Monday, January 11, 2016

The Unwitting Testimony of the Cross (John 19:19-22)

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On April 14, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky, something was scheduled to happen for the first time in American history, which led to something else happening for the last time in American history. On that day, a crowd numbered by some at 20,000 people along with media representatives from around the country gathered in Owensboro to witness the first ever public execution carried out by a woman, Sheriff Florence Thompson. It didn’t actually happen, though, because Sheriff Thompson for some unknown reason decided to give the responsibility of springing the gallows trap to a police officer from Louisville who, like many in the crowd, was intoxicated. In fact, leading up to the event, “hanging parties” were taking place all over town, and vendors were selling hot dogs and beverages throughout the crowd. When convicted rapist and murderer Rainey Bethea dropped from the gallows, reports indicate that the mob charged toward him, tearing the hood from his head and taking for themselves souvenirs from the occasion. Many historians suggest that the raucous spectacle of the event made Bethea’s hanging the last public execution in our country.[1]

From the beginning of its institution in human history, capital punishment had always been intended as more than a punishment of the guilty. It was also to serve as a warning to others. If you commit certain crimes, this will be your end. And in order to have that effect, it was necessary for executions to be public. It was certainly that way in the first century Roman Empire. Executions have always been able to draw a crowd, owing to the morbidity of man’s fallen nature, but crucifixions proved to be exceptionally popular. In Jesus’ case, it was a perfect storm. He was a well known figure. The drama of His final hours had been played out before the watching public. There were multitudes coming and going from Jerusalem, owing to Passover week, and the place where He was crucified was near to the city. The Roman and Jewish authorities wouldn’t have wanted it to be any different. For the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus was Public Enemy Number One, and they were glad to publicly display His battered body on the cross. For the Roman establishment, it provided a good opportunity to warn the discontented Jews of what happens to those who are suspected of insurrection against the Empire.

Our text tells us that Pilate wrote an inscription. It was customary for a condemned criminal to have his crimes written for all to see upon a placard of wood that had been whitewashed with gypsum. This placard would be hung around his neck or paraded before him in the streets during the death march. Upon execution, it would hang from his neck, or in what was apparently a rare case, be affixed to the cross, as was done here with Jesus. But there are several things about this that were not customary. First, not customary is what was written. Ordinarily one would find a criminal charge written. Pilate writes a title: “Jesus the Nazarene: King of the Jews.” It was not a crime to be the King of the Jews. It was a crime to claim to be the King of the Jews, if one was in fact not actually the King of the Jews. That is why, upon seeing it, the chief priests said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’” The Greek verb tense there in verse 21 suggests that they repeatedly asked him to change it. Previously, they were able to pressure Pilate into cowering to their demands, but this time they are met with obstinate resolve. Perhaps feeling some tinge of shame or embarrassment for how he let them get the best of him before, he is determined to hold his ground here. As for what he has written, he was never really convinced that Jesus was guilty of a crime in the first place. For all he knew or cared, Jesus might as well have been the King of the Jews. He wouldn’t have understood the spiritual implications of that anyway, and as for the political ones, he could not have cared less. Whether Jesus was actually the King or just claimed to be King, either way it was sedition, and either way Rome would demand crucifixion. But also, the placard was meant to have a sting in it for the Jews. Twice before they led Jesus to Golgotha, Pilate had goaded the Jews with taunts about Jesus being their king. The placard on the cross was the final jab. Everything about it was an affront to the Jews. Here was a bloody and battered Jesus, a Man they despised, and a Nazarene of all things. Remember what was said about Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). And He was hanging from a cross, shameful and disgraceful as that was. Pilate’s words on the placard were meant to indicate that such an individual as this was the only kind of King they deserved, and this is what Rome thought of their nation, their people, and their King.

Secondly, however, it would not have been customary for Pilate, or any other high-ranking political leader, to actually write the charges on the placard. There are those who suggest that the Greek wording could allow for us to understand it as though Pilate “had the inscription written,” rather than actually taking the stylus in his own hand to write it himself. At the very least, the wording here insists that Pilate chose the words and demanded them to be recorded exactly as he stated. Or, it is not impossible that in this rarest of cases, he actually wrote it out himself. And here is where we come to the unwitting testimony of the cross. Though, from a human perspective, it was Pilate who chose the words and ordered the inscription, there was a Higher Power orchestrating it all. The God who is meticulously sovereign over all things that take place in the world and in our lives was invisibly choreographing this scene to accomplish His greater purposes. And so, as the patriarch Joseph was able to say regarding the treacherous deeds of his brothers (cf. Gen 50:20), we can say here that what Pilate intended for evil, God intended for good. God sovereignly moved Pilate’s mind to settle obstinately on the wording of this placard, and the hand of Pilate or whoever took up the stylus, to inscribe this testimony to the true identity of the One on the cross. So what does this unwitting testimony of the cross declare?

