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Matthew 27:11-26 -
Jesus Before Pilate,
by Scott Sperling
11Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
12When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 14But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
15Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”
26Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
The narrative here continues from verses 1 and 2 of this chapter, which read: “Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Matt. 27:1-3). “It was in the ‘morning’ that followed the dark night in Gethsemane, and opened the dread day of the crucifixion” [Thomas, 523]. So begins one of the few most significant days in human history.
As stated, the purpose of the chief priests in bringing Jesus to Pilate was “to have Jesus executed.” The chief priests, in and of themselves, did not have the right to sentence a man to death, so they sought out Pilate with the purpose of convincing him to sentence Jesus to death. Thus, the action of bringing Jesus to Pilate was essentially an act of murder, for the chief priests knew that Jesus was innocent of any crime that deserved death.
So Jesus stood before Pilate, who was the local governor, representing the Roman government which controlled Jerusalem at the time. In the book of Luke, we learn that the chief priests told Pilate: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2). This short statement is full of misleading half-truths, and lies. Jesus did “subvert” the chief priests, but called them out in matters of religion, specifically in regard to their religious hypocrisy. Jesus did not “oppose payment of taxes to Caesar”; on the contrary, Jesus said: “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21). Jesus did claim to be “the Messiah”, but not a political Messiah against the Romans. Jesus did not seek to bring political salvation from the Romans, but rather spiritual salvation from our own sins..
Following these false charges, Pilate confronted Jesus: “Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘You have said so,’ Jesus replied” (vs. 11). “In Roman trials the magistrate normally heard the charges first, questioned the defendant and listened to his defense, sometimes permitted several such exchanges, and then retired with his advisors to decide on a verdict, which was then promptly carried out” [Carson].
Matthew abbreviates the conversation between Jesus and Pilate concerning Jesus’ kingship. In the Gospel of John, we are given more details about this exchange between Jesus and Pilate: “Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’ ‘Am I a Jew?’ Pilate replied. ‘Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’ Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’ ‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.’ ‘What is truth?’ retorted Pilate” (John 18:33-38). So Jesus made it clear to Pilate that He was no threat to Rome, saying, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Moreover, “clearly, one sight of Jesus was enough to tell this experienced governor that this was no terrorist, no leader of a revolt aimed at overthrowing the Romans. Pilate would also have known that Jesus had no high position, no wealth, no soldiers, a preposterous position for anyone claiming to be a king” [Morris, 699].
The chief priests then brought more specific charges against Jesus to Pilate, probably the same “false evidence” that was used in front of the Sanhedrin (see Matt. 26:59): “When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, ‘Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?’ But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor” (vss. 12-14). Matthew does not even dignify the lies by enumerating the specific allegations of the chief priests. “The specific allegations did not matter; they were determined to have him executed, and to refute their accusations was irrelevant. If these charges were shown to be false, they would raise others. They were not concerned with justice but with an execution” [Morris, 700]. Jesus also does not dignify the false charges; instead, “Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge.” Peter later writes of this: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus, as He did at Gethsemane, committed Himself to His Father’s will. In His silence, Jesus fulfilled prophecy found in the book of Isaiah: “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
Pilate saw through the motives of the chief priests, and knew that Jesus was innocent of capital charges, and so, did not want to condemn Jesus. Then Pilate proposed a way to release Jesus that would, in a way, save face for the chief priests, in that it would not be a case of Roman authorities over-ruling the desires of the chief priests: “Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him” (vss. 15-18). We learn in the Gospel of Luke that Barabbas was “thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder” (Luke 23:19). So Barabbas clearly deserved capital punishment. Pilate hoped the crowd would recognize this, and free Jesus.
At this point, the trial of Jesus was interrupted in an unusual way: “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him’” (vs. 19). It is surprising, and sad, that the only testimony (in effect) on Jesus’ behalf during the trial was made, not by any of Jesus’ disciples, nor apostles, nor followers, but by Pilate’s wife. “When all Christ's disciples were fled from Him, when none of His friends durst speak a word for Him, God raises up a woman, a stranger, a pagan, to give evidence of His innocency” [Burkitt, in Lange, 517]. “This was an honourable testimony to our Lord Jesus, witnessing for him that he was a just man, even then when he was persecuted as the worst of malefactors. When his friends were afraid to appear in defense of him, God made even those that were strangers and enemies to speak in his favour: when Peter denied him, Judas confessed him; when the chief priests pronounced him guilty of death, Pilate declared he found no fault with him; when the women that loved him stood afar off, Pilate’s wife that knew little of him, shewed a concern for him” [Henry, 240]. “It was necessary that by all means the righteousness of Christ should be borne witness unto, that in his condemnation, not for his own sins, but for ours, our justification from sin might shine the more clearly; therefore, among other testimonies of Christ’s innocency, Pilate’s wife, extraordinarily moved, sent [a message to Pilate]” [Dickson, 330].
