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“Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ….” Matthew 27:17-23

How our Savior suffered! What awful reproach He bore! Following His agony in Gethsemane, Christ had been captured in the garden. He had willingly surrendered Himself to His enemies who had come with swords and staves as if Christ were some dangerous criminal. Before the Sanhedrin Christ had been convicted and condemned to death. The Roman governor, Pilate, had heard the accusations of the chief priests and the elders but could find no fault in Christ. Pilate had attempted to escape the responsibility for deciding this case by sending Jesus to Herod. Christ had been subjected to Herod’s cruel and cowardly mockery, and then had been sent back to Pilate.

But Pilate was faced with a terrible dilemma. On the one hand, he knew that Christ was innocent; but on the other hand, he feared the Jews. Again Pilate attempted to evade the issue—he will place the choice of freeing Jesus or Barabbas before the people.

Let us not overlook the fact that our sovereign God was directing all these events. When Christ stands before Pontius Pilate, He stands before the world power that must both declare Him innocent and sentence Him to the death of the cross. But Christ must also be tried by the people! The multitude also must be left without excuse. The deepest intents of the hearts of the people must be exposed. Through the instrumentality of Pilate the multitude is placed before the bar of God’s justice. The multitude must also face the question, “What will ye do with Jesus that is called Christ?”

The Shameful Nomination

Pilate was afraid of both the righteous Jesus and the Jews who could jeopardize his relationship with Caesar. God, however, has drawn crowds of people to the Praetorium, the palace of the Roman governor. The clamoring multitude reminds Pilate of a custom of the Passover feast. At the feast it was customary for the governor to release whatever prisoner the people desired. The governor would release some prisoner that had been condemned to suffer the extreme penalty. At the same time, Pilate recalls that there is a notable prisoner who had been cast into prison. According to Mark 15:7, “… there was one named Barabbas, which lay bound with them that had made insurrection with him, who had committed murder in the insurrection.”

The idea occurs to Pilate that he can let the multitude solve his problem. He will not ask them broadly and generally who it is that they wish him to release. No, Pilate himself will make a nomination of two. He will propose a duo from which the multitude may choose one. Pilate prepares, so to speak, a ballot and gives the people the opportunity to determine by vote whether he should release unto them Jesus or Barabbas.

One name on this nomination is “Barabbas.” He was a “notable prisoner.” He was a notorious rogue, an infamous rebel. He had instigated a rebellion in Jerusalem against the Roman authorities. During this insurrection Barabbas had committed murder. Clearly, Barabbas had become the off-scouring of society, a notorious criminal, a deadly convict.

The other name on this nomination is “Jesus, which is called Christ.” He is the Righteous One, the totally Innocent One! He has lived all His life in perfect obedience to God. Clearly, this Jesus is no criminal, but He has been unjustly accused. This is Jesus of Nazareth whom the multitude knew. Only a few days before this, as He had made His royal entry into Jerusalem, many of these people had shouted, “Hosanna to the Son of David.” This Jesus is the Christ, the Anointed One. He is the only begotten Son of God in our flesh.

What a shameful nomination! It was shameful because it implied that Jesus was a criminal. The very fact that Jesus’ name was on this nomination implied that He was a notable prisoner. Those who were released on the Passover feast were not innocent citizens but infamous outlaws. Therefore, that Pilate named Jesus a nominee meant that Pilate had already condemned Jesus. This was also a shameful nomination because of the vast contrast between these nominees. In Acts 3:14 Peter asserted, “But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you.” The Holy One and the Just has been paired with a murderer! The Son of God in the flesh allowed Himself to be placed on a par with the most despicable criminal. Jesus was as widely famous for having done good throughout the land as Barabbas was notorious for his works of darkness. In addition, this was a shameful nomination because of the humiliation heaped upon Jesus. He, more than anyone else, felt keenly the offense of being reckoned with the malefactors! But voluntarily Christ so deeply humbled Himself that He allowed Himself to be numbered with the lowest transgressors! Christ knew that it was the hour of the multitude’s trial.

The Trying Question

When the large crowd of Jews was gathered together, Pilate made known unto them his nomination. He asked the question, “Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?” Pilate felt confident that the choice of the multitude would free the innocent Jesus. He knew that it was because of the envy and jealousy of the leaders of the Jews that Christ had been delivered. Surely the common people could scarcely fail to release Jesus! This question asked by Pilate represented only another of his vain struggles to avoid the ultimate answer to God’s question, “What will ye do with My Christ who is so plainly righteous?”

