During my time in seminary in spring 1984, my classmate Max McLean made a dramatic presentation to the entire student body during a time of chapel. His presentation was an imagined drama which went over the decisions which Pontius Pilate faced on the day that Jesus Christ came before him, and he had to make the decision as to whether Jesus would live or die. He was speaking as Pilate as he might have agonized later over the choices that were given to him that morning, the different pressures he was under from different directions. He kept coming back to the one question: “What would you have done?”
The gospels go over much of the political and judicial process which resulted in the death sentence for Jesus Christ as it happened in Jerusalem about 30 CE. There was more than one hand at work in this situation, though, as the visible political and judicial machinery of the Roman government ground onward to the final result. Surely a serious Christian considering these passages will understand that they showcase the corruption of the political and judicial process in this sinful, fallen world due to the sinful, fallen hearts of the people who are part of the political and judicial process. Many of the parts of the political and legal machinery are familiar to us also from the common political and legal processes of mankind. We can understand what was going on because we also have some understanding of the way that political and legal proceedings work in this world.
These passages that deal with the political trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate also show what can happen to the followers of Jesus in this world just as it has also often happened throughout history. Here we also see the portents of the treatment of the innocent believer in Jesus who has broken no laws but has come under the disapproval of those who are in positions of political and religious authority – and make no mistake, Jesus Christ is still as serious a threat to the powers that be in his followers as he was when he was physically here on earth standing before Pontius Pilate. So throughout so many ages since then so many believers who have undergone persecution and probable martyrdom have found themselves understanding and sympathizing with what happened to Jesus, and they would find in the gospels the same Lord who sympathizes with them because he was there first as the innocent sufferer before the bar of wickedly politicized judicial proceedings.
But there is still another hand at work in these circumstances as well. In our age we may come to these passages where we think we are simply observers through the narration, but at the end find that we are no longer just observers at all, but rather full participants in this situation as it was unfolding. To be certain, these are definitely objective historical events that really happened, but these passages tell us of events also with a real significance beyond the past that continues to draw us in now, to where the audience finds that they are part of the story as well, and that they were there from the very beginning. These passages are like a news article about something which we come to the startled realization that we were there when the event happened, but that we didn’t realize it until long after the event happened. The circumstances now that we will consider together involved a reversal of the death sentence for a stunningly and notoriously guilty party and the just punishment which the guilty man deserved was put upon the innocent person. This was more just than a travesty of human justice. Through our view of the proceedings we can see beyond what was happening and look beyond them to the controversial and totally innocent person at the center of the controversy. It is starling to consider that the person , who had nothing to say in this passage, was actually the one in charge of the proceedings from beginning to end. It is astonishing to see that he was the one who had written the script, how the players on this stage around him were acting out their cruelty of their own hearts with him as their intended victim. None of them were really in control of these proceedings, and the actual result was beyond any of them and not within the control of any of them, but it was all under the control of the one person who was there and silent at this time.
“According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them. But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas. And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:6-15, Dale’s sight translation).
The death sentence on Jesus was the ultimate tradeoff. It was an attempted exchange for temporary political expediency, but the exchange that was actually attempted was not the exchange that was actually achieved. Here, the human political desperation and judicial expediency that sought a tradeoff to and the cruelty of a mob seeking to indulge their own bloodthirsty agenda resulted in the true exchange of lives which brings real life and freedom.
In the corrupt judicial proceedings of this world, there are often people who seek for the release of the guilty parties without regard to their guilt before God and man. The terrible injustice of this world may then result, as it often has throughout human history, in the exchange of the lives of the unquestionably guilty for the lives of the unquestionably innocent. But what happened then still points to the ultimate human need for real life freedom that ultimately comes from the ultimate need for the exchange of the life of the completely innocent for the lives of the completely guilty.
The drama that happened then, and in which we are still participants, begins in verses 6-8: “According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them.”
The custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover which the gospel mentioned is not well attested outside the New Testament but not unprecedented throughout the known judicial proceedings of the Roman empire. And the guilty man who was known as Barabbas is unknown beyond what the New Testament says. He was, though, apparently, well known enough that his name needed little further explanation 23-30 years later, when the gospel of Mark was most likely written. He was most definitely an armed robber and a murderer, and apparently something of a political revolutionary and radical, a ‘desperate character.’ He may have been part of a criminal gang which gave a revolutionary and political rationale for their crimes.
