“The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law and according to the law he is obliged to die for he has made himself the Son of God.’”
In a country ruled by Rome, capital punishment was a right reserved for the Romans except for one instance…and that is blasphemy in the Temple. Obviously the addition of the location (from the Roman perspective) was to keep things in a controlled context, lest they be inundated with capital cases of blasphemy from every little provide. The Jews were aware of this ruling, hence their motivation to bring this false trial before Pilate and Pilate was certainly aware of this matter, hence his willingness to say to them, “you crucify him!” because he knew that they could not legally do so.
Thus the Jews appear to the blasphemy laws, a principle not only consistent with Roman law but with Jewish law, though Jewish law does not require one blaspheme in the Temple (or Tabernacle) for the death penalty to be exercised (see Leviticus 24:10-16). Thus, it is Jewish law with Roman constraints that is being appealed to here. And, in a sense, Jesus is guilty as charged. Not only has he spoken of himself as the Son of God broadly, he has also done so in the Colonnade of Solomon which is located in the Temple (John 10:22-30). In fact, in this context he goes even further and proclaims himself to be God himself — “I and the Father are one…”
Yet, I state, “in a sense.” Because Jesus has not “made himself” out to be the Son of God as these Jewish officials suppose, he is the Son of God. He is not lying nor is he misleading others, but is speaking the truth, and by speaking the truth he is not guilty of blasphemy. The Temple and all it represents is meant to point to him…it is his Father’s house and thus it is the Chief Priests and Jewish authorities who are worthy of death because they had blasphemed the Temple by their rejection of the Son and their using it for their own purposes — turning it into a den of thieves (Mark 11:17).
It is worth noting that sometimes people are a bit set back by the command from God that blasphemers be put to death as is found in Leviticus. Why would a God of love demand an action like that for words that people would say? The answer revolves around the purpose of capital punishment. Essentially, the reason behind the state taking the life of a criminal is because that criminal has been deemed a threat to the community as a whole. In this case, no longer is it the state punishing a person for a specific crime they have done, but it is also the state practicing justice by permanently removing the person from ever being able to harm the community. Thus, as we look at the legal code given by God at Sinai for the people of Israel, we find capital punishment being applied not just to murder, but also to adultery, sabbath breaking, blasphemy, witchcraft, etc… All of these evils harm the family as well as the community as a whole. And though the church no longer exists under the ancient Israele civil code, it is the basic principle behind the church being given the authority to excommunicate from the body where people persist in such sins that harm the community of faith as a whole and will not repent, turning from their evil ways. Let it be heard and heard well that God takes very seriously the care of his little ones — the covenant families and the covenant bodies that we refer to as His Church. May we take that to heart the next time we are tempted to gloss over sin (whether our own or another’s).