Pilate declared Jesus innocent, yet he faced an angry mob. He feared the personal repercussions of releasing Jesus. Rather than carry out his duty as a judge, Pilate devised a way to release Jesus without further damaging his image. He’d make it look like Jesus’ release was the Jews’ idea. He offered them an obvious choice. They could have Barabbas, or they could have Jesus.
Barabbas’ name means “son of a father.” In a time when names had great meaning, Barabbas was essentially nameless. Barabbas had taken part in an uprising. The Gospel writers describe him as a robber, murderer, and insurrectionist. Barabbas and Jesus were both tried for the same crime; Jesus was found innocent, but Barabbas was condemned. Jesus respected and submitted to authority. Barabbas openly opposed Rome and Caesar by any means necessary.
Barabbas represents every member of humanity down through the ages. He was guilty and without defense. Humanity’s sinfulness and rebellion traces back to Adam and Eve’s first sin in the Garden of Eden. Like Satan himself, they like God. Consequently, humanity is born morally fallen, corrupt, inclined to evil, and guilty of sin. Apart from God’s gracious intervention, humanity suppresses the truth about themselves and God’s character and judgment. Apart from Jesus’ sinless substitutionary death, humanity is fallen and justly destined for judgment.
Pilate made the crowd an offer they couldn’t refuse- or so he thought.
18:39 … 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!”
Barabbas was chosen because he was one of them. Though dangerous, he was controllable- unlike Jesus. Barabbas and the Jewish leaders had different methods, but they both wanted to be free of Rome. Jesus was nothing like them. He was no ally to the Jews and could not be manipulated to help them get what they wanted.
Pilate’s first attempt at a compromise failed miserably. Not only did they refuse Jesus’ release, but Pilate was forced to release a threat to Rome. Pilate did what many of us do. He devised another compromise.
19:1 Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. 4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.”
Pilate lacked the courage to declare Jesus innocent of all charges and released him. He thought that a lesser punishment would satisfy the growing crowd of protesters. In doing so, Pilate increased the suffering and ridicule that Jesus endured that day as He was mercilessly flogged and mocked by the Roman soldiers. They dressed Him in a purple robe and placing a crown of thorns upon His head then they slapped Jesus again and again. Can you imagine the slap of a Roman soldier? Jesus silently endured the ridicule and mockery.
Pilate presented Jesus to the mob hoping to elicit sympathy for this innocent man, but the angry mob demanded he be crucified. Pilate wanted nothing to do with condemning this innocent man. In another attempt at compromise, he gave the crowd permission to execute Jesus by their own hands, but they would not be appeased. The mob’s response reveals that there is no compromise great enough to satisfy the sinful desires of their hearts.
The Jewish leaders could see that Pilate was wavering. They shouted at him that Jesus must die because he is guilty of claiming to be God. Pilate wrestled with his decision regarding Jesus for hours. He was warned by his wife not to have anything to do with the innocent man. He tried to force Herod to take responsibility. Pilate was running out of options and was afraid. As a man steeped in pagan worship, he was superstitious and fearful of the gods. Did Pilate consider, at least for a moment, that the man on trial was a god?
19:8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
Picture the scene for a moment. Pilate and Jesus are in Pilate’s royal palace. Pilate is dressed in official robes of a Roman governor. He stands in authority over a man of no social status who was beaten, bleeding, and physically weak- a man who wears the purple robe of a king and a crown of thorns. Yet Pilate pled with Jesus for a way out. The judge pled with the prisoner for any excuse to set him free.
19:11 Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
Jesus continued to reveal his identity to Pilate. He would not compromise the truth to escape the pain of the cross. Jesus cannot be any less than who He is. Pilate recognized Jesus’ innocence so clearly, yet was blind to his own guilt. If only he pled for a way out of his sin rather than a way to please the Jews. Pilate refused to see the Truth that was plainly revealed to him. Like the religious leaders, he could not accept that this humble man before him was all that He claimed to be.
Pilate tried to reason with a mob. But you can’t reason with a mob because sin robs them of reason. When we look at the news or social media, we can see examples of people who’ve become inconsolably agitated. Sometimes, we see this displayed as they lash out or demand their way even if it means employing violence. Too often we reason that explaining our viewpoint will diffuse the situation. But it’s usually counter-productive. Have you noticed that trying to de-escalate something on social media often only adds fuel to the fire? Sin distorts our reality, demands what it wants, and doesn’t make sense.
When truth is relative, sin becomes relative too.
Pilate knew what was right. He declared Jesus “not guilty,” but rather than set Him free, Pilate sought to please the crowd. He wanted to do the right thing but also wanted the crowd’s approval. Have you ever been in that situation? You know what the right thing is and want to do it, but you don’t want to make anyone mad at you. You feel torn, and begin seeking an alternative solution- a compromise. You decide a compromise will be acceptable. When we choose to compromise the truth, we accept sin as our best option. Anything less than what’s right is a sin. And once a sin is acceptable, the question quickly becomes which sin is acceptable. The intention may be only “a little sin” that doesn’t seem too bad from our perspective, but one compromise of truth can quickly lead to another. Once you accept sin as your best option, the possibilities are endless.
Take Pilate, for example. Instead of freeing Jesus after declaring him innocent, Pilate offered to pardon him for Passover. When this was rejected, Jesus was flogged. But when the flogging wasn’t enough to satisfy the mob, he consented to murder. Things escalated quickly.
Pilate tried compromise after compromise to persuade the crowd to release Jesus, but there was no way to satisfy them without giving into their demands. Despite knowing what was right, he lacked the courage to do it. The same is true for us. As Christians, we sometimes compromise our beliefs and values in order to maintain peace or express compassion. What we’re really doing is replacing the Truth with a lie, and in the process, we lose our witness to the world because we fail to stand firm for what we believe.