Past Churchmouse Campanologist Holy Week posts for this day include ‘Spy Wednesday: Judas offers his services’, ‘Wednesday of Holy Week: More on Spy Wednesday’ and ‘What is Tenebrae?‘ If you are unfamiliar with Spy Wednesday, the first two posts describe what happened that day. The Tenebrae post explains the hearse (candelabrum) used in Holy Week services.
This Holy Week I have been highlighting sermons by the Reformed (Calvinist) pastor, the Revd P G Mathew of the Grace Valley Christian Center in Davis, California. I have been learning from each one, not least ‘The Clear Choice: Jesus or Barabbas’, which reminded me of a few things from religious education classes in school and added several surprising facts.
First, we discover that Barabbas and Christ shared the same name — Jesus (Joshua) — which was widely used at the time. Second, Barabbas was the son of a rabbi as his family name indicates. In Hebrew, bar means ‘son’, as in ‘Bar Mitzvah’ — ‘son of the Commandment’. (Bat means ‘daughter’. Their Arabic equivalents are bin and bint, respectively.) Abbas indicates ‘father’, which some learned rabbis were called (perhaps this is an ancient reason why this has carried through to the Roman Catholic priesthood). Barabbas, then, means ‘son of the rabbi called “father”‘.
Mr Mathew didn’t extrapolate on this, and I realise that some might object to what I am about to propose, but, two men named Jesus were brought to trial and both were known as ‘son of the father’. Is this a coincidence? Which will the crowd choose — he who is the false Jesus or He who is the true One? Is this something on which we might reflect, especially since the mob demanded that the false Jesus be set free and the true Jesus, Son of the Father, should die on the Cross? An interesting thought on which to ponder. How many times do we look for a false Jesus — one of our own making — rather than He who redeemed us from Satan and sin?
Third, both men came from what we call ‘good families’ — those with well-known lineage and/or established reputation. Barabbas, although he turned out to be a criminal, was brought up in a respectable home; his family were held in high esteem locally. Jesus was descended from King David. Both men took dramatic departures from their families. Barabbas turned towards insurrectionist and criminal acts. Jesus would fulfil Old Testament prophecy as the Messiah.
Mr Mathew writes (emphases mine):
So we may conclude that it is possible that Barabbas was the son of a prominent rabbinic family in Jerusalem. He was probably well-educated and well-connected, especially politically. His full name was probably Jesus Barabbas, which appears in in the Syrian and Armenian versions of Matthew 27:16-17. A number of scholars, including William Barclay, D. A. Carson, Robert Gundry, and Klaas Schilder, seem to accept this reading. D. A. Carson wrote, “On the whole it is more likely that scribes deleted the name [Jesus from Jesus Barabbas] out of reverence for Jesus [Christ] than added it in order to set a startling if grotesque choice before the Jews,”1 and I agree with that reasoning. If Barabbas was also called Jesus, he had a very common name in the New Testament times. Jesus is the same as Joshua, and we read of another Jesus in Acts 13 in the account of a Jewish sorcerer Elymas whose family name was Bar-Jesus, meaning the son of Jesus.
Mr Mathew compares Barabbas’s outlook with that of today’s liberation theology proponents — an earthly, political liberation of an oppressed people:
He was a political animal who believed in self-redemption, not in redemption through a messiah. The Bible calls him an insurrectionist, using a Greek word that means one who rises up against the existing authority and institutions–a seditionist, in other words. Barabbas had no interest in trusting in the coming Messiah. He wanted to become the savior of the Jewish people and attempted to liberate them from the yoke of Rome through political means. No doubt he joined the local liberation movement, whose modern counterparts would be organizations like the PLO, the Hamas and other freedom fighter groups.
To me this Jesus Barabbas, this dagger-carrying revolutionary, was the forerunner of the modern liberation theology movement which attempts to obtain its piece of the pie by the use of power, violence, and similar means, not by the practice of humility and faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like liberation theologians who advocate the Marxist strategy of obtaining salvation, Barabbas wanted to overthrow existing institutions and take political power immediately. Eventually Barabbas and others did take part in an insurrection in Jerusalem against the Roman authority, but their rebellion was suppressed. Barabbas and his comrades were arrested by the Romans, tried, and and condemned to be crucified.
This is the clearest case yet for avoiding liberation theology, which has lured so many unsuspecting and well-intentioned clergy, seminarians and laypeople.
