When Jesus was brought before Pilate, the Roman ruler faced intense pressure to do what he knew was wrong—and he gave in. Alistair Begg calls our attention to Pilate’s failure to remain stalwart and just. More importantly, though, he points to the Gospel message within this story: the innocent Christ was crucified, while the guilty Barabbas was set free. Like the notorious prisoner, we too have been made innocent because Jesus took on our guilt and died for us.
Our God, we thank you for the Bible and that we can study it together now, and we pray for your help as we do so. We ask that you will come and enable us to listen and to speak, to hear, to understand, to believe, and obey. Do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Well, to Luke chapter 23, where we resume our studies in the Gospel of Luke. And we’re now at the thirteenth verse, as was apparent from the reading a few moments ago.
Pilate must decide. He can equivocate for only so long; he can put it off, try and sidestep it, as he’s been doing. But frankly, he’s been quite unsuccessful—unsuccessful in suggesting to this crowd of religious officials and hangers-on that they really ought to deal with this matter of Jesus of Nazareth by themselves; it’s really not within the province of the Roman governor. That was an unsuccessful attempt. He tried to shunt him off to Herod, but unfortunately, Herod sent him back in his direction. And now the clock is ticking, and the cries of the crowd are becoming even more demanding; they’re louder, they’re more insistent, and inevitably he finds himself, within himself, saying, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do with Jesus of Nazareth? How did I end up in this position?” he must’ve said to himself. He certainly talked it over with his wife. His wife had various comments to make.
As a Roman—and the Romans have given us many of our laws; a lot of American law still has foundations in the structures of law which Pilate and others adhered to in his day—he would have had a Roman dislike for gross injustice. And since he didn’t like injustice, that would kind of point towards letting Jesus go. The unsettling messages that his wife had sent him, about which we read in Matthew 27, would also have suggested to him he probably ought to let him go. And the bind in which he finds himself is aptly summarized there in verse 20: “Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appeal[s] to them …. But they kept shouting ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’”
So try as best you can to put yourself in his position for a moment. Here he is confronted by this crowd—religious officials. He is presiding over a territory; he is responsible for its jurisdiction, for the maintaining of order and the quelling of any kind of civil disruption. Justice speaks in his mind and says, “Release Jesus.” Conscience speaks to him and says, “Jesus should not die.” His gut, if you like, if we might say so, just says, “Release him.” And when he presses this group and asks them explicitly, “What crime has he committed?” all they’re able to do is shout him down. And the reason they shout him down is because they know that Jesus is innocent. Pilate knows that he’s innocent. But he just can’t commit himself to do the right thing. He somehow or another cannot get there.
I found a quote from Thomas Jefferson—at least my friend did, in Dublin earlier in the year, in a shop that was selling soap, fascinatingly. And the quote was along these lines: Jefferson said, “In matters of style, swim with the tide. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.” And here Pilate is confronted by this kind of dilemma. It’s not an unfamiliar dilemma. It is a recurring question in the minds of men and women as it comes to the matter of Jesus of Nazareth, as we’ll see in just a moment. Here he is with the gathering throng, the insistent backdrop of agitation, and the cries for the death of Jesus of Nazareth, and he just can’t get there.
The New York Times this week carried a piece on the resurgence of surfing in the world as the ultimate extreme sport. It was an interesting article. It was way beyond my ken, but I was intrigued by just one quote which I made note of. It came from one of the top professional female surfers in the world, a girl by the name of Rochelle Ballard, an American girl. And she said this: “To be on the peak, make the drop and commit—you face all your fears.” There was a picture there of one of those massive, massive waves from Hawaii, and this figure that looked microscopic in the face of this huge, pounding surf. And I looked at that and I read again, “To be on the peak, make the drop and commit—you face all your fears.” Now, that’s exactly where Pilate was. He’s on the peak. Is he going to make the drop and commit?
To go from twenty-first century America back to Shakespeare’s England, in Julius Caesar, remember Brutus to Cassius:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and … miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.
What is Pilate going to do? What is Pilate going to do?
Had he ever been confronted with such an individual—this Jesus of Nazareth? He was probably used to being able to intimidate those who were in the dock before him. So, for example, when he trotted out one of his favorite lines—“You can’t refuse to speak to me. Don’t you know that I have the power to free you or to crucify you?”—presumably most people, when they heard that, said, “Oh, yes, of course, that’s right,” and they cowered under the weight of his influence. But Jesus said to him, “You would have no power over me if it were not given … you from above.” No one had ever said that to him. No one ever could’ve said that to him! Probably the hair stood up on the back of his neck, and he just coughed a little bit and said, “Well, well, okay, fine. Let’s move along.”
