In 2009, a young man named Hu Bin accidentally killed a bystander while drag racing through the streets of Hangzhou, China. To describe his trial as “shocking” would be an understatement. Though the judge handed out a measly sentence, a newspaper reported that people were more stupefied at who was standing trial. A few eyewitnesses of the accident and trial claimed someone resembling Hu Bin took his place in the courtroom.
Some allege that Hu’s wealthy family hired a “stand-in” to serve his prison sentence. Flashing back more than 20 centuries, we see another case of a stand-in on full display when Jesus stood before Pilate.
The Political Extremist Everyone Wanted
“Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas” (Matthew 27:15-16).
Pilate asked if he should free Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:21). Much to Pilate’s dismay, the mob yelled, “Barabbas!” and “Crucify!” This crowd was a glimpse of humanity at its worst.
Pilate’s angst only grew when the crowd questioned his friendship with Caesar, for some Bible scholars say Pilate was already on “thin ice” with Rome because of uprisings in Judea. Pilate, the ever-shrewd politician, eventually acquiesced to the crowd.
Though Jesus and Barabbas had similarities (both were leaders, prisoners, revolutionaries, etc.), they are two of the most juxtaposed people in history. Without question, Jesus wins in the deity, integrity, and moral authority departments. As a stand-in, Barabbas bore no resemblance to Jesus. So, why did the crowd opt for Barabbas?
During the triumphal entry earlier that week, a crowd praised Jesus. Many pilgrims were in Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. However, by midweek, Bible scholars say, the religious leaders enticed their fanboys to create a mob and choose to save Barabbas over Jesus (Matthew 27:20; Mark 15:11). But perhaps there was even more to the crowd’s choice.
In laying clothes and palm branches on the ground and crying out “Hosanna!” the triumphal entry crowd obviously hailed Jesus as more than a rabbi. Their gestures were political—a recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and a recognition (or expectation) that he would forcibly vanquish the Romans. Yet, it was Barabbas who resembled the wartime Messiah they truly desired.
In an article titled “From ‘Hosanna’ to ‘Crucify,’” Dr. Rebekah Eklund of Loyola University Maryland contended, “The embrace of Barabbas seems to echo the history of the Roman-Jewish War: that is, the Jewish people’s rejection of the nonviolent way espoused by Jesus and acceptance of leaders such as Barabbas.”
The Gospels describe Barabbas as a well-known prisoner, murderer, and insurrectionist (Matthew 27:16; Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19; John 18:39-40; Acts 3:14). He was a “burn it down” and “win at all costs” guy who raged against the occupying force—an extremist political leader.
But maybe there was even more to the crowd’s choice.
The Gracious Messiah No One Expected
In addition to fulfilling Zechariah 9:9, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on a colt was a sort of statement: “I am the Messiah, I am the King, and I bring peace.” People watching Jesus that week could’ve wondered why he didn’t strategize with the religious leaders, organize crowds, take back Jerusalem, occupy the temple, and resist arrest, while also wondering why he let others slap him around (Jesus’ disciples may have thought the same—Matthew 20:20-28). His messianic authority was questioned because he wasn’t the militant messiah they expected but the suffering servant described by the Old Testament prophet (Isaiah 53:3, 7 called him despised, rejected, a man of suffering, familiar with pain, oppressed, and afflicted).
Those yelling “crucify” seemed to be proved right when he died on the cross. Many continued with their everyday life, convinced the resurrection didn’t happen, while awaiting the next “messiah.” And as for Barabbas, we have no idea what happened to him. Perhaps the New Testament authors wanted our attention on how Jesus’ substitution benefited humanity, not just Barabbas.
No one really chose Barabbas that day—they rejected Jesus.
Just as Barabbas rebelled against the Romans, the crowd rebelled against God by rejecting Jesus. He was the Messiah whom no one expected or wanted but everyone needed. Barabbas was never chosen, but Jesus was rejected.
Even today, we’re still rejecting Jesus.
Most of us believe Jesus would vote for our candidate, hold our political views, be passionate about our cause, excuse our outbursts, and justify our animosity toward others. We want to do our thing instead of doing the right thing. Just as Lucifer wanted to replace God and as Adam and Eve wanted to be like God, we yearn to be the center of our universe. As did our first-century predecessors, we crave Jesus to be someone he’s not.
But God redeemed the rejection of Jesus.
Paul explained God’s redemption of Jesus’ rejection:
God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:25-26).
Even though the crowd decided to save Barabbas instead of Jesus, it was Jesus who chose to save the crowd instead of himself. Pilate, the religious leaders, the crowd, and humanity rejected Jesus, but it was Jesus who died for Pilate, the religious leaders, the crowd, and humanity (1 John 2:2).
Jesus “was assigned a grave with the wicked” (Isaiah 53:9)—he died in place of Barabbas; he died with criminals, and ultimately, he was a stand-in for all of us (Romans 5:8; 8:34; 1 Corinthians 15:3). He lived the life we could never live, paid a debt we could never afford, and rose to the newness of life we were powerless to do on our own.
Personally, I appreciate how Jesus’ substitutionary atonement is clearly worded in Romans 8:3: “So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (New Living Translation).
His substitutionary atonement granted us right standing with God (2 Corinthians 5:21), achieved peace with God (Romans 5:1; Ephesians 2:14-16), and offered us a better way to love people. When Jesus stood before Pilate, he didn’t call down legions of angels, call anyone names, argue, or go “Old Testament” on the crowd. He willingly gave of himself to redeem us. His willingness to stand in for Barabbas showed us a better way to bring change.
Sgt. Joseph Serna was an Army Special Forces soldier who served four tours in Afghanistan. Various media reported how he was nearly killed by a suicide bomber and a roadside bomb. Serna also narrowly avoided drowning one night when a dirt road gave way and his truck rolled into a canal. After 20 years in the Army, Serna returned home with three Purple Hearts . . . and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Eventually, Serna was arrested for DUI and entered the court’s sobriety program for veterans. He appeared 25 times before Judge Lou Olivera (also a veteran) to show his progress in the program. One day, Serna confessed to lying about a urine test. Judge Olivera sentenced him to 24 hours in jail.
On April 13, 2016, much to Serna’s surprise, Judge Olivera drove him to the jail, brought dinner, walked him to the cell, and entered the cell with him. The Washington Post reported that, as the door shut, Serna asked, “You are here for the entire time with me?”
Concerned about Serna’s PTSD, Judge Olivera replied, “Yeah that’s what I am doing.”
Jesus didn’t just stand-in for us during one moment in time. He promised to continue fighting for us and that he will always be with us (Matthew 28:19-20; Romans 8:34).