226. The King of the Jews (Matt. 27:37; John 19 :19-22; Mark 15 :26; Luke 23
On Pilate's instructions there was fastened over the head of
Jesus a description of the man and his crime: "Jesus of Nazareth the King of the
Jews." It was one of the few opportunities Pilate had to score in a small way
over these chief-priests who had so astutely bullied and blackmailed him into
compounding their felony. He knew it would rankle. He meant it to. But it is not
impossible that Pilate appointed that inscription believing it. Jesus had made a
deep impression on him, and this may have been his way of saying: "I'm sorry,
but I had to."
As anticipated, the inscription was greatly resented, and
protest was made immediately. From which fact springs an interesting inference,
that either the chief priests made a special journey back into Jerusalem to seek
audience and so register their protest, or else Pilate was there at the
crucifixion in person. The first alternative is a measure of the high degree of
priestly indignation; the second of Pilate's abiding concern about this man
The little word "also", which comes in the original text here
(see RV) and has been somehow ignored by King James' translators, seems to imply
that, foreseeing difficulties, the priests had already prepared an inscription
of their own to put over the cross of Jesus. But Pilate would have none of
This protest by the priests was a gross impertinence: "Write
not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews" (observe the
subtle dropping of the definite article)). These men must have been flushed with
the success that had attended their handling of both Pilate and Jesus, or they
would surely have never presumed thus to dictate to their governor.
However, Pilate would not budge. Although later on (Jn. 19
:31,38) he was accommodating enough, just now regarding this he was conceding
nothing. "What I have written, I have written." And nothing through the
centuries has been able to alter it. Jesus must be king of the Jews one
day. This was Pilate's unwitting prophecy. Luke uses the word grammata,
which in 2 Tim. 3 :15 means "the Scriptures." It ranks with his earlier
prophecies: "Behold, the man," and "Behold your King," and with that of Caiaphas
when he said: "It is expedient that one man die for the people, and that the
whole nation perish not."
Much discussion has raged over the fact that whilst all four
gospels record the inscription, no two records read exactly alike. Explanation
can be sought, maybe, in the added detail that it was written in Greek, Latin
and Hebrew (Aramaic, the language of Palestine). According to this, Matthew,
Mark and Luke each quote the inscription as it appeared in the language of the
people they were writting for—Matthew in Aramaic, Mark in Latin, and Luke
in Greek-whilst John combines them all. A small difficulty still remains in the
addition by John of the words "of Nazareth." It would be a mistake to overlook
this, for here is a reminder of how the early days of Jesus in Nazareth were
themselves an indirect fulfilment of the words of the prophets: "He shall be
called a Nazarene" (Mt. 2 :23). Nazareth means "Branch". In his crucifixion
Jesus was the Branch of David grafted on to the dead wood of human nature,
making it a Tree of Life. Isaiah had foretold (11 :1) that Jesus would be "the
Branch out of the stem of Jesse," the King-Priest who, filled with the spirit of
the Lord, will diffuse the knowledge of God everywhere, and (after his
resurrection) rally the Gentiles to himself.
The three languages also proclaim the universality of the
gospel of the Cross: "And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto
me" (Jn. 12 :32) —not all without exception, but all without distinction
of race or station, the true Catholicism (cp.Jn. 11:52).
"Nigh to the city"
This witness of Pilate's to the kingship of Jesus had the
widest possible publicity, "for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to
the city." What John may have meant here, even more emphatically, is: "for the
Place (i.e. the Holy Place, the Temple) of the city . . . was nigh at hand" (so
RVm). In other words, few out of those massive crowds going to the Temple on
Passover day could miss seeing and knowing about Jesus of Nazareth.
More than this, by "the Place . . . nigh at hand" John is
steering his readers yet again to Moses' law about a man found murdered (Dt.
21:3). In that scripture, except they be washed, elders, judges, and priests
were accounted responsible.