This being the start of Passion week, I decided to look with you this morning at one of the key texts in the crucifixion narratives. Every year in the few days before Good Friday my thoughts get immersed in the story of the crucifixion, and I find myself sort of itching to preach a sermon on Judas' betrayal, or the trials and humiliation of Christ, or Peter's denial, or some other key facet of the crucifixion story, but Good Friday is always followed by Easter, on Easter Sunday the only suitable theme is resurrection. So this year I made a special effort to think ahead, and I want to look at one of the key events in Jesus' trial before Pilate. So turn with me, if you will, to Matthew 27:15-26.
This is the account of how Jesus Christ changed places with Barabbas. Here is a vivid and living illustration of the principle of penal substitutionary atonement. Christ literally died in Barabbas's place, on a cross meant for Barabbas, taking the punishment Barabbas deserved—while Barabbas himself went free.
Barabbas is a name most of us know. There have been novels written about him and fictionalized movies filmed to explore imaginary scenarios about who he may have been and what became of him after Jesus was crucified.
The truth is, we know next to nothing about Barabbas. Scripture gives us very few details about him other than his name and a list of the crimes he was charged with. He's like Melchizedek in the sense that he comes on the pages of Scripture with no pedigree or introduction, and then he disappears without any trace and is never mentioned again.
And yet like Melchizedek, Barabbas is an important biblical character. He plays a significant supporting role in all the New Testament crucifixion narratives. He is mentioned by name in all four gospels. That alone makes him significant. The birth of Christ is recounted in only two of the four gospels. Of all the miracles Jesus did, excluding the Resurrection, only the feeding of the 5,000 is mentioned in all four gospels. Nicodemus, who appears three times in the gospel of John (at the beginning, middle, and end) is mentioned only by John and makes no appearance in any of the other gospels. If you compare any harmony of the gospels, you'll see that surprisingly few incidents in the life of Jesus are mentioned in all four gospel accounts. The trial before Pontius Pilate is one of them. All four gospels describe Christ before Pilate, and all four gospels expressly mention Barabbas. That is significant, and it proves that Barabbas is significant.
Furthermore, the relative amount of space given to Barabbas underscores the fact that the gospel writers themselves considered him a significant character in the crucifixion narrative. No one would dispute that Judas Iscariot, the betrayer, is a major New Testament character. And yet only 32 verses in the whole New Testament mention Judas by name, even though he was present for all of Christ's earthly ministry. By contrast, although Barabbas encountered Christ only tangentially and only on this one occasion, thirty-eight verses in the New Testament are devoted to describing what happened to him.
So Barabbas is a significant person in the gospel account, chiefly because he is the living embodiment of a helpless, hopeless sinner who is spared from condemnation—even given an undeserved place of privilege—just because Christ took his place on the cross. Barabbas is a flesh-and-blood symbol of every redeemed sinner. In a true and literal sense, he could say "Christ died for [my] sins"—and he was no doubt the very first person to whom it might have occurred to make a confession like that. During those dark hours while the crucifixion drama was playing our, while the disciples were confused and scattered, while even those closest to Jesus wondered at the meaning of it all, Barabbas was already fully aware (in a unique and particular sense) that Jesus was dying in his place. I'm not suggesting he knew this with the full conviction of saving faith. But in a rudimentary sense, he must have had some crude understanding of the principle that lies at the heart of the atonement—because in a literal, physical sense, Christ had taken his place on the cross, borne the condemnation that was due Barabbas, and made it possible for Barabbas to go free—all without any work or merit on Barabbas's part. He did not deserve the favor he was shown.
That is what the gospel is all about. The cross is the heart of the gospel message. "We preach Christ crucified." "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." "The Lord Jesus Christ . . . gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age." "For our sake [God] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." In short, Christ took our place, bore the full weight of the punishment we deserve, and died in our stead, so that we could be freed from the penalty and the power and the bondage of sin.
