Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy. … But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said to them, ‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?’ They said, ‘Barabbas!’ —MATTHEW 27:15–18, 20–21
Will Graham’s Devotion:
Jesus stood on trial, facing not just the Roman governor Pontius Pilate but also an incited mob intending to “destroy” Him (Matthew 27:20). Meanwhile, somewhere in the bowels of the prison, a man named Barabbas sat and awaited his own execution at the hands of the government.
Of the 31,000+ verses in the Bible, Barabbas is the subject of very few. There aren’t many details about him historically. However, he’s an incredibly consequential character in the history of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.
As the trial was coming to a close, having heard the arguments and having personally questioned Jesus, Pontius Pilate recognised this was an unjust situation. Pilate wanted Jesus to go free, but he was more concerned about appeasing the crowd. Call it a loophole, perhaps, but Pilate gave the crowd a way out of spilling innocent blood. According to custom, Pilate could release one prisoner.
You could say he stacked the deck in Jesus’ favour. Next to Jesus, he brought up what was likely the worst death row inmate on his roster. “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ” (Matthew 27:17)?
It was a matter of innocence versus evil, yet—to Pilate’s surprise— the crowd cried out for the blood of Jesus. Christ was sentenced to death. Barabbas went free.
What do we know about Barabbas?
First, we know Barabbas was a violent insurrectionist. In Mark 15:7, we read that Barabbas “was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion.” That is echoed in Luke 23:25, which says Barabbas was guilty of rebellion and murder. John 18:40 adds robbery to Barabbas’ rap sheet.
Second, Barabbas was well known. While for us, Barabbas may seem like a bit player in the Gospels, Matthew 27:16 tells us he was a “notorious prisoner.” His violence would have been major news, even in a relatively large city like Jerusalem. When the “chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas” (Matthew 27:20), they knew exactly what they were getting in the exchange.
Finally, we know this was a major development in the trial of Christ. While many skeptics have questioned Barabbas’ existence, the fact that this transaction is recorded in all four books confirms this event not only happened, but was likely a key and unanticipated turn of events.
There were three crosses on Golgotha (the hill on which Jesus died). Two were reserved for thieves, and the other was intended for Barabbas. It was where he would suffer the consequences and pay for his lawlessness.
But then, unexpectedly, a man he’d never met took his place. Though his punishment was death, he had an opportunity to be free. I don’t for a second imagine that he waited or argued. He ran, as far and as fast as he could, to get away from certain death.
On a spiritual level, we’re like Barabbas. We’re sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and the penalty of that sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23). Jesus has paid the penalty and taken our place, giving us the opportunity for the gift of God, which is eternal life (Romans 6:23).
My friends, Barabbas was smarter than many people today. Jesus took Barabbas’ place in going to the cross, and Barabbas didn’t hesitate to accept that substitution. Will you accept Christ’s death as substitution for eternal death and live with Him in Heaven someday?
Dear Jesus, thank You for taking my place on the cross and paying the debt of my sin. Thank You for the freedom that I now have in You. In Jesus’ Name, amen.
Give To Where Most Needed
I want to reach the world with the Good News by equipping the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association with resources — including personnel, materials, support services, buildings and more — to urgently respond to every opportunity to share Jesus Christ with others.