As Easter Weekend comes to its peak I’m sure many of us are thinking about that story that started in a stable and ended in a tomb–only it didn’t end, and that’s why we have a story to think about. I’m also thinking about it because I just watched the second half of Ben Hur the other night and had a minor revelation (even though it wasn’t particularly in the film). Consequently, I’ve been thinking about a certain character which I’m surprised isn’t mentioned by many grace teachers, yet is–in my mind–one of the most prime examples of grace, and certainly among the first to receive it so obviously. I’m talking, of course, about that man Barabbas.
And isn’t it true? How many sermons have you heard preached about him? When was the last time you heard someone – reading from the portion of the Gospels dealing with Christ’s trial – stop and say, “Now take this guy Barabbas for instance …” He’s the unsung hero. Only, he’s not a hero; Barabbas is a murdering revolutionary (as described by Mark).
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered how he’d been missed in the grace story. You probably already know where I’m going with this – that’s just how obvious it is. We’ll pick up the story in Mark, and I’ll be reading from the New Living Translation tonight.
Jesus’ Trial before Pilate
1 Very early in the morning the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law—the entire high council—met to discuss their next step. They bound Jesus, led him away, and took him to Pilate, the Roman governor.
2 Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus replied, “You have said it.”
3 Then the leading priests kept accusing him of many crimes, 4 and Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer them? What about all these charges they are bringing against you?” 5 But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate’s surprise.
6 Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner—anyone the people requested. 7 One of the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, a revolutionary who had committed murder in an uprising. 8 The crowd went to Pilate and asked him to release a prisoner as usual.
9 “Would you like me to release to you this ‘King of the Jews’?” Pilate asked. 10 (For he realized by now that the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy.) 11 But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. 12 Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”
13 They shouted back, “Crucify him!”
14 “Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”
But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”
15 So to pacify the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.
– Mark 15:1-15
As far as I’m concerned you can just close the book right there! Pilot knew who was the innocent one – you don’t become governor of as politically fragile a region as Judea was at that time by being a poor judge. But an undeserving Jesus took the punishment (and much more) of notoriously deserving Barabbas.
Did you know Barabbas’ name means something along the lines of “Son of a/the father”? I’ve been learning to read Hebrew and as a result I’m now continually looking for deeper meaning in everything, particularly names. Barabbas’ name comes from the Aramaic roots bar (בַּר – H1247) meaning “Son”, and Abagtha (אֲבַגְתָא – H5) meaning “God-given”. It might also interest you to know that in early manuscripts Barabbas was referred to as “Jesus Barabbas”, but “Jesus” was later left off; speculation has it that this was done either out of solemn respect or to avoid confusion, but either way that’s a bunny trail for another day. What I’m most interested in is the meaning of Barabbas’ name.
Imagine with me, if you will: it is early in the morning; the Jewish leaders have been up all night trying to make all their false witnesses agree. They’ve finally got all the falsified evidence the crowd needs and they bring Jesus to Pilate, since they cannot condemn him to death themselves. The Jewish high council is bringing accusation after accusation down on Jesus and he’s just silent; all he’s letting on to here is his kingship. Pilate’s confused. He can’t get this guy; if he’s innocent, why doesn’t he clear himself? If he’s guilty of something serious enough for death, why doesn’t he fight the charges, knowing his end?
So Pilate throws what he hopes is a curve-ball on the clearly envious Jewish religious leaders: for the customary release of a prisoner on Passover, he offers them Jesus. The crowds go wild–stirred up by the religious leaders–but not for Jesus – they want Barabbas, and they want Jesus dead.
So to keep the peace, Pilate handed the undeserving Son of the Father over to his soldiers to be brutally flogged and killed while that deserving “Son of the Father”–that notorious criminal Barabbas–went free, because of love, the newly adopted son of a Heavenly Father.
A sinner set free.
I came across this video of a sermon from Judah Smith almost immediately after I began looking into this Barabbas, and he says it all; if there is one thing you do this Easter, watch this video. Seriously. Turn down the lights, turn up the volume and have a tissue on hand, because it’s about to get real.
“Jesus stood there silent for he knew the will of the Father; he said “It’s fine Father; let them have Barabbas,” for Jesus knew that the Father would have to treat Jesus like Barabbas, so He could treat Barabbas like Jesus.”
Unmerited, undeserved favour.
“Barabbas thought it was the people that set him free–no, no, no–it was the love of a Heavenly Father.”