I. It declares an unintended testimony to the truth of who Jesus is. (v19)

I think most of us are familiar with the story of Cinderella, the peasant girl who goes to the ball and enamors the prince, and runs away before the magic spell ends at midnight. She left a shoe behind – a glass slipper in the famous Disney version of the story – prompting a search of the whole kingdom to find the girl whose foot fits the shoe. The great thing about fairy tales is that no one ever stops to ask logical questions. Doesn’t it seem remotely possible that more than one woman in the kingdom wore the same size shoe? But, nevermind that, the search proceeds until Cinderella’s foot fits perfectly in the glass slipper, and she and the prince live happily ever after. We’ve discovered in teaching our children literature that this story is found in many diverse cultures of the world, with various details modified. But it may have been the popularity of the version of the story involving the lost shoe which caused an old English saying about a cap and a head to be changed to the more familiar saying, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”

And friends, if there is a sign that is inscribed with the words “King of the Jews,” then Jesus Christ is fit to wear it! Pilate had no intention of declaring that Jesus was actually the King of the Jews, and the Jews had no intention of ratifying such a declaration, but the eternal and undeniable truth of heaven is that Jesus the Nazarene is indeed the King of the Jews. But what does this statement even mean? King of the Jews? The hope of Israel, set forth in the Old Testament, included a vision for a descendant of David who would come to establish and reign over an everlasting kingdom. God promised this to David, ensuring him that his throne would be established forever, and occupied by David’s son, who would also be God’s son (2 Sam 7:8-16). This king would be “the anointed one,” the translation of the Hebrew word Messiah. Isaiah spoke of this Messiah who would come, indicating that He would suffer for the sins of His people as a substitute to save them from divine judgment (cf. Isa 53). Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled these Old Testament promises of an anointed King who descended from David’s lineage. “The theme of Jesus as King, Ruler, or Lord dominates the New Testament from beginning to end.” But it is here at the cross where Jesus “established His kingship through His sacrificial death.”[2]

As F. F. Bruce so beautifully stated it, “The Crucified One is the true king, the kingliest king of all; because it is He who is stretched on the cross, He turns an obscene instrument of torture into a throne of glory and ‘reigns from the tree.’”[3] Augustine wrote, “The title placed over his cross … showed that they could not keep Him from being their king even by His death.”[4] Indeed, by His resurrection and ascension, and in the sure and certain promise of His return, God’s promise that He will reign over a kingdom that has no end has come to pass and will be fully consummated. And then, the book of Revelation declares, we will behold Him wearing a new and different placard that reads, “KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (Rev 19:16). Yes, not the King of the Jews alone, but King of all Kings, and King over every nation, tribe, people, and tongue (5:9; 13:7; 14:6). And this brings us to the second unwitting testimony of the cross.

II. It announces an unusual message for the whole world to receive. (v20)

If you travel internationally much, you will encounter many signs that you do not understand. They are written in strange languages, some with an alphabet of symbols and characters that are completely unrecognizable to us. But in a lot of places, at least the really important signs are written both in the local language and in English. It ensures that the message is clearly understood by the most people possible.

Notice here in our text that Pilate’s placard which he prepared and affixed to the cross was written in three languages: Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Whether the Hebrew was actually Hebrew or Aramaic, the point is that the average Jew of Jerusalem and Judea could understand the message on the sign. Not only this, but because Latin was the official language of the Roman Empire, every Roman official and Roman soldier stationed in the area (and there were plenty) could understand the message on this sign. But also notice that it was written in Greek. For centuries, since the days of Alexander the Great, Greek had been the common language of the majority of the world.

The significance of this has to do as well with the timing of it. During the Passover feast, Jerusalem’s population swelled to many times its normal size. Pilgrims came from far and wide to observe Passover in Jerusalem. Tradition made it mandatory annually for all Jews, but logistics made it more practically a once-in-a-lifetime desire for most. And many came. They came from across the world. Remember that, just as is true today, following the return of the exiles from Babylon, more Jews lived outside of the Promised Land than inside of it. Jewish population in Palestine during Jesus’ lifetime may have been five or six hundred thousand. Elsewhere in the Roman Empire, there were perhaps up to eight million Jews.[5] Many of those were coming in, and a few days later, they would go out. On their way in or out of Jerusalem, many of them would have undoubtedly walked past Golgotha, which John says was “near the city” (v20). Those who didn’t see the crucified Jesus for themselves would have likely heard about it. And all who were able to read (which would have been a surprisingly high percentage), no matter what language they could read, could have understood the message inscribed here on the cross.

