Condemned to Death

Up to this point in the narrative the chief priests, scribes, and leaders have been the ones who have been active throughout the arrest, hearing and trials of Jesus. While in the privacy of the Sanhedrin gathering, the charges brought against Jesus by this group were religious.  Once the assembly moved to the public forum involving Pilate, the charges became secular – “misleading our people; he opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and maintains that he is the Messiah, a king.” (23:2)  In the start of this section, “the people” are now present. Previously the people have supported Jesus (cf. 19:47-48, 20:1, 20:6, 20:19, 21:38) – what will they do now?

Pilate knows and announces the verdict – innocence, but in the face of an unruly crowd does not have the conviction to persevere.  Neither Herod nor Barabbas provide an avenue to resolve the crisis when the leaders of Jewish Jerusalem are ever at work to animate the crowd to bend Pilate’s to their will. 

13 Pilate then summoned the chief priests, the rulers, and the people 14 and said to them, “You brought this man to me and accused him of inciting the people to revolt. I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him, 15 nor did Herod, for he sent him back to us. So no capital crime has been committed by him. 16 Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.” 17 …. 

18 But all together they shouted out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us.” 19 (Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that had taken place in the city and for murder.) 20 Again Pilate addressed them, still wishing to release Jesus, 21 but they continued their shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 22 Pilate addressed them a third time, “What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime. Therefore I shall have him flogged and then release him.” 23 With loud shouts, however, they persisted in calling for his crucifixion, and their voices prevailed. 24 The verdict of Pilate was that their demand should be granted. 25 So he released the man who had been imprisoned for rebellion and murder, for whom they asked, and he handed Jesus over to them to deal with as they wished. 

26  As they led him away they took hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country; and after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. 28 Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, 29 for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.’ 30 At that time people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ 31 for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?”

The second scene before Pilate is a threefold crescendo of Jesus’ innocence, the crowd’s hostility, and Pilate’s weakness. Pilate tries various routes to convince the people of Jesus’ innocence. But he is not strong or free enough to do what he knows is right. The people call for the release of the prisoner Barabbas under terms of what may have been a local custom authorized by the Judean procurators. Barabbas was a revolutionary and murderer who really would have constituted a danger to the stability of Roman rule.

Crucifixion is suddenly mentioned for the first time in verse 21. Luke does not explain why the crowds have become so violent (see Mark 15:11). Crucifixion was a cruel and humiliating punishment that the Romans inflicted only on slaves and non-Romans guilty of the worst crimes. Jews saw in this treatment the sign of a curse (Deut 21:23; Gal 3:13). Pilate tries to appease the crowd with a promise to have Jesus scourged — an absurdity if Jesus is innocent. Finally Pilate cannot withstand the pressure. Jesus is delivered to the will of the crowd; their will is allowed to prevail, perverse as it is, because it coincides with the will of the Father (22:42).

Fr. Donald Senior: So once again Pilate refuses to condemn Jesus; the charges of sedition are emphatically denied: “I have conducted my investigation in your presence and have not found this man guilty of the charges you have brought against him…so no capital crime has been committed by him.” (23:14; see also 23:22).

Some biblical scholars think that in so doing Luke wanted to assure his Roman readers that Jesus was not a political revolutionary and that the Christians could live in peace in the empire. Perhaps so, but Luke also presents Pilate (and even more so Herod) as weak and ultimately corrupt because they finally accede to the demands of the leaders that Jesus be crucified. Rather than attempting to soothe the anxieties of Roman officials, it is more likely that Luke wanted to show that Jesus died unjustly yet without swerving from his fidelity to God’s will. This had been the fate of the persecuted prophets of Israel and it would be the fate of courageous followers of Jesus down to our own day. Jesus was the first Christian martyr, following the pattern of many of his Jewish ancestors who had suffered for their fidelity to God.

The devotion of the way of the cross finds its roots in Luke’s passion story. He alone gives details about events along that final stretch of Jesus’ journey from Galilee. The Messiah who has “set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51) would now come to the summit of his journey to God.

