Barabbas Comparison & Jesus’ Significance

My last post I considered how Western Christianity denigrated Barabbas by taking Barabbas’ ethnicity out of the equation as well as ignoring the socio-political context. This was all compounded by a tradition of sloppy exegesis which distorted the clear depiction of an insurrectionist into a mindless serial killer.

However, I would like to consider why Barabbas is important in the Jesus story. More often than not, Barabbas is the poster child and mascot for those who choose to impose penal substitutionary atonement on every passage, regardless of the biblical context. Why not, Barabbas deserved his crime and Jesus took his place, right? Well, yes and no.

The reality is that Barabbas’ presence in the story is not there primarily to teach us that Jesus is our substitute. Instead, Barabbas is supposed to help us consider Jesus’ significance and mission. Remember that Jesus was Jewish just like Barabbas, and both were born into oppressed bodies under the Roman Empire. Barabbas as noted in my last post was a well known revolutionist who attempted to violently overthrow his occupiers. However, Jesus is actually accused of participating in similar activities when before the Roman authorities. Consider these passages…

Luke 23:2 “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.”

Luke 23:5 “But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”

In fact, in Matthew 26:55 Jesus himself poses a rhetorical question as he is about to be arrested. He asks “Am I leading a rebellion?” However, the answer is not clear cut. In some ways he is, just not a violent one like the kind Barabbas leads. However his proclamations of a new Kingdom being ushered in certainly imply a certain type of overthrow.

So again we have Barabbas and we have Jesus.  In many ways you could say that they are both revolutionaries, just varying in kind. Matthew 27:15-27 goes a bit further and clues us in on Barabbas’ importance in the Jesus story. Barabbas’ name is Jesus Barabbas. Here in Matthew we see that there is a choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah. Jesus itself means “the Lord Saves”. So the choice for the people comes down what type of revolution they want and who they believe God is going to use to bring them true liberation. They can try to achieve freedom using the same tools that currently oppress them (violence and manipulation) or Jesus’ methods (sacrifice and service).

Unfortunately they choose Barabbas, thinking that the way of force, violence, and oppression will some how turn into freedom and peace (often promised imperial deceptions).  Yet we all have a choice to make, who will you follow Jesus Barabbas the Violent One or Jesus the Crucified One. Do you expect the violent tools of the empire to suddenly create a new world of  peace and justice? Or are you willing to follow Jesus’ way, the way of the cross, as he flips this world upside-down? How does this impact our role as Christians in America, (the modern Roman Empire in the world)?

Christ’s Victory In Light Of The Cross


How significant is it that Christ was victorious over the authorities and the empire, which were actually the ones to sentence him to death? American Christians do not often talk about the cross in that type of manner, not being necessarily concerned with the social implications, but rather emphasize the cross’ ability to offer personal redemption and forgiveness from sin. Yet the New Testament writers seem to have no problem talking about both its ability to cover our sin as well as its social implications over power (including, Sin, death, empire, rulers, authorities, and Satan). The cross was a low and humbling death, reserved for common thieves, and those involved in revolutions wanting to overthrow the Roman Empire. In many ways, the Cross contextually is an image of defeat, designed to shame and embarrass its victims, while serving as a visual warning for those who would find themselves with similar values. How then do we interpret Christ’s Victory in a place of utter defeat and shame? How do we in our own lives take up our own cross, going up against all the odds? How do we in wanting to save our lives, basically lose our lives for Christ? What does that look like in the 21st Century? What does that look like in your neighborhood?
I believe that when we find ourselves in that lowly place of despair and hopelessness, that we will most clearly understand Christ’s Victory. The significance of the victory seems to be directly contrasted with the seemingly drastic desperation and bleakness in which it comes out of. It is as though, God is choosing what is low and despised to reduce to nothing the things that are powerful and dominant (1 Cor. 1:28). Therefore by putting his money on the underdog or the impossible situation, God shows himself as sovereign over even the impossible. And so we reflect on the Cross, keeping it as the center point of everything that we do, as we seek to true comprehensive victory in every sphere and realm of life.

“And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive together with him, when he forgave us all our trespasses, erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.” (Colossians 2:13-15)

Holy Week…

If anyone knows me, they know that I believe that this time ought not only be about remembering Jesus on the cross, but the cross of Jesus ought to be shaping how we live our lives too.  Our lives now ought be continually marked by love, sacrifice, submission, and service to God and others!

Lynching: The Cross and The Lynching Tree

Prominent African American theologian James Cone has made the connection between crucifixions in the first century under the Roman Empire  and lynchings in post Civil War America. Both of these rugged trees were used to maintain control over a people group. Criminals, revolutionaries, and innocent men were hung up on these trees to not only kill the individual, but to also put fear in the eyes of those who saw these dead bodies hanging.  Around 70 A.D. over 6,000 Jews were crucified during the Jewish war. And there were over 5,000 blacks lynched after the civil war.

It is on the cross that Jesus, a Jew under Roman rule was crucified upon as well. The cross has become the primary symbol for the Christian faith. However, its historical significance has been lost in current American culture. As we proudly sport crosses around our necks and on top of our buildings, we also have lost the symbolic, cultural,  and social weight of the cross from a 1st century Palestine perspective.  The cross of Jesus must be understood in light of the Roman empire and the rulers that harshly ruled over the Jews.  In fact, for us to understand the cross we must  step up to the foot of the lynching tree. For it is there, in the harsh, ugly history of lynchings that we get a glimpse of the Cross.  And it is there on the Cross that Jesus defeats the dominant rulers and authorities of the world, while also defeating death itself.

“Colossians 2:15 Disarming the rulers and authorities, he (Jesus) has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”