…it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release “the king of the Jews”?’ They shouted back, ‘No, not him! Give us Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising. John 18:39-40 (NIVUK)
Pilate was in a tricky position. He had already had some run-ins with the Jews: he celebrated the glory and power of Rome by hanging large banners bearing the image of Tiberius Caesar everywhere in Jerusalem, including the temple. This was blasphemy to the Jews, and they were enraged. Pilate agreed to meet them for conciliatory talks only to surround and threaten to kill them. The Jews called his bluff with many of them laying down their necks. Pilate gave in and removed the images. On another occasion, Pilate extorted a huge amount of money from the temple treasury to pay for a new aqueduct. Again, the Jews staged a protest, so Pilate sent Roman soldiers, dressed as normal citizens, to beat many of the protestors to death. (1) As a result, the Jews hated Pilate and Rome was displeased with his actions placing him on probation. (2)
Now he is confronted with Jesus. Pilate didn’t want to crucify Jesus but to not concur with the Jewish leader’s request would put him in danger of incurring their wrath and being accused of not being a friend of Caesar
(John 19:12) which he wanted to avoid.
Pilate had an ingenious idea: he appeals to a custom where he would release one Jewish political prisoner at Passover as a sign of goodwill. The choice was between a known terrorist and a man who healed people and raised the dead. Surely there was only one answer, and yet the people called for Barabbas to be released.
‘Bar’ in Hebrew means ‘son of’ and ‘Abbas’ means ‘father’, so, Barabbas means ‘son of a father,’ and which of us is not a son (or daughter) of a father? His name is representative of all of us. (3) The innocent one, Jesus, dies, while the guilty one, Barabbas goes free. Here is the gospel in microcosm: Jesus dies and I, the guilty one, goes free.
It is of great assurance that the character chosen to play us in this episode is the worst kind of person: a rebel, murderer, and extortionist – because it shows us that no matter who you are and what you have done, Jesus’s death frees us from the chains of guilt.
Thanks be to God that all have been included in the Saviour’s death, and that no one is too wicked to be forgiven and set free.
Loving Father, through the death of your Son, our chains have fallen off and our heart is free, may we rise, go forth and follow thee. In Jesus’s name,
Have a good week thanking God for our freedom.
- Darrel L. Bock, Luke Volume 2: 9:51–24:53, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, p. 1205.
- Charles Swindoll, Behold the Man!, p. 52–53.
- Leon Morris, Reflections on the Gospel of John, p. 635.