Barabbas

But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”—a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.

Luke 23:18-19

The story of Jesus’ crucifixion is well known. In an effort to escape responsibility for condemning a man he found innocent of any capital crime, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate turned to a local custom: release one prisoner who was condemned to death. This enabled him to throw a bone to Jewish sentiment at the Passover, when the Jews celebrated God’s deliverance from slavery. It also allowed him to wash his hands of a grievous breach of justice.

Since we later learn that there were three crosses prepared, there must have been three men scheduled to be executed. Two were thieves. The other was an insurrectionist and murderer. Pilate chose that man to pair with Jesus as a potential choice for clemency. Why did he choose Barabbas?

Perhaps it was because of his name. Several ancient manuscripts, mainly from Syria, describe this prisoner as “Jesus bar Abbas.” “Bar” means son of, and “Abbas” means father. Both men were called the son of the father, in Christ’s case, the Son of God (the Father). A third century Christian leader named Origen lobbied to drop the “Jesus” from Barabbas’ name in honor of Christ, but having the same name would make an interesting choice for the crowd at the time.

More importantly, both men were seen by Rome as insurrectionists. Barabbas, along with so many other Jews, wanted a violent revolt that would toss out Roman occupation. In this way, the kingdom of God would come through a great divine judgment of evildoers.

Jesus, the Son of God, also came to bring in God’s kingdom (making him vaguely sound like a political threat). However, he understood the truth of Psalm 130:3, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” He realized that divine judgment could not stop with the Romans, but must crush every sinner, every human being (other than himself). In time, Jesus will indeed bring divine judgment, but he came first in the spirit of Habakkuk’s prayer, “in wrath, remember mercy. (Hab. 3:2) It is the grace of God alone that builds the kingdom of God on the basis of Jesus’ death in the place of sinners.

So Jesus did not defend himself at his trial, and stood quietly while the mob assembled by his enemies shouted for Barabbas. Thus it was that the cross meant for Jesus bar Abbas became the cross of the other Jesus, the one who used it to ask his Father to forgive us. Barabbas, and those like him, have inspired one bloodbath after another in pursuit of their visions of a kingdom. But from that day to this, and every day until his return, Jesus’ blood is all that is necessary.

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