In the Gospels Barabbas appears to be a very secondary figure in the vast drama of the Passion and Death of Jesus.
Only the motley crowd call out his name. Matthew 27:17-21 describes him as “a man of some notoriety.” Mark 15:11 and Luke 23:18 go a little further, indicating he was among the rebels who had committed murder in the uprising against Rome. John 18:40 calls him a “Bandit.”
We have sufficient information to deduce that he was known to the crowd, possibly a local hero, a member of the Resistance Movement against the crushing authority of Rome.
The name “Barabbas” means “son of the Rabbi.” A preacher’s kid! What could not be written about this? How the son of a devout home should end up condemned to the gallows!
What is not conjecture is that, while Jesus was being tried before Pontius Pilate, Barabbas with others lay chained in a condemned cell, fearful that every creak of footstep, every turn of a key might be the guard arrived to take them out to be executed by the most painful form of public execution known in human history.
One thinks of Dickens’ Fagan awaiting the trump of doom “cowering upon a stone bed; thinking of the past, beard torn and twisted into knots, eyes shining with a terrible light, the unwashed face cracked with fever. The clock chiming … at eight he would be the only mourner at his own funeral.”
The key turns in the lock. The Roman guard barks out the name: “Barabbas.” There was little time for good-byes to his companions in death; that door led to darkness and the end.
By contrast, one recalls Bonhoeffer’s last words as he left his prison cell for humiliation and death: “This is the beginning of a new life for me.”
To his surprise, Barabbas is led into the judgment hall where Pilate sits amidst the symbols and pageantry of mighty Rome. A centurion steps forward and reads from a parchment, in legal gobbledygook, totally incomprehensible to the bewildered prisoner.
“One, Barabbas! By special ordinance of the Law of Israel and in concert with the practice of clemency of Imperial Rome, this clemency is now extended to you; is affirmed by the Sanhedrin and is hereby approved by his excellency Pontius Pilate, Procurator Magnissimus under the exalted Emperior Tiberius.”
The shackles are taken from wrists and ankles. Roughly pushed out of the way, Barabbas staggers down the marble stairs, along the pavement and through the clanging gate into shimmering sunshine of that early springtime. The gate clangs behind him. People pass him by in the street, suspecting his unsteady gait is due to celebration of the Holy Season of Passovertide.
He breathes into his lungs the fresh air for the first time in an eon of time, in contrast to the sweaty humidity of the cell with its reek of urine and human sweat. He looks up at the gleaming tower of the Temple. He jumps for joy, shouting and screaming, a schoolboy again-like Dickens’ Scrooge on that Christmas morning he thought he had missed.
He bursts into the home of his friends who stagger back.
“No, it’s all right! I’m free! Pardoned by Pilate himself! Quick! wine and bread.”
What a celebration indeed! Barabbas talking, laughing, weeping, eating, drinking as if possessed …. and the carousing hours roll by until suddenly he stops, somewhat ashamed that life could be so free and sweet. He thought of Gestus and Uriah who at this very moment must be hanging upon their crosses. He must see them: drawn as every criminal is drawn to the scene of the crime.
Thus he finds himself beneath three stark crosses against the lowering sky.
Gestus, true to form, is cursing and screaming; a rebel to the end who not even death could silence! But Uriah always was of a different sort. Whimpering and afraid, he seems to be calling out to someone “Remember me, Lord, when thou comest into Thy kingdom.”
And another Voice: “Today, my son, you will be with me in Paradise.”
For the first time Barabbas looks on the crushed figure of the center cross, the dead weight of the body pulling against the Roman spikes through His wrists, the face flushed with the fever that was overpowering Him, and the awful wrenching cry as from the depths of hell itself.
“Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani.”
To the stranger beside him, Barabbas enquires: “Who is this poor devil in the midst of the three crosses?”
“His name is Jesus. It should have been Barabbas the rebel, but he was let off. This man is dying in his place.”
It took a little while for the truth to percolate into Barabbas’ addled mind. He was looking at his own crucifixion! That was his cross! Those spikes should have been hammered through his wrists; the nail that impaled the feet together could have pinned his feet.
