Pilate had a decision to make. And, it turns out, this decision would have the biggest impact on the world in which he lived and in every generation since. Even casual readers of the Bible know what Pilate ultimately decided: to condemn Jesus to death. That fateful choice ensured not only that Jesus would die, but that He would die one of the cruelest and most painful deaths one can imagine.
Pilate made a choice to end Jesus’ life. Had he elected to go another route, Barabbas would have died, and justice would have been served. Barabbas was a notorious prisoner (Matthew 27:16) who had committed murder in the rebellion (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). If there was ever a man deserving of the death penalty it was Barabbas; after all, he had taken the life of a human. If there was ever a man who was underserving of the death penalty or any type of rebuke it was Jesus. In the place of taking life, He gave life (Lazarus in John 11). In the place of promoting rebellion against the Roman Empire, He taught others to pay taxes to Caesar (Matthew 22:21).
Pilate had a decision to make, but it should not have been a difficult one. His two options could not be more different and Pilate was aware of these differences (Matthew 27:23). By Pilate’s decision to wash his hands clean of the decision (Matthew 27:24, 25) he elected to take the coward’s way out and had Jesus crucified.
What must Barabbas have thought? Could a heart where rage and hate formerly dwelt have felt gratitude at this moment, or at the very least felt a sigh of relief? An exoneration did not take place here, for he was a guilty man, but that he enjoyed all the freedoms of someone formerly unjustly incarcerated cannot be denied.
Personally, I have a very difficult time attempting to understand how Barabbas felt: I have never been to prison (at least, not on the other side of the bars) and my life has never before hung on the whim of blood-thirsty crowd, so I struggle to relate with this notorious felon. I am sure most reading this understand my plight.
Yet, as I look more carefully at his situation, I begin to see some similarities of which I am none too proud. Just as Barabbas was rebellious, I have been rebellious. Just as Barabbas was a murderer, I have been a murderer.
Barabbas rebelled against the Roman Empire through the insurrection. I have been rebellious against God. Romans 3:9, 10 speaks of my rebellion. “What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one.’”
Barabbas took precious human life. I have taken precious life. Acts 2:36 was spoken to the Jews of Peter’s day, but could easily apply to myself as well. “Let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
Do you see yourself in Barabbas too? Have you rebelled against God? Are you guilty of putting Jesus on the cross because of your sins (Hebrews 6:6)? If you can see yourself in Barabbas, and I think you can, then you also can see what the penalties for these transgressions are. Like Barabbas, we were on death row, simply waiting for the day of our execution.
This is where the story changes. Yes, Pilate helped along the decision, but the decision to save us from our sins was made long before Pilate. This is the story of salvation. An innocent man (Jesus) takes the penalty for the guilty man (Barabbas). Romans 5:8 summarizes our salvation very well. “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while were still sinners, Christ died for us.” The innocent One who gives life to all, dies for the guilty one who takes life. What a marvelous story of love!
I hope we all praise God for what He has done for us and what He does for us! We cannot repay such love.
As you ponder the story of Barabbas, please don’t fail to see your own guilt as well. We scorn at the likes of men like Barabbas, but when we compare ourselves to him see more similarities than differences. Of course, the most obvious similarity is our need for a Savior who can remove our sin. Also, let us never allow the death of Jesus to become commonplace. May we all live with the gratitude He is owed and the love He deserves.