SPINELESS PILATE YIELDS TO THE DEMANDS OF THE MOB TO RELEASE BARABBAS AND DELIVER JESUS TO BE CRUCIFIED (DESPITE FINDING HIM INNOCENT)
Charles Swindoll: Finding himself in a precarious political situation, Pilate was seeking some way to free Jesus from the trumped-up charges of the Jewish leaders without breaking either their laws or those of Rome. He knew Jesus was innocent of everything except, perhaps, religious lunacy. Yet his experience with the stubborn rulers of the Jews in Jerusalem told Pilate that they would not be satisfied with a simple dismissal of all charges against Jesus. That could cause a riot or, worse, a report sent to Caesar saying that Pilate was providing a safe haven for treasonous claimants to the throne of Israel.
In the midst of his personal turmoil, Pilate recalled an annual custom that might just provide a way of escape from that political quagmire. Each year at Passover, the governor of Judea would release one convicted prisoner back to the people – an act of unconditional clemency as a sign of benevolence and mercy (27:15). One of the men awaiting execution that morning was a man named Barabbas, described as a “notorious prisoner” (27:16), guilty of insurrection and murder (Luke 23:25). Surely, Pilate reasoned, if the crowd was presented with a choice between freeing Barabbas or freeing Jesus, their sense of justice would prevail and Jesus would go free. Pilate also seemed to be aware of Jesus’ popularity with the people, for “he knew that because of envy [the Jewish leaders] had handed Him over” (Matt. 27:17-18).
S. Lewis Johnson: Barabbas is the only man in the Bible who could ever say in the physical sense alone, Christ died for me. He thus becomes a rather eloquent illustration of the story of the cross. . .
We know from all of the accounts of the Bible that it was the multitude, probably of the supporters of Barabbas, who was a very popular insurgent, evidently, asked Pilate for the freedom for one of the prisoners. They of course hoped that he would opt for the freedom of Barabbas—Pilate was hoping of course that the people would decide for the freedom of Jesus, and thus get him off the horns of a dilemma, because he did not really believe that Jesus was guilty. But he had on the one hand the appeal of his conscience and on the other the political appeal of expediency. And so the multitude asked him that he give them as the custom was a freeing of a prisoner. . .
Rome was very ruthless in persecuting people who sought to rebel against the establishment and in the light of the fact that they were hunted all over the land by men with superior forces, to survive it was necessary for them to do brutal things, and so Barabbas had become a hardened, brutal criminal. The Apostle Peter, preaching in Acts chapter 3 after the resurrection described or says to Israel that they chose a murderer over our Lord Jesus Christ. So we know that it was the common knowledge of the people at the time that Barabbas was not only a robber he was also a murder. Death was his only future.
But the most striking thing about him when you put it all together is the fact that Israel preferred him to the Lord Jesus. Now it might seem hard to understand why Israel the nation would prefer a robber – an insurrectionist, a murderer, a notorious criminal – to our Lord Jesus Christ. But I don’t think it’s really too hard to understand. He was a daring, dashing, captivating, fierce, soul patriot. True he was a criminal, but we tend to glamorize people like that, and we glamorize them in the 20th Century as well. And while they did not have the skills of our present media, the tendency still is to glamorize the man who is the revolutionary and he was that. . .
Now Barabbas was thinking about the Roman judgment of crucifixion, and no doubt his thoughts were concentrated upon that. He was a man who was a sinner. He was guilty, and he stood condemned. A beautiful picture of course of all of us for that is what we are we are sinners. We are guilty before God, and we are therefore condemned. But Barabbas had a release. Now we read in the New Testament in the epistle that Paul wrote to the Galatians, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law being made a curse for us.” I’m sure that it did not take a great deal of thought for Barabbas to have a pretty good theory of the atonement. C. I. Scofield once said, “It’s easy to see Barabbas need not have been a theologian to form a good working theory of the atonement. He knew from experience what it was to be delivered and to have someone else take his place. For you see, ultimately, the Lord Jesus is the one who hangs upon that middle cross in the place of what Barabbas thought would be his cross.” . . .
