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Jesus or Barabbas? And Your Verdict is?

Notes & Transcripts

ἐκραύγασαν οὖν πάλιν λέγοντες· μὴ τοῦτον ἀλλὰ τὸν Βαραββᾶν. ἦν δὲ Βαραββᾶς λῃστής.

"And they again cried out: 'Not this man, but Barabbas'. Now Barabbas was an insurrectionist.."

John does not directly bring out Pilate’s offer to the Jewish people between Jesus and Barabbas. Perhaps to him there was only one choice to make. John is not in the habit of giving details unless it was necessary to make his case. But from the other gospels we know about this ploy on the part of Pilate to evade making a decision about Jesus. But a decision would be forced this very day by him, the Jewish leaders, and the Jewish people. There is really no option. Everyone must choose between Jesus and Barabbas.

There is a fascinating play on words between the names of the two main characters. The last name “Barabbas” is Aramaic “son of the father”. This is a title which would fit Jesus well, especially in the Gospel of John. And if the reading of Matthew 27:19 is correct ([Ἰησοῦν τὸν] Βαραββᾶν {C} in the NA27, then Barabbas’ first name was also “Jesus” or “Joshua”. So here we have to make a choice between two men called “Jesus, Son of the Father.”

John describes Barabbas as a thief (λῃστής). The word in Greek ranges in meaning from “robber” to “revolutionary” Luke in LK 23:19 seems to support the idea of revolutionary (διὰ στάσιν τινὰ γενομένην ἐν τῇ πόλει καὶ φόνον, “because of a certain uprising in the city, and murder.”). This would tend to give us the idea that this Barabbas was a Messiah figure whose crime was trying to overthrow Roman authority.

Another key to the puzzle occurs in the Feeding of the Five Thousand in John 6. In verse fifteen (ὅτι μέλλουσιν ἔρχεσθαι καὶ ἁρπάζειν αὐτὸν ἵνα ποιήσωσιν βασιλέα, “and because they were about to come and seize Him for the purpose of making Him king.” In other words, they were trying to make Jesus do what Barabbas had attempted.

So it now becomes clear that everyone has to make a choice between two Messiah figures. The Jesus they chose was the one that fulfilled their expectations of a king, a revolutionary, a proponent of “Liberation Theology”. To this Jesus and his followers, the end justified the means, if people had to be killed in the process, too bad. These people must have felt that God needed a little help to restore Israel to its former glory. They probably would have applauded JFK’s inauguration speech in 1961 where he said “Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own”, if taken in the sense that we determine what God’s work is and then set the agenda for doing it. And as long as their king brings success, then they will follow. Barabbas was given another chance at life, but he disappears completely from history. It’s too bad that there are all too many false Messiah’s who have been willing to take his place. His fate of anonymity awaits the rest who follow him. Think of all the figures of the past whose memory has fallen into woeful neglect. Their ten minutes of fame have left them behind. They have been reduced to the wrong answer on a true/false history quiz. And in the ultimate end of things, all their works shall be burned and forgotten.

Of course the world is still making their Barabbas’s, whether they be Superman or Santa Claus. But we must all too painfully notice that this choosing of Barabbas over Jesus was not by the Heathen, but by God’s own people. These were the people God called out of Egypt to be His special people. And to this point they still were. But in a few minutes they would lose this status to this very day when they chose Caesar over Christ to be their king. They had been set apart (Sanctified) for God’s purpose. Now all was lost because they wanted to be able to dictate to God how He should deliver them. He had come into the world He made, but His own people had rejected Him for the christ made with human hands, or perhaps should I say, an antichrist.

Even Moses, the great servant of God fell into the mistake of being a Barabbas. We can all remember the incident with the Egyptian in which Moses in his anger slew because of the mistreatment of one of his brethren. But this was neither God’s way nor God’s time to set His people free. It would take 40 years on the backside of the desert before God was ready to talk to Moses. God had something much bigger in mind. And the great Abraham before him played the Barabbas in the Ishmael project. And Saul was rejected from being king because he thought he had a better plan for the Amelekite prisoners than God. And Uzziah got leprosy because he though he could go into the Temple and offer incense contrary to God’s word. And Saul of Tarsus was thinking he was doing God a favor when he first persecuted the Christians.

I would like to think that the church age has avoided Barabbas making. But Christian history has been very disappointing. The Crusades and the abuse of power by the church of the Middle Ages are just a couple of examples. At times, the church as a whole has put an alternate way of salvation. There can be Barabbas’s made from theological systems, especially if the main presuppositions are based on human reason and philosophy. It isn’t that all of this came from evil minds. Some of these creations came from good intentions. But good intentions do not always lead to good results.

Barabbas’s are created every time people put their truth above the truth of God, whether this be human reason, science, feelings, works, or sense of righteousness. These things come out from a heart which lacks the patient faith to wait on God. Then there is the temptation of dictating terms to God, namely the conditions under which we will worship Him. And if there is a conflict between God’s will revealed in Scripture and human ideas, there is the tendency to put more trust in the creations of men and to change God to fit these ideas. All one had to do if Scripture comes into conflict with their will is to say something like: “Paul said it, not Jesus” or that some unknown redactor has wrongfully placed these words on the lips of Jesus.

