Barabbas Bewildered

Were you there—when they crucified my Lord?

2. Barabbas Bewildered

1. Pilate PolitickingIndex |3. Murderous Mob

Luke 23:17-25 (NIV)

17 [NKJV](…Now he was obliged to release one man to them at the feast).

18 With one voice they cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) 20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” 23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Also refer to Matthew 27:15-18, 20, 21; Mark 15:11; John 18:39-40

 ‘They rise and needs will have
My dear Lord made away;
A murderer they save,
The Prince of life they slay.
Yet cheerful He
To suffering goes,
That He His foes
From thence might free’[1]From ‘My song is love unknown’ by John Ireland and Samuel Crossman


Barabbas bewildered

Did Barabbas see Jesus on the cross?

We now encounter the man who had no idea that he would be crucial in the crucifixion of Jesus. Let me make it clear that I have used my imagination to build up the story where there are no hard facts to accompany the always historically correct facts which the New Testament gives. I saw an artist’s impression of the people looking at Jesus as He hung on the cross, as He would have seen them. The artist included Barabbas, and that made me think.[2]It is rare for me to adopt this approach, but no Bible truth is compromised by it, of course. The Bible does not say if Barabbas saw Jesus’ crucifixion or not. If you read the Bible references provided in he book, you will easily see where I have used the recorded facts about Barabbas simply to build up a story to illustrate one vital truth that is clearly taught. So, here we go—

Waiting for execution

—It was a hot day. Barabbas’ face was covered with sweat in his cell. But that was not just because it was hot. Although he was a big, strong and rugged gang leader of some rough and tough guys, he was scared. I mean, really scared. He would not admit that to anyone—but it was true. His two right-hand men were waiting to be taken to their execution by crucifixion from their cells nearby.[3]This is a supposition based on Mark 15:7 But he would be the Romans’ ‘prize catch.’ He expected to see his two gang members at those cruel Roman crosses where all their lives would end in agony. Vicious floggings would come first: many criminals had died from that alone. But, if they survive, death by crucifixion was a terrible way to go. You would be straining your lungs and heart for breath until you could breathe no longer. Nails through hands and feet were bad enough, but the thought of slow and increasingly painful suffocation terrified this hard man. Too late now, he thought, to say ‘sorry’ to any victims, family members, authorities, or anyone else, least of all to God Himself. All his own and his gang’s crimes—the murders, cruel violent public order offences, thefts and robberies and so much else that was dirty, mean, disgusting and shabby—were too late for him to remedy now.

He remembered hearing Jesus of Nazareth preach and teach in the open air, and even healing sick people and casting out evil spirits from demon-possessed men on the hill. ‘Is there hope even yet for me?’ he had wondered. Jesus had told everyone, ‘Repent and believe the gospel’—but he had not done that, and now it was surely too late? Many said what a change Jesus had made to and in their lives—even one of his mates had thought about it for a while, but then decided he was too bad.

His throat was dry. He waited for that four-man Roman guard team to bustle him to where he would die ‘Any moment now?’ Yes, he was scared—of cracking up in front of others—of feeling alone—of the huge pain to bear—and of dying. Also, since hearing from Jesus that after death there is an eternal Heaven to enjoy, or an eternal Hell to suffer, he feared what awaited him.

The dreaded moment comes—the clanking of the keys

Four sets of footsteps, paced with military precision, broke into his thoughts as they came nearer and nearer to his locked cell. He could fight, of course—but that would make things worse. He would come of worse and did not want others see him being beaten up by the Roman soldiers. No, he would go quietly, and then try bravely to show some dignity in death. He swallowed hard. The footsteps came even closer.

Three loud bangs on the door heralded the clanking of keys in the door. A loud voice shouted, ‘Barabbas! Barabbas! We’ve come for you now!’ He swallowed again and his heart raced and throbbed. He stood up tall, shoulders back and chest out. He put a brave aggressive look on his gnarled face. He waited for the inevitable. He knew he was on his way out.

‘You’re free!’

‘Barabbas, you’re free! It’s your lucky day. Come with us! Sign out and get your clobber.’

‘WHAT? Set free? Is this a cruel joke? What are you playing at?’ His aggression returned to him in an instant.

‘You heard what we said. Yes! Set free. Of course, if you really want to die, we will ask Pilate to choose someone else, and crucify you.’

‘But WHY?’ he exclaimed, in a daze of unbelief. ‘I was guilty of so many things—and I know I did them. Is this a lousy joke? If so, I don’t like it!’

‘Come on!’ growled the Captain of the guard. ‘Are you coming out as a free man or do we have to force you into freedom? Come on!—and right now.’ Two guards took an arm each, one followed behind, and the Captain led them to the Gate.

Scourged then crucified

He could not believe his ‘luck’. Why was he alive or free? His two gang members were not at the prison Gate, so he guessed they had not been released. They would be scourged with a leather-thonged whip, embedded with bone and metal, and each man would be nailed to a cross flanking ‘his’ central cross. Crosses were erected at the roadside. Blood-stained, groaning, men died on them—some of them took many hours to expire. Toward the day’s end, the Roman soldiers would often break the legs of victims who were still alive. The additional weight of a fully suspended body stopped any of them resisting suffocation by pushing up on their legs to help them breathe. Normally they then died soon after.

