Alfred Place Baptist Church

23:38 The Placard Above Christ’s Head

Luke 23:38 “There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF
THE JEWS.”

The gospel writer Matthew records, “Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matt. 27:37). The gospel writer Mark records, “The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mark 15:26), and the gospel writer John records, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Jn. 19:19). You can see how important all four evangelists considered this written notice to be because all of them drew attention to it. Only Luke records Jesus speaking to the dying thief. John alone records Jesus’ words to his mother and to the apostle John. But every man who wrote a gospel refers to the superscription nailed to the cross above the head of Jesus. All record what it said in slightly different forms, just as all of you would tell someone about this morning’s sermon emphasizing different things that struck you, while all of you would be speaking the truth ABOUT what I said. All of these gospel writers emphasized this one phrase, “THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

Written notices have a significant place in history. Even this church has one, the brass plaque on the organ, put up a hundred years ago to mark the generosity of some member of the congregation who bought this organ and gave it to the church. It was a gift of extraordinary generosity a century ago. Six weeks ago a written notice was attached to a building in Llangeitho to mark the boyhood home of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. But generally public notices are far more sobering.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s book The Scarlet Letter is set in seventeenth-century Boston , a Puritan settlement. The story begins with a young woman, Hester Prynne, being led from the town prison with her infant daughter, Pearl, in her arms and a scarlet letter ‘A’ on her breast. A man in the crowd tells an elderly onlooker that Hester is being punished for her adultery. Hester’s husband, a scholar in England much older than she is, sent her ahead to America, but he never arrived in Boston. The consensus was that he had been lost at sea. While waiting for her husband, Hester has obviously had an affair, and given birth to a child. She won’t reveal her lover’s identity. She is forced to stand bearing the scarlet letter ‘A’, on the town scaffold for the day. That is her public shaming, her punishment for her sin and for refusing to divulge the name of the father of the child. On the scaffold she is publicly condemned by the town fathers. The scarlet letter is her stigma. Pretty gruesome but better than having her hand, or her head chopped off, as a woman suffered last week in Saudi Arabia for killing her child.

Those notices announced the crime for which the person had been found guilty. They were part of the common punishment up to and including the present day show trials, and in the first century it was not rare. The nailing of this notice to the cross above the Lord Jesus was part of his humiliation. Christ’s shame was compounded by his own ‘scarlet letter’. This superscription stated that the charge brought against him was this, “THE KING OF THE JEWS.” It didn’t say, “This man plotted rebellion.” It didn’t need to, because if anyone in any part of the Roman Empire encouraged people to view him as a king then that was treason enough. So putting this inscription over the dying Jesus’ head was both a cruel irony and a powerful deterrent. “This is what happens to men who claim to be a king,” it was saying.

1. THE NOTICE REVEALED CHRIST’S HUMILIATION AND PILATE’S SHAME.

John is the gospel writer who tells us that it was Pilate who dictated these words, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS (Jn.19:19). Pilate disdained the Jews, with all their messiah-&-king obsessions. So he thought, “How can I be as irritating and poignant as possible in what I write?” Pilate felt that he’d been humiliated by them; they had forced him to do what they wanted, more than at any time since he’d been appointed their governor by the Roman emperor five years or so earlier. They were determined that Jesus of Nazareth would be crucified. So Pilate had occasionally taunted them in Christ’s trial, “Behold your king,” he’d said as he presented them with the whipped and bleeding Jesus. Then later he asked them, “Do you really want me to crucify your king?” forcing the protest, “We have no king but Caesar” from these conquered Jews – of all people. Pilate’s mood was even bleaker since he’d been forced to go against his conscience. He’d physically and publicly washed his hands of any responsibility for the death of Jesus; then, in an angry temper, he’d summoned his scribe and told him to get his quill out. “Put these words onto a placard and have it carried before Jesus through the streets of Jerusalem, and then set it up over his head on the cross, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