Now one of the things that we stress in the atonement that our Lord Jesus has accomplished is that in our substitute in the Lord Jesus we have borne our penalty. That’s why we shall not have to bear the penalty again. He has borne the penalty for sinners, and in the case of those who have believed in him, they have a substitute in whom they have borne the penalty. That’s why we cannot bear the penalty. That’s why the divine law has no case whatsoever against us, because our penalty has been paid in our substitute. So Barabbas beautifully illustrates that. I don’t guess there’s anybody who could sing with more gusto, “He breaks the power of canceled sin; he sets the prisoner free.”
Now transferring that from the physical to the spiritual sense we have an illustration of the atoning work of our Lord Jesus. He was our penal substitute. And then if I may just emphasize one more thing. Barabbas, by virtue of the fact that he had been freed by the authorities and by virtue of the fact that Jesus had died under the judgment of Rome, Barabbas is a man who now stands righteous before the Roman government. “O mysterious, wonderful exchange,” the ancient fathers used to say, “by which my unrighteousness becomes the unrighteousness of the Savior and the righteousness of the Savior becomes my righteousness. O mysterious, wonderful exchange.” He hath made him to be sin for us him who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him, and Barabbas, as he stood looking at the cross, stood looking as a free man – one who had been delivered by the authorities and now stood right before them.
Now the second thing I think that is so important is to notice the perennial madness of the multitude’s choice. Which of the two will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. And to make it even worse, in a moment after Pilate has sought to free himself from guilt, they’ve answered and said to Pilate, His blood be on us and on our children. Oh, the madness of the choice of the multitude that selects a Barabbas instead of a Jesus.
I. (:15-18) EXPEDIENT ATTEMPT BY PILATE TO ESCAPE CRUCIFYING JESUS
A. (:15-16) Creative Opportunity to Release a Prisoner
- (:15) The People Get to Decide
“Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release
for the multitude any one prisoner whom they wanted.”
- (:16) The Prisoner Who Was Obviously Guilty and Dangerous = Barabbas
“And they were holding at that time a notorious prisoner,
Daniel Doriani: Barabbas was well known because he “had committed murder” during an insurrection in the city of Jerusalem (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). He and at least two others had been captured. That is probably why three crosses were ready for crucifixions. By tradition, translations typically say Jesus was crucified between two thieves (KJV) or robbers (NIV, ESV), but the Greek term, plus the fact that they were executed, almost certainly means rebels or insurrectionists. The crosses were thus intended for Barabbas and his two cohorts in rebellion (Jesus ultimately took Barabbas’s place). The name Barabbas is also interesting: it means “son of the father.” Since “father” was a title given to prominent teachers, he may have been the son of a “father,” that is, a renowned teacher. This fact, taken with the murder, would account for his prominence.
Jeffrey Crabtree: Pilate picked a prisoner who was the extreme opposite of Jesus. His name was Barabbas (v. 16), which means “son of (his) father.” Some older Greek and Syriac manuscripts have “Jesus” Barabbas or “Jesus bar Abba” and some scholarship supports this reading (Metzger 68). This would mean that “Jesus” the murderer was set free while Jesus the Messiah was condemned (Hill 350). It also helps one understand why Pilate identified Jesus as “Jesus, which is called Christ” (vv. 17, 22) and not just “Jesus.”
B. (:17-18) Choice Between Barabbas and Jesus
- (:17) The Presentation of the Choice
“When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said to them,
‘Whom do you want me to release for you?
Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’”
Leon Morris: We may conjecture that Barabbas would have had popular appeal, for Mark tells us that this man had been involved in a rebellion in which he had committed murder. It is possible that the reason why the crowd was there was that supporters of Barabbas had come together to ask for Barabbas to be the man released at the customary amnesty at Passover. For whatever reason, a crowd was assembled, and Pilate put to them the choice of Barabbas or Jesus. He may have thought that since Jesus had committed no crime and since he was said by some at least to be the Messiah, the people would want to have him set free. But perhaps he did not give sufficient consideration to the fact that a Jerusalem crowd was unlikely to call for a Galilean to be released when some of their own people were in custody. And it may well be that the Jewish leaders had made sure that some of their supporters were in the crowd urging the people to call for Barabbas. By adding that Jesus was “called Messiah,” Pilate was quietly urging a consideration that he might well have thought would weigh heavily with many in the crowd. No answer from the crowd is recorded at this point; it may be that Pilate put the alternatives before the people and allowed them time to think about it.
