What Barabbas Got Right!

By Terry M. Smith

As we enter Holy Week, let’s remember Barabbas, who might enrich our sense of Easter. Usually we recall how this man, who killed in a failed rebellion against Rome, was released by Pontius Pilate and how Jesus took his place on the cross. Yet when Scripture becomes silent, Barabbas fades from our attention.

However, theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann explore connections between rebels such as Barabbas and his co-conspirators with Jesus. By looking at the common ground between Barabbas and Jesus (what Barabbas got right!) and their differences, our wonder at Easter might increase.

A bit of common ground, at least according to tradition, is that both men are called Jesus, meaning “the Lord is salvation.” Barabbas was not a first name, but a statement that he was the “son of Abbas.” More significant common ground was that each man posed a threat to the rule of Rome and Pilate’s own well-being.

Barabbas had committed murder in a rebellion (Matthew 27:16; Luke 23:19) and he and at least two of his co-conspirators were to be crucified at the Place of the Skull, an execution site outside Jerusalem, as a public deterrent to Jews gathering for the emotionally-charged time of the Passover. During Passover Jews remembered their past deliverance by God from political oppression and some hoped God would act against Rome. The Roman garrison was on alert against those who would take up the sword.

Similarly, Jesus of Nazareth, who had attracted a following as a teacher and a miracle-worker and had caused a disturbance in the Temple by overturning some tables (to Moltmann, a rebel-like action), was presented to Pilate by Jewish authorities as a threat to Rome. When asked if he was a king, Jesus’ reply puzzled Pilate (John 18:33–37).

In assessing the risk Jesus posed, the Roman procurator wanted to release him. However, the crowd shouted, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” and then came a threat from some Jewish leaders: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 18:40; 19:12). Because of past errors in dealing with Jews, Pilate was on shaky terms with the Emperor and could not risk a complaint. Jesus of Nazareth was crucified.

So what did Barabbas get right?

First, Barabbas and his co-conspirators believed that God is the King, the proper ruler of Israel. They believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were not secular people. If a fool says, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1), they were not fools, but motivated by faith that God was their king. Jesus affirmed that God is to be first in our lives (Deuteronomy 6:4; Mark 12:28–34). They challenge anyone content to live without God (Isaiah 5:21).

Barabbas and our Lord also challenged their age, and ours, by proclaiming that God the King, who delivered Israel out of Egypt and later exile, remains active in human history. Even though God gives rulers much room to govern by ego, abuse of power, and evil choices (Amos 5:10–18), he remains sovereign and is working toward his future (Psalm 2).

As well, Jesus and rebels both “preached that the kingdom of God was at hand” and understood they were to work for the kingdom (Moltmann). Jesus said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15), and he commissioned his disciples to go forth with the news (Luke 10:1–16). Barabbas and Jesus remind us that this is God’s world and change is coming! Within this, both worked to set people free from oppression, believing that God is on the side of justice and peace.

And where did they differ?

While Barabbas and other rebels sought to “bring in the kingdom by force,” (Moltmann), Jesus never approved the use of force. It has been said that if Jesus had called people to fight, many would have taken up the sword! I agree. When, however, Jesus counselled his followers to love their enemies (Matthew 5:38–48), he was speaking in language critical of rebels. Sadly, 1500 years later some zealot-like Anabaptists took over the city of Muenster, proclaimed God’s kingdom had come, and were prepared to defend it. They misunderstood our Lord and, as Layton Friesen has said, their actions made it difficult for other Anabaptists in Reformation-era Europe.

Another difference was in timing. Some Jews thought that by suffering in resistance, they would prompt God to intervene to establish his kingdom. If Barabbas thought this, he got it wrong. The Muensterites certainly did—the recapture of the city by Catholic forces revealed this! Jesus, rather, instructed his followers to wait patiently for God’s kingdom to fully come and did not say when this would be (Matthew 24:36). Instead, he called us to witness “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:6–8).

