23:11-12 Now Herod and his soldiers began mocking and ridiculing Jesus. Then they put a royal robe on him and sent him back to Pilate. Herod and Pilate, who had been enemies before, became friends that day.NLT With this prisoner refusing to answer, and looking very little like a great miracle worker, Herod and his soldiers began mocking and ridiculing Jesus. Angry at Jesus’ refusal to even answer questions for him, Herod resorted to making a mockery of this man who was supposedly such a great prophet, teacher, and miracle worker.
To make fun of Jesus’ claim to be a king (probably Pilate had sent along this information when he sent Jesus to Herod), Herod put a royal robe on him, probably a purple color with fine workmanship. Herod did not even take the charge seriously. So he neither released the prisoner nor made a judgment about his guilt. He simply sent him back to Pilate.
Herod and Pilate had a rather tenuous relationship. Herod was the part-Jewish ruler of Galilee and Perea. Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea and Samaria. Those four provinces, together with several others, had been united under Herod the Great. But when Herod the Great died in 4 b.c., the kingdom was divided among his sons, each of whom was called “tetrarch” (meaning “ruler of a fourth part of a region”). Archelaus, the son who had received Judea and Samaria, was removed from office within ten years, and his provinces were then ruled by a succession of Roman governors, of whom Pilate was the fifth.
Herod Antipas had two advantages over Pilate: he had come from a part-Jewish monarchy, and he had held his position much longer. But Pilate had two advantages over Herod: he was a Roman citizen and an envoy of the emperor, and his position was created to replace that of Herod’s ineffective half brother. It is not surprising that the two men were uneasy around each other. Jesus’ trial, however, brought them together. Because Pilate had recognized Herod’s authority over Galilee, Herod had stopped feeling threatened by the Roman politician. And because neither man knew what to do in this predicament, their common problem united them.
PILATE HANDS JESUS OVER TO BE CRUCIFIED / 23:13-25
According to the Roman custom of releasing a criminal during the Passover season, Pilate presented Jesus to the people. Pilate did not want to bear the responsibility of putting an innocent man to death. But the crowd insisted on Barabbas’s freedom, the release of a known murderer. That Jesus literally died in Barabbas’s place vividly illustrates the ultimate significance of Jesus’ death. He took the place of not only Barabbas but also all who stand condemned before God’s perfect standard and trust in Christ for salvation.
23:13-14 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him.”NRSV Pilate thought he had gotten rid of his problem, only to have Jesus sent back. The decision still rested on his shoulders. So he attempted to let this innocent man go by telling Jesus’ accusers that he had examined him and not found this man guilty of any of their charges—including subversion, refusal to pay taxes, causing riots, or perverting the people. He didn’t even find Jesus guilty of being the king he claimed to be. Pilate may have incorrectly thought that Jesus was just a poor, deluded man; he did know, however, that Jesus was innocent.
DO WHAT’S RIGHT
When the stakes are high, it is difficult to stand up for what is right, and it is easy to see opponents as problems to be solved rather than as people to be respected. Had Pilate been a man of real courage, he would have released Jesus regardless of the consequences. But the crowd roared, and Pilate buckled.
People are like Pilate when they know what is right but decide not to do it. When you have a difficult decision to make, don’t discount the effects of peer pressure. Realize beforehand that the right decision could have unpleasant consequences: social rejection, career derailment, public ridicule. Then think of Pilate and resolve to stand up for what is right no matter what other people pressure you to do.
23:15 “Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty.”NLT Pilate could back up his decision with Herod’s conclusion about Jesus. Herod had mocked Jesus but apparently had sent back word to Pilate that he could find nothing worthy of the death penalty. Jesus was tried a total of six times, by both Jewish and Roman authorities, but he was never convicted of a crime. Even when condemned to execution, he had been convicted of no felony. Today, no one can find fault in Jesus. Just like Pilate, Herod, and the religious leaders, however, many still refuse to acknowledge him as Lord.
