Jesus, King of the Jews

So they took Jesus, 17 and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. 18 There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. 19 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.”

23 When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his garments and divided them into four parts, one part for each soldier; also his tunic. But the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom, 24 so they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says,

“They divided my garments among them,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.”

So the soldiers did these things, 25 but standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” 27 Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home. John 19:17-27 ESV

John presents the trials of Jesus in an abbreviated form, choosing to leave out many of the details provided in the Synoptic gospels. His record of these events is rather short and to the point, but the one thing he clearly intended to emphasize was the kingship of Jesus. The very first question Pilate asked Jesus was, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (John 18:33 ESV).

From Matthew’s account of this scene, it appears that the Jewish leaders had brought a series of charges against Jesus, which most likely included such things as sedition, insurrection, and an accusation that Jesus had claimed to be the King of the Jews. When Jesus had refused to answer Pilate’s question, the governor had responded with a second question.

“Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” – Matthew 27:13 ESV

Unknowingly, the Jewish religious leaders were speaking prophetically. In their attempt to convince the Roman government to put Jesus to death, they had concocted the story that Jesus was a dangerous radical who was fomenting revolution and claiming to be the rightful King of Israel. But as the events unfold, it will become increasingly clear that they did not believe what they were saying about Jesus. And yet, John will use their words against them. While they saw their mention of Jesus’ kingly aspirations as a way to get Him killed, John viewed it as the focal point of the entire narrative.

The abusive and demeaning treatment of Jesus by the Roman soldiers was intended to mock and humiliate Him.

And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. – John 19:2-3 ESV

But their words, while spoken with mocking sarcasm and disdain, were actually true. They were unwittingly declaring the identity of Jesus. These unbelieving and hard-hearted Romans soldiers had become unwilling and unknowing ambassadors for God. They were making known the truth regarding the Son of God.

This brings to mind an earlier encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees that took place immediately after His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Luke records that as Jesus made His way into the city, the crowds had shouted, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38 ESV). But the Pharisees had accosted Jesus, demanding that He rebuke these people for their preposterous claims. But Jesus had simply responded, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40 ESV).

The Greek word for “stones” is lithos, and it refers to a small rock or pebble. It is the same word John the Baptist used when speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees.

“Don’t just say to each other, ‘We’re safe, for we are descendants of Abraham.’ That means nothing, for I tell you, God can create children of Abraham from these very stones.” – Matthew 3:9 NLT

John the Baptist had declared that God could create children out of inanimate, unthinking rocks. And Jesus had claimed that, should the Jews stopped declaring His Kingship, the common, everyday stones would pick up the cry.

So, when these unbelieving Gentile soldiers shouted, “Hail, King of the Jews!,” they were fulfilling Jesus’ prediction. The Jewish crowds had long disappeared and their voices had grown silent. The streets of Jerusalem were dark and empty, but the sound of voices declaring the Kingship of Jesus still echoed through the night.

When Pilate presented Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders, he had sarcastically declared, “Behold your King!” (John 19:14 ESV). To which they had replied, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” (John 19:15 ESV). And when Pilate mockingly asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?,” the chief priest of the Jews had angrily declared, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15 ESV).

Pilate mocked Jesus for claiming to be the King of the Jews. But the high priest and his companions, who because of their knowledge of the Scriptures, should have recognized Jesus for who He claimed to be, chose to reject Him instead. And they would not be content until this would-be-king was put to death. So Pilate, having decided to give into their demands, handed Jesus over to be crucified.

Once again, John provides an abbreviated account of the crucifixion. He leaves out many of the details contained in the other three gospels. But he continues to focus His attention on the kingship of Jesus. The scene shifts to a hillside outside the city walls, a location known as Golgotha, which meant “The Place of the Skull.” It was evidently a common site used by the Romans for crucifixions and that may have led to its grim-sounding name. While the other gospel writers spend a great deal of time describing the details of Jesus agonizing transition from Pilate’s residence to the place of His crucifixion, John chose to concentrate his attention on one particular and often overlooked aspect of Jesus’ death.

It was a common practice for the Romans to place a sign above the head of the one being crucified describing the nature of the crime they had committed. In this case, Pilate personally dictated what was to be inscribed on the placard that was placed above the head of Jesus.

Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” – John 19:19 ESV

There is little doubt that Pilate meant this as mockery of Jesus but also as a subtleslight to the Jewish religious leaders. He knew that it would infuriate them and he was not disappointed. Pilate had ordered that the inscription be written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek, insuring that the Jewish pilgrims, who had come from all over the world for the Passover celebration, would be able to read what was written.

Caiaphas, the high priest, accompanied by Annas, his father-in-law, attempted to convince Pilate to make a slight, but significant edit to the wording on the sign.

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.’” – John 19:21 ESV

But Pilate refused. So, the sign that hung above the head of Jesus, declaring the nature of His crime and the reason for His death, read: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” The Rabbi from Nazareth was being put to death for being exactly who He claimed to be. He was killed for being the King of kings and Lord of lords.

There is a sense in which this inscription was intended as a not-so-subtle reminder to the Jews of what happens when anyone attempt to stand opposed to the rule and reign of Caesar. The sight of Jesus hanging on the cross, wearing a crown of thorns, would have been a very gruesome, yet effective means of deterring any future would-be kings.

And as the King of kings hung dying on the cross, a handful of “stones” gambled over his garments. These hardened and discompassionate Roman soldiers were attempting to profit from Jesus’ death, and little did they know that their callous actions were in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Hundreds of years earlier, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the great King David had penned these prophetic words:

For dogs encompass me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me;
they have pierced my hands and feet—
I can count all my bones—
they stare and gloat over me;
they divide my garments among them,
    and for my clothing they cast lots. – Psalm 22:16-18 ESV

And as the soldiers gambled over what they believed to be the sparse remains of Jesus’ inheritance, another group of individuals looked on in horror and heartache.

Standing near the cross were Jesus’ mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary (the wife of Clopas), and Mary Magdalene. – John 19:25 NLT

While the soldiers were hoping to gain some small financial advantage from the death of Jesus, these women were forced to face the loss of all their hopes and dreams. For Mary, the mother of Jesus, this was not what she had been expecting. At no time over the last 33 years had Mary ever expected this outcome. As she stood watching her Son being nailed to the cross and hoisted up before the angry crowd, she must have replayed over and over again the words that Gabriel had spoken to her 33 years earlier.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to 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.” – Luke 1:30-33 ESV

And yet, here was her Son hanging on a cross rather than reigning over the house of Jacob. And to make matters worse, some of the last words she would hear her Son say simply emphasized the finality of the horrific scene she was having to endure.

“Woman, behold, your son!” – John 19:26 ESV

Jesus was letting His mother know that John would be responsible for her care from this point on. His earthly life was coming to an end. And His imminent death would also bring with it a change to His relationship with Mary. With His resurrection, Jesus would no longer be her earthly Son. He would be her King, Lord, and Savior. Everything was about to undergo a radical and revolutionary change. The insurrection the Romans feared was going to take place, but it would be nothing like what they expected. It was as Jesus had told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 ESV).

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The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson