Pilate’s patience was evaporating, as were his options. He surely thought Herod would make the decision for him, but Jesus was returned with no verdict of guilt. His own pronouncements of Jesus’ innocence had failed to satisfy the Jewish leaders, who insisted that capital punishment be meted out. Even Pilate’s pronouncement that he would punish Jesus was not enough to cause them to relent (Luk 23:16ff.). Nothing less than Jesus’ death would satisfy them.
A Convenient Custom
In his mind, there was another legitimate option remaining for Pilate. To please the Jewish people, the custom at Passover had been for the governor to release a prisoner of their choice. And it just so happened to be Passover season. At the time, another Jesus was in custody, who had already received the death penalty – Jesus Barabbas. Pilate offered a final bargain to the Jewish authorities, calculating that this would certainly deliver him from this distressing dilemma.
A Prominent Prisoner
Barabbas was no ordinary convict. He was both an insurrectionist and a murderer (Mar 15:7). Surely the Jewish people wouldn’t want a man like this turned loose into society. So rather than choosing some unknown prisoner, Pilate intentionally selected Barabbas, the most notorious prisoner in his custody, and made his offer: “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” (Mat 27:17). Pilate’s reasoning was wrong. He was not dealing with rational voices but hysterical ones. They demanded Barabbas’ discharge and Christ’s death.
A Disturbing Dream
Pilate had some time to reflect upon the unusual events of the day, as well as the remarkable character of the man he had been trying. His official decision would be made while upon “the judgment seat” (Mat 27:19). As he sat pondering what he didn’t realize would be the most important decision of his life, he was interrupted with a message sent from his wife. It read, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man; I have suffered greatly as a result of a dream about him today” (v19). Greeks and Romans generally viewed dreams as an important way in which the gods spoke to people. We can’t rule out the possibility that God Himself may have spoken to Pilate’s wife in this dream.
One word from his wife’s ominous message carried the most significance – “innocent.” Both Pilate and Herod had agreed about Jesus’ innocence and now a third voice confirmed it. The message of her dream seemed to say, “Pilate, get out of this situation as quickly as possible! Dismiss the charges, whatever the consequences!” Pilate repeated his earlier question: “‘Which of the two do you want me to release for you?’ And they said, ‘Barabbas!’” (v21).
A Relentless Request
What Pilate didn’t know was that while he was deliberating, the chief priests and the elders were enflaming a gathering crowd. Now it was not only the leaders who were demanding Jesus’ death but a sizable mob – “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed” (v20). As is often the case when mobs make their demands, emotions become overheated, while logic and rationality are nowhere to be found.
Pilate asked yet another question: “‘Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?’ They all said, ‘Crucify him!’ He asked, ‘Why? What wrong has he done?’ But they shouted more insistently, ‘Crucify him!’” (vv22-23). The governor had announced Jesus’ innocence three times (see Luk 23:22), but to no avail. The multitude made their choice, a choice that said nothing about Jesus but everything about them.
There was great irony in the choice the people made. The official charges against Jesus, though false, were essentially those of sedition, claiming to be a king (Luk 23:2). Yet they chose the release of a convicted insurrectionist. They also favored the release of one whose name, Barabbas, means “son of the father,” while at the same time rejected the one who really is “the Son of the Father”! If his surname actually was “Jesus” (see footnote 1), the people were being asked to choose which Jesus (Savior) they preferred. The nation was hoping for a more militant Messiah, which Jesus of Nazareth did not appear to be. Barabbas was more in line with their expectations. So their choice was made. But Pilate’s was made also.
A Worthless Washing
“When Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but that instead a riot was starting, he took some water, washed his hands before the crowd and said, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. You take care of it yourselves!’” (Mat 27:24). Avoiding a riot was critical for Pilate’s political success. But the declaration of his own innocence was not his to make. Another “judgment seat” is in Pilate’s future and the tables will be turned, as he will be on trial before the Christ he refused. The ceremony of the washing of his hands was altogether ineffective. His hands are still stained.
As we contemplate the choice both of the multitude and of Pilate, we must remember our own concerning Christ.
Jesus is standing in Pilate’s hall,
Friendless, forsaken, betrayed by all:
Hearken! What meaneth the sudden call,
“What will you do with Jesus?”
Jesus is standing on trial still,
Yours is the choice now for good or ill,
Now for eternity yield your will:
“What will you do with Jesus?”
What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be;
Someday your heart will be asking,
“What will He do with me?”
 Several important manuscripts and versions state that Barabbas’ forename was Jesus. A number of prominent English translations recognize this (NET, NIV, CEB, CEV, LEB).
 All Scripture quotations in this article are from the NET.
 The Greek word is bema.
 The other dreams in Matthew relate to God’s Son (1:20; 2:12,13,19,22).
 A.B. Simpson (1843-1919)