Do you know what today is? Of course you do. Social media probably wouldn’t let you forget even if you wanted to. It’s Good Friday! That very special day when we all decorate Easter eggs, try our new church clothes on, and remember the most heinous crime ever committed in the history of ever – the day we killed God.
Now, there is no way that a blog post is going to capture the immense meaning of what happened on this day. But I do want to take some time to focus on one particular thing that happened on Jesus’ day of execution 2,000 years ago, and that would be his trial. Not the one before the Sanhedrin and not the one before Herod Antipas, but the one before Pontius Pilate. Even more specifically, I want to focus on the release of Barabbas.1
Now if you recall, Jesus’ arrest took place during the Passover celebration in Jerusalem, and since Jerusalem was under Roman rule (like pretty much everyone was at that time) there was a Roman prefect who oversaw the province. At the time of Jesus’ arrest Pilate was the prefect over Jerusalem and the surrounding area, Judea. Now Pilate had a unique tradition with the Jewish people. Once a year, during the passover feast, he would release a Jewish prisoner back to the people. Why would he do this? Isn’t it dangerous to just let criminals run free? Wouldn’t Rome have some nasty things to say (or do) to Pilate for doing this?
Well, the reason behind this has a lot to do with the political atmosphere of first century Palestine. You see, the Jewish people were feisty, and a bit fed up with being under one foreign occupation after another. In light of the marginally successful Maccabean revolt (167-160 BC), a number of Jewish people saw themselves as a somewhat formidable force. And with tensions between Rome and Judea being what they were, Palestine at the time of Jesus’ arrest was a veritable powder keg in a firework stand made of straw in a dry field next to a lightning storm on top of an active volcano (… yeah, things were pretty tightly wound). And Pilate was the lucky guy tasked with dealing with all of this. So when Jesus is brought before him and accused of claiming to be the king of the Jews,2 which smells strongly of treason to Rome, you can appreciate the sort of high-stakes political game that Pilate was forced to play.
Finding Jesus to be no real threat, and hoping to garner some favor with the unruly mob at his doorstep, Pilate reminds the people, “You know how I give amnesty to a Jewish prisoner once a year? Well, how about I do that for this Jesus fella’ since I’m pretty sure he’s not starting any military coups any time soon.” And that’s when Barabbas’ name gets thrown out there. Now Barrabas was one of those violent Zealots who wanted to overthrow the Roman regime in Judea. These guys would kill Romans if they got the chance, along with any Jew associating with Romans (e.g., Pharisees, tax collectors, etc.). So, considering how violent Barabbas was, and considering how non-violent Jesus was, you can see how wild it is that the crowd cried out, “Give us Barabbas!” And Jesus? “Crucify him!”
Where people often think the significance of Barabbas is
Now, whenever this story is preached in church, the point is almost always made that the freeing of Barabbas and the execution of Jesus in his place points to how Jesus took our place on the cross. And if you’re into all that Penal Substitutionary atonement stuff,3 then that makes sense. But I’d like to offer another deeper explanation that I think is much more interesting and much more influential on how we should now live.
Where the significance of Barabbas actually is
The name Barabbas is actually the combination of two words – bar, which means “son of,” and abba, which means “father.” On top of this, although most English translations don’t show this, many of the earliest manuscripts give us his first name. You ready for this? Jesus. That’s right. Barabbas’ first name is actually Jesus.4 So, his full name, Jesus Barabbas, literally translates to “Savior son of the father.” Now that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? So, here we have two Jesuses – Jesus son of the father and Jesus of Nazareth – both presenting themselves as Israel’s saving Messiah. The crowd now has to decide which Jesus they want and which Jesus they want crucified. On the one hand, you’ve got the nationalist Jesus, the militant Jesus, the Jesus who seeks to assert the will of God “by any means necessary.” On the other hand, you’ve got the suffering Jesus, the Jesus whose kingdom is not of this world, the Jesus who serves others.
Now, here’s where the rubber meets the road. A lot of times the Pharisees and the crowd get a bad rap because they chose a terrorist over the Son of God. And, yeah, they were terrible for doing that, but we actually do the very same thing more often than we probably realize. Interestingly, Matthew 27:16 calls Barabbas “notorious” or “infamous.” However, this Greek word, episēmos, could just as easily be translated “distinguished” or “prominent.” In other words, Barabbas was popular. And why shouldn’t he be? He is just the sort of Jesus they wanted. And he is the sort of Jesus that we often want. We choose him all the time. Every time we choose to tie our faith to our national identity, every time we condone “justified” violence, every time we try to use political power to enforce our convictions, every time we choose this Jesus…
… instead of this one…
… we are choosing Barabbas.
So let’s think about this as we reflect on Christ’s crucifixion today. Do we really believe in the Jesus who suffered and died on that fateful Friday so long ago? Do we really want a Messiah like that? Or, when it comes to picking which Jesus we like, do we too cry out for Barabbas?
1: see Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:18-25; and John 18:29-19:16
2: Since Pilate wouldn’t have given a crap about blasphemy.
3: Which I am not
4: Because the name of Jesus was so sacred in the early church, later manuscripts omit it. Ironically, Origin thought that since the name of Jesus is so holy, some heretic probably put it in the manuscripts.