18:28-40 They brought Jesus from Caiaphas to the governor's headquarters. It was early in the morning and they themselves did not enter into the headquarters, in case they should be defiled; but they wished to avoid defilement because they wished to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and said: "What charge do you bring against this man?" They answered him: "If he had not been an evildoer, we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate said to them: "You take him, and judge him according to your laws." The Jews said to Pilate: "It is not permitted to us to put anyone to death." This happened that there might be fulfilled the word of Jesus, which he spoke in indication of the kind of death he was going to die. So Pilate went again into his headquarters, and called Jesus, and said to him: "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered: "Are you saying this because you have discovered it yourself?. Or did others tell it to you about me?" Pilate answered: "Am I a Jew? Your own countrymen and the chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?" Jesus answered: "My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom was of this world, my servants would have fought to prevent me being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom does not have its source here." So Pilate said to him: "So you are a king then?" Jesus said: "It is you who are saying that I am a king. The reason why I was born and came into the world is that I should bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." "What is truth?" Pilate said to him.
When he had said this, he again went out to the Jews and said to them: "I find no fault in him. You have a custom that I should release one person to you at the Passover time. Do you wish me to release the King of the Jews for you?" They shouted: "Not this man, but Barabbas." And Barabbas was a brigand.
Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him; and the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head. And they put a purple robe on him; and they kept coming to him and saying: "Hail! King of the Jews!" And they dealt him repeated blows. Pilate came out again and said to them: "See! I bring him out to you, because I want you to know that I find no fault in him." So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them: "See! The Man!" So, when the chief priests and officers saw him, they shouted: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them: "You take. him, and crucify him! For I find no fault in him." The Jews answered him: "We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he made himself out to be the Son of God." When Pilate heard this saying, he was still more alarmed.
He went into his headquarters again, and said to Jesus: "Where do you come from?" Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate said to him: "Do you refuse to speak to me? Are you not aware that I have authority to release you, and authority to crucify you?" Jesus answered him: "You would have no authority against me whatsoever, unless it had been given to you from above. That is why he who betrayed me to you is guilty of the greater sin." From this moment Pilate tried every way to release him; but the Jews kept insistently shouting: "If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Every man who makes himself a king is an opponent of Caesar." So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out. He took his seat on his judgment seat, in the place that is called the Pavement--in Hebrew, Gabbatha. It was the day of the preparation for the Passover. It was about twelve o'clock midday. He said to the Jews: "See! Your king!" They shouted: "Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them: "Shall I crucify your king?" The chief priests answered: "We have no king but Caesar." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
This is the most dramatic account of the trial of Jesus in the New Testament, and to have cut it into small sections would have been to lose the drama. It has to be read as one; but now that we have read it as one, we shall take several days to study it. The drama of this passage lies in the clash and interplay of personalities. It will therefore be best to study it, not section by section, but in the light of the actors within it.
We begin by looking at the Jews. In the time of Jesus the Jews were subject to the Romans. The Romans allowed them a good deal of self-government, but they had not the right to carry out the death penalty. The ius gladii, as it was called, the right of the sword, belonged only to the Romans. As the Talmud records: "Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, judgment in matters of life and death was taken away from Israel." The first Roman governor of Palestine was named Coponius, and Josephus, telling of his appointment as governor, says that he was sent as procurator "having the power of life and death put into his hands by Caesar." (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 2, 8, 1). Josephus also tells of a certain priest called Ananus who determined to execute certain of his enemies. Jews of more prudent mind protested against his decision on the grounds that he had no right either to take it or carry it out. Ananus was not allowed to carry his decision into practice and was deposed from office for even thinking of doing so. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 20, 9, 1). It is true that sometimes, as, for instance, in the case of Stephen, the Jews did take the law into their own hands; but legally they had no right to inflict the death penalty on anyone. That was why they had to bring Jesus to Pilate before he could be crucified.
