11 Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
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.” 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!” – Matthew 27:11-23 ESV
Judas had hung himself. The rest of the disciples were in hiding. Peter, in particular, was in a state of deep sorrow, having fulfilled Jesus’ prediction by denying Him on three separate occasions.
But Jesus was still in the custody of the high priest’s guards and on His way to Pilate, the Roman governor. The Jewish religious leaders were no fans of the Roman government, but they knew they needed Rome’s authority and legal jurisdiction in order to have Jesus put to death.
In his gospel account, John indicates that it was early in the morning when Jesus arrived at the governor’s residence. And Matthew records that the first thing the governor asked Jesus was, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11 ESV). This seems like an odd way for Pilate to start his interrogation of Jesus, but it reveals that he had been informed of the rumors concerning Jesus. He had most likely heard all the details concerning Jesus’ somewhat spectacular entry into Jerusalem a few days earlier and had been told about the shouts of the crowds who had greeted Him as He made His way into the city.
“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” – Matthew 21:9 ESV
It would also seem apparent that the high priest and the members of the Sanhedrin had accused Jesus of claiming to be the king of the Jews. They knew their charge of blasphemy against Jesus would be of no interest to Pilate. But the threat of a possible insurrection against Herod, the Roman-appointed king of Israel, would have gotten Pilate’s attention. The Jews wanted Jesus dead because He had claimed to be the Son of God. But they knew the best way to get the Romans to sanction His death would be to portray Jesus as a dangerous radical and revolutionary, whose very presence was a threat to the Pax Romana, the Roman peace that allowed them to keep their vast empire under control.
John records that, when the Jews showed up at Pilate’s house with Jesus in tow, the governor had asked them what accusations they were bringing against Jesus. And they had replied, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you” (John 18:30 ESV). They wanted to paint Jesus as dangerous. And both Matthew and Mark make it clear that the Sanhedrin leveled many charges against Jesus. They were doing their best to destroy the reputation of Jesus and to give Pilate no other recourse than to sentence Him to death. And through it all, Jesus remained silent. He said nothing. He was not interested in self-defense, but in fulfilling the will of His Father.
Pilate, a seasoned and savvy political leader, saw through the motives of the Sanhedrin. Matthew records that “he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matthew 27:18 ESV). It was the Jewish religious leaders who saw Jesus as a threat, not Rome. During His three years of ministry, Jesus had done nothing to engender the least bit of fear or paranoia on the part of Rome. He was not a rabble-rouser or trouble-maker. He had not promoted the overthrow of the Roman government. He had not encouraged dissent or preached revolutionary rhetoric aimed at overthrowing Herod or eliminating Roman rule. That was not His mission.
So Pilate, desiring to release the obviously innocent Jesus without having to make the decision himself, provided the Jews with a choice. During his tenure as governor, Pilate had created an annual act of goodwill that took place during the Jewish celebration of Passover. He would release to them a Jew being held in captivity by the Roman government. On this occasion, he offered them a choice between two individuals: Jesus or a notorious criminal named Barabas. According to Mark, this man was a murderer and an insurrectionist. And it seems apparent that Pilate believed the people would prefer to have Jesus released over this well-known and dangerous criminal. But he was wrong. Due to the insidious influence of the Sanhedrim, the crowd that had gathered outside Pilate’s home overwhelmingly expressed their choice of the murderer over the Messiah. They wanted Barabas released, not Jesus.
And when Pilate asked the crowd, “what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” they responded, “Let him be crucified!” (Matthew 27:22 ESV).
Shocked at their response, Pilate asked, “Why? What evil has he done?” (Matthew 27:23 ESV). And again, the people shouted, “Let him be crucified!” The mob mentality fomented by the Jewish religious leaders overruled common sense and reason. Jesus was innocent of all charges brought against Him, but they did not care. Sensing the blood in the water, the feeding frenzy had begun.
When Pilate had asked Jesus if He was the king of the Jews, He had simply replied, “You have said so” (Matthew 27:11 ESV). With those four words, Jesus confirmed His identity. He was the King of the Jews. But not in a sense that Pilate could have understood or in a way that the Jews could have anticipated. He was a King over a different kind of Kingdom. And He ruled with far more power and authority than Pilate could have ever imagined. Jesus would tell Pilate:
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” – John 18:36 ESV
In these closing hours of Jesus’ life on earth, the topic of His kingship will come up repeatedly. He will even be mocked by the guards and given a purple robe and a crown of thorns to wear. These war-hardened legionnaires will bow down before Him, sarcastically shouting, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Mark 15:18 ESV). When Jesus is nailed to the cross, Pilate will command that a placard be placed above His head, stating the nature of His crime. And it will read “King of the Jews.”
Jesus was and is the King of the Jews. And as the book of Revelation makes clear, He is the King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16). Pilate was standing before the rightful King of Israel and the righteous ruler over all of creation. And it’s amazing to think that Pilate was more willing to wrestle with the reality of Jesus’ sovereignty than the Jewish religious leaders were. Pilate wanted to release Jesus. But the high priest and the Sanhedrin were adamant that He be put to death – all because they refused to accept His identity as their King and Lord.
The Jews would get their wish. Their arch-nemesis would meet an untimely end. But their relentless crusade to seek Jesus’ death and their successful efforts to secure Rome’s official sanctioning of it were all part of the sovereign will of God. Every aspect of this dark chronology was in fulfillment of the divine strategy. As Jesus had stated in the garden, “But this is all happening to fulfill the words of the prophets as recorded in the Scriptures” (Matthew 26:56 NLT).
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.