From Jerusalem, once the feast ended, they would depart and each one would return to his or her homeland. Friends and loved ones would ask, “What did you see while you were there?” Imagine how they might answer. “On the day of the sacrifices, we happened to be coming into the city, and there by the road was a Nazarene named Jesus who had been nailed to a cross. Above his head there was a sign which read, “The King of the Jews.” And so this message began to spread around the world as these travelers went back to their homelands. Soon, others would come – missionary evangelists like the Apostle Paul, ordinary folks who had heard the good news of Jesus and His salvation and believed – and they would share the message of Jesus. These who first heard the report of the crucified King would discover through the sharing of this Gospel that the King had suffered and died for them, to bear the weight of their sins beneath the judgment of God on their behalf, that they may be saved and reconciled to God by repentance and faith in Him.

And so this message of the King of the Jews, who had been crucified on Golgotha would soon sweep across the entire Roman Empire and beyond. Surely Pilate did not intend to be a global missionary for Jesus when he inscribed the words of this placard in three languages, but the words he inscribed in the three major languages of the Empire at that time certainly accomplished that in an unusual way. God providentially ordered the events of that day in order that the whole world could understand the significance of what was taking place there on the cross. The cross was an unusual coronation ceremony by which the King of kings was establishing a spiritual kingdom that transcends national borders and ethnic boundaries, a kingdom for Jew and Gentile alike who come to God by faith in this crucified King.

We see it taking shape already here on Golgotha. The other Gospel writers tell us that there was a man named Simon from Cyrene (in modern day Libya) who was coming into the city as Jesus was being led to the cross. Maybe Simon was a Jew who lived in Cyrene. Maybe he was a Gentile who had come to believe in the Jewish faith. Whichever the case, as he drew near to Jerusalem on his Passover pilgrimage, the soldiers compelled him to carry the cross of Jesus for a portion of the distance. Mark tells us that this man was the father of Alexander and Rufus, a detail which seems to have very little significance until we come to Paul’s letter to the Romans. There Paul offers his greetings to a member of the Roman church named Rufus and his mother. It seems natural to understand that Simon returned to Cyrene and told his family of his experience with Jesus, and they all became followers of Jesus and citizens of His kingdom. We also see there on Golgotha a Jewish criminal turning to Jesus from his own cross and asking Him to remember him when He comes into His kingdom. And soon after, when Jesus had breathed His last, we find a Gentile centurion recognizing that Jesus was surely the Son of God. These three men – Simon of Cyrene, the repentant criminal, and the Roman centurion – demonstrate that no matter who we are, where we are from, or what we have done, God invites us all into the Kingdom of His Son, the Kingdom which was inaugurated and heralded from the cross of Jesus Christ.

The trilingual placard that was affixed to the cross of Jesus accomplished far more than Pilate ever intended. It was an unwitting testimony for Jesus, unintentionally declaring the truth that He is the King, and unusually announcing a message for the whole world to receive. But, here and now, two millennia later, this placard continues to accomplish purposes for which Pilate could have never intended, but which God has providentially ordained. We come now the third unwitting testimony of the cross:

III. It proclaims an ironic lesson for the followers of Jesus. (v22)

In Psalm 76:10, the Psalmist Asaph writes, “The wrath of man shall praise You.” This means, at least in part, that God has the power to take the evil schemes and deeds of man and completely subvert them into a means of bringing glory to His name and furthering His purposes in the world. Make no mistake about it, there is nothing commendable or worthy of our emulation in the character of Pontius Pilate as he is recorded in Scripture or secular history. But here in our text, there are at least two lessons that we can draw from his intractability on the matter of the words inscribed on this placard.

Previously, when Jesus was on trial (if we may call it that, for the outcome was settled before the whole process began), he was vacillating and pliable, allowing himself to be pressured away from justice and truth in violation of his own conscience and conviction for reasons of personal and political pride. Now, he stands resolutely before the Jewish officials declaring in no uncertain terms that he will not change what he has written. Barclay is surely right when he says that it is “one of the paradoxical things in life that we can be stubborn about things which do not matter and weak about things of supreme importance.”[6] Though the change of wording that the Jews are demanding would have no effect on the outcome of events that day, their request is contrary to the high degree of respect that Romans had for written documents. The wording on the placard, for Pilate, represented a legally binding statement that could not be retracted or revised. Therefore Pilate says, “What I have written I have written.”

