Are you offended by the title of this essay? Me too. But I’ve titled it this way to make a point: Barabbas was the first person saved from death by Jesus; Jesus took his place on the cross. (Many Bible exegetes believe the cross on which Jesus died was intended for Barabbas.)
Barabbas was a hair-raising terrorist, a murderer. When he was cornered and arrested, the country breathed a collective sigh of relief. Finally, this notorious thug was off the streets, behind bars, destined for death. A cross with his name on it had been raised on the executioner’s hill outside the city. He would soon be taking his final walk to the death dune, never to terrify the nation again.
Early this morning, religious leaders, having conspired to do away with Jesus, had presented him to Governor Pilate, demanding that he be sentenced to death.
Pilate knew that he had done nothing deserving death and that it was jealous rage that had provoked them to bring Jesus to him” (Mt 27:18). Savvy politician that he was, Pilate knew how to handle them. It was his custom at the time of Passover to free one prisoner of their choosing. He would play Jesus and Barabbas against each other. It was a no-brainer: it would be curtains for Barabbas; freedom for Jesus. Game over.
“Which of the two do you want me to set free: Barabbas or Jesus?” the governor asked.
“Barabbas!” they answered.
The rattled ruler asked, “So what should I do with Jesus?”
“Why? What wrong has he done?”
Staying on message, they shrieked, “Crucify him!”
With a riot on his hands, and minus moral backbone, Pilate caved—freed Barabbas and handed Jesus over to be crucified.
No one was more surprised than Barabbas. He knew when Pilate sent guards for him that he would be nailed to a cross before high noon, with two partners in crime hanging beside him, to his right and left.
He grimaced when Pilate asked, “Which of the two do you want me to set free: Barabbas or Jesus?”
When the crowd shouted, “Barabbas!” he couldn’t believe his ears. And when Pilate told him, “You’re free to go,” he was dumbfounded.
There is no record, biblical or historical, of what happened to Barabbas after he was set free. Surely he overheard conversations about Jesus’ crucifixion, reflected on his escape from death—and wondered about the one who took his place. The innocent died; the guilty went free. It made no sense. Maybe he crept out of the shadows, latched on to a disciple and said, “Tell me about this Jesus.” He had been saved from physical death—and, because Jesus died for sinners, it’s not out of the question that he became a convert and was saved from spiritual death as well. I hope so.
A mental scene-shift lands you and me in the company of Barabbas. “There is no one righteous, not even one . . . All of us have sinned” (Rom 3:10, 23)—and the sentence for sin is death (Rom 6:23).
Barabbas belonged on that center cross; so do we. But Jesus took his place—and ours. In our case, no less than in his, the innocent died; the guilty was set free. The just was crucified; the unjust was justified.
Jesus, a.k.a. (your name).
Thank you, Jesus.