Who do you identify with in the Passion narratives?
Of course, as good Christians, we say Jesus. He’s the good guy, our protagonist. As we relive the story, we pull for him, and against his enemies. And a long list of enemies it is: Judas who betrays him, Peter who denies him, the chief priests who hate him, Herod who mocks him, the crowd that calls for his crucifixion, Pilate who washes his hands and condemns him, and Barrabas who is guilty but gets to go free.
Wait a minute.
Barrabas—the guilty one who gets to go free?
In his 23rd chapter, Luke leads us sinners, in his careful wording of the narrative, to identify in this significant way with Barrabas. As Jesus’ condemnation leads to the release of a multitude of spiritual captives from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, so also his death sentence leads to the release of the physical captive Barrabas.
In verse 15, Luke quotes Pilate to establish Jesus’ manifest innocence: “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.” Then he confirms Barrabas’ guilt in verse 19, as “a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.”
In verse 22, after the mob has called for Jesus’ crucifixion for a third time, Luke emphasizes Jesus’ innocence again in the words of Pilate: “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death.” But unconvinced, the crowd continues to demand the death of Jesus and, wonder of all wonders, the release in his place of the manifestly guilty Barrabas.
So Pilate “released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will” (verse 25). Here’s the first substitution of the cross. The innocent Jesus is condemned as a criminal, while the criminal Barrabas is released as if innocent.
And still today, because of the willing substitution of the innocent Jesus, Barrabases like us go free.