If the Jews had themselves been able to carry out the death penalty, it would have been by stoning. The Law lays it down: "And he who blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall be put to death, all the congregation shall stone him" ( Leviticus 24:16 ). in such a case the witnesses whose word proved the crime had to be the first to fling the stones. "The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people" ( Deuteronomy 17:7 ). That is the point of John 18:32 . That verse says that all this was happening that there might be fulfilled the word of Jesus in indication of the kind of death he was going to die. He had said that when he was lifted up, that is, when he was crucified, he would draw all men to him ( John 12:32 ). If that prophecy of Jesus was to be fulfilled, he must be crucified, not stoned; and therefore, even apart from the fact that Roman law would not allow the Jews to carry out the death penalty, Jesus had to die a Roman death, because he had to be lifted up.
The Jews from start to finish were seeking to use Pilate for their purposes. They could not kill Jesus themselves, so they were determined that the Romans would kill him for them.
But there were more things about the Jews than that.
(i) They began by hating Jesus; but they finished in a very hysteria of hatred, howling like wolves, with faces twisted in bitterness: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" In the end they reached such an insanity of hatred that they were impervious to reason and to mercy and even to the claims of common humanity. Nothing in this world warps a man's judgment as hatred does. Once a man allows himself to hate, he can neither think nor see straight, nor listen without distortion. Hatred is a terrible thing because it takes a man's senses away.
(ii) The hatred of the Jews made them lose all sense of proportion. They were so careful of ceremonial and ritual cleanness that they would not enter Pilate's headquarters, and yet they were busy doing everything possible to crucify the Son of God. To eat the Passover, a Jew had to be absolutely ceremonially clean. Now, if they had gone into Pilate's headquarters, they would have incurred uncleanness in a double way. First, the scribal law said: "The dwelling-places of Gentiles are unclean." Second, the Passover was the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Part of the preparation for it was a ceremonial search for leaven, and the banishing of every particle of leaven from every house because it was the symbol of evil. To go into Pilate's headquarters would have been to go into a place where leaven might be found; and to go into such a place when the Passover was being prepared was to render oneself unclean. But even if the Jews had entered a Gentile house which contained leaven, they would have been unclean only until evening. Then they would have had to undergo ceremonial bathing after which they would have been clean.
Now see what the Jews were doing. They were carrying out the details of the ceremonial law with meticulous care; and at the same time they were hounding to the Cross the Son of God. That is just the kind of thing that men are always liable to do. Many a church member fusses about the sheerest trifles, and breaks God's law of love and of forgiveness and of service every day. There is even many a church in which the details of vestments, furnishings, ritual, ceremonial are attended to with the most detailed care, and where the spirit of love and fellowship are conspicuous only by their absence. One of the most tragic things in the world is how the human mind can lose its sense of proportion and its ability to put first things first.
(ii) The Jews did not hesitate to twist their charge against Jesus. In their own private examination the charge they had formulated was one of blasphemy ( Matthew 26:65 ). They knew well that Pilate would not proceed on a charge like that. He would have said it was their own private religious quarrel and they could settle is as they liked without coming to him. In the end what the Jews produced was a charge of rebellion and political insurrection. They accused Jesus of claiming to be a king, although they knew that their accusation was a lie. Hatred is a terrible thing and does not hesitate to twist the truth.
(iv) In order to compass the death of Jesus the Jews denied every principle they had. The most astonishing thing they said that day was: "We have no king but Caesar." Samuel's word to the people was that God alone was their king ( 1 Samuel 12:12 ). When the crown was offered to Gideon, his answer was: "I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you: the Lord will rule over you" ( 8:23 ). When the Romans had first come into Palestine, they had taken a census in order to arrange the normal taxation to which subject people were liable. And there had been the most bloody rebellion, because the Jews insisted that God alone was their king, and to him alone they would pay tribute. When the Jewish leader said: "We have no king but Caesar." it was the most astonishing volte-face in history. The very statement must have taken Pilate's breath away, and he must have looked at them in half-bewildered, half-cynical amusement. The Jews were prepared to abandon every principle they had in order to eliminate Jesus.
It is a terrible picture. The hatred of the Jews turned them into a maddened mob of shrieking, frenzied fanatics. In their hatred they forgot all mercy, all sense of proportion, all justice, all their principles, even God. Never in history was the insanity of hatred so vividly shown.
