Calvary’s Superscription

“And set up over His head His accusation written, This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”

Matt. 27:37

The superscription as nailed to a cross was a Roman custom. It was nailed to the upright, above the crossbeam, and it declared the ground of the crucifixion. The cross of our Lord Jesus Christ also bore such a superscription. 

It is peculiar of Jesus’ superscription that we read of four different versions in the four gospel narratives. This must have been very unique, hardly ever done. Modern criticism has called attention to this to undermine the trustworthiness of Holy Writ. There is surely no reason to assume that this superscription was the same in all three languages, and that therefore Scripture is in conflict with itself. May we assume that the Latin version appears at the .top (would not the Roman Pontius Pilate favor his own language?), the Aramaic at the bottom, and the Greek version appears then in the middle? All these versions, we understand, purpose to present Jesus as the king of the Jews. 

What a wonderful superscription we have here! Pilate and Caiaphas, both of whom played a very significant role in the passion history of our Lord Jesus Christ, have proclaimed a truth with respect to our Lord Jesus Christ which far transcends their own conception and meaning, their own personal intention. Caiaphas declared that it is better that one man die than that all the people perish. And he also tore his high-priestly garment or robe. Pilate commands this superscription to be nailed to the cross. Indeed, we have a biting mockery here. Nevertheless, how true it is that Jesus is crucified because He is the King of the Jews. 


Why does the Roman governor direct this superscription to be nailed to the cross? Fact is, from the viewpoint of Pilate this superscription is a lie. This superscription is supposed to state the ground for the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ. From the viewpoint of the Jews, they never accused Him of being the King of the Jews. They had said that this Jesus of Nazareth claimed Himself to be this king. And as far as Pilate is concerned, he had repeatedly declared Him to be innocent. Fact is, he had never condemned Jesus, had simply delivered Him over to the wishes of the people because he would be Caesar’s friend. The Jews had confronted him with the threat that he would not be the friend of the Roman emperor. Why, then, did he command this superscription? 

Why this superscription? It is rooted in the governor’s hatred of the Jews. On the one hand, he simply hated the Jews. Somewhat acquainted with the Jewish Messianic expectation (although, of course, not understanding it, and conceiving of it in the earthy sense of the word), he, of course, despised this expectation. On the other hand, however, the Jews had just caused him the most anxious and wretched moment of his life. Superstitious as he was, he was afraid of Jesus, especially because the Lord had claimed to be the Son of God. And the governor was afraid that this claim might be true. Then, the Jews had threatened to accuse him before the emperor that he was not Caesar’s friend. Pilate, therefore, seeking to save himself, without condemning Jesus, had sentenced Him to die the death of the cross. And now he will avenge himself upon these Jews. He will provoke them with a superscription which will make a mockery of the Jewish Messianic expectation. The Jews are furiously indignant. Indeed, they, too, fear Caesar. Besides, they had never accepted this Nazarene as their king. Moreover, as far as Jesus’ actual claim to a kingship is concerned, they will have no part of it. They demand of the governor to change the superscription so that it would read that this Jesus of Nazareth had called himself the king of the Jews. And now the cruel governor becomes implacable. He now laughs at his Jewish tormentors. The superscription remains as it is. 

Indeed, a biting mockery! 

As such it is meant by Pilate. Indeed, he does not hurl this mockery at Jesus. The hated Jews are here the objects of his scorn, and he aims this mockery at their Messianic expectation. 

However, although Pilate here would merely ridicule the Jews’ expectation, the result is nevertheless that that superscription causes the mockery with respect to this Jewish expectation to descend upon the head of this Jesus of Nazareth, that He is viewed and ridiculed as King, and the Jewish expectation is presented here in all its absurdity. The superscription itself is only too plain. It says that Jesus is the King of the Jews and that He hangs there as a rebel. It declared that this Jesus, born at Bethlehem, is the Jewish Messiah, their king. It places Him over against the Roman Caesar. It declares that He would fain be king over all. And now He hangs upon a cross. How ridiculous is His claim! What a king He is! Having traveled up and down the country, agitating against the Roman emperor and seeking to establish His own kingdom, He comes to this ignominious end. True, there is a difference between the Jews’ reaction to this superscription and that of the Roman soldiers The former ridicule the Nazarene’s claim to this kingship, the latter regard Him as the King of the Jews. Both, however, ridicule and reject Jesus as the King of the Jews. 

