So after they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus Who is called the Christ?” – Matthew 27:17 (NET)
Jesus, called the Christ, was Jesus of Nazareth, the potentially (and ultimately) revolutionary figure from the region of the Galilee, which was known to be the seedbed of revolutionary movements in that day. He was also the one being called and hailed as “the Messiah.” It is quite probable that all of Pilate’s hearers, and most likely Pilate himself, knew precisely what was implied by this title. “Messiah” equaled “king.” This also equated to potential problems, with which no Roman governor ever wanted to deal. Such titles created ever so prickly situations, that often required deft and delicacy, so as not to create undue problems for self or Caesar.
This, of course, would not have been the first “Christ” or “Messiah” with whom Pilate had dealt, and it would probably not be the last one either, as Pilate was the procurator of Judea at a time when Jewish national expectations were at a fever pitch. Due at least partially to those expectations, messianic contenders---all of whom, save one, turned out to be nothing more than pretenders---were presenting themselves on a semi-regular basis, often doing so in accordance with their desire to usher in the kingdom of God. For some, the hope was to enthrone their king in the line of David (which is implied in the stated intention to make Jesus their king, which Jesus resisted), so as to throw off their pagan oppressors, and to finally bring Israel’s historical purpose (as they saw it) to its climax. This national purpose, as many (but not all) saw it, was that of national Israel ruling over all peoples and nations, uniquely positioned by their Creator God to do so.
As all of this is considered and borne in mind when Matthew’s Jesus narrative is explored, the author provides an interesting and not un-important side note, writing that Pilate “knew that they had handed Him (Jesus) over because of envy” (27:18). It must be understood that envy was something more than jealousy. Envy was a significant motivational force in that day, and it was intimately connected to the dominant social force of honor (a limited good) and shame (an unlimited good).
If Jesus was being vested with more and more honor, especially if He was viewed as someone, owing to His acts of healings and other miracles, that was gaining a large clientele and thereby setting Himself up as an honor-accruing patron to the masses and thereby causing rival patrons to suffer a diminishing of their own honor status, then envy would (as Pilate rightly understood) come heavily into play in the charges being leveled against Jesus. With this side note, Matthew indicates that Pilate would have to discern the situation of Jesus along these lines as well, for if he knew envy was at play, then he would also have to be suspect of the validity of the ultimate charge of sedition that was being attached to Jesus, which is the charge that would demand the instrumentation of crucifixion as the required punishment.
An additional problem with His honor accrual and popularity with the masses was His apparent and frustrating unwillingness to enter into league with any of the leaders or rulers or popular movements of the day. Clearly, this could be a source of irritation for those that wanted to be in control of any potentially successful messianic movement, or who wanted to suppress such movements due to the positions that they were currently holding. This could certainly contribute to the envy and the desire to shame Him.
Jesus’ interaction with Pilate is fascinating. Pilate asks Jesus “Are You the King of the Jews?” (27:11b) Jesus replies, “You say so” (27:11c), which is an expression of affirmation. This is a rather damning admission on Jesus’ behalf. In that time, anybody that would have admitted to such a thing would have been swiftly dealt with through crucifixion, whether they proclaimed themselves King of the Jews, the Greeks, or the Gauls. Any claim of kingship was seen as a rival claim to the supreme rule of Caesar, and so would not be allowed to stand. Jesus would have been well aware of this.