Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

222. Jesus Condemned and Beaten (Matt. 27:15-31; Mark 15:6-20; Luke 23:13-25; John 18:39-19:16)*

Feeling his way carefully Pilate now called a conference with the Jewish leaders. Luke mentions the people also. So perhaps the governor was intending to appeal to them, over the heads of their rulers.

'I am satisfied that the accused is both innocent and harmless. And so also, apparently, is Herod, for he sent him back to us (Lk. 23:15 RV) without any pronouncement against him.' that use of "us" was doubtless intended to suggest: 'You and I are working in friendly cooperation here.'

It was becoming increasingly obvious (Mk. 15 :10 eginosken: it was dawning on him) that the chief priests were acting only for personal reasons-and not at all out of zeal for justice or religion. Matthew's word "envy" (27 :18) is explicit. It recalls the experiences of Abel (Gen. 4 :4,5), Joseph (Gen. 37 :11), Moses (Ps.106 :16), and Paul (Acts 13:45).

But Pilate wanted to keep the right side of these men, so he was careful to say: "I have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him" (Lk.), as if , to say: 'Of course you are right about him, but your case against him is technically faulty.' There was therefore no obstacle to his release.

However, as a concession to them, and to teach this Jesus to avoid trouble with the authorities in future, Pilate proposed a fine sample of Roman justice — that he should "chastise" him (a man just declared 'Not Guilty"), and then set him at liberty,

Here Pilate made a double blunder, for in two respects he showed a marked weakness which would be immediately perceived and used by the astute men with whom he was dealing. In the first instance, he made his decision known beforehand, thus allowing opportunity for organized protest. If, instead, he had acted first (by releasing Jesus), thus presenting the chief priests with a fait accompli, the while turning away heedless from their frantic indignation, there was little they could have done about it.

Then, too, his proposal to scourge and innocent man, a suggestion so obviously intended to appease the anger of disappointed accusers, showed in clear outline his anxiety not to offend these powerful men.

There were reasons for this anxiety. Pilate had blundered too often during his five year's procurctorship of turbulent Judaea. He had already handled several tricky political situations with conspicuous lack of success. Consequently his tenure of office was probably none too secure. Only recently there had been a nationalist revolution in Jerusalem (Lk. 13 :1). The account in despatches of another riot and upheaval in the city this Passover would be read in Rome with lowering brows. So this latest tricky situation must be handled with all possible care.

Jesus or Barabbas?

All this would be easily read between the lines by the crafty men of the temple. They therefore withdrew from conference with Pilate determined to use every means in their power to bring influence to bear. And Pilate, on his part, was bent on maneuvering them into an impossible position. So he came out before the crowd, took his seat on the place of judgement (a Roman formality, this, which was never omitted) and prepared to give his decision. But already the popular clamour for the customary Passover release had begun. The placatory custom had been introduced by the Romans- quite possibly (Mk. 15:8) by Pilate himself , in an uncharacteristic attempt to be concessive – that, to remind the people of there ancient deliverance from Egyptian bondage at Passover, one popularly chosen prisoner should be set free each time the Feast came round. Pilate now gladly seized on this, hoping to strengthen his position by it.

"Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?" —that is, this king (Jesus). The very way he said it was an effort to exercise influence in Jesus' favour, and he said it more than once. In this he sought cleverly to prejudice the crowd's reception of his offer by referring to Jesus as though he were a national hero. If only he could in this way get the crowd on his side, it would be safe to disregard completely both the wishes and the resentment of the Jewish hegemony.

Evidently at first there was a good deal of confusion in the crowd when Pilate put his question: "Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?" Not that Jesus was scorned by them, but there was also a good deal of support for the claim of Barabbas, the nationalist rebel.

Pilate caught at the mention of Barabbas. Feeling fairly sure of himself, he put the straight alternative before them: "Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ?" Again by the way in which he spoke of Jesus as their Messiah he cleverly loaded the scales in his favour.

Pilate’s wife

It would seem that first there was sufficient call in favour of Jesus for Pilate to feel safe in deciding in his favour. So he sat on his judgement seat, about to pronounce Jesus a free man. But at that moment there came an interruption in the form of a message from his wife. It is a detail which displays again the accuracy of the gospels, for the imperial rule had been that a Roman governor must not be accompanied by his wife during his tour of duty. But it is known that by this time the rule had fallen into disuse.

The message said, very urgently: "Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him." it is evident (Study 221) that Pilate's wife knew that at that vary time her husband was concerned with the trial of Jesus. More than this, she referred to him as "that righteous man." How had this strong sympathy arisen? Possibly-it is only a guess-through personal contact with one of the influential women amongst the Lord's disciples.

