Mark 15:26 “The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
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 is 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.
Such a notice announcing the crime for which a person had been found guilty has been a common punishment up to and including the present day in show trials, and it was not rare in the first century. The nailing of this notice on the cross behind the Lord Jesus was not a one-off incident. That stigma was part of the humiliation of our Lord. He had been arrested. His name and image entered the public domain as a criminal. He was forced to stand in the dock, be interrogated and tried, and finally found guilty as charged of blasphemy and insurrection. He was beaten up, whipped and condemned to be crucified. He had to walk through the streets of Jerusalem gawked at by everybody as he carried his cross until he was too weak to go one step further. Then when they arrived at Golgotha they drove great nails through his hands and feet and lifted him up naked on that cross where, in unimaginable pain, he hung and suffered for hours until he was dead.
Christ’s shame was compounded by his own ‘scarlet letter,’ a notice attached to the cross. Matthew tells us that they set up over his head a placard on which was written the crime for which he was being punished. This superscription above Jesus 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.
Let’s consider for a moment this notice above Jesus’ head. The four gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, all tell us about the inscription on the cross, and each evangelist records it slightly differently from the others. That gives it a ring of authenticity, doesn’t it? A group of you talking together about a service that you’d attended would give different reports concerning what struck you, but there would be little contradiction between you. You would complement one another with your observations. What you all said would be true, even though each report was different. So at the beginning of the New Testament we meet these four gospel writers who are describing the crucifixion of Christ; Mark tells us about the written superscription; Matthew tells us that it was set up over Jesus’ head; Luke tells us that it was written in three languages; John tells us that the man who chose its actual wording was Pilate himself. Then each one of the four New Testament writers would probably translate one particular language of the notice in his own gospel; so there would be those slight differences of wording amongst them. All the statements made by the gospel writers would be true, even though each writer says something a little different. I want to say to you that the superscription both demeaned Christ and God ensured that the truth also honoured Christ. First how it demeaned him.
1. THE NOTICE REVEALED CHRIST’S HUMILIATION AND PILATE’S SHAME.
Pilate 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.”
What else is Pilate saying? Surely this, he is stating that “Jesus has nothing to do with me; he is the unfortunate king of other people.” The words are an attempt to distance himself from what is happening. Pilate the Roman citizen wants to announce to the world that he isn’t the one doing an injustice against Jesus; it’s his own people who’ve done this to Christ. Pilate is saying, “You understand I’m not one of his subjects. The Jews are the one who’ve rejected and killed their king.” All Aberystwyth takes the same stance today; it wants to protest, “Christ’s death has got nothing to do with me. Others did it . . . another place, another time . . . not me . . . not my sin.” Most of Aberystwyth recognizes that the Lord Jesus Christ is great; he is the colossus of history; he’s the preacher of the Sermon on the Mount; he’s the man who loved his enemies and prayed for them; he is the one sinless man that the world has seen. “Yes, he’s great,” the world is saying, “Brilliant! What a man from amongst us – like Jesus – can achieve,” but the world adds, “Of course we’re not responsible for his death. Not us. The sins of others put him on the cross, not our sins.”
What else is Pilate saying with this notice he’s written? Jesus is the leader of a sect, that rag-tag fearful group who believed in him, had all abandoned their monarch at the first whiff of opposition. They had all run away the previous night when Christ was arrested. Pilate announces all this in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the three languages by which the entire known world of that time could read the placard. The Jews were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover and they could read it. Let the multitudes on their way to pray and sacrifice in the Temple know how pathetically fruitless their attempts at finding a king have been. Then it was also written in Greek; that was the language of culture, of the civilised world of his day. The notice was also written in Latin, the language of Pilate’s king, the language of the law and jurisprudence. The superscription was in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. It was in the language of Jerusalem , and Athens , and Rome . It was in the languages of religion, and culture, and power. They all condemned him to this death. It was in the language of the ancient Orient – Hebrew, of the changing West – Greek, and this new Roman world-empire – Latin. They all spoke the same message, the condemned KING OF THE JEWS.
What was most disturbing of all was that even the Hebrew language said it, the language that was Jesus’ own language, the language of the Scriptures and the revelation of Jehovah. That was a great humiliation for Jesus. The fact that this dismissive phrase KING OF THE JEWS had been written in Hebrew didn’t count at all; it was totally subsidiary to the Greek and the Latin statements. Pilate only added Hebrew to mock the Jews; it was thrown in for good measure. How grievous this whole attitude was to the Lord Jesus. Every literate Jew who looked at him as he hung on the cross read this notice, THE KING OF THE JEWS, in his own sacred tongue. It was saying, “This man is the leader of this pathetic little group of people – he leads the nobodies and this is where he has ended up!” So the scarlet letter demeaned Christ, but also, I want to say, in the second place that it honoured him.
