There is an irony to the bookends of this larger passage of Scripture. In John 18:28, the religious leaders refused to even enter Pilate’s headquarters out of fear that simply being in his space would make them unclean. And yet in John 18:40, they chose to associate with the vilest of sinners: Barabbas. Setting the sad irony of the religious leaders aside (for now), this Good Friday let’s turn our attention to that vile sinner to see what he teaches us about the gospel.
Larger Portion of Scripture - John 18:28-40
Focused Passage for Reflection - John 18:38b-40
A substitute is one who takes the place of another. The substitute may fulfill another person’s job duties, or take their place in a meeting, or game, or project. Normally, we search for a substitute who possesses a similar skill set or list of qualifications. On Good Friday, those similarities were thrown out the window when the perfect Substitute took on a different kind of role.
Sensing the petty jealousy which motivated Jesus’ accusers, Pontius Pilate presented the people with a decision which was sure to reveal their hearts. As the Roman governor overseeing Jerusalem, it was his tradition to release a prisoner during the Passover Feast. Maybe this release was meant to be an illustration of Israel’s redemption from slavery in Egypt. Maybe it was just a way for Pilate to gain popularity with the people. Regardless, on that day he set up a striking contrast. Pilate presented two potential candidates for release: Jesus and Barabbas.
John simply tells us that Barabbas was a robber. The other gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke add that he was a notorious prisoner, an insurrectionist, and a murderer. He was a nasty guy, and Pilate presented him right alongside of Jesus. In contrast to Barabbas, Scripture tells us that Jesus was perfect in every way. A choice was to be made. One of these men would die. If fairness was the measure, Barabbas would have no hope. But God had a plan, so Barabbas went free.
Do you see what took place in this mini-drama which unfolded on Good Friday? Barabbas deserved to die for his crime, yet Jesus stood in his place. Jesus served as a substitute, taking on a punishment he did not deserve, and in doing so, a guilty sinner was set free. While the story of Barabbas doesn’t take up a lot of space on the page, it is found in all four gospel accounts. Why? I believe it is because this little episode, gives us one of the clearest pictures of the gospel of atoning grace…the innocent became the substitute for the guilty.
There is a temptation in this story to focus all of our attention on the crowds who chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus. My attention can quickly go there because I find it very easy, and very satisfying, to see in myself a sense of moral superiority and look down on others. But then I read the story again, and the realization hits me: Barabbas is me.
In our enlightened world, we are quick to separate ourselves from the really bad people. We have a hard time making this connection with Barabbas. Resist this urge, because Barabbas is also you.
Don’t believe me? When I was a child, I remember having a fear that others could somehow read my thoughts. That thought terrified me, because I knew (and still know) how bad my thought life can be. What would you think if others could read your thought life? What if they knew your deepest, darkest secrets? Would you still have a hard time seeing yourself as Barabbas?
The point is, Jesus can read our thought life, and it didn’t scare him away. He came knowing that our hearts look a lot like Barabbas’, and because of that, like Barabbas, we too need a substitute. Praise the Lord that fairness had no place in this equation. Through Jesus, God does not treat us fairly. Through Jesus, God treats us graciously. As Ephesians 2:8 tells us “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
That grace is a gift which was secured on Good Friday when Jesus stepped in as a substitute, taking all of the wrath of God for the sins of those who would place their trust in him. This Good Friday, as you consider Jesus on the cross, also consider Barabbas walking free — and know that we are him. As that realization hits you too, I encourage you to join me in praising the Lord for our perfect Substitute!
Questions for personal reflection:
Have you thought about the gospel in terms of Jesus stepping in as your personal substitute?
How does this understanding of the gospel transform your understanding of “belief”?
Can you imagine why a righteous person would do such a selfless thing for a sinner? Can you receive such a selfless act of love?