So here is another humiliation for Christ. The maker of heaven and earth is made the dupe of one of the moods of Pilate. The Creator is being caricatured yet again. The words THE KING OF THE JEWS were belittling the Jews more than they were mocking the suffering Christ. This is the sort of king such pathetic people were worthy of having. Pilate was using our Lord’s cross for revenge against Caiaphas. What humiliation for Jesus! Calvary is the most holy and solemn scene that the world has seen – or ever will see – and yet our Saviour, bearing the justice of God against cosmic sin, is being demeaned. Pilate is using Jesus’ cross for revenge, to heal his own damaged pride. Imagine using a dying man for self-justification. This hating governor is prepared to use the agonies of Christ as mere retaliation on those good-for-nothings who are his enemies. He is angry with the Jews, yes, but he’s also angry with himself. He’s had to send Christ to the cruel cross in order to save his job, while at the same time convinced that Christ was unworthy of such a death, yet there was no way Pilate could spare him. The chief priests were determined that Jesus of Nazareth should not live. Pilate was allowing a blameless man to die in this horrific way. Little wonder he was a bitter man, and the words of this superscription over the head of Christ in effect are saying, “These horrible Jews have got a pathetic king, and here he is.”

2. THE WORDS WERE WRITTEN IN THREE LANGUAGES.*

This was the time of the Passover and visitors from many parts of the empire were coming to Jerusalem for the feast. Pilate’s statement was written in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Hebrew was the national language; Greek was the language most widely understood; and Latin was the language of Rome, the conquering power. Pilate wished to give his inscription the greatest publicity possible. So Jesus, at the lowest point of his humiliation, was proclaimed Messiah-King in the languages of the three principal peoples of the world.

Each language had its own history, its own dominant idea, and at Calvary each proclaimed the words and message of Pilate. He had given vent to his feelings. These Jews meant no more to him than this miserable, self-styled king – so many good-for-nothings. The Jews understood the insult. It cut them to the quick and they protested ‘Don’t write, “The King of the Jews”, but rather, “This man said, I am King of the Jews'” (John 19:21). Pilate, who’d previously been so weak, now stood firm as he responded to the chief priests with the famous words, ‘What I have written I have written’. Note the twice repeated ‘I have written’. It is in the perfect tense; it indicates an accomplished fact

We believe that behind the hand of Pilate another Hand is writing. The Genevan reformer puts it so well: “The providence of God, which guided the pen of Pilate, had a higher object in view. It did not, indeed, occur to Pilate to celebrate Christ as the Author of salvation, and the Nazarene of God, and the King of a chosen people, but God dictated to him the com­mendation of the Gospel, though he didn’t know the meaning of what he wrote. It was the same secret guidance of the Spirit that caused the title to be pub­lished in three languages; for it is not probable that this was an ordinary practice, but the Lord showed, by this preparatory arrangement, that the time was now at hand when the name of his Son should be made known throughout the whole earth . . . Pilate’s firmness must be ascribed to the providence of God . . . Let’s know, therefore, that Pilate was held by a Divine hand . . . Pilate, though he was a reprobate man, and, in other respects, an instrument of Satan, was nevertheless, by a secret guidance, appointed to be a herald of the Gospel, that he might publish a short summary of it in three languages” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1949), pp. 227-9.)

God was speaking in, through and above Pilate, and God says, “What I have written I have written: Jesus of Nazareth is King: that is final. Amen.” Now the languages used by Pilate are highly significant.

i] The superscription was written in letters of Greek. Greek was the language of culture. For centuries it had expressed what was considered the highest and noblest in human wisdom. Poetry, philosophy, ethics – all had flowed through the channel of the Greek language. Greece was a land of beauty, a land of art and refinement. It produced some of the world’s greatest thinkers, scientists, doctors, playwrights, philosophers, artists and sculptors. Greece was the marvel of all the earth, a land of reflection and poetry. The whole world still feels indebted to the wisdom and glory of ancient Greece. Yes, Greek was the language of culture, and this language was written on Christ’s cross.

This is significant, for in the realm of medicine, beauty, music and art generally, Christ must be acknowledged as their King. Greece, with all its earthly wisdom and culture, had no conception of God’s grace. So it had no answer to the problem of sin. Its wisdom was spiritually blind. It couldn’t bring light and salvation to a needy world. Paul tells the Greeks in Corinth that though, through their wisdom, they’d come to know many things, “The world did not know God through wisdom” (I Cor. 1:21). Most people in Aberystwyth and Wales for the last century thought that all Wales needed was education. A former leader of the Labour party told his conference that it was “Education, education, education” that Britain needed. But an educated sinful man is no less a sinner, as several world wars, and mounting crime and depravity so vividly illustrate. This world’s wisdom is godless: it puts man at the centre of things. A. C. Swinburne, wrote a ‘Hymn of Man’ and paro­died the angels’ song: “Glory to Man in the highest: For man is the master of things.”

