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In scene three (see introduction to 18:28—19:16) Pilate returns outside and announces that he finds Jesus innocent, that, as the NIV well expresses it, he finds no basis for a charge against him (v. 38). Luke tells us that the crowd at this point insists Jesus has been causing trouble all over Judea, beginning in Galilee (Lk 23:5). This gives Pilate an excuse to send Jesus to Herod, an occasion that only Luke records (Lk 23:6-12). This additional material is helpful because with just John's account it is not clear why Pilate does not simply release Jesus once he finds him innocent. John seems to refer to the crowd's shouting at this point when he says, "therefore, again (palin) they cried out saying" (v. 40). The crowd's insistence leads Pilate to offer to release Jesus, in keeping with your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover (v. 39). There is no other evidence for this custom (Brown 1994:1:814-20), but there is "no good reason for doubting it" (Robinson 1985:261; cf. Horbury 1972:66-67).
Pilate's use of the term king of the Jews (v. 39) is obviously sarcastic since he has just said Jesus poses no political threat. As is so often the case with sin, when one is succumbing to temptation one is given opportunities to come to one's senses and turn back (cf. 1 Cor 10:13; Ward 1994:44-50). Pilate's question can be seen as a chance for the opponents to renounce this determination to eliminate Jesus. But, of course, it is far too late. The Jewish opponents are rejecting Jesus precisely as their king.
So the crowd cries out again (or shouted back, NIV) that they want Barabbas, not Jesus (v. 40). Such dispute between a crowd and a Roman governor might seem strange, but it was not that unusual. Indeed, "Roman jurists expressly warn magistrates against submitting to popular clamour" (Horbury 1972:67). The picture of Pilate in Josephus and Philo is of a violent man who hated the Jews, which would lead one not to expect him to make any such offer to the crowd. But their picture of Pilate is probably overdrawn (cf. Brown 1994:1:693-705). Both authors, in fact, cite an instance when Pilate did give in to Jewish pressure (Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18.55-59 par. Josephus Jewish Wars 2.169-174; Philo Legatio ad Gaium 302). The present occasion, of course, will play out the same way.
John describes Barabbas as a lestes, which the NIV renders by saying he was one who had taken part in a rebellion. There were many sorts of revolutionary leaders in Israel in the first century (cf. Brown 1994:1:679-93; Horsley and Hanson 1985; Horsley 1992). The term lestes is not used to refer to such people during the time of Jesus, but it is so used later in the century, after the revolt of A.D. 66 (Brown 1994:1:687). However, two of the other Gospels mention that Barabbas was indeed involved in an insurrection (Mk 15:7; Lk 23:19), so this is probably how John is using the term. The crowd demands the release of one under arrest for his threat against Rome. Their decision is very much "of this world."
There is a stark contrast between Barabbas, a violent man concerned with this world's politics, albeit religious politics, and Jesus, whose kingdom is not of this world, though it is active in this world. There is also irony in the name Barabbas itself, since it means "son of Abba"—the word Abba, "father," was used as a proper name (Brown 1994:1:799-800), but, especially in John's Gospel, Jesus is known as the Son of the Father. The crowd was choosing between two different approaches to liberation as represented by two men identified, in different ways, as "son of Abba." Here is the deceptiveness of sin that has been evident since the Garden of Eden. There is a path that looks right and seems to be of God, yet it is actually against him and his ways. The people choose their own path of liberation rather than God's, and they therefore choose "not the Savior, but the murderer; not the Giver of life, but the destroyer" (Augustine In John 116.1). Every time we choose sin we do the same, whether the sin is blatant or deceptive.
Pilate has rejected Jesus, his otherworldly kingdom and the truth, so he is left responding to the demands of the pressures of this world. He does not like the alternatives offered him by either Jesus or the opponents, but he is being forced to decide. Here is a picture of John's dualism, indeed, the dualism found throughout the Scriptures. God and Satan are both putting pressure on. Both desire us, though for very different purposes. "There is no neutral ground in the universe: every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counterclaimed by Satan" (Lewis 1967:33). Each of us faces the same challenge Pilate here faces. Even though we are able to avoid the crunch for now, we will not be able to do so forever. The Mercy would not allow that.