Summary: All 4 gospels tell us the story of Barabbas (but we never learn the names of the other prisoners to die that day). Why? What is it about Barabbas that was so important that Scripture tells us his name?
OPEN: Someone once noted that Jesus borrowed just about everything he had while on earth. He borrowed a place for His birth, a house to sleep in, a boat to preach from, an animal to ride on when He entered Jerusalem, a room to meet privately with His friends for the Last Supper, and a tomb to be buried in. He owned it all - He was the God of the Universe. But He had nothing for His own! 2 Corinthians 8:9 "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich".
One hymn writer put it this way:
“They borrowed a bed to lay his head, when Christ the Lord came down;
They borrowed the ass in the mountain pass for him to ride into town;
But the crown that he wore and the cross that he bore were his own - the cross was his own.
He borrowed a room on his way to the tomb the Passover lamb to eat;
They borrowed a cave for him as a grave; they borrowed a winding sheet;
But the crown that he wore and the cross that he bore were his own - the cross was his own.” (L. M. Hollingsworth)
It’s a beautiful song. But it’s wrong. Jesus didn’t even own the cross He died on. He had to borrow that just like everything else He used in this world. Do you know who belonged on the cross that Jesus died on? That’s right - his name was Barabbas.
Barabbas is perhaps one of the most infamous names in history. It was the name of a very bad man. I don’t think I know of anybody who has ever named their child Barabbas. What little we know about him is found in the Gospels.
Our text today says he was “a NOTORIOUS prisoner” (Matthew 27:16). He was notorious. Everybody knew his name. But why was he so well known? Well John 18:40 says “Barabbas was a ROBBER.” He was a thief, he took things that didn’t belong to him. If it wasn’t nailed down he took it. He would steal you blind in a heartbeat.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Luke 23:19 tells us he was “a man who had been thrown into prison for an INSURRECTION started in the city and for MURDER.”
So Barabbas was a thief, a revolutionary… and a murderer. If anybody should have died on a cross that day it should have been Barabbas. He was not a nice man. He was not someone you wanted loose in your city. He was not a man you’d want to meet in a dark alley in the middle of the night. And yet Barabbas didn’t die that day. He was let loose and it was Jesus who died… not Barabbas.
Well, this is where Pontius Pilate figures into the story. You see, Pilate was the Roman governor in charge of Judea. His job was to keep the peace in this Roman province, but the Jews were a difficult people to rule over. Pilate didn’t like them… and they didn’t like him much either. And Pilate responded to the Jews in ways that people often respond to difficult people – he sought to annoy them and anger them. He stole money from the temple funds to pay for an aqueduct. He marched into Jerusalem with banners flowing bearing images that he KNEW the Jews saw as the symbols of idolatry. And he held numerous executions without trial. Luke 13:1-3 tells us that on one occasion, Pilate slaughtered some Galilean Jew who were worshiping, and mingling their own blood with that of their sacrifice. Well, you can’t do stuff like that before you gain a reputation, and Pilate’s reputation made it all the way to Rome… and it didn’t set well with Caesar. Pilate’s job was on the line.
And then Jesus came to town.
Now Pilate didn’t have anything against Jesus. Jesus drew crowds but He didn’t seem to be causing any trouble. And as long as Jesus didn’t bother him, Pilate wasn’t going to bother Jesus. But the Sanhedrin was a different story. They hated Jesus. Jesus threatened their power and He seemed to mock them in all of His sermons. It had gotten to the point that Jesus angered them so much they decided that He MUST die.
The only problem was – they didn’t have the authority to execute Him. Only Pilate could do that. So the Jewish leaders arrested Jesus and brought him before the governor, accusing Jesus of sedition. Luke tells us “they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.’” Luke 23:2