Barabbas or Jesus?

Standing on the steps of the Praetorium with Jesus beside him and a crowd before him Pilate continues his taunting of the Jewish religious leaders. He has already determined Jesus has done nothing wrong. He has also probably decided Jesus is a lunatic. He has concluded the Chief Priest and his mob have delivered Jesus to him out of “envy” meaning they saw him as a threat to their power and control over the people. Pilate had Rome behind him. These conquered people had nothing but their traditions, rituals, ceremonies and feasts. It was Passover and even Pilate knew the significance of this feast. I image Pilate standing before the mob feeling disgust and revulsion toward all of them. He never cared about Jesus. He never cared about the High Priest or any in the mob.

Who was in the mob gathered before Pilate? Many in the mob were considered the religious leaders, teachers and lawyers (specializing in God’s written Law given to Moses in the Tanakh) of Judea. Other’s had been attracted to the proceedings out of morbid curiosity. They knew, having seen it before, what it meant for Pilate to stand where he was standing. Jesus was popular but there were not many, if there were any, in the crowd who approved of the man. “Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” [Matthew 27:20 ESV]. Then, not many of them may have known the full extent of Barabbas’ crimes, either, even though he was “notorious.” Many in the crowd had been present since the early morning hours before sunrise, and had been in the courtyard of the High Priest. Most had been in the mob which arrested Jesus. If there were any in the crowd who sided with Jesus they were easily quieted and moved away.

Who knew of the notoriety of Barabbas and the influence of Jesus? Who knew of the criminal activities of Barabbas and the lawful activities of Jesus? Most of the mob did not know the backgrounds of either man facing Rome’s condemnation. Pilate knew, for he had examined Jesus. And the High Priest knew, for he, too had examined Jesus. Under Roman law Jesus was innocent and Barabbas was guilty. Under Mosaic Law Jesus was innocent and Barabbas was guilty. Pilate asks, probably with a smirk and a devious twinkle in his eye, “which of the two do you want me to release for you” [Matthew 27:21 ESV]? Here begins a quick exchange of questions about the innocence of Jesus and the answers of the crowd demanding his death. None of the questions are abnormal. All of them are asked in a way which reveals the hypocritical hearts and minds of the Chief Priest and the crowd he controls. When Pilate asked the question the response of the mob was not for the man declared innocent but for the man declared guilty.

They said, ‘Barabbas'” [Matthew 27:21 ESV].

Immediately Pilate asks the next question. “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ” [Matthew 27.22 ESV]? Pilate’s question reveals his contempt for the religious leaders and the people they govern. He calls Jesus “the Christ” or “Messiah.” In Mark’s document the word’s Pilate uses are slightly different. “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews” [Mark 15:12 ESV]? Mark’s perspective is not contradictory nor does it change the depth of hypocrisy shown by both Pilate and the mob. Jesus has already declared himself a king, whose kingdom is not of this world, to Pilate. Listening to this declaration suggested to Pilate Jesus is a lunatic. His advisors had probably told him the religious traditions of the people so he is aware of their desire to see “prophesy” fulfilled by the coming of a godly king who would throw off the shackles of the conquering nation. In this case, the conquering empire is Rome. Pilate ridicules the people by asking them if they want him to murder someone who is supposed to be their deliverer.

“They all said, ‘Let him be crucified'” [Matthew 27.22 ESV]!

Pilate is no longer talking to the High Priest or the religious leaders who want Jesus dead. He is watching the mob standing before him and watching those same people goad the crowd into responding to his questions. They are not thinking, have not seen the evidence, and cannot make a rationale decision about anything which has happened. Mobs don’t think; they follow the lead of those around who follow the lead of those in control. They simply pick up the chant, or rant, of those who are the loudest and most forceful. His next question has already been answered. Why he asks a mob this question only encourages them to respond emotionally. They have already shouted they want Jesus crucified. Pilate asks “why, what evil has he done” [Matthew 27:23 ESV]? Luke’s documents tells us this question is the third time Pilate has asked the people what they want and reiterates he has found nothing in the man deserving death. A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him” [Luke 23:22 ESV]. Jesus has done no evil. He has broken no law. Pilate thinks he is crazy. Insane is no reason to crucify anyone. But, this is exactly what the High Priest who is controlling the crowd wants. Pilate against suggest he punish Jesus. They don’t want him punished. They want him dead.

“But they shouted all the more, ‘Let him be crucified'” [Matthew 27:23 ESV]!

Having already abandoned any pretext of being the decision maker in this case Pilate tries to absolve himself of the murder he is going to sanction. “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves'” [Matthew 27:24 ESV]. Here is the man who makes up truth to fit his circumstance. He is the authority, the magistrate, the governor of the people. He is the one responsible for enforcing the law, for executing those who deserve death and freeing those who have done nothing wrong. His true nature comes to the surface in this single, damning statement. He is not going to stop the mob. “Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified” [Matthew 27:26 ESV]. No matter what anyone thinks Pilate is responsible for letting a notorious criminal go free and condemning to a horrible, agonizing death a man who is innocent. No matter what Pilate says about letting them murder Jesus he must still provide the Roman guards and executioners. They do not murder Jesus themselves. He not only sanctions Jesus’ murder but provides the means for him to die.

Matthew gives us a statement which is completely in keeping with any decision made by a mob. They are willing to take responsibility for the death of Jesus. Not only will they take responsibility but they will impose responsibility upon their families and children and whole nation. Guilt cannot be reasonably shifted to anyone who has not committed the crime. Ancient cultures, Israel included, did punish the children and families for the crimes of the father or leader. Even God shows how the rebellious and unrighteous acts of a leader impacts those led. For these people to ascribe guilt to those yet born is the height of unthinking arrogance and irresponsibility. “And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children;” [Matthew 27:25 ESV]! All the people in this circumstance are those in the mob controlled by the High Priest, not all of the territory of Judea. Like all which has transpired to this point their statement is inspired, not by reasoned thinking and righteous feeling but crazed and out of control emotion.

And Pilate thinks Jesus is insane.


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