Teaching Sermons For Pastors and Laymen


The Face of Fortune: Barabbas

Text: Now the governor's custom was to release one Jewish prisoner each year during the Passover celebration--anyone they wanted…Then Pilate released Barabbas to them. And after he had whipped Jesus, he gave him to the Roman soldiers to be taken away and crucified. (Matthew 27:15, 26)

Scripture Reading: Now the governor's custom was to release one Jewish prisoner each year during the Passover celebration--anyone they wanted.  This year there was a particularly notorious criminal in jail named Barabbas, and as the crowds gathered before Pilate's house that morning he asked them, "Which shall I release to you--Barabbas, or Jesus your Messiah?"  For he knew very well that the Jewish leaders had arrested Jesus out of envy because of his popularity with the people.  Just then, as he was presiding over the court, Pilate's wife sent him this message: "Leave that good man alone; for I had a terrible nightmare concerning him last night."  Meanwhile the chief priests and Jewish officials persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas's release, and for Jesus' death.  So when the governor asked again, "Which of these two shall I release to you?" the crowd shouted back their reply: "Barabbas!"  "Then what shall I do with Jesus, your Messiah?" Pilate asked. And they shouted, "Crucify him!"  "Why?" Pilate demanded. "What has he done wrong?" But they kept shouting, "Crucify! Crucify!"  When Pilate saw that he wasn't getting anywhere and that a riot was developing, he sent for a bowl of water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this good man. The responsibility is yours!"  And the mob yelled back, "His blood be on us and on our children!"  Then Pilate released Barabbas to them. And after he had whipped Jesus, he gave him to the Roman soldiers to be taken away and crucified.
  Matt 27:15-26 (Living)


Pilate presented Barabbas to the crowd as an alternative, which would allow him to escape his responsibility in this ordeal.  His training in Roman government made it difficult for him to condemn an innocent man. 

Pilate’s offer takes on special significance if both of these men had the same name.  Many Bible scholars believe that the full name of Barabbas was Jesus Barabbas.  Some manuscript evidence supports this theory.  And if this was the case, the crowd had to choose between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas.

The face of Barabbas is truly the face of good fortune.  Never has a better thing happened to a man on the day of his expected crucifixion.  Jesus of Nazareth probably died on the cross that was prepared for Jesus Barabbas. 

When the Sabbath came, Jesus was lying in a tomb, and Barabbas was sleeping in his own bed.  This graphically sets forth the central truth of the gospel, “CHRIST DIED FOR US.”

There are only three points, which I want to make in regard to this incident:

And when we are finished today, I hope that it is clear to everyone that Christ died for us, and when he died for us, we were not His friends, and we were His enemies.  Our story is very much like Barabbas’ story, and that will become evident as we unravel the details of this story.

Our first point is that there was AN UNDESERVED FORTUNE.

Barabbas deserved to die.  Justice had finally caught up with him.  He was guilty of the crimes he was charged with, and a Roman court had sentenced him to death by crucifixion.  When he awoke that morning, he believed that it was his last day of life; his situation was hopeless.  But are we not all worthy of death, when we are measured by God’s perfect standard of righteousness?  Didn’t Paul write, “Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God's glorious ideal” (Romans 3:23, Living).  And he also wrote, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 6:23, Living).

We know that Barabbas wasn’t crucified, on that Friday morning, two thousand years ago, because Jesus took his place.  The crowd asked for him to be released, instead of Jesus.  He didn’t deserve his good fortune for at least two reasons.

First, Because of wasted opportunities. 

“Barabbas” means “son of a father.”  This probably indicates that he was the son of a rabbi.  His full name then would have been Jesus, the Son of the Rabbi.  Growing up in the home of a rabbi would have given him the opportunity to know the things of God.  It would have brought many special opportunities for spiritual development.  But apparently, Barabbas had failed to take advantage of those opportunities.  Instead of following in his father’s footsteps, he became a thief and a murderer. 

Does that sound like your story?  You and I may not have been raised in a minister’s home, but God has graced us with special opportunities.  And in my case, I wasted those opportunities, just like Barabbas.  Allow me to confess just one of those wasted opportunities to you.  When I graduated high school, I was awarded a football scholarship to Ottawa University.  The year before, I had given my life to the Lord and decided that I was going to be a minister.  It was my good fortune that Ottawa University was a Baptist College and pre-ministry was a course that was offered.  Everything went well the first semester, but as the second semester began, I became discouraged because my parents were having financial problems.  I dropped out of school part way through the second semester and broke the vow I had made to God.  I was ashamed, because I had wasted a good opportunity to become a minister. Today, I wish I had gone on down that path and spent my life serving God.

There is a second reason why Barabbas’ good fortune was undeserved, and it is because of the laws he had broken. 

Barabbas had broken the laws of man and the laws of God.  He had been a terrorist against the Roman government.  He was a devoted member of the Zealots, who were dedicated to the overthrow of Roman rule.  In the process of pursuing this goal, he had broken many of the laws of God.  He had been guilty of violating almost the entire second table of the Ten Commandments.  Disobedience to parents, murder, stealing, lying, and covetousness were characteristics of his life.  The only thing that I can liken him to today is the Al Kidah, who commit terrorist attacks on American people and American facilities.  We are all aware of the terrible damage that they can do.

