by James M. Boice

Sometimes people get into debates over who was responsible for Jesus' crucifixion. Was it the Jews, who hated him and asked Pilate to have him killed? Or was it the Romans, who actually carried out the execution? The [gospels] recognize the guilt of both parties, plus that of the masses of Jerusalem. But that is not what they are chiefly concerned about. Their emphasis is upon this being the work of God, who by it was accomplishing salvation for all who would believe on Christ. This is why, in another place, Jesus is referred to as "the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world" (Rev. 13:8). It was God the Father who sent the Lord Jesus Christ to the cross. This tells us that the death of Jesus was no accident, but rather the accomplishment of God's plan of redemption, devised even before the universe was created. It is why Jesus came. It was for others. The death of Jesus, thus planned by God, was for others, which means that it was substitutionary or vicarious. Paul says that it was "for our sins." Death is God's punishment for sin, its consequence. But Jesus had not sinned and therefore did not deserve death. That he did die was because he was dying in our place as our sin-bearer.

"In his great commentary on Bible doctrine, which uses Romans as a "point of departure," Donald Grey Barnhouse illustrates the substitutionary nature of Christ's death by the story of Barabbas. We know that Barabbas was a robber and murderer who had been arrested by the Romans and was in prison awaiting execution at the time of the trial of Jesus Christ. Pilate had no concern for Barabbas--the world would be better off without him--but he wanted to save Jesus and so hit on the idea of offering the people a choice between the two. It was customary to free a prisoner at the time of the Feast of Passover. "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" Pilate asked the crowd (Matt. 27:21).

"He was astonished when the people replied, "Barabbas!" Barnhouse pictures Barabbas sitting in the prison, staring at his hands, which were soon to be pierced by nails, and shuddering at any sound of hammering that might remind him with horror of his own impending crucifixion. Suddenly he hears a crowd roaring outside the prison. There are angry voices. "Crucify him! Crucify him!" He thinks he hears his own name. Then a jailer comes to unlock the door of his cell. Barabbas thinks that the time for his execution has come, but instead the jailer tells him that he is being set free. The crowd has called for his release. Jesus of Nazareth is to die instead. Stunned, Barabbas joins the processional that is making its way to Calvary and watches as Jesus is crucified. He hears the sound of the hammer and knows that the blows that are fastening Jesus to the rough wooden cross were meant for him. He sees the cross lifted high into place and knows that he is the one who should be dying on it. Jesus cries, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34). The centurion who has commanded the execution party exclaims, "Surely this man was the Son of God! " (Mark 15:39). Barabbas must have been saying, "That man took my place. I am the one who should have died. I am the condemned murderer. That man did nothing wrong. He is dying for me." Barnhouse concludes, "Barabbas was the only man in the world who could say that Jesus Christ took his physical place. But [all who are Christians] can say that Jesus Christ took [their] spiritual place." The fact that we are sinners means that we deserve to die. We deserve the eternal punishment of the lake of fire. But Jesus was delivered up for our offenses. He was crucified for our sins. That is why we speak of substitutionary atonement and vicarious suffering, and it is why Jesus' death is so central to the gospel. Nothing that overlooks the death of Christ is the gospel. As Barnhouse says, "Christianity can be expressed in three phrases: I deserved Hell; Jesus took my Hell; there is nothing left for me but his heaven." (James Montgomery Boice, Romans, Baker Books 1991)


The Gospel According to Barabbas

Chuck Missler

The substitution of Barabbas over Jesus before Pilate on that fateful day has profound implications for each of us. (Barabbas in Hebrew means "son of the father"). It is illuminating to examine the contrast between the two accused more closely:

1) Barabbas stood under the righteous condemnation of the law.

2) Barabbas knew the One who was to take his cross and take his place was innocent.

3) Barabbas knew that Jesus Christ was for him a true substitute.

4) Barabbas knew that he had done nothing to merit going free while another took his place.

5) Barabbas knew Christ's death was for him perfectly efficacious.

Barabbas and Jesus changed places! "The murderer's bonds, curse, disgrace, and mortal agony were transferred to the righteous Jesus; while the liberty, innocence, safety, and well-being of the immaculate Nazarene became the lot of the murderer.

"Barabbas is installed in all the rights and privileges of Jesus Christ; while the latter enters upon all the infamy and horror of the rebel's position.

"Both mutually inherit each other's situation and what they possess: The delinquent's guilt and cross become the lot of the Just One, and all the civil rights and immunities of the latter are the property of the delinquent." (John W. Lawrence, The Six Trials of Jesus, Kregel Publishing Co., Grand Rapids MI 1996, p.181).

In the Gospels: Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38-39