Marking your ballot can be challenging, especially when differences are not clear cut. Though there was no written ballot, look at Matthew 27:15–26 and the choices that Pilate put before the people for a voice vote.
This is a vote for freedom! The release of a prisoner was tied to the religious history of Israel. This was Pilate’s custom. We are not told if he instituted it, or if there was some Jewish tradition which he accommodated. There is no record of specific Biblical antecedents for the practice. It may have looked back to the Year of Jubilee. The theme of the release from debt and servitude ran through the celebration. We don’t know if the Year of Jubilee was ever celebrated in Israel (2 Chronicles 36:21), but the liberation of that celebration formed an important part of the messianic expectation (Isaiah 61, Luke 4). The Passover celebrated the deliverance the Lord provided for his people. The original Passover brought about the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The annual celebration continued to have overtones of freedom and deliverance.
God’s people were looking to Caesar for freedom. Pilate, seeking some way of releasing Jesus, gives the people a choice. Which shall he release? Note that as Pilate refers to Jesus he uses his messianic title, “the Christ.” The release of Barabbas reflected the desire for political liberation. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Barabbas was an insurrectionist. The request for the release of Barabbas indicated a desire for freedom—from Roman political rule. The people were seeking freedom by looking to Caesar. They were under Roman rule, but instead of looking to the One who was the stone, not cut with human hands, instead of looking to the Son of Man, they demanded the release of Barabbas. If they were going to obtain freedom, it would be their way, not through the path of humiliation chosen by the Lord. “These names constitute a ballot in which self-redemption by means of one’s own power and redemption through grace are placed next to each other. Salvation without humiliation and salvation by way of humiliation are placed in juxtaposition. Barabbas sacrifices others; the Nazarene sacrifices Himself. The one acts in the visible world; the other in the invisible. The first stands for revolution; the second for satisfaction. The former pleases the heart; the latter offends it. All this the heart of Pilate and of whatever is human puts together upon a single ballot.” (K. Schilder, Christ on Trial, p. 466)
This “ballot” is a sign of humiliation. This trial places Jesus outside the law. It was humiliating for Jesus to be paired with Barabbas. There is no written ballot, but the name of Jesus the Christ is set forward by Pilate alongside of that of Barabbas. It was also humiliating for Barabbas to be paired with the outlaw, Jesus. Barabbas may have been an insurrectionist, but he had been arrested, tried according to the law, and scheduled for execution according to the law. The One whose name was paired with his had been placed outside the law. He was not being judged by the law, but the law was being used as an excuse to execute him. You could say that Barabbas was an honest criminal, one who deserved execution for murder and insurrection. But his name is place alongside one who doesn’t even rise to the level of being judged by the law. Imagine if the trials of Kyle Rittenhouse or of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers had not taken place in courtrooms, but that the judge had stood on the courthouse steps and asked assembled crowds for their verdicts!
Yet, the condemned criminal is the King. The very process of this vote displayed the way the Savior was abandoned. Jesus is abandoned by the law of Israel and by the law of the Gentiles. His own people select the insurrectionist, Barabbas, instead of him, when one is to be released. His own Father in heaven, the one who is the very source of justice, abandoned his Son to be abused and rejected in this way. Yet, because he was humbled in this way Jesus emerged as the victor. The voice vote (actually a mob scream, manipulated by the elders of Israel) picks Barabbas the insurrectionist over Jesus, the Christ. But this is not a democracy. It is really a monarchy. And despite his appearance, bound before Pilate, the prisoner standing there is the King. This King chooses to suffer the indignation of being rejected, the pain of the crucifixion, the unspeakable torment of being abandoned by his Father. In his choice of that, the Messiah goes to the cross, but emerges the third day. This Messiah calls you to trust in him. Because of Christ’s choice, go ahead and mark your ballot in this election. Apply the principles of God’s word to the ballot measures. Evaluate the candidates for how well they will reflect God’s justice in this world. But don’t begin to think that the salvation of the world or of our nation ends, or even begins, with the ballot box. Remember that in being a good citizen of this nation, you first of all have a higher allegiance: to King Jesus.