Barabbas illustrates that truth in a dramatic and powerful way. Christ literally changed places with him at the behest of a weak-willed Roman ruler and the bloodthirsty multitudes.
Here is some context. Matthew 27 begins with the morning scene after the night of Jesus' betrayal. When Jesus was first arrested in Gethsemane, it was practically a mob scene. Judas led the way, of course, with the Jewish officials who ordered Jesus' arrest in tow. These were representatives of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body that presided over the Temple grounds and over the religious affairs of Israel. But the Jewish officials also brought a large detachment of Roman troops. Matthew 26:47: "Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people." The gospel of John is where we learn that the great crowd (John 18:3 says) "with lanterns and torches and weapons" was "a band of soldiers and some officers"—and they had to be Roman soldiers, because the Jews were not permitted to raise their own militia. These soldiers, John says, had been procured by the Sanhedrin, probably from the Praetorian guard, whose headquarters were adjacent to the Temple.
So they seize Jesus and take him to the house of the High Priest. Now the High Priest that year, technically, was Caiaphas, but his father-in-law, Annas, was the real power behind the priesthood, so they hauled Jesus to the house of Annas first. And his first trial began there, probably in the yard between the houses of Annas and Caiaphas. Annas examines Jesus first; then Caiaphas; then the whole body of the Sanhedrin. So this is a three-phase trial, and it lasts through the night.
Phase three, as Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin, is mentioned at the top of our chapter. It ends at daybreak, with the "chief priests and . . . elders" (that's the ruling council, the Sanhedrin, going into deliberations to decide their verdict and discuss what to do with Jesus. Matthew 27:1: "When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death." Mark 15:1 says it like this: "And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Council. [That's the Sanhedrin.] And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate."
They had to turn Jesus over to Pilate because although the Sanhedrin had authority to try and condemn someone charged with blasphemy or some other crime against their authority, they technically needed Roman authorization before they actually executed someone. Apparently, if they caught someone in a wanton act of blasphemy, they sometimes took up stones and executed the blasphemer on the spot, and Roman officials generally looked the other way when that happened. The Pharisees tried to do that with Jesus in John 8:59, and they actually did stone Stephen on the spot in Acts 7:58.
But in this case they were charging Jesus with past crimes, under cover of night, so they wanted at least a facade of official justice on the proceedings. So they take him to Pilate.
Pilate actually lived in Caesarea, three days' journey to the north and on the Mediterranean coast, but on that day he happened to be in Jerusalem for the Passover holiday, so Jesus was brought before him. The express purpose of the Sanhedrin in doing this was (according to Matthew 27:1) "to put [Jesus] to death." So (verse 2) "they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor."
While this is going on, verses 3-10 give the account of Judas's suicide. And then at the end of that little vignette, we're back at Pilate's headquarters. John's gospel fills in some details, and you can tell from John's description that there was cold hostility between Pilate and the Sanhedrin. John 18:28:
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor's headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.
29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?"
30 They answered him, "If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you." [Kind of a snide answer. like, "Take our word for it. you need to execute this guy, and if you ask too many questions, we're going to make trouble for you." So—]
31 Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." The Jews said to him, "It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.
Then verse 33 of John 18 says, "So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?'" That is exactly where Matthew 27:11 takes up: "Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, 'Are you the King of the Jews?' Jesus said, 'You have said so.'"
Thus begins a whole new series of hearings under Roman authorities, and this likewise becomes a three-phase trial. Pilate questions Jesus, and it's clear that he has no desire to carry out the wishes of the Sanhedrin. He's not willing to execute Jesus just because they demand it. So at the end of this first phase of the Roman trial, John 18:38 says, "[Pilate] went back outside to the Jews and told them, "I find no guilt in him."
Luke 23:5-7 tells us when Pilate pronounced this first not-guilty verdict, the Priests and Pharisees "were urgent, saying, 'He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.' When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time."
So phase 2 of the Roman trial begins. Herod questions Jesus. He mocks him for awhile, arrays him in a phony robe, and then sends him right back to Pilate. Jesus is now a political hot potato.
