I read this morning the passage in Luke that speaks of Barabbas. In my copy of the Bible the heading for the passage is ‘Jesus dies in place of Barabbas’. Now, on the surface, the statement might seem to be true. It might be true that Barabbas was due to be executed, but we are not told this in any of the gospel narratives. All we are told is that Barabbas had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder. The first mention of death as a punishment comes only when Jesus’ fate is considered. All we can say at this point is that Barabbas was released and that Jesus was sentenced to death (or more accurately, handed over to the will of his enemies).
So, is there any reason here to say that Jesus died in the place of Barabbas; that a guilty man was released and an innocent man took his place? I do not think so. Why don’t I think so? Mainly because the custom of releasing a prisoner at the feast did not require a substitute. There was no need for someone to take the place of the criminal who was released. What happened on that day long ago was that Pilate saw through the trumped-up charges of the religious leaders and tried to use the custom to effect Jesus’ release. The religious leaders rejected Pilate’s suggestion and they encouraged the people to choose Barabbas instead. Jesus did not die in the place of Barabbas. Jesus died because he was hated by those who ought to have loved him.
Why do I think this is important? Well, some people go to what I believe are extraordinary lengths to find a parallel between this incident and the gospel of free grace. Such a link does not exist.
Here are just a few reasons why l think it is a bad mistake to try to make this event into a gospel parallel.
- There was no justice in the Barabbas incident but rather the doing of what was plainly wrong to avoid ‘trouble’. This is why Luke mentioned twice that Barabbas was a terrorist and murderer, in order to highlight the injustice of releasing him. The injustice is also seen in the fact that Pilate several times said that there was no cause for death in Jesus’ behaviour. But at the cross the righteousness of God is revealed and his justice vindicated.
- Jesus did not die as a substitute for Barabbas, who, incidentally, is not said to be under sentence of death in any of the gospels. It was not Jesus for Barabbas, but a question of either Jesus or Barabbas. The leaders and the people made the wicked choice.
- There was no love in the Barabbas incident, instead there was hatred toward Jesus from those who ought to have loved him. At the cross, however, God’s love is revealed in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.
- There was no response to mercy in the Barabbas incident as no mercy was shown either to Christ or Barabbas; not by the religious leaders nor by Pilate. Expedience was all that mattered.
In short, I believe the gospel is best preached from this passage by highlighting the stark contrast that exists between the Barabbas incident and the gospel, rather than by any imagined comparison.