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Luke 23:18-21 meaning

The Crowd Chooses Barabbas: The crowd responds to Pilate's offer to use the governor's "Passover Pardon" on Jesus by shouting at Him to give them Barabbas instead. Barabbas had been imprisoned for insurrection and murder. Pilate wanted to release Jesus and tries to persuade the crowd again, but they kept on calling out—"Crucify, crucify Him!" This event is part of the third phase of Jesus's Civil Trial. This phase is called: "Pilate's Judgment."

Matthew 27:20-22, Mark 15:11-13, John 18:40 are the parallel Gospel accounts of this event.

Luke resumes his narrative of the third phase of Jesus's civil trial to explain the crowd's response to Pilate's second attempt to release Jesus instead of executing Him as His accusers demanded. 

The three phases of Jesus's civil trial were:

  1. Jesus's Arraignment before Pilate (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-14, Mark 15:1-5, Luke 23:1-7, John 18:28-38)
  2. Jesus's Audience before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:8-12)
  3. Pilate's Judgment (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38 - 19:16)

The third phase of Jesus's civil trial regathered at the Praetorium, Pilate's Jerusalem headquarters, after it returned from the court of Herod Antipas. This final phase of the civil trial happened while it was still morning, most likely sometime between 8:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. (Mark 15:24 indicates that Jesus was on the cross at 9:00 a.m.). According to the Jewish calendar the date was likely Nisan 15—the first day of Unleavened Bread. By the Roman calendar, the day was probably a Friday.

To learn more about the timing and sequencing of these events, see The Bible Says' "Timeline: Jesus's Final 24 Hours."

A Recap of the Third Phase of Jesus's Trial
Once the trial resettled at the Praetorium for the third phase, Pilate summarized the proceedings, reminding everyone of the charges and the interview the governor conducted with the defendant (Luke 23:13-14a). He then pointed out that neither he nor Herod had found fault in Jesus (Luke 23:14b-15). 

As Roman governor, Pilate possessed the legal authority to decide the case, and having interviewed Jesus, he knew He was innocent of the charges. At this moment Jesus should have been released. But He was not released. 

Pilate realized this 'not-guilty' verdict greatly upset the Jewish leadership and he seemed afraid to release Jesus if it upset the chief priests and elders. So, he began looking for ways to appease their anger while still liberating the innocent defendant—even if it meant breaking Roman law to mitigate their outrage. It appears the Jewish leaders recognized this and became increasingly emboldened. 

The first attempt Pilate offered as a consolation to them for releasing Jesus was having Him punished (by Roman flogging) despite the prior rulings of innocence declared by both the Roman governor of Judea as well as the tetrarch of the Galilean district (Luke 23:16). Apparently, this did not work.

Pilate's second attempt to release Jesus was to use his annual "Passover Pardon" which Luke described in his interjection: "Now he was obliged to release to them at the feast one prisoner" (Luke 23:17). This may have been suggested by someone in the crowd who was sympathetic to Jesus (Mark 15:8), and when Pilate initially proposed it to the crowd, he seems to have only offered this customary pardon for Jesus,

"Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?"
(Mark 15:9)

"But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?"
(John 18:39)

But after announcing this offer, Pilate seems to have sat down on the judgement seat to give the crowd a moment to consider. "While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message" warning her husband to "have nothing to do with [the conviction or punishment of] that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him" (Matthew 27:19).

To learn more about Pilate's wife's request, see The Bible Says commentary for Matthew 27:19.

The Crowd's Answer
This delay and interruption apparently gave Jesus's enemies enough time to maneuver. The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for an alternative prisoner to be released instead (Matthew 27:20, Mark 15:11). When Pilate finally gave his ear to listen to the crowd's reply he did not get the answer he was expecting.

But they cried out all together, saying, "Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!" (v 18).

The pronoun—they—refers to the crowds of accusers and bystanders consisting of the chief priests (Sadducees), elders (Pharisees), scribes (religious lawyers), and ordinary people (Matthew 27:20, Luke 23:10, 23:13). Luke reports that the crowds cried out all together as a way to indicate that they were all of the same opinion and voice in what they cried out. The Greek term which is translated as all together in this verse is the adverb, παμπληθεί (G3826: pronounced "pam-play-thi"). It means the crowd was crying out in a concerted effort.

