Jesus or Barabbas?

“Hosanna to the Son of David: Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord,” shouted the jubilant crowd as Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey during His triumphal entry into the city (Mt 21:9). It was the joyful shouts of those following a Messiah that they believed was going to free them from the bonds of Roman occupation.

Yet, only days later, when Jesus failed to live up to their expectations, much of this same crowd would be screaming in ire, “Crucify Him!” They did not want the real Jesus, but instead one that would fulfill their desires for themselves. They lived for themselves and all that existed in the world of the physical senses here on the earth.

After the Jews arrested Jesus, they put Him on trial and found Him guilty of blasphemy, sentencing Him to death. Nevertheless, they could not carry out a death sentence under Roman occupation and were thus forced to take Jesus to the Romans (see Jn 18:31).

When handing over Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Roman Judea, the Jews falsely accused Him of insurgency against the Roman government. This included accusations that He was inciting the people to rebellion, teaching the Israelites not to pay taxes and declaring Himself a king (see Lk 23:2-5,14; Jn 18:30,33, 19:12).

Pilate then sent Jesus over to the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who reigned over the area of Galilee seen as a client state of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Herod did not perceive any threat from Jesus and simply sent Him back in a royal robe as a mocking gesture (see Lk 23:6-11,15). Pilate also determined that there was no validity to the claims of the Jews and that Jesus did not pose a threat, so he was determined to release Him (Lk 23:13-14).

A Last Attempt

In a last attempt to set Jesus free, Pilate had Jesus flogged. The soldiers removed the robe that Herod had draped over Jesus’ shoulders and flogged Him. Afterwards, they dressed him in the robe again and further mocked Him by slamming a crown of thorns on His head. Then Pilate brought Jesus before the people, and there He stood, appearing to them to be a broken man. He was marred, beaten, bloody, scorned and garbed in the robe of a king with a crown of thorns as a symbol of the curse He was taking upon himself (see Gn 3:18).

This was not the Jesus the people wanted. He was not the warrior king they had imagined days earlier, a mighty ruler who would lead their nation to victory. With their hopes vanquished, they may have felt betrayed and angry for having believed in Him as their promised Messiah. They may have felt ashamed of having trusted Him; thus they hated Him since He did not measure up to their expectations.

There are always crowds ready to follow and hop along for the ride to victory, but few who will stand by in what seems to be a perceptible defeat. It is in those trying times that true friends shine their brightest. Thus it was with those who followed Jesus while He was here on the earth. And by the time the Holy Spirit rushed down upon the Church 40 days after His resurrection, there were only 120 believers who were there waiting for His promise (see Acts 1:15). Nevertheless, the surrender in sacrifice was a victory, though the crowds were just too blind to understand it.

While Jesus stood there at the mercy of the people, Pilate tried to free Him through the custom of releasing a prisoner during the Passover feast. But, encouraged by the religious leaders, the people screamed for Pilate to release Barabbas instead and to crucify Jesus.

When we examine this event in greater detail, we find much more revealed here than what initially seems apparent.

Who Was Barabbas?

It is first important that we clear up the confusion about exactly who Barabbas was. If we watch some movies or read some Bible versions and commentators, they seem to imply that he was some type of revolutionary or zealot involved in resistance to the Roman occupation, and that he had committed murder in a political insurrection.

But, since the basis of the charges against Jesus was inciting insurrection against Rome, it seems nonsensical that Pilate would turn around and release a prisoner who really did rebel against the Roman government. When understood in its proper historical context, this simply would not and could not happen.

This misunderstanding in identifying Barabbas as a zealot is based on a loose interpretation of the Greek word stasis in some of the relevant passages (Mk 15:7; Lk 23:19, 25). Though the word is translated as “insurrection” or “sedition” in many versions, it really means a turmoil, uproar or disturbance between different parties. It is even used in what seems to be a heated argument between Paul’s group and a group that had come from Judea (Acts 15:2) and another passionate disagreement between the Pharisees and the Sadducees (Acts 23:7).

All we know is that Barabbas was involved in some type of heated conflict involving other people that took place in the city, and that he had personally committed murder while it was taking place (Mk 15:7; Lk 23:19). We simply do not know what started the uproar, but it might have had something to do with the fact that he seemed to be involved with a bad crowd and is even called a robber (Jn 18:40). Barabbas was a common criminal who seems to have been infamously known among the people by this time (Mt 27:16).

The Real Son of the Father

The contrast between Jesus and Barabbas is striking. While Jesus is the Prince and Word of Life and the one who saves others (Acts 3:15; Jn 1:1), Barabbas was a robber and a murderer who killed others. In addition, the name Barabbas actually means, “son of the father.”

There were two choices before the people: the real Son of the Father who was the source of Life or the one merely named “son of the father” who was a murderer like Satan (Jn 8:44; 1 Jn 3:15).

It is the same choice that each of us on earth has to each make individually. We can either accept the real Jesus for who He really is and stand by Him through everything like a true friend — or we can reject him when we feel He is not what we expected and instead create merely a figment of Him from our own minds that we find more acceptable.

Like the Jewish leaders and many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, many in the world today are following a Jesus of their own imagination. They either ignore or reject crucial attributes or His being or different critical aspects of His plan for mankind. Some deny the virgin birth, Jesus’ deity, and/or His bodily resurrection, while others demand that He love unconditionally but will not accept that He will also implement justice and judge the wicked.

Or they believe themselves to be following Jesus, when in fact it is really for how they think they might selfishly benefit from Him in this life to satisfy their own physical desires or objectives. They don’t want the real Jesus and what that means, but rather a man they can relate to: a man like Barabbas.

All of us need to examine our own hearts and make sure we are really following Jesus because we love Him and He is our friend, and not because we expect Him to meet our worldly needs or desires here on earth.

The life of Christ was one of hardship and sacrifice for the good of others, of surrender and service in order to bring salvation to the world. Our hope should not be in the desires of this earth, but on the deliverance from our sinful nature in the world to come during the manifestation of the sons of God at the resurrection.

If we are to truly accept Christ as He really is, then our calling is to deny ourselves, to pick up our cross daily, and to follow after Him (Lk 9:23).

MR. KING writes from Casa Grande, Ariz.