*Scripture verses covered in this section's commentary are noted in italics

Matthew 27:20-22 meaning

Verses covered in this passage:

  • Matthew 27:20
  • Matthew 27:21
  • Matthew 27:22

The Crowd Chooses Barabbas

The crowd responds to Pilate’s offer to use the governor’s “Passover Pardon” on Jesus by shouting at Him to give them Barabbas instead. Barabbas had been imprisoned for insurrection and murder. Pilate wanted to release Jesus and tries to persuade the crowd again, but they kept on calling out—“Crucify, crucify Him!”

This event is part of the third phase of Jesus’s Civil Trial. This phase is called: “Pilate’s Judgment.”

Mark 15:11-13, Luke 23:18-21, and John 18:40 are the parallel gospel accounts of this event.

After Pilate receives a warning from his wife to have nothing to do with the condemnation of Jesus (Matthew 27:19), Matthew tells us how the crowds responded to the governor’s offer to use his Passover Pardon to release Jesus. This all was part of the third phase of Jesus’s civil trial. 

The three phases of Jesus’s civil trial were:

  1. Jesus’s Arraignment before Pilate
    (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-14, Mark 15:1-5, Luke 23:1-7, John 18:28-38)
  2. Jesus’s Audience before Herod Antipas
    (Luke 23:8-12)
  3. Pilate’s Judgment
    (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38-19:16)

The third phase of Jesus’s civil trial regathered at the Praetorium after He was returned from the court of Herod Antipas. The Praetorium was the sight of Herod’s palace, now used by Pilate, who succeeded Herod. It also included barracks for the Roman soldiers. The probable site of the Praetorium has been located by archeologists near the Jaffa Gate, just inside the current city wall. 

This final phase of the civil trial happened while it was still morning, most likely sometime between 8:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. (Mark 15:24 indicates that Jesus was on the cross at 9:00 a.m.). According to the Jewish calendar the date was Nisan 15—the first day of Unleavened Bread. By Roman reckoning, the day was probably a Friday.

To learn more about the timing and sequencing of these events, see The Bible Says’ “Timeline: Jesus’s Final 24 Hours.”

A Recap of the Third Phase of Jesus’s Trial
Once the trial resettled at the Praetorium for the third phase, Pilate summarized the proceedings, reminding everyone of the charges and the interview the governor had conducted with the defendant (Luke 23:13-14a). He then pointed out that he had found no fault in Jesus and neither had Herod Antipas (Luke 23:14b-15). 

As Roman governor, Pilate possessed the legal authority to decide the case, and having interviewed Jesus, he knew He was innocent of the charges. At this moment Jesus should have been released. But He was not released. 

Pilate realized this ‘not-guilty’ verdict greatly upset the Jewish leadership and he seemed afraid to release Jesus if it upset the chief priests and elders. So, he began looking for ways to appease their anger while still liberating the innocent defendant—even if it meant breaking Roman law to mitigate their outrage. 

The first attempt he offered as a consolation for releasing Jesus was having Him punished (by Roman flogging) despite the prior rulings of innocence declared by the Roman governor of Judea and the tetrarch of the Galilean district (Luke 23:16). Apparently, this did not work.

Pilate’s second attempt to release Jesus was to use his annual “Passover Pardon” which Luke described in his interjection: “Now he was obliged to release to them at the feast one prisoner” (Luke 23:17). The idea for this attempt, may have been first suggested by someone in the crowds who was sympathetic to Jesus (Mark 15:8), and from the Gospels of Mark and John when Pilate initially proposed it to the crowds, he may have only offered this customary pardon for Jesus.

“Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”
(Mark 15:9)

“But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?”
(John 18:39)

Matthew’s Gospel is the only one of the four where Pilate seems to offer the crowds a choice between Barabbas and Jesus before he hears a response. This could indicate that Pilate’s offer evolved from initially proposing only the release of Jesus to then incorporating the crowds’ response of Barabbas as a second option. Matthew appears to explain Pilate’s offer thematically to link it to the Day of Atonement rather than detailing how the governor’s offer may have evolved as the other Gospels appear to do.

