Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” … Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 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 should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” … So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Matthew 27:15-17, 20-23, 26.
Jesus Barabbas! Do you know what ‘bar Abbas’ means in Aramaic and Hebrew? It means ‘son of the father’. (It was the name often given to the descendants of a rabbi – a spiritual ‘father’ to his followers.) So, what is the situation that Matthew is describing here?
Well, we have a prisoner of Rome who is in custody for insurrection and murder (Mark 15:7) – Jesus ‘bar Abbas’, a ‘son of the father’ – and then we have a second Jesus – one who is known in his own region of Galilee up North as Jesus bar Joseph but whom we, the readers of Matthew’s Gospel, know to be, in truth, the archetypal Jesus ‘bar Abbas’, the beloved Son of God, begotten of His Father before all worlds. And what Matthew is telling us (if we have ears to hear) is that one of these two ‘sons of the father’ must die if the other is to walk free. No wonder Mark, Luke and John are anxious to tell us of Barabbas too (Mark 15, Luke 23 and John 18) … for the significance of his name can hardly have been lost on any of them!
Surely, in this situation, they see Barabbas, the rebel, as standing for all rebel ‘sons of the Father’ in all places and in every age and time. For what the Bible teaches is that all human beings are indeed ‘sons of the Father’. God told Jeremiah, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you’ (Jeremiah 1:5). ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you,’ God tells the Israelites (Psalm 82:6) – a word of Scripture which Jesus himself confirmed was unbreakable (John 10:34). So it is true. We are, each and every one of us, a ‘bar Abbas’ – a son of the Father – but, unlike Jesus himself, we are captive sons because our sin has brought us into bondage to the Enemy. And what the gospel writers are seeing, as the Passion narrative gathers pace and this ‘either … or’ choice is put to the mob, is the wider picture of what is happening. They see Jesus – the innocent, sinless, only-begotten Son of the Father – being put to death so that rebel Barabbases everywhere – in every place and time and age, not only the one in Jerusalem’s Praetorian Prison in AD 33 – can finally walk free.
‘Whoa! Hold on, Neil! Isn’t this penal substitution in action – the very doctrine of the atonement you are always so anxious to dismiss as a product of misguided Reformation theology?’
Not at all. Yes, it is true that Jesus died and Barabbas didn’t, but that is the full extent of the substitution. God did not punish Jesus for Barabbas’ sins. Rather, in his death Jesus did battle with, and decisively conquered, the one who had held Barabbas captive, along with every other ‘father’s son’ from the Fall onward. What happened on the cross, was that God in Christ delivered Barabbas from the hold that Satan had on him and delivered every other Barabbas from their captivity too.
Remember C S Lewis’s wonderful Narnia story for children, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? Edmund had sold out to the White Witch and had become her prisoner. How could he ever be set free? Only by Aslan going to the Stone Table in Edmund’s place. But what happened at the Stone Table? Did the ‘Great Emperor over the Sea’ (Aslan’s Father) punish Aslan for what Edmund had done? Not a bit of it. The conflict on the Stone Table was not between the Emperor over the Sea and Aslan but between the White Witch and Aslan. She claimed rights over Edmund because of Edmund’s treachery and Aslan freely acknowledged her rights, but then went down into death to extinguish them.
So it was that, on the cross, Jesus armed only with love took on the Prince of this world and fought him for the prize of captive humanity. And let us understand that when the Battle of Calvary took place, it was truly a case of ‘the winner takes it all’. While the soldiers at the foot of the cross were gambling for Jesus’ robe, the Son of the Father, on the cross above their heads, was gambling for the world and everyone in it.
In the wilderness of Judea, at the very start of Jesus’ public ministry, Satan had shown Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and told him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’ (Matthew 4:8-9); and we should note that Jesus never said, ‘Hold on a minute! The kingdoms of the world are not yours to give!’ On the contrary, he tacitly acknowledged that they did belong to Satan. Our forefather – the first ‘Barabbas’ (known to us as Adam) – had handed over his crown (and therefore our crown too) to Satan, so Jesus could rightly acknowledge Satan to be ‘the ruler of this world’ (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11). But Jesus was on the cross to ‘cast him out’. He was gambling there to unseat him by love alone and to win back the crown.
G A Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willy’ – the First World War chaplain) saw the truth of that so very clearly. In his poem He was a gambler too … he wrote:
And, sitting down, they watched Him there,
The soldiers did;
There, while they played with dice,
He made His Sacrifice,
And died upon the Cross to rid
God’s world of sin.
He was a gambler too, my Christ,
He took His life and threw
It for a world redeemed.
And ere His agony was done,
Before the weltering sun went down,
Crowning that day with its crimson crown,
He knew that He had won.
Love wins! Jesus, the Son of the Father dies so that every other lost and captive son of the Father can be found, set free and brought back to the Father’s house. Thanks be to God!