So here is where the mob starts to become evident. There seem to have been a number of those in the crowd that came to Pilate and they were apparently seeking to have this character released by Pilate as part of the custom. They may have come entirely with that purpose in that mind and they may have already become worked up to seek the release of Barabbas. A few might have mixed in with the crowd that gathered around to see what Pilate would do about Jesus as the Jewish high priests and their underlings dragged Jesus before Pontius Pilate.
The whole size of this crowd that became a mob may have started with a couple of dozen and grown to several hundred in this crowd, may have grown still further as time went on; the gospel writers were not concerned with counting heads in the crowd at this time. And maybe some came not with any animosity toward Jesus but rather simply wanting this Barabbas character released. They may have had some sympathy with his professed radical and revolutionary bent; after all, they were part of a nation that was occupied by the imperial power of Rome and like many at that time they wanted to be free from Rome. But still others may have been paid stooges of the high priest clan; the ‘retired’ high priest Annas, the father in law of the official high priest Caiaphas, was in fact known at that time for hiring and inciting mobs. And some of those there in that group may have even been part of the group that came out with torches and staves, like the crowd of peasants in an old horror movie, to the Garden of Gethsemane during the previous night to arrest Jesus.
So then like now, the desire for political freedom can often result in or be the excuse for deeper crimes in this world of sin. The human heart, the sin factory that often produces horrible crimes can make desperate characters out of so many, and many others like Barabbas have been produced throughout the ages, and the crowds may call for their release without regard to their crimes. Certainly here we can see the warning not to idolize the radicals and revolutionaries of this world who are often criminals as bad as those they are protesting, such as the current unthinking idolization of Che Guevara and the current unthinking idolatry of political violence by so many. The desperation of the professed radical the actual criminal and the crowds desperate for political freedom simply compounds the real problem. The problem for each of them was not Rome but their own heart. Even John Lennon saw through this, where he advised the would be revolutionary of his time: “You better free your mind instead . . .”And here we come ourselves the place where we realize that we are the desperate characters ourselves, and we understand the failure of our best intentions to achieve the freedom that we crave. The freedom that we crave is really not a political freedom but from the power of sin and death, and that is the freedom that can come only from the Son of God. “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. . . . If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free . . (John 8:31-32, 34, 36).
The necessary tradeoff requires that one would be unquestionably guilty and another would be unquestionably innocent. But the tradeoff that was attempted then on this basis wasn’t the one which actually happened. The desperation for one tradeoff based on political and judicial expediency ironically, then, results in another which actually is the intent of God in these circumstances. What happens in this situation is the real plan of the one who is really in charge and pulling the strings in these situations.
In verses 9-11 we can see how Pilate desperately and clumsily tries to do the right things in that situation: “But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas.” He obviously knows the injustice of the charges against Jesus. He knows that the previous trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, as well as the crowds, were being stirred up to demand the death of an innocent man. Here on the platform in the city of Jerusalem was a minor Roman official and politician who was trying clumsily to appease the popular demand and let Jesus off at the same time. He was trying to direct them from the guilty party – Barabbas — release the innocent Jesus. He was faced with a crowd that came with some desire that they dare not express to his face for their political liberty from Rome and who wanted a criminal who had some popular sympathy released instead of Jesus. The crowd kept up their demands for the release of Barabbas when Pilate tried to suggest to them that the Jesus who should be released was the other innocent Jesus.
Pilate’s clumsy attempt at a tradeoff then started to backfire in the face of the crowd that wouldn’t accept his attempt to redirect them from Barabbas to Jesus. At this point the crowds were also being instigated to seek the release of Barabbas by the ruling priests. This would be Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies — and here they were themselves stirring up the mob as Annas himself was notorious for doing. They were desperate themselves as now they saw the danger that Jesus could get off at this point. What actually happened here may not have been anything more than them stepping forward from the sidelines at this point to call for the release of Barabbas – just stepping forward so they could be recognized, turning to the crowd and leading them in calling for Barabbas. This would not have been out of any desire for Barabbas to be free, but from their desire for Jesus to be executed and for making certain that their murderous intent was fulfilled so they could be rid of Jesus and the threat he was to their status quo. Even here, though, no one there got what he or she wanted except Jesus. And note also how often this same kind of scene was repeated throughout the book of Acts whenever the pride, position, privileges and profits were threatened by the gospel and the freedom which Jesus brings – the incited mob, the fury of the religious and political leaders, and the calm of the innocent who were being called upon to suffer.
