John 18:33–40 (ESV)
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the
King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
Dear fellow redeemed: Remember the time that Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his Son, but a ram was sacrificed in his place? (That’s one of the lessons for this Sunday.) Remem- ber the time that David went out as a substitute for all the people to battle against their enemy, and vicariously win the battle for them all?
There are other examples in history that are pictures (we call them types) of the relation- ship between us and God because of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Think of Hosea whom the Lord told to marry a prostitute, and told him, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods ….” (Hosea 3:1)
So also, in His providence the Lord contrived in the very trial of Jesus to portray the sub- stitutionary atonement, that “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21, ESV) Of course, I am talking about Barabbas.
First, let’s look at what Jesus was accused of. “Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”” (Luke 23:1–2, ESV) Before the Sanhedrin they had accused Jesus of blasphemy, that He disrespected God by claiming to be the Son of God. But that would mean little to Pilate, so before Pilate they accused him of sedition and insurrection, posing as a king to undermine the power of Rome.
As our text says, “So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Of course Jesus led no insurrection. In fact He taught, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” Pilate knew Jesus’ innocence, not only from questioning him, but probably from independent intelligence reports. Matthew tells us, “For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.” (Matthew 27:18, ESV) So … After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.
Here is Jesus, who knew no sin. He was not guilty of civil crime and Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)
We are not like Jesus, we are sinful, and it shows in what we do and fail to do every day.
So Pilate appealed to their sense of Justice. Given the choice between this harmless teacher and a notorious criminal, which should be set free. He put it to them, “But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?”
Let’s look at Barabbas:
“a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.” (Luke 23:19, ESV)
“They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.” (John 18:40, ESV)
“And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.” (Matthew 27:16, ESV)
Barabbas was notorious for insurrection, murder, and robbery. One Greek word used to describe him is λῃστής. A look at our Greek lexicon tells us that he is the kind of robber charac- terized by “a ruthless use of force in seeking the goods of others.”1 Another is that he was guilty of ἀκαταστασία, a violent revolt.
Barabbas is the kind of criminal that Jesus was accused of being, a rebel against Rome. And he is the kind of criminal that people feared, someone mentioned in the parable of the Good Samaritan who beat the traveler, robbed him, and left him for dead.
Apart from Christ, we are like Barabbas, guilty before God.
We are not like Jesus, in whom the Father is well pleased; we are like Barabbas, who is worthy of condemnation.
By any sense of justice, Jesus would be freed, with apologies, and Barabbas bear the punishment for his real crimes, but as we sing in the hymn, (“O Dearest Jesus,” ELH #292, v.4)
“What punishment so strange is suffered yonder? / The Shepherd dies for sheep that loved to wander, / The Master pays the debt His servants owe Him, / Who would not know Him.”
Or, as we ask in our final hymn this evening, “What wondrous love is this, O my soul, that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the dreadful curse for my soul?”
Barabbas is a living witness, picture, type, of the vicarious atonement of Christ. Namely, He paid for our sins. After living out a life of righteousness for us, He died our death for us, our utter rejection under the wrath of God. Suffering great injustice, Jesus satisfied the justice of God on our behalf. As one of the ancient Christian teachers wrote,
For they preferred a robber to him who did not regard his equality with God the Father [as robbery] and took our poverty upon him for this very end, that is, that he might deliver us from the true murderer, that is, Satan. (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, John 11– 21, 295)
Thus it was that even in the events of that day, in the person of Barabbas, there was a witness of what was going on that day – the atonement of the world for the forgiveness of our sins, and our eternal reconciliation with God.