I don’t think he’d ever been confronted by such a person; he couldn’t have been. Surely he probably had never been confronted by such a crowd, a crowd that was driven by blind hatred, a crowd that was baying for the death of an innocent man. Sure, there had been crowds before outside his chambers, crying for the death of the guilty: “We demand justice! This fellow ought to die! Look at what he did!” But this is a different crowd. They’re out there saying, “We demand injustice! This fellow ought to die! We have no crime that he committed!”
You see, he’s on the horns of a dilemma. And he’s about to lose the battle. In fact, he loses the battle right at the beginning. I don’t think he loses the battle down here in verse 23, when Luke finally tells us that he rolled over, that he caved in. I think he lost the battle in the first encounter. You’ve got three little sections here, don’t you? The first of them is between 13–19, where they come making their first cry for the death of Jesus. And he makes a mistake at that point, and I think that’s his crucial mistake. He capitulated there and he was done. It was only a matter of time before he rolled over.
Because he declared in verse 13 and 14 that “I have examined this man in your presence and have found no basis for your charges. There’s no basis for your charges.” That’s what he declared. Secondly, he said, “As you can see,” verse 15, “he has done nothing to deserve death.” And how they must’ve waited as he said, “Therefore,” and now he’s going to pronounce the action that he’s going to take. No basis for the charge against him, nothing to deserve death, “Therefore”—and they couldn’t believe their ears—“Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” He should’ve said, “Therefore, I’m about to dismiss him. Therefore, I’m about to throw out the charges. Therefore, I’m about to clear my courtroom and send Jesus out into the morning sunlight of a Jerusalem skyline.” But no. He lost the battle at this point. Instead of following through, he allows himself to get into a discussion, and into a discussion with these bloodthirsty, wily persecutors.
And so, verse 18, they cry again, like one gigantic creature, shouting out, “Away with this man! Why don’t you release Barabbas to us?” Now, if you know the parallel passages in Matthew, you know that Matthew tells us there that it was customary at the time of the feast for the governor to release a prisoner. And Pilate probably saw that this was another mechanism that he could use for discharging his responsibility to Jesus: “It’s feast time, and I can release a prisoner to you. Why don’t I just release Jesus of Nazareth to you?” They say to him, “Listen, if you want to release somebody—if you have it in your mind to release someone—why don’t you release Barabbas?” Barabbas! And verse 19 explains Barabbas was in the jail because he was an insurrectionist, and he was in the jail having been found guilty of murder.
So, verses 20 and 21 summarize Pilate’s second attempt to have Jesus released. Notice the phrase: “Wanting to release Jesus…” I have a tremendous amount of sympathy along the lines here for Pilate. I haven’t really felt very sympathetic towards Pilate, I must confess, until this week. But the more I’ve lived with Pilate, the more I’ve ebbed and flowed with him, the more I’ve tried to get inside his head and inside his heart, you find that this is not just some scurrilous character, but this is an individual on the horns of a dilemma. He wants to release Jesus. He knows that he should release Jesus. But he wants to placate the crowd, and he doesn’t know what to do about his wife, and all of this emotion is surging within him. And his second attempt doesn’t work either.
And so, verse 22: “For the third time” he came back at them. And now he appears just to be weakening. “Why?” he says. “What crime has this man committed?” Of course, there’s no answer to that. And then he says, “I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty.” Well, this is a slight move from “There is no basis to your charges” to “Well, he shouldn’t die.” Is he equivocating here? Is he saying, “Well, you know, maybe he’s guilty of something. Maybe we can find him guilty of something.” I don’t want to suggest that judges and prosecutors do this, but there is something about plea bargaining: “How can we all get out of here and get home for our lunch? Surely we can do something here. Can’t we say he did something, or somebody did something? Somebody admit to something, for goodness’ sake, and let’s all go home!” Maybe it’s only on the television that I see that, when he calls the prosecuting counsel and the defense counsel forward, and they have a little tête-à-tête like this, and he says, “Goodness gracious, can’t we settle this business? Can’t you admit to something? Let’s get out of here. I have a golf game at three o’clock.” Maybe that’s cynical; I don’t know. But there’s something of that there, you see: “Come on now, let’s get something settled here. He’s not guilty of the death penalty; therefore, why don’t I just punish him and release him?”
