Rev. John Marcus, pastor of Peace PRC in Lansing, Illinois

Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? Matthew 27:17

Early Friday morning, after the Jewish Sanhedrin condemned Jesus, they brought Him to Pilate asking for Jesus to be executed by crucifixion. Pilate had little difficulty recognizing that Jesus was innocent and that the Jews had brought Him there because they envied Him. Knowing Jesus was innocent, Pilate wanted to release Jesus; but he was afraid of the Jews.

As it happened, it was Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner during the Passover feast. He thought that if he gave the people a choice, they would choose to release Jesus. So, he asked, “Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?” (Matt. 27:17).

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From a certain point of view, the choice was obvious: the people should have asked Pilate to release the innocent and leave the guilty under condemnation.

On the one hand, there ought to have been no question that Jesus was perfectly innocent.

Even Judas declared, “I have betrayed the innocent blood” (Matt. 27:4). Pilate’s wife was so troubled by Jesus’ trial, she sent a messenger to Pilate urging him to have “nothing to do with that just man” (Matt. 27:19). After examining Jesus, Pilate himself declared his legal finding concerning Jesus: “I find in him no fault at all” (John 18:38). Later in the trial, Pilate twice repeated the same finding.

Not only had Jesus never committed a crime worthy of punishment, He also never committed the least sin in thought, word, or deed. He was absolutely “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners” (Heb. 7:26).

Moreover, Jesus was perfectly devoted to doing God’s will; He delighted in it His entire life (cf. Heb 10:7). Such was His determination to do the will of God, that He set His face to go up to Jerusalem even when He knew He would be condemned to death (Matt. 20:18).

Knowing His innocence, the crowd ought to have told Pilate to release Jesus, whose righteousness was obvious!

On the other hand, it was obvious that Barabbas was the worst of criminals, notorious for his violence. Barabbas was not merely a thief, he was a murderous robber. He had taken part in a violent uprising against the Roman government (cf. Luke 23:19). It is not unlikely that Barabbas was a ringleader in the sedition.

Barabbas’ name means “son of a father.” However, Barabbas was not a wise son who made his father glad. Ultimately, he was a spiritual son of his father, the devil. He spent his life doing the works of the devil. One can hardly imagine two men more opposite in character: Jesus, the righteous Son of God and giver of life; Barabbas, a wicked and seditious murderer.

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Pilate would have the people choose between the two: “Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus?”

He hoped the people would choose Jesus. Surely, the people would not choose to have him release such a notorious criminal as Barabbas over Jesus. Surely, the people would know that Jesus and Barabbas were in two completely different categories of people. Surely, the people could tell the difference between light and darkness.

As for Jesus, during His ministry, He had instructed the people to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. Barabbas, in contrast, led a rebellion against the Roman government. Jesus had made the lame to walk and the blind to see, and even raised the dead. Barabbas was guilty of murder. Jesus was the epitome of obedience and righteousness; Barabbas the epitome of rebellion and wickedness.

Why did Pilate want the people to choose? Because of his own wickedness. He should have executed justice by releasing righteous Jesus as well as scolding the Jews for their wickedness. But he could not bring himself to do what was right because the personal cost was too high. So, he set himself on a course with the goal of absolving himself of his responsibility to judge righteously.

On the one hand, he was afraid of Jesus. Even his wife took the trouble to warn him to have nothing to do with Jesus, that just man. On the other hand, he was afraid of the Jews, and what Caesar would do if the Jews raised a tumult. So Pilate put the choice in the people’s hands. By doing so, Pilate had already chosen against Jesus. The opinions of the Jews and of Caesar were more important to him than the will of God.

But now, the people must choose. Their choice would reflect their conviction as to who was most worthy of honor. And their choice would reflect their belief as to which of these two would bring them happiness, Jesus or Barabbas.

Barabbas represented the people’s desire to set up an earthly kingdom through his rebellion against the government God had placed over them. Barabbas represented the kingdom of man and then of Antichrist. Jesus, on the other hand, represented a spiritual kingdom founded upon the principle of perfect obedience and the satisfaction of God’s justice.

Ultimately, the people’s choice implied their desire for one kind of kingdom over against another. Will you have God’s anointed One? Or will you take the man of the world? Will you have God’s kingdom? Or will you seek an earthly antichristian kingdom? Jesus or Barabbas?

God calls us to choose each and every day of our lives. Not in the sense that our choice determines whether or not we are saved. But in the sense of choosing what is right. By God’s grace, the psalmist declares, “I have chosen the way of truth: thy judgments have I laid before me” (Ps. 119:30). Our choice must be to follow the way of truth, no matter what the cost. By grace we must pursue, not an earthly kingdom, but Christ’s spiritual kingdom.

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Given the choice between the two, the people chose Barabbas: “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus” (Matt. 27:20). The choice to release Barabbas was wicked in itself. Far worse, the choice for Barabbas was a choice against Jesus! Their choice was absolute wickedness!

Fallen mankind will always make that choice. Faced with the choice of Jesus or Barabbas, the world will always choose Barabbas. They will not choose Jesus, because they hate Jesus and His kingdom. Given the choice between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Antichrist, fallen mankind will always choose against Christ.

Apart from God’s grace, we too would choose against Christ. The prophet Isaiah captures what our attitude toward Christ is apart from the grace of God: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:3).

Not surprisingly, the people chose Barabbas!

So Pilate tried one more time to absolve himself of his responsibility to judge righteously: “Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified” (Matt. 27:22-23). Although Pilate knew Jesus had done no evil, he allowed the people to choose Jesus’ fate. Jesus must be crucified.

Pilate washed his hands and declared “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it” (Matt. 27:24). He thought of himself as innocent; but in fact, he was guilty. He feared the Jews and Caesar more than God. Pilate chose to save his own skin rather than administer justice.

At the same time, the Jews made light of their own guilt, taking full responsibility for Jesus’ death: “His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). As if to say, “If we are guilty because we are putting Jesus to death, then let us and our children suffer the wrath of God.” That is, in fact, what happened: forty years later, God sent the Roman armies to destroy the nation of Israel including Jerusalem and the temple. Most of them experienced the horrible wrath of God against them for their sinful rejection of Christ.

We ourselves deserve that same wrath. But thanks be to God, He ordained that very rejection for our salvation! Jesus was crucified on the cursed tree so that we might be freed from that curse. “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal. 3:13).

Jesus suffered God’s curse so that we would be blessed. He was rejected and forsaken so that we would be accepted by God. Jesus’ blood is now upon us and our elect children, not in the sense of our paying for the guilt of rejecting Him, but in the sense of its cleansing power. His blood is sprinkled upon us to cleanse us from all the guilt and pollution of sin. His blood purchased for us all the blessings of salvation. By the power of the risen Lord, we put off the old man and put on the new. By Christ’s power, we submit ourselves to the will of God.

By nature, we would only take the side of Barabbas and the earthly kingdom he sought. By grace, we renounce the earthly and choose the heavenly kingdom of Jesus Christ. By nature, we would only refuse the cost of following the way of Christ. By grace, we determine to follow that way no matter what the cost.

Praise be to God that the people chose Barabbas and that righteous Jesus was delivered to die. May we ever seek Christ’s heavenly kingdom.