And now we come to our passage. Pilate has figured out a way he thinks he can rid himself of the whole mess. There was a custom, an official goodwill gesture on behalf of the Roman procurator, whereby he would release a political prisoner during Passover, and Pilate figures this might give him a way to disburse the lynch mob without having to order the death of a man Pilate had already pronounced "not guilty." Here's our passage (Matthew 27:15-26). I'll read the whole passage, about 12 verses:
Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted.
16 And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.
17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?"
18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.
19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream."
20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.
21 The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas."
22 Pilate said to them, "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let him be crucified!"
23 And he said, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!"
24 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."
25 And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!"
26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Now, practically every flavor of human depravity is represented in that account. Specifically, there are three categories of sinners who appear in major roles here. There's Barabbas, the notorious sinner, whose wickedness is obvious and well defined and impossible to conceal. Then there is the angry mob, representing the religious sinner, whose wickedness is hidden under a mask of religiosity and self-righteousness. Finally, there's Pilate, the respectable sinner, whose wickedness is papered over with a veneer of worldly nobility. Let's examine these characters one at a time. First is—
1. The Notorious Sinner, represented by Barabbas
The text I read to you was from the English Standard Version. Verse 16 says of Barabbas that he was "a notorious prisoner." Notorious is also how the New American Standard Bible translates it. The Greek word simply means "remarkable," or "noteworthy." It can be used to signify a negative reputation—infamy, notoriety, disrepute. But the Greek expression isn't inherently negative like the English word notorious. The King James Version calls Barabbas "a notable prisoner." And that is what the word literally means.
Now Barabbas certainly was notorious. That's probably the main sense this term means to convey: Barabbas was infamous; scandalous—renowned because he was thoroughly reprehensible. His villainy was both abominable and well known. (We'll talk about his crimes in a minute.) But this term might also signify that he came from an influential family of high status—"notable" in the sense that he was high-born and aristocratic.
His name, Barabbas, is easy to translate if you know even a minimal amount of Hebrew or Aramaic. The prefix, Bar, means "son." (Peter, for example, was Simon bar Jonah, or "Simon, son of Jonah." A Jewish boy entering manhood becomes bar mitzvah, or a "son of the law.") Abba, of course, is a familiar name for "father." Romans 8:15—"We cry, Abba, Father."
So Barabbas literally means "son of the father." That might be a kind of descriptive nickname for a mischievous kid whose family always said, "He's just like his father." But more likely in that culture it was a title of respect for someone with an imminent father—especially if his father was a Rabbi. This was a common surname in the Rabbinical class—"Son of the father," meaning "the Rabbi's son."
In any case, Barabbas had clearly become notorious because of his crimes. He fit into the worst category of criminals, condemned to die in the most shameful manner, on a cross at the hands of the Romans. Whatever he once may have been, he was now utterly without honor and without hope.
Scripture says he was guilty of three crimes. John 18:40 says, "Now Barabbas was a robber." So he was a thief and a brigand. The Greek term literally means "plunderer," and it evokes the notion of a marauding outlaw who finances other crimes through ill-gotten gain. It's the same word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:30, where Jesus says, "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead." This is the worst kind of outlaw. By the way, it's the same word used in Matthew 27:44, which speaks of "the robbers who were crucified with [Christ]." These men were undoubtedly confederates of Barabbas. He seems to have been the leader and most famous one, because he is the only one named. But all of them are described as "robbers."
It wasn't petty thievery, though—and this explains why these men were condemned to crucifixion. According to Mark 15:7, this was a band of violent rebels—anti-Roman seditionists, most likely members of an extremist Jewish political party known as the Zealots—rank outlaws who had incurred their condemnation by fomenting riots and insurrection against the rule of Rome. Rome had no patience with such people, and they were typically condemned to a speedy execution. Part of the notoriety of Barabbas lay in the fact that he had committed a wanton act of murder (or possibly even multiple murders) in one of these violent uprisings. Mark 15:7 introduces him this way: "Among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas." Luke 23:19 affirms this, saying that Barabbas had been imprisoned "for an insurrection started in the city and for murder."