Now, you need to understand what Pilate is saying here, or you may misinterpret the impact. He’s not saying, “Why don’t I slap Jesus on the wrist? Why don’t I allow him to admit, as it were, to a misdemeanor? It really won’t go against him in his file. Why don’t we just do something—a mechanism—get him out of here and on our way?” No, what he says is, “Why don’t I send him away to be flogged, to be scourged, and then to be released?”
Well, I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he thinking that perhaps the scourging will induce sympathy on the part of the gathered crowd and that they may then capitulate, separate from the influence of their leaders, and save this Jesus of Nazareth from this horrible death? Perhaps, but unlikely. I think probably what he’s seeking to do is maintain favor with these troublesome creatures and all this frenzied throng: “I know you’re looking for something here, so why don’t we scourge him and let him go?” And this suggestion, you will notice in verse 23, is met simply with louder shouts and more insistent demands that he be crucified.
Now, I wonder, was it that these people were so wily that they realized they had Pilate on the ropes? They nudged one another and said, “Did you notice that? He’s suggesting a scourging. If he’s willing to inflict a scourging on Jesus, perhaps, with a little more pressure, he’ll be willing to pronounce the death penalty. So don’t let’s accept this. Just keep shouting. Just keep up the pressure.” Because, you see, scourging, which was the precursor to crucifixion, was such a brutal thing that individuals who were slated to be crucified never made it to the tree because the scourging took them out. The scourging itself was fatal. So it’s not that Pilate is saying, “Well, let’s just do something nice for Jesus.” He’s saying, “Let’s be as brutal as we can possibly be. Let us flay open his back with the whips and the bones that are on the ends of the leather thongs. Let us split open to the very heart of his being and send him on his way.” And still, “with loud shouts,” they come back at him.
And then the saddest phrase of all, in verse 23: “Their shouts prevailed.” “Their shouts prevailed.” Pilate caves in. That’s what I called the study this morning: “Pilate Caves In.” Seemed to be going pretty well for a wee while, didn’t he? Trying his best. But in the end, the insistent demands of this frenzied throng overwhelmed any last vestiges of courage or of conscience that remained in this Roman character.
All his attempts had failed. Let me rehearse them for you again. What did he try to do? Confronted with this dreadful dilemma, he had attempted to say, “Why don’t you deal with it yourselves?” No good. “Why don’t I shunt him to Herod?” No good. “Why don’t I just release him? Because that’s what I get to do; it’s the feast.” No good. “Why don’t I just scourge him and set him free?” No good. And so, instead of exercising bold leadership on the basis of principle, he degrades himself and becomes the servant of a bloodthirsty throng. And verse 25 records his actions: “He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.” And in that capitulation, he wrote himself into the history books forever.
Now, don’t dehumanize Pilate. He was a real person. They’re all real people! This is history we’re reading here. This is not mythology. This is not stories invented by the early church to titillate the minds of people who don’t know what else to do on a Sunday morning on the east side of Cleveland. This is factual. Read secular history; you will read of this character Pilate. He had a mom and dad. He was born. He grew up. He went to school. He finished his exams. He decided he wanted to go into public service. He wanted to make a career for himself in the realm of politics and influence, and he had ascended to a position of extreme nobility within the framework of Rome. And his parents would’ve been proud of him and said, “You know, he tries some significant cases. They hear him. He’s on a par with the kings and the rulers of the world.”
But he’s not remembered for any of that in history. He’s immortalized, sadly, in the Apostle’s Creed, as across the world today congregations as ourselves have stood and affirmed our faith and said of Jesus, he “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Otherwise, he wouldn’t even be a footnote in history. Otherwise, you couldn’t even go and find him in a history book; at least you’d have to search in the small print for a long time. But here he stands, bold on the pages of history. Why? Because he was on the peak, and he couldn’t, or he wouldn’t, make the drop and commit to what he knew must be done.
Well then, what’s the point? Why do we have this? I’ve known this passage since I can remember even being able to read. I wonder how many sermons I’ve heard on Pontius Pilate in the scope of my lifetime. Quite a lot! And I think all of them finally ended here: “Pontius Pilate was a vacillator. You shouldn’t vacillate. Pontius Pilate couldn’t make up his mind, and when he did, he made it up in the wrong way; therefore, you better hurry up and make up your mind, and make sure you don’t make it up the way Pilate made it up.” That was kind of the story. There was usually a lot of illustrations, but it seemed to me that that was so pressingly obvious. I wasn’t sure that that was exactly how to come to terms with this narrative.