2. YET GOD OVERRULED WHAT PILATE WROTE ALSO TO HONOUR HIS SON.
Christ was great David’s greater Son. He was born of the royal line of Judah . The angel told Mary at the beginning of Christ’s life about the child she would give birth to, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Lk. 1:32&33). Here in our text at the end of his life Pilate wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” It was a confirming notice. It was a vindicating title. There is a certain honour, dignity and truth in Christ’s superscription as against all the mockery he is enduring and all the falsehood of lying witnesses which had been hurled at him. They had called him a blasphemer; they had whipped him and stripped him and nailed him to a tree, but there and then these words were plain for every literate person to read, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Once Pilate had written it he refused to alter a letter. The Jews approached him and urged him to change it. “Write that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews.” Pilate replied, “What I have written I have written.” In other words, “Shut your mouths. Speak no more on this matter. I cannot, and I will not, alter a word.” What a change in a man who earlier seemed as wobbly as a reed blown in the wind, who has now become as unyielding as an oak. Pilate became a man of resolution and determination. His heart is in God’s hands, that is the reason for the change.
John Flavel was a wonderful Puritan preacher whose most famous book was on the theme of the providence of God. It is called The Mystery of Providence. He looks at this superscription over the head of Christ on Golgotha and he makes seven beautiful points of application for our comfort:
i] Very often the providence of God can and does over-rule the actions of the very worst men for God’s own glory.
ii] If men do things without planning, quite accidentally, and God is glorified by them those men will get no reward for what they have done.
iii] If an unbelieving sinner like Pilate can vow, “What I have written I have written,” how shameful it is for a Christian to retract the confession he has made to serve Jesus Christ as his God.
iv] If Pilate had written above the cross of Christ in three languages THE KING OF THE JEWS then the cross of Christ gains some honour from that title. Then Flavel adds, “To be called upon to suffer for Christ’s sake is a great honour.”
v] If God can constrain a man like Pilate, the actual Roman pro-consul and representative of the Emperor, to write these words above Christ’s head then surely that guarantees the success of Christ’s kingdom. God can make his very enemies do his will and serve his cause, so his truth is ultimately bound to prevail.
vi] If God vindicates his own Son in this way then he will also vindicate all his people one day.
vii] If Pilate wrote these words to put all the blame on the Jews and clear himself then we must expect to meet this in our lives – men transferring the fault for what they’ve done to others – onto me, or onto you.
This Roman wrote that Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David, was the King. In the Hebrew Bible was a solemn prophecy found in the book of Daniel, chapter 2. Pagan King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had a dream. He saw before him an imposing statue, as high as Big Ben, enormous, dazzling, awesome in appearance. The head of the statue was made of pure gold, its chest and arms of silver, its belly and thighs of bronze, its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay. As the king gazed at this, a rock was dislodged from a mountain; it was not carefully cut out and guided by a group of men. It bounded down the hill and struck the statue on its feet of iron and clay and smashed them. Then the iron, the clay, the bronze, the silver and the gold were broken to pieces at the same time. They seemed to explode into fine pieces like chaff on a threshing floor in the summer. The wind swept them away without leaving a trace of that once immense statue. There wasn’t a hint that it had stood there, but the rock that struck the statue expanded and expanded becoming a huge mountain filling the whole earth.
Then Daniel explained to the king the meaning of the dream. It was a vision of the future. The king himself, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, was the head of gold. The living God in whose hands are all kings, had given him power, and his empire of Babylon was the greatest on earth, but a time would come when Babylon would give way to another great empire. This was the chest and arms of silver. Following that would come another empire, the bronze belly and thighs. Then would come the iron empire, the strongest in many ways, but with divisions and weaknesses, like iron mixed with clay. But what about this rock which would be more powerful than all of them and expand to fill the whole earth?
“In those times,” [Daniel explained] “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 for ever. This is the meaning of the vision of the rock cut out of a mountain, but not by human hands – a rock that broke the iron, the bronze, the clay, the silver and the gold to pieces. The great God has shown the king what will take place in the future. The dream is true and the interpretation is trustworthy.”
Nebuchadnezzar’s dream was a revelation of what was going to happen in the next 500 years. Babylon ‘s empire of gold would be replaced by the silver empire of the Medes and Persians. Eventually that empire would be conquered by Alexander the Great, who established the bronze empire of Greece . Finally would come the iron strength of Rome and its empire, though Rome ’s attempts to unite its iron with the clay of its conquered territories never succeeded fully. These four empires rose and fell just as God had told Daniel they would.
The small rock, the one not made by human hands, was formed by God himself in the womb of the virgin Mary. The baby Jesus was born in Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world, and everyone obeyed Caesar including Jesus’ mother Mary and Joseph. Jesus’ entire life took place under the Roman occupation of Judea . He lived during the time of the iron rulers of Rome , and he is the stone from the mountain in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream prophesied to smash in pieces this great statue that gloried in man.