 If Jesus was going to die in the place of someone else, certainly He wouldn’t die in the place of someone like Barabbas!  But in the providence of God, Jesus did take the place of Barabbas, so that the great truth of the gospel might be revealed.  It says in Romans, “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8, Living).  He died for sinners!  Barabbas was a sinner, and all of us are sinners.  I continually thank God that He didn’t come into the world to call the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance.

Barabbas didn’t deserve to have Jesus take his place on the cross; he didn’t deserve for Jesus to die in his place.  We don’t deserve it either, but we’re glad He did. 
The second point is this; there was AN UNSOUGHT FORTUNE.

First, Barabbas never asked Jesus to take his place, and second, sinners never asked Jesus to take their place either.  As Barabbas stayed in his cell awaiting crucifixion, he never thought to ask anyone to take his place.  He simply assumed that his crimes had caught up with him.  No one was more surprised than Barabbas with the outcome.  He must have received the news of his release with some skepticism.  He may even have thought that the soldiers were playing a twisted prank on him.  But the news was true.  Jesus of Nazareth was going to die in his place. 

Think for a moment about you and me.  Jesus did not die for us in response to any appeal on our part.  And it was the same with those Jewish sinners; instead of pleading with Him to bear their sins, they were busy rejecting Him.  It says in John’s gospel, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not” (John 1:11).   

The only explanation for Jesus’ action is love.  He died for us, because He wanted to save us from hell.  I believe that Pilate and the Roman soldiers believed that they were in charge that day, but it was the man who was nailed to the cross, who was really in charge.  He could have called ten thousand angels to take him off the cross, and carry Him back to heaven, but he chose instead, to die alone for you and me.  He is a great Savior of great sinners. 

Now, this is the last point, there was AN UNRESTRICTED FORTUNE.

There was freedom; first for Barabbas, and then because of Jesus death and resurrection we have freedom through the gospel. 

Let’s look first at the freedom of Barabbas. 

All Barabbas had to do was to walk out of the jail and he was a free man.  Since Jesus was going to die in his place by Pilate’s decree, the Roman law had no claim on him.  His debt to society was paid. It must have taken Barabbas a long time to realize what had really happened.  He may have continued to hide every time he saw a Roman soldier coming.  He may have expected to hear that the soldiers were looking for him; to take him back to prison.  He could have believed that they would tell him that his pardon wasn’t true.  But it was!  Barabbas had the good fortune to receive unrestricted freedom at the expense of another man.

There was freedom for Barabbas, but there is also freedom for you and me through the gospel. 

Forgiveness must be God’s greatest gift to humanity.  It means that God has cancelled the entire debt of our sins.  But we must never forget that God is free to cancel the debt, only because Christ paid for it.  Peter wrote, “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by His wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24, NIV).  And Ephesians 1:7 says, “In (Christ) we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins.”  Redemption is deliverance from bondage, by means of a price that is paid.  Believers have been liberated from the slavery of self, sin and Satan.  We have been liberated by the Son of God.  “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed,” (John 8:36) according to John’s gospel. 

His blood is the ransom price that was paid for our salvation.  This means that we can know freedom from condemnation, freedom from guilt, freedom from the stains of sin-all through the death of Jesus Christ.  No wonder Paul exclaimed, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14). 

God’s gift of salvation through faith is our guarantee that we don’t need to depend on works for salvation.  If good works were the way to be saved, we could boast of our personal righteousness.  However, Christ removed that tendency when He died on the cross to provide for our justification.  Now Believers must boast about Christ, who died to justify all those who believe in Him. 


Barabbas accepted Jesus’ death in his place.  He gladly walked out of the jail, and let Jesus die in his place.  I don’t know if Barabbas ever realized the meaning of the substitution, but we have no reason to deny its significance today. 

Allow me to tell you a story about a young man named Bill, who joined the Navy, when World War II began.  One night his ship came into Boston, and he decided to visit his former pastor and friend, Rev. Stidger.  During their visit together, Rev. Stidger said, “Bill, tell me the most exciting experience you have had so far.”  Bill hesitated.  It wasn’t that he had trouble selecting the most exciting experience.  Rather, the experience he had in mind was so wonderful and sacred that he had trouble putting it into words. Bill was the captain of a large transport that, along with a convoy, was making its way across the Atlantic.  One day an enemy submarine arose in the sea a short distance away.  Bill saw a torpedo coming directly toward his transport, which was loaded with hundreds of young men.  He had no time to change course.  Through the loud speaker he shouted, “Boys, this is it.”Nearby was a small escorting destroyer.  The captain of the destroyer also saw the submarine and torpedo.  Without a moments hesitation he gave the order, “Full speed ahead!” 

The tiny destroyer eased into the path of the torpedo, taking the full impact of the deadly missile midship.  The destroyer blew apart and sunk quickly; every man of the crew was lost.  For a long time Bill remained silent.  Then he glanced up at his beloved pastor and said, “Rev. Stidger, the skipper of that destroyer was my best friend.”  Again Bill was quiet for awhile, and then he said slowly, “You know there is a verse in the Bible that has special meaning for me now.  It is, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, than a man lay down his life for his friends.’” 

Jesus laid down His life for us.  But we were not Jesus’ friends when He laid down His life.  We were His enemies.  Nevertheless, He took our place on the cross.  I cannot comprehend the great love of God that was present in the Lord Jesus Christ that He would leave heaven’s glory to come to earth and suffer and die for us.  If you will receive Him as your Savior and Lord?  Then you can sing with me:

Under an eastern sky,
Amid a Rabbles cry,
A man went forth to die,
For me, for me, for me.


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