Jesus Condemned, A Murderer Set Free

Bible Reading: Matthew 27:15-18, 20-21, ESV

Jesus stood on trial, facing not just the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, but also an incited mob intent on “destroying” Him (Matthew 27:20). Meanwhile, somewhere in the bowels of the prison, a man named Barabbas sat and awaited his own execution at the hands of the government.

Of the 31,000-plus verses in the Bible, Barabbas is the subject of very few. There aren’t many details about him historically. However, he’s an incredibly unique character in the history of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.

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As the trial was coming to a close, having heard the arguments and having personally questioned Jesus, Pontius Pilate recognized that this was an unjust situation and that Jesus was merely there because of envy (Mark 15:10). He also likely knew that the mob in front of him had been “stirred up” by the chief priests (Mark 15:11).

Call it a loophole, perhaps, but Pilate gave the crowd a way out; an opening to walk away without spilling innocent blood. Per a custom, Pilate had the opportunity to release one prisoner. Next to Jesus, he brought up what was likely the worst death row inmate on his roster. “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:17).

It was a matter of innocence versus evil, yet the crowd cried out for the blood of Jesus. Christ was sentenced to death. Barabbas went free.

What do we know about Barabbas?

First, we know that Barabbas was a violent killer, thief and insurrectionist. In Mark 15:7, we read that Barabbas “was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion.” That is echoed in Luke 23:25, which says that Barabbas was guilty of rebellion and murder. John 18:40 adds robbery to Barabbas’ rap sheet.

Second, Barabbas was well known at the time. While for us, Barabbas may seem to play a small role in the Gospels, Matthew 27:16 tells us that he was a “notorious prisoner.” His violence would have been major news, even in a relatively large city like Jerusalem. When the “chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas” (Matthew 27:20), they knew exactly what they were getting in the exchange.

Finally, we know that this was a major development in the trial of Christ. While many skeptics over the years have questioned Barabbas’ existence and role in the Gospels, the fact that this transaction is recorded in all four books confirms that this event not only happened, but was likely a key and unanticipated episode.

What Are You Doing With Your Freedom?

As I contemplate Barabbas, this thought comes to mind. We know that Jesus was hung on a cross between two thieves, a fact that is also confirmed in all four Gospels. There were three crosses. Was the third one reserved for Barabbas? Was he scheduled to die that day? Did Jesus take Barabbas’ place on Golgotha (the hill on which the crucifixion occurred)?

Barabbas was condemned. Whether it was that day (as I surmise) or down the road, this murderer, rebel and thief was going to pay the cost of his insurrection. He was just waiting for his time, bearing the chains that held him firmly in his cell.

But then, unexpectedly, a man he had never met took his place. Though his punishment was death, he was given an opportunity at redemption. I don’t for a second imagine that he waited or argued. He ran, as far and as fast as he could to get away from certain death.

My friends, how many of us are like Barabbas? We’re sinners who have fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23) and the penalty of that sin is eternal death (Romans 6:23). Jesus has paid the penalty and taken our place, giving us the opportunity for the gift of God, which is eternal life (Romans 6:23).

Jesus took Barabbas’ place, and Barabbas didn’t hesitate to accept that substitution. Will you?

Discussion Questions

  • Put yourself in Barabbas’ place. What emotions would you have felt in that prison cell, awaiting certain execution? How would you have reacted after realizing that someone else was taking your place on the cross, and you were being set free?
  • If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, describe the freedom that you have found in Him. How is your life different now than before you knew Him as Savior?


Dear Jesus, thank You for taking my place on the cross and paying the debt of my sin. Thank You for the freedom that I now have in You. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Scripture Reference: Matthew 27:15-18, 20-21

15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted.

16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.

17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”

18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.

20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.

21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.”

Ready to commit or recommit your life to Christ? Pray now.