The probable sequence of events by which this warning came has already been considered. It would be a serious omission here to neglect emphasis of the dramatic irony involved in the situation. This message from Pilate's wife achieved the very thing it sought to prevent!

Pilate's brief absence within the Praetorium whilst he read and considered the letter (for very probably the dream was described in all its vividness) was used to good advantage by the feverish diligence of the chief priests. Getting to work on the crowd during the short time available to them, they succeeded in persuading them, whether by cajolery or bribes, but certainly by lies against Jesus, to unite in a call for the freeing of Barabbas, and-even more important from their point of view-that Jesus be crucified. Consequently when Pilate came out to them again, to his great surprise he found himself assailed by a unamimous shout for the release of Barabbas.

Rebel leader

The known facts concerning this popular favourite can quickly be catalogued. His name means "Son of a Father", that is, "Son of a Rabbi" (Mt. 23 :9). (Or was his name self-appointed from Ps. 2 :}2-bar??]. Once again there was an ironic symbolism in the decision. Jewry was seeking salvation by the Law in preference to the salvation offered in Jesus, the true Saviour. "A Sadducee for their high priest, an incestuous Edomite for their King, they choose a murderer for their Messiah." A few manuscripts have the interesting reading that Barabbas was also called Jesus-hence Pilate's phrase: "which is called Christ," to make a distinction.

The charge against Barabbas was that of insurrection and murder. So, evidently, he had been the leader of a popular revolt against the Romans and had shed Roman blood in the process. Almost certainly the malefactors who were later crucified with Jesus wore two of his followers. Further, he was evidently a man of Jerusalem, for the sedition was "made in the city." Thus all the circumstances combined to make him a great hero with the multitudes now shouting to Pilate for his release.

Three times the astonished procurator sought to sway them from their choice.

A contest of wills.

"What will ye then that I shall do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?" Was that last expression used in sarcasm? or had Pilate failed completely to recognize the swing of popular sentiment away from Jesus? He hoped doubtless that some would take up the cry: "Release him also!" But in actual fact the appeal proved to be a tactical blunder. For Jesus to have Pilate on his side was more than enough to swing the crowd against him. Moreover they were disillusioned by this Galilean's utter failure to exploit the splendid opportunity for revolt which his triumphal entry into the city had presented (Mt. 21 :9j. So, inflamed by nationalist zeal, this Jerusalem mob lost all interest in the mild prophet of Galilee. "Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas." Then, in response to a further appeal, came the coarse cry: "Crucify, crucify him" (Is. 5:7)-a singular contrast with u week earlier when the chief priests feared the reaction of the common people in favour of Jesus (Lk. 20:19; 22:2). So this mob outcry was, as Matthew Henry describes it, "a forced end managed thing." (Consider also ii. 53:3; 49:7),

"Why, what evil hath he done?" asked Pilate. The very form of this expostulation betrayed his weakness and apprehension. There was no reasoned response to Pilate's question, "Though they found no cause of death in him, yet desired they Pilate that he should be slain" (Acts 13 :28). Instead: "Ye denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go" (Acts 3 :13). Yet did not the Law about which they were so zealous sternly warn them?: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to turn aside after a multitude to wrest judgment" (Ex. 23 :2).

"I will therefore chastise turn/' Pilate continued, "and let him go.'

The situation had suddenly got out of hand and a bewildered governor groped around vainly for me means wherewith to cope with it. Thus he blundered into arguing with a crowd to whom he should have been contemptuously dictating. "What evil hat he done? I have found no cause of death in him". Again, not guilty! Judas and Herod and Pilate and Pilate's wife had now ail declared their conviction of Christ's innocence, and before the day was out the malefactor and the centurion and many in the crowd were to add their testimony.

The angry roar of disapproval meeting Pilate's declaration swept over him like a boiling sea. Nor was there any respite. Luke's words mean: "they laid on ... 'heir voices overpowered him." The din persisted in deafening, frightening crescendo so that even the case-hardened statesman was cowed by the ungovernable ferocity of it all. 'Pilate saw that he could profit nothing," Here, unless he were very careful, was utter wreck and ruin. His innate well-tutored sense of self-interest peremptorily bade him abandon all high-principled intentions. He could afford no more concessions to this thing men call conscience. He must cut his losses whilst there was time.

However he permitted himself one more gesture before final capitulation: "He took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it" (Dt. 21 :6; and Study 220). In fact he was anything but innocent, for he knew what was the right thing for him to do and he had both the authority and the power to do it, but—as with many another since that day —he found the Mammon of Self-Interest a god of more compelling majesty. He was not "of the truth." So Christ "suffered under Pontius Pilate" (cp. Acts 4:27).

