The Gospel, According to Barabbas
“Who shall I release unto you? Bar-Abbas, the murderer… Or Jesus the Christ, Who is called the King of the Jews?”
Pilate stood before the increasingly riotous mob and asked them to make their choice. On one hand, the Roman procurator offered up a Man whose message was peace. On the other, a man whose mission was war. One preached intercession on behalf of His enemies; the other was an insurrectionist with blood on his hands. One had restored life to those who had died; the other brought death to those he hated. If ever there existed two men of more diametrically opposed worldviews, history has failed to record it.
Little is known about the second prisoner – a man named Bar-Abbas – aside from what is recorded in Scripture. What we do know is that he was a remarkable prisoner (Matt. 27:16), a murderer (Luke 23:19), and the leader of a band of insurrectionists (Mark 15:7). More than likely, Barabbas was a Zealot, a member of a notorious sect of political revolutionaries feared for their merciless exploits. Their numbers were composed of ruthless assassins and fanatically devoted militants. Additionally, Bar-Abbas was also a brigand (John 18:40) – a ruthless bandit similar to the ones recounted in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30). The modus operandi of these unsavory thieves was to ambush solitary travelers – Jews and Gentiles alike – and leave them for dead after robbing them of all they possessed. In short, Bar-Abbas was a career criminal and a man of decidedly unscrupulous moral character. And because of his notorious blood lust and thoughtless violence, Bar-Abbas had been condemned to death.
But that was all before Jesus.
Bar-Abbas stood before the angry mob, disoriented and confused. He had stood in this very place before, at his own trial. It was here that Pontius Pilate had reviewed all the evidence against Bar-Abbas and found him unequivocally guilty of murder and sedition. And it was in this very place where the procurator had condemned him to die. But now, even the governor stood in disbelief as the crowd chanted the name of Bar-Abbas, demanding his release. But Pilate was bound to his word, and to the customs of the city. He signaled to the guards, and they moved toward Bar-Abbas. They removed his manacles, and violently pushed him down the stairs and toward the mob.
“You’re free,” the Roman soldier said, punctuating his words with an oath.
Bar-Abbas didn’t understand. An hour ago, he had sat in a cold prison cell – his body beaten from a scourging, his wrists chained to a stone wall, his nostrils filled with the stench of death. Just an hour ago, he had been contemplating his final hours on earth. An hour ago, the shadow of the cross had consumed his thoughts. But now he was free.
“What shall I do then with Jesus, which is called the Christ?”
Bar-Abbas glanced at the disbelieving expression on the governor’s face, as the crowd replied with a new chant: “Crucify Him!” Suddenly, Bar-Abbas realized what was happening. This other Man on trial was no mere commoner; on the contrary, He was perhaps the greatest celebrity in all Jerusalem – the Prophet from Nazareth, the powerful Healer called Jesus. Some had called Him the Messiah; still others had called him a charlatan and a blasphemer. Now, the people wanted the Prophet crucified.
But Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent. He had not offered Bar-Abbas’ freedom to the crowd at random; it was a power play. He had hoped that the people – especially Caiphas and the Sanhedrin – would be so appalled by Bar-Abbas’ crimes that they would relent to the release of the Christ. But it hadn’t worked. The religious leaders had coerced the crowd into demanding Bar-Abbas’ freedom – and Jesus’ death. The full weight of the situation came crashing down on Bar-Abbas: Jesus of Nazareth had taken his place. At morning’s light, He would carry the cross that had been meant for Bar-Abbas. The Messiah would die; the murderer would live.
No one knows what happened to Bar-Abbas after his release. Books have been written, motion pictures have been made, and sermons have been preached that speculate upon the direction his life took after that fateful day. One would hope that Bar-Abbas understood the greater significance of everything that happened that night in Pilate’s court. Bar-Abbas had been undeniably guilty of every charge that had been brought against him, and he had been sentenced to the just recompense of his deeds. Pilate had decreed that Bar-Abbas should be put to death for crimes against the state; but God had decreed that His Only Son would die instead. If ever there was a man who could claim that Jesus Christ had died in his stead, it was Bar-Abbas.
And so can I.
Just as Jesus literally took the place of Bar-Abbas on Calvary’s cross, He also took my place under the just wrath of God (Rom. 1:18, Rev. 14:10, Matt. 26:39, Mark 15:34). Bar-Abbas was guilty of insurrection against the government of Rome; I was guilty of insurrection against the government of God. Just as Bar-Abbas was the enemy of the state, so was I the enemy of a God (Rom. 5:10, 8:7; Col. 1:21; Ja. 4:4). And just as the law of the Empire condemned Bar-Abbas to death, so was I cursed by the Law of the Creator (Gal. 3:10-13).
The sovereign hand of God was at work that night in Pilate’s Hall, and in Pilate’s heart (Pro. 21:1). Even before His Son was nailed to Calvary’s tree, God was showing us what salvation was truly about: that the Innocent King should suffer in the stead of His guilty creation. Had Christ not come, Bar-Abbas would have died for his crimes – and I would have died in my sin. I once stood before the Holy Prefect as guilty as Bar-Abbas, and even more so. I had hated without cause, and was guilty of murder (Matt. 5:21-22). I had stolen from God the glory due His name. And I deserved to be destroyed.
But that was all before Jesus.
He took my place before the angry mob; I took His place in calling for His death. He took my place beneath the Roman scourge; I took His place in delivering the blow. He took my place beneath the cross’ beam; I took His place in hammering the nails. As the Father turned His face away, Christ took my place beneath the all-consuming wrath of God. Now, when the Father looks at me, I take Christ’s place of honor as God’s beloved son.
JESUS TOOK MY PLACE: that is the Gospel, according to a murderer named Bar-Abbas – and according to a sinner like me.
© 2010 Jeremy Austin Watts