And I thought about it a lot this week. You know, I thought, “Why did the Holy Spirit put this section in here? Was it simply to make the most obvious point: that Pilate was an equivocator, and people shouldn’t equivocate, and they ought to get on the game?” Well, maybe. It is a legitimate application, isn’t it? Some of you have already been making the application in your mind, because that’s exactly where you are. You’re just unprepared to take the drop. You’re unprepared to side with Jesus. You’re unprepared to make a commitment to Christ. You have come to a position of belief, you are intellectually convinced, but there is enough of a rising throng around you—whether it’s in your office or in your family or amongst your friends or in your athletic club—that you’re just not ready, on the peak as you find yourself, to make the drop, to commit. And so, it’s a good application, and I hope you haven’t missed it. But I don’t think it gets to the heart of the matter.
Imagine that what we have in this narrative here is a painting. Imagine that all these words form up as a picture, and we’re standing now, and we’re looking at the picture, and somebody says, “You know, I think, actually, if we stand a little further back from this, we may be able to put it all in perspective.” Well, of course, we’ve begun to understand that metaphor, haven’t we, from studying our Bibles. We’ve said to one another that the Bible is a book about Jesus: in the Old Testament he is predicted, in the Gospels he’s revealed, in the Acts he’s preached, in the Epistles he’s explained, and in the book of Revelation he’s expected. And that very often, the way to read the Bible is to read it from the back towards the front, because the New is in the Old concealed, and the Old is in the New revealed. So in other words, when you stand far enough back from this narrative, you’ll be helped in understanding what it’s doing.
You stand back from it—just a few chapters back from it in terms of Luke’s Gospel—and you realize that it is really quite straightforward. Jesus had told his disciples—they didn’t grasp it—in Luke 9:22—a verse with which I hope you’ve become familiar—he told his disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, [the] chief priests and [the] teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” It’s that word “must” that is such a nuisance, isn’t it? Why “must”? Why “must”?
Well, do you know 1 Peter 3:18? How does that go again? How’s your memory? “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God.” Okay. So we look at the narrative and we say, “What in the world is happening here?” And Peter says, “I’ll tell you what’s happening here. Christ is about to die for sins. He must suffer and he must die, the righteous for unrighteous people, because unrighteous people are alienated from God, and it’s going to take the righteous one to close the gap.”
So when we stand far enough back from the picture and we look at this, and our sensibilities are absolutely troubled by it. In our ears we can hear the jailer turn the key and say to Barabbas, “You can go, Barabbas.” And we see Barabbas grabbing his little bits and pieces. I don’t know whether they did the same thing—take his street clothes. I can’t imagine that they did. But if they did, in contemporary terms, then he went back, he gave them in his thing, they give him his things, he put his change back in his pockets or in his little leather pouch, and he was off up the Jerusalem streets like a shot. I mean, if you think that he stood there and he said, “Well, why is this taking place? Can you give me some kind of explanation?” No! No! They said, “You can go, the door’s open,” he’s gone! Out, gone, free! The guilty has gone free. The innocent is about to die.
What’s wrong with this picture? Do you see it? You see how we would get off scot-free by simply moralizing it? You know, “Pilate equivocated; make sure you don’t equivocate.” Good application, misses the point. What is happening here is that according to the eternal counsel of God’s will, the plan of salvation is unfolding in a moment in time, and God is purposing to save men and women. The righteous is about to die for the unrighteous in order that he might bring us to God. You see that that is something far deeper and far more significant than “You know, I think it’s about time I made up my mind.” Oh, it is about time you made up your mind. But I want you to make up your mind on the basis of information, not to make up your mind on the basis of some kind of compulsion that has to do more with eating pizza last night and how you’re feeling about things than it has to do that you’re driven by the conviction of your mind. This is the explanation: Jesus was not dying for his own crimes but for the crimes of others. He was not dying for his own sin but for the sins of others. He was not dying for himself. He was dying for us.
When Paul, in his locus classicus, gives it to us in a phrase or two in 2 Corinthians 5:21—and this can be another memorization verse for you, if you do memorization. You just write them on these little cards that you can get anywhere; you put the “1 Peter 3:18” on this side, and then you write the verse on this side, and then you just put it in your pocket, and when you come to the traffic lights, you take it out and you test yourself. It’s really very straightforward. But anyway, 2 Corinthians 5:21—or out of your purse or wherever it is you stick it—“God made him…” “God made him,” Jesus, “who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Now, that’s kinda like the Pauline version of Peter in 1 Peter 3:18. And just in case we might be tempted to view this as a kind of arm’s-length theological notion, it unfolds to us in this wonderful flesh-and-blood picture: he released the murderer, and he surrendered the innocent to their will.
