All four gospel writers mention that Pilate placed a sign on the cross declaring Jesus "King of the Jews." However, none give us as much detail as John does about the incident. On Good Friday, it is especially worthwhile that we take a closer look at what he has to say about that sign, and consider the implications of his message.
Unlike the other Gospel writers, John tells us that the sign read, "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." It appeared in three languages: Aramaic, Greek, and Latin (famously remembered in art as INRI -- Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum). By using the languages of the people, of commerce, and of the state, Pilate ensured all who could read would read it. Finally, John explains that Pilate brushed aside the Jewish leaders who insisted he change the sign to say that Jesus claimed to be king, by simply answering, "What I have written, I have written."
Making a criminal hold or carry a sign that declared his crime was not unusual in Roman times. However, we see in this passage that Pilate used the sign more to poke fun at the local leaders who he controlled than to communicate the reasons for Jesus' execution. By pointing out that this beaten, condemned, and dying man was the king of the Jews, Pilate was humiliating the Jews and their leaders. However, despite Pilate's personal reasons for the sign, he was in fact making a proclamation far beyond his own comprehension. He was indeed declaring a truth, that this man was -- and is -- a king.
After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, riding not on a warhorse but on a donkey, John relates this statement of Jesus: "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." John then explains, "He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die." (12:32-33) He is speaking here of his crucifixion, a moment in time with eternal implications. He is speaking, in fact, of his coronation. Indeed, when we ponder it, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is in its own unique way a coronation, and one which turns our thinking about kings and kingdoms upside down.
There is the king, before his subjects, raised up high upon not a throne, but a cross. In fact, some Roman crosses included a tiny seat called a sedile, which allowed the condemned the slightest bit of support, not for comfort, but to prolong the agony of death. Such was the throne of our Lord.
Jesus was given a crown, not of gold and jewels, but of thorns, to emphasize his role as king. And as if this weren't enough, the Holy Spirit moved even the brutal Pontius Pilate to publicly proclaim, through his written words, the kingship of the Christ. Every element is there for a coronation, but it is not a worldly one. It is an other-worldly one. It is a coronation of a servant king whose kingdom is indeed not of this world at all, but of another.
Only twice in the New Testament is Jesus proclaimed a king during his lifetime. First is when the Magi arrive seeking the infant Jesus. "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" they asked Herod. Second is Pilate, who through the sign on the cross declares Jesus king. The wise men of the East and the governor from the West, at the beginning and at the close of Jesus' earthly life, as different as they were, spoke despite the silence of hardened hearts unable and unwilling to recognize their royalty when he arrived. Do we recognize Jesus the King today? How do we view him...as friend, as teacher, as comforter, as healer...as revolutionary, as sage, as mystic? Do we truly recognize him as king? Do we treat him as king in our lives? As we ponder the mystery and the majesty of a man crowned in the midst of his torture, let us sincerely ask if he sits upon the throne in our hearts today.
|From the Hagia Sophia|