“But the chief priests and the elders won over the crowd in order that they might demand Barabbas and destroy Jesus. And replying, the governor said to them, ‘Which do you want of the two that I might release him?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas!’”
“But the chief priests incited the crowd so that he should rather release Barabbas to them.”
“And they all cried out in unison, saying, ‘Lift this man up, release to us Barabbas!’, who was a person who had been thrown into prison for murder during a revolt he was involved with in the city.”
“Thus they shouted again, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ But Barabbas was a revolutionary.”
The details given here are astounding. Matthew, for example, speaks of how the chief priests and elders, the leadership of Israel, are working the crowd, inciting them to cry out for this Barabbas and the crowds are shouting to Pilate — demanding that he release Barabbas. I can only imagine just how tense this situation was becoming. Everyone is guilty, everyone is involved, not one stands free from the charge of placing Jesus on the cross.
Barabbas here is described to us as having been involved with a revolt in the city. This we have already discussed. Many of our Bibles will translate John’s description of Barabbas as “robber” just as they translate the description of the two men crucified to the right and left of our Lord (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27). The reason for this translation is because the term that is used to describe these is lhˆsth/ß (leistes), which can mean a bandit or a highwayman, but it also can refer to one who is an insurrectionist, hence my choice above: “revolutionary.”
A wonderful piece of irony, though, can be found as we look at Luke’s account here. Most of our Bibles will render the statement of the people as, “Take this man away, release Barabbas to us.” And while that is a perfectly legitimate translation, the Greek word, ai¡rw (airo), used here can also mean “to lift” or “to take up.” It is the word that is often used of Jesus’ statement to “take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23). In their very language we find a foreshadowing that Jesus indeed will be taking up his cross and leading to the hill of Golgotha.
And indeed, that is where he leads us as well. He paid our debt for us; he died our death in our place, yet in calling us to take up our crosses as well, we are called to die to the things of this world and live to Christ. The echoes of the crowd, I am sure, rang in our Lord’s ears, but should we not also expect to hear the angry words of the world around us ringing in our own when we stand for Truth…when we labor to change the culture around us? The cross is not a casual thing that we are called to carry as some people use the phrase, “take up your cross” or “it is a cross to bear…” The cross is an implement of torture and death — an implement that we are compelled to take up freely and willingly — and thankfully. We stand guilty right along with the Romans and the Jews at this juncture — but there is a promise of eternal life given to those who repent and turn to Christ in faith. Will you not do just that? Will you not also risk rejection and share that with others? It is good news to those who believe — the very best news of all.
“During the feast, it was the tradition of the governor to release one prisoner to the crowd which they desired.”
“During the feast, he would release to them one prisoner for whom they asked. And there was one called Barabbas with the rebels in prison who had committed murder in the rebellion.”
There is record of a Roman custom of releasing a captive to the people on certain festival days. It does not seem to be something that was widely practiced, but there are certainly documented cases of this taking place in other parts of the Roman empire. Reasonably, it ought not be too surprising that in Judah, Pilate would have practiced this as a way of placating the people. In this case, Mark and Luke both refer to an insurrection that had taken place in the city of Jerusalem in which Barabbas was a participant (and likely a leader). In the chaos that comes along with such a rebellion, Barabbas had murdered a man and was in prison for that action.
As we introduce this man, it is important to note that there is an irony found in names — another sign of God’s providential superintendence of these events. In Aramaic, Barabbas means, “Son of the Father.” Jesus was the true Son of the Father — the divine Father — yet the people will choose one whose father is a fallen man, not one whose Father is God himself — embracing the world and not God.
And how often we choose to do the same. We embrace the things that this world offers us and tempts us with, but when it comes to God’s call on our lives we struggle. The world says, “hold a grudge;” Jesus says, “forgive others.” Which do you do? The world says that money exists and blessings are there so that you can live comfortably. Jesus says that these good things ought to turn your heart toward the Father’s grace and then be used by you to turn the hearts of others toward the Father as well — blessed to be a blessing. Which characterizes your life?
Oh, beloved, God offers us salvation by his mighty and abundant grace and by grace alone — no works of ours can merit this gift. But as children who have received this gift, shall we not live thankfully? It is the spoiled child, miserable to be around, that is not grateful for the gifts he receives — may we not be like that child in the Master’s house, but be thankful people who have been ushered in by grace and who communicate that grace to all who we encounter.