Suddenly he felt sick with fear; the terror of crucifixion was dawning on him. He fled from the scene, hearing through the tumult of his throbbing brain distant words calling out, as if to him:
“Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
What happened to Barabbas history never reveals. It would be melodrama to think that he was converted and became a leader in the Church. Probably he lived and died in some remote town; that is, if he was not crucified in another insurrection he might conceivably have raised.
What is history, and what lies deeper than even Barabbas could understand, are at least three significant facts.
Barabbas is the only man who ever lived, who could assert– literally –that Christ Jesus died for him.
He saw Jesus with his own eyes, heard His words of pain and pity and forgiveness.
Ten thousand times ten thousand Christians have sung “Beneath the Cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand.” Barabbas stood there.
Generations of preachers have declared “I will sing the wondrous story, of the Christ who died for me” but at the end of the service pronounced the benediction and went home to lunch.
Theologians trying to penetrate the eternal darkness that must ever shroud the Cross in mystery, see there “Love divine all love excelling”; or redemption by that “fountain filled with blood drawn from Immanuel’s veins”; or victory over life, “On Christ the solid rock I stand, All other ground is sinking sand,” or ransomed from the devil they sing “Praise my soul the King of Heaven; to his feet thy tribute bring; ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven …” as they daily lecture to their students preparing for the ministry.
But none of them was there, except Barabbas, the prisoner who was freed; the murderer whose chains were unshackled, the bandit given another chance, the condemned man who was given back life because Jesus stood “in his stead.”
A medieval saint perhaps best of all records what Barabbas might have felt:
“What thou, O Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners gain,
Mine, mine the transgression, but thine the deadly pain;
Lo! here I fall, my Saviour, ‘Tis I deserve thy place;
Look on me with thy favour, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.”
As to no one else, the grace of forgiveness was offered if Barabbas had only realized what was taking place before his eyes.
“Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” spoken to the multitude, nevertheless had for Barabbas a unique significance.
Of all the people involved in the death of Jesus each one could perhaps justify himself before the Law. The high priests were simply carrying out the law upon anyone who would blasphemously claim to be Messiah. Pilate — the foreign pagan judge — had to keep the peace: so this man must die. The disciples were hardly expected to understand the terror of these events. If they fled, they would hope to return. The mob is the same that walks across crucifixion and burnings and hangings in every age: a kind of perverted entertainment, where one might even knit, counting the stitches as each French head falls before the guillotine.
But Barabbas had no argument in his favor. He could not have cared less. His business was to keep alive. Yet, even to him, was this grace given.
Unfair? Of course it is. Bonhoeffer talks of “cheap grace” wherein we take lightly and for granted the death of Jesus. And the dying Heine, asked if he has any sins to confess, declared “It is God’s business to forgive.”
Blasphemous? Of course! Nevertheless, true. God pity us if we are to be counted worthy of His grace, for none of us is worthy. No indulgence is precious enough to pay for this Event.
And Barabbas? If only he had known!
“What language shall I borrow, to thank thee dearest friend?
For this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end.
O make me thine forever and I should fainting be
Lord! let me never, never, outlive my love to Thee.”
There is a revealing footnote. According to the Gospel of Matthew 27:17 “When they were assembled, Pilate said to them which would you like me to release to you — Barabbas or Jesus called the Christ?” But in the great manuscripts — Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Bezae, et al — the question appears as: “Whom do you want me to release for you? Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?”
Adoring scribes of ancient days perhaps can be forgiven for not daring to suggest that Barabbas, the bandit, the murderer, had the same name ‘Jesus.’ They put their pens through ‘Jesus,’ that name which is above every other name, and left only Barabbas. Yet it seems he was called “Jesus Barabbas” — Jesus, a common name of those days akin to Joshua.
What an extraordinary coincidence! This son of a Rabbi is now named with the Savior of the world, though there is no reason to believe that it ever meant anything to this hero of the Jewish resistance.
Yet for us it does. Our name is declared in baptism. Luther in dark moments clung to this, “Remember,” he would mutter, “you have been baptized.”
And the blessed in the heavenly places have the name of Jesus “written on their foreheads.” As indeed every follower is so known. We are “Jesus” people! Whatever Barabbas thought, the people would in years to come remind him what his name stood for. And if Barabbas indeed had known he too might have echoed the words of Paul Gerhardt:
“These eyes, new faith receiving, from thee shall never move.
For he who dies believing, dies safely through thy love.”

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