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Choral, is the favoured anthem of the European Union. The beautiful melody has been given Christian words and is sung in some churches. But we know the original, Friedrich Schiller’s ‘Ode to Joy, written in 1785, just before the French Revo­lution and originally called ‘Ode to Freedom’. It places its hope for mankind – in the brotherhood of man, and its God is the pantheistic God of nature. Beethoven’s Ninth is glorious music declaring a pernicious philosophy. They sing these words,

Joy, spark of immortal flame, daughter of Elysium,
Goddess drunk with ardent fire, we come to your holy place.
Let your magic bring together those whom earthly laws divide;
That all may live as brothers beneath your wide and gentle wing . . .
Every living creature finds joy in nature;
All good and evil come from her.

There is no grace there; no redemption; no regeneration; no Saviour. Its hopes are all in man. It exalts human wisdom. Beethoven understood and identified himself with that outlook. The Choral Symphony was to be an expression of his spiritual beliefs and a declaration of his hopes for mankind. The humanistic thinkers of Wales today have the same vain hope. When God is left out of our thinking, life becomes meaningless, pointless, worthless. Man has sprung by chance from chance. When men and women are schooled in this world’s wisdom, and God and his truth are given no place in their training, the loss is incalcul­able. How Wales suffers today. When God is discussed today it is in such a condescending manner. Once a lady asked Dr. Jowett of Balliol College, Oxford, “What do you think about God?” Jowett replied, “That, my dear lady, is a very unim­portant question; the only thing that signifies is what God thinks about me.”

Sinful man is determined to have a world-and-life view that has no place for God. He sees himself existing in an impersonal environment. He sees a mindless universe without purpose or direction. It is radically different in Christ’s kingdom where all reality is dedicated to the glory of God. Christ is King: write it in Greek.
ii] The superscription was written in letters of Latin. Latin was the language of political power, of government, of a people and empire which stood for justice, law and the powers that be. Rome, a city set on seven hills, looked out in all directions and ruled the world. The Romans built the world’s roads. They established its trade. They made its laws. They conquered some of its wildest peoples. They planted the Roman standard on every shore. They built one of the greatest empires of all time. They had a genius for government, and today many systems of law regard the Roman system as their parent. The language of those tremendous laws was Latin.

So it is significant that what was written on the cross was written in Latin saying that Jesus is King. King of the Jews, yes, and king of the nations, too. God the Father has given the Son the nations as his heritage, and the ends of the earth as his possession. The nations don’t recognize this King; but the Father’s word to the Son is clear: “You will break them with a rod of iron and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel” (Psa. 2:9). In vain do “the kings of the earth set themselves and the rul­ers take counsel together, against the lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.’”

In that great Second Psalm, God is represented as laugh­ing at such futile arrogance from emperors and kings. The psalm closes with a warning to this world’s rulers “Kiss the Son”, be in submis­sion to Christ, before his wrath is kindled. All too often, our leaders on formal occasions, in Parliament or at coron­ations and royal anniversaries, will, with some brief religious ceremony, doff the hat to God; but the ‘kiss’ thus offered more resembles Judas’s kiss than the kiss of the penitent prostitute bowing and kissing the Saviour’s feet. The Bible that is read on state occasions is soon set aside. God’s law is openly rejected. When have we heard the teaching of the Christian faith discussed reverently at a party political conference? What a transformation there would be if politicians took the Bible seriously.

