Set Free by Christ our Substitute
The gospel is good news to the condemned and sinful. Those who believe this good news are acquitted of their guilt before God and set free! But how can God set free those who are clearly guilty of sin? There must be a fair and just basis for the acquittal. We learn the answer from the gospel story itself—that Jesus Christ was our substitute.
Jesus’ mission was to set the captives free
At the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth and read from Scripture. The passage he chose was Isaiah 61:1-2:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus then told those present that he was the fulfillment of this prophecy. For the next three years, he set the oppressed free, healed the sick, and ministered to the poor. He released those who were captive by sin and spiritual oppression. But the most dramatic and important fulfillment of this Scripture came at the end of his public ministry. This is when he died in our place to set us free from condemnation and death.
Jesus and Barabbas
The accounts written in the gospels are historical—they really happened. But God has woven spiritual truths into the stories that are deeper than just the historical facts. The real-life gospel story of the trial of Jesus and the release of Barabbas beautifully explains an important spiritual truth: that Christ became our substitute. Let’s read the story.
Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did. “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. (Mark 15:6-10)
The Romans had found Barabbas guilty of murder during a revolt against the government, and he was now going to his execution. He was a threat to their rule and their efforts to maintain peace. He was to be crucified, and they had prepared a cross especially for him. They were looking forward to punishing Barabbas with death, to get rid of him for good.
But the Jewish religious leaders weren’t too concerned with Barabbas. These leaders had arrested Jesus, who they saw as a threat to their popularity and power. They conducted a hurried trial and condemned him before their own religious court. Now they brought Jesus before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, wanting to make sure their plan to kill him succeeded.
The condemnation of Christ
Each year the Roman governor released a Jewish prisoner to appease the people. Pilate thought that he might convince the people that Jesus should be released, since he knew he was innocent of the charges brought against him.
But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:11-15)
So the religious leaders stirred up the unruly crowd to demand that Pilate release Barabbas and execute Jesus. They were not going to let politics, sympathy, or logic deter them from achieving their goal of killing Jesus. Their shouting intensified as it appeared Pilate just might let Jesus go. But the demands of the religious leaders prevailed.
The Release of Barabbas
Luke’s account says that Pilate wanted to release Jesus, and three times he tried to persuade the crowd he wasn’t worthy of death. But each time they demanded Jesus’ execution. Luke then adds the following detail:
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. (Luke 23:24-25)
After much shouting, Pilate finally gave in to them. He acquitted Barabbas—the guilty—and set him free, while he sent Jesus—the innocent—to be crucified. He exchanged an innocent man for a criminal.
Barabbas was clearly guilty. But he had just been acquitted. He was now a free man.
Jesus took Barabbas’ place
It seems that Jesus then carried the cross intended for Barabbas to Golgotha. And you could say that Jesus took Barabbas’ place at Calvary.
We don’t know for sure if Barabbas ever became a believer in Christ. But he must have been amazed at the sacrifice Jesus made for him. It’s possible that he relayed some details of this story to those who compiled the gospel. We don’t know. But Christ set him free, and without a doubt this impacted him for the rest of his life.
Jesus, the Son of God, was innocent—in fact, he was sinless. But the sinless Son of God gave his life in exchange for the life of a corrupt, sinful man who deserved to die. Some people might see this only as an act of gross injustice. And it’s true that there is nothing just or fair about this, least of all from Christ’s viewpoint. But that’s not the point of the story.
God gave us this story to help us understand how he can justify sinful people. Barabbas represents the guilty sinner: deserving death but acquitted and set free by Jesus Christ. In fact, he represents all of us who have sinned and are condemned before God.
Christ’s substitutionary death
Death has always been God’s punishment for sin and rebellion. As God commanded Adam:
You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die. (Genesis 2:16-17)
We all have followed Adam’s path and have eaten from that tree. And we all deserved death, but Christ became our substitute —he died in our place. We were going to our death just like Barabbas was, but Jesus took our place on that cross. He exchanged his life for ours.
