Summary: There are so many places within scripture where the gospel is foreshadowed. The account of Barabbas’ release is one such place.
This morning I would like to spend a short amount of time studying about a man that we do not know too much about, but a man that for a small amount of time plays an important role in the darkness and injustice that happens the day our Lord was crucified. The man I am speaking of is Barabbas. There are only a few texts that speak about him in the gospel and one verse in Acts (Acts 3:14). Let’s look at one text in particular.
Read Matthew 27:11-26
Jesus is before Pilate for His trial. We see in parallel accounts that Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent, and in verse 18 we are told that Pilate knows that they handed Jesus over because of envy. So Pilate makes a plan of what to do about this. There is a custom that the Romans have towards the Jews that they observe at Passover where the governor, here being Pilate, gives one prisoner freedom. This may have been done as a gesture of political courtesy. They wanted to show some goodwill towards the Jewish people. They did it at the time of Passover, which is interesting. One criminal who is sentenced to death can be passed over by being released. The criminal does not have to receive the punishment they are deserving of. It may be the case that Pilate was not the biggest fan of this custom. Just think about it: you are releasing guilty criminals into the streets who may commit more crimes! But it seems that he welcomed the possibility of using this custom in the case of Jesus because he seemed to be convinced that Jesus is innocent.
We are introduced to Barabbas in verse 16. We are told that he is a notorious prisoner, which means that he is infamous; well known for his crimes. We are not told what crimes he committed in Matthew’s account, but in other accounts we learn about them. In Mark 15:7, we are told that he was in prison for being an insurrectionist. Some commentators assume that there is a possibility that Barabbas was a member of the group called the Zealots, a group known for being anti-Roman and causing riots and rebellion against them. Whether he was a member of this group or not is debatable. Either way, he was guilty of causing an insurrection or uprising against Pilate’s authority over them. And during this uprising, this group murdered people, more than likely Romans. John’s account tells us that Barabbas was also a robber, or a thief. This is the picture that the scriptures paint of Barabbas. He is clearly a guilty man deserving of where He is! He was arrested for these things and put into prison, and the purpose of being put into prison at those times was two-fold. One reason was to await judgment, the other to await execution. More than likely for Barabbas, he was awaiting execution. On this day, there was the planned execution of three thieves, the 2 that were crucified to the left and right of Jesus, and the third: Barabbas. So just imagine what is going through Barabbas’ mind as he contemplates what will happen to him for his crimes. A cross is awaiting him. So as the guards come to his cell, unlock the door, and bring him out, he was probably surprised (along with Pilate) about what soon followed. Pilate probably expected that if he gave the people the choice to release a notorious criminal or the King of the Jews that the people would cry out for the King’s release. But one thing he did not count on was the chief priests and Jewish elders had done. They convinced the people to cry out for the release of Barabbas and the execution of the King. The people were convinced to do this; and it seems convinced about the supposed guilt of Jesus, that they were even willing to make this amazing statement in verse 25, "His blood shall be on us and on our children!" So Barabbas is released and Jesus is sentenced to be crucified. Jesus took the place of Barabbas on that cross.
The things that I just stated about him pretty much exhausts the knowledge that we have about him. But there is one more thing about Barabbas I would like to talk about: his name. We do not know for sure what his name is. You may be saying to yourself, “Umm… you already told us his name… it’s Barabbas.” Well, maybe. This name may not be the name given to him at birth. The name Barabbas in the original Greek means “Son of father.” Bar means “son of” and 'abba' means “father.” There is a passage in Matthew 16 that refers to Simon Peter as “Simon Barjona,” which literally means Simon, son of Jonah.” So the question is, if Barabbas isn’t his name, what is his name? That is a very good question. And the answer is… we don’t know for sure. So for a moment I would like to give Barabbas a new name. You are Barabbas. I would like each one of us to look at ourselves as though we are Barabbas, because in reality, we are Barabbas in a sense. Whenever we do this, we will learn some very powerful lessons! We see how the gospel is played out in the account of Jesus’ trial.