Barabbas was probably a “notorious” insurrectionist, arrested by the Romans, and condemned to die. His notoriety, however, was probably viewed as heroic to the people in the crowd. He had stood up to the Roman oppressors and could now be released. According to scholar Donald Carson, it is highly likely that Barabbas and the two “thieves” crucified with Jesus were co-rebels (the word used for “thief” or “robber” is inadequate; the fact they were condemned to die means their crime was far more serious). Therefore, notes Carson, the “fact that three crosses were prepared strongly suggests that Pilate had already ordered that preparations be made for the execution of the three rebels. If so, Jesus the Messiah actually took the place of the rebel Barabbas, because the people preferred the political rebel and nationalist hero to the Son of God.” Think on that a minute.
So, here is the situation:
-- Some people believed Jesus was the Messiah; however, they expected and wanted a political and military hero who would overthrow the Roman government and re-establish the kingdom right then and there in Jerusalem.
-- The fact that Jesus had been arrested and tried and apparently was headed to his death was a shock to these folks. Some, like the disciples, despaired and hid. Others were probably so disappointed they reacted in anger. “If this Jesus wasn’t going to help free us from the Romans,” they thought, “we might as well give Barabbas another chance.”
-- The chief priests and the elders simply took advantage of the confusing situation and “persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed” (v.20). For them Barabbas was not their problem. He was, rather, a political problem for the Romans. On the other hand, Jesus was a serious problem for them, because he challenged their authority and entire system of belief.
-- Pilate caved to the demands of the people, released Barabbas, and condemned Jesus.
I want to return to Carson’s point about the people’s choice; i.e. “the people preferred the political rebel and nationalist hero to the Son of God.” Now, Jesus’ life and death were political in the sense that he challenged the religious and political status quo, upended prevailing social, economic, and ethical norms, and focused on the outcast and marginalized of society (women, children, the sick, the demon possessed, Samaritans, Gentiles, and others). In that sense, Jesus was a political radical.
He was not, however, the kind of political rebel and nationalist that Barabbas was. He never resorted to or encouraged violence and was clear that his kingdom was quite unlike those of this world. He did go first to his own, the people of Israel, but his message was for the Gentiles, too. He was not a nationalist, but a global thinker (to use a modern term). Jesus’ “politics” were far superior in content and lasting impact than those of Barabbas. But, yet, the people preferred Barabbas, one who represented a short-term and human-centered solution.
What about today’s contentious political environment? What about the options we have? We must listen to candidates and we must eventually make a choice for one. In our selection, will we shove Jesus’ eternal, kingdom, peaceful, and comprehensive “politics” to the background and chose instead the temporal, violent, and self-centered politics of the rebel, the nationalist, the ideologue, the reactionary, the establishment hack, the one with the slickest ads, the most money, the legion of celebrity endorsements, and the golden tongue?
Of course, we do live in the here and now and must participate in our temporal and imperfect system. So, I’ll pick one of those to vote for (maybe while I hold my nose), but Lord, please help me to not overlook Jesus and his kingdom while I do.