The mob responded to his rather pathetic disavowal with a rejoinder of contempt and bravado: "His blood be on us and on our children." How little they realised the truth of this derisive allusion to their own Scriptures (Dt.19:10; Ex.20:5)l How fully and how bitterly they were to realise it during the Roman war and the siege of Jerusalem when the worst horrors of world history were let loose on those very people in their old age and on the children of whom they so lightly spoke (Dt. 28:18; Ps. 69:25; 109:10,17; Num. 35 :33). There is reason to believe that many of them lived long enough to recognize and acknowledge that the bitterness of that evil time was a direct retribution for their rejection of the Son of God. In A.D. 70 many of them were crucified, or sold for a good deal less than thirty pieces of silver.

Rough treatment

The scourging of Jesus was a normal part of the preliminaries to crucifixion. "Under the Roman system of scourging, the culprit was stripped and tied in a bending posture to a pillar, or stretched on a frame, and the punishment was inflicted with a scourge made of leathern thongs weighted with sharp pieces of bone or lead" (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible). It was an ordeal under which the victim usually fainted, sometimes even died. Yet how briefly and unemotionally is this vile torture alluded to by the witness of the gospels! Under the site of Antonia, Warren discovered a pillar which showed signs of being used for just such a purpose —perhaps for the flogging of Jesus himself!

After this there followed another experience, different in character but surely just as difficult to endure. The entire band of soldiers —there would be at least two hundred of them - led him into their barrack room, and there proceeded to make him the centre of much rough humour and boisterous hooliganism. They clouted him repeatedly in the face (Jn.) and, imitating Herod's satirical mockery, they clad Jesus in a robe of purple and scarlet (some officer's cast-off?); they plaited a crown of some spiny creeping-plant and rammed it on his head (Gen. 3:18; 22:13; Ps. 32:4 LXX; Is. 59:17); they thrust a bamboo rod into his hand in lieu of a sceptre; amd then, making him the target of all the hatred and contempt and scorn that they felt for the un-Roman people of Judaea, with hoarse and coarse ribaldry they did him homage as King of the Jews (contrast Ps. 2:8-11); mockingly, they bowed the knee and gave him feigned reverence; pretending a kiss of homage, they spat in his face and pulled out the hair of his beard (Is. 50 :6); instead of humbly touching his "sceptre" (after the manner of queen Esther), they snatched the bamboo from his hand and beat him over the head with it.

Throughout the misery and wretchedness of this cruel buffoonery Jesus must have been hard put to maintain consciousness at all. The wearing effect of the effort involved in making his last great appeal to the nation during the past few months, and especially the fatigue induced by the last week, which had been spent in incessant preaching and controversy in the temple, had already brought him near to the limit of his physical resources. Then had followed the vigil in the garden and the incalculable nervous strain of his "agony" of self-conquest; then, without any respite, his interrogations before Annas and before Caiaphas, and a protracted appearance before the Sanhedrin during a night which gave him not a moment's sleep or relaxation; then to Pilate; then to Herod and the ill-treatment he meted out; then back to Pilate again; then the barbaric laceration of his back under the "flagellum"; and now the ghastly cruelty of this inhuman and ignorant mockery. It was the beginning of a day of horror in which all his person suffered-head, face, back, hands, feet, knees (Ps. 109 :24), throat and side.

Here was no Jesus of the painters, strong, dignified and unmoved. He was too far gone in physical exhaustion and too much embroiled in a sea of troubles to be any of these. Whereas modern theologians talk airily about "the dignity of human nature" and "the eternal worth of each human soul," the Bible is at pains to emphasize repeatedly that there is no dignity about human nature and no abiding value in sinful flesh. And since Jesus, in the experiences he was now enduring, was the representative of such, he should in no wise be thought of as majestic, dignified or sublime. How, possibly, in such circumstances could any man be any of these? "There is no beauty in him that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected."

It was thus, certainly, that Pilate saw him at this time. Was it the piteous spectacle which moved him to make a last attempt to save the life of this innocent man? Or was conscience at work in the mind of this ungodly Roman as it had never been before?

"Behold, the man"

He brought Jesus out again before the Jews, clad in his robe of royal hue and wearing the crown of thorns, and showing in a haggard, worn face framed by tousled unkempt hair all the signs of impending collapse. It was a sight which would have "moved to compassion any heart not made of stone. But the crowd which Pilate hoped to win over by this superbly-staged appeal was now almost entirely gone. They had got their Barabbas and were even now chairing him triumphantly through the streets of the city. So it was to a much smaller group of virulent Sanhedrists and their officers (men who knew only too well the path of self-interest) that Jesus was brought forth.

