We remember the dramatic scene at the judgment seat of the Roman governor. “When the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ ”
It was an annual custom. It seems the Romans took it over from the Jews themselves – to release a prisoner of their choosing at Passover time when the Jews celebrated their freedom from bondage in Egypt in the days of Moses. How painfully ironic! The Jews now receive this annual favor from the Romans who again hold them as prisoners.
Pilate nominates two candidates for release. This too appears to have been customary. He offers them Barabbas or Jesus. Barabbas was probably one of the so-called sicarii – one of those literal cloak and dagger guys who carried knives in their cloaks and assassinated Roman officials whenever the opportunity presented itself.
Was Barabbas a folk hero among the Jews, one of those romanticized criminals like Robin Hood that people cheer for? It’s not entirely clear. Even from the Jews’ standpoint, he was a violent man. If he continued his terrorist tactics once he was sprung, he would bring down the pitiless sword of Rome upon them all.
Pilate figures they will choose the harmless man from Nazareth over Barabbas. He has no idea that Barabbas is the one they will demand.
Barabbas, the guilty prisoner, goes free, squinting into the sunlight of freedom as he steps forth from his dark, dungeon cell. Jesus, the innocent prisoner, goes to the cross.
Did Barabbas ever come to understand that a Higher Hand was writing this verdict, that he was now free because another Prisoner became his substitute? “The punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed,” said Isaiah about our Substitute. Did Barabbas ever come to believe this? We can only guess.
God grant that we believe it. Those who do will never be the same.