In the mockery of a trial that Jesus endured before Pontius Pilate, there came a critical moment, one dripping with irony: the crowd chose for release a fake messianic figure and “son of the father” (the literal translation of the name Barabbas) to the actual messiah and true Son of the Father, Christ Jesus, the Lord.
The version we heard on Palm Sunday was from the Gospel of Luke and it records the foolish cries of a crowd that has been misled by a kind of devilish bait and switch. Pilate has just offered to release Jesus our Lord:
But all together [the crowd] shouted out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.”—Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that had taken place in the city and for murder. — Again Pilate addressed them, still wishing to release Jesus, but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” … So he released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder, for whom they asked, and he handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished.
As noted, “Barabbas” is a surname name that literally means “son of the father.” Some of the ancient manuscripts supply Barabbas’ first name as “Jesus.” The devilish irony and bait and switch doesn’t get much richer or darker. Two men, both named Jesus, stand before the multitude:
- One is named Jesus Barabbas, “Jesus, son of the father.”
- The other is Christ Jesus, true and eternal Son of the Father.
Both also have messianic credentials:
- One is “Jesus Barabbas,” who represents the lies and misconceptions of a fake messiah offering a merely worldly liberation. This worldly messiah would rescue Israel from the Romans by riding in on a war-horse and, after a bloody battle, lead Israel to victory. This fake messiah is represented here by Jesus Barabbas and others like him, who seek redemption in worldly terms and will use worldly, political, and military means to attain their goals. The Lucan text above describes Barabbas as an insurrectionist and murderer. He was likely involved in an uprising (common at the time) against the Romans by those claiming to be the promised Messiah.
- The other is Jesus, the Son of the Eternal Father, the true Messiah who has come to save us from our sins and from Satan. The blood Jesus will shed is not that of His enemies, but His own. The victory He will provide is not a victory over some passing worldly power, but over the ancient and perduring enemy, Satan, and the sin he inspires. Jesus applies His status as Messiah not to political and economic salvation, but to the spiritual salvation written of in the Suffering Servant Songs of Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1–9, Isaiah 49:1–13, Isaiah 50:4–11, and Isaiah 52:13—53:12).
Here, then, is the choice that is ever before us: a fake, contrived, worldly messiah or the true, promised, heavenly Messiah. Satan is the master deceiver and father of lies. It is no accident that he names his bait-and-switch messiah both “Jesus” and “Barabbas.”
The crowd then called for the release of Barabbas and insisted that Jesus, the true Christ, be crucified: Away with him! Crucify him!
It is as true now as it has been down through the ages. Satan, the father of lies, continues to craft false messiahs bearing false promises. Of course their promises are not usually outright lies, because those don’t sell as easily and Satan knows it. Instead, these false messiahs spout half-truths or promises of temporary relief (in the place of lasting healing); they promise quick fixes rather than deeper and lasting repentance.
Political liberation and economic prosperity have their place. But a sinful nation cannot ultimately prevail. Indeed, prosperity and power only further corrupt a sinful person or nation. Only a trusting, humble walk with God along with the resulting virtue and the mastering of sinful drives can bring lasting peace.
Still, the temptation to fall for false messiahs and utopian schemes continues. And so do the cries of many in the crowd, “Give us Barabbas,” or “Give us science,” or “Give us new policies,” or “Give us education.” Give us anything but Jesus; He has to go.
Again, science, philosophy, education, politics, culture, etc. have their place. They can bring us a temporary relief, chip away at injustice, cure certain diseases, or provide minor diversions; but they cannot save us.
- Science, can’t you save me? No, I can’t save you. I can tell you how far it is from the Earth to the sun. I can tell you how to fly rocket ships into outer space. I can tell you the secrets of the atom. But I can’t tell you how to climb to Heaven, or why you were made, or why anything exists at all. I can tell you some of the “what,” but nothing of the “why.” But I can’t save you.
- Philosophy, can’t you save me? No, I can’t save you. I can tell you more and more about less and less until you know everything about very little. I can tell you about the greatest thoughts and opinions of the greatest thinkers. But I can’t save you.
- Education, can’t you save me? No, I can’t save you. I can make you smart. But I can’t make you wise. And I can’t save you.
- Culture, can’t you save me? No, I can’t save you. I can make the world a more beautiful and entertaining place from which to go to Hell. But I can’t save you.
- Economics, can’t you save me? No, I can’t save you. I can make you richer, but not rich in what matters to God. I can’t make you rich enough to buy your salvation. I can’t save you.
- Politics, can’t you save me? No, I can’t save you. I can give you power and access to worldly power. I can make you fear the other political party. I can promise you utopia, but I can’t deliver it. I can’t save you.
- Entertainment, can’t you save me? No, I can’t save you. I can supply you with temporary diversions and even mesmerize you for a moment. But I deal in fantasy and dreams, not reality. I can’t supply you with the happy endings I describe. I can’t save you.
Yes, Satan still trots out many a “Barabbas,” and many of us still fall for the old bait and switch. Maybe it’s because it’s an easy solution, a quick fix, the promise of a cheap thrill with few consequences. But it is all a bunch of lies, or even worse, half-truths. It is anything but true repentance, self-discipline, or a humble walk with God. Away with Jesus. We want Barabbas.
Do you think these biblical stories are locked in the past? Think again. Satan never stops. But even more sadly, our collective cry still goes up all too frequently: “Give us Barabbas … Crucify Jesus!”