Pilate is between a rock and a hard place. The Jewish leaders have asked him to carry out the execution of Jesus, a man who Pilate believes to be innocent. Pilate was extremely superstitious. He can only imagine how the gods would ultimately punish him if he so severely punished an innocent man like this. Yet, if he did not give the Jewish leaders what they wanted he was sure that they would stir up the crowd into a riot which would get back to Tiberius. Pilate was already warned by the Emperor that one more upheaval and he would most certainly lose his position and most likely his life.
Pilate comes up with the idea to use the custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover to free him from this plight. He would set Jesus up against Barabbas, the most notorious criminal of that day and let the people choose which he should release. Surely they would choose Jesus over Barabbas. However, Pilate underestimates the ability of the Jewish religious leaders to stir up the crowd. As Pilate asks for their decision, the mob cries for Barabbas to be released. Pilate’s utter dismay at this turn of events is seen by his inquiry to the crowd, “Then what shall I do with Jesus?” The crowd’s answer causes Pilate to shiver in fear. “Crucify Him,” they yell. “Crucify Him!”
Pilate’s problem was that he knew Jesus was innocent. This is seen all throughout the Gospel accounts (Jn 18:38; 19:4-6; Mt 27:24; Lk 23:14-22). But the crowd was nearing riot stage with their insistence that Jesus be crucified. Pilate feared the people more than he feared the gods. He wanted to satisfy the people (Mt 27:24) so that he could keep his position of power. Pilate had no moral courage whatsoever. So he does three things. He releases Barabbas. He has Jesus scourged (probably hoping that this would be enough to satisfy the blood-thirst crowd, but it wasn’t). Finally, he hands Jesus over to be crucified.
If you have seen the movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” then you have some idea how brutal scourging was. It was reserved for male murderers. So cruel was it that Roman citizens were exempt from its punishment. It was conducted by trained soldiers called, “lictors,” who used a whip with a short wooden handle with strips of leather, imbedded with pieces of metal or bone. The criminal was tied to a post with his wrists high over head and his feet dangling so that his body was taunt. Muscles and arteries were lacerated and often the kidneys, spleen and other organs were exposed and even slashed. Some criminals did not even make it to crucifixion as they would die of the scourging.
The soldiers then took Jesus into the Praetorium, the Jerusalem residence of Pilate. They mockingly dressed Him in purple, the color of royalty. They twisted a crown of thorns and put it on His head and verbally mocked Him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They used clubs to beat the crown of thorns deep into His head and they struck Him with their fists. They repeatedly spit on Him and knelt before Him in mock homage. And through this all, Jesus gave an example to His followers of how they should conduct themselves in the face of persecution (see First Peter 2:21-24). When the tired of using Jesus for entertainment, they put His clothes back on Him and led Him out to crucify Him.