Now that Barack Obama has assumed the presidency, historians can debate in earnest where President Bush will rank among our nation’s presidents. It is true that he leaves office with historically low approval ratings, but so have other presidents who are now highly regarded, such as Harry Truman. Only time will tell.
Of all the characters connected to the story of the crucifixion, the one whose reputation has been debated the most over the years is Pilate. In the four gospels of the NT, he is portrayed as a waffling politician who condones a grave injustice to satisfy a mob. In later legends, he is said to have committed suicide, but when his body was dumped into the Tiber River the waters were so disturbed by such an evil presence they rejected his corpse!
On the other hand, a few centuries after the NT period, some alternative gospels were written which exonerated Pilate, claiming that it was actually King Herod who pronounced the death sentence on Jesus. Some of the accounts say that Pilate became a Christian, and this revisionist version of Pilate is so influential that in certain quarters of the Orthodox Church, Pilate is considered a saint!
You might remember that when Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was released that many Jewish organizations claimed the movie was anti-Semitic, that it unfairly blamed the Jewish leaders for the death of Jesus. So, the Jews aren’t guilty; Pilate isn’t guilty; apparently nobody is guilty! It makes you wonder if none of these people wanted to kill Jesus how He ever ended up on the cross!
This effort to deflect or dilute blame is futile, because it isn’t that nobody is guilty – everybody is guilty. As Isaiah said, “All we like sheep have gone astray” (Isa. 53:6). No one we have read about in Mark so far comes off looking good in the story of the Passion. The disciples are faithless cowards; Judas is a self-serving traitor; the Sanhedrin is a conniving cabal; Pilate is an unprincipled bureaucrat.
So as we approach the text today, let’s do so with the transparent honesty that recognizes the guilt of everyone in the gospels, just as we confess “that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
The text today is outlined for us by two uses of the word “delivered.”
• The end of verse 1: “And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate.”
• Then in verse 15, Pilate “delivered him to be crucified.”
I. Jesus Is Delivered To Pilate (15:1-5)
Remember that Jesus was arrested in the middle of the night, and tried in the time before the third rooster crow (around 3 am). Verse 1 explains why the Jewish leaders were in such a rush to carry out their trial. Roman officials began their work at daybreak, so in order to make sure the governor heard Jesus’ case, they needed to bring him to trial “as soon as it was morning,” which is when Mark 15:1 says they concluded their hearing and delivered him to the governor.
1 And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate.
Pontius Pilate was appointed prefect (or governor) of Judea in AD 26, and held the post for ten years. His reputation in the works of Jewish writers like Philo and Josephus is uniformly negative, even for a governor. Josephus explained that Emperor Tiberius kept the same governor in his post as long as he could…
out of regard to the subjects that were under them; for that all governors are naturally disposed to get as much as they can; and that those who are not to fix there, but to stay a short time, and that at an uncertainty when they shall be turned out, do the more severely hurry themselves on to fleece the people; but that if their government be long continued to them; they are at last satiated with the spoils, as having gotten a vast deal, and so become at length less sharp in their pillaging; but that if successors are sent quickly, the poor subjects, who are exposed to them as a prey, will not be able to bear the new ones… He [Tiberius] gave them an example to show his meaning: A great number of flies came about the sore places of a man that had been wounded; upon which one of the standers-by pitied the man’s misfortune, and thinking he was not able to drive those flies away himself, was going to drive them away for him; but he prayed him to let them alone: the other, by way of reply, asked him the reason of such a preposterous proceeding, in preventing relief from his present misery; to which he answered, “If thou drivest these flies away, thou wilt hurt me worse; for as these are already full of my blood, they do not crowd about me, nor pain me so much as before, but are somewhat more remiss, while the fresh ones that come almost famished, and find me quite tired down already, will be my destruction. For this cause, therefore, it is that I am myself careful not to send such new governors perpetually to those my subjects, who are already sufficiently harassed by many oppressions, as may, like these flies, further distress them; and so, besides their natural desire of gain, may have this additional incitement to it, that they expect to be suddenly deprived of that pleasure which they take in it.” And, as a further attestation to what I say of the dilatory nature of Tiberius, I appeal to this his practice itself; for although he was emperor twenty-two years, he sent in all but two procurators to govern the nation of the Jews, Gratus, and his successor in the government, Pilate. Antiquities Book 18.6.5
So self-serving politicians are nothing new!
