Summary: Jesus gave Barabbas the chance not just for a shortened sentence, but for a rebuilt life. When we break the law, we will face consequences; but our experiences can become the basis for redemption from what has happened to us.
Let’s play Jeopardy this morning. I’ll be Alex, you can be the contestants. The category is institutions. The answer is: The following people all spent time in this kind of institution: the prophet Jeremiah; Al Capone; the apostle Paul; Marion Barry; Bugsy Siegel; Nelson Mandela; John Dillinger; John the Baptist; John Bunyan (author of Pilgrim’s Progress); Adolf Hitler; Martin Luther; Martin Luther King; Mohandas Gandhi; Adoniram Judson (pioneer missionary to Burma); and last, but not least, Mike Tyson. That’s the answer. What is the question?
The question is, “What is jail?” Every one of the people I have mentioned, and a whole lot more that I did not, did the crime and paid the time. Make your own list; make it long or short. You may know people personally who could be on it. You may belong on the list yourself, one of those youthful indiscretion things. Or you may be among those who thought of it as a badge of honor to have been locked up during the civil rights movement or the Vietnam War days!
A great many people have seen the inside of a jail cell. Most of them got out after a while. Just being jailed is no particular distinction; and even being freed is nothing special. What matters is whether the prisoners were merely released or whether they were redeemed. Whether they went to jail, served their time, got out, and disappeared into nowhere; or whether something happened during their confinement that altered their lives and brought them into line with God’s purpose.
Anybody can go to jail and accept the consequences of what he has done and then get out. Sometimes sentences are even cut short. But do not confuse being released from consequences with real freedom. Do not mix up just getting off with genuine freedom. They are not the same things. Not everyone moves through prison into productivity. Some come out unchanged; some become hardened and more criminal than ever before; and some turn their lives in a whole new direction. What makes the difference?
Jesus announced at the beginning of His ministry that His agenda was to set the prisoners free. My task this morning is to show you that Jesus Christ gives not just shortened sentences, but rebuilt lives. Not just release, but redemption. Not just release from consequences, but freedom for a whole new life.
Barabbas was a thief, a murderer, and a rebel. There is no dispute about that. He had stolen, he had taken lives, he had participated in a revolt against the government. He had broken the law, so he was in jail. Do the crime, pay the time. Likely the next few days would see him executed, for Rome had little patience with these petty criminals. Barabbas was as good as dead.
Except that his name came to the mind of the governor at a crucial moment. Pilate, trying to find some way to slake the crowd’s bloodlust, offered to release either Jesus, the so-called king of the Jews, or Barabbas, the hard-boiled criminal. He thought that when the crowd had a choice between the teacher of Galilee and the murderer of many, they would choose Jesus and send Barabbas down the slippery slope. But they did not. They made a horrible choice. Like many of us, hell-bent on a course that they knew was destructive, they just skidded farther down into oblivion, crying out, “Give us Barabbas, crucify Jesus.” “Give us Barabbas; as for Jesus, crucify!”
I can imagine filthy old Barabbas, who must have known that he had nothing to look forward to but the searing tear of nails in his hands and feet, suddenly kicked out of his gloomy cell into the light of day. I can imagine his stunned surprise when the guards cut off his shackles and gave him a rude shove out the prison gate. I can almost hear his astonished cackle as he found his feet and rushed off to the city’s slums to disappear, lest the governor change his mind. I can imagine all these things, but I do not know them. I do not know anything about Barabbas, and neither does anyone else, for he completely disappeared from the pages of history. He absolutely vanished. Nothing is known about him. That makes me suspect that he did nothing with his release; that makes me believe that his life was not changed at all. The very silence about Barabbas after this moment makes me suspect that all he got was release, and not redemption. All he got was release from the consequences of his crime, but he did not get the real prize, genuine freedom. He did not get redemption. He did not get a new life.
Remember, you may get release from the consequences of wrong choices. Lots of folks get a reprieve from the penalty of their mistakes. But do not confuse that with getting a new life. Do not confuse a shortened sentence with a rebuilt life. Jesus Christ gives not so much shortened sentences as He gives rebuilt lives. And there is a distinct difference.