We are Barabbas!

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. No longer able to push up and lift their chests for one more breath, criminals punished in this manner typically died of asphyxiation 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.” Translation of ex cruciatus is “the pain one experiences when crucified.” Further etymological research, beginning with the Oxford English Dictionary, indicates that “crucifixion” comes from Latin roots: crux, meaning “cross,” and figere, meaning “fasten.” Crucifixions originated in Persia. Alexander the Great introduced the practice, and it appears the Romans learned of it from the Carthaginians.

A Convicted and Condemned Murderer

Barabbas is mentioned in all four Gospels. He had been convicted of murder, sedition, and robbery. He knew he was guilty. No question. As he sat slumped against the wall in a filthy, dank cell, watched closely by Roman guards, his mind was fixated on how painful his crucifixion would be. He had witnessed a number of such horrendous deaths at the hands of the Roman authorities. The next time the guards came for him he would be brought before his executioner. It must have been a shock that his life would intersect with the Messiah.

Pilate stood on the steps of the Praetorium and addressed the crowd regarding Jesus.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 at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked.” (Mark 15:6, ESV). 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. 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! 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 shout for the release of Barabbas rather than Jesus (see Mark 15:11). However, Pilate was unaware of the prophesy unfolding before him. After much discussion, he granted the wish of the high priests, allowing the crucifixion of Jesus.

We are Barabbas!

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? Using His name in vain as a curse and not a blessing. Choosing sin over obedience. Luke wants us to see how we must identify with both Jesus and Barabbas. When we align ourselves with Barabbas we see that we, too, are sinners—criminals who have broken God’s law, guilty and deserving of death for our rebellious lives of sinning against God. When we identify with Jesus, however, we are able to see that His death is our death; His resurrection is our resurrection. We become one of His.

The middle cross was initially intended for Barabbas—symbolically, for us. Hallelujah! Jesus, through the grace of God, took our place on the cross. Like Barabbas, we have been released from the verdict and punishment we deserve. Pastor Branden at my church* recently made a remarkable observation. He said, “Jesus did not stand before Pilate thinking, ‘This is so unfair!’ Rather, He looked at Barabbas and the growing crowd and thought to Himself, ‘I am doing this for you.'” When Christ was nailed to the cross He became the most condemned man in history. Jesus, the life-giving Son, was executed instead of Barabbas, the murdering son. Paul said, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

The Horror of Crucifixion

Think about what Christ willingly submitted to that fateful night when He was taken into custody under the cover of darkness. Mel Gibson’s motion picture The Passion of the Christ is very detailed regarding the physical pain and anguish Jesus suffered during the last 12 hours of His life. After being snatched from the Garden of Gethsemane, mocked and beaten, He was found “guilty” by the Pharisees and turned over to the Romans for crucifixion. First, Christ was tied to a whipping post in the courtyard. I tried to watch the movie twice before, but could not get past the whipping and scourging. Now I’ve seen it twice and will watch it again this Easter season. The flagellation He suffered was expressly cruel.** When Jesus was taken away, His mother and Mary Magdalene tried to mop up the blood that poured from His body during the scourging. He was marched through the streets and up the hill to his death while being kicked, spat upon, whipped like a mule, and struck about the face torso.

Hanging, electrocution, knee-capping, gas chamber: these punishments are feared. They all happen today, and we shudder as we think of the horror and pain. But these other forms of execution pale into insignificance compared with crucifixion.

Jesus suffered tremendous torture. Crucifixion as a type of execution is much worse than hangings, electrocution, the gas chamber, or any other mode of execution used throughout the world. The Romans modified crucifixion to cause a slow, agonizing death and unbearable pain. Each wound was intended to cause extreme agony. The historian Eusebius of Caesarea describes the flagellation of Christians who were martyred, noting, “…their bodies were frightfully lacerated. Christian martyrs in Smyrna were so torn by the scourges that their veins were laid bare, and the inner muscles, sinews, even entrails, were exposed” (1). I read the expert opinions of several physicians describing what Jesus endured during His beatings and crucifixion. It is literally inconceivable for us to grasp what He experienced. He lost a vast amount of blood during scourging; routinely this would send the victim into circulatory shock and unconsciousness. It certainly caused a weakening of His physical condition.

Douglas Jacoby wrote,

In the previous 12 hours Jesus had suffered emotional trauma, rejection by his closest friends, a cruel beating, and a sleepless night during which he had to walk miles between unjust hearings. Despite the fitness he must certainly have gained during his travels in Palestine, he was in no way prepared for the punishment of flogging. The effects would be worse as a result. A man to be flogged was stripped of his clothes and his hands tied to a post above his head. He was then whipped across the shoulders, back, buttocks, thighs and legs, the soldier standing behind and to one side of the victim. The whip used – the flagellum – was designed to make this a devastating punishment, bringing the victim close to death: several short heavy leather thongs, with two small balls of lead or iron attached near the end of each. Pieces of sheep’s bone were sometimes included (2).

A Pain Worse Than Torture and Death?

