After the Roman general Pompey got involved in a dispute between rival ruling factions in Judea in 63 B.C., the territories that belonged to the Jews became part of the Roman Empire. Rome allowed the Jews and other conquered peoples to have a measure of self-rule, and in the case of the Jews, the Sanhedrin was the highest court. The Sanhedrin, made up of “the chief priests and the elders and the scribes” (Mark 14:53), could rule on religious matters, but it did not have the authority to carry out capital punishment.
Though the Romans allowed subjugated peoples to govern themselves in many areas, Roman law superseded local law. Rome dispatched governors to its territories to keep an eye on their populations and to serve as courts of appeal for Roman citizens. Only the Romans had the authority to pronounce and enact a capital sentence. That is why the Sanhedrin, after deciding Jesus was worthy of death (Mark 14:53–65), brought him to Pontius Pilate (15:1). Pilate was the Roman governor, or procurator, of Judea and actually served in that post longer than any other Roman appointee. Normally, Pilate resided in the city of Caesarea Maritima, but during the major Jewish feasts, he took up residence in Jerusalem. Millions of pilgrims would throng Jerusalem during Passover and other key religious festivals, so the potential for unrest was high. Pilate would stay in the city so that he could deal quickly with any problems, and that is why the Sanhedrin could see the governor soon after its own trial.
The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus executed for blasphemy, but such a charge would have meant little to the Romans. Apparently, the charge brought to Pilate was that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews (v. 2). Before Pilate, the Sanhedrin accused Jesus of sedition, of attempting to displace the Roman Caesar. That was a charge Pilate would have interest in hearing, and Jesus did not deny His kingship. But He remained silent during most of the ordeal, not answering all of the false charges. This amazed Pilate greatly (vv. 3–5).
Early one Friday morning, two thousand years ago, Jesus was tried before Pilate. Most observers would have thought it was an ordinary court proceeding. However, it was a moment of cosmic significance, for it led to our Lord’s crucifixion so that we can be reconciled to God. John Calvin comments, “The Son of God stood, as a criminal, before a mortal man, and there permitted himself to be accused and condemned, that we may stand boldly before God.”