Now we turn to the second personality in this story--Pilate. Throughout the trial his conduct is well-nigh incomprehensible. It is abundantly clear, it could not be clearer, that Pilate knew that the charges of the Jews were a series of lies, that he knew that Jesus was completely innocent, that he was deeply impressed with him, and that he did not wish to condemn him to death--and yet he did. First, he tried to refuse to deal with the case; then he tried to release Jesus on the grounds that at the Passover a criminal was always released; then he tried to compromise by scourging Jesus; then he made a last appeal. But he refused all through to put his foot down and tell the Jews that he would have nothing to do with their evil machinations. We will never even begin to understand Pilate unless we understand his history, which is set out for us partly in the writings of Josephus and partly in the writings of Philo.
To understand the part that Pilate played in this drama we must go back a long way. To begin with, what was a Roman governor doing in Judaea at all?
In 4 B.C. Herod the Great died. He had been king of the whole of Palestine. For all his faults he was in many ways a good king, and he had been very friendly with the Romans. In his will he divided up his kingdom between three of his sons. Antipas received Galilee and Peraea; Philip received Batanea, Auranitis and Trachonitis, the wild unpopulated regions of the north-east; and Archelaus, who at the time was only eighteen years old, received Idumaea, Judaea and Samaria. The Romans approved this distribution of the kingdom, and ratified it.
Antipas and Philip governed quietly and well; but Archelaus governed with such extortion and tyranny that the Jews themselves requested the Romans to remove him, and to appoint a governor. The likelihood is that they expected to be incorporated into the large province of Syria; and had that been so, the province was so large that they would very probably have been left pretty much to carry on the way they were. All Roman provinces were divided into two classes. Those which required troops stationed in them were in the direct control of the Emperor and were imperial provinces; those which did not require troops but were peaceful and trouble-free, were in the direct control of the senate and were senatorial provinces.
Palestine was obviously a troubled land; it needed troops and therefore it was in the control of the Emperor. Really great provinces were governed either by a proconsul or a legate; Syria was like that. Smaller provinces of the second class, were governed by a procurator. He was in full control of the military and judicial administration of the province. He visited every part of the province at least once a year and heard cases and complaints. He superintended the ingathering of taxes but had no authority to increase them. He was paid a salary from the treasury and was strictly forbidden to accept either presents or bribes; and, if he exceeded his duties, the people of his province had power to report him to the Emperor.
It was a procurator that Augustus appointed to control the affairs of Palestine, and the first one took over in A.D. 6. Pilate took over in A.D. 26 and remained in office until A.D. 35. Palestine was a province bristling with problems, one which required a firm and a strong and a wise hand. We do not know Pilate's previous history, but we do know that he must have had the reputation of being a good administrator or he would never have been given the responsible position of governing Palestine. It had to be kept in order, for, as a glance at the map will show, it was the bridge between Egypt and Syria.
But as governor Pilate was a failure. He seemed to begin with a complete contempt and a complete lack of sympathy for the Jews. Three famous, or infamous, incidents marked his career.
The first occurred on his first visit to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was not the capital of the province; its headquarters were at Caesarea. But the procurator paid many visits to Jerusalem, and, when he did, he stayed in the old palace of the Herods in the west part of the city. When he came to Jerusalem, he always came with a detachment of soldiers. The soldiers had their standards; and on the top of the standard there was a little bust in metal of the reigning Emperor. The Emperor was regarded as a god, and to the Jew that little bust on the standards was a graven image.
All previous Roman governors, in deference to the religious scruples of the Jews, had removed that image before they entered the city. Pilate refused to do so. The Jews besought him to do so. Pilate was adamant; he would not pander to the superstitions of the Jews. He went back to Caesarea. The Jews followed him. They dogged his footsteps for five days. They were humble, but determined in their requests. Finally he told them to meet him in the amphitheatre. He surrounded them with armed soldiers, and informed them that if they did not stop their requests they would be killed there and then. The Jews bared their necks and bade the soldiers strike. Not even Pilate could massacre defenceless men like that. He was beaten and compelled to agree that the images should thereafter be removed from the standards. That was how Pilate began, and it was a bad beginning.