So despite the best intentions and attempts of many people to do the right thing, those cannot achieve what only God can provide. All the attempts to pull strings and maneuver behind the scenes only play into the plans which God already has made. Our own plans and tradeoffs within the sinful machinery of this world will ultimately backfire, and only God gets what he wants in these situations. It’s so common throughout the ages, that the murderous hostility of the world towards the people of God only goes to fulfill the actual will and purposes of God in that situation. Even in the hour of his death, as he was being burned at the stake in Oxford, England, the reforming bishop Hugh Latimer died with this assurance as he said to his compatriot Nicholas Ridley, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out . . .”
In this world, good intentions, a desperate attempt to try to do the right thing, often does not achieve what we’re aiming for. We still live in and need to deal with the machinery of this fallen world that can crush our best intentions and most desperate efforts. What we often fail to do and need to do is to see beyond the outward circumstances of the machinery to the ultimate purposes of God in that situation. We need to see what God is providing in that situation, and to know, understand and pursue his will in his power before the political and judicial machinery of this world.
The tradeoff that looked expedient then had been ultimately in the plan of God from all eternity. In that situation God himself was orchestrating the events which ended up meeting the most desperate need of this world. The desperation of this world demanded the exchange of the death of Jesus for the guilty parties of this world. What was demanded in that situation turns out to have been the cry of the real need of this world, of the people everywhere, in every time. The desperation of this world called for the death of Jesus. The cry then the exhibition of a deeper need than anyone in the mob then and there realized. What was then shouted as a murderous demand echoed in the purpose and foreknowledge of God as the answer of God to the most desperate need of this world.
In verses 12-13, then, Pilate then put the question to the crowds as to what he was to do with Jesus: “And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ .” Here we see the Pontius Pilate known to history. At the end he is just an average politician shirking his responsibility to uphold civil justice. There was no reason for Pilate to put the question to the crowd at all about what he was to do with Jesus. He was the governor that the Roman emperor Tiberius had appointed, and his was the authority alone on what to do with Jesus. But apparently the crowd had become more unruly, and perhaps Pilate feared a riot. So when he put the question to the crowd the ginned up mob called back for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barabbas.
Under the Old Testament Law stoning was the normal way of execution for the purported crime of blasphemy. Twice during the ministry of Jesus his Jewish audiences had already tried to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31) – and it would actually as in the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Psalm 22, though, indicated crucifixion and not stoning. So in the call for crucifixion the mob was unwittingly making themselves part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament. That’s what they were actually doing, though they had no idea or intention that they were doing it. But even more see the monstrous cruelty of that crowd that was willing to trade the life of Jesus for Barabbas. See their complete indifference to the crimes of Barabbas and their disrespect for the innocence and life of Jesus. See even more their utter disobedience to the OT commands not to follow others in doing wrong (Exodus 23:2, Proverbs 1:10-11, 15). So they were calling for the legal penalty for murder and sedition for Barabbas under the law of the time to be applied to Jesus instead. At this moment became the de facto place where mob rule occurred in the legal and judicial proceeding around the trial and execution of Jesus. So despite having a hostile governor in Pilate who wasn’t inclined to give in to what they wanted, the mob ruled and their demand for crucifixion becomes explicit and ultimately successful. And though it hadn’t been explicitly part of the earlier conversation, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders knew that was the penalty the religious leaders were seeking when they turned Jesus over to him to suffer the penalty prescribed by Roman justice.
Here the power of sin to inflame the hearts of people in this world is spectacularly visible. Sinful hearts influencing the sinful hearts of others into cruelty and murderous hatred is shown starkly in the proceedings concerning the execution of Jesus.This shows the reality is that the crowd often not a restraint to criminal behavior but a goad to criminal behavior. It’s so much easier so often in a mob for otherwise reasonable people to become dismissive of the legal rights and lives of innocent people. This shows that others cannot be our salvation but they do often just lead us deeper into sinful and criminal behavior. But behind the desperate cruelty of the crowds is the cry of the desperate need of this world for a Savior. The shout of the crowd was ironically the cry of this world and the cry of desperate spiritual and eternal need. Their real need was not political freedom but the freedom which Jesus really brings through the gospel. This was something that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself realized. He became good friends with Billy Graham in the years before his tragic assassination and often attended conferences with the Billy Graham team. But when Billy Graham offered to come join him in the streets, Dr. King encouraged him to continue preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and to support his goals by example and not to join him in the streets: “You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than if you marched in the streets.”
Political and legal authority and power cannot provide for the desperate need of this world, then. The political and legal institutions ultimately come down to the people who are in charge. And they are as sinful and fallible as anyone else and they cannot save us any more than they can save themselves.
