Barabbas Preferred

Rev. Kortering is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Grandville, Michigan.

Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas. 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? For he knew that for envy they had delivered him. . . . 

The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas.

Matthew 27:15-18, 21

Jesus or Barabbas! 

Both were nominated for release. 

A stranger nomination we could never imagine. 

We must put it more strongly: it is an insulting nomination. Insulting to Jesus. How is it that He is placed on the level of one such as Barabbas, and the people are told to vote for one or the other? 

Still more, insult soon turns to shame. The people express their choice by shouting their preference for Barabbas. 

Oh, the clouds of judgment begin to hover over Jesus. 

Pilate tauntingly shouts to the people, “What then shall I do with Jesus?’ The blood-curdling cry comes forth from the multitude, “Let him be crucified!” 

Come with me as we draw near to Jesus. He must be the focal point of our interest. Be careful, though; for the more we gaze upon this Suffering Servant of Jehovah, the more we will see the horrible depths of our own depravity. 

Thus it must be, if we are to glory in the cross of Jesus. 

Barabbas represents the kingdom of man, the kingdom of the Antichrist. This conclusion is drawn from the evidence the Bible gives us about this man. In Mark 15:7 we read, “And there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.” In Matthew 27:16 he is called a “notable prisoner.” In Luke 23:19, 25we learn that Barabbas was not only associated with men who were guilty of insurrection and murder, but that he did the same. John 18:40 adds that he was also a “robber.” Some suggest that we can learn something from his name, Barabbas, a combination of “Bar,” meaning son, and “Abba,” meaning father. True, every man is a son of a father, but in this instance they suggest that “Father” is also the name for “Rabbi,” a Jewish teacher of the law. Since Matthew 27:16identifies him as a notable prisoner, it is suggested that his notoriety was twofold: first, from the fact that he was from a prominent Jewish family to begin with, and secondly, his efforts at insurrection were much appreciated and, since he played a leading role in this, was held in esteem by the people. 

Why would a man, guilt of robbery, murder, and insurrection be held in esteem? The answer lies in the fact that Barabbas may have been involved in terroristic activities that were aimed at overthrowing Roman domination of the Jews, and promoting Jewish nationalism. There must have been a sizable number of such Jewish patriots. The malefactors on the crosses were in all probability connected with these efforts as well. Most of the Jews cheered such efforts. Anything to be free from Publican taxation and Roman oppression. Terrorism had its appeal, already then. 

But what does that have to do with the Antichrist? Did not Rome represent the Antichrist? History shows to us that the Antichrist will come forth in the way of political opposition. The only real spiritual antithesis in this world is Christ and antichrist. These Jewish zealots who carried on Jewish nationalism hated Rome; but they were of the same spiritual temperament. Their tactics were the same: plunder, murder, and violence. We see this about us today. The world may be divided even to the point of war, Iraq and America and all the nations may be mortal enemies now; but, given time, all will eventually merge into the one world kingdom of man, the antichristian kingdom. 

The only exception is Christ and His kingdom. 

And there stands Jesus. His kingdom is not of this world. 

To understand this, we must needs look upon Him with the eyes of faith. To be sure, He laid His hands upon the blind man and restored his sight. Repeatedly He was moved with compassion upon the multitudes and gave up quiet time with His disciples in order that He might meet the needs of the people, teaching them and healing them. Who can ever understand that death-defying cry at the tomb, “Lazarus, come forth!” With equal majesty He calmed the storm and1 soothed the troubled heart. We must not overlook the fact that He could be firm when He spoke to His spiritual enemies—none with greater force than the Scribes and Pharisees, those whitewashed sepulchers full of dead men’s bones. 

All this being true, we have not yet addressed His real ministry. Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy, the Messiah, the Lord’s Anointed who had come to redeem Israel from all their iniquity. All during His earthly ministry He set His face toward Jerusalem. More than to teach, more than to keep the Sabbath or other feast days, it was His purpose to die. Only hours before, He groveled in the dust as a worm, with bloody sweat, imploring His Father, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” The kingdom of heaven is founded upon perfect righteousness. It requires the death of the guilty sinner. Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was made to be sin for us. 