To learn more about this thematic linkage, see The Bible Says article “Jesus and Barabbas: Matthew’s Thematic Connection of Pilate’s Offer to The Day of Atonement.” 

But after announcing this offer, the governor sat down on the judgement seat, possibly to give the crowds a moment to consider. “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message” warning her husband to “have nothing to do with [the conviction or punishment of] that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him” (Matthew 27:19).

The Crowds’ Answer to Pilate
This delay and interruption apparently gave Jesus’s enemies enough time to maneuver. 

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death (v 20).

If Pilate initially offered the crowds a choice between Jesus or Barabbas then the chief priests and elders, who desperately wanted Jesus killed, persuaded the crowds to choose the option of Barabbas

However, if Pilate only offered Jesus, as indicated from the context of the other three Gospels, then the chief priests and elders’ maneuver was especially clever. If true, they were taking the governor’s initial offer of Jesus and shrewdly reframing it to include an alternative more to their liking—one that would lead to Jesus’s death

Pilate’s offer to release or condemn “the King of the Jews” was likely intended to be a wedge between the people and their religious leaders. But the chief priests and elders shrewdly reframed the choice as one between releasing the prisoner whom the respectable Jewish leaders wanted (Barabbas) or the prisoner the oppressive Gentile governor proposed (Jesus). The chief priests and elders also may have reframed it as a choice between “Barabbas, the heroic insurrectionist who hates Rome” (like you do) or “Jesus, the Blasphemer of God.” 

The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds of two things: to ask for Barabbas; and to put Jesus to death

Mark’s more concise Gospel account indicates that the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas (Mark 15:11). 

Neither Matthew nor Mark detail precisely how the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds toward these things—only that they did. It is worth pointing out that the crowds needed persuading—which indicates that at least some of their sympathies were either neutral or inclined toward Jesus. The crowds were not fully in on their conspiracy to condemn Jesus to death (Matthew 26:3-4). Many of the people of Jerusalem hoped or believed that Jesus was the Messiah as evidenced by the Messianic shouts of “Hosanna!” and the lines they sang from Psalm 118 as Jesus entered Jerusalem a few days earlier (Matthew 21:8-11). 

However, the crowds were persuaded to a different opinion of Jesus by the chief priests and elders—who were the religious leaders they followed and admired. The chief priests and elders probably persuaded them using malicious slanders against Jesus rather than monetary bribes, or some other means. They needed to persuade the crowds quickly. Bribery would have been too overt and obviously illegal. 

Public and open bribes to the crowds would have raised alarms and taken too much time, not to mention been quite easy to expose after the fact. The priests and elders needed something that would quickly ignite their rage against Him without much pushback now or later. Whatever the priests and elders used to persuade the crowds, it worked. Given the crowds’ angry response against Jesus, it is a reasonable speculation that they somehow slandered Jesus to the crowds that He was a blasphemer. 

When Pilate finally gave his ear to listen to the crowds’ reply, the governor did not get the answer he was expecting. Luke writes:

“But they cried out all together, saying, ‘Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!’”
(Luke 23:18).

Luke reports that the crowds “cried out all together” as a way to indicate that they were all of the same opinion and voice. The Greek term which is translated as “all together” in Luke 23:18 is the adverb παμπληθεί (G3826: pronounced “pam-play-thi”). It indicates that the crowds were crying out in a concerted effort.

What the crowds were saying as they cried out all together was the demand that Pilate do two things—the same two things that the chief priests and elders had persuaded them to ask for

  1. Put Jesus to death—“Away with this man! (Luke 23:18)
  2. for Barabbas (to be released)—“and release for us Barabbas!” (Luke 23:18) 

The crowds no longer wished to hear any more about a pardon for Jesus. Condemn this man! Kill this man! Away with Him! Put Jesus to death!

Once again, the other Gospels seem to suggest that the chief priests and elders twisted Pilate’s initial offer to pardon Jesus who is called the Christ: “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” (Mark 15:9) and reframed it to include the alternative—release for us Barabbas! 