Barabbas and Jesus likely differed on the extent of the kingdom. Barabbas seemed focused on freeing Israel from Roman rule. Perhaps, as did some Jews, he envisioned a future in which the Jewish nation was exalted and other nations humbled. Joseph Klausner, a modern Jewish writer, said Israel rejected Jesus as Messiah partly because he did not care enough for the state of Israel. Yet Jesus wept over Jerusalem (Luke 13:34–35; 23:28–31).

What is key is that Jesus’ Messianic vision both included and reached beyond Israel. Praising the faith of a Roman centurion, Jesus said, “Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). There is to be a future time when all believers will share in a kingdom of spiritual well-being, peace, justice and economic security.

Easter promises transformation

The good news of Easter is that God the King is acting for our salvation in Jesus and will ultimately transform heaven and earth, people and planet, to his glory and praise! Walther Eichrodt reminds us that the “core” of religious hope in the Old Testament is that God will set up his dominion over the earth, renewing creation, a hope rooted in history; and the “heart” of it is “real communion” between God and people.

George Ladd says, “The human heart, human society, and all of nature must be purged of…evil, that God’s glory may be perfectly manifested in his creation.” Isaac Rottenberg, a Reformed minister who lost family in the Holocaust, says redemption includes heaven and earth, the human heart and the history of nations, society and nature. A. A. van Ruler says, “The cross, the overcoming of sin by vicarious expiation, is the centre of the gospel. But the horizon is the kingdom, the purified heart, the sanctified life, the exorcised state, the society made at peace” (summarized by Moltmann).

Neither Pilate nor Barabbas really understood Jesus of Nazareth or what was happening when our Lord was crucified. Even the disciples got it wrong at first. While they called him Messiah, Jesus spoke of himself as the Son of Man (Daniel 7:9–14) and the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52–53; Mark 8:27–33), being an unexpected Messiah.

The greatest sacrifice happened on public display “outside the boundaries of Israel” and “on the boundary of human society” (Moltmann), not within any temple or on an altar hidden by a veil. It was at the Place of the Skull with Roman soldiers and Jewish people present, representing God’s embrace of the whole world.

The gracious reach of Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross was world-wide and eternal, beyond any offered in the Jewish temple, and the sacrifice was unique and unsurpassed: The Son of God who became also man achieved our salvation by his voluntary death for us (Hebrews 9-10). As Moltmann says, in looking at the cross we see the Crucified God, the Lord who reconciled heaven and earth by “his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:16–20).

I am saddened that the cross pierced the Son of God, but rejoice that it also pierced the soil beneath it, just as Jesus’ physical body would later lie briefly in a physical tomb. When Jesus’ resurrection occurred on Easter morning, it contained the assurance of grace and eternal life for all who would believe (John 3:16) and the promise of “creation…liberated from its bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21).

Moltmann reminds us that Jesus is Lord and there is coming a day when he will destroy death, openly reign over “all dominion, authority and power,” and turn the kingdom over to the Father (1 Corinthians 15:22–28). And “only with the resurrection of the dead, the murdered and the gassed, only with the healing of those in despair who bear lifelong wounds” will God the Father turn the Son’s sorrow” “into eternal joy.”

We do not know how Barabbas responded after being released from prison and spared execution, yet what Luke suggests of a co-conspirator is intriguing and wonderful: the rebel turned and said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Luke says he saw in Jesus a ruler whose kingdom challenged him and in that he took hope.

Terry M. Smith

Key Resources: C. H. Dodd, The Founder of Christianity (Fontana, 1973); Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (Westminster, 1961 and 1966); R. T. France, The Man They Crucified  (IVP, 1975); Joel B. Green and others, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (IVP, 1992 and 2013); George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future and A Theology of the New Testament (both Eerdmans, 1974); Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God (SCM, 1974); Isaac C. Rottenberg, The Promise and the Presence (Eerdmans, 1980); and H. H. Rowley, The Faith of Israel (SCM, 1956).

Terry M. Smith served as a pastor for 11 years with Northern Fellowship Chapel (Creighton, Sask.), where he was ordained, and for 23 years in the EMC national office mostly in the areas of education, archives, and publication (including The Messenger). He remains open to writing, preaching and teaching. He lives in Mitchell, Man.

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