The Troubling Allure of Barabbas

We live in dangerous, deceptive times, when it has never been more important to be like the sons of Issachar, “who understood the times”  and knew what God’s people should do (1 Chronicles 12:32). In recent decades, many Christians have been hoodwinked by smooth-talking, emotion-stirring politicians and philosophies. Too often, we’ve allowed feel-good rhetoric, Santa Claus handouts, or demonization of opponents to twist reality and sway us from biblical values.

I’m old enough to remember the old “To Tell the Truth” TV program, where three mystery guests claimed to be a certain person, and the four celebrity panelists had to guess which one of them was telling the truth about their identity. Each segment of the program culminated with the host saying, “Only one  of these is the real ______, and the others are imposters. Will the real _____ please stand up!”

Matthew 27 tells a story remarkably similar to an episode of “To Tell the Truth.” Two men stood before the Roman governor (Pontius Pilate) and a large crowd of people. Both of these men were revolutionaries, but they advocated two very different kinds of revolution. Both were radical in their approach, but in completely different ways.

Pilate made it clear that only one of these men could be chosen: “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”  (v. 17) The people had to carefully evaluate the claims of these two revolutionaries before making their all-important decision.

According to many early manuscripts, the full name of the first man was Jesus Barabbas. Jesus meant “savior,”  and Barabbas meant “son of the father”  (Bar = Son, Abbas = Father). This man was widely known as an insurrectionist who had participated in a recent uprising against the Roman authorities (Mark 15:7).

The message of Barabbas was clear: “You all could have a great life if it weren’t for the Romans. They’ve victimized and oppressed you, making it impossible to be happy and productive. Let me  come to your aid and get rid of the ‘bad guys’ who’ve ripped you off and done you wrong.”

In some ways, Barabbas was probably ahead of his time. It was a message that would later be echoed by populism, progressivism, and communists from Karl Marx to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.

And, no doubt, there was a grain of truth in Barabbas’ case, just as there have always been elements of truth in the manipulative arguments of political demagogues throughout the centuries. However, the cure he promised didn’t address the more fundamental cause of people’s misery.

Standing next to Barabbas that day was a very different kind of revolutionary, though there were some intriguing parallels between the men. This radical young leader from Nazareth was also named Jesus, and his followers considered him the Savior. And just as the name Barabbas meant “son of the father,”  this other Jesus was known by many as the son of Father God. Ultimately he was referred to as Jesus the Christ, or Messiah.

Jesus had some fair-weather followers who probably weren’t much different from the followers of Barabbas. They saw his miracles and hoped he would liberate them from Roman oppression and restore the independent Jewish nation. Mostly likely, this was their misguided motivation in shouting “Hosanna” (save  now!) when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey a few days earlier.

However, the message of this  Jesus was much different than Jesus Barabbas. Instead of promising political solutions—salvation from the outside—he told his followers they must repent and receive God’s kingdom on the inside. Rather than allowing his disciples to pity themselves and feel like victims, he challenged them to take the “logs”  out of their own eyes and deal with any sin or selfishness that was preventing them from receiving true freedom and abundance.

The unfolding scene in Matthew 27 was almost unbelievable. Which “Jesus”—which savior—would the people choose: Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Christ? Would they opt for a political solution that let them off the hook in dealing with their own sinfulness and disobedience? Or would they embrace Jesus’ promise of a new heart and a transformed life?

You see, two different gospels were presented by these two men. Both claimed to offer “good news” to those who would follow their pathway. Barabbas promised a better life once the Romans were defeated, while Jesus promised new life in a spiritual kingdom that transcended politics and earthly kingdoms.

To Pilate’s shock, the people overwhelmingly voted for Barabbas and were content to send Jesus to crucifixion. How could this be? Were they simply deceived, lured by Barabbas’ promise of sweet revenge against their oppressors? Were they paid off by the jealous religious leaders, who saw Jesus as a threat to their grip on people’s lives? Or was the problem that most of Jesus’ fans and followers simply failed to show up—or speak up—on that fateful day?

Today America faces an eerily similar moment of decision. As in the days of Barabbas and Jesus, we face enormous economic and social challenges, causing many people to feel desperate for relief. If we are seduced by the promises of Barabbas, we will seek political saviors and opt for government solutions to our woes. We will listen to the alluring siren call of those who stoke the flames of victimhood and demonize opponents with a “divide and conquer” strategy.

In contrast, the pathway prescribed by Jesus seems much more costly and difficult. It beckons us to lay down our lives and trust God to meet our needs. Instead of permitting us to play the blame game, it points us to the ancient remedy prescribed in 2 Chronicles 7:14: We must humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face, and turn from our own wicked ways. Then, and only then, does the Lord promise to forgive our national sins and heal our land.

It’s time to repent of any tendency to cast our nation’s leaders in the role of our savior or source. There’s only ONE true Savior and Source, and those who put their hope in Him  will not be disappointed (Romans 10:11). Every human substitute is just an imposter and counterfeit, shifting sand that will ultimately replace our soaring hopes with deep disappointment.