I Still Want Barabbas
Have you ever been in a car with a bunch of hungry people, going through a restaurant drive-thru? I have, and I am not a fan, especially if I’m the driver. It’s not so bad if what everyone wants is perfectly arranged in one of the displayed combos. The problem comes when you get that one person that wants their burger with no meat, two drops of ketchup, and an entire head of romaine lettuce on a cracked wheat poppy-seed bun (only one side toasted) cut into eighths. After all that, they still have the nerve to ask for a large, sugar free Boku with 3 ½ ice cubes and get angry when told that all they have is Coke products.
As crazy as this is, we take pride in this. It’s the “beauty” of consumerism. We want what we want, how we want it, and when we want it. Commercials tell us to “Have it your way!” Songs add melodies to this idea with lyrics like “You can have it your own way” or “I did it my way”. We are all about customizing as much of our lives to satiate our desires and anesthetize our pain.
Now, I’m not saying that being an informed consumer that knows what I want is wrong. I love the freedom to customize just about everything to my liking (who doesn’t love Pandora?), but there exists the temptation to take the same approach toward our understanding of and relationship to Christ. We love the things about him that resonate with us – freedom, blessings, love, and protection from danger, etc. We selectively ignore the things that don’t resonate or blatantly offend us – our sin nature, God’s wrath, our lack of self sufficiency, Christ’s exclusivity etc.
Our 3rd President, Thomas Jefferson, took this approach when he created, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” also known as “Jefferson’s Bible”. As you might guess, Jefferson wanted a Jesus that was exclusively a “moral” one. In doing so, Jefferson took a pair of scissors to his Bible and sliced out any verses referring to his Deity, miracles or anything else that made Jesus anything more than a good teacher. As a Deist, much like several educated citizens in the New World including George Washington, Jefferson rejected miraculous occurrences and prophecies and embraced the idea of a well ordered universe created by a God who withdrew into detached transcendence. In a letter sent from Monticello to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson said his “wee little book” of 46 pages was based on a lifetime of inquiry and reflection and contained “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
The desire to customize Jesus to “fit” us goes back to the time he walked the Earth. In Matthew 27:11-26, we see Jesus being questioned on by the Roman governor, Pilate. After Pilate found no fault, he didn’t want to be responsible for sentencing Christ, an innocent man, to the death penalty. Apparently, Pilate had the custom of releasing one prisoner selected by Jewish crowds every year during their Feast of Passover. Pilate gave the crowd the choice of releasing a famous rebel leader named Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ.
This appears to be a picture of the choice that we are faced with every day as Christians. I know that my life’s goal is to please God by striving to look more like his son (Romans 8:29). What if that “image” isn’t the correct image of Jesus? Which Jesus do I REALLY want in my life? A deeper look at who Jesus Barabbas is, has convinced me that I, like many Christians still want Barabbas.
Who was Barabbas?
We see Barabbas very briefly in scripture so it’s pretty easy to overlook his significance. We know that the patronym or family name “Barabbas” is a combination of two Aramaic words: bar, which means son, and abba which means father. So Barabbas likely means “son of the father”. The name could also be a combination of bar (son) and rabbon (rabbi or master) meaning “son of a rabbi”. It was quite common for a rabbi to be referred to as father due to his teachings.
So it’s possible that Barabbas was the son of a prominent rabbinic family in Jerusalem. If this was the case, then he likely would have received the best formal education and been well connected politically.
You may be wondering why I listed Barabbas with the first name “Jesus”. His name appears as “Jesus Barabbas” in the Syrian and Armenian versions of Matthew 27:16-17. Christian scholar, D.A. Carson, wrote, “On the whole it is more likely that scribes deleted the name [Jesus from Jesus Barabbas] out of reverence for Jesus [Christ] than added it in order to set a startling if grotesque choice before the Jews”. Several other scholars agree with this rendering and it makes sense. Jesus was among the most common names in New Testament times. It was the same as the Hebrew name, Joshua. Acts 13 talks of a sorcerer named Elymas whose family name was “Bar-Jesus” meaning “the son of Jesus”.
Barabbas seemed to be a political rebel focused on change through self redemption, and not redemption through the Christ. Scripture refers to him as an insurrectionist using the Greek word that means one who rises up against the authority and institutions. For one person he may have been a seditionist, or possibly even a terrorist. To another, Barabbas was a revolutionary for Jewish civil rights seeking better treatment from the Roman Empire.
