Give Us Barabbas

John 18:38-40

Pilate… …told them, “I find no case against him.  But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”  They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.

I’ve been thinking about these verses a lot for the last few days.  Wednesdays I teach a small group of 5th through 7th graders at our church.  They’re a motley crew and I love them.  Lately, we’ve been reading through the last chapters in John.  We began in chapter 13 and last Wednesday we covered chapter 18.

These poor kids.  They range in age from 11 to 14 and every Wednesday for an hour they sit in a small, poorly ventilated room listening to me prattle on over my thoughts on the Bible.  I pity them.

But it’s pretty fun for me.  I enjoy discovering new perspectives I haven’t seen before while I’m studying the Word in order to prepare the lesson for the week.  I’ve probably read these chapters in John more than I’ve read any other part of the Bible simply because I’ve taught on it so many times now.  And it seems like each time I read them and teach on them I learn something new, see things in a new light.

This week it’s these last few verses in John 18.  “Give us Barabbas!”  I’ve stumbled onto something I hadn’t thought of before and I can’t seem to get my mind off of it.  If you decide to continue reading, you might find that my “revelation” is something you’ve always known and it’s no news to you.  You might become bored by my ramblings and need to yawn, causing you to stretch and uncontrollably smack your Great-Aunt Gertie in the kisser, dislodging her dentures and sending them flying across the room into the enormous cake your mother just so happens to be carrying at that precise moment, ruining Great-Uncle Bertie’s 92nd birthday.  Please know that if this happens, I apologize profusely and will reimburse your mom the cost of the cake.

Fingers crossed for no denture-cake disasters because I am about to proceed on my ramble and reveal to you my thoughts on John 18:38-40.

Ok.  Here goes:

Barabbas.  Verse 40 calls Barabbas a bandit in the New Revised Standard Version.  Others versions and verses call him a thief, a robber, a murderer.  In other words, scum.scum and villainy

Did the crowd outside Pilate’s headquarters really want Barabbas released to them?

I’m not gonna answer that question.  I’m gonna let you think about it while I ramble on some more and ask even more questions.

John 11:47-50

The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all!  You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

These verses from John 11 are now inextricably linked to John 18:38-40 in my mind.  I see the Pharisees in an entirely new light.  I’m gonna try to connect all the dots for you now, in a way that makes some sense, bear with me.bear with me

The hierarchy of the time was complex.  The Roman government had conquered Israel and though they ruled over them, they had not wiped out their culture.  In fact, the Jewish people were allowed to continue to carryout their customs and to worship in the temple.

Understanding this helps us get into the minds of the Pharisees and priests a little.

Going way back to the OT, we find that when God freed Israel from the rule of Pharaoh, he set up a form of government called a theocracy. God was Israel’s ruler. He chose a series of judges to be his voice to the people, judges like Moses, Joshua, Deborah and Samuel. Underneath them were the priests.

This system didn’t last though. All the neighboring nations had human kings as their ruler. And like any snot-nosed kid, Israel wanted what the other kids had, a human king. “But all the other kids have one!”

God warned the Israelites (1 Samuel 8) that they would regret having a king to rule over them, but what child listens to their father the first time? Samuel, God’s chosen judge, anointed Saul the first king of Israel.  And things went as expected.

Now, God was still sovereign but the people were led by the king.  If the king loved God, he followed his precepts and listened to his prophets and the nation prospered.  But many of the kings did not follow God.  They became envious of their neighbors and adopted their ways and followed their gods.  They lost God’s favor and protection.

Israel, once undefeated and mighty, was now brutally conquered and overthrown.  Carried off by their conquerors and living in foreign lands, they once again turned to God.  Eventually, they returned to the lands of Israel but nothing was ever the same again.

Now, in the time of Jesus they live under Roman rule.  Herod is the puppet “king”, born from the royal line but working for the Roman government.  Caesar is, of course, king of all Roman lands and has governors appointed to different parts of the land of Israel.  Pilate governs Jerusalem.

Underneath all that are the priests of the temple, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  Herod may be “king” but he is little more than another Roman governor and lives a life of indulgence.  The priests are now the voice of God to the people of Israel.  Gone are the judges and prophets of old.  Now the people must rely on the Pharisees and Sadducees to interpret scripture and instruct.

And the Roman government relies on the priests to keep the people docile.  The priests are the mediators between the Roman government and the people.  They keep the peace.

