Jesus & Barabbas


15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 So when they gathered Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For Pilate knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered Jesus up.


20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 Pilate again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified! ... 25 His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then Pilate released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.


-Matthew 27:15-18, 20-22, 25-26


Barabbas is an odd character of Passion Week. This jarring scene in Matthew and Mark’s gospels are the only places we see this character appear. Very little is known of Barabbas outside of Scripture. So why does Barabbas receive significant attention by the gospel writers? Why even mention this man when the bigger story is Christ going to the cross?

As you may know, “abba” means father and “bar” means son, as in “blessed are you Simon bar Jonah...” The crowd cries for the freedom of Barabbas whose name literally means “son of the father”, and rejects Jesus, the Father’s one and only son. But that’s not the only thing significant about Barabbas’ name: Origen, and other early biblical scholars, identify Barabbas’ first name as Jesus, making the rejection of Jesus the Christ for Jesus Barabbas all the more ironic.

Jesus Barabbas was not merely a guilty man, he was the worst prisoner Pilate could bring forward. This was not a man who had stolen to feed his family. This was a murder, and a “notorious” prisoner. Jesus Barabbas represented the very worst of mankind. And the crowd demands for Jesus Barabbas, the guilty murderer, to receive a pardon and to be released.

By contrast, Jesus Christ’s trial is short and illegitimate. It was not held in the daylight, but in the middle of the night with an angry mob. Jesus Christ is falsely condemned for blasphemy and sentenced to death by Pilate- who clearly does not believe he is guilty of any wrong-doing worthy of the punishment he will bare. Jesus Christ willingly faces the unjust ruling. Jesus Christ, the innocent man, receives the retribution owed to the guilty.

Jesus Barabbas receives the exoneration Jesus Christ deserved, and Jesus Christ receives the damnation Jesus Barabbas deserved.

And it is only through the suffering of the Christ that we are made free. Jesus Christ was murdered, but He is the resurrection and the life. Jesus Christ would rise again. Yet, he does not return for justice to those who condemned him. The crucified Christ offers to all who would turn to him life.

For the rest of his days, Barabbas must have woken up every day knowing it was only because of the other Jesus he was alive and free. Barabbas surely recognized the irony of the crowd condemning the wrong Jesus. Barabbas must have known he was guilty of his sin and deserving of the punishment that awaited him.

I may not have murdered anyone with my hands, but I am guilty of wishing ill on others in my heart. I may not have committed adultery, but I am guilty of lusting after other women. Jesus Christ exposes these on the Sermon on the Mount as sin just the same. While I want to look at Barabbas and cast him aside as an extraordinary sinner who did not deserve the Son of the Father to die in his place, I am confronted with the reality that I am no different.

I am Barabbas. I am spiritually bound in prison awaiting my inevitable fate. I hear the chants of the mob and expect that my day of death has finally come. I am helpless before the Judge to do anything to defend my actions. I am the guilty who walked free because the innocent man was willing to suffer in my place. I am the one for whom Jesus bore the cross. It reminds me of the song:

How deep the Father’s love for us
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give his only Son
To make Barabbas His treasure



Michael McAfee is the president and co-founder of Inspire, a worship pastor at Council Road Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, and an ethics and public policy PhD student at The Southern Theological Seminary.  Michael is happily married to his Sunday-school sweetheart, Lauren Green McAfee. Together, they co-authored Not What You Think.  They have a daughter, Zion.  You can follow him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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