In or around 29 A.D., a man named Barabbas found himself in the most secure prison in the country, awaiting execution in the morning. The story is told in Luke 23 but, before we get into it, we need a little background.
While Barabbas lay in prison, Jesus was being tried in another wing of the same huge building. His arrest had been orchestrated by insecure and envious government leaders. These politicians were also the nation’s religions leaders (similar to some contemporary Muslim states, where religious leaders are by default the brokers of political power).
They held an emergency (and unlawful) session of court in order to try Jesus, found him guilty of blasphemy, and sentenced him to death. But these men had a problem: they had to answer to a foreign power, which alone retained the right to impose the death penalty. That meant they needed to work through the Roman procurator, Pilate.
He was, as in prior years, in town for the Jewish Feast of Passover. In their own court, the religious leaders charged Jesus with blasphemy, but before the procurator they brought charges of sedition. It was the only way they could think of to get the case heard in a Roman court.
The headquarters of the imperial government was far away in Caesarea, but when Pilate came to Jerusalem each year for the Feast, he stayed in the residential wing of the palace of Herod, which also housed the imperial guard and contained a high security prison. The district in which the palace was located was Jerusalem’s version of the “green zone”.
Barabbas (not his real name, but a nickname or an alias) sat in that prison on the night Jesus was arrested. He had been tried and found guilty of murder and insurrection and was scheduled for execution in the morning. He had one hope, though. Each year during the Feast, the Roman governor would release one prisoner, as a show of political goodwill. Barabbas knew that his friends and supporters would be at the palace at the crack of dawn, to plead for his release.
But when dawn came, the governor was busy questioning Jesus, the prisoner the Jewish high court had sent. When he then told the Jewish leaders that he had not found sufficient cause to try their case, they were outraged and countered that Jesus had stirred up rebellion from Galilee to Judea.
Hearing that Jesus was from Galilee, Pilate immediately had him transferred to the governor of that province, Herod Antipas, who was also in town for the Feast. But Antipas sent him back without taking the case. Then Pilate brought Jesus out to his accusers, and for the second time announced that he had found no cause to pursue charges. He then offered to free Jesus as part of the annual prisoner release.
That’s when all of Barabbas’ friends and supporters began shouting, “Release Barabbas to us.” The wily politicians who wanted Jesus dead saw their chance and took up the cry: “Barabbas! Barabbas! Release Barabbas!” Now remember: Barabbas was being held in that same building. He may even have heard the shouting, “Barabbas! Barabbas!”
If he did, it must have sparked his hope. He never dreamt there would be so many people come to support him. Of course, he would not have been able to make out much of what was being said, but perhaps he heard the shouts: “Barabbas! Barabbas!” He would have smiled to himself. That brings us through Luke 23:18.
Pilate did not want to release Barabbas, who really was guilty of sedition. He wanted to release Jesus, whom he knew to be innocent. So, he appealed to them, verse 20, on Jesus’ behalf. That’s when (verse 21) the religious leaders started the chant, “Crucify! Crucify!”
Now put yourself in Barabbas’ place. You’ve heard your name being shouted by a huge crowd, and it’s given you hope. But after the shouts, “Barabbas! Barabbas!” the next thing you hear is the crowd shouting “Crucify! Crucify!” Something must have gone horribly wrong.
You would strain every nerve to hear the next sounds, but all you could make out was a jubilant shout and, shortly after, the Roman guards tramping toward your cell. Think of how you would feel: the time of reckoning had come. You were about to pay for your sins.
A guard, who hates you, says, “Get on your feet!” But instead of hauling you off to your doom, he unlocks your shackles. They open the door wide, and he tells you to get out; you’re free. Dumbfounded, you ask “Why?” And he answers, “Because the Nazarene, Jesus, took your place.”