Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated reading time: 7 min., 44 sec.
Did you know that many people of first-century Jerusalem demanded the release of an insurrectionist against the Roman Empire named Barabbas in exchange for the Son of God?
The Four Gospels describe Pilate’s attempt to set Jesus free from the charges brought against Him by the hysterical populace through a customary Passover release of one prisoner. Pilate offered the people the choice of Jesus or Barabbas. Without hesitation, the people chose Barabbas over Jesus. Only days before they had welcomed Jesus riding into Jerusalem with Hosanna (“save, we pray”) (John 12:12-16). This Digging Deeper explores this troubling account to illustrate an important spiritual lesson for Christians.
All four Gospel writers record this incident: Matthew 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:17-25; John 18:39-40. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia notes that “Matthew calls him ‘a notable (i.e. notorious) prisoner’ (Matthew 27:16). Mark says that he was ‘bound with them that had made insurrection, men who in the insurrection had committed murder’ (Mark 15:7). Luke states that he was cast into prison ‘for a certain insurrection made in the city, and for murder’ (Luke 23:19; compare Acts 3:14). John calls him a ‘robber’ or ‘brigand’” (John 18:40) (e-Sword 13.0).
Who was Barabbas?
John Lightfoot in his Commentary on the Gospels records that Barabbas was a common name in the Jewish Talmud (Bible Analyzer 18.104.22.168). The Zondervan Encyclopedia of the Bible, edited by Merrill C. Tenney, adds further: “The name Barabbas may simply be a conventional proper name. It is found as the surname of several rabbis” (Zondervan Publishing Company, 1976, p. 472).
The Preacher’s Complete Homiletical Commentary, edited by Joseph S. Exell, proposes a derivation of this criminal’s name: “Barabbas.—’Son of Abba,’ i.e. Son of Father (so-and-so). The name would originally be given to one who was the son of some Rabbi who had been known in his locality as Father (so-and-so). Not unlikely Barabbas would thus be a person of respectable parentage, though for long he had gravitated toward the lowest stratum of society (Morison)” (e-Sword 13.0). The respectful title “father” was sometimes applied to mentors and teachers (2 Kings 2:12; 5:13; 6:21; 13:14).
Barabbas’ description as “notable” in Matthew 27:16 means he was distinguished in either great virtues or great crimes; in his case, he was infamous. Daniel Whedon in his Commentary on the Old and New Testaments paints this picture: “As a fierce and brave Jewish patriot, he had become notable or famous among the populace. He was, perhaps, like Robin Hood among the old English, hateful to the government but popular with the masses” (e-Sword 13.0).
No ordinary villian
The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 8, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein provides the Greek word used in our Gospels to describe Barabbas as: “…no ordinary villain but a lestes (cf. Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19; John 18:40). Although lestes can refer to a robber (as perhaps in John 10:1), it more probably refers to insurrectionists (cf. 26:55; John 18:40); and Josephus constantly uses it of the Zealots. Neither theft nor violent robbery was a capital offense, but insurrection was. Revolts and bloodshed fostered by guerrilla action were common (cf. Jos. Antiq. XVIII, 3-10 [i. 1], 60-62 [iii. 2]; Luke 13:1), and Barabbas had been caught. In the eyes of many of the people he would not be a ‘notorious’ villain but a hero” (Zondervan, 1984, p. 568-569).
Barabbas may have been a Zealot, as described by The Expositor’s Dictionary of Texts, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll and Jane T. Stoddart: “There was a fierce and defiant Home Rule party in Judea whose unresting aim was to drive the Roman garrison from the Holy Land. Their chosen name was that of Zealots, because of their unquenchable zeal for the restoration of the Jewish Dominion. Out of their ranks came one of Christ’s disciples, Simon Zelotes, whom Jesus taught a wider truth and, a better way than his fiery heart had at first conceived” (Bible Analyzer 22.214.171.124).
