The Barabbas Incident not a Gospel parallel

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

Why did they dig through the roof? Mark 2:1-12

Do you know the story about the paralysed man whom Jesus healed? The man was carried on his mat to a house where Jesus was speaking the word to a large crowd. The people who were carrying the man couldn’t get past the crowd, so they took their friend and his mat onto the roof and unroofed a section. Once the hole was big enough, they lowered the man to the floor in front of Jesus. The Lord then told the man that his sins were forgiven, and, to confirm the reality of this forgiveness, Jesus healed him. The man happily walked home carrying his mat.

This story is a favourite of Sunday School classes, or at least it was when I was a child. In my experience, the pitch for the story usually is that the paralysed man and his friends came to get the man’s paralysis healed, and the man got something better. It might be so. People who come to Jesus for one reason sometimes end up with something other than what they expected. For example, Lord Lyttleton and George West were young men (in the eighteenth century) who did not believe Jesus rose from the dead. They made a pact to investigate the claims in the New Testament about this and the conversion of Paul. They meant to expose the fraud that they imagined was being perpetrated by the Bible. They both ended up publishing books, one of them confessing himself convinced of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and the other stating that Paul really was converted in the way the Bible tells it.

But back to the paralysed man. Why should we assume that the man and his friends were coming to Jesus so he might have his paralysis healed? Admittedly, Jesus had been healing all sorts of medical and mental problems before these people come to him. News had got around. Yet, there is something in the urgency of these people that suggests to me that conviction of sin was behind it. What I’m suggesting is that the paralysed man was acutely aware of his sin. The Pharisees and teachers of the day were good at telling people that they were sinners. In this they were correct, although they wrongly excluded themselves from that just condemnation. So the man would have had a clear idea that he was not right with God, that, if he were judged for his sins, he would have no excuse or escape. Having this conviction of sin would make a person keen for relief.

I suspect that the paralysed man, or one of his friends, had heard what Jesus had been saying about good news for the poor and release for prisoners. He might even had heard of John the Baptist’s remark that Jesus was the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Nevertheless, make no mistake; Jesus was not going around Judea and Galilee speaking about ways to achieve physical well-being. His main aim was to seek and to save lost sinners. This aim, and what he would do to save people from sin, was the focus of his talks.

So I suggest that the urgency to see Jesus, to hear him speak the word (the good news to sinners) was what got these people digging through the roof of the house where Jesus was. They were trusting that Jesus was the only one who could help this man with his sin problem. Then, when Jesus saw their faith, he said the words the man was longing to hear: ‘Child, your sins are forgiven.’ The physical healing, though I’m sure it was welcome, was incidental. I don’t think it was the main game for the paralysed man. The healing was so we can know that Jesus has authority to forgive sins on earth – then and there, and here and now, by speaking the word. This authority comes from who Jesus is, and from what he did in dying on a the cross for his people and rising again from the dead.

Where is the word ‘Jehovah’ in the New Testament?

This post is not a contribution to the debate as to whether the word ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’ best represents the Hebrew name for God. I’m pursuing a different line of argument. The name for God is transliterated as either ‘Yahweh’ or ‘Jehovah’, and it appears all the way through the Old Testament, and in the KJV – for example – it is most often represented as the capitalised word, ‘LORD’. My question is: where is the word ‘LORD’ in the New Testament?

I have an answer. Whenever the Lord Jesus Christ is mentioned, whenever He is called ‘Lord’, we have presented to us Yahweh or Jehovah in the flesh (incarnated). There are so many reasons why this is so, but I’ll give you only a few. The rest will leap out at you, I trust, as you read the Bible attentively.

