In many ways the passion account's real turning point occurs here. Until this point, the common people have been strongly supportive of Jesus. On a few occasions the leadership had found it prudent not to carry out its threats against Jesus because of the people (20:19; 22:2). But now the people react against Jesus, stopping Pilate's attempt to release him.
Pilate regards Jesus as not worthy of death but still does not grant him freedom. Two leaders have acquitted Jesus, but that is not enough. The Jewish teacher has become a political football. In a crazy game, a murderer is released and a deliverer is slain.
The scene begins with Pilate's attempt to release Jesus. He addresses everyone—the chief priests, the rulers and the people. Pilate is clear that he regards the Jews as having "no basis for your charges against him." Herod has taken the same position: there is nothing deserving death in Jesus. Pilate proposes a compromise: he will beat Jesus and then release him. The beating would be either the less severe fustigata or the dreaded verberatio, which would leave one on the edge of death. In either case, the whip used possessed short teeth that would cut the skin and lead to bleeding. Pilate supposes that punishment would deter the teacher and calm the leadership.
But no compromise can be found. When the decision comes for Jesus to be crucified, he receives the heavier beating, the verberatio, since it prepares the victim for crucifixion and makes death come more quickly.
In an astounding act of popular judgment, all call out for Barabbas's release. They choose a violent insurrectionist and murderer over Jesus. A shocked Pilate tries to persuade them otherwise. Luke explicitly states that Pilate wants to release Jesus. But the crowd insists on Jesus' execution.
For a fourth time, and for the third time publicly, Pilate tries to halt the momentum (vv. 4, 14, 20, 22). Asking the crowd to name the evil Jesus has done, he repeats his verdict that Jesus has done nothing meriting a death sentence. Pilate still wishes only to "discipline" (paideuo) Jesus with the whip. But they kept shouting, and later they insistently demanded. Again the imperfect tenses stress the ongoing cry for Jesus' demise. They want him crucified.
In the face of such a public outcry, Pilate crumbles. Their shouts prevailed. Pilate grants their demand: Barabbas will go free, while Jesus is surrendered . . . to their will. Acts 3:13-14 will allude to this verdict, while Jesus' prediction recorded in Luke 22:37 comes to pass. Jesus is reckoned among the criminals, even though he is innocent. He is suffering as a servant. Though the suffering is unjust and intense, exaltation will follow (Is 52:13-15). He also has been "handed over" to the Gentiles (Luke 18:32), only to be handed back to the Jews.
There is both tragedy and a lesson in this event. The tragedy is that justice has not prevailed. Sin's blindness has caused the nation to reject its Savior. The decision to miss the opportunity for deliverance is a grave mistake. Luke tells the story of the turnaround in the people's attitude to show the fickleness with which Jesus is treated. In a way he was trivialized by the people. Such trivializing has often been Jesus' lot in history. For Luke, the loser is the one who reduces Jesus to a trivial pursuit.
The lesson has to do with why the trivializing is tragic. Jesus is the substitute for the sinner. Barabbas's release and Jesus' death make up a portrait of the exchange God engages in to save sinners from the penalty of their ways (Rom 5:5-9). This sacrifice at the altar of injustice is the ultimate expression of God's love. Amazingly, in the midst of a monstrous injustice God can design a means of victory. Jesus' death means the possibility of life for another. No matter how severe the sin, release is made possible through Jesus' death.
The people think they have stopped Jesus. But in fact their action both exposes sin and shows how God will deal with it. The offer of the Savior became the better sacrifice. Eternal life can now be offered to those who recognize who he is and who they are before him (Heb 8—10). Sinners need to see their sin as a blot before God, producing a chasm between him and them. Those who come to this realization can now experience forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus, the One sacrificed on their behalf. In this way Jesus has "purchased" the church through his own blood (Acts 20:28). In death has come the opportunity for life. Just ask Barabbas.
Jesus will die as an innocent martyr, one of the many saints who have suffered unjust rejection. Numerous Old Testament quotes develop this Lukan theme of rejection. In the story of the crucifixion to follow, lament psalms are quoted that detail how saints of old suffered unjustly. The earlier use of Psalm 118 in Luke 13:34-35 and 19:38 has the same background. Psalm 2 is quoted in Acts 4:24-28 to make a similar point. Speeches in Acts 2 and 3 will say explicitly that Jesus died unjustly. The just one dies unjustly for the unjust to make them just! The ways and wisdom of God are beyond our figuring out; we cannot understand them until he gives us revelation.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.