Matthew 27:15-26 (NIV) Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had charged Jesus out of envy, not because He had committed any legitimate crime. So he tried to set Him free on any technicality he could find, attempted to reason with the crowd, and even out of mercy offered to let him go in his annual act of good will. But the leaders were insistent that Jesus be done away with entirely. No prison, no flogging, only death by crucifixion would satisfy them.
Things got eerie when Pilate received the cryptic note from his wife, waving him off from any involvement with Jesus because of a nightmare she had had about Him that morning. Pilate knew that this was no ordinary issue that he had been drawn into, and tried even harder to find a way out of the middle.
The gambit of offering to release Jesus for the usual Passover benevolence seemed like a natural. Especially when he gave the people two sharply contrasting options: Jesus, the beloved teacher and miracle worker, or Barabbas, the insurrectionist and murderer (Mark 15:7). He reasoned that, given the choice, Jesus would be the natural option. But to his shock and dismay, the crowd, at that early hour of the morning composed mainly of Jewish leaders and Sanhedrin members, cried out for Barabbas instead!
Rome prided itself on its superb system of justice, but Pilate felt that this whole situation was slipping out of his control into anarchy. He tried to get the crowd, now verging on a mob, to see the ridiculousness of the situation. If Barabbas, the murder, was to go free, then what was the appropriate punishment for the kind and gentle teacher? He could not believe his ears when the chant began: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
After several repeated attempts to yell reason over the growing chants, and fearful that a full-blown riot could start at any moment, Pilate called for a basin of water, in which he symbolically washed his hands of responsibility for the fate of what he was now firmly convinced was a completely innocent man.
His words to the crowd, “It is your responsibility,” echoed by the crowd’s response, “Let His blood be on us and on our children,” were prophetic. In calling for the death of the Son of the very God that they claimed to worship and serve, these leaders were willingly placing themselves outside of God’s grace, and placing themselves instead in the pathway of His wrath, which would, in the span of a mere 40 years, completely destroy their city, their temple, and their way of life.
Father, these leaders had abundant red flags all along the way that could have served to warn them off of their disastrous pathway if they had only paid attention: the inability to find agreement among their false witnesses; the return of the blood money by the betrayer, and his own avowal of Jesus’ innocence; the reluctance of the governor to buy the charges against Jesus, and his extraordinary efforts to free Jesus, including the ludicrous offering of a notorious villain in contrast; all the way to the dire warning that the responsibility for this innocent man’s death would fall on their own heads. But at each step, they opted to go all in, until they actually ended up proclaiming Your judgment on themselves. Father, keep me and all of Your people from ever taking that first step on the path to such a deep defilement, so that we will never end up betraying You. Amen.