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The Release of a Death Row Inmate

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 27:2, 11–23; Mark 15:1–14; Luke 23:1–22; John 18:28–40

It is shocking to think that people in Jesus’ day would prefer a criminal over the Lord. But people have not changed, so we should not be appalled that the one we most cherish is the one the world most hates.


All four Gospels record what happens to Jesus, now that the supreme court of Israel has found Him guilty of claiming to be the Son of God. Matthew 27:2 tells us that the mob takes Jesus bound to the Roman governor, Pilate, and John 18 records that Pilate comes out to them, wanting to know what charge they are bringing against their prisoner (verses 28-29).

Luke 23:2 gives their answer:

“We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”

Pilate seizes on that last accusation and asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (verse 3). John’s Gospel tells us that Pilate took Jesus back into his headquarters to ask Him this question privately (John 18:33). Pilate wants to know if Jesus is a political threat—is He really the King of the Jews?

Jesus calmly answers that He is a King, but He also assures Pilate He is not the kind of king Pilate envisions; He is not a threat to Pilate or Rome. Twice in John 18:36, Jesus says His kingdom is not of this world. He goes on to say in verse 37, “For this purpose . . . I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Pilate has no idea that he’s talking to the one who is the truth when he asks Jesus in verse 38, “What is truth?” Pilate is in a culture like ours today, where truth is fluid—whatever is true for you is true, even if it is different from my truth—so we both can be right. Actually, we both can be wrong.

But Pilate does not want to debate the philosophy of truth with Jesus, so he goes back out to the mob and says in verse 38, “I find no fault in him.” Luke 23:5, records their response to Pilate: “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

Ah, the mention of Galilee gives Pilate an idea. He can hand Jesus off to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who just happens to be in Jerusalem at this time.

So, Pilate sends Jesus to Herod. Luke 23:6-11 reveals that Herod is happy to see Jesus, but he only wants Jesus to perform some miracle. Herod wants a little magic show. Jesus will not perform; He even refuses to speak when Herod questions Him. This makes Herod angry, and he mocks the Lord and sends Him back to Pilate.

Then Pilate remembers something and devises a clever little plan to get this innocent, misguided rabbi off his hands. He says to the crowd in John 18:39, “You have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover.” Matthew 27:17 says that Pilate gives the crowd a choice between his releasing Jesus or a prisoner by the name of Barabbas.

Some time earlier the Romans had captured this killer named Barabbas. Pilate is sure the people would rather have Jesus than this dangerous felon.

Matthew then inserts a comment here in verse 19, revealing that Pilate’s desire to find a way to release Jesus is also motivated by a message from his wife. She told him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” We do not know if her dream was God-sent, but Pilate, like most superstitious Romans, takes her dream seriously.

Now let’s go back to Barabbas for a moment. The name Barabbas can mean either “son of the father” or “son of a rabbi.” This was a conventional way of referring to someone, just as Jesus once referred to Simon Peter as “Simon Bar-Jonah”—that is, “Simon, the son of Jonah” (Matthew 16:17). I believe Barabbas was the son of a rabbi—he was what we would call today a “preacher’s kid.” He’s also a prodigal.

There is something else that is fascinating about Barabbas’s name. The ancient Syriac and Armenian translations of the New Testament give him a first name. In Greek it is the name Iēsous—Jesus!

The nation of Israel is not ignorant about Barabbas. He has a police record a mile long. Matthew refers to him as a “notorious prisoner” (Matthew 27:16); Mark says that Barabbas “committed murder” (Mark 15:7); Luke says that he led an insurrection somewhere in this region against Rome (Luke 23:19); and John refers to him as a “robber” (18:40). Barabbas was not a very nice man.

So, we have here in this dramatic scene Jesus the Christ and Jesus the son of a rabbi. Imagine the irony of Pilate as he asks the crowd to choose whom they want released—Jesus the Healer or Jesus the killer.

The crowd chooses Barabbas! Let me tell you, he would have been a hero among the zealots, the nationalistic Jews who wanted to be rid of Roman rule. Barabbas was their Robin Hood. He was what they were looking for in a Messiah.

As for the religious leaders, they did not want Barabbas’s troublemaking with Rome. But they chose Jesus Barabbas simply because he wasn’t Jesus the Christ.

So with that, Pilate asks what they want him to do with Jesus the Christ. They answer, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22). And when Pilate asks, “Why, what evil has he done?” (verse 23) “they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified!’” The Greek language indicates they kept screaming this chant: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

It is my opinion that the center cross on Golgotha would have been for Barabbas. More than likely, those two thieves on either side were members of his gang.

The release of Barabbas is a wonderful parable of the gospel. He illustrates humanity, condemned already and awaiting final judgment. But back in Luke 4:18, Jesus said He had come “to proclaim liberty to the captives.” That is exactly what Jesus does here.

We are not told how Barabbas responded to the jailer as his cell door was unlocked. But imagine with me how Barabbas could have responded.

He could have said, “I have sinned too greatly—I’m a notorious criminal, a murderer, number one on Rome’s most-wanted list. There is no way I deserve to get out of prison.” Beloved, isn’t it wonderful that Jesus died for sinners—for death row inmates and guilty people like you and me.

Barabbas could have said, “I’m not guilty! And I am not leaving my cell until Pilate apologizes and declares me innocent.” There are a lot of people today who will not admit they are guilty sinners; they refuse to accept God’s verdict and refuse to accept His pardon.

They remind me of an old comedian who was looking over his x-rays with his doctor. “It’s bad news,” the doctor said. “You are going to need open-heart surgery. It will be painful and cost thousands of dollars.” The patient thought for a moment and then said, “Listen, doctor, for a hundred dollars could you just touch up the x-rays?”

That is what a lot of religious people are doing all around the world today. They are going to their temples, their synagogues, their mosques, and their churches to basically touch up their x-rays.

Radical heart surgery is needed. We are terminally ill with sin. It needs to be admitted, confessed, and forgiven. If you want to get out of prison and into heaven, admit your sin and ask for the grace of God.

What did Barabbas have to do to be freed on this day? He just had to walk out of that cell—that was it. Why? Because his freedom was paid for by the other Jesus, the Lamb of God who would be sacrificed in his place—the Savior who died in your place and mine.

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