As the execution detail leads Jesus from the Governor’s palace to the rock quarry outside the gates of the city where public executions took place, they impound Simon of Cyrene, a passerby, to carry the cross of Jesus. Luke’s wording makes it clear that he sees in the figure of Simon an image of discipleship: Simon takes up the cross of Jesus and carries it “behind Jesus”. The phrase is identical to Jesus’ own teaching on discipleship: “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (14:27). Those who would live the way of Jesus must be willing to pour out their life on behalf of others.

The sense of urgent crisis reasserts itself in Luke’s story. The Jerusalem crowds are not all hostile to Jesus. Even though some joined in condemning him there are others who lament this tragedy (23:27). As the prophets had before him, Jesus warns the people of Jerusalem that sin has its consequences. Tears were not needed for Jesus but for the havoc that evil would bring upon the people of the Holy City. Luke’s Gospel has ambivalent feelings about Jerusalem. From one point of view, it was the city of God, the locus of the temple where Jesus began his life and where the early community would gather in prayer after the resurrection. “From Jerusalem” the gospel would stream out into the world. But Jerusalem was also the murderer of the prophets and the symbol of rejection. Luke and the early church interpreted the terrible suffering that befell Jerusalem during the revolt against Rome in A.D.70 as a sign of sin’s ultimate effect.


23:13 chief priest, the rulers and the people: Where previously Luke has only shown the impulse and responsibility of the Jewish religious leaders, here he does include “the people.”  One might speculate if the leaders are among the people, inciting them (Mt 27:20 and Mark 15:11), but Luke is silent on the matter.

23:14 not found this man guilty of the charges: Where previously Pilate had said this about the charge of Jesus’ self-proclamation as king, now Pilate says that there is no basis to the charge of inciting the people against Rome.

23:15 nor did Herod: Pilate offers proof to the people that even the Tetrarch Herod is in agreement.

no capital crime has been committed: Luke alone mentions the specifics of Pilate’s assessment.  While the notion of whether the Sanhedrin had authority to execute people for religious crimes is well debated without resolution, some commentators offer this verse as an indication that Pilate clearly understood what was being requested of him by the religious leaders.

23:16 flogged and then release him: the term paideuo (lit. educate) refers to disciplinary punishment, such as whipping (cf. 1 Kings 12:11, 14; 2 Chr 14:2; 2 Cor 6:9).  It is clear Pilate intended this as the full punishment not as a prelude to crucifixion.

23:17 The verse, “He was obliged to release one prisoner for them at the festival,” is not found in many early and important Greek manuscripts, and so is not considered part of the original text of Luke. It is authentic to Mark 15:6 “Now on the occasion of the feast he used to release to them one prisoner whom they requested”(also Matthew 27:15). The obligation to release a prisoner was said to be in accordance with a custom of releasing at the Passover feast one prisoner chosen by the crowd. This custom is also mentioned in John 18:39. Outside of the gospels there is no direct attestation of it, and scholars are divided in their judgment of the historical reliability of the claim that there was such a practice.

23:21 crucify: Crucifixion was a typical, though not exclusive, Roman means of execution.

23:22 What evil has this man done? I found him guilty of no capital crime: The scene is now beyond legal charges and has centered on any possible evil (kakon) done; on any just cause for Jesus’ execution.  In the Greek, “guilty of no capital crime” is actually “no cause for death.”

23:26-32 An important Lucan theme throughout the gospel has been the need for the Christian disciple to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Here this theme comes to the fore with the story of Simon of Cyrene who takes up the cross and follows Jesus (see Luke 9:23; 14:27) and with the large crowd who likewise follow Jesus on the way of the cross.

23:28 Daughters of Jerusalem: While Jesus may literally be speaking to women inhabitants of Jerusalem, the expression also has biblical roots as referring to the city itself, as it does here.  Once again, the Lucan narrative casts Jesus’ words in a prophetic tone.

22:29-30 the days are coming… mountains fall on us: this passage begins with the prophetic phrase and conjures up images of the fate of women and children during times of war. There is an echo of Hosea 10:8 (also used in Rev 6:16).  Barrenness and sterility are classic expressions of failure and God’s disfavor.


  • Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 1994) 2 Volumes
  • Alan Culpepper, Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1995)
  • Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1997)
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991)
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989)
  • Leon Morris,. Luke: An introduction and commentary. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries Vol. 3: (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1988)
  • Donald Senior, The Passion of Jesus Christ, an unpublished booklet
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Scripture quotes from New American Bible

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