Barabbas didn’t want to wait for a messiah to deliver the Jewish people from their plight. He wanted to save the Jewish people and tried to loosen the yoke of Rome through political and violent means. Essentially he became driven by his own brand of liberation theology. He looked at the Roman Empire as tyrants and sought to free his people by the use of power, violence and any other means necessary. Jesus Barabbas was a freedom fighting revolutionary and quite opposite Jesus the Christ.
Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19 and Acts 3:14 refer to Barabbas as a murderer. He’s also referred to as a robber in John 18:14. Ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, says that the word used for robber here is the word, lestes, which referred to a religious movement called the Zealots. These were folks who supported themselves by robbery. It’s possible that Barabbas and his band of “merry men” were members of this group. It’s also possible that the two thieves who were crucified with Christ were members of this radical group. Since robbery was not a capital offense at the time, it’s likely that the two thieves on the cross were guilty of murder as members of this patriotic, freedom fighting insurrection led by Jesus Barabbas.
Barabbas wanted to perform a coup d’état and take political power immediately. Eventually, he and his followers attempted to put their plan into action in Jerusalem against the Roman Empire. They were caught, faced trial, convicted and Barabbas was condemned to the harshest death penalty known at the time – crucifixion. When Pilate presented the Jews with both Jesus Barabbas and Jesus Christ, the crowd overwhelmingly asked for Barabbas to be released. Why?
The Jewish crowd is a picture of the decision that we are forced to make sometimes daily. Which Jesus do we really want? The crowd wanted a Jesus that was customized to fit their desire for political change and their desire for self-redemption. They wanted fair representation, economic and political freedom, restoration of their “rightful” place among the nations. Essentially, they wanted their rights fought for, and Jesus the Christ didn’t fit in with what they believed to be their greatest need. Jesus Barabbas did.
I’m really wrestling with the question, “Which Jesus do I actually look like?” This question is tied to the question, “Which Jesus do I really want?” The Jesus we want becomes the Jesus we look like. We are what we want. I still want Barabbas.
As a husband, I want my marriage to be fundamentally about my happiness which leads to my selfishness. If my “right” to be happy in my marriage isn’t properly acknowledged and tended to, then I’m upset and conflict arises. On the road, if we’re cut off by a driver who clearly thinks that a red light means he still has a half second to go, we’re upset and tempted to let the driver know about it. If our candidate doesn’t get elected, our ability to be joyful and even pray for him/her becomes impeded.
We ultimately base our happiness on the things in which we most find our identity. If I’m happiest when my rights as an African-American are acknowledged to my satisfaction, then I want a Black Barabbas. If I’m happiest when my political ideology is best represented, then I want a political Barabbas. If I’m happiest when my desire for peace and goodwill without respect to the gospel, then I want a Moral Barabbas. The sad thing is that many of us have a “Jesus” that looks more like the aforementioned, then Jesus Christ.
We want a Jesus that affirms our emotional well being and self esteem who can make us feel better about ourselves. This is what Jesus Barabbas, if successful, would have brought. Jesus Christ, however, said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). Essentially, Jesus Christ says that our job is to acknowledge our spiritual brokenness and lack of ability to do ANYTHING good outside of being transformed by the death and resurrection of Christ. Your “blessedness” comes from acknowledging your lowest self esteem, so that your ONLY esteem is in your relationship with Jesus Christ.
We want a Jesus that says, “Don’t worry about your sin. It happens. You’re born that way. Do what you need and when things work out, you’ll feel better.” Jesus says, however, “Blessed are those who mourn[over their sin], for they will be comforted (Matthew 5:4). Christ is saying that living life “without regrets” isn’t the goal of the Christian. We are to mourn and be broken over our sin in such a way that ONLY Christ and his Gospel can comfort us.
We want a Jesus that says, “Understand your worth, rights, entitlements because of your race, political party, socio-economic status, birthright, etc. Stand up and exert your rights! ” Or, “Don’t let anyone come before you. Do what you must to be ahead!” This is what Jesus Barabbas exemplified. The attitude of Jesus Christ is described by Paul in Philippians 2:5-8, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Earlier Paul states that we are to “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests but to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4).
I can honestly say that although I want to want Jesus the Christ, my heart still wants Barabbas. I am becoming increasingly convicted by my Barabbic (yes, I made it up) heart. I’m praying for my heart to desire Jesus Christ without customization. I’m praying for this Christ-centered desire to manifest itself in my marriage, my parenting, my citizenship as well as my vocational ministry. Lord, deliver my heart from Barabbas.
 D. A. Carson, Matthew, in vol. 8 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 574.