Barabbas A Picture of Substitution
“Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas. Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? For he knew that for envy they had delivered him. When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him. But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let him be crucified. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified. When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.” (Matthew 27:15-26)
There is nothing revealed in Holy Scripture that is more important than the gospel doctrine of Substitution. Men everywhere talk about substitutionary atonement, and speak much about Christ being the sinner’s Substitute. But their language is vague. Few seem to understand what the Bible teaches about substitution. In this study we will take a close look at the story of Barabbas. Here we have a clear illustration of the nature of Christ’s death. Our blessed Savior died as a substitutionary sacrifice to make atonement for the sins of his people, to redeem us from the curse of the law. Because Christ died in the place of God’s elect, all God’s elect must go free.
You are all familiar with the story of Barabbas. It is recorded by all four of the gospel writers. During the days of Israel’s subjection to Rome, a strange custom was regularly practiced. On the day of the Passover, the Roman governor released a guilty prisoner. No doubt, this was intended to be an act of benevolence on the part of the Roman authorities toward the Jews. The Jews probably accepted it as a significant compliment to their Passover celebrations. Since on that day the Jews were themselves delivered out of the land of Egypt, they may have thought it a most fitting thing for some prisoner to obtain his freedom.
Since some prisoner must be released on the Day of Atonement, Pilate thought that he now had opportunity to allow the Savior to go free, without compromising himself in the eyes of his superiors at Rome. So he asked the people which of the two they preferred, a notorious criminal or the holy Savior. Without hesitation or dissension, the crowd cried for the release of Barabbas and the death of Christ. Pilate’s last effort to release Christ had failed. “Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.”
The Man Barabbas
Who Barabbas was we do not know. His name signifies, “His father’s son.” Some mystics think that there is an indication here that he was particularly and specially the son of Satan. Others suppose that it was an endearing name, a name given to him because he was his father’s darling, a child indulged by his father, or as we would say, his daddy’s boy.
It is certain that overly indulged, spoiled children are likely to become griefs to their parents and a burden to society. Looking at the cases of Eli’s two sons, Absalom, and Barabbas, parents should take warning. Do not be too excessive in the indulgence and pampering of your children. John Trapp wrote, “How many a Barabbas, brought to the gallows, blameth his fond father, and haply curseth him in hell!”
Barabbas appears to have committed at least three crimes. He was imprisoned for murder, sedition, and robbery. We might well pity the father of such a son. This wretch is brought out and set in competition with the holy Son of God. And the poor inhabitants of Jerusalem were so hardened in their unbelief and sin, so thirsty for the innocent blood of Christ that they preferred this obnoxious creature to the man who is God’s own Fellow!
This fact is very significant. There is more teaching in it than we might realize at first glance. In this act of freeing the guilty and binding the innocent, we have a vivid example of salvation by substitution. The guilty is set free and the innocent is put to death in his place. Barabbas is spared, and Christ is crucified. We have in this striking event a display of the manner in which God pardons and justifies the ungodly. He does it because Christ has suffered and died in their stead, the Just for the unjust. We deserve to die for the punishment of our sins; but a mighty Substitute has suffered our punishment. Eternal death is our due; but a glorious Surety has died for us. We are all in the position of Barabbas by nature. We are guilty, wicked, condemned, and shut up under the law. But, when we were without hope and without strength, “in due time Christ died for the ungodly.” And now God, for Christ’s sake, can be just and yet “the Justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.”
In the Old Testament rite of cleansing lepers two birds were used. One bird was killed and its blood was poured into a basin. The other bird was dipped into the blood of the slain bird, and then, with its wings covered with crimson, it was set free to fly into the open air. The slain bird typified our Savior, whose blood was shed at Mt. Calvary; and every soul that by faith is plunged into the...
“Fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins,
is set free, owing its life and liberty to the Savior, who was once for sinners slain. This is substitution. It comes to this: Barabbas must die, or Christ must die. You the sinner must perish, or Christ, the immaculate Lamb of God, must be slain. The incarnate God died that we might be delivered. The Lord Jesus Christ suffered in the place of sinners like Barabbas, satisfying the wrath and justice of God; and, like Barabbas, all those sinners for whom Christ made satisfaction must go free.
