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Matthew 27:23 meaning

The Crowd Wears Pilate Down: As the crowd was shouting "Crucify Him!" Pilate asks them two questions to recall them from their frenzied obsession with killing Jesus. Pilate asks them: "Why He should be crucified? What evil has He done deserving of such a punishment?" The crowds ignore his questions and keep shouting all the more—"Crucify Him!" This event is part of the third phase of Jesus's Civil Trial. This phase is called: "Pilate's Judgment." 

Mark 15:14, Luke 23:22 are the direct parallel gospel accounts of this event.

Luke 23:23, John 19:4-8, 19:12-15, however, seem to be more detailed accounts of Matthew's summary in the second half of this verse.

It was now the middle of the third phase of Jesus's civil trial. The third phase of Jesus's civil trial was at the Praetorium (John 18:28, 19:9). This phase began while it was still morning, most likely sometime around 8:00 a.m. (According to Mark 15:24, Jesus is on the cross at 9:00 a.m.). According to the Jewish calendar, the day was likely Nisan 15—the first day of Unleavened Bread. By the Roman calendar, this was probably a Friday.

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)

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

When the crowds unexpectedly demanded that Pilate release Barabbas instead of Jesus with his customary "Passover Pardon," the Roman governor asked them: "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" (Matthew 27:22a). They all shouted back: "Crucify Him!" (Matthew 27:22b). Pilate's attempt to release Jesus by means of using his "Passover Pardon" had failed. 

(This was his second attempt to release Jesus by Luke's reckoning. Pilate's initial offer to flog Jesus despite His innocence was his first attempt—Luke 23:16).

By now it was apparent that the judicial protocol of Jesus's civil trial has been flipped upside down. Pilate, who was the sole judge of the case was acting as if he was a defendant seeking consent from Jesus's accusers who were judging and condemning the governor's verdict. 

Meanwhile Jesus, who was without fault (Luke 23:4, 23:14-15, John 18:38) quietly stood by, obedient to His Father's will (Luke 22:42), as His corrupt trial exploded around Him.

With the all the crowd shouting "Crucify Him!" (Matthew 27:22) in response to his question, the Roman governor asked them two more questions to call them to their senses.

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

And he said, "Why, what evil has He done?" (v 23a).

Pilate's first question was simply: Why? 

The governor was asking the crowd: "Why do you want me to crucify Him?" This was the fully expressed version of his question. But apparently Pilate only uttered—Why? Pilate's brief utterance shows how dumbfounded he was that the crowd would want to kill an innocent man and release to them a dangerous criminal. 

From his perspective, there was no legal or logical explanation for their murderous hatred of Jesus. Pilate knew that they envied Jesus (Matthew 27:18, Mark 15:10), but their hatred of this man apparently went far beyond what he supposed.

Pilate's second question was: What evil has this man done?

The implied answer to this question was: "Nothing. Jesus has done no evil." 

Even the religious leaders who illegally conspired and falsely condemned Him found no real fault with Him. Their false witnesses failed to substantiate any wrongdoing during their midnight tribunal at Caiaphas's house (Matthew 26:57-62, Mark 14:59). 

Desperate to convict Him before word got out about their wicked conspiracy to murder the man many believed to be the Messiah, the high priest illegally staged an incident—putting Jesus under oath to reveal His identity in order to declare (illegitimately) that He had committed the crime of blasphemy (Matthew 26:63-66, Mark 14:61-64). Even this false accusation would not justify Roman crucifixion.

Neither had Pilate nor Herod found any fault in Him (Luke 23:14-15). 

What evil has this man done? 

Matthew records the crowds' response to Pilate's questions.

But they kept shouting all the more, saying, "Crucify Him!" (v 23—See also Mark 15:14)

Luke's Gospel does not record the crowds' response. In their own way, Matthew, Mark, and Luke each indicate that the crowds ignored Pilate's questions rather than answer them. The crowds were emotionally fixated on Jesus's crucifixion—Crucify Him! Reason and logic were powerless means of persuasion at this point. 

Moreover, the priests and elders bent on Jesus's death likely would have deliberately avoided answering Pilate's questions, because the questions' framing focused on the truth. They knew the truth would not have yielded the outcome they sought (John 3:20). They were seeking a predetermined outcome. 