Like Marxist and Communist insurrectionists — including those fighting under the banners of faith (e.g. the IRA, Al Qaeda, the PLO) — Barabbas stopped at nothing in order to achieve his goals. His crimes brought him to book more than once. And let’s not forget the Zealots:
He is called a murderer in Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19, and Acts 3:14, which is not surprising. Liberation theology also believes in murder if it results in obtaining power now. Barabbas was also called a robber in John 18:14. According to Josephus the word used for robber, lestes, refers to members of the nationalist movement called Zealots, who supported themselves by robbery. Barabbas may have been a member of that movement. The two thieves who were crucified with Jesus Christ might also have been members of that movement. Why do we think that? At that time robbery was not a capital offense, and yet these two thieves were sentenced to be crucified. So we may well conclude that the thieves were also insurrectionists, murderers, and members of the movement led by Jesus Barabbas, the Zealot and patriotic freedom fighter.
I hadn’t realised that Barabbas and the thieves were that political. I’d just thought they were common crims. And I do recall a discussion years ago in which someone told me the New Testament was bunk because robbery was not a capital offence, yet the thieves were crucified. Therefore, the New Testament was a tissue of lies. If someone ever uses the same argumentation with you, you’ll now know how to respond!
Like many freedom fighters, Barabbas had a popular following. No doubt they comprised the mob who demanded his freedom that day before Pontius Pilate. This is no different from elevated revolutionaries like the late Yasser Arafat of the PLO. Amazingly, around this time last year I had an intense discussion with two practising Catholics about him. I said he was a Marxist revolutionary. They said that he was a great statesman! The same dynamic is at work in the Good Friday account of Christ’s condemnation. Mr Mathew explains:
In Matthew 27:16 Barabbas was described as notorious, but this word really means famous, popular, and notable. Barabbas was well-known in Jerusalem, and it seems he had a large following. He was even known to the Sanhedrin. Therefore, when Barabbas was sentenced to crucifixion, his fans–the Jerusalem crowd–and the Sanhedrin gathered early in the morning to demand his release.
Why did so many people side with Barabbas? They believed in this world, not in the world to come. They believed in having political power now. They believed in materialism and self-redemption. They did not believe the prophets and the promises of God. No, they wanted to take matters into their own hands, leaning onto their own understanding and saving themselves by whatever means. They wanted to wage guerrilla warfare. Their slogan was, “Power now! Fame now! Position now! Wealth now! Dignity now!“
While I was traveling through South India several years ago, I saw this slogan scrawled on a wall: “Salvation is through the barrel of a gun.” Those who wrote it, in other words, would say, “We do not wait and believe. We refuse to be humble, gentle and meek. We refuse to endure. We are no longer hoping for pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by. We are people of action who use raw power to obtain what we want.” I am sure Barabbas would say the same things.
With that in mind, it becomes clearer why Jesus’s followers stayed at home that day. It is much the same for us. After all, the law-abiding stay at home when there are violent demonstrations, such as the one in London on March 27, 2011.
And it is also clear why Jesus Christ could not fulfil the ambitions of the Zealots or the Sanhedrin:
They wanted a Jesus who would use raw power to give them political salvation. We see this problem today even among evangelicals who think that they should get a piece of the pie also. They engage in tremendous political action, but such activities will not bring salvation.
The Sanhedrin, the religious authority, concocted some charges against Jesus Christ. They were liars, but they came up with three political charges which they thought would sound very relevant before Pilate. What were they? We read about them in Luke 23:2. First they said, “We have found this man subverting our nation,” although Jesus Christ was not an insurrectionist like Barabbas. Then they claimed, “He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar,” which again was a lie, as we read in Matthew 22, Mark 12 and Luke 20. Finally they said Jesus claimed to be Christ, a king, who would set himself up in opposition to the existing power of Rome.
These charges were merely trumped up lies. The last charge, that Jesus is the Christ, a king, is true in that Jesus is the Messiah who introduced the spiritual kingdom of God, the kingdom of righteousness, into this world. But Jesus was not a political king, an earthly king, as he himself told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” In fact, Jesus argued with Pilate that if he were an earthly king, his disciples would have used power to prevent him from being arrested and delivered unto Pilate. But as the humble Savior and Messiah, Jesus Christ did not use soldiers or swords to enforce his kingship.
So, let this serve as a warning about seeking ‘liberation’ in this life now through warped Christian theology, ‘social justice’ and — on the other end of the scale — dominionism.
Which Jesus will we follow: Barabbas or Christ? As Mr Mathew says, Christians have a ‘clear choice’.