Barabbas was a prisoner during Jesus' time, convicted of committing murder during a rebellion. Jesus and Barabbas were both prisoners of Pilate on the morning of Jesus' crucifixion, and were part of an intriguing and significant prisoner exchange. As the book of Luke reports:
Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him."
With one voice they cried out, "Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!" (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)
Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
For the third time he spoke to them: "Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him."
But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.
Here we have two captive prisoners: Jesus and Barabbas. Jesus, who has officially been found innocent, and Barabbas, who has officially been found guilty. Specifically, Barabbas was guilty of rebellion (John 18:40), the exact same thing Jesus was accused but found innocent of (Luke 23:14). Through that rebellion, Barabbas had committed murder (Mark 15:7), and faced the death penalty. Barabbas was not punished, though; he was set completely free, and the innocent Jesus was given the punishment Barabbas deserved.
Of all the names in the world, this luckiest of pardoned death row inmates happened to be named Barabbas. It is a rather weird name, and not just because it sounds funny to our modern English ears. See, people in Jesus’ time often had names that identified them with their fathers and distinguished them from others with similar names. For example, James son of Zebedee versus James son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:17-18). Different languages have different ways of thus naming someone “son of”. In English, names such as “Johnson” and “Jackson” are common. Irish names use Mc-, Mac- or Mag- prefixes to indicate “son of”, so MacDonald means “son of Donald” and McConaghy “son of Conaghy”. The Arabic word for “son of” is “bin”, so Osama is the son of Laden.
In Israel, the word for “son of” was “bar”, which is where Barabbas gets the first part of his name. “Abba” was the word for “father” or simply “daddy”, which is why Jesus prayed to “Abba, Father” in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36). So, Barabbas literally translates to “son of the father”. This name is useless for the purpose that “son of” names were designed for, of distinguishing people from each other based on having different fathers; Barabbas’ unspecified parents might as well have named their child “Anonymous”. Barabbas could have been pretty much anyone; we are all children of fathers. You could even argue that we have all taken part in rebellion—against parents, or authority figures, and certainly against God.
And that is the beauty of this little prisoner exchange: Jesus, innocent, and the Son of the Father, takes the punishment that Barabbas, the anonymous everyman, rightfully deserved. Barabbas was guilty of rebellion that led to murder; Jesus was murdered as punishment for every man’s rebellion.
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