THE ROMANS WERE INFAMOUS for how they cruelly lined their roadways with crucifixions as a warning to those who would dare go against the State. Crucifixion is a notoriously slow death designed to torture the condemned for up to three agonizing days. Criminals punished in this manner typically died of asphyxiation, no longer able to push up and lift their chests for one more breath. The pain of crucifixion was so great that it gave its name to extreme agony—excruciating. The etymology of the word is from two Latin words ex and cruciatus, meaning “out of the cross.” Transliteration of ex cruciatus is “the pain one experiences when crucified.”
A Convicted and Condemned Murderer
His name was Barabbas. A murderer, convicted previously of sedition and robbery. He knew he was guilty. No question. Today, we’d say he had reached the “three strikes and you’re out” stage. He was slumped against the wall in a filthy, dank cell, watched closely by a massive Roman guard. His mind was fixated on how excruciatingly painful his crucifixion would be. He had witnessed a number of such horrendous deaths at the hands of the Roman authorities. Certainly, the next time the guards came for him he would be brought before his executioner.
He had led an insurrection that resulted in a number of people being murdered. He was known to support himself and his cause through robbery. He had broken the law and deserved to die. If he were to be executed, no one would have questioned it. In fact, no one stood in his defense. He should have been on the cross. As such, Barabbas represents every person who has violated God’s holy law. We all stand guilty as charged. The Bible has declared, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Of course, the wages of sin is death. Like Barabbas, we deserve God’s sentence of death.
“Whom Shall I Set Free? Jesus or Barabbas?”
The release of a Jewish prisoner—a tradition known as paschal pardon—was customary before the feast of Passover. The Roman governor granted clemency to one prisoner as an act of good will toward those he governed. Mark notes, “Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested” (Mark 15:6, NIV). The choice Pilate set before the crowd that day could not have been more clear-cut: a high-profile killer and rabble-rouser who was unquestionably guilty, or a teacher and miracle worker who was demonstrably innocent. The crowd chose Barabbas to be released. Interestingly, Pilate had a sense that Jesus was an innocent man. He was rather surprised at the crowd’s choice. He asked the crowd three times to choose sensibly, but with loud shouts they chose the death of Jesus, yelling, “Crucify him, crucify him.”
Barabbas is mentioned in all four Gospels. Certainly, it came as a shock that his life would intersect with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus went before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who had already declared Him innocent of anything worthy of death (see Luke 23:15). Pilate was aware that the Sanhedrin was essentially railroading Jesus. It was out of self-interest that the chief priests handed Jesus over to him. In fact, it was these very religious leaders that incited the crowd to demand for the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus (see Mark 15:11). Pilate was most likely unaware of the prophesy unfolding before him.
Three times in the short span of eight versus, Pilate points to the innocence of Jesus. Pilate noted that not even Herod found any fault in Jesus. Regardless, when Pilate said, “Nothing deserving of death has been done by this man,” they all cried out, “Away with him! Crucify him!” Interestingly, Barabbas was guilty of insurrection and murder. He was among the “rebels” in prison who had committed murder in the insurrection. Murder and rebellion. The Jewish leaders charged Jesus with rebellion when they claimed he was misleading the people. Luke 23:5 says, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here” (NIV).
It Should Have Been Me up on the Cross!
We all feel a certain disdain for Judas who betrayed Christ, Peter who denied Him, the chief priests who despised Him, Herod who mocked Him, the people who called for His crucifixion, Pilate who appeased the mob and washed his hands, and Barabbas who was guilty but was set free. But wait! Aren’t we all, to some degree, guilty of betraying, denying, mocking, doubting, and walking away from Christ?
As we’ve seen through Luke’s emphasis on the innocence of Jesus and the guilt of Barabbas, Luke is leading us (as sinners) in his careful telling of the story, encouraging us to identify with Barabbas. As Jesus’ condemnation leads to the release of a multitude of spiritual captives from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, so also his death sentence leads to the release of the physical captive Barabbas. This is a foretaste of the grace that will be unleashed at the cross. As Pilate releases Barabbas the guilty, and delivers over to death Jesus the innocent, we are given a picture of our own release effected by the cross through faith. In Barabbas we have a glimpse of our guilt deserving death, and a preview of the arresting grace of Jesus and his embrace of the cross through which we are set free. As Jesus is delivered to death, and Barabbas is released to new life, we have the first substitution of the cross. The innocent Jesus is condemned as a sinner, while the guilty sinner is released as if innocent.
I am Barabbas
Luke wants us to identify with both Jesus and Barabbas. When we identify with Jesus we are able to see that through faith His death is our death, and His resurrection is our resurrection. When we align ourselves with Barabbas we see that we, too, are sinners—criminals who have broken God’s law, guilty as charged, deserving of death for our rebel lives of sin against the Creator. Jesus, through the grace of giving Himself for us at the cross, takes our place and we are released.
As we come to understand the depths of our sin, we see with Luke, “I am Barabbas.” I am the one so clearly guilty and deserving of condemnation, but I’ve been set free because of the willing substitution of the Messiah in my place.