Under the Mosaic law, blasphemy was punishable by death (Lev. 24:10–16). While the first-century Jews enjoyed much freedom as subjects of the Roman Empire to practice their law, however, Rome did not grant them the right to carry out capital punishment. Only Roman officials could pronounce people guilty of capital offenses and order their execution, so while the Jewish leaders had convicted Jesus of blasphemy, albeit under false pretenses, they could not execute Him (Luke 22:66–71). That is why, as we read in today’s passage, they brought Him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Pilate was a cruel man, as we have already seen in the Luke 13:1 reference to his killing some Galileans and mixing their blood with the sacrifices. Yet he had a good relationship with Caiaphas, the high priest at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Perhaps this is one reason that Pilate finally acquiesced to the Jewish leaders’ desire to have Jesus crucified even though Pilate did not think that Jesus was guilty of any crime deserving death (23:4).
When Jesus first stood before Pilate, the governor did not find Him guilty of the charges that the Jewish leaders had leveled against Him. We see in Luke 23:1–5 that Jesus was accused of sedition, not blasphemy. This was a wickedly clever move on the part of our Lord’s antagonists. Knowing that Rome would care very little about intra-Jewish religious disputes and definitions of blasphemy, the Sanhedrin accused Jesus of fomenting rebellion against Caesar by proclaiming Himself king and forbidding the Jews from giving “tribute” to the emperor (v. 2). The second allegation was a blatantly false twisting of Jesus’ command to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s (20:25), but the Jewish leadership cared nothing for the truth. Even when Pilate concluded that Jesus was innocent of the charges, they pressed the governor intensely, accusing our Lord of inciting others to rise up against Rome (23:3–5).
Jesus endured these false allegations as part of His passive obedience, the suffering that He experienced throughout His life as the payment for the sins of His people. This passive obedience, with His active obedience in keeping all of God’s law, secured the redemption of Christians. 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.”