If anything set Pilate apart from the usual corruption of his day it was his pattern of violent overreaction to the Jews, followed by backtracking to cover himself. Jesus mentioned in Luke 13:1 that Pilate had slaughtered some Jews from Galilee while they were offering sacrifices, and Josephus relates another story about Pilate:
On one occasion, when the soldiers under his command came to Jerusalem, he caused them to bring with them their ensigns, upon which were the usual images of the emperor. The ensigns were brought in privily by night, but their presence was soon discovered. Immediately multitudes of excited Jews hastened to Caesarea to petition him for the removal of the obnoxious ensigns. For five days he refused to hear them, but on the sixth he took his place on the judgment seat, and when the Jews were admitted he had them surrounded with soldiers and threatened them with instant death unless they ceased to trouble him with the matter. The Jews thereupon flung themselves on the ground and bared their necks, declaring that they preferred death to the violation of their laws. Pilate, unwilling to slay so many, yielded the point and removed the ensigns.” War 2.169-174, Antiq 18.55-5
Pilate was a career politician who detested the Jews but at the same time deferred to the Jews so he could keep the peace and keep his job.
Mark does not explicitly state what the Jewish leaders accused Jesus of before Pilate, but we can infer from his question -
2a And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
-that they charged Jesus with treason, that Jesus claimed to be the true king of Israel in defiance of Caesar.
Luke gives us the complete run down of charges:
Luke 23:2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”
What audacity these people have! Just a few days earlier some of these same people tried to lure Jesus into a trap by asking Him if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, and He specifically said “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (12:17).
And while it is true that He did say He was the Messiah, it is precisely because He is not the kind of king who came to destroy the Romans and depose Caesar that they don’t believe in Him! If He had truly been a threat to Caesar they would not have condemned Him – they would have crowned Him! But because these are the only kinds of accusations which would touch a nerve with Pilate, the leaders of the Sanhedrin deliberately lie and twist Jesus’ words to get Him executed.
In the face of such injustice I would be outraged. I hate to be accused of something I didn’t do (in the second grade Mrs. Gillespie said I hit Doyle Ratliff during lunch and paddled my hand even though I wasn’t anywhere near him, and I still haven’t recovered from the trauma!). Jesus could easily refute their charges, just as He blew a hole in their trap about paying taxes a few days previously. But instead, all Jesus said in response to Pilate’s question of whether He was the King of the Jews is:
2b “You have said so.”
This could mean, “Whatever you say,” sort of dismissing Pilate, or it could mean “you said it,” agreeing with Pilate. But the brevity of Jesus’ answer means that He is not going to mount a lengthy defense in rebuttal of these charges. He truly intends to be “like a sheep that before its shearers is silent” (Isa. 53:7).
That silence encouraged His accusers,
3 And the chief priests accused him of many things.
But His silence puzzled the man who held His fate in his hand.
4 And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.
II. Jesus Is Delivered to Be Crucified (15:6-20)
I believe that at this point Pilate knew that whatever disagreement these Jews were having among themselves that Jesus of Nazareth was not a seditious rebel. And I think he had enough of a sense of Roman justice that he wanted to find a way to free Jesus without causing problems with his constituents. It so happened that one of his customary procedures during Passover provided him the perfect cover to do this.
6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them.
The name “Barabbas” means “son of Abba,” “son of a father”. You remember that Jesus prayed to God as “Abba Father” in the garden. This is the only similarity between these two men. Jesus taught His followers to love their enemies, to lose their lives to find them. Barabbas was a murderer, involved in some sort of rebellion against Rome. I imagine him to be sort of like Spartacus, or Robin Hood, someone who used any means necessary to carry on the struggle against Rome.
Jesus and Barabbas could not be more dissimilar – Jesus is accused of preaching disobedience to the government when He taught the very opposite, and rebuked His disciples when they tried to fight against the authorities. Barabbas not only preached violent disobedience; he practiced it!
Maybe this is the reason Pilate offered the crowd the choice between the two, because Jesus was so clearly innocent and Barabbas was so clearly guilty. Surely the people will pick Jesus, relieving Pilate of having to make the choice, while at the same time preventing a horrible miscarriage of justice.
At least, that’s how I interpret the next couple of verses:
9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up.
Pilate was a veteran of underhanded political dealings; he could easily sense that the real issue here was not treason but power. The chief priests were envious of Jesus. There was no basis for these charges, and so Pilate presents the people a no-brainer: free Jesus or free Barabbas? At the same time, he couldn’t resist a chance to twist the blade a little in the chief priests, referring to Jesus as their “king.”
But Pilate had met his match in these men. They knew how to play the game with ruthless effectiveness-
11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead.
With speed and cunning the chief priests manipulate the people who were present to ask for a virtual terrorist to be released instead of Jesus. How could they turn the tide of popular sentiment against Jesus so quickly? First of all, it may be that this “crowd” consisted of supporters of Barabbas who had come to campaign for his release. But even if this was a random group of bystanders, think about it. Here you are at Passover, the great feast celebrating Jewish liberation. And on the one hand you have a man of action who has risked his life to fight for the cause of freedom. And on the other hand, you have a man who says things like
Matt. 26:52b For all who take the sword will perish by the sword.