So this was a bloody, brutal criminal, already judged guilty and condemned to die that very morning. Perhaps he had once been noble; he clearly was not so now.
Now, Pilate was well known for his hatred of insurrectionists. Luke 13:1 mentions the fact that Pilate had mingled the blood of some Galileans with their sacrifices. In other words, he desecrated the Jewish Temple in his pursuit of revenge against some men from Galilee. The victims of this atrocity were most likely insurrectionists themselves—possibly followers of a famous rebel known as Judas of Galilee. This famous insurgent is mentioned in Acts 5:37, and Josephus (the secular historian) wrote about Judas of Galilee as well. Josephus says he "led his countrymen into rebellion, declaring it an evil, should they suffer tribute to be paid to the Romans." By the way, Josephus also says that Judas of Galilee was co-founder of the party of the Zealots, along with Zadok the Pharisee. And Galilee—the same region where Jesus ministered for most of His earthly ministry—harbored large numbers of Zealots and other anti-Roman insurgents.
Pilate apparently tracked these Galilean Zealots to the Temple and killed them right there at the altar, so that their blood was mingled with the sacrifices they were in the process of offering. Pilate's hatred of the cult of the Zealots was so fierce that he was willing to desecrate the Temple—which by the way jeopardized his career because it provoked even more widespread rebellion throughout Israel, and Caesar was unhappy with that.
The fact that Pilate's treatment of insurrectionists was so brutal probably also explains why when the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to Pilate, insurrection (rather than blasphemy) was the charge they brought against Him. Luke 23:2: "They began to accuse him, saying, 'We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.'"
But when Pilate sees Jesus in person and questions him, he knows immediately that this is a ruse. Jesus is no insurrectionist. The Sanhedrin themselves clearly posed a more imminent threat to Roman rule than Jesus did. Pilate of all people knew a Zealot when he saw one, and Jesus was no Zealot.
So Pilate, a shrewd politician, is in a dilemma. Given his reputation for being harsh, together with his desecration of the Temple, and because of other diplomatic faux pas against the Jews, his position as Roman Procurator was already in jeopardy. So he could not afford to provoke the Sanhedrin. Even though he knows they are trying to execute Jesus on trumped-up charges, even though he senses that they are trying to bully him into something he is not inclined to do, he is not in a position to rebuff them—especially with a growing mob of agitated people under his window screaming for Jesus' blood. He could not afford another riot. Nor did he want to do something that would exacerbate his reputation as a ruthless tyrant.
So he hatches a plan. In John MacArthur's words, this was "a last-ditch effort to escape the dilemma the Sanhedrin had created for him—a conflict between conscience and career; a choice between satisfying the Jews he hated or the Caesar he feared."
It was customary, Scripture says, for the Roman governor to release a Hebrew prisoner from Roman custody every year at Passover as a gesture of goodwill and a symbol of Rome's respect of the Jewish religion. Most likely these would normally have been petty criminals or non-violent political prisoners. Apparently the governor would select a handful of candidates for early release and permit the citizenry to select one of their choice. Never would a man like Pilate willingly release a violent radical like Barabbas.
In all likelihood, Barabbas's crimes were so heinous and his reputation so bad that Pilate was certain the people would never sanction his release. So he chooses Jesus and Barabbas as the two candidates for that year's amnesty. Matthew 27:17: "So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, 'Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?'"
By the way, I ought to mention that several of the very earliest Greek manuscripts treat Barabbas as a surname and give "Jesus" as this man's first name. Instead of "Barabbas," they call him "Jesus Barabbas." Jesus, of course, is the Greek equivalent of Joshua, and it was a common name. If that was indeed Barabbas's given name, it would make sense of the expression in verse 17: "Whom do you want me to release for you: [Jesus who is called] Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?"
