Question: "Why did the crowds shout, 'Crucify Him!' when Pilate wanted to release Jesus?"
Answer: When the Sanhedrin brought Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Pilate could not find any fault in Jesus, and he said so three times (Luke 23:4, 14–15, 22). Late in the trial, Pilate sought a way to free Jesus (John 19:12). It was a Passover festival custom that the governor release a prisoner to the people, so, in a ploy to appease the crowd of Jewish leaders who had gathered and to secure Jesus’ release, Pilate allowed them to choose between a convicted criminal named Barabbas and Jesus. Instead of choosing Jesus, as Pilate had hoped, the crowd chose Barabbas for release. Shocked that they would free a hardened criminal, Pilate asked, “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” (Mark 15:12). The crowd cried out, “Crucify him!” (verse 13).
It is well that Pilate was confused by the crowd’s reaction, for barely a week earlier the people of Jerusalem had welcomed Jesus into the city with the waving of palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” (Matthew 21:1–11). What Pilate may not have known was the extent to which the religious and political leaders hated and opposed Jesus. Over the course of Jesus’ ministry, His teachings had alienated and angered the Pharisees, the scribes, the Herodians, and the Sadducees. Not only did Jesus point out their extreme hypocrisy on many occasions (see Matthew 23; Mark 7:1–14; Luke 20:45–47), but He also claimed to be God, which was blasphemy to the unbelieving teachers of the law (see Mark 14:60–64). The religious leaders wanted to utterly destroy Jesus (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6). Only His death would satisfy them.
In Jesus’ time, crucifixion was reserved for the worst of criminals. The torture a person endured on a cross would last for hours, and killing Jesus in this manner likely appealed to the religious leaders who hated Him so deeply. In an effort to hide their move against Jesus from His many supporters, the Jewish leaders arrested and tried Jesus in the middle of the night. When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate—the only one with authority to order a crucifixion—it was still early in the morning (Matthew 27:1–2). When Pilate presented Jesus and Barabbas to the people, the chief priests whipped the crowd into a frenzy, encouraging them to call for Barabbas’s release (Mark 15:11). When Pilate asked what they wanted done to Jesus, the crowd, again influenced by the chief priests, shouted, “Crucify Him!” Pilate, the people-pleaser, gave them what they demanded. He had Jesus flogged and then turned Him over for crucifixion.
At the beginning of the week, there was a crowd in Jerusalem celebrating Jesus as the Messiah; by Friday, there was a crowd crying, “Crucify Him!” The striking change of the city’s heart naturally causes some perplexity. It’s good to remember that not everyone at the Triumphal Entry was celebrating the Lord. Most of the city was puzzled: “When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’” (Matthew 21:10), and the Jewish leaders were indignant (verse 15). Some of the same crowd who shouted, “Hosanna!” may also have been part of the crowd shouting “Crucify Him!” but we can’t be sure. If some people did join both crowds, it may be because they had grown disillusioned with Jesus when they discovered He was not going to set up the kingdom immediately—or perhaps they disliked Jesus’ insistence that they repent. Also, it’s quite possible that the crowd gathered before Pilate at that early hour had been assembled and suborned by the Jewish leaders.
In the end, it wasn’t the crowd’s cries of “Crucify Him!” that put Jesus on the cross. Our sin did that. From the very beginning, when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, the Lord had promised to send a Savior who would crush the reign of sin and death (Genesis 3:15). Throughout the ages God wove His plan to send a Savior, and that plan culminated in the person of Jesus Christ: God’s own Son who became the perfect God-man so He could take upon Himself the punishment for sin. Although wicked men were involved in Jesus’ death on the cross, His sacrifice was ultimately the will of God (Isaiah 53:10; John 10:18). The shedding of Jesus’ blood fulfilled God’s promise to mankind to provide a Savior and sealed the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). Jesus would then defeat the power of death and the grave by rising again three days later and ascending to His Father’s right hand in heaven.