23:16 “Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”NIV The word “punish” here may not indicate the severe flogging that Jesus received after being sentenced, prior to his crucifixion (as noted in Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15), although John 19:1 reports Jesus being flogged and then brought before the crowd. Pilate may have hoped that the flogging would appease the crowd, and they would pity the man and let him go. Pilate was planning to release Jesus, but first he would punish him—to pacify the Jews and teach the prisoner a lesson to stay out of trouble in the future.
Riding The Fence
Pilate knew that Jesus had done nothing deserving punishment, and certainly not the death penalty. Even so, he didn’t have the courage or the decency to release Jesus; he tried to find a middle position that would allow Jesus to live and still appease the chief priests and the Jewish rulers. He failed, and Pilate is known forever as the man who ordered the crucifixion of the Son of God.
Where do you stand? Have you made up your own mind about Jesus, whether to follow him as Lord and Messiah, or to dismiss him as a misguided martyr? There is no middle ground, no way to ride the fence when it comes to Jesus. You must either embrace him as Lord or reject him as a fraud.
23:17 (For it was necessary for him to release one to them at the feast).NKJV This verse does not exist in most modern English versions because it does not appear in any of the earliest Greek manuscripts. It may have been added later, perhaps picked up from Mark 15:6 to make a smoother transition between what is recorded in verses 16 and 18. This information helps the reader understand why the Jews called for the release of a prisoner in 23:18. But the text without 23:17 reads just as well; Pilate’s statement about releasing Jesus (23:16) is followed (23:18) by an immediate plea from the crowd to release Barabbas instead.
Each year at Passover, Pilate had made it a custom to release any prisoner the people requested. He may have instituted this custom to be on good terms with them as well as to help cover his many wrongful acts toward them. In any case, it became expected. So, according to the people, it was necessary for him to release a prisoner to them at the feast.
23:18-19 With one voice they cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)NIV The suggestion that Pilate was going to release Jesus (23:16) sent the leaders into a frenzy. Pilate had wanted to release Jesus as the Passover gift (Mark 15:8-9). This had been a public announcement, so many people in the crowd cried out with one voice that Jesus must be put to death. The prisoner they wanted set free was a man named Barabbas. Oddly enough, Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection. Barabbas may have been somewhat of a hero among the Jews for his acts of rebellion against Rome, but he was on death row in a Roman prison. He was a true rebel and revolutionary and had even committed murder. The religious leaders had tried to pin this accusation on Jesus in order to have him put to death, but they chose a man who had done such acts and wanted him set free. Clearly their actions followed no logic. They merely wanted Jesus put to death and would go to any lengths to make sure it happened.
Who was Barabbas? Jewish men had names that identified them with their fathers. Simon Peter, for example, was called Simon, son of Jonah (Matthew 16:17). Barabbas is never identified by his given name, and this name, “Bar-abbas,” simply means “son of ‘Abba'” (or “son of daddy”). He could have been anybody’s son—and that makes for interesting commentary in that he represents all sinners. Barabbas, son of an unnamed father, committed a crime. Because Jesus died in his place, this man was set free. All people too, are sinners and criminals who have broken God’s holy law. Like Barabbas, they deserve to die. But Jesus has died in their place, for their sins, and, by faith, they have been set free.
23:20-21 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”NIV Pilate really wanted to release Jesus. Matthew recorded that even Pilate’s wife had experienced a dream about Jesus and had urged Pilate to let Jesus go (Matthew 27:19). Pilate must have been in a tight spot, because for some reason he put himself in the position of bargaining with the crowd. He had the authority to let Jesus go and then get on with his day; instead, he appealed to them again but to no avail. They wanted Jesus to be crucified.
This was, in itself, an amazing request. Crucifixion was the Roman penalty for rebellion and abhorrent to the Jews. They thought that Jesus’ crucifixion would demonstrate that his life and message had been under God’s curse, for Deuteronomy 21:23 says, “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (niv). This is just what the Jewish religious leaders wanted. If Jesus were to be executed, it would be by crucifixion. He would die the death of a rebel and slave, not the death of the king he claimed to be. The crucifixion, from the Jewish perspective, was meant to brand Jesus as cursed by God; the crucifixion, from the Christian perspective, pictures Jesus as taking God’s curse against sin upon himself and allowing his people to be set free from sin.
