"Then the multitude, crying aloud, began to ask him to do just as he had always done for them" (Mark 15:8). It was still early in the morning, and the vast majority of Jerusalem was ignorant of what was transpiring at Pilate's palace. However, there was a multitude of Jews before Pilate demanding that an annual tradition be honored. Pilate probably welcomed the request as a possible escape from his difficulties since he had failed to successfully pass Jesus off upon Herod.
Matthew 27:15 provides more information - "Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished." It is unknown as to when this custom of releasing a prisoner of a subjugated nation was introduced, but such was not exclusively a Roman tradition.
"Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?" (Mark 15:9). Pilate was probably knowledgeable of Jesus' triumphant entry earlier that week on Sunday. Perhaps he thought that Jesus' popularity with the common Jews would cause the multitude to clamor for His release (in accordance with their annual tradition). Thus, Pilate is hoping that the crowd will overwhelmingly plea (in contrast to the religious leaders) for Jesus' freedom. If such happened, then Pilate could easily release Jesus without any significant political backlash. However, if Pilate had such expectations, they were misplaced.
"You have brought this Man to me, as one who misleads the people. And indeed, having examined Him in your presence, I have found no fault in this Man concerning those things of which you accuse Him" (Luke 23:14). Pilate admits again that he has found no fault with Jesus, yet he lacks the courage to release Him.
"I will therefore chastise Him and release Him" (Luke 23:16). Pilate declares his intent to scourge Jesus, but he does not do such at this moment. He is attempting to pacify them without actually killing Jesus. It should be noted that Pilate's inhumanity and callused heart is certainly seen in the fact that he is willing to scourge Jesus, an innocent Man by his own judgment, in order to attempt to prevent His crucifixion. Rather than letting Jesus go, Pilate acts in a manner that he believes will be politically expedient for himself.
"And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas" (Matt. 27:16). Barabbas was infamous for his crimes. Currently he "was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion" (Mark 15:7). He was also described as a "robber" (John 18:40). Josephus wrote about an insurrection against the Romans caused by Pilate taking money from the temple treasury for the construction of an aqueduct. This may have been the incident referred to here; many lost their lives in that rebellion.
"Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" (Matt. 27:17). Pilate took upon himself the liberty of choosing two prisoners, one of which would be selected by the Jews for release. He cannot imagine that the multitude would select Barabbas over Jesus. Thus, he is attempting to satisfy the crowd by delivering Jesus to them as their annual "prisoner-gift." Surely many of the Jews would choose the innocent Man over the murderer, right? At the very least, Pilate thought the crowd would be divided on this decision, which would make it easier for him to release Jesus.
"For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy" (Matt. 27:18). Pilate has come to understand that the religious leaders are jealous of Jesus. Thus, he specifically selected Barabbas and Jesus in order to complicate things for the Jewish rulers. Now they must choose between an innocent Man who was falsely charged with rebellion and a guilty, wicked man who was unquestionably rebellious.
We will continue studying this narrative in our next lesson.