33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked Him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 "Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 "You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against Him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”
40 They shouted back, “No, not Him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.
15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of Him.”
20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21 “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered.
22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify Him!”
23 “Why? What crime has He committed” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify Him!”
24 When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25 All the people answered, “Let His blood be on us and on our children!”
26 Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed Him over to be crucified.
Today we continue our journey from the Upper Room to the empty tomb. As I mentioned at the beginning of this series, we don’t have time to get into all of the many scenes in this dramatic week, so just to put the story of Barabbas into its correct place, we need to have a quick look at the timeline. We have moved from Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane, which we looked at last Sunday. Jesus has been arrested and is brought before the Sanhedrin where He was put on trial before Caiaphas, the high priest. They falsely accuse Him of blasphemy, but because they did not have the authority to pass or carry out the death sentence, they send Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate quickly saw through their plan and not wanting to get involved in what he regarded as an internal Jewish matter which didn’t really concern him, he sends Jesus to King Herod. Despite the many questions that Herod asks Jesus, He says nothing in response, so Jesus is sent back to Pilate, and that is where we pick up the story this morning.
Pilate had tried to pass the buck and avoid his responsibilities as the highest authority in Palestine, but the problem now landed firmly in his lap once more.
It is at this point where Barabbas enters the scene. Of course, knowing the bigger picture helps us to better understand what really went on during the hours before Jesus was crucified. Barabbas was released, and Jesus was condemned to death. Jesus takes the place of a condemned man. The innocent was declared guilty so the guilty could be set free. An innocent man died so one who was worthy of death could go free. What an amazing picture of the salvation Jesus would provide for us all within a matter of hours.
We are so familiar with the stories of Jesus’ betrayal, the sham trials, the flogging and torturous death on the cross, which means there is a danger that we don’t stop often enough to really try and consider just what Jesus did for us as He bore our sin and stood in our place. He endured the righteous wrath of God against sin, so we could escape it. He died on that cross, so we might have eternal life.
And this is why the account of Barabbas is such an important detail in the greater story. This is more than just a criminal being released because that is what the crowd wanted. Barabbas’ release was an important custom of the time, but of course, as we spend time looking at the bigger picture, we soon realise that Barabbas represents each of us – the innocent condemned, in order that that the guilty might go free.
We are given an insight into some of the judicial practices of Jesus’ day during His second appearance before Pilate. Matthew 27:15 says, “it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd.” The question is, how did that custom come about?
Remember that the nation of Israel was under Roman domination and rule at this time. Pilate was the governor over that region of the Roman Empire. The relationship between the Romans and the Jews was one of mistrust, resentment, and hostility. For thousands of years the Israelites had been reminded each year of their release from slavery in Egypt during Passover. Every year, and this particular year was no different, tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of Jews went to Jerusalem to remember and celebrate the Passover, and how God had freed them from slavery, so this was a particularly volatile time of the year. It was volatile because at the Passover they were reminded of how God had delivered them from Egyptian tyranny, but they did this while under the cruel oppression of Rome. They celebrated freedom, but the reality was that they were in pretty much the same situation as their forefathers in Moses’ day.
It wouldn’t take much to spark a rebellion with so many angry young men in Jerusalem all together at the same time. Pilate was aware of this, so each year he would release a prisoner to the Jews in an effort to appease the masses that gathered in Jerusalem, hoping to prevent a riot. Enter Barabbas.
Barabbas was a nasty piece of work. He’d been arrested and sentenced for robbery, murder, and plotting to overthrow the Roman authorities. He was just the kind of person that Pilate did not need roaming the streets, especially at this time of year so he probably couldn’t wait for him to be executed.
So when, as was the custom, he asked which criminal he should release to the Jews because it was the annual Passover, Barabbas was the last name he expected to hear. He knew that Jesus was innocent and as far as he was concerned, releasing Jesus would be nothing more than a mere formality, so he must have been stunned to hear the crowd asking for Barabbas to be released instead.
Pilate was now backed into a corner. He knew that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against Him, so in Pilate’s mind, the choice between Jesus and Barabbas was a simple one.
We might not be seated in a courtroom setting with Jesus standing before us physically, but we are given the same choice as the Jews did in Jerusalem that day. At some point, everyone must choose between Jesus and Barabbas. Barabbas represents the wicked, sinful nature of mankind. He stands as a picture of those who choose to live their lives in order to please themselves, regardless of what God says.