Taking a Stand
What are the non-negotiables in your life? What are those core principles and bedrock beliefs that you will not compromise or sell out no matter what? Consider this question before you are in a crisis whereby your principles and beliefs are put to the test. Pilate seems to have had no such convictions. He knew Jesus was innocent and undeserving of punishment, yet he yielded to pressure from his political enemies to sacrifice him. Like Pilate, most people are put in positions where they have to decide where they will stand. Unlike Pilate, Christians must decide to stand firm on the truth revealed to them by God. Where do you stand?
23:22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.”NIV Pilate tried for the third time. He could not fathom why the crowd so badly wanted this man’s death. Jesus had not committed any crime; there were no grounds for the death penalty. Pilate repeated what he had said in 23:16. He would have Jesus punished and then release him.
There are two reasons why Luke stressed these three attempts Pilate had made to release Jesus. First, Luke wanted to show through his Gospel the innocence of Jesus before Roman law. Luke was giving evidence to prove the acceptability of Christianity to his Gentile readers. Second, he was establishing the Jewish guilt for Jesus’ death. In Acts, this is the basis of the evangelistic sermons to the Jews—you killed him; he died for you and rose again; now repent and be converted (Acts 2:36-38; 3:13-16; 13:26-41).
23:23-24 But the crowd shouted louder and louder for Jesus’ death, and their voices prevailed. So Pilate sentenced Jesus to die as they demanded.NLT Pilate wanted to release Jesus, but the crowd shouted louder and louder for Jesus’ death . . . so Pilate sentenced Jesus to die. No doubt Pilate did not want to risk losing his position, which may already have been shaky, by allowing a riot to occur in his province. As a career politician, he knew the importance of compromise, and he saw Jesus more as a political threat than as a human being with rights and dignity.
23:25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.NIV Pilate did not want to give Jesus the death sentence. He thought the Jewish leaders were simply jealous men who wanted to get rid of a rival. When they threatened to report Pilate to Caesar (John 19:12), however, Pilate became frightened. Historical records indicate that Pilate had already been warned by Roman authorities about tensions in this region. The last thing he needed was a riot in Jerusalem at Passover time when the city was crowded with Jews from all over the Empire. So Pilate released Barabbas, the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, and then surrendered Jesus to their will. One must wonder if Pilate ever questioned himself later—why he had allowed a mob to convince him to set a murderer free and execute an innocent man. Clearly Pilate was a man of little conviction and even less courage. But don’t forget the responsibility of these Jewish leaders who demanded that Jesus die—Matthew recorded that they accepted the responsibility, stating that Jesus’ blood could remain on them and on their children (Matthew 27:25).
Matthew’s Gospel explains that Pilate took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd to symbolize his innocence in condemning Jesus (Matthew 27:24), but this act was no more than self-deception. Jesus may have been surrendered to the will of the mob, but this was still a purely Roman execution. Pilate had to command it in order for it to happen. After releasing Barabbas, Pilate did allow Jesus to be flogged (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15) as part of the Roman legal code that demanded flogging before a capital sentence was carried out. The Romans did it to weaken the prisoner so that he would die more quickly on the cross. Jesus had predicted that he would be flogged (18:32).
Almost. It’s a sad word in any man’s dictionary.
“Almost.” It runs herd with “nearly,” “next time,” “if only,” and “just about.”
It’s a word that smacks of missed opportunities, aborted efforts, and fumbled chances. It’s honorable mention, right field, on the bench, runner-up, and burnt cookies.
Almost. The one that got away. The sale that nearly closed. The gamble that almost paid off. Almost.
How many people do you know whose claim to fame is an almost?
“Did I ever tell you about the time I almost was selected as the Employee of the Year?”
“They say he almost made the big leagues.”
“I caught a catfish that was taller than me! Well … almost.”