A few formalities

But for now, a few formalities. A few belongings and clothes to collect. And then—suddenly it seemed—he was out! Alone! His eyes blinked unbelievingly in the bright light. He was not used to that while ‘banged-up’ in jail. What would he do now? Where would he go? What had really happened? Could he be sure he really was free? What if it was all a mistake? What if they came to get him again? And what was happening to his two gang mates?

Thinking and listening

It was rare for Barabbas to ever sit down quietly and think. But this was an unusual day. He slowly walked from the prison to the hill called ‘Calvary’ It looked like a skull: they called it ‘the Place of the Skull.’ Crucifixions often took place there. He sat down on a rock to try to think it through. Still bewildered, he joined the growing crowd to see if his two gang members were being crucified there. But just as he set-off he heard a conversation between two middle-aged women, who had no idea who he was.

‘Yes, they have let Barabbas, of all people, go free,’ she said, shaking her head sadly and disapprovingly.

And you are serious, that our religious leaders whipped-up the crowd to get Pilate to crucify Jesus instead?’

‘Yes. If you had been in Jerusalem then, you’d have heard loud cries of “Crucify Him!”’

‘He healed the sick, made the lame walk, the blind see and the deaf hear. He cast evil spirits out of some wild men. He made some dead alive. His teaching was great—not like the boring Pharisees’ fake morality. You felt the real presence of God when Jesus was around. Why on earth crucify Him?’

‘It’s that stupid annual custom to free someone, however guilty. Why not free a wrongly convicted one instead? But why crucify innocent Jesus? He didn’t do anything wrong to anyone.’

‘So, Jesus is going to die in the place of that Barabbas, and take his punishment?’

‘Yes: that’s right. That is the real crime—and allowed by Pilate. It’s wrong and unfair.’

Conscience strikes—the three crosses

Barabbas was glad that they did not recognize him. He merged into the crowd going to the Place of the Skull. He felt a double-deep pang of conscience when he saw together the three crosses. He felt guilty, in his now quieter frame of mind, when he saw his two accomplices. Nailed, blood-stained, and in obvious pain they joined in the cruel crowd’s insults and blasphemies directed at the man nailed to the central cross, Jesus. A crown of long thorns, crammed into His brow, spread even more blood on his battered face. In different languages a sign said, ‘The King of the Jews’.

Barabbas heard Jesus respond with moving words: ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Suddenly one of them stopped swearing and shouting and said something quiet to Jesus that Barabbas did not quite hear. Jesus replied with a smile on His battered face. The man looked instantly at peace.

Much else strangely miraculous was going on around those crosses, including the frightening onset of darkness. Was light dawning for Barabbas as enveloping darkness at mid-day blotted out the sun like a huge eclipse. Barabbas had seen and heard enough. He was broken. He felt the blame for getting his friends into trouble and now execution. They were dying. But he was even more worried that a completely innocent, loving, and righteous Man—who many said was God in the flesh—should die in his place, for his wrongdoing, and take his punishment in that broken body. Yes, he left Calvary a broken man: sad and aware of his wickedness and selfishness, and ashamed yet strangely grateful that Jesus had died in his place for him.

A picture of us all

The name ‘Barabbas’ means ‘son of the father’. This sinful man pictures every man and woman alive: we are all ‘the son or daughter of our father. Like him we have all sinned against God and hurt others. Whether our sins are obvious to all or not, God says, ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’, (Romans 3:23), and ‘there is none righteous, no not one!’ (Romans 3:10). Each one of us has offended a holy and righteous God and ignored or broken His commandments. Most of us would have to admit that in different ways we have hurt others too. We have lived selfishly. We too deserve judgment and punishment for our sins. The Bible says that after death we must ‘face judgment,’ (Hebrews 9:27), and Jesus spoke about the broad way that leads to that judgment, and the narrow way that leads to eternal life. (Matthew 7:13-13). We all need to turn from our sins, say and mean we are sorry to God, and ask Him to forgive us because the Lord Jesus Christ bore all our sins and their punishment on that cruel cross for each of us. (1 Peter 2:24, Isaiah 53:5-6). But until we turn, trust and receive Jesus in our hearts, as our risen Lord and Saviour, we are lost forever. (Luke 13:3, 5). But the ‘good news’ is that if you do confess and forsake your sins and ask Jesus to enter your life, He will save you. Have you done that? Why not now?

‘It was me who should have been there’

I remember asking the guys at a Bible study at Pentonville Prison in London what they would have felt like if they had been Barabbas and if he had seen Jesus being crucified. One prisoner said, very seriously, ‘I would say that it was me who should have been there. He died in my place—and it’s not fair.’ He hit the nail on the head—and everyone who trusts in Jesus and His death on the cross can say that. But remember that ‘God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16 Thank God too, for ‘the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Galatians 2:20). Trust in Him!


1 From ‘My song is love unknown’ by John Ireland and Samuel Crossman
2 It is rare for me to adopt this approach, but no Bible truth is compromised by it, of course.
3 This is a supposition based on Mark 15:7