For Whom Did Jesus Die?


Well, on the very face of it, you have to say that Jesus died for Barabbas.

I had the good fortune of preaching at University Baptist Church in Waco last weekend. I cheated a bit on the lectionary and preached about Barabbas, the insurrectionist and murderer who was released by Pilate.

There are numerous problems with this passage. One is that there’s no extra-biblical evidence of what Mark writes: “Back in those days, there was a tradition…” That tradition was to release one prisoner during the Festival of Passover. The problems are:

  1. There was no such tradition, as far as we know.
  2. The Romans were not respecters of the religions of their conquered subjects.
  3. The Romans did not release murders and insurrectionists. Ever.

Add to that the generic name of the released prisoner — Barabbas means, “son of the father” — and you start to wonder if this story has more of a literary function than anything.

According to my friend, Rabbi Joe, this is one of the most anti-Jewish texts in the New Testament. It ends up, almost unbelievably, making the Roman governor, Pilate, a sympathetic figure, while putting in the mouths of the Jews, “Crucify him!” Repeatedly.

With that as a backdrop, we can look at the broader implications of this story. IMHO, they are this:

- The cross is incontrovertibly political. Barabbas was a political prisoner, and Jesus was ultimately crucified as a political prisoner, on the charge of sedition. Two governments — the Roman and the Jewish — are implicated in his execution. The cross is and must always be political.

- Jesus died on Barabbas’ cross. Barabbas didn’t do anything to merit his salvation. He didn’t repent, and he didn’t ask Jesus into his heart. Jesus died in his stead, and all Barabbas did was walk out of prison, a free man.

What, if anything, do you take away from the story of Barabbas?

  • jc

    not sure where you’re getting that romans weren’t tolerant towards the beliefs of the conquered subjects. with a few notable exceptions (human sacrifices of druids, later christianity) the romans were generally very tolerant (for their time) of the religious beliefs of the conquered people. that’s how so many areas stayed peaceful.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Tolerant, yes. That’s the Pax Romanum.

      They were not, however, celebratory of their subjects’ religions. And they surely didn’t release murders and seditionists out of honor for a Jewish holiday.

      • Rich

        “And they surely didn’t release murders and seditionists out of honor for a Jewish holiday.”

        Well, God tells us they did in His Word, so they must have. To say otherwise would be an argument from silence. How many Biblical tidbits have there been through history which created skepticism but were eventually shown to be true? Not only do all four Gospels agree about Barabbas, even the non-canonical Gospel of Peter mentions it. Furthermore, it makes some pragmatic sense when you consider (as JC pointed out) the Romans were very tolerant toward other religions and not particularly keen on providing fodder for insurrections. An insurrection in Jerusalem not only would have gone poorly (and did in 70 AD) for the Jews, it would have cost Pilate his job (and maybe more).

  • http://bobhyatt.me Bob Hyatt

    That he took not only Barabbas’ place but his punishment?

  • Evelyn

    Jesus died for YOU Tony Jones so PAY UP!

  • Derian

    to me it means Christians are known for the wrong politics–they look at lot more like hate than love to me anyway

  • J.T.

    “According to my friend, Rabbi Joe, this is one of the most anti-Jewish texts in the New Testament. It ends up, almost unbelievably, making the Roman governor, Pilate, a sympathetic figure, while putting in the mouths of the Jews, “Crucify him!” Repeatedly.”

    Als0 – the words, “We have no king but Caesar!”
    WHAT THE!?
    Amazing.

    • Kristen

      Well it seems to me that the point of “We have no king but Caesar!” is to show how horribly they’re breaking their own rules. They’re so desperate to get rid of Jesus they will compromise EVERYTHING else. This is not an indictment of Judaism, far from it, but of these people.

      And so do we. It’s not about “them,” it’s about “us.” As I read the Passion stories, it seems as if Matthew (writing to a Jewish audience) is the hardest on the crowd, which is interesting because for Matthew’s audience the crowd is most clearly “us.”

      That puts a different spin on things.

      Question for all the people here who are more theologically well read than myself. It seems to me that “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children” just HAS to be a double entendre, along the lines of “It is better that one man should die than the entire people perish” — which is exactly what’s happening although not the way Caiaphas means it.

      “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children” is in Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospels. And all of this is set at Passover. And what happens at Passover to the households (us and our children) marked with the blood of the lamb?