"Behold, the man!" Surely as their eyes took in the wretchedness of their victim they would relent of their ruthless hostility. Yet how was Pilate to know that by his very appeal he had further loaded the scales of justice against the prisoner? For, all unconsciously, he had both cited and interpreted an inspired Scripture which he had never read. Inevitably as he used the words, the minds of the Bible-trained men before him would run on to complete the passage and set it in its context: "Behold, the man whose name is the Branch; and he shall grow up from beneath (LXX), and he shall build the temple of the Lord: even he (such an one!) shall build the temple of the Lord: and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest at his-God's-right hand" (Zech. 6 :12,13 LXX: compare Ps. 110 :1,4). And these words were addressed by the prophet to Joshua-Jesus, the son of Josedech (the righteousness of Jehovah)! Was anything more calculated to provoke to fresh excesses the hatred and resolution of these implacable men? Poor Pilate, how was he to know that "by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God" he was using words which could only have the effect of making the fate of Jesus more certain than ever?

So the demeaning of Pilate in lowering himself to make this appeal to their pity was utterly wasted. "Crucify him, crucify him", they repeated with vicious emphasis. They had seen the weakness in Pilate and were determined to give him no respite until he yielded to their will.

A desperate expedient

In this situation Pilate showed his weakness yet again: "Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him." This was now the fourth or possibly the fifth time (Jn. 18:38; Lk. 23:4,14,22; Jn. 19 :6) that Pilate had publicly declared his conviction of the innocence of Jesus. He was determined at almost any cost not to be responsible for his death. Yet such was the working of his mind that he thought to put his uneasy ill-tutored conscience to rest by the foul expedient of inciting the priests to take the law into their own hands, and, with his connivance, to lynch Jesus-or was it just a superstitious mind, made ill at ease by the knowledge of his wife's dream, which led him to such a panicky improvisation?

But this did not at all suit these schemers with whom he was dealing. They immediately foresaw the possibility of being caught in a trap by Pilate. For, suppose they were to do as he suggested, what was there to prevent him turning on them immediately the deed was done, and, denying that he had ever incited them in this way, wreaking on them the most fearful vengeance. The whole affair could then be explained plausibly and convincingly in his reports to Caesar, making Pilate appear as a model administrator of theJudaean province.

So, fearing lest Pilate out-manoeuvre them at the last moment, they clamoured for ratification of what he had already reluctantly conceded. "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God." Once again they spoke more truly than they knew: "by our law he ought to die." They meant one thing (Lev. 24 :16?) but doubtless John saw in it a very different significance as he recorded the words. At sundry times and in divers manners their ancient Scriptures had declared that it behoved the Christ to suffer.

The priests were, of course, alluding to the various passages which required the death by stoning of the blasphemer and the false prophet. But in insisting on this they nearly went too far, for "when Pilate heard that saying (that Jesus made himself the Son of God), he was the more afraid.” Pilate had, indeed, been afraid from the very start of the case, having quickly perceived what manner of man Jesus was, and also because of his wife’s dream, but now he was the more afraid. Had not Jesus told him that his kingdom was ''not of this world?" Could it be that he himself was "not of this world?" So here was a tough adminisirator, who could have been expected to laugh at claims such as those, now worried part believing.

Puzzled and depressed, he sought answer from Jesus himself: "Whence art thou?", i.e. art thou the Son of God? Let the prisoner just give him a straight "No," and both he and his, judge would be off the rack. But Jesus would vouchsafe no reply. Pilate had had his opportunity. In various ways he had been shown the path of right, but obsessed by his ingrained sense of self-interest, he still sought some devious less honourable solution to the problem.

He had not yet signed the death sentence. Yet when by a blunt reminder of the power of life and death in his hands he tried to goad Jesus into explicit answer, he received only a rebuke of his abuse of authority: "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above (i.e. from God): therefore he (Caiaphas that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.'' How true it was! For the high priest had his authority from God far more directly than did Pilate (Rom. 13 :1), and the principle is ever true that "unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required." But your sin of weakness and selfishness, Pilate, is still forgivable!

