As we prepare to celebrate the single greatest event in human history, my mind is not fixated on hard-boiled eggs dyed pastel colors or chocolate bunnies.
That bloody cross and empty tomb stand alone in time as the one event that changed everything. The resurrected Jesus freed from death and the grave so that all of humanity, including a wretch like me, could be reconciled to the God of the Universe lives and breathes at the very core of my being.
But in the days approaching that glorious celebration, the thought of Barabbas keeps creeping through the shadows of my mind. It’s the irony surrounding him I cannot shake.
Matthew calls Barabbas a “notorious prisoner” in chapter 27, verse 16. Mark and Luke say he was involved in one of the numerous riotous insurrections against the Romans and had committed murder in the process.
And yet, the crowd chose him over Jesus. John 18: 39-40:
“But you have a custom of asking me to release one prisoner each year at Passover. Would you like me to release this ‘King of the Jews’?” But they shouted back, “No! Not this man. We want Barabbas!” (Barabbas was a revolutionary.)” (NLT)
Barabbas was a convicted criminal. In 2000 years, I can find absolutely no evidence that anyone has ever argued for his innocence. The punishment he had coming was just and fair.
The absolute irony of the situation is what Pilate said about Jesus in Luke 23: 13-15:
“Then Pilate called together the leading priests and other religious leaders, along with the people, and he announced his verdict. “You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty.”
Jesus was not guilty of insurrection. In fact, there were those who said Jesus could not be the Messiah because He was not leading a revolt against the Romans. The religious leader’s fears (called “envy” in both Matthew and Mark’s account) was that the Romans would take away their power and prestige if Jesus’ ministry continued to grow. (John 11:48)
The injustice of the claims against Jesus were so obvious that Pilate argued with the crowd to the point that they were on the verge of rioting. (Luke 23 :20-23, Matthew 27:24) Pilate wanted to release Jesus, and in offering to release a known insurrectionist instead, almost certainly put himself at risk of raising the ire of Rome. Barabbas was clearly an enemy of Caesar. Jesus was not.
Yet, given the choice, the crowd chose and even cried out for a murdering insurrectionist over their Messiah.
While Scripture does not specifically identify Barabbas as a Zealot like it does the disciple Simon the Zealot, there’s a good chance he was a member of this group that sought the violent overthrow of the Romans. Zealots were even known to kill fellow Jews whom they thought were too quick to compromise with the Romans. As such, the religious leaders provoking the crowd to call for the release of Barabbas were putting themselves at risk.
Eventually, those Zealots rose up in 66 AD and started the First Jewish-Roman War that led to the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed and “not one stone left on another.” (Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 21:6.) It’s fair to say that as a result of that war, the Jewish people were without a country of their own until 1948.
But the deepest irony of all regarding Barabbas is that we are all insurrectionists. Ever since that first sin in the garden, we have all been in rebellion against God.
We are all Barabbas.
There is nothing in Scripture that describes the reaction of Barabbas when he was released from prison. Was he grateful? Did he want to find out about this man named Jesus who died for the crimes he had committed? Did he change his ways and love and pray for his enemies as Jesus had taught? Did Barabbas become a new creation in Christ Jesus, the Messiah?
Those are questions none of us will be able to answer until we get to heaven. But in our time here on this earth, even the most hard-boiled of us has the opportunity to do all those things because, just like Barabbas, we have been forgiven and set free by what Jesus did on that cross and on that glorious empty-tomb morning.
And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (ESV)