But the chief priests stirred up the crowd so that he would release Barabbas to them instead.
As the sun slowly crept over the horizon on the morning after Jesus’ trial, Barabbas was bound as a prisoner with a bleak future in front of him. Perhaps he was hoping against hope that he would benefit from the governors custom of releasing a prisoner at the Feast. Or maybe he had given up hope and was trembling at the thought of being hung on a wooden cross. Whatever was going through his mind, surely he was not expecting to find freedom at the expense of his Messiah.
Barabbas was a rebel. He had led an insurrection against the Romans and murdered someone in the process. His anti-Roman exploits were well-known and presumably, the Jewish people thought of him as a folk hero. After all, the Jews wanted a military-king who could deliver them from the Roman oppression and anyone who fit into that mould was looked on with approval.
Jesus was not a rebel. He was not guilty of insurrection, blasphemy, murder or anything else he had been unjustly accused of. His anti-evil exploits were well known and he was the hero the Jews needed, even if they rejected the kingdom he came to inaugurate.
As the fury of the Jewish crowd increased that day, so did Pilate’s fear. His wife’s dream, in which she understood Jesus to be innocent, only increased his fear. Pilate had tried to work his way out the situation by handing Jesus off to Herod, by allowing the Jews to beat Jesus, and finally by trying to reason with the surging crowd. Nothing had worked and Pilate’s last resort was to exchange the guilty Barabbas for the innocent Jesus. At least Pilate’s hands would be free of unjust blood, or so he thought.
Barabbas must have been surprised when the Roman soldiers showed up at his prison cell and announced his release. At some point, he must have found out the cause of his release. He must have heard that he gained his freedom at the expense of a rabbi named Jesus who worked miracles, healed the sick, and spoke profound truth. We wonder what went through Barabbas’ mind and heart as his guilty, rebellious, and murderous life was exchanged for the life of Jesus. We cannot know Barabbas’ thoughts, but we do know what it is like to be in his situation because the exchange of Barabbas for Jesus is a picture of the gospel of which we are part of.
It is true we are not rebels against a corrupt Roman rule, but we definitely are rebels against the righteous rule of the triune God. Most of us are not guilty of homicide, but we certainly are guilty of a hateful heart. We may not be awaiting a punishment of death on a Roman cross, but our sin does condemn us to a sentence of everlasting death.
We are Barabbas.
And we are set free because of the simple fact that Jesus has taken our place. He has exchanged his precious and perfect life for our sin-riddled and rebellious life. Our freedom is not because of any ransom we paid or parole we earned through reformed living, but simply because Jesus chose to take our place and penalty. Instead of death on the cross, we receive life in the New Creation. Instead of a judgment of guilty, we receive a pronouncement of innocent. The apostle Paul explains this great exchange in 2 Corinthians 5:21 where he writes:
He made the one who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
How would you live if you were Barabbas and Jesus became sin so you could be declared righteous?