Bevans Welder: Now before the decision was announced, two things happened that elevate Pilate’s apprehension about the people’s pick.
- First, Pilate’s wife had a bad dream and sent to Pilate saying, “Have thou nothing to do with that JUST man,” (Matt 27:19) [compare the dream of Abimelech in Gen 20:3, as an example].
- Second, the chief priests and the elders stirred up the crowd to vote for Barabbas (Matt 27:20). This is a typical operation for the Jews (Acts 17:5, 13). And as is often the case, the majority was wrong and they paid the price for their error (Prov 11:21).
- (:18) The Plan Behind the Choice — Banking on the Popularity of Jesus vs. the Envy of the Religious Leaders
“For he knew that because of envy they had delivered Him up.”
Leon Morris: Matthew adds that Pilate was not taken in by what the Jewish leaders were saying. He knew that it was not consideration for the security of Roman rule that had motivated them, but envy. Their envy at the success of Jesus in Jerusalem during the past few days would have reinforced their long-standing hatred of him. It may well be that Pilate knew of this and reasoned that since the leaders were jealous of Jesus’ popularity with the crowd, he must have sufficient support among the people for them to ask for his release. Ordinary people would surely side with Jesus rather than with a criminal like Barabbas. So he put the choice before them, thinking that in this way he would be able to release Jesus. If the leaders were jealous of Jesus’ popularity with the crowd, then the “Messiah” must have sufficient support in the crowd for them to ask for him to be set free.
D. A. Carson: What is certain is that Pilate sized up the real motivation of the Jewish leaders (v.18). They had no special loyalty to Rome; so if they were accusing Jesus of being a traitor to Rome, he must have been disturbing them for other reasons, and they were simply using Pilate to eliminate Jesus’ challenge to them. Pilate, with his network of spies and informers, would be aware of how much popularity Jesus Christ enjoyed among the people at large. He could hardly have been unaware of the upsurge of acclaim the previous Sunday (21:1–16). He thought to administer a reversal to Sanhedrin policy by using the paschal amnesty to encourage the crowd to free Jesus; therefore he offered them a choice: Barabbas or Jesus “who is called Christ.” The last clause may be contemptuous.
R. T. France: Pilate’s perception is valid: the purpose of Jesus’ trial was not to punish a breach of the law but to get rid of a man whose claims threatened the status and authority of the current Jewish leaders.
II. (:19) EXCULPATORY INPUT FROM HIS WIFE
“And while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying,
‘Have nothing to do with that righteous Man;
for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.’”
S. Lewis Johnson: Now there is a sudden interruption. You know, men, there are times when we should listen to our wives. Now I know what you are thinking, is there any time when we do not have to listen to them? [Laughter] But there are times when we should pay attention to them, and this is one time when Pilate should have paid attention to his wife.
Leon Morris: She gives as the reason that she had suffered many things in a dream because of him, but she gives no indication of the nature of her sufferings nor of why she felt that her husband should have no dealings with the man. But since people in antiquity took a good deal of notice of dreams, it is not surprising that Pilate’s wife felt that her dream was of some importance. And if it was important, she would believe that she should lose no time in communicating the fact to her husband. She would not have been able to enter the court, but she was able to send a message to the judge. We may well feel that it is astonishing that an aristocratic Roman lady should intercede on behalf of a Galilean peasant. She had clearly been deeply impressed by her dream, and she did what she could.
