Now at that feast he released to them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired.…
It affords the most vivid illustration in the New Testament of just two great moral lessons: Pilate's behaviour shows the wicked wrong of indecision, and the chief priests' choice of Barabbas' release shows the utter rain of a wrong decision. These will become apparent, each in its turn, as we study the story.
I. EARLIEST OF ALL, LET US GROUP TOGETHER THE INCIDENTS OF THE HISTORY, SO THAT THEIR ORDER MAY BE SEEN.
1. Observe the rapid action of the priests (Mark 15:1). It must have been very late on Thursday night when the great council finished the condemnation of Jesus. But the moment that was over, the priests hurried Him at dawn into the presence of the Roman governor. Their feet ran to evil, and they made haste to shed innocent blood (Isaiah 59:7).
2. Now comes the providential moment for Pilate. For the wisdom of God so orders it that this man shall be able to meet his tremendous responsibility unembarrassed by a mob for his audience. These zealots, like all creatures who have the form of godliness but deny the power thereof, are so emphatically pious that even in the midst of murder they pause on a punctilio; they will not enter the judgment hall lest they should be so defiled that they could not eat the passover (John 18:28). This left Pilate the chance calmly to converse with Jesus alone.
3. Then succeeds the pitiable period of subterfuge which always follows a shirked duty. Convinced of our Lord's innocence, Pilate proposed that his official authority should just be counted out in this matter. He bade the chief priests take their prisoner themselves, and deal with Him as they pleased. To this he received a reply which showed their savage animosity, and at the same instant disclosed the use they meant to make of his power. They cried out that the only reason why they had consulted him at all was found in the unlawfulness of killing a man without due form of procedure (John 18:30, 31).
4. Next to this is recorded the attempt of the governor to shift his responsibility. Pilate learned from the mere chance use of a word that Jesus was from Galilee; and as this province was in the jurisdiction of Herod, the titular monarch of the Jews, he sent his prisoner under a guard over to the other palace (Luke 23:7). The king was quite glad to see this Nazarene prophet, and tried to get Him to work a miracle, but did not succeed in evoking so much as a word from His lips (Isaiah 53:7). But before the return, he put a slight on Jesus' kingly claims, so that Pilate might know how much in derision he held them. The soldiers mocked Him, arraying Him in a gorgeous robe, and then led Him back into the presence of the governor again.
5. At his wits' end, Pilate at last proposes a compromise. He remembered that there was a custom, lately brought over from Italy into Palestine, of freeing someone of the State's prisoners every year at Passover as a matter of proconsular clemency (Mark 15:6). He offered to let Jesus go under this rule. Such a procedure would be equivalent to pronouncing him technically a criminal, but thus His life would be spared. But the subtle priests put the people up to refuse this favour flatly.
6. The governor's wife now meets him with a warning from a dream. He had returned to the judgment seat, and was just about to pronounce the decision. His wife interrupted: "Have thou nothing to do with that just man" (Matthew 27:19). This threw Pilate into a frantic irresolution once more. A second time he left the room, and went forth to reason and expostulate with the infuriated crowd at the door. With renewed urgency he pressed upon their consideration the half-threat that he would let loose on them this wretch Barabbas, if they persisted in demanding Jesus' death (Luke 23:18). This only exasperated them the more.
7. Finally, this bewildered judge gave his reluctant consent to their clamours. But in the act of condemnation he did the foolishest thing of all he did that awful day. He took water and washed his hands before the mob, declaring thus that he was innocent of the blood of the just person he was delivering up to their spite (Matthew 27:24).
II. SO WE REACH THE CRISIS OF EVENTS IN THE SPIRITUAL CAREER OF THAT RULER AND OF THAT NATION.
1. Observe the singular picture. It is all in one verse of the Scripture (Mark 15:15). Two men, now in the same moment, appear in public on the steps of the Praetorium: Jesus and Barabbas. One of them was the Son of God, the Saviour of men. "Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!" (John 19:5). Art has tried to reproduce this scene. Dore has painted the whole of it; Guido Reni has painted the head with thorns around the forehead. Others have made similar attempts according to their fancy or their ability. It is a spectacle which attracts and discourages. Beyond them all, however, lies the fact which each Christian will be likely to fashion before his own imagination. Jesus comes forth with His reed and His robe: Ecce Homo! Barabbas alongside! This creature has never been a favourite with artists. He was a paltry wretch any way, thrust up into a fictitious importance by the supreme occasion. We suppose him to have been quite a commonplace impostor. Bar means son; Abba, which some interpret as father. Very likely he chose his own name as a false Messiah, "Son of the Father;" indeed, some of the ancient manuscripts call him "Jesus Barabbas." He does not poise picturesquely; look at him!
2. The moral of this scene turns upon the wilful choice made between these two leaders, the real and the pretended Christ. Now let it be said here that the whole history is often repeated even in these modern times. It is unwise to lose the lesson taught us by rushing off into pious execration of those bigoted Jews. Men had better look into their own hearts. In his introduction to the study of metaphysics, Malebranche remarks very quietly, "It is not into a strange country that such guides as these volumes of mine will conduct you; but it is into your own, in which, not unlikely, you are a stranger." It will be well to bear in mind that the decision is offered and made between Jesus and Barabbas whenever the Lord of glory is represented in a principle, in an institution, in a truth, in a person.
3. So let us pause right here to inquire what this decision involves for those who make it. The illustration is helpful, and we can still employ it. Dwell a moment upon the deliberateness of the choice which the multitude made that day. The exhibition was perfectly intelligible: it always is. There is Barabbas! there is Christ! When a sharp moral crisis is reached, men generally know the side they ought to choose. Right and wrong, truth and error, sin and holiness, the world or God — this is just the old Jerusalem scene back again. Such a choice fixes character. "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." When one wills strongly, he moulds himself in the likeness of the thing he chooses. The old Castilian proverb says, "Every man is the son of his own work." Then observe the responsibility of the choice between Barabbas and Christ. The chief priests declared they would take it (Matthew 27:25). Pilate could ruin no soul but his own. In the end Jesus' blood rested upon the nation that slew Him. Oh, what a history! a land without a nation — a nation without a land! All the vast future swung on the hinge of that choice. Note, therefore, the reach of this decision. It exhausted all the chances. Once — on that Friday morning early — those two men stood side by side, and Pilate asked the question, "Whether of the twain?" (Matthew 27:21). It was never possible after that to traverse the same spiritual ground of alternative again. Whoever chooses the wrong must go and fare for good or ill with the thing he has chosen. The thief becomes master, the murderer lord.
III. WE ARE READY NOW TO RECEIVE THE FULL TEACHING OF THE STORY: OUR TWO LESSONS APPEAR PLAINLY.
1. We see the wicked wrong of indecision. We are agreed that Pilate wished to let Jesus go. But when he gave Him up to the spite of His murderers, he himself "consented" and so shared the crime (Psalm 50:18). Thus he destroyed his character. Trimming, injustice, cruelty: step by step he went down, till he added a scourging which nobody demanded. "The facility with which we commit certain sins," says , "is a punishment for sins already committed." Thus he also destroyed his reputation. One man there has been whose name was put in an epistle just for a black background on which to write a name that was white (1 Timothy 6:13). The same was put in the that all Christendom might hold it in "everlasting fame" of infamy: "crucified under Pontius Pilate."
2. We see also the utter ruin of a wrong decision. Do not waste any more thought on Pilate or the Jews. Think of yourself. See life and death, blessing and cursing; choose life (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19). Do not forfeit what may be your soul's last chance.
(C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now at that feast he released unto them one prisoner, whomsoever they desired.