“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).
“And when dawn came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people deliberated regarding Jesus so that they might put him to death. They bound him and led him away, delivering him to Pilate the governor.”
“And at dawn, immediately the chief priests made deliberations with the elders and scribes and the whole of the Sanhedrin. They bound Jesus and took him away, delivering him to Pilate.”
“And the whole council of them arose and led him before Pilate.”
“Therefore they led Jesus away from Caiaphas to the Praetorium. But as it was dawn, they did not go inside the Praetorium in order that they not be defiled but could eat the passover.”
Do you see the irony of John’s account? Here are the priests and other leaders of the church conducting a secret and illegal trial designed to frame an innocent man being concerned about becoming ritually defiled by entering Pilate’s headquarters. It should not surprise us that Jesus called these men “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27). They are concerned with the outward forms but have no regard for the inward spirit that is supposed to be guided by the forms. How often in the Old Testament we find God telling the people how he hated all of their sacrifices — not because the sacrifice was bad, but because they were just going through the motions and performing a ritual, not living a life of devotion.
Though we don’t live lives marked by blood sacrifices and ritual cleanliness any longer, how often it is that we end up acting in the way that these Jewish leaders did. How often we fail to get involved in the lives of those who are hurting because of what others in the community might say about them (or us!). How often we fail to evangelize prostitutes, drug addicts, homeless, or convicts in our midst. Our churches often participate in jail Bible studies and ministries, but how often do we embrace those same people once they have been released from jail? We are often quick to invite new people to church if they are “like us,” but what of those from a different cultural background, skin tone, or socio-economic strata? What do we mean then when we say that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek when we exclude people because of their background? How often we have condemned the hypocrisy of these Jewish leaders and have missed seeing our own hypocrisy?
Thus, it is in the midst of this that the Jews determine that their only solution is to put Jesus to death, and that is exactly what they seek to do by taking Jesus to Pilate. If you were a territory under Roman rule, it was Romans who reserved the right to capital punishment except for the case of blasphemy — hence their striving to convict Jesus of anything remotely close to a blasphemous statement — so it is to Rome they must appeal and thus to Rome they go, in this case in the form of the Roman representative who governed Judea — Pilate.
“Then the High Priest rent his garments, saying, ‘Blasphemy! What witnesses yet do we have to have? Behold, you have now heard blasphemy! What do you rule?’ And they replied, ‘He is liable to death.’”
“Then the High Priest rent his tunic, saying, ‘What witnesses yet do we have to have? You have heard blasphemy! What do you see?’ Then all of them condemned him as one liable to death.”
“Then he said, ‘What witnesses yet do we have to have? We have heard it from his own mouth!’”
A point, perhaps, in clarification. Some of our English translations render the High Priest as saying that they had heard “His blasphemy,” but that is not entirely accurate. Jesus has spoken no blasphemy and the text never inserts the personal pronoun within the sentence of Caiaphas. To make such an insertion implies that Caiaphas might have actually been confused about what Jesus was saying, thinking that Jesus had made a blasphemous statement. Yet, a better picture is of the High Priest manipulating the events of this trial like a puppeteer would put on a play and is seeking to use verbal force and innuendo to achieve the ends he has sought to achieve. He is a bully and those leaders amongst the priests who are with him understand that the only way to keep their positions and “move up in the organization” is to placate this forceful individual.
And of course, blasphemy had to be the charge that Caiaphas was seeking because it was the only charge within the context of being ruled by Rome, that they could legitimately seek the death penalty (in fact, it had to be a blasphemous act in or around the temple). Yet, there is no blasphemy on Jesus’ lips. Even in human terms, to speak of himself being a “son of God” is not that unusual for God’s people (Genesis 6:2; Deuteronomy 32:8; Matthew 5:9; Luke 20:36; Galatians 3:26). Similarly, there had been many who identified themselves as messiah’s of a sort, and again, this usually did not get the priests into such a frenzy. It is the fact that Jesus’ actions confirmed exactly what the prophets predicted of the Messiah and his miracles confirmed his divinity that got them upset — furthermore, Jesus did not simply claim to be a Son of God, but he claimed to be God himself — which, again was confirmed by prophesy and miracles — which would mean that the priests would have to submit to his authority, thus losing their own. That was something that the High Priest could not consider.
Isn’t it sad how often we get caught up in our own pride, our own status, and our own agenda — even for the church. Isn’t it sad how often we fail to notice God working through the humble in our midst when we wish to achieve a certain end or recognition. And isn’t it sad that we so often fail to notice God’s authority in our lives when we feel that we might achieve our ends. Oh, dear friends, what shall we do other than repent? For we are God’s, God is not ours. We are the clay in his hands — he does not serve us that we might achieve our ends. May we walk with humility and grace as we live our lives in this world and not seek our own ends, but seek Christ’s ends for us.