A Guilty Man
Barabbas was a man guilty of many offenses. We sometimes say that a man is “as guilty as sin.” Well Barabbas was as guilty as sin. His life was a life of riotousness and sin. He was tried in a court of law and found guilty of robbery, sedition, and murder. As such he is a fair representative of all men by nature. We could all be named “Barabbas.” We are all the sons of our father Adam. His image, his nature, and his character are reflected in us all.
Like Barabbas, we are all rebels. Barabbas stirred up sedition. He was a revolutionary. That is a modern name for rebels. He would not submit to authority. This is the problem with our race. We are proud, self-willed rebels. We hate authority. In our father Adam we rebelled against God’s command. We are born with a rebellious nature. In pride and self-will we rebelled all the days of our lives against God’s throne. We sinfully rebel against God’s holy law. Man acts like he does simply because God says, “Don’t do that.” Man sees the good and refuses to do it simply because God says, “Do it.” And we are steadfast and persistent in our rebellion. As children, we rebel against parents and teachers. As adults, we rebel against moral and civil authority. Even as believers, we have a nature within us that rebels against everything holy and good (Rom. 7:14, 15, 18).
Like Barabbas, we are all robbers. It was Adam’s determination to rob God of his authority, of his creation, and of his glory. And that is what man does by his sin. We have robbed God of his glory, refusing to worship him. We have robbed God of his honor, refusing to believe his Word. We have robbed God of his creation, stealing that which God has made for himself and using it for ourselves, without regard to him. We have robbed ourselves and our children of the blessedness of our original creation, of fellowship with God, of the image of God, of true freedom, of the favor of God, and of life itself. Through our sin and rebellion, our race is reduced to nothing but emptiness and vanity. Once we were princes of God’s creation. Now we are empty handed thieves (Eph. 2:11-12).
And, like Barabbas, we are all murderers. In the course of his rebellion and robbery Barabbas had committed murder. So have we all. There is not a guiltless one among us. We have all committed multiple murders in our hearts. Envy, hatred, anger, wrath, and malice are in the eyes of God’s law equal to murder (Matt. 5:21-22). We have infected our children with the deadly disease of sin. Sin is a plague of the heart. It is a family disease passed on from generation to generation. What is more, we are all guilty of the blood of the Son of God. Yes, we are guilty of slaughtering the Lord of Glory!
We must never forget what we are by nature (Matt. 15:19). There is not an evil deed, or atrocious crime, or an infamous sin recorded on the pages of human history which does not reside in the heart of every man, woman, and child in the world. Yes, well could we all be named “Barabbas.” We are all the descendants of Adam. We are all of our father the devil. We are all, by nature, children of wrath. Read the book of God’s holy law. Read every commandment of the Almighty. By the law we stand judged. The verdict is guilty. Like Barabbas, we are men guilty of many offenses.
A Cursed Man
Barabbas was a prisoner, under the sentence of the law. He had been found guilty. The sentence was passed. Barabbas must die. On the day when the Jews observed their Passover, two thieves were to be crucified; and Barabbas would be crucified in the midst of them as the vilest of the three. He was bound hand and foot and cast into prison, to be held there as a cursed, condemned man until the day of his execution.
Try to picture Barabbas in the prison. He expected very soon to be taken out, nailed to a cross, and hung up to die, as the just payment for his crimes. He was held under the sentence of the law. That is just the condition of every person in the world by nature. “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36). “Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19) “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them…The scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.” Gal. 3:10, 22-23) We all “were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3).
Man’s bondage is as cruel and terrible as it is sure. Men today like to boast of their independence and freedom. We are told, “I’m going to do my own thing.” But they are only doing exactly the same thing that men have been doing throughout history. Man is not free. He is in bondage. He is in bondage to religious tradition, social custom, and peer pressure. And man by nature is in bondage to sin. He is in bondage to his own nature, and the lusts of his own heart.
Man is in bondage to his sinful nature. “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jer. 13:23). Men are taken captive by Satan at his will (1 Tim. 2:26). Man by nature is prone to every kind of evil. It is only the restraining grace of God that keeps you and me from practicing the wicked things that we pretend to abhor. And all who are without Christ are bound under the chains of darkness. Their will is held in captivity by the fetters of iniquity.
How often fallen man resolves to change. To some degree he even succeeds, reforming his outward behavior, breaking evil habits, and ceasing from the practice of outward vices. But his character, his nature, his will remains in bondage. He remains a bondman in chains of despair, and in the dark dungeon of hopeless helplessness.
