We have here the blessed Jesus run down by the mob, and hurried to the cross in the storm of a popular noise and tumult, raised by the malice and artifice of the chief priests, as agents for the prince of the power of the air.
I. Pilate solemnly protests that he believes he has done nothing worthy of death or of bonds. And, if he did believe so, he ought immediately to have discharged him, and not only so, but to have protected him from the fury of the priests and rabble, and to have bound his prosecutors to their good behaviour for their insolent conduct. But, being himself a bad man, he had no kindness for Christ, and, having made himself otherwise obnoxious, was afraid of displeasing either the emperor or the people; and therefore, for want of integrity, he called together the chief priests, and rulers, and people (whom he should have dispersed, as a riotous and seditious assembly, and forbid them to come near him), and will hear what they have to say, to whom he should have turned a deaf ear, for he plainly saw what spirit actuated them (Luke 23:14): “You have brought,” saith he, “this man to me, and, because I have a respect for you, I have examined him before you, and have heard all you have to allege against him, and I can make nothing of it: I find no fault in him; you cannot prove the things whereof you accuse him.”
II. He appeals to Herod concerning him (Luke 23:15): “I sent you to him, who is supposed to have known more of him than I have done, and he has sent him back, not convicted of any thing, nor under any mark of his displeasure; in his opinion, his crimes are not capital. He has laughed at him as a weak man, but has not stigmatized him as a dangerous man.” He thought Bedlam a fitter place for him than Tyburn.
III. He proposes to release him, if they will but consent to it. He ought to have done it without asking leave of them, Fiat justitia, ruat coelum—Let justice have its course, though the heavens should be desolated. But the fear of man brings many into this snare, that, whereas justice should take place, though heaven and earth come together, they will do an unjust thing, against their consciences, rather than pull an old house about their ears. Pilate declares him innocent, and therefore has a mind to release him; yet, to please the people, 1. He will release him under the notion of a malefactor, because of necessity he must release one (Luke 23:17); so that whereas he ought to have been released by an act of justice, and thanks to nobody, he would have him released by an act of grace, and not be beholden to the people for it. 2. He will chastise him, and release him. If no fault be to be found in him, why should he be chastised? There is as much injustice in scourging as in crucifying an innocent man; nor would it be justified by pretending that this would satisfy the clamours of the people, and make him the object of their pity who was not to be the object of their envy. We must not do evil that good may come.
IV. The people choose rather to have Barabbas released, a wretched fellow, that had nothing to recommend him to their favour but the daringness of his crimes. He was imprisoned for a sedition made in the city, and for murder (of all crimes among men the least pardonable), yet this was the criminal that was preferred before Christ: Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas, Luke 23:18, 19. And no wonder that such a man is the favourite and darling of such a mob, he that was really seditious, rather than he that was really loyal and falsely accused of sedition.
V. When Pilate urged the second time that Christ should be released, they cried out, Crucify him, crucify him, Luke 23:20, 21. They not only will have him die, but will have him die so great a death; nothing less will serve but he must be crucified: Crucify him, crucify him.
VI. When Pilate the third time reasoned with them, to show them the unreasonableness and injustice of it, they were the more peremptory and outrageous (Luke 23:22): “Why? What evil hath he done? Name his crime. I have found no cause of death, and you cannot say what cause of death you have found in him; and therefore, if you will but speak the word, I will chastise him and let him go.” But popular fury, the more it is complimented, the more furious it grows; they were instant with loud voices, with great noises or outcries, not requesting, but requiring, that he might be crucified; as if they had as much right, at the feast, to demand the crucifying of one that was innocent as the release of one that was guilty.
VII. Pilate’s yielding, at length, to their importunity. The voice of the people and of the chief priests prevailed, and were too hard for Pilate, and overruled him to go contrary to his convictions and inclinations. He had not courage to go against so strong a stream, but gave sentence that it should be as they required, Luke 23:24. Here is judgment turned away backward, and justice standing afar off, for fear of popular fury. Truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter, Isa. 59:14. Judgment was looked for, but behold oppression; righteousness, but behold a cry, Isa. 5:7. This is repeated in Luke 23:25; with the aggravating circumstance of the release of Barabbas: He released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, who hereby would be hardened in his wickedness, and do the more mischief, because him they had desired, being altogether such a one as themselves; but he delivered Jesus to their will, and he could not deal more barbarously with him than to deliver him to their will, who hated him with a perfect hatred, and whose tender mercies were cruelty.