The second incident was this. The Jerusalem water supply was inadequate. Pilate determined to build a new aqueduct. Where was the money to come from? He raided the Temple treasury which contained millions. It is very unlikely that Pilate took money that was deposited for the sacrifices and the Temple service. Much more likely, he took money which was entitled Korban, and which came from sources which made it impossible to use for sacred purposes. His aqueduct was much needed; it was a worthy and a great undertaking; the water supply would even be of great benefit to the Temple which needed much cleansing with its continual sacrifices. But the people resented it; they rioted and surged through the streets. Pilate mingled his soldiers with them in plain clothes, with concealed weapons. At a given signal they attacked the mob and many a Jew was clubbed or stabbed to death. Once again Pilate was unpopular--and he was rendered liable to be reported to the Emperor.
The third incident turned out even worse for Pilate. As we have seen, when he was in Jerusalem, he stayed in the ancient palace of the Herods. He had certain shields made; and on them he had inscribed the name of Tiberius the Emperor. These shields were what is known as votive shields; they were devoted to the honour and the memory of the Emperor. Now the Emperor was regarded as a god; so here was the name of a strange god inscribed and displayed for reverence in the holy city. The people were enraged; the greatest men, even his closest supporters, besought Pilate to remove them. He refused. The Jews reported the matter to Tiberius the Emperor, and he ordered Pilate to remove them.
It is relevant to note how Pilate ended up. This last incident happened after Jesus had been crucified, in the year A.D. 35. There was a revolt in Samaria. It was not very serious but Pilate crushed it with sadistic ferocity and a plethora of executions. The Samaritans had always been regarded as loyal citizens of Rome and the legate of Syria intervened. Tiberius ordered Pilate back to Rome. When he was on the way, Tiberius died; so far as we know, Pilate never came to judgment; and from that moment he vanishes from history.
It is clear why Pilate acted as he did. The Jews blackmailed him into crucifying Jesus. They said: "If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend." This was, in effect: "Your record is not too good; you were reported once before; if you do not give us our way, we will report you again to the Emperor, and you will be dismissed." On that day in Jerusalem, Pilate's past rose up and haunted him. He was blackmailed into assenting to the death of Christ, because his previous mistakes had made it impossible for him both to defy the Jews and to keep his post. Somehow one cannot help being sorry for Pilate. He wanted to do the right thing; but he had not the courage to defy the Jews and do it. He crucified Jesus in order to keep his job.
We have seen Pilate's history; let us now look at his conduct during his trial of Jesus. He did not wish to condemn Jesus, because he knew that he was innocent; and yet he was caught in the mesh of his own past.
(i) Pilate began by trying to put the responsibility on to someone else. He said to the Jews: "You take this man and judge him according to your laws." He tried to evade the responsibility of dealing with Jesus; but that is precisely what no one can do. No one can deal with Jesus for us; we must deal with him ourselves.
(ii) Pilate went on to try to find a way of escape from the entanglement in which he found himself. He tried to use the custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover in order to engineer the release of Jesus. He tried to evade dealing directly with Jesus himself; but again that is precisely what no one can do. There is no escape from a personal decision in regard to Jesus; we must ourselves decide what we will do with him, accept him or reject him.
(iii) Pilate went on to see what compromise could do. He ordered Jesus to be scourged. It must have been in Pilate's mind that a scourging might satisfy, or at least blunt the edge of, Jewish hostility. He felt that he might avoid having to give the verdict of the cross by giving the verdict of scourging. Once again, that is what no man can do. No man can compromise with Jesus; no man can serve two masters. We are either for Jesus or against him.
(iv) Pilate went on to try what appeal could do. He led Jesus out broken by the scourging and showed him to the people. He asked them: "Shall I crucify your king?" He tried to swing the balance by this appeal to emotion and to pity. But no man can hope that appeal to others can take the place of his own personal decision; and it was Pilate's place to make his own decision. No man can evade a personal verdict and a personal decision in regard to Jesus Christ.
In the end Pilate admitted defeat. He abandoned Jesus to the mob, because he had not the courage to take the right decision and to do the right thing.
But there are still more side-lights here on the character of Pilate.
