There is a curiosity about human nature worth exploring. How did people, who had been part of Jesus’ ministry for years and only days before, call Him King, turn against Him in a day? Why could the crowd chant to free a criminal named Barabbas and call for the Romans to crucify Jesus?
In one of the rare moments documented on Jesus’ life, He became angry and became an activist. Shortly before His arrest, Jesus entered the Temple precincts to shouts of “Hosanna, son of David!“. He was viewed as the Messiah by the people. Jesus then immediately proceeded to commit a violent act against the authority of the Temple. He began overthrowing the tables of the money changers. Jesus was disrupting the illicit trade of sacrificial offerings needed during the Temple’s busiest holiday, Passover. (You can find more detail in our study called “Why the Anger?”) The temple authorities moved quickly. First, bribing one of his disciples, Judas, to betray Him. Arrest followed at night in the Garden of Gethsemane. After a late-night religious inquisition at the home of Caiaphas’ father-in-law (John 18:13), the Jewish leaders decided to hand him over to Rome on capital charges of treason. The Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead!
Barabbas was no ordinary robber. He had been a leader of a group that had acted against Roman authority. The people in Jerusalem all knew Barabbas as well as Jesus. Some scholars believe that Barabbas was even a member of the Zealots or of the sicarii (dagger-men), militant Jews that sought to overthrow the Roman occupiers of their land by force. Barabbas was being held for the crime of treason against Rome. This is the same crime for which Jesus was also convicted. The penalty for treason was death by crucifixion.
Barabbas had already been imprisoned with his fellow rebels, and now Jesus was bound and brought to the Roman governor’s residence in Jerusalem. Thus, both Barabbas and Jesus came to find themselves facing the death penalty. Their fate was in the hands of Rome’s representative, Pontius Pilate. According to Christian tradition and the Gospel writers, there was a prevailing Passover custom in Jerusalem that allowed or required Pilate to commute one prisoner’s death sentence by popular acclaim. The crowd was offered a choice of whether to have Barabbas or Jesus released from Roman custody.
The stories in the gospels of Matthew (27:15-26), Mark (15:6-15), Luke (23:13–25), and the additional information in John (18:38-19:16), tell us that “the crowd” chose Barabbas to be released and Jesus to be crucified. John’s gospel makes the political ramifications of the decision more clear. “If you let this man go,” Caiaphas’ group argued, “you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12)
The question then becomes, how did the people of Jerusalem change their minds so quickly? What is this inherent flaw in humanity that could make people wish to save a criminal and murder their Savior? The answer lies in a human weakness called “Collective Phenomena.” When people are part of a crowd, they lose their individual consciousness and become more primitive and emotional. This is primarily due to the anonymity provided by being in the group. Barabbas might have been a well-known criminal at the time, most likely because of his involvement in uprisings against the ruling Romans. However, it was the Jewish religious authorities that stirred up the crowd (the group) to demand for Barabbas’ release. The Jewish leaders were a special interest group that had been profiting from their corruption within the Temple. They held a special hatred for Jesus.
Is our society making these same errors today? Are special interests (the secular equivalent of the religious authorities), with the help of biased social media, influencing the choices made by our nation? Does the anonymity gained through social media and the diminishing visibility because of online communications, create the same group dynamics that we saw take place with Jesus?
How would you decide who to release? Here are seven rules that might be helpful to reflect upon:
- Humans Are Not Great Decision Makers – We have bias, bigotry, and hatred, and typically suffer from a lack of information. What is your plan to be informed? Who are your groups? Who do you listen to and take advice from? Is it watching the news? God help us if it is!
- Do You Make Decisions Quickly or Deliberately? – Time allows for a more balanced approach, acquiring greater information and using more reliable decision-making. Do you approach your choices carefully and not emotionally? Most fraud and deception that occurs today have an element of “urgency” embedded into it. Quick decisions are always risky.
- What is your Track Record? – Do you generally make good decisions? Are your decisions aligned with your values? Do you know your values? Are your values aligned with God’s Values? Do you know God’s Values?