In that kind of highly nationalistic and patriotic climate, who do you think most Americans would have chosen? We love men of action, men who take matters into their own hands. We revere freedom fighters. There is no doubt in my mind that if it had been people from Nashville TN standing there we would have made the very same choice those people did, with just as much enthusiasm.
23:18 But they all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas”
Here is one more irony. When the heavily armed underlings of the Sanhedrin came to arrest Jesus in Mark 14, He asked them,
14:48 “Have you come out as against a robber (lestes), with swords and clubs to capture me?
That word, “robber,” is the same word John uses in John 18:40 to describe Barabbas. They came armed to the hilt to arrest a man who was the farthest thing from an armed robber, only to trade His life for someone who was a violent criminal!
I almost get the sense that Pilate does not want to be the one to pronounce the death sentence, so he frames the issue in such a way that it is the crowd that asks for this penalty-
12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.”
The crowd is not interested in justice; it wants to see its hero released, even if it means the death of Jesus. And Pilate is certainly not interested in justice either. What he is interested in is pandering to the people-
15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
What kind of man would knowingly sentence an innocent man to a grisly death just to gain a very marginal level of public approval? This is no saint; this is a coward.
This was a brutal coward – he ordered the soldiers to scourge Jesus. It was Roman custom to scourge a prisoner before crucifying them. If you saw The Passion, you don’t need for me to explain what a nightmarish punishment this was. The prisoner would be strapped to a column, exposing their back. A soldier would take a lash which was embedded with bits of bone or metal, or even hooks, and flail away at the prisoner. Many ancient accounts describe victims whose bones or internal organs were exposed after a scourging.
Having prepared Jesus for execution, “he delivered him to be crucified.”
In our country, when a person is led to be executed, there is almost a solemn respect shown by the guards and officials who have to carry out the task. The prisoner is given a final meal of his choice and the opportunity to consult with clergy. Our Savior was not afforded any favors. He was treated in a way to strip Him of every bit of dignity, to maximize His pain and humiliation.
16 And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. 17 And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. 18 And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 19 And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. 20 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.
Twenty-four hours earlier Jesus was giving His disciples instructions for finding a place to eat the Passover, which they found just as He told them they would. And now, twenty-four hours later, things have transpired just as he told them they would in Mark 10:33-34:
33 saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. 34 And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.
All that is left is for them to kill Him.
III. Some Lessons for Us
I think the best way for us to draw meaningful applications from this text is to think about how we in so many ways end up imitating the people we have studied about today. Why is it that we fail to honor Jesus as we should? Isn’t it for fundamentally the same reasons as those we have studied about today?
A. In the chief priests, I see my propensity for pride.
Jesus was threat they needed to remove. He openly challenged them by refusing to adopt their traditions, by exposing their corruption in the temple, and by unmasking their hypocrisy. Even Pilate could see that the chief priests were envious of Jesus, that they wanted to get rid of a menace to their power base.
The establishment had every reason to be afraid of Jesus. His authority was undeniable. They could question its source, as they did in the temple when they asked,
Mark 11:28 By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?
They could claim His power came from the Devil, as they did when they tried to explain away His exorcisms. But what Jesus said and did was with such conviction and power you had to take notice.
Mark 1:22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes.
Mark 1:27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.”
And so the Jewish rulers could not dismiss Jesus as merely some itinerant preacher. He claimed to be much more than that, and He did so at their expense. Jesus drew sharp lines of distinction between them and Him, and the only solution left was to get rid of Him.
The other night I saw this statement on a website:
I do believe that Jesus walked the face of the Earth and died on the cross, but I want to do my own thing at the same time. This is why I don’t believe I am saved.
“I want to do my own thing at the same time.” That is the issue with us, isn’t it? Just like the chief priests, we want to be the chief in our life, we want to do what we want, and yet there is Jesus, claiming to be the Messiah seated at God’s right hand, telling is that we must be willing to give up houses and sisters and brothers and children and lands and even our own lives for His sake!
And so we have to choose – do I acknowledge Jesus as Lord and follow Him, or – like the chief priests - do I see Him as a threat to eliminate? That is why some of our brothers and sisters fall away. It isn’t because they have lost faith that Jesus lived and did miracles and taught with authority and died and rose again. No, they fall away because they are deeply convicted that is the case, that He did claim to be Lord, but because they want to jealously guard having their own way, because they want to do their own thing rather than submit to Christ, they try to remove Him from their life.
Every time you and I choose to ignore what Jesus wants us to do so we can be in charge instead, we are guilty of the envy of the chief priests.
B. In Pilate, I see my tendency to compromise.
Every time in my life I have compromised a conviction, it has been for the very same reason Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified –“to satisfy the crowd.” When I have acted like a disciple shouldn’t, it has been because I wanted to fit in with the crowd. When I have failed to speak up when I should, it has been because I didn’t want to get kick out of the crowd. But either way, it boils down to satisfying other people rather than doing what is right.