This was a trying question because it must be answered by this multitude. The crowd gathered before the Praetorium was not a tribe of ignorant savages. No, the whole world in all its culture and civilization was present in that multitude. This multitude was gathered in Jerusalem, the center of the world and of history in the year A.D. 33.

This was a trying question because it placed the multitude before the bar of God’s justice. The people must not be able to say that they were innocent of this miscarriage of justice. They must not be able to complain that their leaders had rejected Jesus, while they themselves had never been confronted with the critical question. In this question God was sovereignly trying the world. The whole world had to be left without excuse! The world must be tried and exposed as evil through the trial, condemnation, and rejection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Further, this was a trying question because of the ultimate question involved here. This question did not lay before them a simple option of choosing a man to be freed. This question did not place before the multitude two men who were equals. But the multitude faced the ultimate question: “What think ye of the Christ?” And remember that Christ stands before them, not in all His glory, but helpless and bound, and yet as the Christ, the eternal Son of God! They must give an answer as the revelation of their own ethical worth, as a revelation of their own inmost hearts. The question was intended to reveal whether they loved or hated the truth, whether they were good and noble or wicked and corrupt. And give an answer they must and will!

The Self-condemning Answer

In the meantime, the chief priests and elders had been busy while Pilate had been considering the mysterious message from his wife that he should have nothing to do with that just man. They were quick to take advantage of this opportunity given them to prompt the multitude as to the choice they should make. According to verse 20, they “persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.” The instigation of the Jewish leaders was effective. The leaders of the Jews expertly manipulated the multitude into a passionate mob to be directed as they desired.

When Pilate turned back to the multitude he restated the question. Pilate said unto them, “Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you?” The Gospels according to Mark and John both have it more boldly stated: “Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” The answer of the multitude was, “Barabbas.”

Pilate appeared stunned and desperate. It seems as if he is almost willing to think they have misunderstood. He should have declared, “I will pronounce Jesus innocent and release Him.” Instead, he weakly asked, “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?” The multitude answered unanimously, “Let him be crucified!” Pilate then descended to the level of arguing with the multitude, “Why, what evil hath he done?” Again Pilate stressed the truth of the innocence of Christ. But the agitated and wild mob repeatedly screamed, “Let him be crucified!”

This answer was self-condemning because the multitude clearly made known its will. There is no excuse. The fact that they were prompted by the chief priests does not take away their responsibility. Who could not see the stark contrast between Jesus and Barabbas? Surely they knew that this choice was between One who was perfectly righteous and a notorious criminal. When faced with the question, “What think ye of the Christ?,” the multitude quite consciously prefers a murderer to Jesus! The multitude should have rejected the shameful nomination made by Pilate. But they have unconsciously recognized themselves in this murderer, and so they chose Barabbas, revealing their own hatred for God and His Christ. The multitude was forced to reveal its desire for an earthly Messiah who would satisfy their carnal lusts.

Still more, this answer was self-condemning because this was the answer of the whole world. Truly in this answer we see the condemnation of the world. Christ said in John 12:31, “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the prince of this world be cast out.” Understand, when the multitude asked for Barabbas, the whole world asked for Barabbas! When the multitude cried out, “Let him be crucified,” the whole world cried out, “Let him be crucified!” It was God’s sovereign purpose to condemn the world through its own testimony! In giving this answer, the world was exposed in its corruption, hypocrisy, and worthiness of damnation.

But finally, this answer was self-condemning because this was our answer. This answer of the multitude is our condemnation. We by nature, apart from grace, belong with that profane, scorning, God-reviling multitude that heaped reproach upon Christ. We must confess that we signed, as it were, our own condemnation before the terrible tribunal of God!

Yet we need not despair because of our self-condemning answer! Ultimately, our sovereign God had determined this answer. He had divinely appointed Christ to walk this way of suffering to the cross. He had ordained Christ to be the Head of the church. He had required that the perfect sacrifice be made for the sins of the elect given to Christ.

Don’t you see, this self-condemning answer was necessary for you and for me! Only through the suffering and death of Christ could we be delivered from the bondage of sin! Only through this answer could we, who are by nature enemies of God and His cause, once more be made friends. The very blood that we demanded be shed was the blood that washed away our sins!

Let us stand in awe at the mystery of Calvary! For He “was delivered for our offenses, and was raised again for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). For our sakes He bore this reproach! He was despised, rejected of men that we might be accepted by God and never be forsaken by Him! And now Jesus Christ is our Advocate with the Father. He works by His Spirit and grace in our hearts so that we count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus our Lord!