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Give Us Barabbas: The Temptation to Choose Revolution over Jesus

by Kevin Briggins

The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” Matthew 27:21-22 (ESV)

We often hear the call for “revolution” in today’s culture. The desire for revolution is a common American sentiment; America, founded on a revolution, has gone through multiple revolutions since. These periods—including the social revolutions in the 1960s in the form of the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution, and the feminist movement—have shaped the way many Christians view the role of revolution.Black liberation theology defines revolution as liberating the oppressed, and the goal of the gospel—and, therefore, the work of the Christian. Are Christians called to revolution? Or are we called to something greater?

Rome controlled much of the known world during the time of Jesus. Once it conquered Jerusalem in 63 BC, the Roman Empire established governors to rule the people, but it allowed Jews to manage their own affairs. The Roman government also allowed the Jews to collect the taxes owed to the empire. These corrupt tax collectors collected more money than was required, causing a heavy burden on the Jewish people. This abuse led to the rise of a political party, the Zealots.

Zealots (from the Greek “emulator or [zealous] follower”) were inspired by tales of Jewish revolutionaries. They admired the Maccabean martyrs who had revolted against Greek control to gain Israel’s independence. They saw a hero in Aaron’s grandson, Phineas, who had ended a plague by killing a Jewish man and a Midianite woman. These violent acts became a model of  “zeal” for God and provided the Zealot Party a biblical warrant, however thin, for using force against Romans and other Jews. Zealots attacked Roman caravans, committed assassinations, and killed Jews whom they thought to be favored by the Roman oppressors. In today’s terms, Zealots would be considered terrorists. One “notorious prisoner,” a Zealot named Barabbas, was imprisoned in Jerusalem during the time of Jesus.

Not the Messiah They Were Seeking

Jesus’ birth came when Jewish expectations for the Messiah were high. Jews were longing for a political savior to deliver them from their enemies and rule for eternity from David’s throne. John the Baptist proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand and sent his followers to Jesus to ask if he was really the one (Luke 7:18-20). Jesus responded to John’s messengers:

“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” (Luke 7:22-23)

Jews had long sought a conqueror to free them from their physical and earthly enemies, but Jesus was not the Messiah they were expecting. Jesus had come to free them from the greater enemies of sin and death.

Because Jesus’ actions did not align with their goals to achieve liberation and earthly power, Jewish leaders plotted against Jesus. And when the people were given the choice between freeing the violent Zealot Barabbas or freeing the Son of God, they chose Barabbas. They chose the one they saw as zealous for God over God himself. 

We’re astonished at their blindness, yet we’re not immune to making the same mistake ourselves. In our volatile political climate—especially since 2020—we’ve split ourselves into groups. Some Christians seek to rescue America from harmful and godless ideologies. Other believers, in the name of “social justice,” believe they serve God (or the greater good) by overthrowing “whiteness” and oppressive structures. Through the lens of contemporary critical theory, which divides people into oppressor and oppressed, these believers teach that it is both just and Christian to advocate for the oppressed and overthrow oppressive power systems. In their zeal to liberate the oppressed, they rationalize their use of violence to punish those who disagree with them and take down those they deem complicit in the oppression. They believe that this is what Christians are called to do, and they justify these acts of revolution to achieve social justice and liberation.

What Would Jesus Do (WWJD)

When I was young, WWJD was the hottest fashion trend. We wore wristbands, t-shirts and hats with the slogan WWJD. I don’t know that we should bring back this fashion trend, but we definitely need to bring back the principle of asking what Jesus would do. What does it look like to choose Jesus over Barabbas? 

Peter watched what Jesus did. Jesus didn’t address the Romans, despite living under their oppressive rule. Peter was present when the Pharisees asked Jesus about paying taxes; Jesus simply said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). When Peter cut off the ear of one of the guards who had come in the middle of the night to arrest Jesus unjustly, Jesus rebuked Peter and healed the guard’s ear. Peter shared these lessons in his letter to Christians who faced extreme persecution:

This is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:18-33)

Peter called believers to follow Christ’s example by trusting God through suffering:

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. . . . if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. (I Peter 4:12-16)

Despite what some may say, Jesus in his earthly ministry was not a revolutionary; he did not come to change political and social systems. So “WWJD” in these volatile times? He would do what he was sent to do: proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations. We must do the same, regardless of the political and social climate. Our enemy is not flesh and blood but the rulers and principalities of this world; like Jesus, we have been called to a spiritual battle, and we’ve been given the “whole armor of God” to “withstand in the evil day” (Eph. 6:13-18).

The temptation to choose Barabbas comes when we forget—when we forget God’s Word, when we forget that we will face trials and tribulations, when we forget that the world will hate us because of him, and when we forget that he will be with us until the end of the age. When we remember these truths, we will have no need for Barabbas because we will have no need for revolution. Our Lord is on the throne, and he is strong and mighty.

Give us Jesus.


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