April 12, 2017: Barabbas

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As we walk with Jesus through the last week of His earthly ministry, He is undoubtedly our hero. We champion Him. We are appalled by His enemies and grieved by the behavior of those closest to Him. Judas betrays Him with a kiss, Peter denies Him three times, Herod derides Him, the chief priests plot and agitate against Him, the crowd call for His crucifixion, Pilate appeases the masses and washes his hands of Him. But there is one character who, at first sight, appears to exist only to increase the dramatic tension of Jesus’ agonizing climb to Calvary. His name is Barabbas.

We don't know much about Barabbas, except that he's been charged with insurrection and murder. Of his guilt, there is no doubt. Luke emphatically tells us he is “…a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.” (Luke 23:19). Barabbas is the same man who was called “a notorious prisoner” (Matthew 27:16) and Mark notes he was “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection.” (Mark 15:7).

In contrast, Jesus is the innocent. Three times in a short span of verses in Luke 23, Luke, through Pilate, points us to Jesus’ innocence. Jesus has done nothing deserving of death. And so, in this life-or-death moment, before an angry and agitated crowd shouting that Jesus should be crucified, Pilate thinks quickly. Believing that he holds the lives of both men in his hands, he remembers the Jewish tradition that would permit him, on a holy day, to release a prisoner who has been sentenced to death (Matthew 27:15). Pilate stands before the crowd and presents them with a choice: Jesus — the innocent, or Barabbas — the guilty, the murderer and rebel.

There is some word play in this choice. Several New Testament manuscripts name the terrorist "Jesus Barabbas." Many textual scholars suggest that the name "Jesus" was omitted from several Greek manuscripts of the Gospel of Matthew out of reverence. The deeper irony in reading the name "Jesus Barabbas" becomes clear when we realize that "Barabbas" (or "Bar Abbas") is the Hellenized form of the Aramaic name Bar Abba, which means "son of the father." And the name "Jesus" (Greek, Yesous) is the Hellenized form of the Hebrew name Yeshua – meaning “God saves.” Thus, in a life-or-death decision that still quakes through the centuries, Pilate was, in essence, asking the crowd: "Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas [God saves, son of the father] or Jesus [God saves], whom His followers call Messiah?"

Caught up in the narrative, we want our voice to rise up and sway the crowd, “Release Jesus the Messiah!” But we are much too late. Our small protest is drowned by the multitude who mercilessly shout, “Away with this man [Jesus]! Release Barabbas to us!” (Luke 23:18). Jesus stands silently. He has said His prayer to the Father, “…yet not my will, but Yours be done.” (Luke 22:42).

All this time, we have been identifying with Jesus. But Luke has, very carefully and very deliberately, cornered us. He has led us to the place where we are now invited to identify with Barabbas. Here is the truly guilty man who so embodies our plight as rebels deserving death and our desperate need for undeserved rescue. Jesus, the innocent, through His self-giving upon the Cross, takes our place and we, the guilty, are released. Judah Smith wrote, “Barabbas thought it was the people that set him free. No, it was the love of a heavenly Father. And when I look at the story, I realize who Barabbas really is. That's me. That's you. That's us.”

What about those moments when we fall to some temptation that we swore blind before God that we would never trespass upon again? Do we conclude, “Yes, once I was Barabbas. Once I stood with Jesus before the crowd and I was saved by grace. But now, I have fallen into this miry pit of my own making and I must be the one to get myself out.”? Do we imagine that we have ever ceased to be Jesus Barabbas [God saves the son of the father]? Do we imagine that the Father has ceased to love Barabbas?

Smith concluded, “We can pretend that some people are better than others, and that's why they're blessed. Or we can all come to the honest conclusion that it's God, and it is God alone who saves you. The greatest challenge is not your discipline, your devotion or your focus. Your greatest challenge is believing and living the Gospel. Could it be that there's a God with a love so scandalous…?” In the same way, C. S. Lewis wrote, “God has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense.” and “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.”

For God so loved Barabbas that He gave His one and only Son, that every “Barabbas” — and every re-offending “Barabbas” — who believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.

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