Now is this what you’d see from our text today? Would you read of Jesus’ crucifixion and slow dying and say, “Yes, he is the stone who is going to smash Rome to bits”? No you wouldn’t. That would be the last thing you would think of. He is struggling to survive on Golgotha ; he has been crucified under Pontius Pilate, the servant of the Emperor. Look at him now, Daniel’s Son of Man. Can you bear to see this sight? He is suspended naked nailed to a cross, gasping for a breath of air, dying, while Roman soldiers gamble a few feet away from him for his robe, and there in the Hebrew language in which Daniel wrote of the triumph of the Son of Man we read this taunt, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Who has won? The statue or the rolling stone? The statue seems to have triumphed. Surely in real life the stone simply bounced off the statue and broke into pieces. In the dream the stone destroyed the statue but surely not here in the year 30 on this hill outside the walls of Jerusalem . In real life surely Gentiles have triumphed over Jews and their King. Greek and Latin seems to have won the day over Hebrew. Paganism seems to have conquered Old Testament religion. The notice on the cross of Christ seems to underline Christ’s humiliation and Pilate’s shame.
But the cross was not the end of the story. The phrase, THE KING OF THE JEWS was not the last word. On the third day he rose from the dead and he said to his friends, “Peace be with you!” Christ has the last word. There in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost Christ pours out his Spirit and a group of former cowards and runaways become the King’s champions who preach his word with great assurance. Thousands of men in Jerusalem believe in Christ as the King of kings. By the Spirit of God they enter the kingdom of God . Christ is setting up his kingdom in Jerusalem . A Roman centurion named Cornelius is soon sending for Peter to come and preach to him and his circle. Paul is soon taking the Gospel to Greece . And at the same time a church is established in Rome itself and people from Caesar’s palace are breaking bread with Roman slaves. See the stone is growing and it’s filling the world. Through the Jewish king Jesus God is setting up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, just as Daniel predicted. Today, two thousand years after Jesus’ birth and 2,600 years after the Nebuchanezzar’s dream, the empires of Babylon , Medo-Persia , Greece , and Rome are nothing but memories, while the kingdom of Christ remains and includes people from every nation. Here we are today four thousand miles away from Babylon and we are worshipping the Son of Man. Great empires have crumbled to dust, but the rock of Christ and his church has became a huge mountain and it fills the whole earth. He is not merely the King of the Jews, but King of the Gentiles too.
Jesus Christ is a dream come true. Rulers come and go, empires rise and fall, but Christ and his kingdom fill the earth and remain forever. The truth of the Bible is confirmed when it says, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever… Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns” (Revelation 11:15, 19:6).Because Christ humbled himself so low God has raised him so high. That is the reason for Jesus’ universal eternal kingdom. By his death on the cross he triumphed over the guilt of sin, and death, and the devil, and now the King takes the spoils for the fruits of his victory. His kingdom is filling the world. The Father has loved his Son’s deep humiliation and he has exalted his holy child Jesus, given him a name that is above every name and set him down on his right hand in glory. “Ask of me and I shall give you the heathen for your inheritance and the uttermost parts of the world to be your possession.” Because the Son of God was willing to be lifted up so dreadfully exposed and vulnerable on the cross God has drawn all men to him. He is the king of the Hebrews and king of the Greeks and king of the Romans. He was mocked in those languages, and now over such peoples from the day of Pentecost onward he reigns. What had been his shame became his glory. Those for whom he died he also glorified.
The superscription over the cross is a proclamation to us of Christ’s great power. His own nation – his own fellow countrymen – of all the nations of the world – they hated him. Their secular rulers and their religious rulers all conspired to condemn him to die on a cross. In the Sanhedrin there is not a word spoken to spare him from the cross, “Away with him!” this nation says. But on Pentecost there is the beginning of a great change in this nation and thousands bow before him in repentance for what they have done. “Yes, he is our King,” they cry, and the apostle points forward to a day when a vast number in Israel will be saved. Some will be lost but many will confess him as King of the Jews.
History is moving towards a display of this King’s glory in spite of all the attempts of men to prevent it. This week 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 prison, torture, 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 , are alsoing 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 recent definitive biography, but as the newntury moves on the kingdom of Christ spreads throughout China . There are more Christians in that vast country than ever, and less and less believe the hollow claims of the communist party. They are pressing in 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, such as the Sudan . Christians there 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. Already six hundred years before Jesus’ birth Daniel spoke God’s message about four empires leading up to the time of Christ, and it happened just as God said. 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 said, “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 great. 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?
As historian Philip Schaff put it, “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.”
Of all the famous and mighty people who have ever lived, whose birth is celebrated by countless millions around the world and throughout the centuries? This King. Of all the events that have happened in the history of the world, which event has determined the calendar itself and become the standard by which the years and centuries are measured? The birth of this King. Jesus is indeed the Rock of Ages.
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 this King who reads all minds, rules all events, foresees and directs the flow of history through all the ages, and rules “a kingdom that will never be destroyed.” 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.
6th November 2005 GEOFF THOMAS