Several years ago I was doing a Bible study and learned that all four Gospels record the prisoner exchange between a notorious criminal named Barabbas and the Lord Jesus (Matt 27:16-26; Mark 15:7-15; Luke 23:18; John 18:40). Barabbas was in jail for insurrection, murder, and robbery, and was surely going to face death for his crimes (Luke 23:18-19; John 18:40). Jesus, on the other hand, was innocent of all the charges brought against Him. Pilate, the Roman Governor who presided as judge over the two men, knew it was “because of envy” that Jesus had been handed over to him to be scourged and crucified (Matt 27:18; cf. Mark 15:10). Pilate knew Jesus was not guilty of the charges leveled against Him and sought to have Him released (Luke 23:20); however, Pilate eventually proved a weak leader who surrendered to the insane demands of the mob who kept shouting “crucify, crucify him!” (Luke 23:21). All of this occurred according to God’s predetermined plan (Acts 2:22-24; 4:27-28).
I imagine Barabbas was sitting in his jail cell when a Roman guard came, unlocked his door, and informed him he was free to leave. I suppose Barabbas was puzzled because freedom was not what he expected. Barabbas was in a dark place with no ability to save himself. Outside the prison walls, Jesus was being led away to die as his substitute, the innocent for the guilty, the just for the unjust. I am Barabbas. You are Barabbas. Spiritually, we are all in a dark place without hope, facing eternal death, and with no ability to save ourselves. But there’s good news! Outside our prison is a free and innocent Man who has died in our place, who bore the punishment that rightfully belongs to us. Paul wrote:
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:6-8)
It was through a simple presentation of the gospel message that I came to believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior when I was eight, with the result that I received forgiveness of sins (Eph 1:7), and eternal life (John 3:16; 10:28; 1 Cor 15:3-4).
One Sunday morning in the summer of 1988, I was sleeping on some grass and woke to the sound of children walking past a fence near the alley where I’d slept the night before. Years of bad choices and heavy drug use had caught up with me and the few weeks I’d spent living on the streets and at a homeless shelter were enough to awaken me to the despair of my situation. Worldly living had produced such a darkness within me, there were times I had considered suicide as a solution to end the misery that was my pathetic life. From the time I started using illegal drugs until that morning on the grass, I had not been living as a righteous man, but rather as the wicked, which “are like chaff which the wind drives away” (Psa 1:4). My life at that time epitomized worldliness, as I had rejected God’s authority over my life, and that came with harmful consequences. By excluding Him, I had become my own worst enemy. Though I had excluded God from my life, He had not excluded me from His.
The Lord loved me and humbled me by divine discipline (Heb 12:5-11). He caused me to suffer for my own good. Like the psalmist, I came to say, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes” (Psa 119:71). The Lord brought me to a place where I was helpless and ready to listen to Him. When my heart was broken, and I had no place to look but to Him, then Scripture my grandmother had helped me memorize when I was a little boy came to mind, and I found hope (Psa 1:1-6; 23:1-6). I was homeless, hurt, hungry, wearing only rags, and more thankful than I’d been in many years. The Lord, who allowed me to destroy my life through bad choices, forgave me and called me back to fellowship with Him (1 John 1:9). I welcomed His love and grace.
The joy of my salvation was refreshed within me. A fire was ignited in my soul and I was ready to walk with the Lord. I knew I had to be responsible and face my prison sentence and serve time for the crimes I’d committed, and I knew the Lord was with me all the way. My two year prison term was a time of spiritual development as I faced many tests and grew in my knowledge and application of Scripture. As a Christian, my spiritual growth began the day I submitted my life to God. Many worldly people had previously influenced me in an ungodly way, and I was stupid enough to let them. No more. No more hanging around foolish people, or reading worldly books, or watching movies that promote worldly values, or listening to music that glorifies degeneracy. No more. God had blessed me with everything I needed to grow and mature and I decided to lay hold of that life (Eph 1:3; 4:11-13). Oh, I made bad choices along the way and fell into sin, but God continually showed me grace. I confessed my sin and got back to living the spiritual life and “walking in the light as He Himself is in the light” (1 John 1:7). As I grew in my love for Him I learned that “His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3).
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19)
To some degree, surviving in prison means conforming to the environment and getting along as best one is able. Where Scripture is silent this can mean compromise. However, living for Christ means walking in the light of God’s Word, and that meant standing against the values of the prison culture at times in order to obey Scripture. I wish I could say I walked according to Scripture all the time, but I did not. I was learning and applying Scripture during my time in prison, and was learning to pick my battles from one moment to the next. Picking battles is very important, for some battles are more important than others. As we learn God’s Word, we’ll gain wisdom for the moment.
Above all, I am thankful for the grace of God revealed to me through Scripture. Though I was saved at a young age, it was only through many years of study that I came to understand and appreciate in a greater way what God did in bringing me to Himself through the substitutionary atoning work of His Son on the cross. Biblically, I know it was the Father’s will that Christ go to the cross and die for sinners (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28), of which I am one among many; yet, in a very personal way, I see Christ bearing my sin, being judged in my place and bearing the Father’s wrath that rightfully belonged to me. God’s righteousness and love intersect at the cross, in that He displays His great wrath against my sin and at the same time His love for me, the sinner. At the cross, God punished my sin as His justice required and saved me, the sinner, as His love desired (Isa 53; John 3:16). And all this happened while I was His enemy (Rom 5:10)! Had I been alive in the days my Lord walked the earth, I surely would have led Him to the cross myself and driven the nails with my own hands. I would have lifted up His cross and made Him hang between heaven and earth to die. I am a sinner, but for the grace of God I would burn for all eternity. Yet God, in infinite grace and mercy came to me in my depravity and showed me love when I was not seeking Him, and by His grace gave me eternal life when I turned to Christ and trusted Him as my Savior. My name is Barabbas and today I am a free man.
Dr. Steven R. Cook