Father in Heaven, I am so grateful that you awakened my heart to the delight of Scripture so many years ago. I love your word. Like a thirsty deer pants for water, I thirst for you. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life—please help me to know him better today as I read scripture and to follow his example of sacrifice and love as I make my way through this day.
Today we’re going to take on a longer portion than usual, reading Mark 15:1-15. Read it through several times and let the scene have time to form in your imagination.
And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus andled him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him,“Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murderin the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (ESV)
One of the aspects of Christianity that sets it apart from most, if not all, other major religions is the idea of substitutionary atonement. This is the belief that Jesus died as a substitute for others—he took the punishment we deserve, making us acceptable to God even though we are all sinners. There are a number of verses in scripture that point to this idea, including 1 Peter 2:24 and 1 Peter 3:18:
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed… For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit…”
This belief in Christ’s substitutionary atonement is fundamental for Christians. It is the very essence of God’s justice and mercy for sinners. Justice, because there is punishment for sin. Mercy, because that punishment fell on Christ, not on us.
We talk about the injustice of the crowd asking for Barabbas, a known criminal, to be released instead of Jesus. That fact highlights the harshness of how Jesus was treated and how blind the religious leaders and Pilate were that they would trade the righteous one, Jesus, for the unrighteous Barabbas. This passage we’re reading today highlights Jesus’s first act of substitutionary atonement—even before he went to the cross.
Barabbas was a murderer. Verse seven tells us that he “had committed murder in the insurrection.” Everyone knew it—there was no doubt of his guilt. Yet Barabbas the murderer was set free, and Jesus the Son of God was crucified in his place. Barabbas is, for me, the very emblem of substitutionary atonement, the first recipient of God’s incredible mercy toward sinners through Christ.
We don’t know what became of Barabbas. He is mentioned in all four Gospels, but only in this context. He was released and we do not hear of him again. We don’t know whether he had any concept of the gift he received when Christ died in his place. We don’t know whether he saw the light and repented of his evil ways. We don’t know whether Barabbas became a follower of Christ. We just don’t know.
We can know, however, that God loved Barabbas. This portion of scripture from Mark 15 is a great lens for reading Romans 5—or vice versa—Romans 5 is a great lens for reading Mark 15:
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:6-11, ESV)
In the context of Mark 15, Jesus died for Barabbas. That is what is happening here. If we are just looking at this text, this story, we don’t identify with Barabbas. He was a murderer. John also tells us that he was a robber (John 18:40). But Romans 5 tells us that it was not just Barabbas he replaced—it was us as well. “While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
When we read about Barabbas, we are reading about ourselves. I find that most people consider themselves “a good person.” I mean, I do! But to God, every human being is a sinner. Every person is like Barabbas. This might sound harsh, but to God, there is no such thing as a “good person.” All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). But here in this story of Barabbas, we encounter the first part of the Good News personified. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son…” Just as Barabbas was spared the punishment he deserved through Christ, so we are spared the punishment we deserve through Christ.
We don’t know what became of Barabbas. But the Good News of Christ is more than just Jesus’s substitutionary atonement. That’s part one of the Gospel. But Romans 5 tells us there is more. Because Jesus did not just die for sinners. He also rose from the dead and in his victory over death, all we who put our hope in him, will also rise from the dead, sinners fully reconciled to God. “Much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
We don’t know what became of Barabbas. But we who share in Barabbas’s deliverance, we who have been spared the wrath of God, we have a chance to respond to God’s incredible mercy by living in the light of Christ’s love.
Think about the best ending for Barabbas. Since we don’t know what happened once he was released, we can use our imaginations to consider the best case scenario. For me, it looks like this: Barabbas heard the words that he was being set free, and Jesus was taking his place. Barabbas, who thought he was going to die for his crimes, was set free instead. As they removed his chains and he walked away a free man, he turned around and looked at Jesus. He knew that Jesus was innocent—everyone knew that. They couldn’t keep their stories straight because everything bad they said about Jesus was a lie. Barabbas knew his guilt and Jesus’s innocence, and as he walked away, he experienced a transformation. His hard heart of stone cracked wide open and a soft, fleshy, tender heart toward Jesus took its place. He decided then and there that Jesus’s death would not be in vain. He would live differently. He would give generously and serve joyfully and love liberally. Gratitude for the gift of freedom, a gift he knew he did not deserve, would be his new motivation.
Now put your own name in this scenario.
Christy heard the words that she was being set free, and Jesus was taking her place. Christy, who thought she was going to die for her crimes, was set free instead. As they removed her chains and she walked away a free woman, she turned around and looked at Jesus. She knew that Jesus was innocent—everyone knew that. They couldn’t keep their stories straight because everything bad they said about Jesus was a lie. Christy knew her guilt and Jesus’s innocence, and as she walked away, she experienced a transformation. Her hard heart of stone cracked wide open and a soft, fleshy, tender heart toward Jesus took its place. She decided then and there that Jesus’s death would not be in vain. She would live differently. She would give generously and serve joyfully and love liberally. Gratitude for the gift of freedom, a gift she knew she did not deserve, would be her new motivation.
This can be our story. We are like Barabbas, in our guilt. And we are like Barabbas in that, while we were guilty, Christ died for us.
Let’s live the ending we want to see. May gratitude for the gift of freedom we have in Christ by our motivation to live by the mercies of God, presenting ourselves as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.