Pilate, knowing that Jesus was innocence, receives further confirmation of this through his wife. This message from Pilate’s wife can be seen as a message from God, to check Pilate from going down the path of sin and injustice, in using his power to condemn and kill Jesus. “Note, God has many ways of giving checks to sinners in their sinful pursuits, and it is a great mercy to have such checks from providence, from faithful friends, and from our own consciences, and our great duty to hearken to them” [Henry, 240].
While Pilate received and digested the message from his wife, the chief priests were busy: “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed” (vs. 20). In stirring up the crowd to release Barabbas, the chief priests give proof of their utter wickedness by corrupting the crowd to join with them in their crime. “This deliberate preference of a bad man to a good one, of a justly condemned criminal to one whom even Pilate recognized as innocent, would have been enough to brand the conduct of the priests with infamy. But when to this we add that they preferred a murderer to the Lord of life, a rebel and a robber to a prophet, to their own Messiah, nay, to the incarnate Son of God himself, this perverseness seems almost incredible and altogether irreconcilable with rectitude of purpose and sincere conviction” [Alexander, in Broadus, 564].
Pilate returned to continue the proceedings: “‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?’ asked the governor. ‘Barabbas,’ they answered” (vs. 21). “Barabbas is preferred to Jesus whenever the offer of salvation is rejected” [Scott, in Lange, 517]. “This mad choice is every day made, while men prefer the lusts of their flesh before the lives of their souls” [Trapp, 272].
Because of his release, in a situation where he fully deserved the punishment of death, Barabbas becomes symbolic of each and every one of us: Christ died in his place. “Jesus was falsely accused of sedition, and a man really guilty of sedition was released” [Broadus, 563]. “It may be that the two who were crucified with Jesus were co-rebels with Barabbas, for Matthew 27:38 calls them [a word that should be translated] ‘rebels,’ ‘guerrillas,’ or ‘insurrectionists’, and their crucifixion indicates they were judged guilty of more than robbery. The fact that three crosses were prepared strongly suggests that Pilate had already ordered that preparations be made for the execution of the three rebels. If so, Jesus the Messiah actually took the place of the rebel Barabbas because the people preferred the political rebel and nationalist hero to the Son of God” [Carson].
At this point, it appears that Pilate, though nominally in authority, has ceded all power to the mob: “‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’” (vs. 22). “It was absurd for them to prescribe to the judge what sentence he should pass, but their malice and rage made them forget all rules of order and decency, and turned a court of justice into a riotous, routous, and seditious assembly” [Henry, 240].
Pilate’s question, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” is a question that every human being must ask himself. Shall I accept Jesus’ sacrifice, and proclaim Him Lord of my life? Or shall I mock Him, along with the raucous mob?
The raucous mob chose to “Crucify him!” This baffled Pilate: “Why? What crime has he committed?” (vs. 23). “It is much for the honour of the Lord Jesus, that though he suffered as an evil doer, yet neither his judge nor his prosecutors could find that he had done any evil. Had he done any evil against God? No, he always did those things that pleased God. Had he done any evil against the civil government? No, as he did himself, so he taught others to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s. Had he done any evil against the public peace? No, he did not strive or cry, nor did his kingdom come with observation. Had he done any evil to particular persons? Whose ox had he taken, or whom had he defrauded? No, so far from that, he went about doing good. This repeated assertion of his unspotted innocency, plainly intimates that he died to satisfy for the sins of others” [Henry, 240].
Despite Jesus’ utter innocence, the crowd persists: “Crucify him!” All reason had left the crowd. Blood-lust had taken over and won the day. “Now was truth fallen in the street, and equity could not enter. Where one looked for judgment, behold oppression, the worst kind of oppression for righteousness; behold a cry, the worst that ever was, crucify, crucify the Lord of glory. Though they that cried thus, perhaps were not the same persons that the other day had cried ‘Hosanna’, yet see what a change was made upon the face of the populace in a little time: When he rode in triumph to Jerusalem, so general were the acclamations of praise, that one would have thought he had no enemies; but now when he was led in triumph to Pilate’s judgment-seat, so general were the outcries of enmity, that one would think he had no friends. Such revolutions are there in this changeable world, through which our way to heaven lies” [Henry, 240].
“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (vs. 24). The onset of an “uproar” tipped the scales of justice, and brought the hearing to an end. “The Romans desired two things in the provinces: tribute and peace. A successful governor was one who kept everything quiet, and popular tumult was greatly disliked, as being troublesome and expensive, if not dangerous” [Broadus, 565].