(i) There is a hint of Pilate's ingrained attitude of contempt. he asked Jesus if he was a king. Jesus asked whether he asked this on the basis of what he himself had discovered, or on the basis of information indirectly received. Pilate's answer was: "Am I a Jew? How do you expect me to know anything about Jewish affairs?" He was too proud to involve himself in what he regarded as Jewish squabbles and superstitions. And that pride was exactly what made him a bad governor. No one can govern a people if he makes no attempt to understand them and to enter into their thoughts and minds.
(ii) There is a kind of superstitious curiosity about Pilate. He wished to know whence Jesus came--and it was more than Jesus' native place that he was thinking of. When he heard that Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God, he was still more disturbed. Pilate was superstitious rather than religious, fearing that there might be something in it. He was afraid to come to a decision in Jesus' favour because of the Jews; he was equally afraid to come to a decision against him, because he had the lurking suspicion that God might be in this.
(iii) But at the heart of Pilate was a wistful longing. When Jesus said that he had come to witness to the truth, Pilate's answer was: "What is truth?" There are many ways in which a man might ask that question. He might ask it in cynical and sardonic humour. Bacon immortalized Pilate's answer, when he wrote: "What is truth? said jesting Pilate; and would not stay for an answer." But it was not in cynical humour that Pilate asked this question; nor was it the question of a man who did not care. Here was the chink in his armour. He asked the question wistfully and wearily.
Pilate by this world's standards was a successful man. He had come almost to the top of the Roman civil service; he was governor-general of a Roman province; but there was something missing. Here in the presence of this simple, disturbing hated Galilaean, Pilate felt that for him the truth was still a mystery--and that now he had got himself into a situation where there was no chance to learn it. It may be he jested, but it was the jest of despair. Philip Gibbs somewhere tells of listening to a debate between T. S. Eliot, Margaret Irwin, C. Day Lewis and other distinguished people on the subject, "Is this life worth living?" "True, they jested," he said, "but they jested like jesters knocking at the door of death."
Pilate was like that. Into his life there came Jesus, and suddenly he saw what he had missed. That day he might have found all that he had missed; but he had not the courage to defy the world in spite of his past, and to take his stand with Christ and a future which was glorious.
We have thought of the picture of the crowd in this trial of Jesus and we have thought of the picture of Pilate. Now we must come to the central character in the drama--Jesus himself. He is depicted before us with a series of master-strokes.
(i) First and foremost, no one can read this story without seeing the sheer majesty of Jesus. There is no sense that he is on trial. When a man faces him, it is not Jesus who is on trial; it is the man. Pilate may have treated many Jewish things with arrogant contempt, but he did not so treat Jesus. We cannot help feeling that it is Jesus who is in control and Pilate who is bewildered and floundering in a situation which he cannot understand. The majesty of Jesus never shone more radiantly than in the hour when he was on trial before men.
(ii) Jesus speaks with utter directness to us of his kingdom; it is not, he says, of this earth. The atmosphere in Jerusalem was always explosive; during the Passover it was sheer dynamite. The Romans well knew that, and during the Passover time they always drafted extra troops into Jerusalem. But Pilate never at any time had more than three thousand men under his command. Some would be in Caesarea, his headquarters; some would be on garrison duty in Samaria; there cannot really have been more than a few hundred on duty in Jerusalem. If Jesus had wished to raise the standard of rebellion and to fight it out, he could have done it easily enough. But he makes it quite clear that he claims to be a king and equally clear that his kingdom is not based on force but is a kingdom in the hearts of men. He would never deny that he aimed at conquest, but it was the conquest of love.
(iii) Jesus tells us why he came into the world. He came to witness to the truth; he came to tell men the truth about God, the truth about themselves, and the truth about life. As Emerson had it:
"When half-gods go,
The gods arrive."
The days of guessings and gropings and half-truths were gone. He came to tell men the truth. That is one of the great reasons why we must either accept or refuse Christ. There is no half-way house about the truth. A man either accepts it, or rejects it; and Christ is the truth.
