I suppose you all know the true story of how Jesus was crucified, at least the basic facts about that event. But do you remember another man mentioned in the Gospels who was also there? A man who was supposed to be crucified for his crimes on that day, but who was saved from death at the last moment? His name was Barabbas.
6 Now at the [Passover] feast he [Pontius Pilate] used to release for them [the Jewish people] one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection [violent uprising against the government], there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” [i.e., Jesus] 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified (Mark 15.6-15 ESV).
On the day Jesus was crucified, it happened to be an annual custom that the Roman governor of Judea would release a Jewish prisoner to the Jews as a political favor to them. Pilate had legally examined Jesus and found no fault in Him. Pilate also knew that the Jewish religious leaders were jealous of all the acclaim Jesus was receiving from the people, and so their conspiracy to kill him was unjust. Pilate wanted to release Jesus if it was not too politically costly.
You see, there was political pressure on Pilate to crucify Jesus as the chief priests wanted. They could make things difficult for Pilate if he displeased them. This is where Pilate saw an opportunity. The Jewish crowd had a better opinion of Jesus than the chief priests, and Pilate knew it. He could make the appeal to the crowd that Jesus, their religious celebrity who had become known as “the King of the Jews,” should be released. Then he could blame the crowd for choosing to set Jesus free.
A notorious prisoner was in custody on death row. His name was Barabbas, and nobody loved him. He was a violent man, a public menace, and very despicable. Since the Jewish leaders had all their rage focused on Jesus that day, they didn’t care who else was set free. We read in this Bible passage that they persuaded the crowd to seek mercy for Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate knew this was totally unjust, so he protested right in front of them. “What crime has Jesus committed?” But the crowd had been whipped into a frenzy by Jesus’ enemies, and all they said in response was, “Crucify him, crucify him.” And true to the disappointing pattern of most politicians, Pilate yielded to the public pressure instead of standing on principle and doing the right thing. He let Barabbas go and turned over Jesus to be crucified.
Now, one or the other of these two men could have been set free, either Jesus or Barabbas but not both. Jesus was the innocent one and did not deserve to be crucified. Barabbas was the guilty one and very much did deserve crucifixion. When Jesus died in Barabbas’ place, that meant that Barabbas was allowed to live. With respect to Barabbas, Jesus death was substitutionary, one instead of the other.
My friends, this is a great historic illustration of the spiritual significance of the death of Jesus Christ for His people. Everyone who will ever be forgiven their sins and go to heaven has already been chosen from eternity by God. He always knew whom He would save and whom He would let perish in hell. And for the elect, God sent Jesus, His only begotten Son, to die in their place, even though they deserved to die just as much as any other sinners. By dying in their place, Jesus forever delivered His chosen people from the punishment of their sins. Because Jesus died to save them, He also grants them the gift of saving faith to believe in Him by the grace of God.
I don’t expect you to believe this just because I say it. God’s Holy Word in the Bible teaches it. For example, it says, “Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit” (1 Pet 3.18). “The just for the unjust” means the righteous One, Jesus, instead of the unrighteous ones—all the sinners who would ever become real Christians by faith in Christ.
Probably some of you are not Christians. You might not feel guilty for your sins or worry about the afterlife, but you should. Some of you might feel very guilty and worried. Well, I have good news for you. Jesus Christ died on the cross two thousand years ago on a hill just outside Jerusalem. It is the most significant event that has ever happened in human history, because it was the fulfillment of God’s plan to save His chosen people from eternal ruin. Christ’s death that day effectively delivered millions and millions of sinners, people morally like Barabbas—rebellious, guilty, and detestable in God’s sight. God loved them so much that He delivered up His only begotten Son to the cross with all its pain, suffering, horrors, and death, so that whoever believes on Christ should not perish, but have everlasting life.
I know you’ve probably heard all your life that Jesus died for everyone in the whole world without exception. Well, that’s just not true. He died as a substitutionary sacrifice to pay for the sins of certain people chosen by God, so that they definitely would be saved at last. How can you know if you are one of them? If you will believe on Christ, trusting Him alone to save you, then you can know. If you realize you are a horrible sinner like Barabbas, and if you will trust in Christ to be your Savior, the One who died in your place for your salvation, then you can be happy with all other Christians that God loves you and will take you to heaven someday. I urge you to believe in Jesus even today, while you have the opportunity. This Barabbas already has, and I’d like to see many more rescued from doom by my Savior Jesus. Amen.–D. Scott Meadows, Pastor Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed) Exeter, New Hampshire http://cbcexeter.sermonaudio.com .