“Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (John 19:19,20).
Who can ever comprehend the suffering of our Saviour? Throughout His life on earth He was acutely aware of the deep significance of everything He did and what others did to Him. The wrath of God upon our sins was being borne by Him through it all and reached a climax in the lead up to His crucifixion and when He hung on the cross. Not just the excruciating physical pain but the mocking, ridicule, scorn, and deep humiliation were all part of the suffering He had to endure for our sakes.
Rev R Bredenhof in a recent Good Friday sermon[i] showed that one part of that humiliation lay in the mocking title on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. Preaching on John 19:19,20 Rev Bredenhof showed how this title was, ironically, not only a scornful charge but also a powerful reality that contained a universal announcement. What follows is an approximate summary of that sermon.
Jesus is the King of Israel! The people of Israel had said as much when, a little earlier, they had welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem with palm branches and cries of “Hosanna! ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’ The King of Israel!” That had been prophesied in Psalm 118. And Zechariah had prophesied: “Behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt”. Admittedly Jesus isn’t behaving the way kings often do. He acts more like a servant. He kneels at the disciples’ feet and washes them, and when the enemies come against Him to capture Him He does not fight but surrends immediately. Nevertheless He is King, as He admits to Pilate.
The Romans, lamentably, don’t believe it and the soldiers play a cruel game of pretence. Derisively they say: If He is a king we’d better treat him like one. So they make a crown of thorns and put it on His head, dress Him in a purple robe, give Him a reed for a sceptre and then mock Him crying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” There is deep irony here because He really is the King, and not just of the Jews but of all creation.
Sadly even Jesus’ own people, the Jews, no longer believe He is King. They hand Him over to be crucified and insist that “We have no king but Caesar!” They want nothing to do with this man, let alone acknowledge Him as their King. Indeed, they force Pilate, against his better judgement, to crucify Jesus.
It was customary for crucified criminals to wear a placard indicating their offence, so Pilate has a placard placed on Jesus that mocks these Jews who forced him to act against his will. “Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” In effect Pilate says: this is the best this pathetic nation of Jews can produce – a pitiful loser as their king.
But Pilate’s sarcasm is part of Christ’s suffering; part of the shame He, the eternal Son of God, must carry. Christ must die for Jews and gentiles even though both refuse to acknowledge him as King and actually scorn and reject Him.
And what about us; what do we think of the One who suffered, died on the cross, rose from the grave and ascended into heaven? Is He merely just a distant historical figure or idea or piece of doctrine that we think about just on Sunday in church? Or is He really, personally, our Lord, our Saviour, our King whom we love, serve and obey?
Although the Jews and gentiles at the time do not believe the title placed on Jesus, that title is a reality. For Jesus is the King of the Jews, King of Israel. That’s what was already spoken by the angels at His birth: “The Lord God will give Him the throne of his father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end”. And Jesus had spoken a lot about his kingdom, saying what it was like and who it was for and when it would arrive.
The title is true because it is through His death that Jesus is King. This King gives His life to ransom many, to ransom sinful people – all those whom the Father had given Him. It was for their sake that He suffers on the cross, giving His life for our redemption and for the salvation of all those who believe in Him.
Moreover, He is a majestic King. And just as kings of the past put on their armour, took up their sword and went out to battle to defend and if necessary die for the people, so Christ battled and died for His people. So devoted is He to us, His people, that he purchases His people with His precious blood.
And because that label on the cross is true, it remains a sign, a command, for all to worship and adore Him. He is the King who frees people from the dominion of darkness and brings them into the kingdom of His light. And we who have been brought into that kingdom and become part of it, we are to live for Him, in His army, under His banner, in His service, in wholehearted love and devotion to Him.
That command to acknowledge Him as King goes out not just to us but to all people. That’s why the title was in three languages – Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Pilate had done it to mock the Jews; and behind it was the devil who piles on the scorn and wants the whole world to see Christ’s shame, to see Him naked, cursed, totally subject to his enemies, dead, a king unable to help anyone. Yet the irony is that the title is true and therefore the whole world needs to know. He is King over all, Lord of the universe, King over the Jewish leaders and over the Roman governor.
Pilate thought he had Jesus in his power, telling Jesus that he had the power to crucify or release him but Jesus’ reply showed that Pilate would be powerless to do so if it hadn’t been given him “from above”. But even Pilate was under Christ’s dominion, for Christ is King over all – over terrorists, persecutors, rulers, and even the seemingly little things in our lives. There’s great comfort in that for Christians, particularly in times of oppression.
Although the sign proclaims him to be King of the Jews, He is much more. Indeed He said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all peoples to myself”. His humiliation and death on the cross would lead to His glory. Here was the King who was sacrificing His life for sinners. The world had to know; the label was in three languages for all to read. It pointed to Pentecost when people from all nations would hear the gospel of the crucified and risen Christ in their own tongues. But already at the cross, God turns Satan’s scheming into a chance for everyone to learn: Jesus is Lord and King, the glorious Saviour for all who believe!
One day even those who don’t believe but who instead mock and ridicule Christ will have to acknowledge Him as king and bow before Him. We who believe don’t need to wait to do that. We may already confess and submit to Him, praising and acknowledging Him from day to day as our King and Lord.
[i] This meditation is based on notes taken of Rev R Bredenhof’s Good Friday sermon on John 19:19,20. The sermon was preached in the Free Reformed Church of Mt Nasura 25th March 2016.