In the life of Jesus, He has interactions with people from every walk of life. There were fishermen, teachers of the law, prostitutes and tax collectors. But there was one person with whom Jesus had no contact with yet he benefited greatly because of Jesus’ death.
His name was Barabbas. His name literally means, “son of the father” and I’m pretty sure his family wasn’t too proud of him. The Bible calls him a murder and insurrectionist. According to the law of the day, he deserved death. In fact, he sat on death row awaiting his execution for his crimes.
But then Jesus came along. He was arrested by the Jewish leaders and was brought to Pilate to be “disposed” of. After interrogations by both Pilate and Herod, He is brought back to Pilate for judgment. Jesus is declared innocent but this didn’t satisfy the Jewish leaders. They insisted the criminal Barabbas be released and Jesus condemned. Afraid of the people, Pilate conceded to their request.
This was, in essence, the most unjust, unfair trade in history. The holy was given for the unholy, the innocent for the guilty. Jesus is innocent and has done nothing deserving death. Barabbas is the rebel prisoner, carrying with him guilt deserving death.
But the danger for us here is to look down at Barabbas. Yes, he deserved to die, but in a sense, Barabbas also embodies our plight as rebels and enemies of God deserving death. We too needed someone to step in and exchange their lives for us.
We read in Luke 23, Jesus the innocent is delivered over to the punishment of death; while the guilty, deserving of death, Barabbas, is released and thus given new life. As unjust and unfair as we see it today, that was what the people wanted.
In hindsight, we know Jesus’ condemnation leads to the release of a multitude of spiritual captives from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, so also his death sentence leads to the release of the physical captive Barabbas. It’s a foretaste of the grace that will be unleashed at the cross.
Jesus is innocent. Barabbas is clearly guilty—just as we also are clearly guilty before God. We too are rebels deserving death. So as Pilate releases Barabbas the guilty, and delivers over to death Jesus the innocent, we have here a tangible picture of our own release effected by the cross through faith. In Barabbas, we have a glimpse of our guilt deserving death and a preview of the arresting grace of Jesus and his embrace of the cross through which we are set free.
Here as Jesus is delivered to death, and Barabbas is released to new life, we have the first substitution of the cross. The innocent Jesus is condemned as a sinner, while the guilty sinner is released as if innocent.
In the end, I am Barabbas and so are you. The Bible says that you and I are rebels, criminals, condemned and without hope. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Our trespasses are toxic, just like any poison you can think of.
And according to Romans 6:23, we deserve death: “For the wages of sin is death…” The last half of this verse describes what Jesus did for us, the great exchange, where we can have eternal life as a gift because Jesus died in our place: “…But the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Isaiah 53:5, written some 700 years before, says this: “But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed.” That means the Savior went through all He went through for us, instead of us having to suffer the consequence of sin.
As Christians, we emphasize much of our preaching and teaching about the death of Jesus Christ. Here’s why. Until we understand why Jesus died and that He died in our place as our substitute, by giving His life in exchange for ours, we won’t understand why days like Easter are so amazing. The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is confirmation that the sacrifice of Jesus’ life satisfies the payment for our sins. Easter is the exclamation point for this great exchange!
The core truth of Christianity is this: Jesus exchanged His righteous life for our rotten life by paying for our sins through His substitutionary death and resurrection from the dead. 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 gives a concise summary of the gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”
Romans 4:25 links both His death and resurrection to our forgiveness and our justification: “Who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” We could say it like this: Our rottenness is considered as righteousness because of the perfect righteousness of Jesus who died for us and was raised for us.
Now don’t miss this. None of this is automatically applied to your life. You must believe it and you must also receive it. If we back up one verse to Romans 4:24, we read that, “it will be counted to us who believe in Him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord.”
As far as we know, Barabbas was not changed because he didn’t accept the spiritual exchange that Jesus provided. After Jesus ascended to heaven and the first church began, Barabbas is still referred to as a “murderer” in Acts 3:14. Barabbas would not have been called a murderer if he had been converted – it was not the practice of the early church to name a man’s sins after becoming a Christian.
Barabbas is the first person who could literally say that Jesus died in his place. Jesus changed places physically with Barabbas but because Barabbas did not believe and receive Jesus Christ as his personal sin substitute, he was not saved spiritually. He was so close and yet so far away.
But once you accept the exchange, you can experience new life according to Romans 6:4: “Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” Jesus died in our place, which frees us from the penalty of sin; and because He rose from the dead, we are freed from the power of sin!
Author and apologist, Ravi Zacharias, said it this way: “Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, but to make dead people alive.” 1 Peter 1:3 says, “According to His great mercy, He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
Every other religion in the world is spelled with two letters: D-O. Christianity is spelled with four letters: D-O-N-E! There’s nothing you need to DO because it’s already been DONE for you. Have you experienced it yourself? Your life for His. Is it fair? No, but He did it for you anyways.
All of us can identify both with Jesus and Barabbas. We identify with Barabbas because we deserved death. But, we also identify with Jesus because His actions bring us forgiveness, justification, and freedom. Jesus, through the grace of giving Himself for us at the cross, takes our place and we are released. The Great Exchange – Jesus for us.
May we each experience the love of God through accepting His wonderful gift… eternal life purchased by His death and in response live in such a way that honours and glorifies Him.