Whether our rulers believe it or not, Christ is overruling all things. “All authority in heaven and on earth” has been given to him. Ulti­mately our rulers are accountable to him. They’ll stand before the righteous Judge, Christ enthroned. Then all the subterfuge, machination and intrigue that characterize so much political behaviour, will be unmasked and judged. When the lord comes, he “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Cor. 4:5). The ‘new heaven’ and the ‘new earth’ that Christ will then establish will be, in sharp con­trast to this present earth, ‘the home of righteousness’ (2 Pet. 3:13). Then all evil, injustice and oppression will be for ever abolished. Christ is King: write it in Latin!

iii] The Superscription was written in letters of Hebrew. The N.I.V puts ‘Aramaic’ in the place of Hebrew in John 19:20, although in the Greek New Testament it is ‘Hebrew’. Those who make this change do so because at that time Israel’s kitchen language was Aramaic, a Semitic language, distinct from Hebrew. The Lord Jesus spoke Aramaic. It had long been spoken in North Syria and in Mesopotamia. It came to be widely used for commercial and diplomatic trans­actions. In the course of time it ousted Hebrew as the spoken language of Palestine. Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language about the fourth-century bc. It remained, however, a known language and was used by ecclesiastics. But Jesus knew Hebrew. It was still used in the Synagogue. When the Saviour read from Isaiah 61, in the temple, he was reading Hebrew (Luke 4:17-21). A Jewish boy at thirteen years of age was admitted to the religious community through the Bar-Mitzvah ceremony. At that ceremony every Jewish boy was expected to read certain passages from the Hebrew Bible. Admittedly, in some cases (perhaps many), the knowledge of the language may have been limited, but it is a fact that Hebrew was still a known language, the classical lan­guage of Israel. It was the language of religion, God-given, God-taught religion. So we are more comfortable with a strict translation from the Greek -‘having been written in Hebrew’ (John 19:20). If Pilate’s barb was aimed at the chief priests, and it was they who protested at what he had written, what language would have been more suitable than that of their religion – Hebrew?

In the realm of religion Christ must be supreme and central. There is no other King and no other Head of the church. God the Father has appointed the Son head over all things to the church. The church is not a democracy. She is subject in all things to the rule of her King. Even when church members exercise their vote in selecting deacons and elders or calling a minister, they do so in the light of the qualifications for office as set forth in Scripture, that is the word that Christ gives us. Let’s keep the headship of Christ in mind. Let’s seek to be guided by his Word alone. Let’s avoid popular demand and personal taste – “Well I like to worship God this way . . .” Let’s not move with the times; let’s relate to the times. Let’s show the relevance of this gospel to all of life.

Christ is a King with many crowns. He is the King of all true wisdom and culture. Without him our understand­ing, our learning will lack the key that unlocks the meaning of the universe, of this life and of history in general. Christ rules over the nations and, as the Lord of history, he is gathering his people from every land, irre­spective of class or colour. The church is often like a boat in a storm as she faces the hostility of the world. She must never forget that Christ is at the helm. He alone is her rightful King, the only Law-Giver in the church. Let us be jealous for the crown rights of our King!

Little did Pilate realize how appropriate was his action when he wrote that superscription in Greek, in Latin and in Hebrew – the language of Athens, of Rome and of Jerusalem. There are some who would say that Christ is king of the church, but not king in politics, or business, or science, or education. They would give him a restricted sovereignty. They would run life on two gears, the sacred and the secular, every so often changing from one to the other. They try to live on split-levels, where Christ is and where he is not. But Christ is either King everywhere, or else nowhere. We have read about a registrar who cannot marry two men and has lost her job. “Christ is the head of every part of my life,” she says. We have read of a counsellor who cannot counsel two men about their sexual lives and has lost his job. Jesus is Lord over all that man’s life. A religion that is unrelated to life is abhorrent to Christ. This fact is powerfully illustrated in the first chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy. The people of that day were trying to live on split-levels; their religion havd no impact on their daily lives, and so God said, “when you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen” (Is. 1:15). Christ won’t accept a split-level loyalty. He either reigns in your life or he doesn’t.

So who is in charge of your life? Who reigns over you? What is the guiding principle of your life? As you seek for pleasure, or wealth, or fame? Is it the glory of God? The evidence is in your home: the TV pro­grammes you watch, the books and magazines you read, the websites you visit, how you spend your money, the friendships you maintain, the marriage that you are contemplating. What is the chief influence in the lives of our children, the Bible or the Internet, the Word of God or the latest best-seller?