As long as there have been people, there have been almosts. People who almost won the battle, who almost climbed the mountain, who almost found the treasure.
One of the most famous “almost’s” is found in the Bible. Pilate. Yet, what he missed was far more significant than a catfish or an award.
He almost performed what would have been history’s greatest act of mercy. He almost pardoned the Prince of Peace. He almost released the Son of God. He almost opted to acquit the Christ. Almost.
He had the power. He had the choice. He wore the signet ring. The option to free God’s Son was …. . and he did ….. almost. (Of course, in this case, God’s plan would have been twarted…but Pilate was still judged by whether he did the right thing or not).
Almost. How many times do these six ugly letters find their way into despairing epitaphs?
“He almost got it together.” “She almost chose not to leave him.” “They almost tried one more time.” “We almost worked it out. ‘He almost became a Christian.”
What is it that makes almost such a potent word? Why is there such a wide gap between “he almost” and “he did”?
In the case of Pilate, we don’t have to look far to find an answer. It is Dr. Luke’s acute commentary in chapter 23 that provides the reason. Luke 23:22 (ESV) A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release him.”
You’re right, Luke. Their voices prevailed. And, as a result, Pilate’s pride prevailed. Pilate’s fear prevailed. Pilate’s power-hunger prevailed.
“Their” voices were not the only voices, you know. There were at least three others Pilate could have heard.
He could have heard the voice of Jesus. Pilate stood eye to eye with him. Five times he postponed the decision hoping to gratify the mob with policies or lashings. Yet Jesus was always sent back to him.
Three times he stood eye to eye with this compelling Nazarene who had come to reveal the truth. “what is truth?” Pilate asked rhetorically (or was it honestly?). Jesus’ silence was much louder than the crowd’s demands. But Pilate didn’t listen.
He could have heard the voice of his wife. She pleaded with him to have nothing to do with that righteous man for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.”
One has to pause and wonder about the origin of such a dream that would cause a lady of purple to call a small-town Galilean righteous. But Pilate didn’t.
Or he could have heard his own voice. Surely he could see through the facade. “Ananias, Caiaphas, cut the phoney allegiance; I know where your interests are.”
Surely his conscience was speaking to him. “There is nothing wrong with this man. A bit mysterious maybe, but that’s no reason to string him up.”
He could have heard other voices. But he didn’t. He almost did. But he didn’t. Satan’s voices prevailed.
His voice often does prevail. Have you heard his wooings?
“One time won’t hurt.”
“She’ll never know.”
“Other people do much worse things.”
“At least you’re not being hypocritical.”
His rhetoric of rationalization never ends. The father of lies croons and woos like a traveling peddler, promising the moon and delivering disaster.
“Step right up. Taste my brew of pleasure and sing my song of sensuality. After all, who knows about tomorrow?”
God, meanwhile, never enters a shouting match with Satan. Truth need not scream. He stands permanently, quietly pleading, ever present. No tricks, no side shows, no temptations, just open proof.
People’s reactions vary. Some flow immediately to the peddler of poison. Others turn quickly to the Prince of Peace. Most of us, however, are caught somewhere in between, lingering on the edge of Satan’s crowd yet hovering within earshot of the message of God.
Pilate learned the hard way that this stance of “almost” is suicidal. The other voices will win. Their lure is too strong. Their call too compelling.
And Pilate also learned that there is no darker hell than the one of remorse. Washing your hands a thousand times won’t free you from the guilt of an opportunity ignored. It’s one thing to forgive yourself for something you did. It is something else to try to forgive yourself for something that you might have done, but didn’t.
Jesus knew that all along.
For our own good, he demanded and demands absolute obedience. He never has had room for “almost” in his vocabulary. You are either with him or against him.
With Jesus “nearly” has to become “certainly.” “Sometimes” has to become ‘(always.” “1f only” has to become “regardless.” And “next time” has to become time.”
No, Jesus never had room for “almost” and he still doesn’t. “Almost” may count in horseshoes and hand grenades, but with the Master, it is just as good as a “never.”