R. T. France: The intervention of Pilate’s wife serves only to deepen the guilt of the Jewish leaders: even a Gentile woman can see that Jesus is innocent. But of course she knew this only because God had told her, in the dream. It is God, rather than just Pilate’s wife, who thus testifies to Jesus’ righteousness, over against the accusations of the Jewish leaders.
Donald Hagner: The dream serves as a divine vindication of Jesus.
Grant Osborne: “With a dream” (κατ’ ὄναρ) in the Passion Narrative is found only in Matthew in the NT and elsewhere the expression refers to a divine revelation to Joseph about Mary’s pregnancy (1:20), to the Magi about Herod (2:12), or to Joseph about going down to Egypt (2:12–13) and returning (2:19). We are certainly to take the dream as a message from God.
Robert Gundry: the accent falls on her description of Jesus as “righteous”—not just innocent (guiltless), but righteous (positively good as well as guiltless [compare 23:35]). So Jesus appears as the example par excellence of the righteousness which surpasses that of the scholars and Pharisees and without which no one will enter the kingdom of heaven (5:20).
William Hendriksen: Did this woman become a Jewish proselyte and afterward a Christian? The Coptic church honors her memory; the Greek church includes her name in the calendar of saints. But such honors prove nothing.
III. (:20-23) EXCHANGE WITH THE MULTITUDE REGARDING THEIR DECISION
A. (:20) Persuasive Efforts of the Religious Leaders
“But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes
to ask for Barabbas, and to put Jesus to death.”
Leon Morris: The crowd was not left to make up its mind by itself. The crowd never is. There are always people who try to manipulate public opinion, and in this case they were the chief priests and the elders, the Jewish leaders who had brought the accusation against Jesus. There was no doubt which answer they wanted. Matthew gives no indication as to the methods employed to convince the crowds, but tells his readers that they were successful. The crowds were persuaded.
B. (:21) Persistent Response of the Multitude
“But the governor answered and said to them,
‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’
And they said, ‘Barabbas.’”
Charles Swindoll: Talk about being impaled on the horns of a dilemma! In one ear he started to hear murmurs of “Crucify Him” from the crowd as the religious leaders stirred them up, while in the other his wife was imploring him to show mercy. Like the corrupt politician he was, Pilate chose neutrality when he should have followed his conscience, the laws of justice, and the advice of his wife by letting Jesus free. Instead, he turned to the riled-up crowd and asked them to answer his question: “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” (27:21).
C. (:22) Punishment of Jesus Unanimously Affirmed
“Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?’
They all said, ‘Let Him be crucified!’”
Daniel Doriani: The call for crucifixion fit the godless goal of the priests. They wanted to kill Jesus, but a crucifixion would also discredit him. The law says “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). The priests will be pleased because such a death implies that Jesus is under God’s curse. More important, the Father will be pleased, because by this dreadful death Jesus fulfilled his purpose and bore sin’s curse for us.
David Turner: Jesus’s popularity with the crowd has evaporated (21:9, 11, 26; 26:5), probably because the crowd’s hope that Jesus was a political-military Messiah was dashed by his arrest. Jesus’s messianic credentials have now been discredited. This crowd may be composed of Jerusalem residents instead of the Passover pilgrims who had praised Jesus when he entered Jerusalem (Blomberg 1992a: 412).
D. (:23) Perplexity of Pilate in Light of Jesus’ Innocence
“And he said, ‘Why, what evil has He done?’
But they kept shouting all the more, saying, ‘Let Him be crucified!’”
Stu Weber: Pilate attempted to reason with the crowd. Matthew’s choice of the Greek word phemi (“declare, say”) implied that Pilate’s questions were more like assertions, defending Jesus’ innocence, than attempts to draw answers from the people: What crime has he committed? But Pilate’s persistent pleas for reason were drowned out by the crowd’s louder and more persistent cries: Crucify him! The governor had lost control of the situation. His weakness and the mob tendencies of the crowd were playing into the hands of the Jewish leaders.
Robert Gundry: Asking what crime Jesus had committed shows that the governor has accepted his wife’s description of Jesus as “righteous.” The crowds’ repeating “He’s to be crucified” rather than answering with the citation of a crime confirms that description. “Were yelling vehemently” substitutes decibels and repetition for evidence.
