Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.
Why did Pilate try so hard, grasping at no less than four stratagems, when he could not really have cared much about such matters and certainly did not have any natural instinct to act justly? One explanation is that he was probably impressed with Jesus. He seems to have marvelled at his calm self-possession and the fact that he did not try to defend himself against his accusers. Matthew reports this reaction saying, “Then Pilate asked him, ‘Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?’ But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor” (vv. 13,14).
But there was another reason, too, though Matthew is the only one of the four gospel writers to record it. It was the warning of Pilate’s wife who sent him a message while he was seated on his judgment seat, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him,” she said (v. 19).
Frank Morison writes more about this incident than others, reminding us that the Romans were particularly superstitious where dreams were concerned and seldom undertook any great enterprise without inquiring what the gods or fate deemed favorable. He suggests that Pilate and Proculla were probably together the night Jesus was arrested, that Proculla would have known about the Sanhedrin’s request for a trial, would have gone to bed thinking about Jesus and what she had heard about him, and that when she awoke the next morning to find Pilate gone she would have known that he was beginning the trial and that her message to him had to be swift and urgent, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man,” she warned him. Her dream would have been a serious matter for Pilate and may well have been the factor that led him to seek the release of Jesus so strongly.
Morison says of Proculla, “It was she who stiffened the Roman instinct for justice in Pilate, at a moment when he was tempted, from personal considerations, to humor the prejudices of the Jewish camarilla, and commit Jesus on their recommendation alone…. While the stimulus lasted, his handling of this difficult and perplexing case was well-nigh perfect…. It was only as the stimulus faded against the grinding and growing opposition of the Jewish party that the threat of Caesar’s intervention became paramount, and he ended as he had intended to begin, by delivering the Prisoner into their hands.
Up to this point Pilate’s handling of the trial was fully commendable. Matthew’s account is short, but looking at it carefully and linking it to the reports of the other gospel writers, we realize that Pilate had followed the four stages of a proper Roman trial without deviation: 1) the charge, 2) the evidence, 3) the defense, and 4) the verdict. Pilate had heard the charge, investigated the evidence, knew that the real reason behind the accusations was the Jewish leaders’ envy of Jesus (Matthew 27:18), and spoke the verdict: “I find no basis for a charge against him.” Absolvo! Non fecisse videtur! John says that Pilate spoke those words three times (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). But instead of doing what he should have done at that point, releasing Jesus or at least placing him under protective custody as a later Roman commander did with Paul when his life was threatened by this same judicial body (Acts 21:31-33; 23:12-24), the governor launched a pattern of irregular proceedings that led eventually to Jesus’ execution.
Pilate tried four expedients to avoid pronouncing sentence: 1) sending Jesus to Herod, when he learned that Jesus was from Galilee which was under Herod’s jurisdiction (Luke 23:-12); 2) offering to punish him without an execution (Luke 23:16, 22); 3) asking the people to choose either Jesus or Barabbas as the one to be released at the Passover (Matthew 27:20-23; Mark 15:6-15; John 18:38-40); and ) producing Jesus in a beaten, bloody condition to stir the people’s pity (John 19:1-5). All these measures failed.
The only one of the schemes that Matthew includes in his gospel is the offer to release either Jesus or Barabbas to the crowd, though surprisingly the offer is in each of the gospels. It is not surprising that we find it in Matthew, however, in light of Matthew’s emphasis throughout the gospel that Jesus was Israel’s true king. The point is that Barabbas was not just a common murderer. He was an insurrectionist, that is, a revolutionary who wanted to raise an army, drive out the occupying Romans and establish himself or someone like himself as Israel’s king—like Judas Maccabaeus. That is why he was being held for execution. Matthew does not explain who Barabbas was, though John, who was writing for a Gentile audience, explains that he had taken part in a rebellion (John 18:40). Every Jew knew about Barabbas. He must have been something of a celebrity, a hero, what the people wanted. The people wanted a king they could understand, an earthly king offering earthly advantages, rather than a king from heaven who offered truth, righteousness, and eternal salvation.
John makes the nature of the peoples choice crystal clear when he has Pilate ask them, “Do you want me to release the king of the Jews?” and they shout back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas” (John 18:40). It is a powerful lesson. Sinners will always prefer a manageable earthly ruler, however self-serving, violent, or even evil, to Jesus Christ.