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The Day Jesus Died "for" Jesus

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We are told in Mark 15:11 that “the chief priests of Israel stirred up the crowd” to have Pontius Pilate release a man named Barabbas instead of Jesus. When Pilate in turn asked them what he should do with Jesus, they cried out repeatedly, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” So Pilate, “wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15). Continue reading . . . 

We are told in Mark 15:11 that “the chief priests of Israel stirred up the crowd” to have Pontius Pilate release a man named Barabbas instead of Jesus. When Pilate in turn asked them what he should do with Jesus, they cried out repeatedly, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” So Pilate, “wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).

Who was Barabbas? The name “Bar Abba” means “son of Abba,” i.e., “son of the father.” It was a common name in rabbinic families and some have suggested that he might have been the son of a famous rabbi. There are actually a few Greek manuscripts that preserve his name as “Jesus Barabbas.” Matthew actually refers to our Lord as “Jesus, the one called Christ,” perhaps to differentiate him from “Jesus, the one called Barabbas.”

Matthew also calls him a “notorious prisoner” (27:16), indicating that he was no ordinary crook. Mark tells us in 15:7 that Barabbas had “committed murder in the insurrection.” In other words, Barabbas was involved in the Jewish efforts to throw off Roman rule and was likely viewed as something of a political hero, a “Robin Hood” of sorts. Some even suggest that the two men who were crucified on either side of Jesus were involved with him in the insurrection, especially since the same word is used to describe them as is used of Barabbas.

The fact that three crosses had been prepared suggests that Pilate had already ordered the execution of Barabbas and his two cohorts. If so, then Jesus the Christ quite literally and physically dies in the place of Jesus Barabbas.

Said Pilate: “Which ‘Jesus’ do you want: the one called the Christ or Barabbas?”

The religious leaders were no doubt mingling all through the crowd, stirring up the people, poisoning their minds and perhaps threatening their lives: “Ask for Jesus Barabbas, not Jesus of Nazareth.”

Pilate’s response to the demands of the crowd was three-fold.

First, he released Barabbas (Mark 15:15a).

We have no way of knowing what happened to Barabbas. Some have speculated that out of curiosity he followed Jesus to the cross and watched him die. Some think he may have come to saving faith in the one who quite literally died in his place. We don’t know.

In any case, it is fascinating to envision how he reacted when he got the news. Sitting in his cell, perhaps doodling in the dirt or contemplating his impending execution, someone burst in and shouted: “Barabbas! You are free to go! Jesus, who is called the Christ, is to be crucified in your place!”

For Barabbas it was only a means by which he was delivered from physical death. For those who know Jesus as Lord and Savior, it means far more, as the message comes to us: “Susan! John! Kyle! Kristie! You are eternally free to go! Jesus, who is called the Christ, has been crucified in your place!”

Second, he had Jesus “scourged” (Mark 15:15b).

Think about everything that has led up to this moment: the agony of Gethsemane, the arrest by military representatives of the Sanhedrin, his mock trial, his savage beating and humiliation at the hands of his enemies, up all night, dragged from religious trial to civil trial back to religious trial and yet again to a civil one.

One hesitates to describe a Roman scourging. What was previously somewhat obscure to people living in the 21st century was made graphically and vividly known as a result of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion. When the film was released one of the loudest and most oft-heard criticisms was that something so gruesome and so sadistic had no place in a Christian film. The victim was stripped virtually naked and tied to a post or pillar. He was then beaten and flogged by the Roman guard until his flesh hung in bleeding shreds. The instrument was the notorious flagellum, a whip of leather thongs plaited with sharp pieces of bone and lead. Unlike the Jews, who limited the number of blows to 39, there was no maximum prescribed by Roman law. It wasn’t unusual for a man’s internal organs and bones to be exposed.

Some have tried to exonerate Pilate and suggest that his having Jesus scourged was an act of mercy. Perhaps Pilate hoped the Jews would take note of the severity of the punishment and consider it sufficient and let Jesus live. Or maybe Pilate hoped that Jesus would die from the scourging and be spared the agony and horror of death on a cross. But this is giving Pilate too much credit. His decision was likely the expression of his own cruelty and indifference toward Jesus.

Third, “he delivered him to be crucified” (Mark 15:15c).

Think about what might have happened if Barabbas had been approached following the death of Jesus and asked: “What just happened?”

“Well,” said Barabbas, “Pilate gave the people a choice. And they decided that I should be set free and that Jesus should be crucified in my place.” In my place. In one sense, that is quite literally true. Because Jesus was crucified “instead of” Barabbas, the latter continued to live physically. But the glory of the gospel is that Jesus died “in my place” in yet another, more eternally significant sense. He suffered as my substitute, not so that I might walk away a politically free man as was Barabbas. He died “in my place and as my substitute” so that the wrath I deserved, the judgment that I justifiably should have endured, fell on him, was absorbed and exhausted in him and by him, and not in and by me.

Let us never forget that the sense in which “Jesus” (the Christ) died for “Jesus” (the one called Barabbas) is not the same sense in which Jesus died for me and for you. But then again, who knows? Perhaps when we finally arrive in the new heavens and new earth we will discover that Barabbas is there, the one among many for whom Jesus died not just as a political stand-in but as personal substitute, Lord and Savior, whose death satisfied the wrath of God the Father and set us eternally (and not just temporarily and politically) free.

2 Comments

Barabbas reminds me of Bar-Jesus who encountered Paul and Barnabas (another similar name) in Acts 13 and Paul's first rebuke to him was to call him 'child of the devil' as opposed to 'child of Jesus' which his names translates to.

Thank you for the reminder of what Jesus has done for us all.

I've heard you on Janet Parshall's In the Market. Today's blog was enlightening, and I will continue to read your blogs. Thank you for taking the time to break down these texts for those of us who want to learn more.

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