Today’s eVotional is a transcript of the message Tim Smith delivered at Water from Rock’s seventh annual Good Friday worship service, on March 25, 2016. Celebrants in the worship service included Presbyterian, Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Non-Denominational.
For the next few moments I want to read between the lines of the Gospel according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John…to read between the lines in order to see there the Gospel according to Barabbas.
Barabbas is a man tried, convicted, officially declared guilty and yet set free. Barabbas plays a compelling role in the Gospel story. Remarkably, Barabbas is mentioned in all four Gospels. That alone makes Barabbas significant. The birth of our Lord Jesus is mentioned in only two of the four Gospels. And of all the miracles that Jesus performed, only one of His miracles is mentioned in all four Gospels, and that is the feeding of the 5,000.
The four Gospels together devote 32 verses to Barabbas, suggesting that Barabbas is important for understanding of the Gospel, and important for our understanding of the implications of what happens here on Good Friday.
Here’s what we know about Barabbas:
- First, the Gospel of John tells us that Barabbas is a “bandit”. That’s the word that Jesus used in his Parable of the Good Samaritan, who going down from Jerusalem to Jericho is ambushed by “bandits”, beaten, stripped naked, robbed, and left for dead. Barabbas is a bandit, the Greek word is, léstés: he is the worst kind of criminal.
- The Gospels of Luke and Mark tell us that Barabbas was part of an insurrection, a riot, a rebellion in Jerusalem at which he murdered people. Barabbas is a multiple-counts murderer.
- The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Barabbas is a “notorious prisoner”. Barabbas is known from Galilee in the north, to Beersheba in the south. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that Barabbas was locked away. He is guilty under both Jewish and Roman Law.
That’s what we know about Barabbas. But there is his name. It’s his name that leaves us scratching our heads. His name is an enigma, a tough nut to crack. Barabbas is a patronym, that is, a name derived from one’s father. In cultures where ancestry and descent from one’s father connection are important, there are different ways of saying, “son of”.
For the Scottish, “McGregor”, means “son of Gregor”. For the English, “Johnson”, is “son of John”. For the Russians, Petrov is “son of Peter”. In the Hebrew language, “Ben David” means “son of David”. For the Aramaic speaking Jews of Jesus’ day, the prefix “bar” indicates, “son of”. So we see in Matthew 16:17 that Jesus calls Simon Peter, “Simon bar Jonah”, “Simon son of Jonah”. When a Jewish boy enters manhood he is called “bar mitzvah”, “son of the commandments”.
Bar-abbas, then, is, “bar”….”son of abba, son of a father.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed, “Abba, Father”.
Bar-abbas — “son of a father”. But that’s a strange sort of name isn’t it. It doesn’t tell us very much. Every one of us is a son or daughter of a father. Bar-abbas! What a name! His parents might as well have called him “Everyone”. It is “Everyone” who stands before the judgment seat today.
Alongside Barabbas, “the son of a father”, there stands Jesus, “the Son of God.” Barabbas, the son of a father, has been officially declared guilty, and Jesus, the Son of God, has been officially declared innocent.
Earlier in the evening King Herod examined Jesus and declared Him innocent. Governor Pilate examined Jesus, heard the witnesses, looked at the evidence, and found Jesus innocent, declaring, “I find no fault in this man.”
In the Roman Province of Judea in the first century there is a long-standing custom called the Passover Pardon. The Passover Pardon means that the Roman Governor is to release a prisoner at the time of Passover, a prisoner of the people’s choosing. And Pilate wants to release Jesus, “the Son of God”, but the mob wants him to release Barabbas, “the son of a father”.
I have always imagined Barabbas, sitting in his dungeon cell at the Fortress of Antonia. I have imagined Barabbas staring at his hands, thinking how soon they will be nailed to a cross, mocked, left there for vultures. As Barabbas stares at his hands, he can hear the angry mob, yelling, “Crucify! Crucify him!” And he can hear his name being shouted.
Then two burly Roman soldiers arrive, members of the governor’s Praetorian guard, heavy armor clanking. They proceed to unlock Barabbas’ chains. In heavily accented Aramaic they say to Barabbas: “You’re free! You’re free! Jesus is going to die in your place.”
As we read “The Gospel According to Barabbas”, Barabbas becomes a flesh-and-blood symbol for you and for me. At this moment the Gospel story paints Barabbas as Everyone. The guilty go free, and the Holy One dies. Barabbas becomes the first one who can say, “Jesus died for me.”
This is no accident in the story. It all happens in God’s plan. God orders it to send a message to you and to me, that “the son of a father, a daughter of a father” is Everyone! And Jesus lived and died in the place of Everyone, so that we might have a place in Him with the heavenly Father, that we might know that the Father loves us as He loves His own Son, Jesus Christ.
Writing 700 years before that Good Friday, it were as though the prophet Isaiah was standing at the foot of the Cross looking up at Jesus: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities….All we like sheep (EVERYONE) have gone astray, and the Lord has laid on Him, the iniquities of us (EVERYONE) all.”
Barabbas, son of a father, guilty, but goes free. Jesus, the Son of God, innocent, but is crucified. This is the Good Friday Prisoner Exchange!
The apostle Paul puts it like this: 2 Corinthians 5:21 “God made Christ to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that in him we might be the righteousness of God.”
There’s an old hymn that says all this so well: “Upon a Life I have not lived; upon a Death I did not die; another’s Life, another’s Death, I stake my whole eternity.”
As Jesus dies on Good Friday in the place of “Everyone”, there was on the cross next to Jesus, a criminal, probably one of Barabbas’ cronies. He prayed in faith to Jesus: “Jesus, remember me, when You come into Your Kingdom.” Let’s now sing the words of that simple prayer, as we sing the Taize chorus: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into Your Kingdom.”