To be frank, I don’t think Pilate had many convictions to compromise. Pilate represents the cynic, the person who has no principles, no core set of values. He is the paradigm of the person whose only thought is survival, and who will cut any corner, compromise any belief, to gain any kind of advantage. A person like Pilate lives only for the here and now.
We should never allow ourselves to slip into such a nearsighted view of life that we throw away our convictions to gain some kind of temporary approval from worldly people. We are not to be conformed to the world, but transformed by the mercies of God, in hope of an eternity of love and joy with God.
But every time you and I choose the easy way of popularity for the hard road of conviction, we are compromising the truth every bit as much as Pilate.
C. In the soldiers, I see my capacity for cruelty.
I believe that one of the unique endowments God has given man is the kind of conscience that will choose to do gracious things for other people at great personal risk. You may have seen the story in the news this week about the man in Lawrenceburg who raced into a burning apartment building to save someone else’s baby. That runs counter to the instinct for survival that controls animals. But something else unique to human beings is the capacity for cruelty. When a predator attacks and kills its prey, it functions by instinct, driven by the basic need to eat. We have all seen footage of a big cat of some kind chasing down an antelope to feed. That is nature’s way. But the lion doesn’t capture the antelope, drag it back to its lair, and then torture it. That is something only people do – not by instinct, but by choice; it is what happens when our moral conscience is perverted and twisted by sin.
The Roman soldiers had a job to do – execute a convicted criminal. In one sense you can’t fault the battalion of soldiers who carried out Pilate’s orders – they were simply doing what their superior commanded. But they went beyond duty; when they pressed that wreath of thorns into Jesus’ head, it was because they enjoyed it. When they struck him with the reed and spit on Him, it was for their pleasure. When they saluted Him in a parody of the salute given to Caesar, “Hail, King of the Jews,” they weren’t just carrying out orders – they were having a good time.
And if you search your heart honestly, and deeply, you will uncover moments when you have had a good time at someone else’s expense. Maybe a moment when you did something just to spite someone, to cause as much grief or embarrassment as you possibly could. Possibly a time as a little child when you decided to hurt an animal just because you could. Perhaps a moment when you mocked someone because of the way they looked. Cruelty takes many forms.
Those soldiers were cruel because they couldn’t see who Jesus was. They didn’t know He was their true King. They couldn’t imagine they were spitting on the only being in the world who could save them from their sins. And when we are cruel to others, it is because we do not see them as bearers of the divine image, those who are to be object of our love, not our spite.
Whenever you and I are cruel, we are no better than the soldiers who humiliated Jesus.
There is one more character to consider – Barabbas. And for me, he is the one that I most easily identify with. He was a lawless man condemned to death, and by all rights should have been executed by crucifixion. But Jesus took his place.
And I stand before the great Judge as one who has sinned, as one deserving of death, and should by all rights face the consuming fire of God’s wrath. But Jesus took my place. As Paul wrote in 2 Cor. 5:21:
21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
I have no way of knowing exactly where Barabbas was held in custody. The trial before Pilate apparently occurred the in palace of the high priest, and where Barabbas may have been held in relation to the palace is not explained in the text. But just imagine you were Barabbas that early Friday morning. Just perhaps outside the walls of your cell you hear a great crowd shouting. You can’t hear the words of one man, of course – the words of Pilate as he asks,
“Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matt. 27:17).
But maybe from where you were sitting you could hear the response of the crowd as “they all cried out again, ‘Not this man, but Barabbas’” (John 18:40). And when Pilate asks what should be done with Jesus, maybe if you were Barabbas all you could hear was the crowd say, “Crucify him!” As you heard the footsteps of the soldiers come to get you, if you were Barabbas, and you have just heard a mob shout “Barabbas” and “crucify him!” what would you think is about to happen?
But instead, the guards remove your chains and tell you, “This man is going to die instead of you, you’re free.”
There was a report in the news that a Saudi man who was released from Guantanamo after spending six years inside the prison camp has joined al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen and is now the terror group’s No. 2 in the country. Do you think that’s what Barabbas did? Return to his life of violence and terror? I would like to think that he stopped to thank Jesus, that he made the most of his second chance, that maybe he was so intrigued by the one who was about to die for him that he even became a Christian. We don’t know.
But what I do know is this. Jesus came to “proclaim liberty to the captives” (Luke 4:18), and that is the good news we offer you today. By the grace of God Jesus came to “taste death for everyone” (Heb. 2:9). And through His blood the chains of sin are broken. This man Jesus died for you, and now you can be free.
What will you do? Will you ignore Him? Will you leave here today and go back to doing what you’ve always done? Or will you entrust yourself to Him, be baptized into Him, and spend a lifetime thanking Him for what’s He’s done?