When it comes to reading ourselves into the great stories of Scripture, many of us would like to think that we’re David—the unlikely underdog who was victorious at conquering the giant in his life—or perhaps Job who went through immense trials but due to his continual clinging to God came out with great blessing and restoration. We often read Scripture in this way as a means of encouragement that although the Christian life is hard, the Bible has good news for us ‘weary Christian soldiers’ that the blessing is worth the battle and God is indeed for us. In his 2018 book Kiss the Wave Dave Furman points out that you and I are in fact a character in the central story of Jesus Christ himself. But we’re not the glamorous, conquering Bible character that we often think we’d like to be.
At the end of his time on earth, Jesus was arrested and taken for trial, where he was sentenced to death. Matthew 27:22-24 reveals that Pilate didn’t truly want to send Jesus to death, but he bowed to the overwhelming pressure of the crowd. At this time on the Jewish calendar, it was Passover. Tradition held that the Roman Empire would allow one prisoner to go free, the Jews being the ones who had the power of choice. Seeing an opportunity to avoid condemning an innocent man Pilate offered the crowd their choice: take Jesus (who had done no wrong) or Barabbas; his worst prisoner, a murderer, and essentially a terrorist.
But the crowd chose Barabbas. Pilate asked the crowd three times to be sure. When he asked the crowd what should be done with Jesus, this man who had done no wrong, they replied together “Let him be crucified!” The crowd chose a murderer over the one who brought the dead back to life. They chose evil over the one who taught love of neighbour and who himself loved others perfectly.
Often when this story is read we think about Pilate, the cruel crowds, and Jesus. But recently it’s been Barabbas that I’ve seen in a more profound light. Barabbas was under the sentence of death for his crimes, and he knew he deserved it. Under the Roman Empire there was no hope for him; no appeals, no parole, no rights. All he can do is wait. Then the day comes when the guards open the door and take him from his cell, bringing him out into the light and the view of the crowd—except they’re not here to see his execution but are instead celebrating his release! The murderer goes free. Barabbas hears the shouting: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” but it’s for a different man. The guards are now dragging Jesus of Nazareth to his death. They place a cross on his back; the cross meant for Barabbas. And Barabbas realises that’s my death he’s dying. Barabbas is the one person in history who can literally say that Jesus died in his place. Barabbas was given the freedom that Jesus deserved. Jesus bore the guilt and shame and disgrace and death that Barabbas deserved.
This is the gospel; the Jews chose the wrong man, but God put forward the right one. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). Friend, you and I are Barabbas. We are all living under the sentence of death, powerless to save ourselves. We need someone to take our place, and thankfully as we read the stories of Scripture we not only see who we truly are, but we see Jesus Christ who—in the greatest exchange in all of human history—loved us and freed us by giving his life for us.
I wonder if Barabbas eventually heard the news.