Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” 20 Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. 21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” 22 Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written.” (John 19:19-22)
If you recall from recent weeks, Pilate and the Jews have not exactly seen eye to eye on everything. As we have discussed, they nevertheless conspired together to put Jesus to death, according to all that God had predestined to take place. But despite their cooperation in this, they have no real unity with each other. Pilate did not want to be bothered with this case, and the Jews caused a ruckus and even threatened to go to Pilate’s boss. There is a lot of jabbing between Pilate and the Jews during this trial of Jesus. Pilate ends up giving Jesus over to their demands to be crucified. Pilate’s own pride has been challenged and he certainly feels humiliation and frustration at how this has gone down. So as we read in our text today, Pilate looks to get in one more jab at the Jews to assert his own dominance and bring humiliation to the Jews. This seems to work pretty well as the Jews are upset at what Pilate has written on the inscription. But Pilate does not back down to them here.
The Jews obviously did not like that it was written that Jesus of Nazareth was the King of the Jews. They did not like this because they did not own Him as their king, and they do not want it to be thought so. It would also be humiliating were any outsider to see this and think that this man was indeed the political king of the Jews that was being hung. So they did not want anyone to think that this actually was their king, for fear of humiliation and embarrassment that their king is on a cross. And to boot, it was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, the three most important and used languages at that time and place in the world, so everyone who saw it would be able to read it. So what for a moment seemed to be a victory for the Jews, turned out to be a defeat, in many different ways. A man who is declared their king is lifted up and hangs on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem as a warning sign of judgment upon them.
But thinking about the strife between Pilate and the Jews, such is the nature of the enemies of God. They are not united. They are a house divided and cannot stand. Not only are they at war with God, but they are also at war with one another. So it happens that when they try and make little jabs out of pettiness and pride, they will end up doing things that play right into their own defeat. In seeking to humiliate Christ, His people, or others, they end up humiliating themselves. Many times, what looks like victory and success for them in the moment, is actually their defeat. This is because they live in God’s world and God tells good stories.
God Uses Pilate
When we say that God tells good stories, we are saying that everything that happened in the suffering and death of Christ happened according to everything that God’s hand and plan had predestined to take place. This is part of John’s emphasis, and we see it in how he shows that in everything from Jesus’ arrest to His death, Jesus was the one with the authority and was the one who was in charge, despite the raging and raving of those who persecuted Him. We continue to see it in the fact that Jesus, in His death, is rightly declared the king. We will continue to see it in coming weeks as the things that happened during His crucifixion are explicitly said to be fulfilment of what God foretold long ago in the Scripture.
Yet what is amazing about God’s stories in view of His Sovereign hand and the authority of Christ, John also shows us clearly the responsible actions of the men involved in the death of Christ. We have seen in the words and actions of the Chief Priests and Jews that putting Christ to death was exactly what they wanted, it was something that had been wanting to do for some time. John also shows us that Pilate could stand up to the crowds when he wanted as he doubled down on the inscription he had written for Christ, and thus, though he sought to release Christ for a time, he ultimately did what he wanted in having Christ put to death. The actions of the parties involved were their actions and they condemn them, because they are their actions. And in their actions against God’s Anointed, God was telling His story with His Son, in complete authority and control, and it is marvelous.
God uses Pilate and his actions in a magnificent way in the death of His Son. In this scene, the Jews used Pilate and his authority to put Christ to death, to have Him crucified. But in so doing, Pilate turns Christ on the Jews, as Christ is lifted up on a hill outside the city, with an official government declaration that He is the King of the Jews, Jesus of Nazareth. This was a sign of judgment on them for their rejection of their Messiah, the Son of God. Interestingly this is a snapshot of what happened in the apostolic/first century era. Early on, the Jews were persecutors of the Christians, and they used Rome to persecute Christians. Rome, also not innocent persecuted Christians. But then, particularly in the late 60’s AD, Rome turns on the Jews and persecutes them and destroys their city and temple. This was judgment upon them. And as it turns out, in the centuries that were to follow, Christianity spreads and becomes a judgment upon the Roman Empire. God loves irony and plot-twists, after all, He came up with the theme of death and resurrection. So, I’d like to consider a couple ways in this passage that God used Pilate for His purposes.
