Polyventure Publications

Give us Barabbas!

by Carl Mease


This is the cloaked cry of vocal American religion.  Aptly, commonly called American Civil Religion, the adherents are drowning out the crowd and their actions are shouting, “give us Barabbas” (Luke 23:18).

   So who was Barabbas, and how do modern day followers identify with him, and demand him over Jesus of Nazareth (see Luke 23)?  The Jewish historian Josephus in Jewish Antiquities lists the Jewish sects of the time of Jesus’ crucifixion as, Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and the Zealots as the 4th sect.  According to Josephus, the Zealots were started by Judas the Galilean following the census when Quirinious was governor, at the time of Jesus’ birth.  This Judas is referenced in Acts 5:37 as a false Messiah, but the patriotic movement to violently overthrow the pagan Romans was still alive and well during the time of Jesus’ ministry.  Before becoming a disciple of the Lord, Simon the Zealot was very likely a part of this patriotic movement with the likes of Barabbas.

     What the Pharisees, Sadducees, & Essenes had in common, was the hope of Messiah and that He would come if Israel believed and acted as they did.  Josephus wrote that the Zealots “agree with all Pharisee notions, but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is their only Ruler” (Jewish Antiquities 18.1.6).

     The Zealots may have at least appreciated the Sadducee efforts at political positioning to obtain power and favor from Rome, except their efforts lost more and more Jewish liberties.  The Pharisee idea to purify and the Essene isolationism were great ideals, but nothing was happening to remove the pagan Romans.  The Zealot battle cry was the nationalistic patriotism “for God and country”, which continues to rally religious Americans today.

     In this setting it was not difficult to get a crowd chanting for Barabbas’s release, for although the Lord Jesus, the true bar-abbas (son of the Father), healed & fed them, men like Barabbas had a political agenda with action.  In their eyes Jesus offered them health and food, but left them in slavery under pagan rulers.  The people wanted ‘liberty’ now – not some promise of blessing to come, while in the meantime told to serve and even love the hated Romans.

     The correlation becomes obvious to those who read of Jesus’s life and teaching in comparison to the civil religion of today’s America.  Like the Sadducees, there is an unholy marriage of church and state, by those who maintain the Pharisaical demand for literal interpretation of scripture, along with a long list of traditions of their fathers.  The traditions of American founding fathers rest in the rebellious, warring goddess of Liberty, cloaked in christian jargon.

     It was the mix of conservative religious values and fleshly desires for liberty that easily incited the crowd that day, to chant “away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”.  In essence, they were saying – we want the truths and promises of God’s Word, but we want liberty our way.  They were saying, we want liberty at the price of disobeying God’s command to love our enemies – bless those who curse us – pray for those who persecute us.  We will condone and do evil to triumph over evil.  We will not overcome evil with good, but execute vengeance: which only God’s prerogative (see Rm. 12).    

     Sadly, this is the chant of religious America today.  For religious America, the way of Jesus does not work when it comes to dealing with the real world around us.  We want born again, Bible believing leaders to give us liberty by crushing their enemies with violence, torture and war.  America has chanted, “give us Barabbas”, and for Jesus – we’ll take His book, His promises and ideals; but when it comes to His lifestyle and commands on forgiveness, non-resistance, loving enemies etc., we shout “away with this man - crucify Him”.

     The Zealot movement grew after the favored Barabbas was released, but was brutally crushed in AD 70; along with the Temple, the city, and over a million Jewish people.  If only they would have believed, and we today would now believe the Lord when He said; “My kingdom is not of this world, if it were, my servants would fight…Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:36-37).