Pilate proposes a choice
One of the illuminating side stories of the passion of Jesus is the mini drama of the choice that Pilate proposes to the people of the crowd assembled at the trial of Jesus. Pilate is looking for ways to avoid condemning someone he believes is innocent and he remembers that it is time for him to honor a custom of releasing a prisoner at the time of the Jewish feast (Matt. 27:15). So he asks the crowd who they would like him to release, Barabbas or Jesus.
Barabbas’ full name
There is an interesting historical fact that adds further drama to the narrative. Twice Pilate uses the phrase “Jesus who is called Christ” (vv 17, 21). The reason for this becomes clear when we discover that in some of the very oldest manuscripts Barabbas is named Jesus Barabbas (Barclay p. 361). This reading was known to Origen and Jerome, very early church scholars, who both thought it was correct. Most modern translators agree and have included it in their translations (NIV, NRSV, TEV). It makes Pilate’s choice of words make more sense. He is asking the crowd for a choice between Jesus Barabbas, a rebel against the government, and a murderer, and Jesus who is called Christ. Influenced by the Jewish leaders they shout for the release of Jesus Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus who is called Christ. Pilate was hoping they would choose the good man over the murderer, but the chief priest’s contrary influence won out.
The irony of the choice
The irony of this choice is incredible. First, the name, Jesus, comes from the idea of salvation (Matt. 1:21). Jesus who is called Christ had said, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
- The first irony is this. Barabbas means “Son of the father,” father being a term for a Jewish teacher and leader (Barclay). So the name Barabbas itself speaks of the choice the people were making. The people were choosing the influence of the Jewish teachers and leaders over that of the true Anointed One who came from the heavenly Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). They listened to the Jewish teachers and choose Jesus Barabbas. Jesus who is called the Christ had warned, “I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20).
- Second, being a rebel, perhaps even a Zealot (J. Sidlow Baxter in Explore the Book), Jesus Barabbas represents salvation by political and even violent means. This was the way the disciples mistakenly thought the Kingdom would come. On the night Jesus was betrayed, Peter drew his sword to start the battle. But Jesus forbade him. Earthly politics and military action was the way the Jews also thought they would be rescued from the Romans. Their choice of Jesus Barabbas, the insurrectionist, was ironically consistent with that erroneous view. In rejecting Jesus who is called Christ, they rejected God’s way to salvation, a salvation that changes hearts and transforms minds first. Jesus who is called the Christ rules a heavenly kingdom as he answered Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36).
- In a third irony, Jesus Barabbas was a robber (John 18:40). Jesus who is called Christ accused the Jewish leaders of turning God’s house into a “den of robbers” (Mark 11:17). Jesus who is the Christ warned that the thief comes to “steal and kill and destroy.” But in contrast “I am come that they may have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10). In choosing Jesus Barabbas, the people unwittingly choose allegiance to the Enemy of our souls, the one who steals from our lives and rejected the Anointed One who gives life.
This would all be very academic if it did not so accurately reflect the parallel choices that we make when we choose against Jesus who is called the Christ.
- We can also heed the wrong voices! Sometimes we listen to the insistent and immediate voices of peer pressure, rationalization and other influencers. We cast our lot with them even though we sense the opposing pull of the moral power of “Jesus who is called the Christ.”
- We sometimes choose the weapons of this world to fix things. We can’t quite envision how a spiritual kingdom makes a difference so we indulge in hatred and succumb to the lure of seeking salvation for our world by political intrigue, or even by violent intervention. We crucify anew the one who urged us to love our enemies, whose coming had been announced with “Peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), and who himself said, “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27).
- We unwittingly choose that which depletes our joy. We give in to the siren call of habits that harm our health, relationships that are not God’s best plan, and we hate discipline. Then we wonder who has robbed us of health and peace and why our selfishness has also left us lonely. It’s hard to admit that we have been influenced by the enemy and have little by little rejected the one who wants to make us truly alive (Ephesians 2:1-5).
This is why we need to celebrate Good Friday–to remember how much a part of wrong side of that frightful day we are. In the words of a contemporary hymn,
“Behold the man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers”
(by Stuart Townend in How Deep the Father’s Love for Us)