In today’s church, we are struggling with the idea of “relevancy”. It has become the buzzword for “doing church” today. The world tells us we have to change or become irrelevant. And there is a great deal of energy being expended to make the church and her Lord relevant. The Jesus of Scripture has an image problem, and we need to fix it. Jesus is far too demanding for the world. There is too much talk about sacrifice and blood and obedience for the world to take. They will not choose Jesus on His own terms, so we need to change Jesus to make Him acceptable to the world so they might accept Him.

But to tell you the truth, it is we who have the image problem. The final determination of relevancy does not come from the world, but God Himself. The final judgment of all matters is before the throne of God. There we will hear either of two verdicts. The first of these is “Well done, good and faithful servant…Enter into the joy of the Lord.” But the other is “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Now if this isn’t being called irrelevant, what is? These shot back and told Jesus about their good works. But where did that get them? The world claims that Christians are too heavenly minded to be any earthly good. But there are far too many more who are too earthly minded to be any heavenly good. So we see that for the Christian, it is God who determines what is relevant.

The church today needs to put away its Barrabbian attempt to recreate God in the image of man and rather to be concerned with being recreated in the image of God. It is true that the Incarnation was a most powerful demonstration of the love and power of God. John 1:14 says that the Word became flesh and came into the world to live with us. But this adaptation to human flesh was centered in God’s will for the purpose of redeeming man. It is as Athanasius puts it: “God became man that man might become God”,8 although I would prefer the word “become like God”. But this statement expresses it well. Our affection need to be centered in the life of God. We need to be transformed into His image and stop trying to change God.

The choice for the true Messiah is a difficult one to make. It requires complete faith that God is, Who He says He is, that He loves us in spite of the evil we have done, that He sent Jesus to be the propitiation for our sin, and that He will do what He says He will do. It is even harder in the face of mob psychology. It would have taken a great deal of faith that day to have said “Give us Jesus” instead of “Give us Barabbas. This is because the affection of the world has such a powerful appeal. There is a great deal of psychological pressure to belong to the “in” crowd. I would say that many of those shouting that day had no idea what the fuss was all about. Some of those who came from all over the world might have heard of Jesus afterward. The leaders knew Him, and many who lived in Palestine. But for others, the expense of the journey was so great that this was a lifetime pilgrimage. Yet they added their voices for Barabbas. Did they even know who Barabbas was?

I can remember being in the eighth grade being on the school bus waiting to be unloaded. Normally the buses did not unload until 8 AM, so we waited on the bus to the time to unload. But this day, the other children from the other busses were out on the street yelling “La Fayette is leaving”. Now La Fayette was the parent company to Radio Shack and had a factory which employed many in the area. So I got off the bus with the other students and started to shout “La Fayette is leaving!” in solidarity with my classmates/

Later on in homeroom, the principal congratulated us for participating in the first Earth Day celebration. Apparently what was said was: “Love the Earth or leave it!” I felt pretty dumb.

The message of the church must be distinct, then, from the world or else it will not understand it properly. If we Barabbasize our presentation too much to present Jesus, they will think we are talking about Barabbas rather than Jesus. They will understand the message as a “social gospel”, a “health and wealth gospel”, a “liberation gospel”, a “self-help gospel”, a psychological healing gospel”, a “weight loss gospel” or whatever the “gospel de jour” happens to be. Perhaps the church itself does not know the difference between Jesus and Barabbas. It goes out shouting a message, but it is the wrong message. It’s the gospel of Barabbas.

Choosing the right Jesus involves understanding what He said and did. The message is written in and grounded in the Scripture. The person who makes the choice for Jesus understands the costs. We must deny ourselves, take up the cross and follow Him. Jesus never sugar coated the gospel. He said to sit down and count the costs first. The church who is responsible for the continuance of the mission dare not do other than what the Lord commanded. It needs to clearly communicate the “full gospel” and the costs of following Jesus. The vast majority may reject this and choose Barabbas anyway, but at least they know that they have chosen the Antichrist way of salvation and not mistakenly believe they have chosen Jesus when in reality they have chosen Barabbas.

The believer is called to Sanctification. This is more than what has just been ascribed to “holy living”. It is more than what you do or don’t do. It is an affection of the heart for God. It is being called out to be distinct from the world, but yet in the world. It isn’t contrary for contrary’s sake like the Flower Children. In fact if it were this, it would be right in touch with today’s idea of radical self-expression, tattoos, piercing, and the like. It is easy to make a Barabbas out of works and just being “non-establishment”. The believer out of and in response to the love of God is led into the world to be a witness. He or she feeds the hungry not for reward or the applause of humankind but because he or she is following the example of the Lord. He/she isn’t trying to inflame the world. They just want to follow Jesus and be like Him. And their reward in this world is mockery and contempt. If they had done these good works as a philanthropist, they would have been applauded, but because they are done in the name of Jesus, they are called misanthropists.

The marks of the true believers are that they just don’t fit into the scheme of this world. This is because their affection is not for the things of this world. They are instead looking for the city which is not made by human hands, but is made by God himself. They are like father Abraham.

Rev. Mark A. Barber

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