Luke's Gospel records that Pilate answered his own questions: "I have found in Him no guilt demanding death" (Luke 23:22b). This is the fourth time Luke has recorded Pilate declaring Jesus to be innocent (Luke 23:4, 23:14, 23:15, 23:22). Through these declarations from the Roman governor, Luke was demonstrating to his Gentile-Greek audience that Jesus truly is their ideal of a perfect human.

Jesus was blameless and without sin (Matthew 5:17-18, 5:48, 2 Corinthians 5:21, Hebrews 4:15, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5). 

From a Jewish perspective, Jesus was the spotless Lamb of Passover (1 Peter 1:19). 

When Pilate said, "I have found in Him no guilt demanding death" (Luke 23:22b)—he should have immediately ended the trial and released Jesus. But he did not. He remained fearful of Jesus's accusers.

Luke's Extended Account of this Moment
At this point, Matthew's Gospel seems to skip ahead to Pilate's final appeal and verdict (Matthew 27:24-26). Mark's Gospel does something similar (Mark 15:15). Matthew appears to resume this portion of the narration in verse 27.

"Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. They stripped Him…"
(Matthew 27:27-28a)

The reason "they stripped Him" of His clothes was because they were about to scourge Him. Matthew's narration of these events focuses first on Pilate's decision about Jesus as the governor went back and forth with the chief priests and elders (Matthew 27:2, 27:11-26). Matthew then goes back to explain Jesus's mistreatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers (Matthew 27:27-30). 

Luke's Gospel, which was written to the history-minded Greeks, retells the events "in consecutive order" (Luke 1:3). Luke tells us what Pilate said and did after the governor answered "I have found in Him no guilt demanding death" (Luke 23:22b) to his questions: Why, what evil has He done? What Pilate did next was to announce:

"Therefore I will punish Him and release Him."
(Luke 23:22c)

Luke informs us that Pilate was making a third attempt to appease the crowds by ordering Jesus to be scourged despite His innocence before he would release Him. 

Pilate had offered to do this earlier (Luke 23:16) with his first appeal. Now at his third appeal to the crowds, he followed through with it. Luke, whose style is more reserved, does not explicitly describe the brutality and humiliation of Jesus by the Roman soldiers, but he clearly alludes to it with Pilate's order to "punish Him" (Luke 23:22c). 

John's Gospel, confirms what Luke is alluding to and explicitly specifies that Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged shortly after the people clamored for Barabbas (John 18:40 - 19:1),

"Pilate then took Jesus and scourged Him."
(John 19:1)

Matthew and Mark will describe Jesus's scourging and humiliation at the hands of the Roman soldiers after they describe the outcome of Jesus's civil trial (Matthew 27:26-30, Mark 15:15-20). But in both of their summaries of these events (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15), the Gospel writers establish that Pilate's sequence was:

1.) release Barabbas
2.) scourge Jesus
3.) hand Jesus over to be crucified 

Perhaps Pilate hoped that the sight of Jesus's being mutilated would satisfy the crowd's thirst for His blood. We will describe the brutal punishment of scourging and the suffering Jesus likely endured when He was flogged in our commentaries of Matthew 27:27-30, Mark 15:16-19, John 19:1-3

According to Luke's Gospel, this was the Pilate's third attempt to release Jesus. But as Matthew succinctly observes the more the trial went on, the more the crowd appeared to have only one thing on their mind: Crucify Him!

Among the events of Jesus's trial that Matthew's summary does not explain in detail are:

  • Pilate's pitiful presentation of Jesus to the Jews as a scourged and bloodied king—"Behold the Man" (John 19:5). 
  • The Jews' shift in charges against Jesus from "Insurrection" to "Blasphemy" (John 19:6-7).
  • Pilate's second interview with Jesus (John 19:8-11).
  • The Jews' blasphemous declaration: "We have no king but Caesar" (John 19:15).

See The Bible Says commentaries for Luke 23:23-25, John 19:4-5, John 19:6-7, John 19:8-11, John 19:12-15 to see a more detailed explanation of how the crowd continued to yell Crucify Him!

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