(iv) We see the physical courage of Jesus. Pilate had him scourged. When a man was scourged he was tied to a whipping-post in such a way that his back was fully exposed. The lash was a long leathern thong, studded at intervals with pellets of lead and sharpened pieces of bone. It literally tore a man's back into strips. Few remained conscious throughout the ordeal; some died; and many went raving mad. Jesus stood that. And after it, Pilate led him out to the crowd and said: "See! The man!" Here is one of John's double meanings. It must have been Pilate's first intention to awaken the pity of the Jews. "Look!" he said. "Look at this poor, bruised, bleeding creature! Look at this wretchedness! Can you possibly wish to hound a creature like this to an utterly unnecessary death?" But we can almost hear the tone of his voice change as he says it, and see the wonder dawn in his eyes. And instead of saying it half-contemptuously, to awaken pity, he says it with an admiration that will not be repressed. The word that Pilate used is ho ( Greek #3588 ) anthropos ( Greek #444 ), which is the normal Greek for a human being; but not so long afterwards the Greek thinkers were using that very term for the heavenly man, the ideal man, the pattern of manhood. It is always true that whatever else we say or do not say about Jesus, his sheer heroism is without parallel. Here indeed is a man.
(v) Once again we see here in the trial of Jesus the spontaneousness of his death and the supreme control of God. Pilate warned Jesus that he had power to release him or to crucify him. Jesus answered that Pilate had no power at all, except what had been given him by God. The crucifixion of Jesus never, from beginning to end, reads like the story of a man caught up in an inexorable web of circumstances over which he had no control; it never reads like the story of a man who was hounded to his death; it is the story of a man whose last days were a triumphant procession towards the goal of the Cross.
(vi) And here also is the terrible picture of the silence of Jesus. There was a time when he had no answer to give to Pilate. There were other times when Jesus was silent. He was silent before the High Priest ( Matthew 26:63 ; Mark 14:61 ). He was silent before Herod ( Luke 23:9 ). He was silent when the charges against him were made to Pilate by the Jewish authorities ( Matthew 27:14 ; Mark 15:5 ). We have sometimes the experience, when talking to other people, of finding that argument and discussion are no longer possible, because we and they have no common ground. It is almost as if we spoke another language. That happens when men do in fact speak another mental and spiritual language. It is a terrible day when Jesus is silent to a man. There can be nothing more terrible than for a man's mind to be so shut by his pride and his self-will, that there is nothing Jesus can say to him that will make any difference.
(vii) Finally, it is just possible that in this trial scene there is a strange, dramatic climax, which is a magnificent example of John's dramatic irony.
The scene comes to an end by saying that Pilate brought Jesus out; as we have translated it, and as the King James Version and Revised Standard translate it, Pilate came out to the place that was called the Pavement of Gabbatha--which may mean the tessellated pavement of marble mosaic--and sat upon the judgment seat. This was the bema ( Greek #968 ), on which the magistrate sat to give his official decisions. Now the verb for to sit is kathizein ( Greek #2523 ), and that may be either intransitive or transitive; it may mean either to sit down oneself, or to seat another. Just possibly it means here that Pilate with one last mocking gesture brought Jesus out, clad in the terrible finery of the old purple robe and with his forehead girt with the crown of thorns and the drops of blood the thorns had wakened, and set him in the judgment seat, and with a wave of his hand said: "Am I to crucify your king?" The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says that in the mockery, they set Jesus on the seat of judgment and said: "Judge justly, King of Israel." Justin Martyr too says that "they set Jesus on the judgment seat, and said, 'Give judgment for us'." It may be that Pilate jestingly caricatured Jesus as judge. If that is so, what dramatic irony is there. That which was a mockery was the truth; and one day those who had mocked Jesus as judge would meet him as judge--and would remember.
So in this dramatic trial scene we see the immutable majesty, the undaunted courage and the serene acceptance of the Cross of Jesus. Never was he so regal as when men did their worst to humiliate him.
We have looked at the main personalities in the trial of Jesus--the Jews with their hatred, Pilate with his haunting past, and Jesus in the serenity of his regal majesty. But certain other people were on the outskirts of the scene.