So Pilate “washed his hands” of the whole thing, claiming to be “innocent of this man’s blood.” Yet then Pilate went on to hand Jesus “over to be crucified” (see vs. 26). Though Pilate blamed the crowd, he himself had the power to release Jesus. Pilate was far from innocent. “Had he steadily and resolutely adhered to the sacred laws of justice, as a judge ought to do, he had not been in any perplexity; the matter was plain, and past dispute, that a man in whom was found no fault, ought not to be crucified upon any pretence whatsoever, nor must an unjust thing be done to gratify any man, or company of men in the world” [Henry, 241].
And yet, Pilate “washed his hands”, believing that this made him “innocent”. However, the washing of hands in impotent water accomplishes nothing as far as innocence or guilt is concerned. Only the washing “in the blood of the Lamb” (see Rev. 7:14) will effect the innocence and clear conscience that Pilate sought. Only clothing ourselves with Christ as we accept His sacrifice on our behalf will impart to us blamelessness in the eyes of God, and allow us to bypass the punishment we so richly deserve. “Too weak an element to wash off guilt; which is not purged but by the blood of Christ, or fire of hell” [Trapp, 272].
Nevertheless, Pilate shouted to the rioting crowd: “‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’” (vs. 25). A generation later, in 70 AD, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the Jews were scattered throughout the world. During the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome, many Jews were scourged and crucified: “Titus, during the siege, A. D. 70, caused many captured fugitives, sometimes five hundred a day, to be ‘scourged and tortured in every form, and then crucified in front of the ramparts. . . . And so great was their number that there was no space for the crosses, nor were there crosses for the bodies’ (Josephus, ‘War’, 2:14:9; 5:11:1)” [Broadus, 565].
The trial thus came to an end: “Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (vs. 26). Matthew does not give here details about the “flogging”, but it was a brutal, horrid, and horrible punishment in itself. “The whip was the dreaded flagellum, made by plaiting pieces of bone or lead into leather thongs. The victim was stripped and tied to a post. Severe flogging not only reduced the flesh to bloody pulp but could open up the body until the bones were visible and the entrails exposed” [Carson]. The flogging of the Messiah was foreseen; it was referred to and hinted at by various Old Testament scriptures: “Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long” (Ps. 129:3); “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting” (Isa. 50:6); “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5). The flogging of Jesus was not incidental; it was significant, for “by His wounds we are healed.” “Christ was scourged when we had offended, that he might free us from the sting of conscience, and those scourges and scorpions of eternal torments; that he might make us a plaister of his own blessed blood, ‘for by his stripes we are healed’, by the bloody weals made upon his back we are delivered. We hold it a thing almost beyond belief, that the applying of medicines to the sword that wounded a man shall make the wounds heal in a man. But here is a mystery that only Christian religion can tell of, and of which there never was precedent in nature, that the scourging and wounding of one man should cure another” [Trapp, 273].
Bibliography and Suggested Reading
Alexander, Joseph Addison. The Gospel According to Matthew. New York: Charles Scribner Publishers, 1861.
Broadus, John. Commentary on Matthew. Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1886.
Calvin, John. Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke. 3 Vols. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846. (Originally published in Latin in 1555).
Carson, D. A. “Matthew” from The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII, ed. by Frank Gaebelein. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Clarke, Adam. The New Testament of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Vol. I. New York: G. Lane & C. B. Tippett, 1846. (Originally published in 1831).
Dickson, David. A Brief Exposition of the Evangel of Jesus Christ According to Matthew. Cornhill, U.K.: Ralph Smith, 1651.
Exell, Joseph S. and Henry Donald Spence-Jones, eds. The Pulpit Commentary. Vols. 33 & 34. New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1884.
Henry, Matthew. An Exposition of All the Books of the Old and New Testament. Vol. IV. London: W. Baynes, 1806. (Originally published in 1710).
Jamieson, Robert; Fausset, A. R.; Brown, David. A Commentary: Critical, Experimental, and Practical on the Old and New Testaments. Glasgow: William Collins, Queen’s Printer, 1863.
Keener, Craig S. Matthew (IVP New Testament Commentary). Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011.
Lange, John Peter, ed. and Philip Schaff, trans. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical. New York: Charles Scribner & Co., 1865.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to Matthew. Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1992.
Ryle, J. C. Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Matthew. New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857.
Spurgeon, Charles. The Gospel of the Kingdom: A Popular Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew. New York: The Baker and Taylor Co., 1893.
Thomas, David. The Genius of the Gospel: A Homiletical Commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew. London: Dickinson & Higham, 1873.
Trapp, John. A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. Vol. V (Matthew to Revelation). Edmonton, Canada: Still Waters Revival Books (www.PuritanDownloads.com). (Originally published c. 1660).
Wilkins, Michael J. “Matthew” from Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002.
All of these books, except Carson, Keener, Morris, and Wilkins can be downloaded free of charge from: