It seems as though Pilate was trying to find a way out, a way that would not involve him any more in the condemnation of Jesus. Pilate warned Jesus to defend Himself, “Hearest Thou not how many things they witness against Thee?” (Matt. 27:13). He marveled that Jesus would not answer in defense of Himself, not even a word, against such serious and numerous charges (Matt. 27:14). Earlier, when he had heard that Jesus had begun by speaking in Galilee, Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who was at Jerusalem at the time (Luke 23:5-7). But Herod just sent Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:11). Pilate tried to get the Jews to take Jesus back and judge Him according their own laws, but they would not (John 18:31). None of Pilate’s efforts to escape Jesus worked.
Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent. He knew that it was only the envy of the hypocritical, self-righteous Jewish leaders that prompted them to deliver Him for judgement (Mark 15:10). Pilate confessed “I have found no cause of death in Him: I will therefore chastise Him and let Him go” (Luke 23:22). Furthermore, Pilate’s wife had sent a message to him to “Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him” (Matt. 27:19). Not only would Pilate be going against his own conscience but also angering, possibly alienating, his wife.
Pilate finally remembered a custom in which one person held would be released at the Passover (John 18:39). He must have felt that Jesus was popular enough that the people would have wanted Jesus released or that the Jewish leaders could not stomach having murderers and thieves released into their community. But he underestimated the Jewish leader’s hatred of Jesus. While there were many in the crowd supporting Jesus, the chief priests moved the people to ask for Barabbas’ release instead of Jesus’ release (Mark 15:11). While Pilate was willing enough to release Jesus, the voices of the chief priests and those whom they had bullied, prevailed (Luke 23:20,23). When Pilate offered them the choice between Barabbas and Christ, they brazenly cried out, “Not this man, but Barabbas” (John 18:40).
When Pilate had run out of political options, when he could no longer stall, he gave in to political pressures. The Jews had accused him of not being Caesar’s friend, if he let Jesus go (John 19:12). When Pilate had brought Jesus before the Jews, he said “Behold, your king!” But the chief priests replied slyly, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). It must have been this that scared Pilate for he immediately delivered Jesus to be crucified (John 19:16). But Pilate, still wanting to be innocent of Jesus’ blood, took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying “I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it” (Matt. 27:24,25).
There is a lesson to be learned in Pilate’s behavior. He knew what was right. He knew Jesus was a “just person,” yet he had Him beaten and then crucified regardless. It is hard to stand up against pressure from peers. This is a problem not just with young people but with the old, as well. Many of the chief rulers of the Jews believed on Jesus but would not confess Him because they feared retribution from the Pharisees (John 12:42,43). Peter fell in with the crowd and denied the Lord, even to the point of cursing, because he was afraid of what others would think about him or do to him. Later, even after the church was established, he would turn his back on the Gentiles because he was afraid of what the Jews would think (Gal. 2:11-14).
There is also a lesson to be learned from the people. Many of them are to be commended, for they voiced their support for the release of Jesus (Luke 23:23). They were fearless in the face of staunch opposition and retaliation in the crowd and perhaps at a later time. There may have been more, perhaps, who supported the Lord than not, only the chief priests had louder, more insistent voices (Luke 23:23).
But there were other voices in the crowd which may have been among the number of those hailing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with praises and palm branches who were now joining the chorus of the “Crucify Him” choir! They wanted loaves and fishes, they wanted overturned money-tables but they didn’t want thorns or nails or sweat and blood. “They denied Him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go.” They “denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted” unto them (Acts 3:13,14). They cried out, “Not this Man, but Barabbas” (John 19:40)!
We condemn them, and rightly so, for this unrighteous act. But how many times have we called out, “Not this Man but Barabbas” in our own lives? Not in those exact words but many cry out, “Not this Man, but my preacher,” when they want to follow a man they like religiously, and set aside the doctrines of the Lord. We cry out, “Not this Man, but my relatives,” when we put our relations before our worship and service to the Lord. We cry out, “Not this Man, but my things,” when we put material blessings before the Lord. We cry out, “Not this man, but my pleasure,” when we put our recreational activities before the Lord. What we are really saying is, Not this Man, but me.”
Eric L. Padgett