This mockery becomes more intense in the light of the fact that the superscription is written in three languages. We may assume that the Hebrew or Aramaic language represents religion, the Greek language represents art and culture, and the Latin language represents law and power. Fact is, the whole world is represented by these three languages. Besides, we do well to bear in mind other circumstances. The Lord was crucified upon a feast day, the Passover Jerusalem was crowded. Then, the cross was erected upon a hill, beside a very busy highway. Indeed, the biting mockery of this superscription is truly world-wide, and intended as such. 


Is this Jesus not really the King of the Jews? As such He was proclaimed in the prophecies of the Old Testament Scriptures. Of Him we read in Micah 5:2 that He is to be ruler in Israel. And in Dan. 7:14 we read: “And there was given Him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve Him: His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and His kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” And does not the angel declare to Mary that He shall be King over the house of Jacob into all eternity, and that of His kingdom there shall be no end? 

Besides, did not Jesus always witness of Himself that He is that King and Messiah? He did this in word. Again and again He proclaimed Himself to be the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Was He not born in Bethlehem, the city of David, out of the seed of David, and had He not been called out of Egypt? Then, we also read of His good testimony before Pontius Pilate. How the governor feared Him! Listen to what we read in John 18:36-37. Here He tells the governor that His kingdom is not of this world. And, in reply to Pilate’s question: “Art thou a king then?”, the Savior answers that He is indeed a king, that for this cause He was born, and for this cause He came into the world, that He should bear witness unto the truth. 

Moreover, the Lord also bore this witness of Himself in deed. The New Testament Scriptures are full of His miracles. They are surely proofs of His Messianic office. But they are also symbols of His kingship. And how the governor therefore feared Him! 

But, what a wonderful contrast we have here in this text! What must one think of this superscription? Does it not contradict His kingship completely? When does a king, to whom the ends of the earth have been given for an inheritance, and who has power over sicknesses, death and the seas, hang upon a cross, nailed to it because He is that King? What an amazing phenomenon! Why does Jesus allow this? In fact, why did He write it? Surely, this superscription is of God! We can well understand, can we not, the resentment and mockery of these Roman soldiers. In their conception the cross simply has no place. Jesus, the King of the Jews, hanging upon a cross! He holds His peace, does not resist. What an apparently amazing contradiction! 


Indeed, He is the King of the Jews. And it is also true that He was crucified because He is the King of the Jews. 

This does not mean, of course, that He is the King of the Jews as the superscription means it. That superscription, humanly speaking, is completely in error. 

However, we must understand the nature and character of Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus, of course, is king here according to His human nature, God, we know, is King, sovereignly, over all. This kingship, however, refers to His Messianic kingdom, in His human nature. This kingship, now, is purely spiritual. He is indeed the King of the Jews. O, this does not mean that He is their king according to the flesh. He is King of the elect Jews, of them who are really Jews as according to the spirit. Besides, this King of the Jews is also King over all. To Him has been given all power and authority in heaven and on earth. How wonderful and blessed this superscription now becomes! 

How wonderful it is, on the one hand, from the viewpoint of those three languages! He is indeed the King of the Jews, but as out of all nations, peoples, lands and tongues. He is this upon the cross, ordained by God to be their head, even from before the foundations of the world. And He is their King throughout the ages. But He is also the King of the Jews in relation to the world. As King of the Jews, His people, He redeems them, purchases them with His precious blood. But King of His people, He also rules over all the powers of sin and darkness. 

Finally, how wonderful is this word also and exactly as a superscription! In a superscription the ground of the victim’s condemnation and crucifixion was set forth. Pilate, we know, had his own meaning. He would avenge himself upon the hated Jews. God, however, rules over all. The cross of Calvary is also God’s cross. The Lord realizes His covenant, and Pilate, be it unwittingly, must serve the living God. Hence, when viewed as God’s cross, it is indeed true that Jesus is crucified because He is the King of the Jews. This does not merely mean that Jesus, in the way of the cross, enters into His kingdom, receives all power in heaven and on earth. But He was also really crucified because He is the King of the Jews. 

As that King, eternally anointed by God, He must suffer and die for all the sins of His own, as out of every tribe, nation, people, land, and tongue. 

And the Lord our God shall receive all glory and honor and praise, now and forevermore.