The Substitute Son

Jesus stood on trial before the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate. Having examined the evidence, Pilate had found no reason to condemn Jesus. And yet the cries of the crowd were demanding. So Pilate invoked an annual custom in an attempt to get Jesus off the hook.

‘Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him […] The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”’ (Matthew 27:15-18, 20-23)

This sad moment is riddled with irony. What was intended as an appeal to common sense – the contrast of an innocent man with a patently guilty one – only served to highlight the immorality of the process and the crowd’s thirst for blood.

Crucifixion was a barbaric form of execution. It was so violent and brutal that it was considered improper to talk about it in polite company, and it was reserved for the vilest offenders in society; particularly for revolutionaries who dared stand up against the power of Rome. This was the crime of Barabbas. John 18:40 tells us that he had taken part in an uprising, and people knew it. He was guilty and in the eyes of Rome he deserved punishment.

But when the question was put to the crowd – should we release innocent Jesus or guilty Barabbas? – they made the wrong choice and condemned an innocent man to death.

Put yourself in the shoes of Barabbas. Imagine what it must have felt like to be guilty and to know it; to be expecting punishment and to be let off. Imagine the relief he must have felt as the crowd cried his name and Pilate set him free.

Now imagine the sense of confusion and wonder he must have felt as he looked at the man standing beside him. Barabbas knew revolutionaries, and it must have been clear that Jesus was not one! So how could it be that this innocent man would die in the place of a guilty one?

There is a deep irony about this scenario, in the form of a powerful and shocking wordplay. Matthew tells us that both parties on trial shared a name: Jesus the Messiah and Jesus Barabbas. The name Barabbas means “Son of the Father” (Bar = Son of. Abba = Father). So given a choice between two Jesuses, the crowd made the wrong decision, sending the true “Son of the Father” to the cross.

We don’t know what happened to Barabbas. We don’t know what he made of his freedom; whether he reformed or went back to his previous lifestyle. We can only speculate on how he felt about this experience. But his pardoning, and Jesus’ death on his behalf, is a powerful picture of what the Bible says is true of all of us.

Isaiah 53 says of Jesus, ‘Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isaiah 53:4-6) 

The scandal of Barabbas’ acquittal is actually the scandal of Easter as a whole. The innocent Christ gets punished and guilty people get set free. The true Son is sacrificed so that we might become Sons of God.

Questions for Reflection

  • How does the story of Barabbas speak to you? Do you remember a time when you became aware of your need for a Saviour and how has Jesus fulfilled that need in your life?
  • Jesus the Son of the Father died to make us sons and daughters of the Father. How does the knowledge that you are an adopted child of God affect the way you think of your relationship with Him on a daily basis?


Why not use the following to help you to pray today:

Lord Jesus, Son of the Father, thank you that you gave yourself to die in my place. Thank you that Barabbas’ experience of acquittal, whilst an innocent substitute died on his behalf, is a powerful picture of what you have done for each one of us. I pray that you would keep me full of gratitude for your death in my place to reconcile me to God, and I ask that you would help me to enjoy the full benefits of being called a child of God. Amen

Going Deeper

If you find yourself with some extra time today, why not read Isaiah 52:13-53:12 and reflect on its relationship to the message of Easter.

For more on how the cross makes us Children of God, check out this talk on Adoption by Liam Thatcher.

This post was originally written for ChristChurch London in 2014.

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