“Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.’ 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. 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 the King of the Jews.”’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this holy night, Good Friday is that portion of the Gospel lesson that I just read, from John chapter nineteen. Dear friends in Christ: the charge was placed upon the tree, a sign to declare to all who passed why this man, or any man, should suffer so. Such signs were public declarations that justice was being done, and they were warnings: do not go and do likewise, or you will find yourself nailed to a tree. I N R I. We still place it upon our crucifixes, the Latin abbreviation of this title written in three languages. Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. This Jesus suffers so, this Jesus will die, because He is the King of the Jews. Pilate didn’t really believe it, or else he would’ve swiftly approved crucifixion for a rebel and usurper; any political threat to Caesar’s authority must be quickly dealt with. The Jews didn’t believe it, or else they wouldn’t have called out for His death.
Who could believe it? Who could look at this Jesus, beaten, bloodied, and dying, and think that Pilate’s sign was anything other than a dark and sarcastic joke? “We esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.” This is the King of the Jews? Naked, scourged, bleeding from every pore; He who once commanded crowds of thousands with His words now hangs between two thieves, their equal in torture, their equal in suffering, their equal in death. The One called by Pilate, the One proclaimed by the sign above His head as ‘the King of the Jews’ is a beaten mess. When He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we have no answer, but we agree with His cry. This man is forsaken by God, abandoned by Him. No man has ever suffered more, in the history of the world, than the One called ‘King of the Jews.’ “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him.” All who pass Him deride Him, they reject Him, they are horrified at the spectacle that hangs above their head. The sign upon the tree, denoting majesty and honor, nobility and beauty, points to a man who has none of these things, whose very appearance is a terror, from which men shield their eyes.
“As many were astonished at you—His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind.” This is the King of the Jews? He barely appears to be human, much less a king, and those who cried out for His death want it to be made clear that they utterly and completely reject Him. “the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but rather, “This man said, I am the King of the Jews.”’” He is not our king, they say, they declare as loudly and insistently as they can. They want no such king; they refuse to be ruled by a man who suffers so. This is not the kind of king we would choose. We want our rulers to be strong leaders, we want our heroes to be mighty warriors, we want those whom we choose to exercise authority to be worthy of honor, not just from us, but from everyone else. We want our rulers to look the part. And this One declared the King of the Jews does not look the part. He is weak, He is bloody, He is rejected by the mob and condemned by the governor, scourged and nailed to a tree, His crown made of thorns. He has no attendants, all who followed Him have scattered, only a few women and one young disciple are left. “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not.” Most reject Him, most want nothing to do with such a king, most refuse to be associated in any way with such weakness. “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am the King of the Jews.’”
But Pilate refuses. In spite, the governor, who has been bullied by the chief priests and their mob the entire day, gets in one last jab. This man, hanging upon the tree, beaten, bloodied, dying, is declared to the world to be their king. “Pilate answered, ‘What I have written I have written.’” He doesn’t believe it, but still he declares it. The governor, the Roman government in that place, the representative of Caesar, whose authority ultimately comes from God Himself, imposes this dying man upon the Jewish people. This is their king. He refuses to take the sign down; he has spoken his last word on the matter. “Kings shall shut their mouths because of Him; for that which has not been told them they see, and that which they have not heard they understand.” Pilate has not read the Scriptures; he knows nothing about God’s promises, but what those who have been told about the Messiah refuse to see, what those who have heard the prophecies refuse to understand, he confesses, despite himself. In his vengeance toward those who have humiliated him, Pilate makes the good confession: the Suffering Servant is the King of the Jews. This man, suspended between earth and heaven, hanging there in order to die, is the King of the Jews. This man, despised and rejected by men, whose appearance is so marred that He is barely recognizable as human, is the King of the Jews.
His throne is a cross, His reign is established in blood, for both Pilate and the chief priests are part of a much larger drama, the conflict between this King and His foes: sin, death, and Satan. The cross is not an isolated tragedy, or a miscarriage of justice, this is justice, done upon the King for the sake of those over whom He rules. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” The King is a servant, and He establishes His throne by dying for His people, defeating their enemies by surrendering Himself to them in our place. He laid Himself into the jaws of death bearing the iniquity of His people; He did not die for Himself, for any crime that He committed, He died because He is the King of the Jews, the Messiah, and the Messiah does one thing: He dies in the place of His people. “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” This is the King we need, no matter how weak and rejected He is, no matter how horrifying He is to our eyes. This is the King we need, because He dies the death we deserved. He was forsaken by God so that you would never be forsaken, justice was done upon Him so that it would not be done on you. This is your King—this is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, as Pilate declares and God confirms three days later. For the King of the Jews is not just the One who dies for His people, but the One who rises again in victory for them over the grave. “When His soul makes an offering for sin, He shall see His offspring, He shall prolong His days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.”
The will of the Lord is that this King establish His rule over all creation, that the crucified and risen One will be not just the King of the Jews, but the King of all, Jew and Gentile. The will of the Lord is that the confession of Pilate is published throughout the world, a mission that Pilate Himself began. “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.” Pilate gives us a preview of Pentecost, as the proclamation of the Suffering Servant as King goes out in the languages of the world. To all creation this message goes forth: this is your King, the Suffering Servant. Do not despise Him as the chief priests did, do not refuse this title of love. Do not look down upon His sufferings, His marred face, His lack of form or beauty, for He did this all for you. He is your King, and He is your King chiefly in suffering for you, His people. “Out of the anguish of His soul He shall see and be satisfied; by His knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant make many to be accounted righteous, and He shall bear their iniquities.” He has made you righteous, for He, the righteous One, has borne your iniquities and paid their penalty, once for all people, once for all time. “Pilate said, ‘What I have written, I have written.’” May these words stand forever as a banner of love, of victory, of salvation. I N R I. Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. In His Name, Amen.