Matthew 1:21:- when Joseph (Mary’s fiancé) was informed of the coming birth of Jesus, (Joseph knew it wasn’t his baby), he was told that he should call the baby ‘Jesus’ because he, Jesus, would save his people from their sins. Jesus’ name means, ‘Jehovah (or Yahweh) saves’. In Isaiah 43:11 we read, ‘I, even I, am the LORD (Jehovah), and beside me there is no Saviour.’  At the beginning of the New Testament we are given this very big hint regarding Jesus’ true identity. There is no Saviour but Jehovah, and Jehovah-Jesus is that Saviour. Again, in Luke 2, we are told by the angels that in the City of David is born a Saviour who is Christ, the Lord. So we have the words Saviour and Lord linked by a very impressive group of messengers. The birth of no other deliverer in the Old Testament had such an introduction to the world. This was no mere creature (Mary had already been told that the holy one to be born of her would be called the Son of God). This was the incarnation of the LORD.

Two more incidents will do for this post. Our Lord Jesus in John 10 spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd and referred to all others who came before him as thieves and robbers. As the good shepherd, Jesus would lay his life down for the sheep (meaning his people). In Ezekiel 34, we find the LORD speaking against the bad shepherds who were not looking after God’s people. Here, in verse 11-13, the Lord God says, ‘I Myself will search for my sheep as a shepherd seeks out his flock… and deliver them… bring them out from the people and gather them.’ If that is not enough of a parallel to establish the link (that Jesus is Jehovah), then what follows should do it. In John 12:41, after speaking of the way that the religious leaders saw the signs that Jesus had done yet still did not trust themselves to him, John referred to the passage from Isaiah 6, where Isaiah saw the glorious Jehovah, ‘high and lifted up’. John’s comment is significant. He said that these leaders did not trust Jesus because Isaiah had prophesied that they would not. Isaiah had spoken these words, John says, after seeing Jesus’ glory, that is when he saw Jehovah’s glory.

Our Lord Jesus is Jehovah God, the good shepherd, the Saviour.

Of these two people, which one really knows God?

It came to my attention a while back that there are two men in the Bible who claimed to know God. They told God that they knew him. One is Jonah and the other is the last guy in the parable. The one that Jesus told about the master and his three servants (Matthew 25:14-30). Jonah said that he knew God is good, but Jonah did something very wrong in response to that knowledge. The last of the three servants said that he knew God is bad, and that servant did something very wrong in response.

In the parable, the master represents God and the servants are people in this world. The master’s rewarding of the first two slaves (that’s what they were) is quite extraordinary. Their job was to do as they were told, to slave for their master. A reward was not to be expected (see Luke 17:7-10). This master was a very good master, but the third slave didn’t see it that way:

Lord I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your money in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours.

In the ancient world, people generally became slaves because they had lost everything, either by being captured in war or by going broke and getting into debt. In short, it was slavery or death. All they had after becoming a slave was provided by their master. Now, some masters were good, others were bad. Some slaves recognised that their life had been spared and served as well as they could, others looked at everything with a hard stare. This third slave had the hard stare. He was right in thinking his labour deserved no reward. He was wrong in thinking that his particular master was bad. His master’s free, open and generous rewarding of the other two slaves shows how wrong the third slave was. By doing nothing, the third slave was not only stealing from his master, he was showing utter contempt for him. The slave had his life, a place to live, food and clothing all because of his master. The parallel between this story and the relationship between God and human beings is right there. God supplies freely all the good that we have. It might be little or much, but whatever it is, it comes freely from our creator; from the one who is good and who does good. Many people take it all, and then say they know that God is bad.

How about Jonah. He was told to go to Nineveh and tell them that they were doomed. In three days time, he was to tell them, they and their great city will be destroyed. The Assyrians were not nice people. Their brutality was well known — in fact they advertised. When they captured a neighbouring city (which they did often), many of the inhabitants were beheaded or left to die slowly while impaled on stakes.

Jonah’s own country had experienced the horrors of the Assyrian war machine. On the face of it, he might have been glad at the news that God’s judgment was to fall on them at last. But he knew God. So he ran. He was not afraid of Assyrians, he feared God’s grace. This is what Jonah said to God after Nineveh was spared:

Ah, Lord, was not this what I said when I was still in my country? Therefore I fled to Tarshish; for I know that you are a gracious and merciful God, slow to anger and abundant in loving-kindness. One who relents from doing harm.