It is amazing that Christ was willing to lay down His life for us. Unfortunately, many Christians do not take the time to meditate on what Jesus was subjected to in order to purchase our freedom. In His human nature, Jesus was consumed with agonizing fear. Mel Gibson shows Christ shivering in the Garden as He prayed to the Father. Eddie Cloer wrote, “He entered into this time of suffering with a physical constitution that had all the characteristics of the human race” (3). This means Jesus experienced all of His suffering from the vantage point of being human. The manner of Jesus’ death remains a subject of controversy in the medical profession. However, asphyxiation-dominant theories have emerged as the consensus regarding the exact cause of death. Other likely contributing factors included shock, cardiac rupture, pulmonary embolism, and trauma (4). Suffice it to say, the death of Jesus is at the crux of Christian doctrine; all other thoughts surrounding His death serve only to describe His physical suffering.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus left Peter and James to pray and stand watch while he went deeper into the Garden. He said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me,” (Matt. 26:38). By this time, Jesus was stressed in His human body to the point that He was sweating blood.*** From 9:00PM Thursday to 9:00AM Friday Jesus suffered extreme emotional stress, severe physical beatings, and abandonment. He had not slept, and was forced to walk throughout the night to several locations where He was tried in secret. Jesus’ physical body was particularly vulnerable to scourging because of his weariness and exhaustion.

Mark says Jesus’ soul was “deeply grieved to the point of death” (Mark 14:34), and He was overwhelmingly “distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33). In a heavily strained body, Jesus prayed, “Abba! Father! All things are possible for You; remove this cup from Me; yet not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36). As He began to pray, He knelt down and lifted up His voice to God. Then a wave of sorrow and grief swept over Him—He fell on His face and lay prostrate before God. He was in great agony.**** The human mind cannot possibly fathom what it meant for Jesus to become sin for us.

The First Substitution

A choice is presented regarding Barabbas. Whom should Pilate release? An innocent man in whom no wrong can be found, or man who is guilty of egregious crimes, including murder? Consider the scene on Golgotha the morning of Christ’s crucifixion; we see three men condemned to die. Jesus hung on the middle cross; the one intended for Barabbas. One of the men on the other crosses railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” The other said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” The second, a penitent at heart, asked Jesus, “…remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:39-42). Jesus answered him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Why was Barabbas released from his well-deserved execution? Barabbas was the first substitution. Like Barabbas, we have been released from our just punishment, free of condemnation (see Romans 8:1-4). This does not mean Barabbas made a decision to accept Christ as his sacrificial Lamb. Maybe he did, but we just don’t know. Jesus suffered and died, and His righteousness was imputed to whoever believes in his atoning substitution for sin (see 1 Pet. 3:18). This is the plan of redemption God ordained before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5). We stand guilty before God, deserving of death (see Rom. 3:23-24). We have done absolutely nothing to warrant Jesus’ dying in our place. Nor is there anything we could ever do to earn God’s mercy. For it is by God’s grace that we are redeemed from the wages of sin by faith alone in Christ alone. He, being completely sinless, took the punishment we rightly deserve. We are Barabbas. We were supposed to die for our sins, but Christ became our substitute on the center cross. Let us always remember the immeasurable grace and mercy we have been shown. May we not abuse God’s grace by continuing to willingly practice sin.

This Easter season, I urge you to meditate on the trial, torture, and death of Jesus Christ as the sacrificial Lamb for you and for all who believe in Him. But do not remain there; instead, rejoice in His resurrection and be reborn with Him. The thread of our redemption is present throughout Scripture, from the first shedding of blood in the Garden to cover Adam and Eve, to priestly sacrifices under the old covenant, to the death and resurrection of Christ the Lord. A.W. Tozer wrote, “Jesus Christ is a Man come to save men. In Him the divine nature is married to our human nature, and wherever human nature exists there is the raw material out of which He makes followers and saints. Our Lord recognizes no classes, high or low, rich or poor, old or young, man or woman; all are human and all are alike Him. His invitation is to all mankind” (5). Indeed, we are the bride of Christ!

Let us always remember the terrific price of our redemption.

Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

References and Footnotes
(1) Dan Gonzalez, “The Flagellation of Christ,” Mar. 21, 2016, accessed Mar. 24, 2022. https://www.miamiarch.org/CatholicDiocese.php?op=Blog_145831069824187
(2) Douglas Jacoby, “A (More Accurate) Medical Count of the Crucifixion,” International Teaching Ministry of Douglas Jacoby, accessed Mar. 24, 2022. https://www.douglasjacoby.com/a-more-accurate-medical-account-of-the-crucifixion/
(3) Eddie Cloer,
(4) Gary Habermas, Jonathan Kopel, and Benjamin C. F. Shaw, “Medical Views on the Death by Crucifixion of Jesus Christ,” NIH National Library of Medicine (July 30.2021). DOI: 10.1080/08998280.2021.1951096
(5) A.W. Tozer, Man: The Dwelling Place of God (Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1997, 1966), 7.

* Branden Mestach, Lead Pastor, Christ Wesleyan Church, Milton, PA. https://www.cwc.life/
** A leather whip with strands called a flagrum or flagellum, made by attaching pieces of metal or bone to the ends of the straps, then used to lash the back, shoulders and legs of the convict. At first, the skin and underlying fat are torn open; then muscles and tendons are slashed, including the vessels that supply blood to the tissues.
*** Although this is a rare phenomenon, bloody sweat can occur in highly emotional states. As a result of hemorrhage into the sweat glands, the skin becomes fragile and tender.
**** adēmonein (ἀδημονεῖν): “to be greatly distressed and troubled.”

See Also
Luke 23, John 18.

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