What If Pilate Had Released Jesus?

The killing of Jesus was nothing but judicial murder – a crude political expediency. Jesus was arrested on Friday morning about 2am, in the Garden of Gethsemane. By 3pm he was dead. It was nothing but premeditated murder: “All the high priests and religious leaders met and put finishing touches on their plot to kill Jesus. Then they tied him up and paraded him to Pilate, the governor.” (Matthew 27:1-2 MSG) Everyone knew he was innocent of the charges. Even Judas. “Judas, the one who betrayed him, realized that Jesus was doomed. Overcome with remorse, he gave back the thirty silver coins to the high priests, saying, “I’ve sinned. I’ve betrayed an innocent man.” They said, “What do we care? That’s your problem!”” (Matthew 27:3-4 MSG) Judas threw the death procurement money into the Temple and promptly went and committed suicide. The high priests picked up the silver pieces, but then didn’t know what to do with them. “It wouldn’t be right to give this — a payment for murder! — as an offering in the Temple,” they said. (Matthew 27:6) So they knew it was murder.

When the high priests took Jesus before Pilate, he asked them what the charge against Jesus was. They retorted, “If he hadn’t been doing something evil, do you think we’d be here bothering you?” Pilate responded, “You take him. Judge him by your law.” To which they countered, “We cannot legally put anyone to death.” (John 18:30-32) Jesus’ death was foreclosed before trial. The Jewish religious council merely brought him to Pilate for death sentencing.

The high priests bought a plot of land with the money returned by Judas and turned it into a cemetery for foreigners. That plot became known as “Field of Blood” or “Murder Meadow”. (Matthew 27:8 MSG) So everyone knew what was going on. Those blokes got rid of a populist political threat and rival. But it was impossible to do so without the complicity of Pilate.


Psilate is an interesting and tragic historical figure. He served as governor of Judea, Samaria and Idumea under Emperor Tiberius from 26-36 A.D. He was brutal about law enforcement sand he knew the religious leaders had arrested Jesus out of envy. (Matthew 27:18) Three specific charges were laid against Jesus. He was accused of undermining law and order, forbidding payment of taxes to Caesar, and setting himself up as Messiah-King. (Luke 23:1-2) When Pilate questioned Jesus, Jesus responded and spoke of a non-earthly kingdom. Pilate decided to cut to the chase and pointedly asked Jesus, “So, are you a king or not?” (John 18:37 MSG) Jesus directed the discussion into alethiology – the study of the nature of truth: “Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.” (John 18:37 MSG) “What is truth?” Pilate derisively asked. The answer was right there in front of him, after all Jesus had singularly defined himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life. (John 14:6) But truth was Pilate was scared. All this conversation with Jesus took place behind the scene, in the palace. The Jewish religious leaders had stayed outside the palace to avoid ceremonial defilement. If they entered they would become ritually unclean to conduct the Passover ceremonies in the Temple. Defilement lasted seven days. Funny they didn’t see the irony in suborning murder yet going before God to conduct religious ceremonies. These guys were lost in rituals. And they never realised Jesus was the Passover Lamb. (1 Corinthians 5:7) It was him they were commemoratings!

Finding nothing against Jesus Pilate tried to pardon him. “He seems harmless to me,” he said. (Luke 23:4) But the people were vehement. When Pilate sought to acquit Jesus the Jews came up with a trump card. In calling himself “Son of God” he blasphemed, they said. And blasphemy was a capital offence under Jewish law. At this our friend Pilate became even more afraid. These guys were going to kill Jesus no matter what. Who knew what the consequence would be! Then they piled it on: “He’s stirring up unrest among the people with his teaching, disturbing the peace everywhere, starting in Galilee and now all through Judea. He’s a dangerous man, endangering the peace.” (Luke 23:5 MSG) At the mention of Galilee Pilate saw room to wriggle. Galilee was Herod’s jurisdiction so he decided to pass the buck to Herod. Herod was the ruler of Galilee and Perea who beheaded the cousin of Jesus, John the Baptizer. And so Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. Herod was only 400m away anyway. It turns out Herod had been looking forward to meeting Jesus. He wanted to see a miracle, you know – some “magic.” He began to pepper Jesus with questions but Jesus refused to answer, at which Herod took great offence. He then began to taunt Jesus and soon his soldiers joined in. They dressed Jesus up in royal costume and sent him back to Pilate. And that was how Pilate and Herod became buddies – over tossing Jesus up and down between them, sharing jurisdiction over his trial.