Strangely enough, history has been rather kind to Pilate. He is seen as someone who was kind of caught between a rock and a hard place – an innocent victim of circumstance. But this is just not true.
He knew that Jesus was innocent, but he backed down from his convictions. Even his wife pleaded with him to release Jesus, but he refused.
Pilate wasn’t concerned with the welfare of Jesus or with justice. He was simply trying to appease the Jews and avoid an uproar which might lead to an open rebellion. Rome would not be pleased if he allowed things to get out of control. Pilate was first and foremost a politician, and he wasn’t concerned with wrong or right. So long as his position was secure, the Jews were kept under control and Rome was pleased with him, he was quite happy.
However, God used someone who had access to Pilate – his wife - to warn him. He was given a final opportunity to acknowledge Jesus and His innocence.
Pilate was given an opportunity to view Jesus as the Christ. He had examined the evidence and knew there was no guilt in Him. His wife had even cautioned him.
The Holy Spirit speaks to the heart of every human being about Jesus, and who He is. Some will respond by faith and others will continue to deny His deity and His provision of salvation.
The tragedy is that this trend continues to this day. Like Pilate, many choose to ignore the truth.
John’s gospel records a crucial conversation between Jesus and Pilate (our first reading today). During that conversation, Pilate asked Jesus the greatest and most important question any human being can ever ask: “What is truth?”
The theologian Ravi Zacharias says this: “When Pilate looked at Jesus and said, ‘What is truth,’ and walked away, Pilate walked away from the greatest authority on the greatest question and committed the greatest crime.”
The Pharisees also knew the truth but decided to reject it. Matthew 27:20 says, “The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.” Here we have a perfect example of how the masses can be swayed by just a few. The chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus instead. Like Pilate, they too had a choice to make, but the religious elite had their own agenda and were determined to see Jesus condemned and crucified. They knew there was no fault in Him and their accusations were baseless, yet they influenced the multitude to choose Barabbas over Jesus. And in many ways, their crime was greater than Pilate’s. They knew the prophecies about the Messiah, and they knew just who it was that stood before them, but instead of embracing the Messiah they regarded Him as a threat to their position and authority. Those who should have recognised Jesus as the Christ persuaded the multitude to reject Him. Many false prophets today still try to persuade and influence others to reject Jesus as well. False religions and cults thinly disguised as Christian churches today continue to do the same.
The Apostle Paul, in 2 Timothy 4:3-4 wrote, “The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” Don’t allow yourself to be taken captive by the lies of the devil. If you are a Christian, you have the Spirit of God within you, the Spirit that will lead you into all truth, so if you read or hear something that doesn’t sound quite right, and you sense an alarm bell or two, don’t ignore it. Test it against Scripture. What does the Bible say? 1 Thessalonians 5:21 says, “Test everything. Hold onto the good.”
Twice Pilate gave the crowd the opportunity to choose Jesus over Barabbas, but as verse 23 says, “they shouted all the louder, ‘crucify Him.’”
Faces, circumstances, and venues may change, but the cry of humanity remains much the same. When presented with a choice, maybe for the second or third time, the vast majority will choose the world and the pleasures of the flesh over Jesus Christ the Lord.
And so Pilate, instead of choosing the truth and using the authority he had as the most powerful man in the land, makes a farce of the whole thing by trying to shift the blame to the people. He washes his hands, and in so doing refuses to accept responsibility for his actions, or more accurately, his inaction.
Pilate knew that they wanted an innocent man put to death. However, he did not allow the knowledge of this truth to persuade his decision. He wanted to avoid trouble and please the crowd more than he wanted to see justice. In a ceremonial show, Pilate washed his hands of the matter in an effort to declare his innocence in the verdict. He hoped to place the guilt of an innocent man being condemned on the shoulders of the Jews. Now, this might have made him feel a bit better by throwing up his hands as we often do by saying, “Don’t ask me. It’s got nothing to do with me.” But the point is that who is Jesus, and what is truth had everything to do with him, and it has everything to do with each of us.
Although all of this was within the sovereign will of God, Pilate stood guilty of rejecting Jesus Christ and denying Him before the Jews.
We can’t be like Pilate, because shrugging our shoulders and saying, “Whatever,” is not an option when it comes to deciding who Jesus is.
We cannot simply wash our hands on the matter. We must all decide for ourselves what we are going to do with Jesus.
You either accept Him as your Saviour and Lord and all that He claims to be, or you reject Him and face the eternal consequences of that option. There is no neutral, middle ground. Indecision is rejection.
So Pilate deceives himself into thinking that this whole sorry mess had nothing to do with him, and the crowd makes a rather chilling statement: “Let His blood be on us and our children!”
We’ve already touched on the eternal consequences of this rejection of Jesus, but many Biblical scholars agree that this cry from the people has to a very large degree, been answered since then.
Because the Jews had allowed themselves to be swayed by the warped teachings of the Pharisees, they were willing to bear the responsibility for rejecting Jesus and so cursed their children – their descendants - in the process. They were undeterred in their efforts to have Jesus put to death, even though they knew He was innocent, and had experienced God’s provision and protection for centuries. They, of all people, should have embraced Jesus and confessed Him as their Messiah, and many historians agree that their decision to deny this was costly for them as a nation. God hasn’t forsaken the Jews, but He isn’t dealing with them as
He once did. One commentator writes, “A people without the hand of God upon them faces great misery and distress.”
And so Barabbas is released, and is free to go. The one condemned for murder and insurrection against the government was set free as Jesus took his place. This was clearly just a physical act, but it reveals a great spiritual truth. Jesus took the place of sinners as He submitted to death on the cross. The guilty was released and the innocent stood condemned. Jesus bore the punishment we deserved so we could be pardoned for our sin and reconciled to God. 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “God made Him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Verse 26 says that Jesus was flogged. There isn’t much detail in those few words, but when we look at the track record of the Roman executioners and the Old Testament prophecies, we know that this wasn’t just a hurried flogging or whipping. Jesus was beaten mercilessly, to the point He was unrecognisable. He was beaten with a cat of nine tails, a whip that had nine cords, each having a piece of bone, metal or stone attached to the end. This was done to deliver maximum punishment. The pieces attached to the end of the whip would grab the flesh, and as the soldier pulled it back to deliver another lash, it would literally rip the flesh from the body of the condemned. Isaiah 50:6 says, “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” And 52:14, “Just as there were many who were appalled at Him - His appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and His form marred beyond human likeness.”
These are the prophecies and images that we prefer not to be reminded of, but we have to understand that because of our sin, we are all implicit in this. The Son of God who, in the greatest miscarriage of justice in history, was handed over to be crucified and scourged at the hands of the very people He created and loved. He willingly endured untold suffering to secure our salvation. He was beaten, mocked, and ridiculed as a common criminal. He offered His sinless body as the sacrifice for our sin. If you ever doubt the love of Christ, just look at the Cross of Calvary and the blood that ran down that cross for you.
He did that for you and me because He loved us and was determined to go through with His eternal plan of salvation.
John 1:10-11 says, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognise Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.” That is exactly what happened in Barabbas’ day. Jesus stood condemned to death before His own people, and yet they cried out for Him to be crucified. His love and compassion was met with hatred and unconcern. Through His condemnation, a guilty man walked away free, cleared of all charges and exonerated of all guilt. That is what Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished for humanity. He provided the means of salvation, the only way we can be cleared of all guilt and viewed as righteous in the eyes of a holy God. The good news of the Gospel is in the next 2 verses of John 1: “Yet to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God - children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
My prayer is that you are in the second group, those who choose to believe that Jesus is who He says He is.
He endured the cross for you.
Have you received Christ as your Saviour? Have you believed in Him by faith or are you like the Jews and Pilate that day, rejecting the only means of salvation? It is impossible to wash your hands of Jesus. You have to decide whether you will receive Him or reject Him. If you have rejected Him, your mockery of Jesus continues to this day. Jesus still had much to suffer between leaving Pilate’s court and the cross, and this is what we’re looking at next week.
Each of us is just like Pilate and the people in the crowd. Are we going to choose Jesus or Barabbas? The truth of God, or the lies of satan?
Your eternal destination rests on the choice that you make.
Homegroup Study Notes
Read Matthew 27:15-26
The story of Barabbas being freed and Jesus being condemned in his place gives us an insight into our own salvation.
How do you feel about being compared to Barabbas?
Why did the Pharisees demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus?
How did they influence the crowd to make the same choice?
The rejection of Jesus that day is a picture of the choice every human being needs to make. Our eternal destiny depends on our choice, so why do you think that so many choose to reject, rather than accept Jesus?
Pilate tried to avoid making a decision.
The problem is that indecision or neutrality is exactly the same as rejecting Jesus.
Do you agree with this statement? Why, or why not?
Close by praying for those who continue to reject or are indecisive about accepting salvation through Jesus.