Pontius Pilate tried to get the Jewish authorities to have him release Jesus from custody by offering to free either our Lord or Barabbas, a criminal whose advocacy of rebellion against Rome would ordinarily make him anathema to the Jewish leaders, for they could be deposed by Rome if they were thought to support sedition (John 18:33–39; see Luke 23:18). But the leaders hated Jesus so much that they called instead for the release of Barabbas (John 18:40).
Yet, as we see in today’s passage, Pilate did not immediately give up trying to get the religious leaders to call for Jesus’ release. John 19:1 tells us that Pilate had Jesus flogged. This raises an apparent discrepancy with the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Those evangelists report that the beating Jesus received accompanied Pilate’s order for His crucifixion, whereas Pilate’s order in John’s gospel for Jesus’ flogging precedes the death sentence (Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15). This is resolved when we consider that the Romans administered several different floggings. The least severe of these was the fustigatio, a relatively light punishment given for minor offenses. The severest flogging was the verberatio, which was administered to those who would be crucified and was done with strips of leather in which were embedded pieces of bone or metal. The flogging in John 19:1 seems to have been the fustigatio, the lighter punishment given in the apparent hope to appease the religious leaders and to get them to call for Jesus’ release (see Luke 23:22). The verberatio, which could remove skin and muscle from the victim’s back, was then administered once Jesus was sentenced to crucifixion, as Matthew and Mark state.
After the initial flogging, the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus (John 19:2–3), and Pilate made another attempt to show our Lord’s innocence and encourage His release. Pilate presented Him to the Jewish priests and leaders, saying that he was doing so to prove that he found no guilt in Christ. Pilate then exclaimed, “Behold the man!” (vv. 4–5). Perhaps Pilate thought that our Lord’s haggard appearance at this point would lead the authorities to pity Jesus and call for His release.
In presenting Jesus to the crowd, Pilate did not know he was doing more than calling for our Lord’s release. He was presenting the ideal and only perfect man. Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary John, “When Pilate said, ‘Behold the Man,’ the people in the crowd should have looked on Him and said, ‘Yes, here is man as God intended him to be, as God designed him to be, man with no fault in Him.’ ”