Christ alone can set guilty prisoners free. “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed!” We were “such as sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, being bound in affliction and iron.” Then we cried unto the Lord in our trouble, and he saved us out of all our distresses. “He brought us out of darkness and the shadow of death, and brake our bands in sunder! (Psa. 107:10-14).
Man’s sentence is fixed and immutable. “The soul that sinneth, it shall die!” God has spoken. There is no reprieve. There is no amnesty. There is no repeal. God’s law says the guilty must die. God’s holiness demands that the sinner must be slain. God’s justice requires the death of every transgressor.
Man by nature is under the sentence and curse of God’s holy law. Fallen man is not on probation. He is on death row. The God of heaven judges him guilty. His own conscience consents to the verdict. The sentence is passed. The only thing lacking is the appointed day of execution. We died spiritually in our father Adam (Rom. 5:12). Physical death is the consequence of sin. And every unbelieving sinner must die eternally, because of God’s immutable law. Every sinner out of Christ is dead at law.
Is there, therefore, no hope for a sinner like Barabbas? Must all the guilty forever perish? Will God not have mercy? Is there anyway whereby God can be faithful to his holy law and yet pardon sin? Is there any means whereby God can both satisfy his justice and let the sinner live? God will not show mercy at the expense of his justice. But he will show mercy if justice can be satisfied in a Substitute. Blessed be the name of the Lord, there is hope for sinners, for God has found a Substitute!
A Substitute Provided
A substitute was provided to die in Barabbas’ place. The Roman soldier came and unlocked Barabbas’ prison door, took off his shackles, and said, “Barabbas, you’re free to go. Jesus of Nazareth is going to die in your place.” That is real substitution. That One who suffered and died as Barabbas’ Substitute is our Substitute. His name is Jesus Christ, the Lord. He is God’s own, well-beloved Son. He is the only Substitute God can or will accept (Rom. 3:24-26; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24).
The sinner’s Substitute must be a suitable person, able and willing to redeem. Whoever undertakes to reconcile a holy God and sinful men must himself be both God and man. He must be God, for only God is able to make infinite satisfaction. Yet, he must be man, for man must be punished. The Lord Jesus Christ is just such a Substitute. Being God, he is able to redeem. Being man, he is able to suffer. Being the God-man, he is an all-sufficient Redeemer, both able and willing to save. Someone once said, “God could not die, and man could not satisfy; but the God-man has both died and satisfied.”
In order to be a Substitute for others, our Redeemer must be perfect and sinless; and our blessed Savior “knew no sin.” Yet, the sinless One, the Lord Jesus Christ, was made sin for us and suffered the just punishment due to our sins as our Substitute. When the holy Lord God made Christ sin for us, sin was imputed to him, and he was slain in our place. God took his Son without the camp. God hung his Son up in our place between two thieves. God forsook his well-beloved Son. God killed his Son as our Substitute. And by a marvelous transfer of grace, all for whom Christ Jesus was made sin are made (caused to become) the very righteousness of God in him.
Barabbas Set Free
Because the Lord Jesus Christ died in his place, Barabbas was set free. The Son of God took Barabbas’ place at Calvary. Therefore, Barabbas did not die. There is a glorious truth here. All of those for whom the Son of God died at Calvary must be set free. It is not possible for the law to punish my Substitute and punish me too. Justice will not allow it. Not one soul for whom Jesus Christ died shall be found in hell. The cross of Christ can never be discovered a miscarriage. The blood of Christ cannot be spilled in vain. “He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.” That is real substitution. Any doctrine that teaches that God will both punish Christ and punish those for whom Christ died is not substitution and is not the gospel.
“From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men,
Condemn me for that debt of sin,
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?
Complete atonement Thou hast made,
And to the utmost farthing paid
Whate’er Thy people owed:
Nor can His wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with Thy blood.
If Thou has my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine:
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
Then turn, my soul, unto thy rest;
The merits of thy great High Priest
Have bought thy liberty.
Trust in His efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.
Understand this. The atoning death of Christ was a satisfactory substitution. It satisfied all the designs of his Father. It satisfied all the desires of his own soul. It satisfied all the demands of his law. And it satisfied all the debts of his people. That means that every guilty sinner for whom Jesus Christ died must be set free.