“But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.” (John 18:39-40)
Who was Barabbas? What irony is there in this account of the Jews wanting Barabbas to be released instead of Jesus? The Tyndale Bible Dictionary provides some valuable insight.
At the very outset, Barabbas was a criminal who was released by Pontius Pilate instead of Jesus. Along with the Gospel of John, all the other Gospel writers took note of that event (Matthew 27:15–26; Mark 15:6–15; Luke 23:18–25) as did the Apostle Peter in his temple sermon (Acts 3:14-15).
“Barabbas was a bandit and/or revolutionary (John 18:40) who had been imprisoned for committing murder during an insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). (The word translated “robber” in John 18:40 can denote either a bandit or revolutionary.) He was regarded as a notorious prisoner (Matthew 27:16).”
His crimes may have been a violent act of robbery or a struggle among the Jews, but many scholars view it as a political insurrection against the Roman forces in Jerusalem. It is likely that Barabbas was a member of the Zealots, a Jewish political group that sought to throw off the yoke of Rome by force or violence.
After examining Jesus, Pilate, recognized that Jesus was innocent and wanted to free him. Yet Pilate also had an interest in pleasing the Jewish leaders in order to protect his own political position. In the face of his dilemma he offered to release a prisoner to the Jews at their Passover feast (John 18:39).
The IVP Background Commentary of the New Testament states, “Although unattested in extant Palestinian sources (as are many customs), the specific custom mentioned here is the sort of custom the Romans would have allowed. Roman law permitted two kinds of amnesty, the indulgentia (pardoning a condemned person) and—what Pilate probably has in mind here—abolitio (acquitting a person before judgment). Romans and Greeks seem to have granted mass amnesty at some other regular feasts, and Romans occasionally acquitted prisoners in response to the cries of crowds. Roman provincial officials were also permitted to follow previous officials’ precedents or provincial customs.”
Theologian Robert Rothwell writes, “Before finally passing sentence on Jesus, Pilate left his headquarters, where he was interrogating our Savior, to inform the Jewish leaders of his opinion regarding Jesus. He told them that he found “no guilt” in Jesus (v. 38b). Now, one might think that Pilate would have released the innocent Jesus immediately, since He was clearly not a threat to the Roman Empire’s rule over Judea. But that is not what happened. Pilate’s lack of integrity shines through in that he offered the Jewish authorities a choice. He would release either Jesus or Barabbas, according to the custom of the Romans to release one prisoner during the Passover (v. 39).
Given the option of choosing to release Jesus or Barabbas, Pilate thought that the Jewish crowd would choose to have Jesus set free. However, the Roman governor underestimated either the mood of the mob or the influence of the Jewish leaders, or perhaps both. Regardless, the throng shouted for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified (Matthew 27:21–22). Consequently, Jesus was crucified and Barabbas set free. Upon receiving his freedom, Barabbas disappeared from biblical and secular history.
Dr. R. C. Sproul comments on the unspoken irony contained in this episode. He explains that, “There is irony here, for Barabbas’ real name was likely Jesus Barabbas, meaning “Jesus, son of the father.” Instead of choosing the true Son of the Father—the Son of God—the Jewish leaders chose a criminal.”
Acts 3:14-15 says, “But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.”
The Apostle Peter also noted the irony of the Jews choosing Barabbas over Jesus when he preached that they released a murderer and instead killed the Author of Life. A taker of life, Barabbas, was set free while the giver of life was to be crucified.
Who would we have chosen to set free: Barabbas or Jesus? Do not be so quick to answer that we would have never preferred Barabbas instead of Jesus. Prior to conversion, we were as spiritually dead as was the Jewish leaders and Pontius Pilate.
Ephesians 2:1-3 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.”
What happened to make the difference in our lives? Ephesians 2:4-5 provides the answer. “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—.”
The Author of Life made us, who were dead, alive together with Christ. May we live today in light of the new life we possess in Jesus Christ alone, by grace alone through faith alone.
May God’s truth and grace reside here.
Soli deo Gloria!