Summary: The Messiah was rejected by his people, not merely by the powers to be. He had been rejected long before this day.
Matthew 27:15-26 The Crowd
4/8/04MT D. Marion Clark
We have been considering characters in the passion story asking the question, Who is responsible? Who is responsible for Jesus’ death? We’ve examined the roles that the disciples, the religious leaders, Herod, and Pilate each played. All of them bear some responsibility. But there was one group who actually accepted it, and that was the crowd present in Pilate’s courtyard.
15 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.”
For whatever reasons, Pilate did not want to crucify Jesus. He knew Jesus to be innocent of any crime deserving crucifixion. His wife had warned him against getting involved because of a dream, which would have been taken seriously by a Roman. He did not like being used by the Jewish leaders to take care of their personal offenses, which he recognized was the real reason for the charges being made. As verse 18 notes, he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. I think the primary reason for Pilate’s reluctance was his encounter with Jesus. He learned what others had attested, “No one ever spoke like this man” (John 7:46).
Pilate then makes one of those moves that seemed good at the time, but proves to be short-sighted. There is a custom by which the governor would release for the crowd a prisoner during Passover. It is not a bad idea, particularly during that feast which stirs in the people a restlessness against their occupation. The Roman authority gives the appearance of being magnanimous, which helps to dilute the anti-Roman feelings.
He could offer Jesus. It makes sense. He knows the leaders’ real grievance against Jesus is his popularity with the people. We are told by “scholars” that Pilate would have been just as desirous as the religious leaders to get rid of Jesus because of the people’s hopes in him as the Messiah. But Jesus has not taken advantage of his popularity to raise discontent with the Romans. His preaching is void of political content. He teaches to love one’s enemies and even counsels to pay taxes. Certainly his celebrated entry into Jerusalem the week before raised Roman eyebrows, but then he has done nothing since then to arouse anti-Roman feelings. He has spoken against authority, but it is the Jewish authorities he has rebuked. We are told by Matthew that the leaders wanted to get their hands on Jesus, but delayed because they feared the crowds.
They finally are able to seize Jesus at night away from the crowds. They carry out their trial the same evening in the High Priest’s private home, and they bring Jesus to Pilate early in the morning. Clearly, they are trying to avoid public attention and get a verdict before the crowds can come to his rescue.
Here is Pilate’s opportunity to expose their intentions and to make himself appear, not only magnanimous but as the friend of the people. He needed some good PR. He was already in trouble with Caesar for his harsh rule. He puts before the crowd Barabbas and Jesus. All the more good vibes he should be generating by letting them make the choice. But he is shrewd enough to choose a “notorious prisoner,” a man, Luke tells, “who had been thrown into prison for insurrection started in the city and for murder” (Luke 23:19). He is not the man that should win a popularity contest. But it all backfires.
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!”
What happened? It seems a stretch that the religious leaders in a short period of time could persuade the crowd to turn against a man that many believed to be a prophet of God. How could these leaders who had tried to keep the crowd from knowing what they were doing, suddenly turn into persuasive salesmen? To ask the question yet another way, how could the crowd go from shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” a few days earlier, to shouting, “et him be crucified!”?