- Where Do Your Facts Come From? – Our world is full of false information. Good decisions will always be consistent with God’s Truth. (See our study on What is God’s Truth) Are you a good fact-checker? Remember that on the Internet, both true and false information lives forever!
- What is the Impact of No Decision? – Too many people choose inaction, leaving important decisions to others. That is always a poor choice.
- What is Going to Happen After You Decide? – The need for decisions is driven by “causes” and making decisions will have “effects.” Do you think about them in that way? Do you think about the future consequences of your decisions? Do you understand the risks and rewards?
- Who is seeking the Decisions? Who is the group, who are their leaders? Why are the leaders pushing for the decisions, why do they want your support? Are they Impartial or Biased? Always take time to know this answer!
The Jewish people wanted a military king, to rid themselves of oppression from the Roman State. Jesus was not that kind of king. Yet through a little bit of prompting from a few corrupt Jewish religious leaders, the crowd chose Barabbas. In a passage found only in the Gospel of Matthew, the crowd says:
(Matthew 27:20-26)1NIV New International Version Translations – “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. ‘Which of the two do you want me to release to you?’ asked the governor. ‘Barabbas,’ they answered. ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’ ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’ When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’ Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.’
The crowd not only made the wrong choice that day, but they also accepted full responsibility for it. They even made their children bear the responsibility for their decision! Like all decisions made in life, God holds us accountable. Where was God in their choice? Nowhere, only their own self-interests and the greed of the religious leaders. It was all about power and control. The people were tired of Rome and hastily chose. Need a reminder of where God should be in our decisions? Here is a study on the Ten Commandments. Let’s start here! (See: It Is All About Compromise) God’s Truth always wins anyway, and His Truth comes out in the end!
(Luke 8:16-17) – “No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light. For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.”
When people are in a group or a crowd, they have a strong tendency to conform to the norms of that group. This may be since, in many ways, groups offer protection. Groups protect people from loneliness and/or purposelessness. By conforming, people show their willingness to be a part of the group. Conformity can be a positive force if the group supports positive behaviors. But humanity’s conformity impulse is so strong that it can overwhelm better judgment.
All groups have leaders, and those leaders play a significant role in whether the group makes positive or negative decisions. Poor leaders gain personal power by exploiting people’s urge to conform. They use fear of ostracization (and worse) to motivate action. This normalizes unethical behavior to justify their own misdeeds. It stifles dissent making their opinions the only opinions. Good leaders, in contrast, can influence behavior to help group members improve themselves. Healthy groups improve an organization or society. Group behavior becomes more evident because of our growing dependence on communication technology. Anonymity is increasing. The Internet, use of social media platforms, distance learning and working at home, and even the subtle loss of visible facial expressions because of mandated surgical masks, push our populations into unintended groups. Many groups are led by leaders that we typically don’t even know.
The good news is that each of us is offered the opportunity to be part of an eternal group, Christ’s Church. Membership is open but there are membership requirements! Repentance, the hatred of sin, the love of God’s Truth, and the sharing of the Gospel are just a few of those requirements. Christ, the Incarnate God, should be the only leader we use for decisions, based on “What would Jesus Do?” All humanity has a second chance. Let’s all Choose Christ this time!
- Where have you experienced the group behaviors that are discussed here?
- Ideas to Explore: Stadium sports? Political rallies? Large gatherings of some type?
- How have you seen fear used to control or influence group decisions?
- Ideas to Explore: Pandemics, military threats, social justice, racism?
- Where have you seen the influence of hatred used in our society?
- Ideas to Explore: Divisiveness in Politics? Media?
- Where have you seen special interests at work in controlling societal decisions?
- Ideas to Explore: Elections? Education? Government?
- How can you protect yourself from the influences of special interests?
- Ideas to Explore: Social media bias, search engine bias, and news media bias are all real – what is your secret to remaining open-minded? Can you change your opinion? How?
- What do you do to make sure you are not impacted by the dynamics of a group?
- Ideas to Explore: Knowing leaders and their motives? Charters, mission statements of groups? Past track records of groups?
- 1NIV New International Version Translations