What they were saying as they cried out all together was demanding that Pilate do two things. 

Their first demand of Pilate was: Away with this man! 

This man referred to the man, Jesus. The crowd did not want to hear any more about a pardon for Jesus. Condemn this man! Kill this man! Away with Him!

The crowd's second demand of Pilate was: and release for us Barabbas!

It seems that the crowd twisted Pilate's initial offer: "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" (Mark 15:9) and reframed it into release for us Barabbas!

We will explain more about who Barabbas was in a moment. But first, it is worth noting how this is the only time Barabbas's name is mentioned in Luke's Gospel and that it is evoked in the crowd's demands. The only time Barabbas is mentioned in Mark and John's Gospels are either by the narrator or the crowds—but never Pilate. (Mark 15:7, 15:11, 15:15, John 18:40). 

This seems to indicate that Pilate never intended to offer to release Barabbas when he first made the offer to release Jesus as his "Passover Pardon." And that it was the crowd who reframed Pilate's offer to include Barabbas. Apparently caught off guard by their response, Pilate accepted their reframing and asked them to verify their answer,

"But the governor said to them, 'Which of the two do you want me to release for you?'
And they said, 'Barabbas.""
(Matthew 27:21)

The crowd demanded that Pilate release Barabbas, instead of Jesus, whom the governor had hoped they would choose.

Peter, in the Book of Acts, says that the crowds "acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also" when they called for the Messiah to be crucified (Acts 3:17). Their ignorance did not make them innocent, but they, like the soldiers who nailed Him to the cross, did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34) when they asked for Pilate to crucify Jesus. 

Pilate, however, was still wanting to release Jesus, and he addressed them again (v 20). 

Matthew and Mark seem to have recorded what the governor said when he addressed them again

"Pilate said to them, 'Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?'"
(Matthew 27:22a)

"Pilate said to them, 'Then what shall I do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?'"
(Mark 15:12)

The crowd's response as recorded by Luke was: but they kept on calling out, saying, "Crucify, crucify Him!" (v 21). (See also Matthew 27:22b, Mark 15:13).

The Gospels' depictions of the crowd's demand—Crucify! Crucify! Crucify Him!—do not seem to describe a unified chant, but a veritable storm of shouts and screams from all sides demanding that Pilate crucify Jesus. Crucify! Crucify! Crucify Him!—they kept on calling out—Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him! as their rage filled Pilate's ears and shook his nerve. 

Their unrelenting cries of Crucify Him was the crowd's insistence that Pilate execute Jesus by means of Roman crucifixion. 

Roman crucifixion was carried out by fastening its victims to a raised wooden beam by the wrists (often with nails) and hanging them there until they died. Archeological evidence also shows that the ankles were sometimes nailed, not together on the front of the cross, but individually on either side of its main beam. Crucifixions were performed in public places with the crimes posted for all to see as a way to be deter future crime. Criminals would sometimes suffer on their crosses for days before they died from suffocation, dehydration, or cardiac arrest. The entire process was designed to be torturous and humiliating—a deterrent for breaking Roman law. 

To learn more about this horrible method of execution see The Bible Says article—"Bearing the Cross: Exploring the Unimaginable Suffering of Crucifixion."

Now we can return to the figure of Barabbas.

Luke provides some information about Barabbas with a second interjection:

He was one who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection made in the city, and for murder (v 19).

Matthew refers to Barabbas as a "notorious prisoner" (Matthew 27:16) Mark writes that Barabbas "had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection" (Mark 15:7). John says "Barabbas was a robber" (John 18:40). Taken all together, this prisoner was an insurrectionist who also committed murder and robbery and his crimes were well known to the people, and they greatly disliked him. 

Barabbas may not have been this prisoner's actual name. It may have been a nickname, or some other term used to describe him.