Now, my question as I finished up my studies this week was, “I wonder if Barabbas got this?” I have no way of knowing, and neither do you. In heaven we can find out. But until then, we have no way of knowing. I wonder if Barabbas grasped this.
There were three crosses, right? Jesus, when he is finally crucified, is in the middle; there’s a thief on his right and another one on his left. There’s no way of knowing whether there was only going to be three on this particular occasion, and there’s certainly no way of knowing whether the third cross was for the third guy. But certainly a cross was for Barabbas. He knew that his next step was his final step. And as he scuttled off out into the streets—he paused, perhaps, to ponder his freedom—don’t you think it’s at least possible that he got himself back onto the fringes of the Calvary crowd, back in his journey to the hill called a Skull? Do you think it would be possible for him at all to look on that scene without it dawning on him with absolute clarity, “That was my cross; that was what I deserved; that man is innocent; that man has died in my place”?
Now, loved ones, listen to me clearly as I finish. It is in this dawning awareness that a man or a woman moves from giving simple intellectual assent to truth that we’ve been able to process in our minds to the response of our hearts and our wills to the glory of what has happened upon the cross, so that we find ourselves saying with the hymn writer,
My Lord, what love is this
That pays so dearly
That I, the guilty one
May go free!
That Jesus is dying upon a cross not for the sins of the people up the street. He’s not dying on the cross for the heathen that I’ve never met. He’s not dying on the cross for all the people that I dislike in my office. But when I see him on the cross, I see
Upon the cross of Jesus
Mine eye[s] at times can see
The very dying form of one
Who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart with tears
Two wonders I confess:
The wonders of [his glorious] love
And my unworthiness.
Amazing love, O what sacrifice,
The Son of God given for me.
My debt he pays, my death he dies,
That I might live.
When Paul gets to the heart of this in 1 Corinthians and he’s talking about the cross, it’s fabulous: he says, “You know, Corinthians, the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Do you want to know whether you’re converted or not? Take the test. If you regard this story as some kind of theological arm’s-length notion of ultimate folly, you remain unconverted, and you need to bow your knee to Christ. But if in your heart, at whatever level, the childlike faith, the stirrings, the rumblings, the longings, the awareness in your heart, and you say, “Yeah, that’s exactly right. That is exactly right. The innocent dies that I, the guilty, might live.” That’s it. That’s my only hope in life and my only hope in death. And if yours is another hope, it is a false hope. It is a false hope. In the crassest of terms: Why would Jesus ever have died upon the cross if you, sir, were good enough to go to heaven on your own cognizance? He didn’t die there as an example of selflessness. He who was totally innocent became totally guilty in order that we who are totally guilty might be declared completely innocent.
There is no other message like this in the whole wide world. Believe it and be saved. Reject it and remain lost. To be on the peak, to make the drop, to commit, you face all your fears—stare them down, and trust Christ.
Let us pray.
If you feel that you’ve equivocated long enough—it’s time to take the drop, to commit—then you might like to pray along these lines, just in your heart to say, “Lord Jesus Christ, I admit that I’m weaker and more sinful than I ever before believed, but through you, I’m more loved and accepted than I ever dared to hope. I thank you for paying my debt, bearing my punishment, and offering me forgiveness, and I turn from my sin and receive you as my Savior.”
And now unto him who is able to keep us from falling and to present us faultless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, now and forevermore. Amen.
 Quoted in Mike Wise, “Surfing: Most Extreme Sport Catches On, Again,” New York Times, November 11, 2003, https://www.nytimes.com/2003/11/11/sports/surfing-most-extreme-sport-catches-on-again.html.
 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 4.3.
 John 19:10 (paraphrased).
 John 19:11 (NIV 1984).
 See Matthew 27:15.
 Augustine, On the Spirit and the Letter, chap. 27.
 Graham Kendrick, “Amazing Love (My Lord, What Love Is This)” (1989).
 Elizabeth C. Clephane, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” (1868).
 Kendrick, “Amazing Love.” Lyrics lightly altered.
 1 Corinthians 1:18 (paraphrased).
 Attributed to Jack Miller. See, for example, Katherine Leary Alsdorf, foreword to Every Good Endeavor, by Tim Keller and Katherine Leary Alsdorf (New York: Penguin, 2012), xix. Paraphrased.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.