When Guilty Men Go Free

The Gospel According to Barabbas

Only a relatively few people are mentioned by name in all four New Testament Gospels. Besides Jesus, of course, there are such notables as his mother Mary, John the Baptist, Mary Magdalene, and Pontius Pilate. Given the roles each of these played in the life of Jesus, their mentions are understandable.

Another name in this somewhat exclusive group may be far more surprising, however: Barabbas.

Barabbas’s inclusion might be all the more unexpected when we think that not even all twelve disciples are cited by name in all four Gospels (John doesn’t catalog them all). Nor is Jesus’s earthly father, Joseph (he’s absent in the Gospel of Mark). Clearly, we must not assume an explicit four-Gospel mention has any necessary correlation to God’s esteem of an individual. But then again, neither should we ignore Barabbas’s presence in all four accounts. The Holy Spirit clearly wants us to take notice of something. He wants us to learn from Barabbas.

Notoriously Offensive

Barabbas is famous for his infamy. He suddenly appeared on the stage of world history at his most ignoble moment. In fact, all we know about Barabbas is that he was a “notorious” criminal (Matthew 27:16).

Mark and Luke report that he had participated in some kind of insurrection in Jerusalem and had committed murder (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:18–19). John just refers to him as “a robber” (John 18:40) — choosing the Greek word lēstēs, connoting one who pillages and loots. In certain contexts, it can also mean “insurrectionist.” But these explicit four-Gospel mentions lead us to believe that Barabbas’s Jewish countrymen likely viewed him more as a thug than a heroic freedom fighter for Israel’s national independence.

The most telling indicator of this is the fact that Pontius Pilate, in his political chess game with the Jewish leaders over whether to free or execute Jesus, gave the crowd a choice between freeing Barabbas or Jesus (Matthew 27:15–18). Piecing the Gospel accounts together, it appears that Pilate thought he could frustrate the Jewish leaders’ desire for Jesus’s death through Rome’s annual act of grace at the Jewish Passover: freeing a condemned prisoner.

Pilate wanted that prisoner to be Jesus. Therefore, if he wanted to give the crowd a choice, he wouldn’t make Jesus compete against a popular hero. He’d want to offer the crowd an alternative to Jesus they would find morally offensive, whose clear guilt would starkly contrast with Jesus’s clear innocence. Surely the crowd wouldn’t choose Barabbas. Pilate was wrong.

‘I Find No Guilt in Him’

The Jewish leaders countered Pilate’s move by coaching the crowd (Matthew 27:20), and to Pilate’s bewilderment, the people chose Barabbas (John 18:40). It did not matter how often Pilate repeated, “I find no guilt in him” (John 18:38; 19:4, 6), all of his attempts to spare Jesus proved vain. And after the Jewish leaders backed him into a corner with a not-so-veiled political threat (John 19:12),

Pilate decided that [the crowd’s] demand should be granted. He 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. (Luke 23:24–25)

The guilty man was pardoned, and the innocent man was condemned to death.

On a human level, this was a great evil. It was terrible evil that Jesus was betrayed by a friend. It was a terrible evil that the Jewish leaders pursued his execution through devious means. It was a terrible evil that Pilate forsook justice, trying to free Jesus on the political sly. It was a terrible evil that the crowd chose to free a man guilty of capital murder over a man guilty of nothing. The murder of Jesus was, as John Piper calls it, “history’s most spectacular sin.”

Barabbas, Melchizedek, and Me

That’s all we know of Barabbas. Just as suddenly as he appears on history’s stage, he disappears. We remember him as the guilty man who received a life-giving pardon because the innocent Son of Man was condemned to death.

In a sense, Barabbas is a little like Melchizedek, the king and priest of ancient Salem who made a sudden appearance for only a few hours in the life of Abraham (Genesis 14:18–20). But his brief appearance became a powerful foreshadow and type of Jesus, our great King and Priest (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:6; 6:20–7:17). Barabbas, who appeared for only a few hours of Jesus’s life, is a different type. He has become a type for all sinners — all of us.

We all have sinned (Romans 3:23); we all stand guilty before God. We all deserve the sentence of eternal death (Romans 6:23). But Barabbas is a gospel parable, and the lesson is this: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Our freedom from condemning guilt isn’t achieved by anything we do; it’s achieved by Jesus dying in our place. It’s given to us as a free gift (Romans 6:23), a gift that we receive by faith (Ephesians 2:8–9).

All who receive this free gift not only are freed from the death sentence of sin; they also receive “the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). Barabbas is a powerful parable for all who put their faith in Jesus and his cross, not themselves and their innocence.

His Story Is Ours

God wants us to pay attention to Barabbas, because in Barabbas we are to see ourselves. God placed Barabbas in every Gospel account of Jesus’s trial and crucifixion to show us that Jesus came to willingly lay down his life (John 10:17–18) in order that the guilty could go free.

So, as we enter the Easter season, it may do our souls good to take a longer than normal look at Barabbas, the guilty man who went free — not as a bit player in history’s most momentous drama, but as a mirror of ourselves, as a reminder that we, though guilty of terrible evil, are able to receive life-giving pardon because the Son of Man was condemned in our place. And “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).