D. Marion Clark: What happened? It seems a stretch that the religious leaders in a short period of time could persuade the crowd to turn against a man that many believed to be a prophet of God. How could these leaders who had tried to keep the crowd from knowing what they were doing, suddenly turn into persuasive salesmen? To ask the question yet another way, how could the crowd go from shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” a few days earlier, to shouting, “Let him be crucified!”?
It is not the same crowd. During Passover, Jerusalem’s population grows from a few thousand to two or three hundred thousand. As Jesus entered into Jerusalem, he would have been part of a stream of thousands entering into the city. And though he did receive attention by many people, nevertheless, it would be a small number in comparison to the mass of humanity crowded in and about Jerusalem.
This crowd before Pilate is not likely to be large. It would be made up most of the following. There would be those who have business with Pilate. They have favors to ask, complaints to make, business to transact. It is likely that a number of them are seeking release of family members and friends who are prisoners. Perhaps they hope to take advantage of the governor’s custom of releasing a prisoner. Maybe even Barabbas has his advocates. He most likely was part of a rebel movement. And then there were those whom the religious leaders had gathered. Remember, during their trial, they had gathered false witnesses. These same people very well could have joined the procession, especially if the leaders needed to call on them for testimony before Pilate.
The result is that the majority of the crowd present are as likely to be against or indifferent to Jesus as being for him. At least his strongest advocates would not be there. Where would they be? Most would be at the temple. That is the focal point of the pilgrims. Others would be at market or in their residences. Few respected Jews would be hanging out in the Roman governor’s courtyard. The point of all this is to say that the leaders did not have much persuading to do. What they really needed to do was to coach the crowd, which they do well.
IV. (:24-25) ESCAPE FROM ACCOUNTABILITY SOUGHT BY PILATE
A. (:24) Washing His Hands of Personal Accountability
“And when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the multitude, saying, ‘I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.’”
Jeffrey Crabtree: Pilate could see that a “tumult” or uprising or riot was beginning. In order to keep peace he acquiesced and tried to pass off the responsibility for shedding innocent blood. He publicly washed his hands to demonstrate that he wanted no part in Jesus’ death (v. 24). Clearly, he believed Jesus should not be killed, but it is also clear he did not have the courage his position as governor and judge needed. He was responsible to protect the innocent. Instead, he gave official approval of Jesus’ death and then denied responsibility. Pilate’s statement, “See to it yourselves” reminds the reader of the chief priests and elders’ words to Judas (v. 4; Carson, Matthew 571).
Leon Morris: He clearly regarded Jesus’ death as the crime of murder, and equally clearly he did not wish to be held responsible for it. In this, of course, he was mistaken. He did not have the primary responsibility (that lay with the Jewish leaders). But in the last resort it was Pilate who said “Crucify” or “Release,” and there was no way he could avoid responsibility for that. The picture we get is that of a mob out of control and baying for blood, and in that emotional atmosphere a governor who was not thinking clearly and who was ready to take the easy way out. He tried to evade accountability for a decision that in the last resort was his and his alone. “You see to it,” like the hand-washing, is an attempt to evade a responsibility that could not be shrugged off. The very similar words the Jewish leaders spoke to Judas (v. 4) did not exonerate the chief priests, and these words do not exonerate Pilate.
Richard Gardner: Concluding the trial scene is Pilate’s gesture of washing his hands to absolve himself of responsibility for killing the innocent. It is a strange twist to the story, since the rite described is based on an OT practice rather than Roman judicial custom (cf. Deut. 21:1-9). What is strange from a historical perspective, however, creates rich irony from a literary and religious standpoint. The pagan Pilate acts like a good Israelite to separate himself from a deed that violates covenant justice, while the people of the covenant eagerly embrace responsibility for this deed: His blood be on us and on our children (v. 25).
B. (:25) Transferring Accountability to the Jewish People
“And all the people answered and said,
‘His blood be on us and on our children!’”