And that leads us back to John 11…

John 11:47-50

The chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs.  If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all!  You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.”

The fear.  Who is this Jesus?

Rich Mullins said it best in a song (lyrics) he wrote just before his death:

Who is this guy?  He is disturbing the peace.

That’s the key, right there, you guys.  The fear.

They were afraid of what might happen.  They didn’t want to kill Jesus because they believed he was a fraud.  I’m not even sure some of them cared about that.  They wanted him dead because of what might happen.

In John chapter 3, Nicodemus, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus to have a talk.  He tells Jesus that the Pharisees know he is a teacher come from God.  Read that again.  They KNEW he was sent by God.  But what was he sent to do?  They didn’t know.  But they believed he was going to lead a revolt against the Romans and they could not allow that to happen.

Why???

I’ve read that the Pharisees made a handsome living keeping the peace between Rome and Israel.  So maybe they did not want to see the loss of income.  And that probably did play some part in it.

But I can’t escape something else.  This one thing: the fear.

What happened to their faith in Almighty God?  Israel had once been the mightiest nation on earth.  That certainly wasn’t due to Israel’s own strength or prowess.  God protected them in battle and made them victorious.  It was their own wanton ways that led to their defeat and capture in later years.  If they were really serving God as they claimed to be, wouldn’t God make them victorious in battle once again?  Where was their faith?

What if God had been calling Jesus to lead a revolt against the Romans?  If their faith was really in God, they would have been by Jesus’ side, ready to fight.  Isn’t that what they had been waiting for all of those centuries?  A messiah to save them from their captivity?  A new Moses to lead them out of a metaphorical Egypt?

“Surely this man Jesus is the prophesied messiah,” many would say.  But not the Pharisees.  They could not say it because of their fear.  They had lost faith in God to save them.

Which leads us to Barabbas and why I can’t stop thinking about him.

They chose Barabbas, a bandit, thief, robber, murderer, over Jesus because of fear.  And it is still happening today.

If you’re given the choice between Barabbas and Jesus and you choose Jesus, it changes everything.

Everything.

I don’t feel like I can stress enough that it changes everything.

Pilate, the Roman governor, will forever be asking everyone for all of time until the Lord Jesus returns to choose Jesus or Barabbas.

John 18:38-40

Pilate… …told them, “I find no case against him.  But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”  They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.

He says, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”  If we say yes, we are acknowledging that Jesus is, in fact, King of the Jews.  We are acknowledging more than that.  We acknowledging that Jesus was innocent the charges laid against him.  We are acknowledging that we believe the words Jesus spoke of himself.  We are putting our faith in Jesus.

Because that is what the Pharisees could not do.  Their fear overrode their faith.  They were too afraid to put their faith in Jesus and they were so afraid his teachings and miracles would lead to revolt that they needed him to die so they could alleviate their fears.

“Give us Barabbas!”  We would rather celebrate a murderer than put our faith in Jesus.  Faith in Jesus means real life change.  I meant a real life change for the Pharisees and it means a real life change today.  Faith in Jesus is dangerous because there is no way to know where it will lead.  Once we put our faith in him, we lose control.  And control is precious to us.

The Pharisees didn’t want to lose control and we don’t want to lose control.  We would rather crucify Jesus, or invalidate him, mythologize him, and destroy his reputation, than lose our control, our power over our own lives.

We live in absolute fear.

No one calls it fear.  No one will ever admit they are afraid.  But we are.  We are afraid of Jesus and his power.  And we must destroy that which we fear.

“Give us Barabbas!” is the cry of our modern society.  I see it everywhere.  But it is a cry that has rung out through the centuries, echoing in every culture since it was first uttered at the feet of Pilate.  And the Pilates of our modern society continue to acquiesce.  “I will give you Barabbas, a murderer and thief, because that is what you want and I will crucify Jesus because that is what you want.”

Society continues to this day to cry out, “Do not give us Jesus!  We do not want to submit to him.  We do not want to put our faith in God.  We want to be in control!  We want to be our own gods.  We want Barabbas because in him we see beauty.  In Barabbas we see a man who does what he wants and makes a name for himself and that is praiseworthy to us.  Fame, power, control, narcissism – these are the traits we respect, give us these!  But do not give us Jesus because he requires too much.  Kill him, slander him, make him of no repute.  If he is a liar, we don’t have to give account for ourselves.  So make him a liar.  And give us Barabbas.”

barabbas-lestai

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