The Savior Who Died in the Place of a Sinner of Like You and Me

By | March 30, 2024

Four passages tell us of how Pilate released Barabbas from death on a cross instead of our Lord Jesus Christ— Matthew 27:15–23; Mark 15:6–14; Luke 23:18–23; John 18:39–40. The following examines their descriptions of Barabbas, the innocence of Jesus, and how they portray how Jesus’ death for us.

First, consider the descriptions of Barabbas. Beyond his name (literally, “son of the father”), he is called a notorious prisoner (Matt 27:16), a rebel who committed murder in the insurrection (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19), and a robber (John 18:40).

Notorious Prisoner

Notorious (episēmos) stems from a word meaning “of exceptional quality,”* which can be either good (e.g., Rom 16:7, “Andonicus and Junia… well known to the apostles”) or bad, as it is found in Matt 27:16. Barabbas was not just a common criminal but a notorious criminal among them all.


In both Mark 15:7 and Luke 23:19, Barabbas is a rebel (stasiastēs), “a factious person who causes public discord.”* In these same verses, he said to have committed murder in the insurrection (stasis), Related to the rebel, defined as “movement toward a (new) state of affairs, uprising, riot, revolt, rebellion.”*


A robber (lēstēs) could be a “robber, highwayman, bandit.”* This word refers to sellers who used the temple for illicit gain (Mark 11:17; Luke 19:46), people who wrongfully and stealthily enter the property of others as thieves (John 10:1, 8), and even people who strip, beat, and leave travelers for dead (Luke 10:30, 36; 2 Cor 11:26). These activities could be assumed for a more intense meaning of this word, translated as “revolutionary, insurrectionist, guerrilla.”* In this sense, the term robber applied to Barabbas and the two with Jesus on their crosses (Matt 27:44; Mark 15:27). Jesus also used this term as a humorous description of Himself whose primary activity was teaching—not the kind of person who needed be apprehended with soldiers, swords, and clubs (Mark 14:48; Luke 22:52).

In contrast, Jesus had done nothing wrong to deserve His death on the cross. The Synoptic Gospels show Jesus’ innocence through Pilate’s question, “Why? What evil has He done?” (Matt 27:23; Mark 15:14; Luke 23:22). John likewise gives Pilate’s declaration, “I found no guilt in Him” (John 19:38).

As the story continues, Pilate pleased the crowds by releasing Barabbas instead of Jesus. Though we do not know if Barabbas ever came to saving faith, the narratives use Barabbas and Jesus to picture salvation in this way—Jesus died in the place of a sinner, someone like you and me. And, better than the deliverance of Barabbas, our salvation is eternal through Christ who died for us, arose, and will come for us one day.

*All definitions are from Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

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