Year after year, as Christians walk through the Passion week with Jesus, our hearts are knit to him. He is our greatest hero, at the climax of his greatest feat. As we relive the story with him, we pull for him, and against his enemies. We feel varying levels of disdain for Judas who betrays him, Peter who denies him, the chief priests who despise him, Herod who mocks him, the people who call for his crucifixion, Pilate who appeases the mob and washes his hands, and Barabbas who is guilty but gets to go free.
But wait. Barabbas — the guilty who goes free? Barabbas — the sinner released to new life while the death he deserves is paid by an Innocent Substitute?
Take careful note of where Luke is leading us in his carefully crafted narrative.
Jesus, the Innocent
Three times in Luke 23:15–22, Pilate declares Jesus’ innocence.
- First, in verse 15, he says, “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.”
- Second, in verse 20, Luke tell us, “Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus…”
- Then, in verse 22, Luke says, “A third time [Pilate] said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death.’”
Three times in this short span of eight verses, Luke, through Pilate, points us to Jesus’ innocence. Jesus has done nothing deserving death. Pilate cannot find in Jesus any guilt deserving death. Our hero is innocent.
And it’s not only in these eight verses. Throughout chapter 23, Luke seems at pains to draw our attention to Jesus’ innocence. We might even call it the major theme of his version of the story.
At the beginning of the chapter, in verse 4, Pilate had already said, “I find no guilt in this man.” Then verses 14–15 reflect back on what has already happened. Not only had Pilate previously declared Jesus innocent (verse 4), but also Herod had. So Pilate says in verses 14–15: “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us.”
Then later in the chapter, the theme of Jesus’ innocence will be echoed again, by both the thief on the cross and by the centurion. The thief on the cross will say to the other thief in verse 41, “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And the centurion will say at Jesus’ death in verse 47: “Certainly this man was innocent!”
Why would Luke make so much of Jesus’ innocence? Why at least six clear declarations of Jesus’ innocence in this chapter? Why so carefully tell us that Pilate initially found no guilt in Jesus, then neither did Herod, then Pilate declared Jesus’ innocence three more times, and then not only the thief on the cross but also the centurion recognized this innocence? Luke is taking us somewhere.
Barabbas, the Guilty
Just after Pilate has said, “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him,” Luke tells us in verses 18–19, “But they all cried out together, ‘Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas’—a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.”
It is Barabbas who is the guilty, says Luke, “a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.” Barabbas is the same man called “a notorious prisoner” in Matthew 27:16, and Mark 15:7 tells us that Barabbas was “among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection.”
Murder and rebellion. Rebellion is the precise thing the leaders and the people are charging Jesus with when they say he is “misleading the people” (verse 14) and “saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (verse 2). And murder is an offense that makes it clear that Barabbas not only deserves to be in prison, but he deserves death. Genesis 9:6 taught, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Barabbas is no mere offender in rehab, but a murderer on Death Row.
Luke then reiterates for us Barabbas’s guilt in verse 25. Notice the restatement of Barabbas’s guilt when he says, “[Pilate] released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder . . . .” In other words, remember Barabbas’s sin. He’s guilty as charged.
One way we could summarize Barabbas’s plight would be to say that he is guilty of rebellion deserving death. In contrast with Jesus, who Pilate says in verse 22 has “no guilt deserving death,” Barabbas is the guilty who deserves to die.
A Horrific and Holy Substitution
Not only is Jesus the innocent, but Barabbas is the guilty. Jesus is innocent and has done nothing deserving death. Barabbas is the rebel prisoner, carrying with him guilt deserving death.
But here’s where Luke means for us to not only identify with Jesus, our Savior, but also to identify in some sense with Barabbas who so embodies our plight as rebels deserving death and our need for saving. Verse 25: “[Pilate] released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.”
Jesus the innocent is delivered over to the punishment of death; while the guilty, deserving of death, is released and thus given new life.
Note Luke’s emphasis in the word “release” that appears five times in the story:
- In verse 16, Pilate first declares that he intends to release Jesus.
- But in verse 17, the people respond, “Away with [Jesus], and release to us Barabbas.”
- Then in verse 20, Pilate again expresses his intention to release Jesus.
- Then a third time, in verse 22, Pilate says he plans to release Jesus.
- But finally in verse 25, Luke tells us that Pilate “released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.”
And so the people are pleased to exchange Jesus, the innocent, for Barabbas, the guilty.
The First Substitution of the Cross
As we’ve seen through the stressing of Jesus’ innocence and Barabbas’s guilt, Luke is leading us sinners, in his careful telling of the story, to identify in this significant way with Barabbas. As Jesus’ condemnation leads to the release of a multitude of spiritual captives from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, so also his death sentence leads to the release of the physical captive Barabbas. It’s a foretaste of the grace that will be unleashed at the cross.
Jesus is manifestly innocent. Barabbas is clearly guilty—just as we also are clearly guilty before God. Rebels deserving death. Romans 3:23 says it’s not a few of us, or even many of us, but all of us who “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And Romans 6:23 tells us that “the wages of sin is death.”
So as Pilate releases Barabbas the guilty, and delivers over to death Jesus the innocent, we have here a picture of our own release effected by the cross through faith. In Barabbas we have a glimpse of our guilt deserving death, and a preview of the arresting grace of Jesus and his embrace of the cross through which we are set free.
Here as Jesus is delivered to death, and Barabbas is released to new life, we have the first substitution of the cross. The innocent Jesus is condemned as a sinner, while the guilty sinner is released as if innocent.
I Am Barabbas
So Luke, it appears, means for us to identify both with Jesus and Barabbas. Jesus in that by identifying with him, through being united with him by faith, his death is our death. His condemning of sin is our condemning of sin. And Barabbas in that we are sinners, criminals who have broken God’s law, guilty as charged, deserving death for our rebellion against our creator and the ruler of the universe. And Jesus, through the grace of giving himself for us at the cross, takes our place and we are released.
As we more greatly understand the depths of our sin, we see with Luke, “I am Barabbas.” I am the one so clearly guilty and deserving of condemnation but set free because of the willing substitution of the Son of God in my place. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,” Jesus says in Mark 2:17. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
David Mathis (@davidcmathis) is executive editor for desiringGod.org, pastor at Cities Church in Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and adjunct professor for Bethlehem College & Seminary. He has edited several books, including Finish the Mission, Acting the Miracle, and most recently Cross, and is co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.