Summary: Barabbas is a prisoner destined for death by crucifixion. However Jesus is substituted into the place of Barabbas and provides Barabbas with freedom. The “silent witness” of Barabbas calls us to think about our freedom in Christ.

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Silent Witnesses

Mark 15:6-15 Barabbas Who Is Substituted

We are only five sleeps away from Good Friday.

That came quick … didn’t it.

With Easter so close it is really appropriate to look at Scripture passages which are closely connected to that event.

The theme I have chosen for these passages is “Silent Witnesses”.

These are the people in Scripture who witnessed an aspect of the passion of Jesus, but who are not recorded as saying anything as they witness.

The witnesses I am specifically thinking of are:- Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, The Women at the Cross

We find all of these people in Mark’s Gospel.

Silent Witnesses. Let’s read about the first witness – Barabbas.

Mark 15:6-15

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder in the uprising. 8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 ‘Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to get Pilate to release Barabbas instead.

12 ‘What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?’ Pilate asked them. 13 ‘Crucify him!’ they shouted.

14 ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Who is Barabbas?

He is a rebel and murderer.

A man with anger in his heart and blood on his hands.

Defiant. Violent. A troublemaker. A life taker.

Who is Jesus?

God with us.

Divinity in the flesh.

Always honest and never hypocritical.

Constantly kind in a world that was evil and cruel.

He never allowed the distractions of life to prevent him from having a God-driven purpose.

He is the sinless gift of God.

Who are we?

We are not faultless … we are full of faults.

Even when we try to do right, sooner or later we end up messing it up again.

We keep staging a rebellion against God.

The promise to live more faithfully is quickly forgotten.

Our determination to be Christ-like is fragile.

Sunday worship is quickly replaced with Monday mayhem.

We might not say it with our mouths, but our actions speak volumes.

We silently shout, “God, I don’t want you to be my king! I want to be king. I know better.”

It has been like that since the serpent said, “You can be like God.”

… …

Scripture clearly describes the result.

Isaiah 53:6

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,

each of us has turned to our own way;

Romans 3:10-12

There is no one righteous, not even one;

there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God.

All have turned away,

they have together become worthless;

there is no one who does good, not even one.’

Or, to put it a different way, we are so unlike Jesus.

Which leaves us in the same prison as Barabbas.

Not a literal prison. But the prison which will lead to an eternity of separation from God unless we are shown an eternity of grace.

Unless … there is grace.

Which is exactly what we see in this section of Scripture.

Pilate knows Jesus is innocent. We see this really clearly when we look at the parallel passage in Luke 23.

Luke 23:4

Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’

Luke 23:14-15

Pilate … said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.

Luke 23:20-22

Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.’

Three times Pilate declares Jesus innocent.

But Pilate has been backed into a corner.

He needs to try and save face with the Jews.

He also wants Jesus to be set free.

But he can’t allow the city to fall into chaos.

Conveniently it is the time of the year when one prisoner gets to walk free.

Which gives Pilate an opportunity to get out of the corner.

Offer the two prisoners and get the crowd to choose.

This is a popular vote.


Jesus … who healed the sick and raised the dead.

Jesus … who called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite and ate and drank with the outcasts, and tax-collectors, and sinners.

Jesus … who feed 1000’s of people and held the children.

Jesus … who taught with authority and conviction.

Jesus … who less than a week ago rode into Jerusalem on a donkey

Matthew 21:8-9

(And) a very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’

‘Hosanna in the highest heaven!’

Jesus. that is one choice. The other choice is Barabbas.

Surely the people would naturally choose Jesus.

The details of what happens are only briefly explained.

Was he brought out and made to stand next to Jesus?

Or was Barabbas still in his prison cell. If he was in a cell then he would have heard the shouting of the crowd.

Barabbas, Barabbas … …. “Crucify him, Crucify him?”

Scripture and the history books have not preserved the process.

What we know is this:-

Barabbas was on death row in a Roman prison.

There is no such thing as parole, and he has exhausted the appeal process.

He is a prisoner with no rights, and he was scheduled to be crucified.

Then there is this moment when the guards come to him

… in his cell.

… or on the podium.

The guards come to him and say, “You’re free to go!”

“Wh … what?”

“They have chosen Jesus the one called Messiah from Nazareth.”

A prisoner is freed because someone took his place.

Jesus is substituted for Barabbas.

Jesus takes the punishment that should have been taken by Barabbas.

Jesus literally carries the cross that Barabbas was going to carry.

Jesus bore the guilt and shame and curse and disgrace and death that Barabbas deserved.

Jesus took the death, and Barabbas was given the freedom.


Nothing more is said about him – not in Scripture and not in recorded history. He is a silent witness.

But here is what we can say for certain.

Barabbas is not sitting in a prison, with the cell door unlock, continuing to act like a prisoner.

Barabbas would not have said, “Actually I don’t deserve to be set free, so put me back into the prison.”

Barabbas would have taken this free gift and gone.

Gone to celebrate his freedom.

Gone to tell everyone how he was released.

Gone back to his life and to live as one who received undeserved grace.

That is Barabbas.

What about us?

We asked the question before … who are we?

We are in the same prison as Barabbas.

But when we know who Jesus is, and what Jesus has done.

When Jesus becomes our substitute.

… taking our guilt.

… taking our punishment.

… taking our death.

When this happens we are free. We are saved by grace.

Then what …?

Do we take that free gift and run!

Grabbing onto this offer and living in that freedom with no questions asked.

I ask the question because …

… ironic as it sounds.

… one of the hardest things to do is to be saved by grace.

Sometimes we find ourselves looking at Jesus and saying, “Yes, but I don’t deserve to be free.”

Sometimes we have this a compulsion to create laws, systems, and regulations that will make us “worthy” of the gift of grace.

Sometimes we want to try and earn or pay for the gift, instead of simply saying, “thank you”, and accepting it.

Sometimes we prefer to stay in the prison even though the cell door is unlocked.

Barabbas experienced a key moment in his life.

“You’re free to go. They took Jesus instead of you.” … …

They took Jesus instead of you.

The Saviour being the substitute for Sinners.

What just happened?

Grace happened.

John 8:36

If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Let’s hear the key moment again.

“You’re free … Jesus was taken instead of you.”

The crowds cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

The children cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”

We all cry out, “Hosanna to the Son of David”.

We are free … now live!