This takes on a special significance for those of us who understand that the words written on this placard originated in the mind of God, who the Bible says, turns the hearts of earthly kings like water in His hand. It was God Himself who installed this anointed King on the cross-shaped throne by His eternal decree, and it is as though we perceive an inaudible voice declaring from heaven, “What I have written, I have written.” He has declared from before the foundation of the world that Jesus is the Lamb of God who would be slain to take away the sins of the world (Jn 1:29). And that word, like every other word of divine revelation that He has uttered is entirely unalterable. Therefore, if a duplicitous man such as Pilate can say, “What I have written, I have written,” we must not dare imagine that the holy God of eternal glory has ever spoken any word that He intends to blot out from the record of His divine revelation. When we open the Bible, we are reading God’s very own Word. Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture is given by the inspiration of God, or as the NIV renders it (quite literally), is God-breathed. If Pilate is intractable concerning his word, our God is infinitely moreso, and we must regard His Word as something from which, in the words of Jesus, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from, until all is accomplished and until heaven and earth pass away. We may find ourselves bickering with the Holy Spirit as we come up against passages of Scripture that rub us the wrong way, pleading with Him that His words might be altered to suit our tastes and preferences. But the answer from heaven will always be, “What I have written, I have written,” and our only recourse is to yield ourselves in full submission to the gravity of His truth.

We find another ironic lesson here that certainly never entered the heart of Pilate when these words were inscribed upon his placard. John Calvin writes, “Pilate reminds us … that it is our duty to remain steadfast in defending the truth. A heathen refuses to retract what he has written truly about Christ, even though he did not understand what he was doing. How great, then, our shame if we are terrified by threats or dangers and we stop following his teaching which God has revealed in our hearts by His Spirit.”[7] Like the Jewish officials who badgered Pilate about the wording of this sign, we will face increasing pressures from the world around us to soften our message and modify our testimony for Christ. May God forbid that a convictionless pagan might have more resolve concerning his testimony for Jesus than the blood-bought, Spirit-led citizens of His own Kingdom! Our mandate in the world is to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), but let us not allow this world’s corrupted notion of love to prevent us from being bold with the truth. There is no love where there is no telling of truth, and truth presented without love can be toxic. But, when truth is uncompromisingly proclaimed in the context of unconditional love, this world will see a profound a testimony for Christ coming through His church. When truth is at stake, we must trust that the Lord is our defender and declare with the Psalmist that we shall not be moved (Psa 62:6).

Shall we allow Pontius Pilate of all people to be a better example of steadfastness to the truth of Christ than we are? Shall he have more confidence in his own words than we have in the Word of God? May it never be! Let us learn these ironic lessons in the unwitting testimony of the cross.

Looking up to the dying Savior from the ground of Golgotha, in whatever language one happens to speak, there is a message unalterably emblazoned declaring that Christ is the King. But looking down from heaven, God sees there another message inscribed on a placard visible only to Him. Colossians 2:14 says that God has taken the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us which was hostile to us, and taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. That certificate of debt was the inventory of all of our sin, and it was affixed to the cross for the God of infinite justice and mercy alone to see. There above the sacred Head now wounded was the placard of indictment – not of His crimes but of our sins. And so in the outpouring of divine wrath that took place on the cross, causing Jesus to cry out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”, our sins received the full measure of judgment they deserved in the person of our substitute, King Jesus. And because of that, this King who overcame our sin and its penalty through His resurrection from the dead, offers amnesty and welcome to all who turn to Him and invite Him to be their King. No matter one’s nationality, ethnicity, socio-economic standing, native dialect, or any other factor, this King welcomes all who call upon Him as Savior and Lord to enter into His everlasting Kingdom and have eternal life with Him. If you never have before, today is the day of salvation if you will look to Him in repentance and faith. May those of us who have publish the announcement far and wide, in every language under heaven, that Christ crucified is Christ the King, and may we be faithful and steadfast in the declaration of that good news!




[1] http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/July-August-08/On-this-Day--Kentucky-Holds-Final-Public-Execution-in-the-U-S-.html. Accessed January 7, 2016.
[2] David Dockery, “King, Christ as” in Holman Bible Dictionary (gen. ed. Trent Butler; Nashville: Holman, 1991), 841-842.
[3] F. F. Bruce, The Gospel and Epistles of John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 1.369.
[4] Joel C. Elowsky, John 11-21 (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament; vol. IVb.; Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2007), 311.
[5] Thomas Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message (2nd ed.; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 37.
[6] William Barclay, The Gospel of John (Daily Study Bible, rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 2.252.
[7] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 429. 

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