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Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent of all charges, having learned that His claim to be a king was not political or “of this world.” It was obvious that Jesus’ followers had not fought those who had come to arrest Him, except for the brief incident where Peter tried to defend Jesus. Yet Pilate knew that the chief priests would need to save face, having already convicted Jesus in their own trial. So Pilate says to them in John 18:39,
39 “But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?”
The response was perhaps unexpected. John 18:40 says,
40 So they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.
According to Mark 15:7, Barabbas had been caught and “imprisoned with the insurrectionists.” Luke 23:19 says that he “had been thrown into prison for an insurrection made in the city and for murder.” In other words, he was more than just a “robber.” He was part of a movement that was trying to undermine and overthrow the Roman government. In fact, he was guilty of the very crime that the religious leaders had falsely accused Jesus of doing.
It is of interest that according to reports as early as the second century, this robber’s full name was Jesus Barabbas, which can be translated, “Jesus, Son of the Father.” This name is found in the ancient Syriac version of Matthew, as well as a few other manuscripts.
Hence, the people were given the choice of two men named Jesus, one an insurrectionist and the other falsely accused of being an insurrectionist. Their choice would reflect the heart of the nation itself, whether they followed the way of peace or of violence in establishing the Kingdom.
Jesus had submitted to Roman rule, knowing that God had placed the people in captivity to a series of “beasts” (empires) six hundred years earlier in the time of the prophets Jeremiah and Daniel. Jeremiah himself had written (Jer. 29:4-10) to the captives in Babylon, instructing them to submit to King Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel’s prophecy showed that Babylon was just the first of four main empires that had been given the divine right to rule the earth. Hence, Jeremiah’s instructions applied to later generations as well.
In Jesus’ day, the fourth empire, Rome, was ruling by divine authority. Whereas Jesus of Nazareth had submitted to the authority of Rome, Jesus Barabbas had not. When the people chose Barabbas, their insurrectionist hearts were exposed.
John’s account is brief, omitting the fact that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, hoping to avoid condemning an innocent man. Luke is the only gospel writer to tell us about this, for we read in Luke 23:5-7,
5 But they kept insisting, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee even as far as this place.” 6 When Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time.
Herod Antipas ruled Galilee at the time. He never actually held the title of “king” but was the “tetrarch of Galilee” (Luke 3:1). This was the Herod who had executed John the Baptist three years earlier. Herod was in Jerusalem for the feast of Passover, so Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, and the chief priests and scribes went with them.
Luke 23:8-12 says,
8 Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. 9 And he questioned Him at some length, but He answered Him nothing. 10 And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently. 11 And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate. 12 Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies with each other.
Perhaps Herod had received good reports about Jesus from Chuza, his chief steward. Chuza’s wife, Joanna, was a believer and a generous contributor to Jesus’ ministry (Luke 8:3). But Jesus would say nothing, nor would He perform any miracles. Herod assumed that Jesus wanted to be set free and that He would therefore prove Himself by performing a verifiable miracle. But Jesus had no intention of doing anything that would prevent Him from fulfilling His calling.
Herod’s mood then turned sour, but he sent Jesus back to Pilate rather than sentence Him to death. Herod had already been haunted by his execution of the very popular prophet, John the Baptist, and did not want the blood of another popular prophet on his hands. Luke tells us also (with no explanation) that Herod and Pilate became “friends” (i.e., allies) on that day, perhaps both realizing that they faced a common enemy—the ruthless priests.
There is little doubt that when Pilate saw the chief priests bringing Jesus back to him he groaned within himself, for he was caught between the demands of the religious leaders and the prospect of condemning the Man that his wife had warned him not to mistreat.
John 19:1 says,
1 Pilate then took Jesus and scourged Him.
Thus, the prophecy was fulfilled, saying in Isaiah 53:5, “by His scourging we are healed.” Whereas Jesus took upon Himself the sin of the world at His death, it was necessary for Him to take upon Himself our infirmities and diseases as well (Matt. 8:17). So God put Pilate into a situation where he ordered Jesus to be scourged.
The law in Deut. 25:3 limited beatings to just 40 stripes “but no more.” Normally, the Jews used a scourge having thirteen whips, and they would beat the person three times. This added up to 39 stripes, for they did not want to go over 40 accidentally. I believe that in Jesus’ case they gave him one more, because Jesus fulfilled the law perfectly and thus took upon Himself all of our infirmities.
John 19:2, 3 continues,
2 And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and put a purple robe on Him; 3 and they began to come up to Him and say, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and to give Him slaps in the face.
The crown of thorns was meant to mock His right to rule, but from the standpoint of prophecy, it showed that He had taken upon Himself the curse upon the ground in Gen. 3:17, 18,
17 … Cursed is the ground because of you [Adam]; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 18 Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you…
Even as the ground itself had taken the curse of the law (i.e., the sentence of the law) for Adam’s sin, so now Jesus removed that curse from the ground and took it upon Himself—with the help of the soldiers who did not realize that they were fulfilling prophecy. As for the “purple robe,” Luke tells us that it was given to Him by Herod.
John 19:4-6 says,
4 Pilate came out again and said to them, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.” 5 Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the Man!” 6 So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, “Crucify, crucify!” Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.”
Luke 23:20-22 says that this was “the third time” that Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent of all charges, that the law might be fulfilled, which demands two or three witnesses to condemn any sinner (Deut. 19:15). Pilate’s desperation is also clear. He hoped that by scourging Jesus, their lust for blood would be satisfied. He was wrong.
Pilate then told the chief priests, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.” In other words, He refused to allow the Roman soldiers to execute Jesus, turning Him over to the chief priests and their temple guard. He then walked out.
In John 19:7-9 the Jews shouted to Pilate as he was leaving.
7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.” 8 Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid; 9 and he entered into the Praetorium again and said to Jesus, “Where are You from?” But Jesus gave him no answer.
We know that Jesus had been condemned as a blasphemer earlier after testifying that He was the One fulfilling the messianic prophecy in Dan. 7:13; Matt. 26:63, 64. Daniel uses the term “one like a Son of Man,” but in Matt. 26:63 Caiaphas had asked Jesus “whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus then claimed to be “the Son of Man” in Daniel’s prophecy.
But in John 19:7 the Jews said that “He made Himself out to be the Son of God.” The two terms were interchangeable, though technically they had different nuances. Pilate probably understood the term “Son of God” in a different light, for the term was often used of emperors. Neither the Romans nor the Jews believed that “Son of God” implied a virgin birth, or that the Holy Spirit would beget Christ, or that Christ would have no earthly father.
Whatever the case, Pilate’s fear increased, and he returned to ask Jesus about this. “Where are You from?” he asked, referring to the charge that He was “the Son of God.” Pilate took Jesus’ words seriously, and if, indeed, Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God, it would only increase his inner fear and turmoil.
Jesus said nothing. John had already given the answer to his readers in John 17:14-16. Neither Jesus nor His disciples were “of the world.” Jesus and all true believers are other-worldly because they all have a heavenly Father and are no longer of the earth, or earthy (i.e., Adamic), as Paul tells us in 1 Cor. 15:47-49).
But Jesus did not enlighten Pilate, for He did not want to frighten him into saving Him from death. Pilate would have to find the answer to his question later, perhaps from his wife, or perhaps from another disciple.