Exchanging Jesus for Barabbas
“After [Pilate] had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, ‘I find no guilt in him. But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ They cried out again, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas!’ Now Barabbas was a robber.”- John 18:38b–40
Much could be said about Pontius Pilate, but no one could ever rightly accuse him of being a man of integrity. We have already seen in John’s account of the trial of Jesus that Pilate cared very little for the truth (John 18:38a). He simply wanted the Jewish authorities to take their religious squabbles elsewhere.
Before finally passing sentence on Jesus, Pilate left his headquarters, where he was interrogating our Savior, to inform the Jewish leaders of his opinion regarding Jesus. He told them that he found “no guilt” in Jesus (v. 38b). Now, one might think that Pilate would have released the innocent Jesus immediately, since He was clearly not a threat to the Roman Empire’s rule over Judea. But that is not what happened. Pilate’s lack of integrity shines through in that he offered the Jewish authorities a choice. He would release either Jesus or Barabbas, according to the custom of the Romans to release one prisoner during the Passover (v. 39).
What motivated Pilate to take this action is not entirely clear. One likely explanation is that Pilate wanted to appease the Jews and free an innocent man. By releasing Jesus only after a trial, he could show the Jewish authorities that he was willing to take their charges seriously and investigate them, thereby lessening the tension between Rome and the Jews. At the same time, it would mean that he would not be putting an innocent man to death. That Pilate offers them Barabbas would support this theory. The ESV notes that Barabbas was a “robber” (v. 40), but the Greek word translated as “robber” is far stronger, referring to someone who was violent and who participated in an insurrection. Mark 15:7 informs us specifically that Barabbas had committed murder in a revolt against Roman rule. The Jewish leaders, then, were offered a choice between a plainly innocent man—Jesus—and a plainly guilty man—Barabbas. In Pilate’s mind, the choice they would make was probably obvious, especially since the Jewish leaders at the time normally wanted nothing to do with those who advocated rebellion against Rome.
But as we know, the Jewish authorities chose Barabbas instead (v. 40). There is irony here, for as Dr. R.C. Sproul notes in his commentary John, Barabbas’ real name was likely Jesus Barabbas, meaning “Jesus, son of the father.” Instead of choosing the true Son of the Father—the Son of God—the Jewish leaders chose a criminal.
It is easy for us to think that we would not have called for Barabbas instead of Jesus. However, by nature we are hostile to God unless He changes our hearts, and left to ourselves, we would show the same hostility to Jesus that the Jewish authorities did. Let us be grateful to the Lord for changing our hearts, and let us ask Him to increase our love for Him every day.
Passages for Further Study
1 John 5:21