Jonah knew God. He knew that he was merciful and gracious. How? Because God had been gracious to him. Jonah was a bad person, like all humans, but God had been gracious and had shown mercy to Jonah. Jonah knew that he had a good eternity to look forward to; he knew his wrong doing was forgiven. Knowing that God is like this, Jonah knew what God was planning.

You see, God did not need to send a warning if he had no intention of showing mercy. The hard message was a call to repentance, and Jonah knew it. He ran in the hope of preventing God’s mercy coming to those sinners of Nineveh, to people who were bad like he was bad. Jonah really knew God; he knew God is gracious and merciful but his response to those great truths was very bad. God had shown mercy to one who had been his enemy, that is, to Jonah. This is why Jesus tells Christians to love their enemies. It is because He first loved them while they were still his enemies.

Two people said that they knew God. One was right, the other was wrong, but they both were bad. The good news of Jesus Christ comes to bad people like us. Do we know God? We ought to see his goodness in Christ Jesus, admit our badness, and happily serve our Creator — even if it means taking good news to people we don’t like.

Why is death certain, and what can be done?

People from all sorts of cultures fear death. Some say death is normal, and we should just get over it. But if death is simply a natural thing, why is it a terror to us? An ancient book, the Bible, tells us why.

The God who made everything, also made human beings to live forever. But this life was conditional. The first man, Adam, was told that the world was his to enjoy, all of it, except the fruit of one tree. That tree was not for him. Leave it alone, God said, and you will have life to the full. Adam and his wife decided not to be content with all that God had given; they took bad advice from a rebel creature and they stole the fruit. God pronounced the sentence of death upon them. But Adam’s situation was unique. He didn’t act for himself alone, but he represented all his future children as well. His act condemned not only himself, but all human beings who would descend from him in the normal way. Each child of Adam willingly follows Adam in his rebellion. Death is a terror because it is the judgment of our creator against our rebellion.

Even though Adam’s act was inexcusable and brought disaster into God’s good world, the news wasn’t all bad. The God whom they had offended, the one against whom they had rebelled, promised Adam and Eve one way of escape. God himself would eventually come as a human being to put right what Adam had done wrong. This one is known to the world as Jesus Christ.  Why is Jesus Christ our only hope? The Bible calls Jesus the second Adam, because he was the second person in all history who made a real difference to the human condition. By Adam’s disobedience, death came to all people. By Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, life comes to those who trust him.

Jesus’ life was one of love; love toward his God, and love toward his enemies (people like us). Jesus lived an obedient life; a substitute life to replace our bad lives. He did this as a human being. He was born a human being, yet the Bible says that God himself is his father. Jesus is the Son of God. As God, his good life can be donated to us. His good life is accepted as a replacement for our bad lives when we trust him.

Jesus’ death was also a substitute. Rebels against God deserve to die and undergo everlasting judgment, because — left to ourselves — we would and could never stop rebelling. We love our bad ways, even though they will bring us to a bad end. But Jesus died once for rebels, to take death in their place. Jesus was not personally bad, so the only way he could die was if God regarded him as a substitute. Jesus died as a sin-bearer, but the sins he bore were the sins of other people, people like us. Because he is human, he could die; because he is God, that death can be accepted as the death of sinners who trust him.

Jesus really died but he didn’t stay dead. When Jesus came back to life, it showed that Jesus is truly good. Death could not hold him, because he wasn’t personally bad. The resurrection of Jesus means at least two things. First, he will never die again, and second, those who trust him will be raised to endless life too — because his death finished the punishment that their sins deserve. The Bible tells us that those who trust Jesus are regarded by God to be as sinless as Jesus. The reason people die is because of sin. So those who do trust Jesus, are deemed to be ‘sinless’ and are given an endless life just like Jesus.

The Bible says that a judgment is coming. At that judgment every human life will be compared to the righteous life of Jesus Christ. Those who fall short of that high standard will be condemned. We all personally fall short of that standard; we don’t even maintain the low standards we set ourselves. Our only hope is to have our Judge as our Saviour – to receive his goodness as a gift, by faith. We can know that we have everlasting life simply because of who Jesus is and what he has done.  The Bible says that, if we trust Jesus, we will be saved.