The Expository Notes of Dr. [Thomas L.] Constable describes Barabbas: “He was a famous prisoner but not necessarily one that the Jews regarded as an undesirable character. On the contrary, he had evidently been leading an insurrection against the Roman government as a freedom fighter (cf. Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19; John 18:40). His guerrilla actions were fairly common then. [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of . . ., 18:1:1.] Many of the Jews would have viewed Barabbas as a hero rather than as a villain. He was more of a messianic figure, in the minds of most Jews, than Jesus was” (e-Sword 13.0).
Political rebel for the Son of God
The Fourfold Gospel by J. W. McGarvey and Philip Y. Pendleton provides a possible historical background to this insurrection: “Josephus tells us that there had been an insurrection against Pilate’s government about that time caused by his taking money from the temple treasury for the construction of an aqueduct (The Antiquities of the Jews, 18.3.2). This may have been the affair here referred to, for in it many lost their lives” (BP Bible 0.5.3.1).
Insurrection was a serious crime against the state. The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J.D. Douglas notes that Barabbas was: “A bandit (John 18:40), arrested for homicidal political terrorism (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:18+)” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965, p. 132). Barabbas was such an insurrectionist, yet Jesus was falsely accused of this crime by the Jews (Luke 23:2). Pilate later realized that Jesus was innocent (Luke 23:22) and that for envy the Jews had accused Him (Matthew 27:18). The chief priests and elders had persuaded the Jerusalem crowd to demand Barabbas’ release and Jesus’ death (Matthew 27:20).
When the overexcited Jews demanded Barabbas’ freedom instead of Jesus’ they preferred the political rebel and nationalist hero over the Son of God. Fausset’s Bible Dictionary explains that Barabbas (son of the father) was a ” … contrast to the true Son of the Father! The Jews asked the murderous taker of life to be given as a favor to them (it being customary to release one prisoner at the passover), and killed the Prince of life (Acts 3:14-15)” (e-Sword 13.0)!
The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J.D. Douglas offers an intriguing spiritual note to this story: “The priests, possibly taking up an initial demand from his [Barabbas’] supporters (cf. Mark 15:8), engineered a movement for his release to counter Pilate’s intended offer of that of Jesus (Matthew 27:20; Mark 15:11) – and Barabbas became an exemplification of the effects of substitutionary atonement” (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1965, p. 132). The College Press Explanatory Notes by Rhoderick D. Ice explains further: “Some have made him a ‘symbol’ of the guilty human race which is set free from punishment by the substitution of the innocent Christ” (e-Sword 13.0).
Barabbas: A type for mankind
This takes our brief study to a deeper level. Barabbas committed treason against the Roman Empire and Pilate the governor. Each of us, in his or her way, has committed high treason against the Governor of the universe by our sins (Romans 3:23). Accordingly, we brought the death penalty down upon our heads (Romans 6:23). We are helpless and hopeless in ourselves to find deliverance from this undesirable fate.
In His love for humankind, God sent His only begotten Son to earth. As part of His preaching, Jesus announced His coming substitutionary death during His earthly ministry (John 12:32). He suffered vicariously for all humanity. His disciples did not understand what He meant. Only after His death, as the apostles and early Church of God began to digest this tragic account did they realize the full spiritual significance of His death (John 12:16). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead confirmed God’s redemptive plan to forgive humanity and instead offer them life – even life forevermore (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Jesus died in our place, as surely as He died in Barabbas’ place (Romans 5:7-8; Galatians 6:14). Each of us deserves the death penalty. Jesus became our substitutionary atonement to release us from our sins and enable us to be reconciled to God with the hopeful prospect of eternal life. In this way, Barabbas was a type of every sinner who has been redeemed by God’s Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
We do not know what happened to Barabbas after Jesus was exchanged for him. Nonetheless, Barabbas serves as a type of every sin-laden human who deserves death but through repentance and confession of sin has been released, rescued, and redeemed by the Savior of the world instead.
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.