If that is the correct reading of the original text, it would mean that the choices Pilate set before this Jewish mob were both called "Jesus, Son of the Father." One of them was "holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens." The other was as thoroughly wicked and as militantly malicious as anyone you could possibly imagine.
Common sense might suggest that Pilate's stratagem was a good one. After all (on the one hand), the people had every reason to fear—and even hate—a man like Barabbas; and (on the other hand) just a few days earlier, practically the whole city had turned out in unison to welcome Jesus with cries of Hosanna. Of course they would choose Jesus to be released. Right?
And that brings us to a second category of sinners who play a major role in this drama. This is—
2. The Religious Sinner, represented by the mob
Now understand: this mob consists of the highest order of priests and their followers. These are religious leaders and a group of their disciples whose whole identity is defined by their religion. These are not rank pagans who pride themselves in bloodthirstiness. These are the same common people who at the height of Jesus' ministry had followed him in great throngs. In the words of Mark 12:37, "The common people heard Him gladly." He had healed their sick, raised their dead, and cast out demons in their midst. He had fed them both literally and spiritually. He had never done them any wrong. All He had done was speak truth to them.
But at the instigation of the Sanhedrin, they turned against Him in a way that is shocking for its irrationality.
This incident perfectly illustrates how the whole world is drawn to that which is corrupt and evil, while fallen human nature inevitably expresses its true character in a violent hatred of everything that is pure and holy. You see this reflected in our society every day. Secular culture is intolerant of whatever is genuinely pure and holy—while cultivating an insatiable craving for every kind of evil. And it is getting worse all the time. In S. Lewis Johnson's words, this is "the madness of the multitude's choice."
The hostility of this crowd against Jesus is stunning—and even more so when we remember that only a few days have passed since His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. There is no good reason for the malice these people spew at Christ. But it reveals how easily suggestible a multitude can be. All this venom was deliberately stirred up by the Sanhedrin.
What you have, represented by this mob, are two varieties of religious sinners: Some are rank hypocrites, and some are just pathologically fickle.
The priests, the Pharisees, and other religious rulers are full-blown hypocrites. They gave lip service to the law of God and the faith of their fathers, but what they really crave is the praise and admiration of men. "They love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, [so] that they can be seen by others," but they don't really care what God thinks of them.
Here we see perhaps the most glaring symbol of their hypocrisy: According to John 11:53, these very men had been "ma[king] plans [for several months] to put [Jesus] to death." Actually, they had sought to kill him as far back as the end of John 8. They had then passed a final verdict against him in a secret council shortly after he raised Lazarus from the dead. Now they subject him to the pretense of a trial before a kangaroo court with the very same group of men sitting in judgment against him who long before this had covenanted together to kill him. And so they are desperate for Pilate to execute their sentence against him, in order to give their phony proceedings an appearance of legitimacy. They are hypocrites to the core.
The crowd are pathologically fickle, easily suggestible, hate-filled, resentful, self-indulgent, and now (suddenly) bloodthirsty. They had shouted loud hosannas just a few days ago. But their collective cry now becomes "Let him be crucified!" It is surely the most egregious example of the fickleness of unbelief in all of human history. And yet they are doing this in the name of religion. Calling for Jesus' death while acting as if they are doing God a favor.
This is pure, unmitigated evil—a far worse evil than the more notorious crimes that had made Barabbas infamous. And it's a reminder of something i have said many times in the past: There is no greater expression of human wickedness than religion—false religion, fickle religious fervor, and rank hypocrisy masquerading as religious orthodoxy. We tend to think of religion as the highest of human pursuits. Unless it is genuine faith in the true God, religion is actually the most sinister expression of evil depravity. And in the worst cases, such as we see in our text, the religious sinner will reveal a heart every bit as dark, and bloodthirsty, and savage as the tortured soul of a rank outlaw like Barabbas.