Jesus Without Guilt
First, writing an inscription above someone being crucified was a very normal practice for the Romans. What they would do is write down their crimes, put it around their neck, and then post on the cross as they were crucified. This was obviously done to deter others from committing such crimes, and for further humiliation. So with what was written about Christ on the inscription we are brought to consider once again, as has been shown many times in the trial, that Jesus is without guilt. There is no crime which Jesus has committed which they can inscribe on his cross. There is no sin or banner of guilt which they can hang over His head or wave over His shoulders. He is innocent. He is righteous. And He is the King of the Jews. This of course was not the pure intentions of Pilate, as it seems all He was seeking to do was humiliate the Jews, nevertheless what was written, was written. The Roman authorities declared, in writing, to all the world, that this man had no crimes for which He was being crucified. He is a sinless innocent man. This is what the historical record shows. And that is just the one that we need to be the sacrifice for our sins. As King of the Jews, the declaration is essentially: Here is an innocent man dying for His people. Dying on behalf of others. There is no crime He committed to be listed, so He is the King of the Jews, and as the head of His people, He is dying and they are not. True Jews, that is – by faith. Our King, who represents us, as our head, dies for us. Since He had no crimes, it must be for the crimes of His people for which He hangs and suffers and is put to death. And so it is.
The Gospel Proclaimed to all the World
So God uses Pilate to once again declare the innocence of Christ and inscribe His guiltlessness into the historical record. God also uses Pilate to declare the gospel of the Kingdom to all the world. God uses Pilate to declare, in a way, the gospel of the Kingdom of the world – the proclamation of the authority and reign of Christ. This is seen in the fact that this inscription was written in three different languages, Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. Aramaic was basically the Hebrew dialect spoken by the Jews at that time. Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire. And Greek was the most common language spoken in the empire since the conquering of Greece by the Romans. Latin was like the official government language. But everyone spoke in Greek as it was the cultural language and used in commerce. This inscription was written in all three languages so that everyone who saw it could read it. And in this it is shown that Jesus is King of all of those nations too, He is the King over all the world, and such was proclaimed here by the Romans themselves even though they did not recognize what they were doing.
Furthermore, it was the time of the Passover that Jesus was crucified. And this means that everyone from all over would be coming to Jerusalem for the Passover and so there were many who came from afar that saw this spectacle. This could be why Pilate thought to have it written in these three languages, since he knew people from all over would be there to see it. So Pilate proclaims Christ the King, to all the world.
What’s fascinating is how God continued to use the Roman Empire to spread the gospel with the apostles and early Christians. Because of the infrastructure, common languages, and ability to reach all kinds of people groups throughout the empire, the gospel spread like wildfire. Or rather we should say, God ordained to use those means for His purposes.
One thing that we can learn and take comfort in is that God likes to use imperfect rulers and nations for His purposes. And not just for purposes of judgment, but for various other goods of spreading the gospel, extending His kingdom, and protecting His people. So even when the wicked have earthly authority and power, it is our God who is King and rules over them, and will use them how He will. So we need not fear whatever our political condition might be.
Victory in Disguise
Consider also from our text today, that what we have is a king on a cross. The Chief Priests desperately did not want it to read that this was their king – for the great humiliation that would bring to have their king on a cross. If their king was on a cross it would show that they were weak and had been defeated. Or so they thought. This shows how carnal and worldly their thinking was.
But while they rejected Christ as their king, the fact remains that here is our king on a cross. He was humiliated, mocked, and scorned. He was scourged, beat, and ridiculed. He was falsely accused, taken away, and crucified for all to see. Is this not a great display of weakness? Does this not look like an utter defeat and total loss? He suffers, He is humiliated, He is put to death. Many in their ignorance have mocked Christ for weakness in His death.
But is this weakness? Is it weakness for the everlasting second person of the Trinity to have love and compassion for a people that would be His bride? Is it weakness for Him to put on flesh and enter into His creation in order to go after and save His bride by laying down His life for her? Is it weakness for a knight in shining armor to be fatally wounded while fighting off a dragon to save the princess? Far from it. It is the ultimate display of strength for a mighty man to lay down his life on the behalf of others who are weak.
I’ve put together a kids catechism for my boys that we go through at home sometimes. And some of the questions and answers go like this. This first question I did not come up with, I’ve seen others say it but that is: Q: What is the Bible about? A: A King who slays the dragon and saves his bride. Q: How does Jesus slay the dragon? A: By crushing His head. Q: How does Jesus save His bride? A: By dying for her. And then the next question is: Did Jesus stay dead? A: No, the grave couldn’t hold Him.
The awful, bloody, and humiliating scene that would’ve been Jesus on the cross, was not a defeat. It was not a display of weakness, or being a softy who gets walked all over because He has no courage to stand up. It was the display of a mighty warrior king who willingly laid down His own life, for the life of another, who was weak. This was a victory in disguise. Jesus said that the meek shall inherit the earth. But contrary to popular sentiment, meekness is not weakness. Meekness is having the strength of 10,000 lions, the strength to do great and severe damage, and yet exercising self-control and restraint, using it only when and how is necessary on the behalf of others who are weaker vessels. Jesus could have called down fire from heaven, He could have opened up the earth to swallow His enemies whole. He could’ve blown them away with His breath, or summoned a legion of angelic fighters. And yet He did not. Why? Was He weak? No, He was meek. If He did that, it would mean no atonement for weak and needy sinners. If He did that His bride is lost, the girl gets hurt. Jesus perfectly restrained Himself and laid down His life because He knew that other, weaker vessels were entirely dependent upon Him to do so. He knew that it was more important for Him to die, than His bride. He lived by that old fashioned rule that every boy and man ought to live by when the situation arises: boy goes down, girl goes free.