Trust the innocent Savior who was humbled for you. Hand washing did not remove responsibility. Pilate was trying to release Jesus. He knew that Jesus was innocent, that the leaders of Israel had handed him over out of envy, verse 18. His own wife had sent a messenger telling of a troubling dream (v.19), asking Pilate to have nothing to do with this innocent man. Yet Pilate knew that it was dangerous to resist the desire of the crowd before him. Thus he offered the choice of Barabbas or Jesus for release, only to have the crowd pick Barabbas. Pilate tried to avoid responsibility, but the decision was his. And, as the Roman governor, he had both the authority and the army to enforce justice. This hand washing was an empty, hypocritical display. Hand washing was a symbol understood by Pilate as well as by Israel. The antecedents in Deuteronomy 21:6 (and Psalm 26:6) make the action especially significant for the Jews. They recognized the curse God placed on the shedding of innocent blood. But no basin could contain enough water to absolve Pilate of responsibility for what he was doing. The ceremony was worse than empty. It was a lie. The people accept responsibility. They cry, “His blood is upon us and upon our children.” Their cry involves a further rejection of the Messiah. They know that blood innocently shed cries out to the Lord, Genesis 4:10. Who would willingly accept that responsibility for himself and for his children? Rather, the crowd is confident (to the degree that they think about it at all) that this case in no way involves the shedding of innocent blood. Jesus is guilty, and he must die. They don’t really think that the blood of this Man will cry out from the ground.
You cannot escape the blood of Jesus—flee to him! You cannot escape the blood of Christ. This blood cries out against those who reject Jesus. This verse has been misused as an excuse for persecution of Jews. That is wrong. This was the hoarse cry of a manipulated mob. It had no authority to speak for the nation. Judgment did come on Israel for its rejection of the Messiah. The sufferings involved in the war and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is part of that. But don’t just look at the many crosses surrounding Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Don’t just look at the grim history through which the sons of Abraham have passed since that day. “The kingdom of heaven is no longer to be focused in the laos [the people], the city and the temple, but in the vindicated and and enthroned Son of Man who, after the temple is destroyed, will gather his chosen people from all the corners of the earth. All this will happen within this generation (cf. ‘us and our children’)…. As early as 8:11–12 Matthew has given notice of this impending change when he talked of many coming from the east and west to share in the banquet of the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while those who seemed the natural ‘sons of the kingdom’ would be thrown out.” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 1058) Judgment comes ultimately upon all who treat the Messiah and his kingdom as something insignificant, something they can take or leave. Ultimately the reason that Christ died was not that Pilate chickened out of acting responsible, not that the mob was willing to have his blood on their hands, not that Judas betrayed him, or that Peter denied him. The reason that the blood of the Messiah was shed is that your sins needed forgiving. You cannot wash your hands of responsibility for the death of the Messiah. But his blood does not cry out for vengeance. Because he humbled himself willingly to this death, because he died as the great Priest of his people, his blood communicates a far more hopeful message than that of Abel, Hebrews 12:24. Because he gave himself for you, his blood communicates mercy. grace, and forgiveness, instead of shouting for vengeance. Mankind still tries to play the blame-shifting game that Adam and Eve, Pilate and the priests played. We blame our parents, our environment, our culture, our politicians, anyone except ourselves. But God doesn’t let you get away with that. He holds you accountable. Yet, at the same time, as you turn to his Son, he covers your guilt with the blood that he willingly shed.
No hand scrubbing can cleanse you from the guilt of your sin. But what you cannot do, God does, ironically, through the blood of his Son, the one whose life was wrongfully taken but willingly given, so that you could have forgiveness. As you come to your Lord’s Table, come, not with pretended innocence, but with the forgiveness that only his blood can provide.