39 Now there is a custom of yours that I should release for you one (prisoner) during the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?
40 Then they cried out again saying: “Not this Man, but Barabbas” (son of a father or master). Now Barabbas was a robber.
It is unknown how the custom of the Jews came about. John states that Pilate said it was a Jewish custom, but the inference is that it was a custom that the Roman governor brought about.
Perhaps it was to give the Roman governor some popularity with the Jews. The Passover feast was a special time for the Jews as they remembered that God had delivered them from slavery to the Egyptians. It may be that in honour of the Passover he would symbolically release one prisoner from the Roman jail.
Pilate wanted to continue this custom, and he probably thought that he had discovered a way to release Jesus, in whom he could find no guilt.
Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had brought Jesus to him because they were jealous of His popularity. Therefore, he most likely thought that the crowds would want the popular Jesus released and not the infamous Barabbas.
However, in Matthew 27.20 we read:
Meanwhile, the leading priests and other leaders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be put to death (NLT).
We should not underestimate the influence that leaders have on people. Governments can be very persuasive when they want to lead their country into a difficult course of action. Many believe that the First World War is a good example of how governments persuaded their peoples to engage in an unnecessary and pointless war. Likewise the recent Iraq war is believed by many to have been entered into through the persuasive arguments of a British Prime Minister and a USA President. There are many other examples of leaders convincing people to act in ways that are dubious, but are dressed up as being in the national interest.
The Jewish leaders must have been very good at such persuasion, since only a few days earlier the crowds had greeted Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna, blessed is the one coming in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel.” – John 12.13.
As the followers of Jesus we need to listen to the Holy Spirit and be persuaded by Him, and not by the persuasive voices of this world.