The word Barabbas has Aramaic origins and it means "son of the father" (Bar = "son"; Abbas = "of the father"). There are two ways Barabbas's name and its meaning has been interpreted. 

The first way his name can be interpreted is as a kind of equivalent with Jesus. Jesus was the Son of the Father, so Barabbas literally has the same title as Jesus, "Son of the Father." The Gospel writers, and Matthew in particular with his Day of Atonement theme, seem to present Jesus and Barabbas as identical figures in terms of their humanity, even as they contrast them in terms of their righteousness. Jesus was innocent and perfectly righteous. Barabbas was a criminal, guilty of insurrection—the crime Jesus would be executed for. 

The second way Barabbas's name can be understood is as a kind of everyman. From Jewish records at the time, Barabbas was a common name. And even though it means "son of the father" it is ambiguous, because it does not specify who the father is of this son. Every son is a son of some father, but the father's identity is undesignated in Barabbas's name making him a figure that can symbolize every man. Moreover, Barabbas, the sinful criminal and everyman has sinned and rebelled (committed insurrection) against God and His good authority. 

Thus, Barabbas is both a kind of identical figure equated with Jesus Christ; and as a criminal he is a representative everyman who is fallen and sinful.

Barabbas then is a representative "everyman," and he is comparable to Jesus in terms of his given title. 

Interestingly, church tradition suggests that Barabbas's given name was Jesus. Early church leaders, such as Origen, claimed that Barabbas was named Jesus. Some late Greek manuscripts of Matthew 27:16, 27:17 read: Ἰησοῦν Βαραββᾶν ("Jesus, Barabbas"). 

If this tradition is correct, the notorious prisoner and the Messiah each had the same name and the same title: "Jesus, son of the father." And if Pilate's two prisoners (the notorious insurrectionist and the Messiah) both shared the same name—"Jesus"—then it makes further sense why Matthew wrote "a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas" (Matthew 27:16). It also gives potential insight into Pilate's prolonged description of Jesus when he makes his offer to the people. The governor asks: "Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" (Matthew 27:17). Again, some Greek manuscripts of this verse literally read: "Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?"

In other words, Pilate may have been asking the people: "Which Jesus do you want me to release for you: Jesus, who is called Barabbas; or Jesus, who is called Christ?"

Moreover, Barabbas is guilty of the crime of insurrection, the same crime Jesus is condemned and crucified for, though He was declared innocent. 

Insurrection against God's rule is also the basic source of all sin. Lucifer fell when he sought to ascend to the throne of the Most High (Isaiah 14:12-14). Adam and Eve rebelled against God's good command when they saw that the fruit of the forbidden tree would make them like God (Genesis 3:5-6). We commit this same basic sin of insurrection and lawlessness every time we follow our own wicked heart instead of submitting to God's perfect rule (1 John 3:4). 

When Pilate releases Barabbas (Matthew 27:26a, Mark 15:15a, Luke 23:25a), Barabbas's life is literally saved in a physical and legal sense. His liberation from Roman prison is a result of Jesus taking his place and being punished for his crimes. In this sense Barabbas (who was guilty of insurrection), becomes a tangible illustration that Jesus (who was innocent and falsely condemned of insurrection) was sent to save sinners. 

It is fitting that Jesus (the Savior of the world) literally dies in place of a criminal. The moment he is pardoned, Barabbas instantly becomes a living breathing depiction of one who is saved by Jesus spiritually, through being given a new birth (John 3:3). Barabbas's earthly, physical salvation is a graphic picture of everyone who is saved spiritually from the penalty of sin—spiritual death and separation from God—through the death of Jesus who died on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21). 

Matthew's thematic narration of these events links Pilate's offer between Jesus and Barabbas to the two goats on the Day of Atonement. 

To learn more about this thematic linkage, see The Bible Says' article: "Jesus and Barabbas: Matthew's Thematic Connection of Pilate's Offer to The Day of Atonement."

This is the second time Pilate attempted to release Jesus. And it was the second time he failed to do so. In the next section of scripture, Pilate will make a third appeal to the crowd for Jesus's release. 

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