These people are religious, but they represent the religion of a fallen world—not true religion at all. The proof that they are worldly to the core, and the hallmark of all worldliness, is their absolute, irrational, incorrigible hatred of Jesus. First John 3:13: "Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you." Jesus said, "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you" (John 15:18-19). And it is the religious people of this world who hate authentic Christianity the most. In John 16:2, Jesus said, "Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God." In other words, a purely religious motive lies behind all that murderous hatred. Just like here; it wasn't pagans who were fomenting violence against Christ—it was the high priest and his cohorts, who were acting in the name of YHWH! This is what the very worst kind of religion looks like.
But there's a third category of human evil that figures heavily into this account. We've seen the notorious sinner, represented by Barabbas. We've seen the religious sinner, represented by the mob. Now look at:
3. The Respectable Sinner, represented by Pontius Pilate
Pilate, of course, had at his disposal all the advantages of political power, civil authority, and Roman military might. He was worthy of respect—if not for his character, then for his position.
Pilate was not a religious man in any way that shows. In fact, the heedless way he had desecrated the Jewish Temple reflected a reckless contempt for the God of Scripture.
And yet he had many of the qualities that command worldly respect. He was a shrewd, practical, powerful man and a strong natural leader who spoke with authority and wasted no words. He had risen to the highest ranks in the Roman government, which meant his loyalty and basic reputation for integrity must have been beyond question. He would not have been in that position if he were wantonly dishonorable.
And you can see flashes of noble character in his dealings with Jesus. He clearly did not want to participate in the travesty of this deliberate miscarriage of justice that the Sanhedrin had conspired to perpetrate against Jesus.
He accurately read their evil motives (verse 18): "He knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up." He saw clearly that it was not guilt but goodness in Jesus that the priests and religious leaders hated so much. His original intention was merely to give Jesus a few cursory lashes and let Him go. Luke 23:15-16: Pilate says, "Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him. I will therefore punish and release him." He actually declares Jesus' innocence repeatedly. Luke 23:14: "Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, 'I find no guilt in this man.'" John 18:38: "He went back outside to the Jews and told them, 'I find no guilt in him.'" John 19:4: "Pilate went out again and said to them, 'See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.'" John 19:6: One last time, Pilate says, "I find no guilt in him." He is practically begging the mob to disperse and let Jesus go. In Matthew 27:23, when the mob is shouting, "Let him be crucified!" Pilate responds, "'Why, what evil has he done?' But they shouted all the more, 'Let him be crucified!'"
His proposal that the multitudes should choose between Jesus and Barabbas was a brilliant ruse. He had every reason to think they would choose Jesus for amnesty and Barabbas for crucifixion. And if the people simply did what common sense would seem to dictate, Pilate would have gained an amazing victory over the Jewish rulers. He could have released Jesus, pointing out that he was merely fulfilling the will of the people. That would have removed this moral dilemma from burdening his conscience, while having the double benefit of utterly humiliating Pilate's most obnoxious political rivals, the Sanhedrin.
But as Matthew relates the narrative, here's what happened: When Pilate first asked (v. 17), "Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" It was at that precise moment that his wife sent him a message. Verse 19: "While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, 'Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.'"
There's another reason Pilate was a respectable man: he had a perceptive and considerate wife. That very morning, she had been awakened from some kind of vivid dream about Jesus that gave her great concern for her husband's welfare. Notice that she acknowledges that Jesus is a righteous man. She doesn't seem hostile to Jesus. I gather that what she "suffered" because of her dream was mental distress or pangs of conscience because her dream had revealed that Jesus was a truly just man suffering unjustly. So she tries valiantly to get that message to her husband.
But while Pilate is receiving his wife's message, the Sanhedrin and their comrades seize the opportunity to pass through the mob and spread the word that they were "to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus" (v. 20). The crowd, like any lynch mob, were easy to persuade by the mere power of suggestion, as the Sanhedrin's order was passed in waves of whispers through the crowd.
So, turning from the messenger who had brought Mrs. Pilate's warning (v. 21), "The governor again said to them, 'Which of the two do you want me to release for you?' And they said, 'Barabbas.'"