Defeated by blackmail

These latest developments made the greatest impression of all on Pilate's mind. John recorded that "on this ground Pilate sought to release him." (To a Jewish ear, the name Pilate would sound marvellously like "Deliverer"!) But hadn't he been attempting deliverance right from the beginning of the "trial"? Can it be that this mention of release alludes to some new move by Pilate? Was an attempt made to release Jesus at some obscure exit from Anionia, away from the observation of the chief priests? Or did he order a detachment of soldiers to fake Jesus off to some remote part of the city and hand him over to his friends? Whatever special steps the words imply, the move was detected and Pilate was brought up sharply by a shout from the priests and their minions: "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king, speaketh against Caesar." This expression, "Caesar's friend was a formal title, it appears on coins of the Agrippa who tried Paul. These priests knew their man's weakness and they knew his greatest fear, so they played on these to the top of their bent. And Pilate had to acknowledge himself beaten. They had this trump card that he dare not let such an impeachment as they threatened reach Caesar in Rome. The irony of the situation! Had no! Barabbas, just released, "made himself a king, speaking against Caesar"?


There was nothing else for it. "Pilate again brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgement seat in a place that is called the Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha."

This part of John's narrative, apparently simple and straightforward, is actually open to another different interpretation. For the verb "sat down" can be otherwise translated to give the meaning: "and he (Pilate) seated him (Jesus) in the judgement seat" (Cp. Eph. 2:6 Gk.). Two details in the narrative accord very well with this:

The early apocryphal "Gospel according to Peter" gives the reading suggested here, so it would seem that in the early church there were those who read John's gospel in this way.

It does seem possible then — though the matter can hardly be regarded as proven-that Jesus was seated, on Pilate's instructions, on the president's platform at a final convening of the Sanhedrin. It is known that, besides officially appointed members, no man might sit in the Priest's court save a Prince of the House of David. Thus, once again, if indeed it actually happened so, Pilate was declaring a greater truth than he himself understood or believed.

But in any case John doubtless also saw special significance in this fact that Jesus was thus enthroned upon the Pavement. Was he thinking of the vision of glory revealed to Moses and the elders of Israel? "They saw the God of Israel: and there was under his feet as it were a paved work of a sapphire stone" (Ex. 24 :10). And in later days John would be able to associate with this the words: "To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne" (Rev. 3 :21)

Prophecy fulfilled

With uncontrolled fury the chief priests rejected Pilate's derisive and spiteful proclamation of the kingship of Jesus: ":We have no king but Caesar." Thus unwittingly they interpreted the ancient prophecy of Jacob to his sons: "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh come, and unto him shall the gathering of the peoples be" (Gen. 49 :10). By their own proclamation the sceptre was departed. Therefore Shiloh was now come; and therefore also the time was ripe for the gathering unto him of the Gentiles!

More than this, just as Pilate all unconsciously had quoted a marvellously relevant Scripture, so also now these priests satirically quoted Hosea: "We have no king, because we fear not the Lord; what then should the king (i.e. his king) do for us?" (10 :3). If is a passage which is part of a detailed and much neglected Messianic prophecy (see Study 223). Phrase after phrase here was to become savagely true in an Israel cast off and swamped in retribution.

This amazing admission: "We have no king but Caesar", was eagerly grasped by Pilate as a great concession. How well it would read in his dispatches to Rome. So, with that, he conceded what their raucous shouts demanded.

Dramatic Irony

The entire trial of Jesus had been shot through with a vivid element of dramatic irony and unconscious prophecy. It is perhaps worthwhile to bring together the examples that have come to light:

"And so Pilate, willing to content the people (the hallmark of the career politician in every age! Acts 12 :3; 24 :27; Ex. 32 :1) released Barabbas unto them and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him (Is. 53:5; Mt. 20:19), to be crucified."

Luke puts the antithesis between these two prisoners in a single sentence of great literary power: "And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but Jesus delivered he to their will." Thus Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate"!

Notes. Mt. 27:15-31

Release . . . a prisonor,: This may have been already .n Pilate's mind when he said: "I will chastise him, and let him go" (Lk. 23 :16).
Barabbas Syriac and Armenian versions, the Tiflis Codex, and Origen all give him the additional name Jesus.
Let him be crucified. Perhaps this was entirely a Jerusalem crowd, quite different from the Galileans in 21:9.
Cried out. Gk. imperfect implies that they kept at it.It is the word which often describes “unclean spirits” crying out.

Lk. 23:13-25

Having examined him before you. He hadn't! A good example of slanted language for the sake of effect.
They cried. Gk. implies: They shouted him down.

Jn. 19:1-16

In this context consider Phil. 1 :13; 2 :8/10; 3 :10. See also Ps. 72 :11; Is. 45 :23; Rev. 5:8-14.
The Pavement. There are archeological indications of a pavement, 50 yards square, in Antonia.

Previous Index Next