All four Gospels not only associate Barabbas and Jesus quite unabashedly, they do so emphatically and with a deep theological message. The scene is well-known. In His trial before Pontius Pilate, though Jesus had been declared innocent more than once, there seemed to be no hope of releasing Him. Pilate resorted to an act of desperation — he offered the Jewish crowd a choice between a notorious and clearly guilty criminal and Jesus. Who would be set free as a Passover grant from Rome? Shall it be Barabbas — guilty of insurrection and murder (Luke 23:18-19; Acts 3:14) — or shall it be Jesus (Matthew 27:16-26; Mark 15:7, 11-15; Luke 23:18-19; John 18:39-40s)?
There is more here, for Barabbas’ name itself is interesting. “Bar” is “son.” This is combined with “abba,” “father” — as just the night before in Gethsemane, Jesus had prayed “Abba, Father.”
Now, before Pilate and the multitude, a man named “son of the father” will be chosen for release instead of the “Son of the Father.” Apart from the meaning of Bar Abba, there is no reason to record this man’s name over and over in all four Gospels (eleven times). The Gospels are written in a way to compel us to consider his name and compare not only his crimes, but also his name, with the Son of the Father.
There is further irony, though a textual problem makes it complicated. In Matthew 27:16 and 17, Barabbas’ name in some manuscripts is “Jesus Barabbas.” The choice, then, is between “Jesus Barabbas” and “Jesus who is called Messiah.” I am not competent to make a judgement on the textual question, but even if Barabbas’ name was not “Jesus Barabbas,” the two sons are clearly set in parallel for our consideration and contrast.
Note: substitution could not be framed in more unequivocal terms. If Barabbas — who deserved to die — were chosen for release, then Jesus would have to die in his stead and bear the cross that he should have died on — the innocent dying for the guilty.
If Jesus were chosen, Barabbas would have to die. But Jesus was innocent. Barabbas would not have been dying in Jesus’ place. He would have been dying the death he deserved. Only when the guilty is set free and the innocent dies in his place do we see a substitutionary death.
That is exactly what the Gospels present: the guilty “son of a father” was released because the innocent Son of the Father took his place.
Three more aspects of this scene deserve attention. First, in all the Gospels, but perhaps especially Matthew, Jesus is Israel. Jesus is Israel because He is the “Servant of Yahweh” that Isaiah prophesied — the Servant who is sometimes the nation and sometimes the Messiah, the ambiguity of reference signaling that the Messiah is the representative of the nation.
Jesus is Israel because, as Matthew reports, Jesus had to flee persecution from Herod/Pharaoh and be called out of Egypt, like God’s son Israel (Matthew 2:14-15; Hosea 11:1). Indeed, as N. T. Wright argues, this would have been Jesus own self understanding: “Jesus saw himself as the leader and focal point of the true, returning-from-exile Israel. He was the king through whose work YHWH was at last restoring his people. He was the Messiah.”[i]
But for Jesus to be Israel means not only that He must fulfill her mission to serve Yahweh and lead the nations to know Him, it also means — and this is often neglected — that Jesus must bear the responsibility for Israel’s historical failures.
Thus, as her leader and representative, Jesus had to be baptized with the baptism of repentance that Israel was morally obligated to receive (Luke 7:29). Therefore, He told John that He must be baptized because “it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15). It was righteous for the Messiah to identify with His people and lead them in repentance, joining them in the Jordan. In other words, to fulfill all righteousness, the Messiah must identify with His people in bearing their sins and the penalty that they deserve.
As Peter Leithart expressed it: “If Jesus did not step in to take Israel’s punishment, wrath would come to the uttermost, Israel would be scattered and die, the Abrahamic promise would not be fulfilled. Unless Jesus saved Israel, the world would not be saved, and he saved Israel by suffering the death she had earned.”[ii]
Second, though it may not be apparent on the surface, I believe the Gospels present the “son of the father,” Barabbas, as “Israel.” Of course, he was not a representative of Israel in an official sense — like Jesus — but in the sense that he epitomized Israel’s spiritual condition, especially as it came to expression in Jesus’ trial. Barabbas was facing the death penalty for rebellion against Rome, including murder (Luke 23:18-19; Mark 15:7; Matthew 27:16; John 18:40). Murder and rebellion against Rome was precisely the heart attitude of the Jews that later came to full expression in the Jewish rebellion from 66 to 70 AD.
But before the rebellion against Rome came the rebellion against the Messiah — the true King of the Jews! In Jesus’ trial, Israel, through her leaders, was finally able to carry out the murder of Jesus they long planned (Mark 3:6; John 5:16, 18; etc.) and that the crowds had even attempted (Luke 4:28-30; John 8:59).
Israel’s judicial murder of Jesus was not mere murder; it was bloody, outrageous regicide — the execution of the King of Israel, the righteous and holy Son of David. Whatever precise sins Barabbas may have committed, whatever insurrection he may have participated in, his iniquities pale in comparison to the sins and rebellion of people of Israel. Barabbas faced a cross he deserved for his crimes; Israel, so very like him, deserved to die for her rebellion against Yahweh, for she shed the blood of the prophets (Matthew 23:29-31).
Barabbas the murderer, thus, exemplified the Jews of Jesus’ day and especially their homicidal frenzy at Jesus’ trial. Barabbas was Israel.
Third, Jesus was Barabbas. How so? Jesus was Barabbas in a way analogous, though different, to the way He was Israel. If Barabbas was the image of Israel and if Jesus, as Israel’s king and leader, was “Israel,” then Jesus was also Barabbas. Jesus was not Israel in the sense that He was personally guilty of Israel’s sins, nor was He Barabbas in the sense that He was personally guilty for Barabbas’s sins, for He did not sin. But as Israel’s King and leader, He took upon Himself the responsibility for their sins.
At the heart of Israel’s sin was bloody, foul murder — something we may often not notice or consider. For generations, they had murdered the prophets, as Jesus testified. But murdering a prophet was murdering the representative of God, a symbolical murder of God Himself, which was finally realized in the murder of Jesus.
So, Jesus, the Son of David, identified Himself with murderous Israel by taking the place of murderous Barabbas. Jesus’ great father, David, also committed murder — the murder of one of the mighty men who was faithful to him — fetid fratricide. As a result, David’s infant son had to die in his place.
Similarly, the sons of Israel murdered the prophets and all of their blood came upon David’s sinless Son. Before the blood from Abel to Zachariah came upon Jesus’ generation, it came upon Him so that it would not have to come upon them, if they would only repent and believe.
So, Jesus, as the King, was Israel and must meet her fate. Barabbas was Israel in that he perfectly reflected her spiritual condition. And Jesus was Barabbas, taking the place of the murderer as if He Himself had been the murderer, or, rather, because He was willing to be identified with the murderous Israel. The story points to all these associations to enable us to see both the necessity and the horror of the death of Jesus.
But we must read it knowing that, after all, we are Barabbas. We should have died, but Jesus stood in our place and took the death that we deserve.
Ralph Smith is pastor of Mitaka Evangelical Church.
[i] Jesus and the Victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), p. 477
[ii] Leithart, Peter J. Delivered from the Elements of the World: Atonement, Justification, Mission. InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
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