Pilate is now caught in his own trap. Having offered to bow to the will of the people, he cannot escape this gross injustice they were demanding him to authorize. To deny them the crucifixion they craved would cause great (possibly fatal) political damage to his own career. What he failed to consider was that by consenting to hand Jesus over, he was incurring eternal judgment against his soul. Had he the ears to listen, that's what his wife's warning signified. That dream was a providential token of God's grace, and notice that Pilate totally ignored it.
When push came to shove, Pilate showed that under that respectable veneer, he was an evil man. He was in bondage to sin just as surely as Barabbas, the Sanhedrin, and the bloodthirsty mob were. When his own ambition was on the line, his honor was for sale, and he bartered it away without a second thought—all out of political expediency. He was so caught up in worldly power and worldly wisdom that he missed the significance of the drama that was playing out before his very eyes. Think of this: the very incarnation of all truth—"the way, and the truth, and the life"—was standing right before Pilate in abject humility with his hands bound and his back already bloody, and Pilate had the temerity to ask the sneering question, "What is truth?" How could he be so blind to truth incarnate?
One thing is certain: "None of the rulers of this age understood [the truth], for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory." (That's 1 Corinthians 2:8.)
Pilate sold out because of sheer political expediency (verse 24): "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.'"
That symbolic washing did nothing to cleanse Pilate of guilt. He was not innocent of Jesus' blood. Turning Jesus over to the mob was an act of cruelty, cowardice, compromise, and criminal malfeasance. This supposedly great, respectable man of honor sold out his own principles when it counted most, because he valued the favor of men more than he valued his own integrity. He was as guilty as those who thoughtlessly cursed themselves and their children (v. 25): "And all the people answered, 'His blood be on us and on our children!'"
Verse 26: "Then [Pilate] released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified." He had the power to stop the entire charade, but he caved into the mob mentality and handed Jesus over—even though he knew him to be innocent and repeatedly declared Him to be so.
And so we see these three categories of sinners—all of whom still exist today. There are the respectable sinners, who don't necessarily hate Jesus or overtly refuse him, but they are complicit in His crucifixion by their apathy, indifference, indecision, or inaction. Like Pilate, they don't see any fault in Him, but neither do they bow to Him as Lord.
Then there are the religious sinners, some of whom are openly hostile to the Christ of Scripture, some of whom are hypocrites, and some of whom are just pathologically fickle. All of them eventually oppose Him in one way or another and (in the words of Hebrews 6:6: "[crucify] once again the Son of God to their own harm . . . holding him up to contempt."
Then there are the notorious sinners, those whose sin has no veneer and no mask to cover it up. They might seem to human eyes to be the most hopeless of all sinners, but in reality, they are the ones to whom the gospel promises the most—because Christ came not to call the righteous or the respectable, but notorious sinners, to repentance. He died in the place and in the stead of sinners like Barabbas—and like me.
. . . and like you, if you are someone who confesses your sin rather than covering it up. First John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
That is the gospel, perfectly illustrated in the release of Barabbas: "that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures." So that (in the words of Romans 10:9) "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."
Thus Barabbas epitomizes and illustrates the central principle of gospel truth. He is, in the words of J. C. Ryle:
. . . a lively illustration of the great Christian doctrine of substitution. Barabbas, the real criminal, is acquitted and let go free. Jesus, innocent and guiltless, is condemned and sentenced to death. So is it in the salvation of our souls. We are all by nature like Barabbas, and deserve God's wrath and condemnation; yet he was accounted righteous, and set free. The Lord Jesus Christ is perfectly innocent; and yet He is counted a sinner, punished as a sinner, and put to death that we may live. Christ suffers, though guiltless, that we may be pardoned. We are pardoned, though guilty, because of what Christ does for us. We are sinners, and yet counted righteous. Christ is righteous, and yet counted a sinner. Happy is that man who understands this doctrine, and has laid hold on it by faith for the salvation of his own soul."