“Release to us Barabbas”: a meditation on Luke 23:18-25

April 24, 2019

This is the second in a series of posts on Good Friday and Luke 23. The following reflection on Luke 23:18-25 comes, in part, from handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Last week, I reposted this article from The Gospel Coalition on my Facebook feed with the following comment:

If you are skeptical of penal substitutionary atonement (as I once was), please consider reading this brief defense. To be sure, there are caricatures and distortions to guard against, as this author rightly notes, yet our Sunday school teachers and youth ministers, often lacking the nuance, the subtlety, and the vocabulary that a theological education affords, were not ultimately wrong.

Besides, let me tell you the truth about me (your mileage may vary): the older I get, the more readily I affirm that everything I believed about the gospel when I first responded to that preacher’s altar call to accept Christ as my (yes!) personal Savior and Lord at age 14, I still believe. It was all true—however more deeply I now understand those truths.

Anyway, this article is beautifully written. Please read it.

“It’s no use pitting ‘vindictive God’ against ‘innocent Jesus,’ for the one nailed to the tree is himself the sin-hating, sinner-saving God. The Son’s complicity in his own condemnation as our substitute is one of the gospel’s most glorious truths. Being clear about this truth doesn’t just safeguard our faithfulness; it displays Christ’s beauty and love.”

As if on cue (thank you, Jesus), the episode described in Luke 23:18-25 paints a beautiful picture of penal substitutionary atonement.

23:15: “release to us Barabbas”: Substitutionary atonement is literally enacted in the life of this one man, Barabbas [literally “son of the father”], a terrorist and murderer. Unlike Jesus, Barabbas deserves death; to say the least, he’s sinned against God and harmed others in the worst possible way. Yet because Jesus dies in his place, Barabbas goes free. Moreover, Barabbas does nothing to deserve this grace.

Barabbas is a living illustration of what Jesus will soon accomplish on the cross for all of us who have become “sons of the Father” through faith in the Son:

Jesus receives the guilty sentence that we deserve. He bears the punishment that our sins deserve. He suffers and dies in our place.

Meanwhile, like Barabbas, our representative, we are released from our sins. We are forgiven under the law. We are treated as if we never broke the law.

Perhaps God even uses his name, “Barabbas,” as a providential clue to our change in status before God: Just as Barabbas is a “son of the father,” so we Christians become, through Christ’s atoning death, “sons” (and daughters) of our Father and siblings of Jesus (John 20:17).

2 Responses to ““Release to us Barabbas”: a meditation on Luke 23:18-25”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree totally with penal substitution. Jesus wasn’t dying so he could be a type of “example” for us (though that might have been accomplished as well), or whatever other options are proposed–he died because sin must be punished (wages of sin is death), and the only “perfect sacrificial death” that could “cover” all sins was that of God himself–the only perfectly righteous one. Liberals focus on only, “God is love,” and then misinterpret what is involved in love in light of human sin (as well as ignore the other scripturally taught attributes of God–holy, righteous, judge, etc.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      Yes!!! Liberal Methodists that I know best make God’s “love” a cipher through which they justify the acceptance of any culturally-approved behavior or attitude—because to do otherwise is to be “judgmental” and “exclusive,” which is—as we know—not “loving.” Never mind Jesus’ teaching, never mind the “whole counsel of God.”


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