Who Was Barabbas?
The Gospels tell us about a criminal named Barabbas. Who was Barabbas in the Bible? What significance does his story have for Christians today?
Crucifixion was one of the worst methods of execution ever devised by man. The practice was specifically engineered to torture its victim with a slow and painful death. It also served as a symbol—a warning to those who passed by about what would happen if they challenged Rome or caused disorder.
The pain felt from this form of execution was so intense that we have a word in the English language to describe it. Excruciate means to inflict very severe pain, great mental distress, torture and torment.
A particular event occurred just before Christ’s crucifixion that is often read over, unnoticed by readers. By taking a closer look at it, we’ll see this event contains significant meaning for all of us. It’s mentioned in all four Gospel accounts, with the Gospel of Mark providing the most detail.
A prisoner released
There was an annual custom in that time for Pilate to release a prisoner on the Passover (Mark 15:6). So at Christ’s trial—in keeping with the tradition—Pilate offered to release Barabbas or Jesus (Matthew 27:17).
Pilate found no fault with Jesus and wanted to release Him. But the crowds, stirred up by the chief priests, cried out for the release of Barabbas. Pilate was likely quite surprised by this and questioned their choice three times (Luke 23:14, 20-22), but he finally gave in to their request (Mark 15:7, 15).
Who was Barabbas?
Both Mark and Luke’s Gospels tell us that Barabbas was an insurrectionist—someone who wanted to overthrow the Roman government—and a murderer. It was likely that he had murdered a Roman soldier (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:18-19). But, lest we think of him as a noble freedom fighter, we should consider the added detail from John’s Gospel that shows he was also a thief (John 18:40). The Gospels paint a very negative picture of this man. He was a bona fide, hardened criminal.
Matthew described him as “a notorious prisoner” (Matthew 27:16). In other words, Barabbas and his crimes were well known among the Jerusalem community. He was a “high profile” prisoner.
Despite his flagrant crimes, Barabbas was selected by the people to be released. No doubt he had been awaiting his crucifixion by the Romans before being chosen, but now he found himself free.
Put yourself in Barabbas’ shoes
How would you feel if you were in Barabbas’ place? Your days are numbered, and you are likely on death row—awaiting crucifixion for crimes you know you are guilty of committing. You know you are facing a slow and agonizing death. As the anxiety of that punishment overtakes you, you find yourself unable to eat or sleep, and your stomach is in knots. You are tormented by what you know is coming. Your fate has been sealed.
Though we may not naturally identify with Barabbas, we actually have more in common with him than we might think.Then suddenly the Roman soldiers come in and haul you from your cell. You think that your time has come to be scourged, beaten, stripped naked, nailed to a piece of wood and left to slowly die—in public. But to your surprise, as you are being brought before Pilate, you realize the crowds are chanting your name and demanding your release. And then you are informed by the authorities . . .
You are now free.
You can’t believe your ears. You know you had been indicted. The evidence against you was overwhelming. The Roman authorities are brutal, and they never release someone who is guilty of such egregious crimes.
Though we may not naturally identify with Barabbas, we actually have more in common with him than we might think.
The ultimate contrast
Imagine these two men standing before Pilate: Barabbas and Jesus Christ.
Barabbas was guilty. He was a man whose life was characterized by violence, rebellion and thievery.
Jesus Christ was innocent. He was a Man who didn’t hurt others, never allowed guile or lies to come out of His mouth, never stole and never once encouraged or supported an insurrection against any civil authority.
Barabbas deserved to die for his crimes. Instead, he was freed, while Someone who had done nothing worthy of death was executed.
The innocent died, and the guilty was set free.
You are Barabbas
The point of all this is to emphasize that Barabbas is symbolic of you and me. His experience on that Passover day symbolizes the experience of everyone who responds to God’s calling.
We are Barabbas.
Jesus Christ died so that we don’t have to live with the crushing fear of our looming death penalty. We have all broken God’s law multiple times (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:8). Because of our sins, we have earned the ultimate death penalty (Romans 6:23). We, like Barabbas, have earned our spot on death row because of our crimes against God.
But we have a Savior—Jesus Christ—who was completely innocent, yet died for the sins we committed. He died in our place. Just like Barabbas, we can be set free by His death.
Jesus Christ died so that we don’t have to live with the crushing fear of our looming death penalty. Jesus died so that He might “release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). Sin and its penalty are the ultimate bondage that Christ offers freedom from.
But what now?
Freedom comes with a choice
After his release, Barabbas had a choice.
He could take advantage of that freedom and change his life. He could reform his behavior and do all he could to ensure that he’d never find himself on death row again. Or, he could use his freedom to go right back to his old ways and return to a life of violence and thievery. This path would ultimately lead him right back to prison and crucifixion.
Which path did Barabbas choose?
Being freed through Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t mean we go back to our old ways. It means we start living a new way of life. We don’t know. The Bible doesn’t tell us.
Perhaps we’re not told because Barabbas represents each and every one of us. It is up to us to complete the story for ourselves.
Repentance and acceptance of Christ’s sacrificial death grants us freedom. What does God expect of you and me after that?
Jesus said, “The truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
God’s truth sets us free—from sin, confusion, error and guilt. The truth isn’t just something we believe—it is something we must practice (1 John 1:6).
Being freed through Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t mean we go back to our old ways. It means we start living a new way of life. It means presenting “your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God” (Romans 12:1). It means bringing “every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).
So, who was Barabbas?
You are Barabbas.
What will you do with your freedom?