I’m thinking that Pilate was pretty pleased with himself when he paired Jesus with Barabbas. What the chief priests were doing defied logic and reason. The depths of their hatred for the man Jesus was so disproportionate to anything the Man had done. If half of what had been reported concerning the miracles of Jesus was true, why the Jews were so up in arms was beyond any rational thinking. If the nature of Jesus’ teaching was even close to what Pilate had heard, it was no wonder that many who heard it walked away amazed. In fact, even Pilate’s short encounter with Jesus — his interview with Him, the way Jesus refused to engage His accusers — was enough to leave the governor “greatly amazed” (Matt. 27:11-14).
So what to do? Pilate knew Jesus had done nothing that merited any judicial involvement of Rome. He also knew that it was “out of envy” that the religious leaders had delivered Jesus up to him. What’s more, the words of his wife echoed through Pilate’s head, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man” (27:18-19). He needed a way to get out of this situation without shedding innocent blood. He needed to get the Jews to drop their charges. He needed to back them into a corner such that basic reason itself would compel them to concede to Jesus’ release. Bring in Barabbas.
Barabbas, a “notorious prisoner” (27:16) . . . a robber (John 18:40) . . . an insurrectionist and murderer (Luke 23:18-19). Put Jesus next to this man and put it to the crowd to pick one to receive clemency and, so thought Pilate, their choice would be obvious. No matter how blind their jealousy had made them, Pilate was sure they would release Jesus when He was presented alongside Barabbas to them. It was a no-brainer. Who do you want walking the streets? The carpenter or the killer?
But Pilate made a critical error. While he thought he had tipped the scales in Jesus’ favor by presenting Barabbas as the alternative, he ended up making it a non-choice for Jesus’ enemies in the way he presented them.
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?” (Matthew 27:17 ESV)
There it was. Game, set, match against Jesus. Call Him “Jesus the carpenter” . . . refer to Him as “Jesus the teacher” . . . maybe even honor Him as “Rabbi.” But I imagine that, when Pilate presented their choice as Barabbas the murderous-robber vs. Jesus the promised Messiah, it was like throwing gas on a fire. And the rage exploded among the religious leaders. This Man would not be their Messiah! This Man was counter the king they would serve! This Man, despite all that He had done and all that He had taught, would not receive any assent from them that He was of God!
Any chance Pilate might of had of making the Barabbas ploy work to his desired outcome was doomed when he uttered those words, “Jesus who is called Christ.”
But that was the issue. It’s still the issue. “Who do people say that I am?” (Mark 8:27). It becomes the deal breaker.
In God’s divine providence, He ensured that a Roman governor would make clear the nature of every person’s decision. “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” (27:22).
And when people determine to reject Jesus as the promised King, as God’s gracious Deliverer, then people will choose anything . . . even murderous, seditious thieves.
But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13 ESV)
I pick Jesus, Jesus the Messiah. Jesus the Son of God . . . Jesus the Savior . . . Jesus the Name above all Names.
Because of grace . . . for God’s glory.