I’m chained. The rats are nipping at my feet. The door opens and the jailer says, “Barabbas, you’re free!” But, this time, Barabbas replies, “I’m not interested. I’m going to stay right here.” The stunned jailer prods, “No, Barabbas, you don’t understand. You’re free. It’s an absolutely free gift. You haven’t deserved it, but it’s yours. It’s free!” But, Barabbas continues, “I’m not interested.” He slams the door and locks it up.
Does that sound outrageous? Sure does! And yet, thousands of people do that very thing every single day. When they hear about the free gift of eternal life from Yeshua, they respond with, “Not interested.”
Lazarus may have set the stage as to why Resurrection Sunday was going to happen, but Barabbas became the reason the Crucifixion and Resurrection Sunday had to happen — to set the prisoners free. Quite a story!