(If Barabbas’s given name was Jesus, as some in the early church claimed and as explained in The Bible Says Matthew 27:15-16 and Matthew 27:18-19 commentaries, then the priests and elders’ alternative may have been a play on words: Kill Jesus who calls Himself the Christ. Release for us Jesus Barabbas instead). 

Apparently caught off guard by the crowds’ response, Pilate asked them to state their answer.

But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas” (v 21).

The crowd demanded that the governor release Barabbas, instead of the man whom the governor had hoped they would choose for releaseJesus

Pilate, however, still wanted to release Jesus, so he “addressed them again” (Luke 23:20). 

Matthew seems to have recorded what the governor said when he “addressed them again” (Luke 23:20). 

Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” (v 22a). (See also Mark 15:12).

The crowds’ response to Pilate’s question about Jesus as recorded by Matthew was: They all said, “Crucify Him!” (v 22b). 

 Luke records their response to the governor’s question as: “but they kept on calling out, saying, ‘Crucify, crucify Him!’” (Luke 23:21). 

Peter, in the Book of Acts, says that the crowds “acted in ignorance, just as your rulers did also” (Acts 3:17) when they called for the Messiah to be crucified. Their ignorance did not make them innocent, but they, like the soldiers who nailed Him to the cross, did not know what they were doing (Luke 23:34) when they asked for Pilate to crucify Him

The Gospels’ depictions of the crowds’ demand—Crucify! Crucify! Crucify Him!—do not seem to describe a unified chant, but a veritable storm of shouts and screams from all sides demanding that Pilate crucify Jesus. Crucify! Crucify! Crucify Him!—they kept on calling out—Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Crucify Him! as their rage filled Pilate’s ears and shook his nerve. 

Their unrelenting cries of Crucify Him was the crowd’s insistence that Pilate execute Jesus by means of Roman crucifixion. 

Roman crucifixion entailed putting its victims on a raised wooden beam by the wrists (often with nails) to hang there until death. Archeological evidence also shows that the ankles were sometimes nailed separately on either side of the cross’s main beam. Crucifixions were done in public places with the crimes posted for all to see as a way to warn against future crime. 

Criminals would sometimes suffer on their crosses for several days before they died from suffocation, dehydration, or cardiac arrest. The entire process was intended to be torturous and degrading and serve as a deterrent for breaking Roman law. 

To learn what Roman crucifixion entailed, see The Bible Says article “Bearing the Cross: Exploring the Unimaginable Suffering of Crucifixion.”

Pilate’s offer to pardon Jesus by means of his annual “Passover Pardon” tradition at the Feast of Unleavened Bread was the Roman governor’s second attempt to release Jesus in a manner which he hoped would be acceptable to the crowds. And it was the second time he failed to do so. Pilate will continue to make appeals to the crowds for Jesus’s release and he will continue to fail until finally he caves to their pressure and gives Jesus over to be crucified (Luke 23:23-24). 

After Jesus was raised from the dead, Peter would remind the Jews of their demand for Pilate to condemn the Messiah and to release Barabbas, and call them to repent.

“Jesus, the One whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of life.”
(Acts 3:13b-15a)

Remarkably, it seems that God not only was willing to forgive His people of murdering His Son, but He was also ready to restore and redeem Israel if that generation would repent of their choice and believe in Jesus (Acts 3:19-20).

When Pilate released Barabbas (Matthew 27:26a, Mark 15:15a, Luke 23:25a), Barabbas’s life is literally saved in a physical and legal sense. His liberation from Roman prison is a result of Jesus taking his place and being punished for his crimes. In this sense, Barabbas (who was guilty of insurrection) becomes a tangible illustration that Jesus (who was innocent and falsely condemned of insurrection) was sent to save sinners. 

It is fitting that Jesus (the innocent Savior of the world) literally dies in place of a criminal. The moment he is pardoned, Barabbas instantly becomes a living breathing depiction of one who is saved by Jesus spiritually, through receiving a new birth (John 3:3). Barabbas’s earthly physical salvation is a graphic picture of everyone who is saved spiritually from the penalty of sin—spiritual death and separation from God—through the death of Jesus who died on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Biblical Text

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. 21 But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!”

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