Pontius Pilate admits defeat and gives in to the demands of the mob like the gospel says in verses 14-15: “And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” So Pilate eventually gives in to the will of the crowd. He did make several legitimate attempts to release Jesus, or at least punish him with something less than the death penalty. Even with all the shouting, the crowds never gave him any explicit, legitimate reason for the capital punishment of Jesus any more than the Jewish religious authorities did. There was nothing he could write to the emperor as to why this prisoner would have been executed. According to the other gospels, Pilate did some more waffling back and forth, and part of this drama was the famous symbolic washing of the hands from the gospel of Matthew. But finally he was just and simply a public official swayed by the demands of the mob. He turned Jesus over to the beating, the severe flogging that would happen as the preparation for the crucifixion. He turned out at the end to be simply the minor public official and politician who disliked his position and the place where he was assigned, as well as the people he had to deal with. And so he did what the average person and the average politician would have done in his place. He gave up and simply went along with the demands of the mob.
Make no mistake, here is a great warning here against any idolatry or hope and faith in any political figure in this world! Pilate at least tried to do the right thing, and that’s much more than could be said of many current political figures in many, many decisions and situations. Ultimately, though, our politicians themselves are part of the sinful and fallen political and legal machinery of this world as much as anyone else. They cannot save themselves from the desperation of this fallen world. They themselves are just as much in need of the same tradeoff of the innocent for the guilty. They themselves need the only escape and freedom that they can find for themselves is the same exchange that each of us needs to save us from the sin of our lives and this world.
Ultimately, though, all this came about with the wisdom and power of God in our world, that he was able to use these circumstances to bring about the tradeoff that we so desperately needed. There are no miracles in these passages. Rather he allowed the tendencies of human nature and the political, religious and legal machinery of this fallen world to grind to their conclusion, come up with the result that they would end up with. The authors of the final result on the scene already directing the end result. God the Father who was sending his Son to be the Savior of the world was there directing the circumstances. The Son stood there as the wickedness of this world brought him to the place where he could be the innocent suffering for the guilty of all times and places. The Holy Spirit had inspired and provided the scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament so that we could recognize and understand what was really happening here. The God of the Bible was ultimately the one who was writing the script and pulling the strings despite all the people on the scene who thought that they were directing the circumstances. The God of the Bible was there and he was providing for the Son of God to be offered as the one who takes away the sin of the world. He had already given the world the answer to its most desperate need for freedom and salvation.
AT THE END, WE FIND OURSELVES IN THE PLACE OF BARABBAS, THE CROWDS, AND PONTIUS PILATE. THE SAME JESUS WHO STOOD THERE WAITING FOR THE DECISION OF THE ROMAN GOVERNOR AND THE CROWDS, WHOSE LIFE WAS TRADED FOR A GUILTY MAN, IS THE SAME JESUS WHO LOOKS FOR THE DECISION FROM YOU HERE AND NOW. YOU NOW, WHEREVER YOU ARE, FIND YOURSELF IN THE SAME POSITION HAVING TO MAKE A DECISION ABOUT THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD. THE BIG DECISION AND THE BIGGEST DECISION IS WHAT YOU WILL DO WITH HIS CLAIMS ABOUT HIMSELF AND WHAT HE DID FOR YOU. THE FALSE SAVIORS OF THIS WORLD SHOW THAT THEY CANNOT SAVE US FROM THE REAL NEEDS FOR FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT WE ALL HAVE. THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MACHINERY OF THIS WORLD WILL NEVER BRING US THE REAL FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT CAN COME ONLY FROM JESUS. THE CRUSH OF THE CROWD AND THE DESPERATION OF THE MOB CAN NEVER TAKE US TO THE PLACE OF TRUE FREEDOM AND SALVATION WHICH ONLY IS IN JESUS.
Consider then who you are following: the crowd or the Lord? Have you ever really understood that the crowd cannot save you when you come before God to face him and his justice alone? In that time, if you’re a believer in Jesus, it’s not about being a follower of other people, even other believers, but following Jesus alone. So who are you following?
Consider also: the Lord who stood before the crowd knows what cruelty and betrayal is. And know this as well: the crowd will betray you if you choose to follow Jesus. In those times you will need to come to him for strength, comfort, guidance and direction. This has been the common experience of believers in Jesus Christ in all ages, and not one of us is exempt from this reality.
Consider the tradeoff which happened then. Consider what Jesus did for you. He stood there and took the penalty which the justice of God demanded for our sins. Have you ever really understood that? Have you received the salvation that Jesus came to bring?