Sunday, March 28, 2010

[Matt's Messages] "Barabbas"

March 28, 2010
Matthew 27:11-26

I know that your Bibles are broken-in to turn to Luke right now, but we’re going to take a break from Luke for the next two weeks to bracket Holy Week, Passion Week.

Every year on Palm Sunday, I like to take a break from our current series and focus on the meaning of the Cross. And then next Sunday, of course, we focus on the Empty Tomb–the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Today, I want to focus on the Cross through the experience of a man who appears in all four gospels but nowhere else in the Bible.  This man shows up at the end of each gospel, has an incredible experience with the Lord Jesus, and then disappears from the written record.

His name is “Barabbas.”

Jesus is on trial.  It’s a mockery of a trial.  It’s trumped up charges, it’s lying and cheating and false witnesses.  It’s a midnight monkey court–completely illegal.  It’s a conspiracy of strange bedfellows–all of Jesus’ enemies have momentarily put aside their differences to put away Jesus.

And at this point in Jesus’ trial, he is before the Roman governor–Pontius Pilate.

Jesus has already been arrested, beaten, humiliated, and gone through a trial by the Jewish religious leaders.  Now he appears before Pilate.

And what happens here changes the fate of a man named Barabbas.

Matthew chapter 27, starting in verse 11.

“Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.  When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer.  Then Pilate asked him, ‘Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?’  But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge–to the great amazement of the governor.”

Jesus is fulfilling prophecy here.  He is acting just like Isaiah 53 said He would.

“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.”

And that brings Pilate to respect Him.

Pilate believes that Jesus is innocent of the charges against Him.  We’ll see that more in a moment.

Pilate is in a tricky place.  He believes that Jesus is innocent–though he has admitted that he is the king of Jews–he clearly is not a threat to Rome.  Pilate clearly knows that the Jewish religious leaders are jealous of Jesus’ popularity.  And at the same time, he needs to try to keep them somewhat happy and not appear like he’s “soft on crime.”

So, Pilate comes up with scheme to release Jesus and to seem merciful and powerful at the same time.

And that scheme involves a man named Barabbas.  V.15

“Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.  At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.  So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’  For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.”

So, you see Pilate’s idea.

He has the custom of releasing one prisoner to the crowd at the Passover Feast.  The crowd gets to choose.

Pilate knows that the Jewish leaders are jealous of Jesus’ popularity.

And he guesses that the crowd will go with the popular Jesus much to the consternation of the Jewish religious leaders.

So it’ll be one in eye of the Sanhedrin while appearing powerful and merciful at the same time.

But Pilate’s plan doesn’t work.

Pilate gives the crowd two choices.  He will only release one man–Jesus who is the called the Christ – we know about Him – OR Barabbas whom Matthew calls “a notorious prisoner.”

Barabbas was clearly a bad guy.

Matthew only tells us that he was a notorious prisoner.  But Mark, Luke, and John fill in more details about Barabbas.

Barrabas was a robber.  He stole things.
And he was also an insurrectionist.  He was a trouble-maker. We might call him a terrorist.
And he was, according to the other gospels, a murderer, a killer.

Barrabas was one bad dude.

Do you remember last year on Palm Sunday I talked about the two bad guys on either side of Jesus?  One on His left and one on His right?  They were both notorious prisoners like Barabbas. The same Greek word is used for them, as well.

In fact, I think that it is highly likely that the third cross that day was prepared for Barabbas.

He was quite probably scheduled for execution by crucifixion on that very same day with those other two bad guys.

But on this day, Pilate offers the crowd to release Barabbas.

Barabbas may have been popular, as well.

He was probably a terroristic threat to the Romans, but he might have been popular among the Jewish people and thought of as a freedom fighter.

Maybe, maybe not.  Robbers and murderers are not normally popular.

Pilate assumed that the guilty Barabbas (and there was no question that he was guilty) would be less popular than the innocent Jesus.

Matthew makes it clear that Jesus is innocent.  V.19

“While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’”

Pilate’s wife had been having nightmares all night.  And God was probably telling her through her dreams that Jesus was innocent and that judgment was coming.

Pilate clearly thought that Jesus was innocent, as well.  But he didn’t have any courage to stand up to the politics of the day.  V.20

“But the chief priests and the elders persuaded [manipulated!] the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.  ‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?’ asked the governor. ‘Barabbas,’ they answered.”

Notice how many times Pilate, in effect, asks the same question.

He already asked them in verse 17.

He asks again in verse 21.  He doesn’t like the answer.  He asks again in verse 22.

“‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’”

“Are you sure?” he’s asking.  V.23

“‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate. [“He’s innocent!”]  But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’”

So, Pilate gives up.  V.24

“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man's blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’  All the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’  Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”

It’s important to note that Pilate couldn’t really wash his hands of this action.

If he had wanted to, he could have stood up to the crowd.  But he was a coward and caved in to public opinion.  And he has forever reaped the consequences of his cowardice.

But how much more responsible are the people in verse 25 who wanted Jesus’ blood to be spilled!  “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”  And it is.  Jesus was rejected by His own. His own received Him not.

And that led to the most important moment in Barabbas’ life.  V.26 again.

“Then he released Barabbas to them.  But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.”

Here’s what I love about the story of Barabbas:

It’s a terribly beautiful picture of the gospel.

The story of Barabbas is a terribly beautiful picture of the gospel.

Barabbas, the guilty, goes free.
Jesus, the innocent, takes his place.

I come to realize that I am like Barabbas.

In this story, I’m not always quick to identify with Barabbas.

At first I want to identify with Jesus.  He’s the good guy.  He’s the hero.  I want to identify with Him.

But as the story goes on, I realize that I’m more like Pilate or more like the crowd.