When the people sensed Pilate was prevaricating over the issue they ramped up political blackmail: “Pilate tried his best to pardon him, but the Jews shouted him down: “If you pardon this man, you’re no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone setting himself up as ‘king’ defies Caesar.” (John 19:12 MSG) Pilate’s appointment was in jeopardy. This must not get back to Caesar. Seeing the way things were going, he decided to conduct an impromptu and unrepresentative referendum on capital punishment on Jesus. It was customary for the Roman governor to grant state pardon to a prisoner every Passover celebration. Pilate put Jesus on the options menu. The other option was another Jesus – Jesus Barabbas, a notorious and murderous insurrectionist. (John 18:38-39) But as Pilate sat in the judgment seat in the area designated Stone Court (Gabbatha) his wife sent him a message: “Leave that innocent man alone. I suffered through a terrible nightmare about him last night.” (Matthew 27:19 NLT) Thus even metaphysical law pointed to the innocence of Jesus, not just moral or judicial law.

Whipped up by the high priests the people chose Jesus Barabbas instead of Jesus the Christ. The whole thing was going to turn into a riot so Pilate acquiesced. And then he sought to absolve himself in a dramatic manner. “He took a basin of water and washed his hands in full sight of the crowd, saying, “I’m washing my hands of responsibility for this man’s death. From now on, it’s in your hands. You’re judge and jury.” (Matthew 27:24 MSG) The crowd responded, “We’ll take the blame, we and our children after us.” (Matthew 27:25 MSG) It’s been a debate ever since whether that generation bound subsequent generations. But then strangely Pilate had Jesus whipped! How do you whip a man you declared innocent? He did it to please the crowd. He then handed Jesus over for crucifixion.

The soldiers took Jesus into the palace (the Praetorium) and called together the entire brigade. They dressed him up in purple and put a crown plaited from a thorn-bush on his head. Then they began their mockery: “Bravo, King of the Jews!” They banged on his head with a club, spat on him, and knelt down in mock worship. After they had had their fun, they took off the purple cape and put his own clothes back on him.” (Mark 15:16-20 MSG) Purple is the colour of royalty.

Pilate went back to the high priests and the crowd and said to them, “I present him to you, but I want you to know that I do not find him guilty of any crime.” And just then Jesus came out wearing the thorn crown and purple robe. Pilate announced, “Here he is: the Man.” – “Ecce homo.” (John 19:4-5 MSG) He symbolically washed his hands off the crucifixion of Jesus but the blood has since refused to wash off his name.

But what if Pilate had released Jesus? That was near impossible. Pilate was afraid. There would have been a riot, a breach of the peace. And Roman governors don’t like breaches of peace. Anyway, it is doubtful Jesus would have made it out of that palace alive. The mob was already incited. A riot was about to start. If that riot had started Pilate would have had to suppress the uprising, which would have cost him politically. He was afraid of losing his posting. Ironically, a subsequent riot in Samaria did indeed cost him his posting. Historians tell us he ended up being removed for brutally supressing that uprising. Philo and Josephus record that Pilate was deposed and sent to Rome by Lucius Vitellius, the consul and governor of Syria. He was replaced by Marcellus, a friend of Lucius Vitellius.

The trial of Jesus led directly to his crucifixion. Jesus was bound to be crucified. There were prophecies concerning the crucifixion. Jesus himself had predicted his own death and the manner of death. (John 18:32) And Isaiah had also prophesied – “He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence. Justice miscarried, and he was led off — and did anyone really know what was happening? He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for the sins of my people. They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, Even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true.” (Isaiah 53:7-9 MSG)

If you’ll like to give your life to Jesus, please pray this prayer: Father I acknowledge that I am a sinner, that Jesus Christ died for me and that you raised him from the dead. Please forgive me Father. I accept Jesus today as my Lord and my Saviour. Amen.


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