Theologians call this the substitutionary death of Christ. Some use the term substitutionary atonement. Christ’s life was taken as a substitute for ours. Jesus took our impending death and made it his death. And his death was the just payment for our sins, the payment that God required. He took that penalty on himself.
Christ bore our pain and suffering
Seven hundred years before the time of Christ, the prophet Isaiah foretold of the Messiah’s sufferings.
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)
In this passage, Isaiah states that the people who would witness Christ’s crucifixion would consider his sufferings a punishment by God. This actually occurred when the religious leaders and passersby who gathered around Christ mocked and insulted him as he died (Matthew 27:39-44). They thought that God was punishing him for his own sins. But the deeper truth is that God was punishing Christ for the sins of all people, even those who were mocking him.
Jesus went to the cross willingly
Christ our substitute willingly went to the cross to sacrifice his life. At any time, he could have avoided Jerusalem and conflict with the religious leaders. Or, he could have disrupted his betrayer’s plans. He could have run away before his arrest and imprisonment. Or, he could have successfully defended himself before the Jewish council. But he faced it all, knowing that his ultimate purpose was to die for us. In a real sense, he was born for that reason. Just before his death, he declared to his disciples:
The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. (Mark 14:21)
He knew it was the only way to accomplish the Father’s will. He didn’t do this for himself, or to promote himself or to advance some personal cause. Christ did it out of love for us. He willingly gave his life in exchange for ours.
Christ died for the unrighteous
Christ our substitute knew that he was going to die for sinful people, not good people. Barabbas was not a good man. He was a convicted criminal.
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
There are accounts of soldiers taking a bullet to save another person on the battlefield, or someone stepping in front of a car to save a child. These kinds of heroic acts have happened, though they are rare. But the fact that we are unrighteous is proof of our Lord’s love and compassion for us. If we had been good people some might reason that he was justified in dying, to save people who we might consider worth saving. But Christ died, not for “good” people, but for the ungodly.
Eternal death or final death?
God sent Christ to die as a substitute for the death of many. And not only was Christ’s death the payment for our sins, but it was also the perfect example of how God punishes sin: by death.
Because Christ died for all, does that mean God forgives everyone? No, if we don’t accept Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice for ourselves, God will then punish us, because we have rejected God’s provision for our sin. This punishment will happen at God’s great and final day of judgment.
Augustine (and those theologians who followed him) insisted that this final punishment goes on in time forever into eternity, what they called “eternal death.” To them, this meant an eternal existence of pain and suffering for the unrepentant. But this can’t be an accurate description of the final punishment. If Jesus bore the punishment for our sins, then the penalty for sins cannot be an eternity of suffering and pain, since Jesus never experienced this. The fact that he rose from the grave proves that his suffering and death didn’t go on forever.
Christ’s punishment for our sins was a point-in-time death—it had a limited duration. In the same way, the death of the unrepentant at the final judgment will be exactly what Barabbas was sentenced to experience. It will be a final and irreversible point-in-time execution, a complete and total ending of life (Matthew 10:28), not an eternity of suffering. But those who repent and believe will not experience this final death. They are set free to live forever with God!
Jesus died for us, now we live for him
The apostle Paul realized the amazing truth of how Christ became our substitute, and he came to a most logical conclusion:
And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. (2 Corinthians 5:15)
His conclusion was that since Christ died for us, we should then live for him and not ourselves. How can we then not serve him who died for us, with all that we are and with all our strength? We owe to him our freedom, and in fact our very life.
If you have not yet come to faith in Christ, have you considered how the story of Barabbas relates to you? Can you see yourself fitting into these events? Where would you place yourself in the storyline? Hopefully you won’t see yourself as one of the mockers, or even one of the curious bystanders. Now that you’ve heard the deeper explanation of the story, you can now identify with Barabbas.
We have all sinned against God. We were all going to our execution. But Christ reversed that and offers to all a reprieve, an acquittal. Christ became your substitute and died for you! He took your place on that cross. When you realize this and place trust in him for what he did for you, he will forever change your life. Christ will set you free, and you will come into an eternal relationship with God.
Feature photo from Wikimedia Commons
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