In John 18:38-40, we see this small story in the hours running up to the crucifixion of Jesus:
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
When we think about it, the ridiculous foolishness of this decision is absolutely astounding. When we look at this from an objective point of view, it’s so easy to see the idiotic exchange that they made. They had Jesus, the Son of God, their Messiah, before them, and they chose to save Barabbas instead! It’s the Great Exchange of Romans 1:21-23. They had, within their grasp, the One who gives them life and can grant them the deepest desire of their hearts. He is fully God, and He is the perfect image of the Father. He is the Great Exemplar, the One whose life is lived in absolute perfection, an obedience to God that is faultless. There is nothing better than Him in all creation, even in the Godhead. He is the pinnacle of all that is glorious, all that is good, all that is gracious, righteous, merciful, and more. And they chose Barabbas instead. I’m sure he made a very poor saviour and lord.
This moment was a vivid model of what we do on a daily basis, exchanging our glorious God for lesser things. It’s a dramatic exposure of something that is so native to our hearts that we fail to see it in anything but the most wretched sins: we are idolaters. Every day, in every moment, we choose Barabbas. Again and again, we are given the choice: Jesus, or Barabbas; glorifying God or chasing after the things of this world; serving God’s kingdom or building my own. One leads to eternal life, the other leads to disappointment (Barabbas won’t fulfil the deepest need of our hearts) and eternal death (Barabbas can’t save us either).
Our everyday choices are generally pretty mundane, though, and that makes it less obvious which choices serve God and which choices are idolatrous. When it comes to my everyday decisions, I can frame my options very nicely without too much effort, making it far easier to choose selfish idolatry over glorifying God. I never ask the question, “Am I choosing Jesus or Barabbas?” That’s a much less easy choice to excuse. There’s no way to rationalise that sort of bad choice; you can’t think about Jesus in a way that makes Him similar to Barabbas, and there will never be a time when it is sensible or wise to choose Barabbas over Jesus.
There are times when we’re asked to do things for others that are just a bad idea. Sometimes, we get so busy serving God that our service gets in the way of us being with God. We must be wise in the choices we make, and not every right answer is a ‘yes’ answer, but so much of the idolatry and foolishness in our hearts would be exposed if we changed the question from “Should I serve God in X, or should I do Y instead?” to a far simpler one: “Jesus, or Barabbas?”