Topical Scripture: Matthew 27:15–26
Mistakes aren’t always mistakes.
In 1886 a pharmacist by the name of John Pemberton was cooking medicinal syrup in a large brass kettle slung over a fire, stirring it with an oar. But his syrup didn’t catch on as a medicine, so he tried mixing it with water as a beverage. He spent $73.96 promoting his new drink the first year but sold only $50 worth of the product. Today people drink one billion products a day from the Coca-Cola company.
In 1968, a 3-M researcher tried to improve adhesive tape but made a glue which was only semi-sticky. Four years later one of his colleagues, a member of his church choir, was frustrated that bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal and music in the choir loft. He used the semi-sticky glue his friend had created to invent the Post-It Note. Mistakes sometimes aren’t.
What do you do when they are? When temptation won’t leave you alone? When problems get worse rather than better? When you’re fighting sin and Satan, discouragement and frustration, with no victory in sight? When you can’t find a way to make syrup into Coke or failed glue into Post-It profits?
Let’s ask Barabbas.
Most people don’t know this, but his first name was probably “Jesus.” This was a very common given name in that day. Some ancient manuscripts call him Jesus Barabbas, and most scholars think this is the correct reading. So we have Jesus Christ and Jesus Barabbas before us today.
His last name comes from two words. “Bar” means “son of” in Hebrew, and “abbas” means “father” (from “abba,” daddy). Or it could be “rabbas” or rabbi. Either was significant socially. No one was given the personal name “abbas” or “rabbi”—they were titles of respect, “the father” or “the rabbi.” Think of George Washington, “the father of our country,” or Billy Graham, “the pastor to America,” and you get the idea. This man was son to someone like that.
And Matthew 27:16 adds that Barabbas was “notorious” to the crowd—the word means to be notable or well-known. He was the son of someone famous, and a celebrity in his own right. Why?
Mark and Luke call him an “insurrectionist” who committed murder (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). John adds that he had “taken part in a rebellion” (John 18:40) against the Empire.
However, the Greek word translated “insurrectionist” can also mean “one who causes strife” (cf. Acts 15:2). And the word for “rebellion” can mean “robber,” as the ESV, NASB and KJV translate it (John 18:40; cf. Luke 10:30, 2 Corinthians 11:26). He may have been a rebel, or he may have been a robber. The latter is more likely.
Many people wonder why Pilate would release a man known to be a rebel, when he is trying to avoid the accusation that he is doing that very thing with Jesus. We now know that “social bandits” were common in first-century Palestine. Like ancient Robin Hoods, they would steal from the wealthy supporters of the Empire and give to those oppressed by Rome. They were extremely popular with the people. And the Greek words used of Barabbas are exactly the words used for them. It would appear that “social theft” and murder was Barabbas’ crime, and his fame.
Choosing Jesus Barabbas
No wonder the crowd chose Jesus Barabbas over Jesus Christ. They were incited by their leaders to do so, of course (Matthew 27:20). But this man was one of their heroes, someone who defied the cursed pagans and stole from the wealthy to give to them. This man would stand up to Rome. He would meet their needs and solve their problems in a way their rabbis and priests would not.
They had thought Jesus would do even more than that for them. When he rode into Jerusalem on that Palm Sunday, they hailed him as their military Messiah, their royal conqueror, the one who would overthrow the Romans and establish their nation. The palm branches they threw in his way were meant for a conqueror, a hero. They were “rolling out the red carpet,” greeting him in the same way concentration camp survivors greeted the Allied soldiers who came to liberate them.
But now, Jesus has failed. He hasn’t defeated Pilate—Pilate has defeated him, and he stands in Roman chains. Barabbas did more to Rome than this “Christ” even tried to do. He wasn’t the Messiah they wanted him to be. So, release Jesus Barabbas and crucify Jesus Christ.
Now the story takes on special irony.
The word describing Barabbas as a “robber” was the same term used for the two “thieves” who were crucified with Jesus that day (Matthew 27:38). All three were guilty of the same crimes. There was a third cross already prepared, most likely for Barabbas. It would seem that he was scheduled for execution along with them.
And so Jesus died in Barabbas’ place, on the very day he was sentenced to be executed, bearing the very cross on which he would have died.
With this result: Barabbas was set free. He could never be accused of those crimes again. He could never be tried and sentenced for them again. The debt was paid, the penalty completed, the law’s requirements fulfilled.
Now, Barabbas could have chosen not to accept this grace gift. He could have insisted on dealing with his guilt himself. He could have asked for another trial, claimed innocence, tried to win acquittal, tried to fight the law. Or he could have taken his cross from Jesus and insisted on paying the debt he owed himself. Dying as he had been sentenced, taking the punishment he deserved. The choice was his.
Choosing Jesus Christ
Here’s the point: when death has paid the debt, the debt is paid in full. We can continue trying to pay the penalty for our sins ourselves. Or we can accept the payment which has been made on our behalf.
When a friend pays your bill at a restaurant, you can refuse his kindness and insist on paying the bill personally. Or you can accept his generosity. It’s your choice.
To the crowd, Jesus Barabbas represented self-reliance, a celebrity turned criminal who did all he could to free them from the oppression of pagan Rome. You can’t destroy Caesar, but you can steal from those who support him. You can’t free those enslaved by the Empire, but you can improve their suffering a little. Do what you can. Do all you can. Fight the Empire yourself.
Today, you and I live in a country as occupied as Palestine was occupied by Rome. This world is not our home. It is controlled by the devil and his demons. Satan is a roaring lion looking for more people to devour (1 Peter 5:8). Our fight “is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
Like Barabbas, we can try to fight back ourselves. We can stand up to Satan and sin, to the temptations and attacks of our spiritual enemies. If we go to church enough, pray enough, read enough Scripture, do enough ministry, we can win this battle.
And when we fail, we can refuse to be forgiven until we have received the punishment we deserve. The guilt, the stain and the shame of our failure. We can refuse to forgive ourselves until we think we have carried the burden of our guilt long enough.
In other words, we can refuse to allow Jesus to die on our cross.
Or we can accept his gift of grace. We can accept the fact that when we confess our sin he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). We can accept what he did at Calvary: “He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14).
And when sin and Satan attack us, we can ask Jesus to fight them on our behalf. Rather than trying to defeat temptation in our own will power and strength, we can give that temptation instantly to God. We can develop the reflex to pray in that moment, to turn to God in that instant, to claim Jesus’ death as our victory over all sin and all temptation.
We can choose Jesus Barabbas, or we can choose Jesus Christ. There is not a third option.
A mausoleum’s crystal casket in Red Square contains the body of Nikolai Lenin. The inscription reads: “He was the greatest leader of all people of all time. He was the lord of the new humanity; he was the savior of the world.”
Note the past tense.
By contrast, Alice Meynell once observed:
No planet knows that this
Our wayward planet, carrying land and wave,
Love and life multiplied, and pain and bliss,
Bears, as chief treasure, one forsaken grave.
Jesus’ cross is empty; his tomb is empty. He died in Barabbas’ place, and Barabbas was forever free. Then he came down from the cross and up from the grave. So can we.
Or we can choose to fill that empty cross and that empty tomb ourselves. We can choose to fight our own battles against sin and Satan, to be religious and spiritual and godly enough to live holy lives. Then when we fail, we can choose to be punished for our failures, to carry our guilt and shame until we think we have been punished in full.
We can give our temptations and our sins to Jesus. Or we can fight them ourselves. But remember: when death has paid the debt, the debt is paid in full.
Will you be Barabbas today?