From the Basement

September 16, 2010

Pilate, Christ, and the sign on the cross

Today, I finished reading the Book of John, and a detail caught my eye that I’d never really noticed before, not truly.

John 19:19-22

Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.” Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

In Sunday School, the sign above Christ’s head was always interpreted as mocking, yet more humiliation from people who did not understand the words they spoke. I don’t think I ever realized that Pilate was the one who wrote the notice and, what’s more, that it was an act of defiance.

Up to this point, Pilate had been fighting Caiaphas tooth and nail, trying to get out of condemning Jesus, protesting his innocence, even freeing Barrabas, a violent robber, at the demands of the crowd. In verse 12 of this same chapter, John writes, “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.’”

In verse 16, Pilate capitulates as the protests increase – I would guess that the threat of riot was at a fever pitch. Christ is taken to be crucified, but not before Pilate writes this notice and has it placed above Christ’s head in enough languages to ensure great understanding.

Verse 21 is crucial: the priests do not like it! The priests understand this act of defiance in a way I’ve never heard preached on a Sunday morning. They offer an editorial suggestion to Pilate – that he writes that Christ claimed to be King. But Pilate refuses them, a subtle reminder of the power he holds. He has been forced to give Christ over, but this one thing he can do: declare Christ King of the Jews. Even if he does not entirely understand what he is declaring, Pilate lets his words stand, in every language possible.

I firmly believe that Pilate did not want to give Christ over. The gospels suggest that it got to the point where it was an issue of handing one man over for the sake of peace in the city – not a “right” motive, but I do think Pilate did all he could to keep Christ from the priests. (Of course, he did not know that the crucifixion was prophesied, that it had to happen – that God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.)

I think my Sunday School teachers were wrong. The sign was not meant to humiliate or mock Christ’s claims. It was Pilate’s defiance to the priests and, in a way he perhaps did not intend, a powerful acknowledgement of the supremacy of the kingdom for which Christ came. It’s a declaration of truth… and, perhaps, of faith.

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