(i) There were the soldiers. When Jesus was given into their hands to be scourged, they amused themselves with their crude horse-play. He was a king? Well then, let him have a robe and crown. So they put an old purple robe on him and a crown of thorns round his brow; and they slapped him on the face. They were playing a game that ancient people commonly played. Philo in his work On Flaccus tells of a very similar thing that the mob at Alexandria did. "There was a madman named Carabas, afflicted not with the savage and beastlike sort of madness--for this form is undisguisable both for sufferers and bystanders--but with the quiet and milder kind. He used to spend his days and nights naked in the streets, sheltering from neither heat nor frost, a plaything of children and idle lads. They joined in driving the wretch to the gymnasium, and, setting him aloft so that he could be seen by everyone, they flattened a strip of bark for a fillet and put it on his head, and wrapped a floor-rug round his body for a mantle, and for sceptre someone catching sight of a small piece of the native papyrus that had been thrown on the road handed it to him. And when he had assumed the insignia of kingship as in theatrical mimes, and had been arrayed in the character of king, young men bearing staffs on their shoulders took their stance on either side in place of spearmen, mimic lancers. Then others approached, some as if to greet him, others as though to plead their causes, others as though to petition him about public matters. Then from the surrounding multitudes rang forth an outlandish shout of 'Marin,' the name by which it is said that kings are called in Syria." It is a poignant thing that the soldiers treated Jesus as a ribald crowd might treat an idiot boy.
And yet of all the people involved in the trial of Jesus, the soldiers were least to blame, for they did not know what they were doing. Most likely they had come up from Caesarea and did not know what it was all about. Jesus to them was only a chance criminal.
Here is another example of the dramatic irony of John. The soldiers made a caricature of Jesus as king, while in actual fact he was the only king. Beneath the jest there was eternal truth.
(ii) Last of all there was Barabbas whose episode John tells very briefly indeed. Of the custom of freeing a prisoner at Passover we know nothing more than the gospels tell us. The other gospels to some extent fill out John's brief picture and when we put all our information together we find that Barabbas was a notable prisoner, a brigand, who had taken part in a certain insurrection in the city and had committed murder ( Matthew 27:15-26 ; Mark 15:6-15 ; Luke 23:17-25 ; Acts 3:14 ).
The name Barabbas is interesting. There are two possibilities as to its derivation. It may be compounded of Bar Abba which would mean "son of the father," or it may be compounded of Bar Rabban, which would mean "son of the Rabbi." It is not impossible that Barabbas was the son of some Rabbi, a scion of some noble family who had gone wrong; and it may well be that, criminal though he was, he was popular with the people as a kind of Robin Hood character. It is certainly true that we must not think of Barabbas as a sneak thief, or a petty pilferer, or a burglar. He was a lestes ( Greek #3027 ), which means a brigand. Either he was one of the warrior brigands who infested the Jericho road, the kind of man into whose hands the traveller in the parable fell; or, perhaps even more probable, he was one of the Zealots who had sworn to rid Palestine of the Romans, even if it meant a career of murder, robbery, assassination and crime. Barabbas was no petty criminal. A man of violence he might be, but his violence was the kind which might well have a romance and a glamour about it and make him the popular hero of the crowd and the despair of the law at one and the same time.
There is a still more interesting thing about Barabbas. It is a second name and there must have been a first name, just as, for instance, Peter had been Simon bar-Jonah, Simon the son of Jonah. Now there are certain ancient Greek manuscripts, and certain Syrian and Armenian translations of the New Testament which actually give the name of Barabbas as Jesus. That is by no means impossible, because in those days Jesus was a common name, being the Greek form of Joshua. If so, the choice of the crowd was even more dramatic, for they were shouting: "Not Jesus the Nazarene, but Jesus Barabbas."
The choice of the mob has been the eternal choice. Barabbas was the man of force and blood, the man who chose to reach his end by violent means. Jesus was the man of love and of gentleness, whose kingdom was in the hearts of men. It is the tragic fact of history that all through the ages men have chosen the way of Barabbas and refused the way of Jesus.
What happened to Barabbas no man knows; but John Oxenham in one of his books has an imaginary picture of him. At first Barabbas could think of nothing but his freedom; then he began to look at the man who had died that he might live. Something about Jesus fascinated him and he followed him out to see the end. As he saw Jesus bearing his Cross, one thought burned into his mind: "I should have been carrying that Cross, not he. He saved me!" And as he saw Jesus hanging on Calvary, the only thing of which he could think was: "I should have been hanging there, not he. He saved me!" It may be so, or it may not be so; but certainly Barabbas was one of the sinners Jesus died to save.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)