In every age, but particularly in the one in which we live, where more and more people are denying that they can tell the difference between a boy and girl, we need all the more to proclaim the total masculine meekness of the king on a cross for his bride. In an egalitarian world, meekness is erased, for there is no hierarchy and none who are stronger than others, all are equal. Meekness only works in God’s world of hierarchy, and that’s the type of world they inherit. In an egalitarian world there are no stories of knights in shining armor slaying dragons and saving the princess. Each can fight for themselves. And it is offensive to insinuate that certain people need stronger people to fight on their behalf. But God is not an egalitarian so He tells good stories. Jesus is not an egalitarian, so He laid down His life for His bride in meekness, and so He inherits the earth.
Now, most all of us believe this stuff, but do we practice it in our household economies? Or are we practical egalitarians in certain areas? Husbands, do you love your wives like Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for Her? Or do we think, “I’m not going to sacrifice and lay down my life, because she needs to lay down her life.” That’s egalitarianism. Wives, do you submit to your husbands, as you are to do, or do you desire to compete with their strength, and try to grasp after the authority that is theirs? Refusing to let yourself be saved and protected by the strength of another is egalitarianism. Parents, do you train up your children in the way they should go, or are you led and manipulated by their wishes and complaints?
Many people look at the king on a cross as egalitarians and say “no, He wasn’t a king.” Or they say, “No, He wasn’t dying for me, I can manage on my own.” But what we ought to say is, “He is King. I am a weak and needy sinner, who is utterly dependent on His death for me. Without it, I have no hope. I praise God that He has given Himself up on my behalf.” And then because He is our King who gave Himself for us, we are to endeavor to live unto Him, and submit our lives to His rule, putting away our sin, ever more being conformed into His image. Part of that is learning self-sacrifice on behalf of others. Not only is this husbands doing so for their wives; it is also mothers doing so for their children, and for their babies; siblings for one another; men for our neighbors, and so much more.
So when we see this king on a cross. We should not think weakness. We should not think defeat. We should think victory in disguise. This is one way that God likes to tell stories. He likes to disguise the victory until the right time. Like Abraham taking his son to sacrifice him. Like Jacob disguised as Esau to receive the blessing. Like Joseph being sold into slavery. Like baby Moses floating in a basket on the Nile. Like a shepherd boy sent to fight a giant. Like Hebrew boys being thrown into a fiery furnace. Like Daniel being thrown to the lions. Like Lazarus dying. Like God’s Son hanging on a cross. God likes to disguise victory until the right time. This means that we must have faith. Eyes of flesh see Christ on the cross and mock. Eyes of faith behold Christ on the cross and say, like Roman Centurion, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
If you are a Christian then everything in your life is for your good. And we know that many of these things that are for our good, certainly don’t look good at the moment. They don’t smell good, they don’t feel good, and they don’t taste good. But they are. It is God’s goodness in disguise. This requires faith.
One of the things we see in Hebrews 11 is that God’s victory doesn’t always look like victory in that moment. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it looks like conquering kingdoms, enforcing justice, obtaining promises, stopping the mouth of lions, quenching the power of fire, escaping the edge of the sword, being made strong out of weakness, becoming mighty in war, putting foreign armies to flight, receiving back the dead from resurrection. But other times victory is disguised and looks more like being tortured, suffering mocking, and flogging, being chained, being imprisoned, being stoned, being sawn in two, being killed with the sword, or going about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated, wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
Sometimes victory looks like victory, other times it looks like defeat. But with faith, we can trust God and know that no matter how bad it gets, at the very least, we will all rise from the dead one day. And we know this because God’s own Son hung on a cross and died. But then He rose from the dead. It was a victory in disguise. This is how Paul and Silas can sing Psalms in their prison cell. It’s how the disciples who ran from Christ when He was arrested, later went to honorable martyr’s deaths. It’s how Christians like St. Patrick can escape their slave masters, be converted to Christ, then return to their slave masters to preach the gospel to them.
It is how we as Christians can face whatever trial or suffering or persecution that may come our way with peace and confidence in God. God ordained the death of His Son to be for our good, and the good of the world. Since God can do that with the death of His Son, He can do it with all things and trials and sufferings in your own life. Look only to Him. Look only to your King on a cross, with faith, knowing that there, as He was lifted up to suffer and die, He was lifted up in exaltation above the earth. He was raised above all men, that all may look up to Him. He was lifted up that His blood would run down to wash away our sins. Amen.