Donald Hagner: As for the responsibility for the death of Jesus, theologically there is only one possible answer: it is sin, the universal malady of all human beings, that drives Jesus to the cross. The crucifixion is in this sense a piece of the autobiography of every man and woman ever to walk this earth. It is “I” who am guilty of crucifying Jesus.
Leon Morris: This verse has been greatly misused throughout the centuries, being made a proof text to justify all manner of horrific practices against the Jews. But we should bear in mind that this was no more than a thoughtless assumption of responsibility by an unruly mob. They had no authority to commit their nation for the evil thing that they were doing. And even if they could do this, they could not bind God to punish subsequent generations of the chosen people. Evils have been perpetrated against the Jews through the centuries, and in some places they still are. But Scripture gives us no justification for any such thing. It is relevant that all the first Christians were Jews; the writer of this Gospel cannot possibly have meant that punishment for this mob’s outrageous behavior would fall on every Jew in every place at every time.
Albert Mohler: The people ignorantly place the responsibility for their own Messiah’s crucifixion directly on themselves, but Pilate is just as guilty as they are.
(:26) EPILOGUE – FINAL DISPOSITION OF BARABBAS AND JESUS
A. Final Disposition of Barabbas
“Then he released Barabbas for them;”
B. Final Disposition of Jesus
- Scourged in Preparation for Crucifixion
“but after having Jesus scourged,”
- Delivered Up to Be Crucified
“he delivered Him to be crucified.”
D. A. Carson: Among the Jews, scourging was limited to forty lashes (Dt 25:3; cf. 2Co 11:24), but the Romans were restricted by nothing but their strength and whim. The whip was the dreaded flagellum, made by plaiting pieces of bone or lead into leather thongs. The victim was stripped and tied to a post. Severe flogging not only reduced the flesh to bloody pulp but could open up the body until the bones were visible and the entrails exposed (cf. TDNT, 4:510–12; Josephus, J.W. 2.612 [21.5]; 6.304 [5.3]). Flogging as an independent punishment not infrequently ended in death. It was also used to weaken the prisoner before crucifixion. Jesus’ flogging took place before the verdict (cf. Lk 23:16, 22; Jn 19:1–5; cf. Blinzler, Trial of Jesus, 222ff.) and so was not repeated after the verdict. Repetition would doubtless have killed him.
Grant Osborne: When Pilate delivered Jesus up to be scourged, he was following the legal code, which demanded that scourging precede capital punishment. The purpose in the case of crucifixion was actually humane, for it weakened the prisoner and helped him die more quickly, lessening the terrible agonies of the cross.
Scourging, however, was a terrible punishment in itself; in fact, as with crucifixion, it could only be inflicted on a Roman citizen by direct edict of Caesar. There were three kinds of beatings: the fustigatio, a less severe form for light offenses; the flagellatio, a severe beating for hardened criminals; and the verberatio, the most severe of them, in which the victim was beaten by a succession of soldiers, often with a scourge, a whip made up of strips of leather onto which were tied pieces of metal or bone. After only a few strokes the person’s back was torn apart; and a hard blow could tear out a person’s internal organs. With Jesus it was most likely the verberatio and thus undoubtedly terrible, but controlled sufficiently that he could go to the cross. He was indeed the suffering Servant of Isa 53:10–12. The phrase “handed him over to be crucified” is a further allusion to the righteous suffering Servant, recalling Isa 53:6, 12 LXX (cf. 26:28, 62; 27:12).
Albert Mohler: With the Sabbath approaching, the Romans flog Jesus nearly to death so that he will die quickly and will not be left on the cross after sundown.
Van Parunak: Pilate becomes the third, after Judas and the Jewish leaders, to “betray” the Lord.
- Judas violated his obligation to the Lord as a disciple.
- The leaders violated their obligation as the shepherds of Israel to recognize the Messiah.
- Pilate violates his obligation as a magistrate to offer true judgment (Deut 25:1). Though he is not a Jew, according to Daniel 4, he holds his office as a trust from God, and is accountable to him for it.