His kingdom is spiritual. It is characterized by the love of God enthroned in the human heart and de1ivering.a people from the dominion of sin and Satan and restoring them unto favor with God. 

Days before, He had ridden into Jerusalem upon the colt, the foal of an ass. He must needs enter into His kingdom in the deepest way of humility, the suffering and death of the cross. He is about to bear Gods eternal wrath against the sins of His people. 

This background helps us understand the nomination. 

Pilate set forth this choice. 

In a sense, he was manipulated by the Jewish leaders. Annas and Caiaphas, as well as the elders of the people, had gone through a parody of justice, a supposed trial. Jesus’ guilt had been decided at the outset. The only thing still to be determined was what formal charge could be brought to Pilate. After much confusion, they latched upon the idea of civil disobedience, a threat to destroy public property, destroy the temple. 

Pilate had tried every way possible to get from under the miserable task of conducting a trial for this Jesus. He knew that Jesus was innocent of any public crime. He could not, however, afford a confrontation with the Jewish leaders. Past history clearly demonstrated that these feisty Jews could be quite a handful for Roman authority. He could better appease them than be called to give account to Caesar of Rome. Already he had challenged them to judge Jesus in their own court system, asserting from the outset that he did not consider Jesus’ “offense” a capital crime. When Pilate learned that Jesus had lived in Nazareth, he forthwith sent Him to Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee. But, He was back. What now? 

Pilate was not only a judge, he was a shrewd politician as well. He thought it smart to capitalize on a custom associated with the Jewish Passover, to release a Jewish prisoner. There is no mention of the release of such a prisoner in the entire Old Testament. It appears that it began during the four hundred years separating the old and new testaments. Zionism, or Jewish nationalism, began during this time when Israel was occupied for the most part by Egypt and Syria. From the little evidence one can find, we conclude that the idea of releasing a prisoner at the Passover Feast was maintained along the following lines of thought. Israel was in forced bondage in Egypt. They were freed to take up their place in Canaan, to be a nation. (Notice the secularization of a religious feast.) The Passover was viewed as a feast of freedom from foreign oppression. During these years of Egyptian, Syrian, and Roman oppression, they requested the foreign government to release a prisoner who represented their cause, as a symbol of their future. Eventually they would once again have national independence. 

This would explain why the populace would want a robber and murderer released. He committed those crimes while serving the nationalistic cause of the Jews. The objects of these crimes were the hated Romans. Such a criminal became a folk-hero to the Jews. His release would be cause for celebration and hope. 

Evidently, the Roman government consented to this request of the Jews and made it an annual event. This still does not explain why Pilate presented a choice to the Jews. Usually, the Jews suggested a person, and the Roman authorities confirmed it. This took place here as well. But in the midst of this process, Pilate suddenly took advantage of the practice and decided to give them a choice, Jesus or Barabbas. He had no problem placing Jesus in the same category as Barabbas. Political expediency was the name of the game for him. He had a twofold motive. First, he wanted to test the popular support that Jesus had. Could he (Pilate) drive a wedge between the leaders of the Jews and the common people? Second, if he could do that, he saw a way out of a difficult situation. 

In such human contrivances, God has a divine purpose. The whole world must stand before Jesus and Barabbas. Ultimately, this is Gods nomination. In a most public way, God is challenging every human being: will you cast your lot with Jesus or with Barabbas? 

With one accord, man chooses Barabbas. The kingdom of man, the glory of man, the hopes of man, are most important, even if it involves breaking the law of God. Such it is with all of us. There is no human exception. The apostate church, the powers of this world, the people at large, even the disciples of Jesus, all forsake Jesus: “Let him be crucified!” We hang our heads as well. The world stands condemned. 

But God turns the effrontery of man into victory. Jesus is not a victim. He must suffer and die on that cross. “Him being delivered. by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken and by wicked hands crucified and slain” (Acts 2:23). He died, but He also arose. Death is swallowed up in victory. 

Jesus or Barabbas! 

Let us not crucify the Son of God afresh. 

Let us now cry out, My Jesus, I love thee, I know thou art mine!