Every Jewish teacher in first-century Israel had to deal with the problem of Rome, and Jesus is no exception. When Jesus taught about loving enemies and going a second mile (Matthew 5:38-48), or told His disciples to return Caesar’s coin to Caesar (Matthew 22:15-22), He was teaching His disciples how to respond to sometimes brutal overlords.
Jesus had also helped a Roman soldier and commended his faith (Matthew 8:1-13; cf. 2 Kings 5). Now, in Matthew 27, Jesus stands on trial before Pilate and is mocked by Roman soldiers. The trial reveals Pilate’s impotence but also prepares us for the last word in Matthew, the commission to evangelise the nations.
The first Passover involved an exchange of sons: the lord took Egypt’s firstborn sons, and delivered Israel’s.
Pilate offers a similar exchange to the Jews in Matthew 27:16-17, 21. Barabbas (his name means “son of the father”) was a Jewish freedom fighter (Mark 15:7), and so the decision before the Jews is not only a decision between two men but a decision about their future relationship with the Roman empire.
Will they choose the way of armed revolution or the way of Jesus?
They make the fateful choice for Barabbas. Pilate on the other hand is stuck between the Jews clamouring for Jesus’ death and his wife who, like Joseph and the wise men (Matthew 1:20; 2:12-13, 19, 22), has received revelation in a dream (Matthew 27:19).
Despite his power to command a battalion of soldiers, Pilate knows he can do nothing (Matthew 27:24) and, fearing a riot, bows to the pressure of the crowd.
Washing his hands of blood guilt goes back to Deuteronomy 21:1-9, where the elders of the city deal with an unsolved murder by washing their hands and laying the guilt of the murder on a heifer.
For their part, the people who have gathered as a mob outside Pilate’s house accept the blood of Jesus upon themselves and their children.
Pilate essentially cedes authority to the Jewish people. The decision to crucify was theirs, not his, and the soldiers are acting on orders from the Jews. And so, when Rome’s officials turn around and say that Jesus is the king of the Jews, they are, ironically, saying that He is their king too.
The world would not put its own god to death, the little gods that run around inside our heads, gods that men imagine; gods like us. And the world cannot actually put God to death. But it would if it could, and in putting Christ to death, the world showed the true enmity it has toward God.
The enmity between the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman is as alive as ever in our world. The names may change, but the game remains the same. If Jesus was here, walking around today, the unbelieving world would seek to kill Him. And if we reflect Him faithfully, they may come after us.
The way of Jesus is neither passive nor revolutionary. We are not waiting around for the end to come. Neither are we to attempt to bring about Christendom through spears and swords. The way of Jesus is faithfulness to God, fully confident that He is able to sustain us in our day of trial and keep us faithful to His word in all that we say and do.
And many peoples will come and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob. He will teach us His ways so that we may walk in His paths”…. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. (Isaiah 2:3-4)
We are those who have been given a plough, not a pipe bomb. We build, we plant, we grow Christian community and disciples the nations. We do this according to the measure of Christ’s gift to each one of us. We do it with a humble heart in a multitude of ways.
The world won’t like it and would, if they could, like to stop us as they tried to stop Jesus.
They would if they could, but they can’t.
This is our hope and our motivation for continuing on in faithfulness to God before a watching world. If we bleed, we bleed. If we suffer, we suffer for His sake. And though we die, we shall be raised from the dead.
How do we know this? We know this because Jesus is King, King over all men, and He has promised it.