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). However, I learned that being saved does not guarantee a godly life. The apostle Peter once wrote to Christians and said, “Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler” (1 Pet 4:15). It is possible for Christians to commit all the sins Peter stated; otherwise he would never have given his negative command. As a young teenager living in Las Vegas, Nevada (in the 1980’s), I was completely surrounded by worldly-minded people, and I was free to chase after the world and the lusts of my flesh. For nearly seven years I was unopposed in my pursuit of a life of drugs and crime. From the beginning of my rebellion, I used the hardest drugs I could find (Cocaine, LSD, PCP, etc.). I did a lot of bad things when I was a younger Christian and it nearly destroyed me.
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).
I remember when I first entered prison back in 1989. The medium security prison unit outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, had a practice of placing new inmates into solitary confinement the first twenty one days after their arrival. My cinder block cell was approximately 6 by 9 feet and had a metal bed and toilet. After I completed my stay in solitary confinement, I was released onto the prison yard with the other inmates. I was tested within hours after being assigned my new sleeping quarters, as I was approached by an inmate who offered to sell me marijuana and I refused his offer. I made it clear to him, albeit respectfully, that I wanted to live as a Christian and had no desire to do drugs. I was treated with hostility, even though I gave none. My initial reaction was to return hostility to him, but I knew that was wrong, as the Scripture directs me:
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)
I could not control the situation or the other man’s attitude, but at the same time, I would not allow myself to be controlled by it. As a Christian, I had to start living by God’s Word and stop reacting to the sinful attitudes and actions of others as I was previously accustomed to doing. In prison, I was constantly challenged to live by God’s Word and not my circumstances or the pressures of others. This prepared me for living in society after prison. As a young Christian, I came to realize that much of the Christian life is a discipline of the mind and will. A discipline to study God’s Word and to live it by faith on a regular basis. A discipline to walk in truth, to be loving and kind, gracious and merciful, humble and giving, selfless and honest (just to name a few of the Christian virtues).
On another occasion, I faced a challenge pertaining to racism when I was at a prison unit in northern Nevada. During meal time many of the inmates would sit separately with blacks on one side of the dinner hall and whites on the other side. This was the choice of the inmates. However, some of my Christian friends were black and some were white, and we would sit together at one table to talk about Scripture and pray. Biblically, we realized that there is only one race: the human race (Gen 1:26-27; Acts 17:26). Not wanting to be a slave to the prison culture, we chose to sit together and have Christian discussion. After a few weeks I was approached by another inmate who told me to “stop sitting with the other men” because it “looked bad.” I knew what he meant. I made it clear to this inmate, albeit respectfully, that I was going to sit with my Christian brothers so we could talk theology and pray together. To be honest, I thought there was going to be a fight that morning as this inmate got in my face and tried to bully me. Though I was somewhat intimidated, Christian courage demanded I stand my ground. To be clear, I was not trying to change the attitudes of the other inmates or reform the prison culture in any way. I think that’s impossible; much like I think it’s impossible to reform the devil’s world. I was simply trying to enjoy fellowship with my Christian brothers, even though I knew it meant standing against the corrupt values and practices of the prison culture.
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.
Four months after my release from prison, in 1990, I actively started serving in jail ministry and continued for over twelve years (until June, 2002). I loved teaching Bible classes several times a week and sharing the gospel with others. I started college in 1992 and completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Services from Wayland Baptist University in 1998. Afterward, I studied Classical Literature for several years at Texas Tech University, and then began graduate school in 2002 at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, and completed a Master of Divinity degree in 2006. I also completed my Doctor of Ministry degree from Tyndale Theological Seminary in 2017.
The Lord also blessed me with a pardon. On February 10, 2005, the Governor of Nevada, Kenny Guinn, along with the Nevada Supreme Court and Attorney General, granted me a full pardon for the crime that sent me to prison. In 2006 I had my criminal records permanently sealed. This is the grace of God. The Lord has opened doors of opportunity for ministry and education and undone much of the damage I had inflicted on myself many years before. The fifteen years between the time of my release from prison in 1990 until the time of my pardon in 2005 were very difficult. Convicted felons are generally viewed with great suspicion in society and are automatically denied jobs, places to live and other opportunities in life. I’ve learned that life is not fair and not to expect justice from the world. I accepted my hardship during that time and lived where I could. I worked menial jobs while I was in school, sought to live honorably, and above all kept my focus on the Lord who gave me joy and hope from day to day. Now I choose to live a simple life and work in quiet. I enjoy writing articles and books and teaching a Bible lesson when someone asks. I’ve also been blessed to teach Bible classes at a nearby federal prison since 2018. I am very thankful for all God’s blessings.
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