  • Mestes

    I’m sure Jesus wasn’t concerned with politics or any other social construct during His torturing procession of death (there was only one thing on His mind). And as far as Jesus dying on “Barabbas’ cross”, it clearly wasn’t Barabbas’ cross. Had that particular cross been meant for Barabbas, he would have died on it. As Isaiah 55:8 says, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord”. Barabbas, and everyone else, thought he was going to die that day…on that cross. But God the Father had different plans for him and for that cross. Jesus surely died in Barabbas’ stead in the eternal sense that He died for us all, but not in the literal sense being implied here. But that’s just IMHO.

    • JT

      I disagree. The fact that Jesus looked at the disciple whom Jesus loved, who was standing near Jesus’ mother, and said, “Son, behold your mother….Woman, behold your son.” Jesus’ mind was at that very moment on someone besides himself. He was asking the disciple to take care of his mother as if she were his own mother. That is most definitely a social construct.

      Jesus’ entire ministry introduced political and social upheaval. I would have a hard time believing that when he said, “Father, Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” and “It is finished,” that that political and social implication wasn’t on His mind.

  • ME

    Who said Barabbas received salvation? He didn’t die, but that’s not salvation with a capital “S” is it?

    Seems hard for me to think the intention of Mark was for the Barabbas story to be literary instead of historical. I could go along with him changing the name of the released prisoner, maybe even the crime, but I still take it that in actuality there was a prisoner released instead of Jesus.

    For my interpretation the implications are that the world hates Jesus. I guess you could call that a political hatred, I view it more as a cultural hatred.

  • http://bobhyatt.me Bob Hyatt

    Ahem… again. If you go with this reading it really proves to be a wonderful picture of penal substitutionary atonement. :)

    • Rich

      Bob: :)

  • Brian

    Tony, would love to hear both your sermon and a response to Bob Hyatt’s comments. Doesn’t seem like the sermon is available online, or did I miss it?

  • JT

    I find Evelyn’s post interesting. “PAY UP!” What message are Christians being taught today? Yes. This was the mentality of every conservative church I’ve attended all my life. Somehow we’re taught that Jesus died on the cross to throw this huge guilt trip on believers so that they will straighten their lives out and live according to Old Testament Law.

    This is the false teaching Jesus warned us about! If people could actually turn their lives around and follow Old Testament Law, Christ would never have bothered to die for us. He would have just sent one prophet after another with warnings of doom if we don’t repent. But if you read your New Testament, you start realizing that salvation never was, is not, and never will be about behaving according to Old Testament Law. Grace, Salvation, whatever you want to call it, is free for the accepting. Why do you think Jesus told the Pharisees that those who have more sins will love Him more? Why do you think he said, “My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”?

    Tony is correct. Barabbas never repented. Neither did the thief on the cross. He admitted to deserving his punishment, acknowledged Jesus as blameless and simply asked Jesus to remember him when he came into His Kingdom.

    Jesus said nothing about “Pay up.” He said, “Today, you will be with Me in Paradise.”

    We cannot repent our way into heaven folks!

    • Colleen

      I certainly agree, however, what about the churches who only preach Jesus loves us over and over? I truly believe that, and love these churches, however, I think a little guilt or scare tactics would do certain Christians some good

  • Rich

    While I agree with much of what you said regarding the law and grace, JT, it’s not accurate to apply spiritual salvation to the case of Barabbas without evidence of his repentance. Furthermore, the thief on the cross surely showed repentance by acknowledging his sin and pointing to Jesus as the King and Savior. After all, what is Christian repentance except confessing our sin and believing in Jesus as Lord and Savior? God demands repentance, but we aren’t allowed to point to our own repentance as the way to be saved but only that we’re merely accepting God’s work on the cross and turning from our sin. The thief on the cross would never have said “I’m saved because I repented.” No, he was saved because Jesus is Good and died for him and his sins. Our repentance is not a saving work per se, but it is required. Otherwise, why would Jesus have said “Repent and believe”?

    Jesus demands repentance, yet only through the work of the Father is it even possible, as we are incapable of it unless the Father gives us a new heart. As God said in the OT, everything we do are used tampons compared to the work of Christ.

  • Colleen

    Therefore, Jesus is and was a liberal:)

  • Kevin Gasser

    I do find beauty in the death of Jesus in place of a murderer who did not ask for it, deserve it, or even choose his salvation. But the thing that causes me to push back a bit is that Jesus didn’t choose to die in B’s place, either. It was decided for him. But then again, one could argue that Jesus didn’t choose to die at all (for the world, sin, etc.) but that it was decided for him. Either way, a good thought-provoking post!

    And from an atonement perspective, this salvific moment does not fit nicely into a PSA model as the wrath comes from the people, not the authority figure. The authority figure is offering grace. I might have to think about this a bit.


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