Authority figures like to hold on to power. Politicians in the USA campaign constantly in order to hold onto their elected offices. Dictators such as Bashar al-Assad of Syria kill anyone who questions their rule. When you’re king of the hill, you fight to stay on top.
So what in the world does Jesus think he’s doing?
“Are you the King of the Jews?” That’s the only question Pontius Pilate cares about. If Jesus is simply a maverick religious leader, then Pilate isn’t interested in the case. He is the Roman governor, and he has no interest in getting entangled with Jewish religious matters.
However, if this Jesus is claiming to be a Jewish king, as the Jewish religious leaders insist, then Rome has no choice but to act. There can be no king but Caesar.
But when Pilate asks his question, Jesus simply responds, “You have said so.” It’s a terse way of telling Pilate, that yes, he is King of the Jews, but he’s not the kind of king that Pilate is thinking of. Beyond these words, Jesus says nothing to defend himself against his accusers. Pilate is shocked. Doesn’t Jesus realize that his life is at stake here? Why won’t he say a word to defend himself?
Pilate instinctively suspects that the only thing Jesus is guilty of is being the object of the chief priests’ envy. They are afraid of his growing influence in Israel. So he looks for a way to escape this awkward situation. He doesn’t want to enrage the chief priests; the last thing he needs is an uprising. His opportunity comes when a crowd gathers in his courtyard to ask him to pardon a prisoner, which is his custom during the Passover. So he appeals to the crowd, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”
What Pilate hasn’t foreseen is that the chief priests have already gotten to the crowd. They demand that Pilate release a murderer named Barabbas. Mark comments that this man “committed murder in the insurrection”—a recent revolt against Roman rule. So instead of calling for Jesus, their rightful king, the mob cries out for Barabbas, a rebel and a murderer.
Pilate is at a loss. “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” he asks. “Crucify him!” the crowd shouts.
“Why? What evil has he done?” Pilate is a cruel governor, but even his conscience is bothered by this injustice. Without giving any reason, the mob roars, “Crucify him!”
Pilate gives in. He wants to spare Jesus, but if sacrificing an innocent man is what it takes “to satisfy the crowd,” he’s willing to dispense with this obscure Galilean rabbi. He orders Jesus to be crucified, after being viciously scourged by his soldiers.
Up to this point, it has been the Jewish leaders who have rejected Jesus. Now, Pilate rejects him as well. Both Jew and Gentile conspire to crucify the Son of God. They stand in judgment over him and condemn him as unworthy of life.
Our English translations say that Jesus was crucified between two “robbers.” In fact, the word translated robber was used by the Jewish historian Josephus to describe insurrectionists who opposed the Roman government. Rome had no interest in crucifying common thieves; crucifixion was a public spectacle meant for rebels against Rome. This Passover, three crosses have been prepared for three rebels. But on the central cross will hang a King in place of a rebel. Jesus will die so that Barabbas may live.
The crucifixion is horrible and beautiful. The rightful King is put to death by his own people, the Jews, and by the Gentiles to whom he offers hope. He is a threat to their power, so they attempt to eliminate him. But all this is part of his plan to die as a substitute for rebels who oppose the kingdom of God.
Nobody escapes guilt here. You and I fight every day to maintain control over our lives, to try to manipulate God and other people to give us the security and power and approval that we want. Each of us wants to be king. So we are the chief Priests, we are Pilate, and we are the hostile mob. And we are Barabbas, alive and free because our King was crucified in our place.
May we praise our King and give him the honour he deserves, because he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).