The old Coventry cathedral took a direct hit during the blitz of 1940, but there are eight stone plaques still standing illustrating the theme, ‘Hal­lowed be Thy Name.’ The wording is this: In Industry, In the Arts, In the Home, In Commerce, In Suf­fering, In Government, In Education, In Recreation. One might wish they had also added, In Church. The writing is declaring that the God of the Bible is to be honoured in every sphere of human activity: in all things Christ is to have the pre­eminence. We often quote that well-known statement of Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch within the domain of our human life of which the Christ, who is the Sovereign over all, does not say, ‘Mine.’” *(I received much help in the above section from my late friend Frederick Leahy in one of his inspiring books on the cross, Is it Nothing to You? (Banner of Truth, 2004, pp. 27-37)

3. JESUS CHRIST IS KING.

History is moving towards a display of this King’s glory in spite of all the attempts of men to prevent it. A few years ago I was speaking in St. Petersburg and there I met the revived and living church of Jesus Christ. For seventy years of the 20th century, the Soviet Empire tried to destroy Christianity, but propaganda, atheistic schools, museums of atheism in St Petersburg in former church buildings, secret police, the Gulag, and mass murder couldn’t wipe out the Christian faith. As the twenty-first century is underway, it was the Soviet Empire, not the church of Jesus, that lay in ruins. Other communist nations, such as China, also tried to destroy belief in God and Christ. China’s Chairman Mao declared that power comes from the barrel of a gun, but all the guns of Mao and his cronies couldn’t match the power of Christ. Mao is dead; his reputation as a monster sealed by a definitive biography, but as the new millenium moves on then the kingdom of Christ is spreading throughout China. There are more Christians in that vast country than ever, and more men and women pay lip service to the hollow claims of the communist party. They are pressing violently into the kingdom of Christ . Almost nobody wants to base their lives on the writings of Marx or Mao, but millions want to base their lives on the Master, Jesus Christ, the one revealed in the Bible. Isn’t it amazing? It took only a few decades for communist ideology to grow old and tired, while the life of Christ among his people remains as fresh and vigorous as ever after two thousand years.

Still today there is ferocious persecution of Christians in some parts of the world. Christians are tortured, sold into slavery, or slaughtered. But these attacks on Christ’s kingdom are doomed to fail like all the others. The Lord Most High has seen and planned everything long in advance. Nothing can prevent his purposes and plans from being carried out. About six hundred years before Jesus’ birth Daniel spoke God’s message about four empires leading up to the time of Christ, and that happened just as God said, the Medes, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans followed one another. Over the past two millennia, right through the twentieth century, Daniel’s words about this King and his indestructible kingdom have also come true. Daniel declared, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, nor will it be left to another people. It will crush all those kingdoms and bring them to an end, but it will itself endure forever.” That, in a nutshell, is the story of history, God bringing one empire after another to an end, but building an unconquerable kingdom founded on the Rock of Ages.

God spoke of the spread of this kingdom through Daniel and other prophets long before Jesus’ birth, and when the time of Christ arrived, God repeated his promises as the angel Gabriel spoke to the blessed virgin Mary. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,” Gabriel told Mary. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… his kingdom will never end” (Luke 1:31-33). Why will Christ’s kingdom never end? For the simple reason that King Jesus is great, unimaginably powerful and glorious. He is the Son of the Most High God. What else can explain the mighty and mysterious power of Jesus Christ in human affairs over the past two thousand years?

Historian Philip Schaff put it like this, “Jesus of Nazareth, without money and arms, conquered more millions than Alexander, Caesar, Mohammed, and Napoleon; without science and learning, He shed more light upon things human and divine than all the philosophers and scholars combined; without the eloquence of the school, He spoke words of life such as never were spoken before, nor since, and produced effects which lie beyond the reach of orator or poet; without writing a single line, He set more pens in motion and furnished themes for more sermons, orations, discussions, works of art, learned volumes, and sweet songs of praise than the whole army of great men of ancient and modern times. Born in a manger and crucified as a malefactor, He now controls the destinies of the civilized world, and rules a spiritual empire which embraces one third of the inhabitants of the globe.”

This King is the only person worthy of your ultimate trust. Don’t put your trust in psychics, fortune tellers, and horoscope experts. They can’t read minds or see the future. Don’t put your trust in political rulers or empires or ideologies. They may look “enormous, dazzling and awesome in appearance,” like the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, but they are destined to disappear. Put your trust in the Rock that smashes every political idol, the Rock that has become a mighty mountain filling the earth, the Rock of Ages, the dream come true, the King of kings, the Lord of lords – Jesus Christ.

27th January 2013 GEOFF THOMAS