Like Pilate, I want to wash my hands of tough choices.  I want to cave in to the crowd.  I want to go with the flow. I want to be liked.  I want to be admired.  I want to be seen as powerful and authoritative and merciful.

I want my little schemes to work out for my benefit.

Like the crowd, I realize that I am responsible for Jesus’ death.  His blood is on my head.

I am fickle like the crowd.  The crowd on Palm Sunday chanted, “Hosanna!  Hosanna in the highest!  Here comes the King!”

The crowd on Good Friday yelled, “Crucify Him!”

If I think about Barabbas at all, I think of the total injustice of it.

Why should Barabbas go free?  He is a robber, an insurrectionist, a terrorist, a murder.  He is notorious.  He is GUILTY!

Why should he be released?

But when I really think about it, I realize that I am like Barrabas.

I am guilty and Jesus, the innocent, took my place.

The apostle Peter who was lurking somewhere around here at the time of this story, said it this way in his first letter (1 Peter 3:18):

“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

“The righteous FOR the unrighteous.”

Jesus FOR Barabbas.

What a great and terrible picture of the gospel!

Barabbas was set free.  Jesus was handed over to be crucified.

Now, Barabbas’ freedom was physical before an earthly judge.

But it is a picture of a greater freedom, a spiritual freedom before a heavenly judge.

Pilate didn’t judge justly, though he sat on the judge’s seat (v.19).

But God who does judge justly is also satisfied to look on Jesus in condemnation and pardon me.

That’s amazing!

In big theological words, we call that Penal Substitutionary Atonement.

Jesus took the penalty in our place to atone for our sins.

“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

Barabbas’ story is a terribly beautiful picture of the gospel.

Let’s apply that to our lives in three points.


We each need to see this for ourselves.

We each need to see ourselves as guilty and needing someone to take our place.

Now, Barabbas didn’t choose it for himself.  The crowd chose it for him.

But you and I need to choose to put our trust in Jesus’ sacrifice for us.

We have to believe that He took our place.

We have to believe that His death paid the penalty for our sin.

And we have to trust in Him and Him alone.

Believe that you are like Barabbas.

Have you come to understand that Jesus took your place?

That that cross was meant for you?

That you were meant for an eternity of punishment for your sin?

And that Jesus took your place?

The Bible says that for us to be saved, we need to recognize that we are guilty, to turn from our sins (that’s called repentance) and to put our trust in Jesus and what He did for us (that’s called faith).

And then, we become like Barabbas, set free before the judge because someone else took our place.

Believe that you are like Barabbas.


We’ve just sung about it again and again this morning:

Amazing Grace, My Chains Are Gone, I’ve Been Set Free!

O the Wonderful Cross!

We can’t lose the wonder of being released by the death of Jesus for us.

That Cross is the center of our faith.

It is the center of Christianity.

It is the center of our relationship with God!

And we, of all people, should be truly thankful!

You know, there is an interesting thing about this man’s name.


Do you know what that means in Hebrew?

Bar means “Son.”
What does “Abba” mean?

It means “Father,” right?

What a strange name.  “Son of the Father.”

It’s possible that Barabbas had a famous father.  Maybe even a famous Rabbi or another notorious criminal!  He didn’t even need another name.  Just Son of the Father.

But the true Son of the Father–God the Father!–took Barabbas’ place.

And if we have trusted in Jesus as our Savior, we become Sons and Daughters of the Father!

We become Bar-abbas in a whole other way.

And if that doesn’t thrill you, there is something wrong with you!

You are a son or daughter of the King!
You are a child of God.

And that should make us the most thankful people on Earth.

That’s why we call Friday – not Black Friday – that’s in November! – But “Good Friday.”

Because what happened there was evil, but it was for our greatest Good.

Thank you, Lord!  Thank you, Lord, that we are released like Barabbas.


Can you imagine what Barabbas must have felt?

We don’t know.

We don’t know if Barabbas ever saw Jesus.

Jesus never appears to have been kept with the other prisoners.  He was tortured and tried all night long.

We don’t know if Barabbas was brought out for the crowd to see to make their choice between him and Jesus.

We don’t know if Barabbas ever saw Jesus face to face.

We aren’t told.

We aren’t told what happened to him next.

We don’t know if he went back to robbing, killing, and scheming.

The Bible doesn’t say.  His disappears from the written record.

But we can use our imaginations.

How would you have felt?

What would you have done?

If you, the guilty one, had been set free and the innocent one had taken your place?

You’d have a new lease on life.

You’d have a chance to start again.

You’d be “born again” and free to live a different way.

You might have hope and excitement and anticipation.

After all, you were supposed to be crucified today.

And here you are, a free man.

A new person.

The gospel frees us to live new lives.

Different lives.

Free lives.

Not free to go back to our old ways–though that temptation would be there, too.

But free to live in new ways.  Ways that are like the one that took our place.

Because of what Jesus did, be a new person because you are set free.

Be a loving person.
Be a joyful person.
Be a peaceful person.
Be a patient person.
Be a kind person.
Be a good person.
Be a faithful person.
Be a gentle person.
Be a self-controlled person.

Be a new person because you are set free.

I don’t know what kind of temptations you are struggling with right now.

I could rattle off a list and it would hit someone, most of us, right now.

Anger, lust, fear.  You name it.

You don’t have to live in those sins.

You are set free.

Jesus took your place so that you can be a new person.

Not all at once, not perfectly.

But really.  Truly.  You can change.

Because “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”

To bring you to God.

His death was efficacious.  It did something.

You were set free.  Free to come to God.

Free to relate to God.  To have a relationship with God.

To belong to Him and to become like Him.

“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”