Scripture: Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” Matthew 27:15-23 ESV
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Observation: Recapping Yesterday’s Daily Focus, Jesus appears before the Roman governor, Pilate. Getting right to the point, Pilate asks Jesus if he thinks he is the King of the Jews. (He does not ask if others suppose he is the King of the Jews.) And Jesus minces no words with his reply: “You have said so,” a formulaic response previously used to fluster the religious leaders. Intrigued, Pilate rhetorically asks if Jesus has not heard any of the chief priests’ indictments against him. Still, to Pilate’s amazement, Jesus remains silent to each charge as the governor recites them.
Today’s reading continues the escalating tension of Good Friday morning, but outside the governor’s palace. Following a goodwill custom to curry favor during the Passover celebration, Pilate asks the people who he should pardon: Jesus, “who is called the Christ,” or Barabbas, a confirmed freedom fighter who, along with two other men, murdered a Roman soldier during a failed coup. Stirred by the chief priests and elders, the crowd, many of whom cheered Jesus into Jerusalem five days earlier, now clamors for his crucifixion in exchange for the freedom of an actual criminal, Barabbas (who was likely a hero to many Israelites who despised the Romans).
Amid the unfolding drama, Matthew alone tells us that Pilate’s wife, distressed by a dream, sends an urgent message to her husband: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man” (v.19 above). So when the crowd shouts all the louder, demanding Jesus’ execution, Pilate, seemingly defending Jesus, asks what crime he has committed. But as mentioned in Friday’s Daily Focus devotion (see link above), Josephus describes Pilate as a weak and cruel leader who acted in his self-interest alone.
Of note, the historical record of Barabbas’s arrest with two other insurrectionists and the implication that Pilate had already ordered the preparation of their crucifixions to expedite their deaths before Passover suggests that Barabbas’ cohorts were the two other men crucified on each side of Christ.
Takeaway: The crowd’s blood-thirsty responses poignantly depict the shocking extent of Israel’s religious leaders and their followers’ spiritual decline. But are we any better? We, too, under fear and duress, can turncoat and project our guilt onto others. And yet, the Son of God came into our sin-marred world to serve and give his life as a ransom for us (Matthew 20:28), just as we are.
And are we any better than Barabbas? As mentioned in my April 2, 2021, Daily Focus, several years ago, I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt that read: “Free Barabbas.” My first reaction was horror, then sadness. But upon further reflection, I wonder whether this young man intended to startle Christians passing by him who knew of the biblical character Barabbas, perhaps to remind us that all of us are murderers (having harbored anger toward others, see Matthew 5:21-22) who desperately need Christ to take our place and set us free.
Still, the Son of God does more than set us free. The meaning of the name Barabbas, a conjunction of two Hebrew words “bar” (son) and “abba” (daddy), assures us that Christ’s substitutionary death is not only sufficient to cover our sins but to ensure our adoption as sons and daughters of Daddy. Indeed, Christ has set us free from our death sentence and has prepared a place for us in his heavenly kingdom as adopted family members of Daddy.
Prayer: Father, we thank you for your Son, who has taken on the punishment for our rebellious and hateful ways and has reconciled us to you so that we can enjoy an intimate relationship with you, our Daddy, as your adopted sons and daughters. Still, we struggle to walk out our faith in the freedom of Christ consistently. So would you please help us pause and reflect on the cost of our pardon and our glorious adoption before we act out so that we might instead draw near to you and feel the warmth of your loving embrace? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling