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Why Pilate sentenced Jesus to death

Jan 07, 2015

Pilate thought that he might escape having to deal with the accusations that the chief priests had made against Jesus by sending Him to King Herod. Herod was very glad to see Jesus, for he had wanted to meet Him and perhaps even witness a miracle. But Jesus refused to talk to Herod, probably because Herod might have set Him free.

Herod was not afraid of the chief priests. But as we will see, Pilate had a “skeleton” in his closet, and the chief priests were not afraid to use it to force Pilate’s hand. Jesus discerned that in order to fulfill His destiny on the cross, He had to be sent back to Pilate.

Luke 23:13-16 says,

13 And Pilate summoned the chief priests and the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. 15 No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving of death has been done by Him. 16 I will therefore punish Him and release Him.”

The Lamb of God had been selected by the chief priests on Monday, Abib 10, according to the law in Exodus 12:3. He had been examined in the temple as He taught the people for four days. On Friday morning as Jesus stood before Pilate, He was pronounced blemish-free on the fourteenth day of the first month (Exodus 12:6).

The fact that a Roman governor was eligible to make such a pronouncement to fulfill this prophecy shows us that it was not necessary in the divine law for the chief priest to make this determination. Neither was it a requirement that a Jew or even a religious leader make this decision for it to be effective in the divine court.

By extension, when the body of Christ was later persecuted and killed for His sake, Scripture treats such martyrs as sacrifices, whose blood was poured out under the altar of God (Revelation 6:9). Though they were killed on account of false accusation, their legal decisions on earth were not upheld by the divine court. Neither did the priests or government officials on earth have authority to determine the martyrs’ eternal destiny.


All the gospel writers agree that at this point Pilate tried one more time to appease the chief priests through a customary act of mercy on Passover. Luke 23:17 says,

17 [Now he was obliged to release to them at the feast one prisoner.]

This verse is not in the original text of Scripture, so it should be omitted. The NASB puts it in brackets to indicate this. Ivan Panin’s Numeric New Testament agrees, omitting it from the numerically-inspired text. Apparently, some later scribe thought it would be helpful to insert that information in Luke’s gospel, since it was already in the others. That was not a good idea. Nonetheless, the other gospel writers tell us that releasing a prisoner at the time of Passover was the practice at the time. Matt. 27:15, 16 says,

15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the multitude any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they were holding at that time a notorious prisoner called Barabbas.

Mark 15:6, 7 says,

6 Now at the feast he used to release for them any one prisoner whom they requested. 7 And the man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.

In this, Pilate appealed to the people themselves, knowing from previous reports that Jesus was popular among the crowds. But that particular crowd was swayed by their loyalty to the religious leaders, and any who remained on Jesus’ side had to remain silent to avoid the wrath of the chief priests. In John 18:39, 40 Pilate says,

39 “But you have a custom, that I should release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?” 40 Therefore they cried out again, saying, “Not this Man, but Barabbas.” Now Barabbas was a robber.

Pilate probably chose the worst robber in the prison in order to make Jesus the obvious choice for release. Mark indicates that Barabbas had taken part in a recent local uprising—probably a riot in Jerusalem (Luke 23:19), where someone was killed. But Pilate’s strategy did not work, because the chief priests felt threatened by Jesus’ teachings and His popularity. If Jesus had been accepted as the Messiah, most of the religious leaders would have lost their positions in government. So regardless of how bad Barabbas was, it was imperative that Jesus be crucified.

So Mark 15:11 says,

11 But the chief priests stirred up the multitude to ask him to release Barabbas for them instead.

It is of interest to us that according to reports as early as the second century, this robber’s full name was Jesus Barabbas, or “Jesus, Son of the Father.”

Some ancient Syriac copies of Matthew, and a few other ancient sources, call the freed prisoner "Jesus bar Abbas"…. From this evidence, many scholars have concluded that Barabbas' original name was "Jesus bar Abbas".

Prophetically speaking, then, the people were given a parallel choice. Which Jesus would they choose? Which was the true “Son of the Father,” that is, the true Son of God? Was it the Jesus, the Insurrectionist? Was it Jesus the Prince of Peace? Which kind of messiah did they wish to have? In choosing a representative of the evil figs of Jeremiah 24, they exposed their hearts. Hence, it appears that this was their final decision, not only before Pilate, but more importantly, before God in the divine court, to declare themselves as good or evil figs.

Luke 23:18-21 says,

18 But they cried out all together, saying, “Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!” 19 (He was one who had been thrown into prison for a certain insurrection made in the city, and for murder.) 20 And Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again, 21 but they kept on calling out, saying, “Crucify, crucify Him!”

Being stirred up by the chief priests, the people present at the trial would hear of no verdict other than for Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate then knew that his strategy had failed, so he once again insisted that He would release Jesus. Luke 23:22-25 says,

22 And he said to them the third time, “Why, what evil has this man done? I have found in Him no guilt demanding death; I will therefore punish Him and release Him.” 23 But they were insistent, with loud voices asking that He be crucified. And their voices began to prevail. 24 And Pilate pronounced sentence that their demand should be granted.

John records more arguments between Pilate and the chief priests, as Pilate tried very hard to set Jesus free. He even tried to obtain help from Jesus, but He would not say anything in His own defense.

Being a Friend of Caesar

John 19:12 says,

12 As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”

At this point, Pilate knew that he was beaten. Their statement, “you are no friend of Caesar,” was a thinly veiled threat. Prior to his appointment to Judea, Pilate had been friends with a man named Sejanus, who was a friend and confidant of Tiberius Caesar. Sejanus had risen to power as a Prefect, or commander of the Praetorian Guard, which was much like today’s Secret Service that is charged with guarding the President.

In 26 CE, Tiberius retired to the remote and almost inaccessible island of Capri, never to return to Rome again.15 Sejanus had played a major role in convincing Tiberius to do this.16 He also "proved" his total loyalty to Tiberius by shielding Tiberius with his own body during a cave collapse that year.17 While still retaining his full imperial authority, he left Sejanus in Rome as his regent. From this point on, Sejanus' power increased dramatically. He was not only Tiberius' spokesman, which made the senators curry his favor; he also carefully controlled all communications to Tiberius on Capri.18 In this way, Sejanus was able to prey on Tiberius's fears of revolt and use him to eliminate the legitimate successors of Tiberius. Whether Sejanus was actually aspiring to become emperor, or only seeking to eliminate possible heirs so that he would not be eliminated by them when they came into power is not clear.19 What is clear is that he used his position to eliminate them.

In 31 A.D. Tiberius was told that Sejanus was seeking to usurp Tiberius’ position as emperor, and so Tiberius had him deposed and executed the same day, October 18. The emperor then had all of Sejanus’ family killed, as was customary. For the next three years he then conducted trials of any friends that Sejanus had during that time, investigating their activities to see if they were involved in the coup attempt.

The available evidence indicates that Pilate was appointed to the office of prefect of Judea by Sejanus….

Sejanus despised Jews and sought to eliminate them from the empire. After his execution, however, Tiberius realized that those charges were false, and so he issued a decree in 32 A.D. telling his government officials not to mistreat the Jews. It is likely that Pilate shared Sejanus’ contempt for Jews, and this may have played a role in his conflict with the chief priests at the trial of Jesus. Nonetheless, Pilate’s behavior toward the Jews in Judea changed after the decree of Tiberius in 32.

Jesus was crucified at Passover of 33 A.D. The execution of Sejanus about 18 months earlier provides us with the reason for the Jewish leaders’ threat, “you are no friend of Caesar," as we are told:

The term "friend of Caesar" (Latin: amicus Caesaris) is a technical term reserved for senators, knights and administrators who were meritorious and thus favored by the emperor.68 To lose this title was to lose not only one's post, but also to possibly complete ostracism from Roman life, as illustrated by Gallus in 26 BCE under Augustus.69

Therefore, the Jews were uttering a threat to Pilate. They were claiming to have the power to potentially have Pilate stripped of this title. This threat is highly significant for two reasons. First, it is inconceivable that the Jews would utter it as long as Sejanus was in control. They knew that all communication to Tiberius was controlled by Sejanus, and they also knew that Pilate's anti-semitic policies were in accordance with Sejanus' policies.70 Such a threat makes sense only if Tiberius is back in control of the empire and if Pilate is under imperial censure or warning because of his association with Sejanus.

Second, even if the Jews did utter such a threat, Pilate would have had no reason to respond to it while Sejanus was in control. Pilate's response becomes intelligible only after 31, when Sejanus was deposed.

Tiberius’ investigation finally extended to those friends of Sejanus that were far away. Pilate was recalled to Rome, but Tiberius died while Pilate was en route to Rome, as this article says:

Pilate was removed from office to appear immediately before Tiberius, but Tiberius died while Pilate was en route. Tiberius died on March 16, 37 CE.52 Therefore, Pilate was removed no later than late 36 CE.

Pilate’s history helps us to date Jesus’ crucifixion, because the threats against him would make no sense prior to the execution of Sejanus in October of 31. Those who believe, for doctrinal reasons, that Jesus was crucified in 30 A.D. do not take this into consideration.

Barabbas and the Second Work of Christ

25 And he released the man they were asking for who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, but he delivered Jesus to their will.

With Barabbas’ release, we see the first connection between Passover and its parallel feast, the Day of Atonement. The two works of Christ are prophesied in the two sets of feast days: Spring and Autumn feasts. Although this present feast was Passover, we see also the two goats of the Day of Atonement being depicted in the two men named Jesus. The first goat was to be killed, while the second was to be released (Leviticus 16:9, 10).

God seems unconcerned that a robber-murderer would serve as a prophetic type of the second work of Christ. But then, He had no problem calling Cyrus a “messiah” in Isaiah 45:1, even though that Persian king did not know God (Isaiah 45:4). Cyrus was a prophetic type of Christ in his role as the conqueror of Babylon, which has implications for us today as we observe the fall of Mystery Babylon. Again God is using men who do not know Christ to do His work. Isaiah uses this fact to prove God’s sovereignty.

This is the 132nd part of a series titled "Studies in the Book of Luke." To view all parts, click the link below.

Studies in the Book of Luke

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Dr. Stephen Jones

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