And set up over his head his accusation written, this is Jesus the king of the Jews .
The superscription above Jesus’ head is a glorious declaration of the truth of the gospel. Jesus was and is the King of the Jews. The superscription is so significant that all four gospel accounts record it in differing levels of detail. Significantly, all four contain the crucial phrase, “The King of the Jews.” We must see Jesus on the cross as the King of the Jews.
Matthew, more than the other gospel accounts, treats the subject of Jesus’ kingship and His kingdom. The very first thing Matthew mentions is “the book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt. 1:1). Jesus is not only the promised seed of Abraham (cf. Gen. 17:7), He is also the King promised to David. Not surprisingly, Matthew records the wise men from the East asking, “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” (Matt. 2:2). When Jesus began His public ministry, Matthew relates that Jesus preached “the gospel of the kingdom” (Matt. 4:23), which implies the coming of the King. When Jesus entered into Jerusalem just before His trial and crucifixion, Matthew tells us “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying, Tell ye the daughter of Sion, Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass” (Matt. 21:4-5).
Significantly, when Jesus was tried and condemned by the Jews and later by Pilate, the accusation that was leveled against Him rested squarely on His kingship. This is why Pilate asked Jesus, “Art thou the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied in the affirmative, “Thou sayest” (Matt. 27:11). When Pilate finally delivered Jesus to the Jews to be crucified, he says, “Behold your King!” (John 19:14). The Jewish leaders repudiated Jesus’ kingship, crying out, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). Nevertheless, when Jesus was hanged on the cross, it was as the King.
As Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified, Pilate ordered the superscription to be put on the cross: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” The superscription above a crucified criminal indicated the charge for which he was being punished. It was also meant to dissuade others from following in the footsteps of the one being punished.
When they saw the superscription, the chief priests said, “Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews” (John 19:21). They hated the idea of Jesus being called their king. Earlier they had cried out against Jesus, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him…. We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). They were like the citizens in Jesus’ parable who cried out, “We will not have this man to reign over us” (Luke 19:14). Obviously they wanted a different kind of kingdom than the spiritual one Jesus came to establish; they wanted an earthly, physical kingdom in which they might live for themselves.
Pilate responded to the chief priests, “What I have written, I have written” (John 19:22). Pilate may have written the words with a wrong motive, but the ultimate reason for the superscription was the sovereign will of God, who determined that it would thus be written. God wanted it declared to Israel and to the world: “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” So the superscription was in Hebrew (the language of the Jews) as well as in Greek and Latin (the language of the world empire). The gospel must be proclaimed to every tribe and tongue. God wanted it proclaimed that the One hanging on the cross was Jesus, none other than Jehovah-salvation come to save His people.
God wanted it proclaimed that He is not merely a king of the Jews, but the King, the one and only King. God wanted it proclaimed that He was and is King of the Jews.
Of course, Jesus was never king of the Jews in an earthly sense; He did not sit upon a physical throne in the city of Jerusalem and rule over the tribes of Israel. Rather, Jesus is King in a spiritual sense. His kingdom is composed, not of the physical descendants of Abraham circumcised in the flesh, but of those who are true Jews. “For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Rom. 2:28-29). True Jews are those who seek not their praise from men, but who live before God to the praise of His great and holy name.
God ordained that the superscription would declare the truth of the matter concerning Jesus on the cross. Jesus was there as “the King of the Jews.” He was there for all who are true Jews. What a wonder that Jesus hung on the cross as our King!
Strikingly, as the King of the Jews, Jesus was despised and rejected His whole life.
Already at His birth, Jesus was despised by king Herod who sought to kill the One “born King of the Jews” (Matt. 2:2).
Throughout His ministry, Jesus was despised by the Jewish leaders. Such was their hatred that they would stop at nothing to get rid of Jesus. They were glad when Judas showed that he himself despised Jesus and was willing to betray Him for thirty pieces of silver. In their hatred, they even raised false witnesses in their effort to secure Jesus’ condemnation. When the false witnesses did not agree together, the chief priest finally came to the real issue: “I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63). If Jesus claimed to be the Christ, He would be admitting He was indeed the promised King, the Son of David and the Son of God. When Jesus admitted as much, the chief priest cried, “He hath spoken blasphemy,” and condemned Jesus to die.
Pilate despised Jesus as regards His kingship as well by refusing to serve Jesus when it meant Pilate must renounce himself. He well understood Jesus’ claim to be the King: “Art thou the king of the Jews?” (Matt. 27:11). Jesus admitted as much. Although Pilate tried to release Jesus knowing that he was innocent, he still despised King Jesus enough to hand Him over to be crucified.
The soldiers despised King Jesus when they clothed Him in purple and pressed the crown of thorns onto His head. They despised the King when they drove the nails through His hands and feet in order to fasten Him to the cross. They despised Him when they parted His garments among themselves, caring nothing for the suffering and shame Jesus was experiencing.
The fact that Jesus was crucified between two robbers, guilty of rebellion and insurrection against the government God had placed over them, shows that Jesus was accounted the chief offender among them.
The passersby mocked Jesus, wagging their heads and calling Him to come down from the cross (Matt. 27:39-40). Also, the chief priests, the scribes, and elders derided King Jesus by saying, “He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him” (Matt. 27:42). Even the thieves “cast the same in his teeth” (Matt. 27:44). They imagined that because Jesus did not come down from the cross, He was an impostor and no king at all.
“He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:3). Apart from God’s grace we too would only despise King Jesus. Even today, how little we esteem our Savior-King! How often do we refuse to submit to Him as our King? How often do we question whether the King is truly in control of all things? How often do we doubt His goodness?
Jesus, the King of the Jews, was despised and rejected.
But His humiliation must lead to His exaltation and, consequently, to our salvation.
From an earthly perspective, the King’s work to establish His kingdom seemed to be an abject failure. He had preached that the kingdom was at hand (cf. Mark 1:15). However, in the minds of His disciples, all hope of the kingdom was dashed when King Jesus was crucified. How could the King allow Himself to be humbled unto death, even the death of the accursed cross? If we had been among the disciples at that time, no doubt we too would have struggled to make sense of it all. Two things more opposite to our earthly way of thinking could hardly be found: the glorious superscription and the shameful cross, the lofty title calling Jesus “the King of the Jews” in closest connection with the symbol of God’s curse.
Faith, however, believes the Word of God concerning Jesus the King of the Jews. The King was not at all conquered by means of the cross; rather, by means of the cross He conquered. His intentional humiliation on the cross was the way to His exaltation in glory. Everything Jesus did throughout His ministry was leading to the realization of His kingdom, such a kingdom made up of those who are Jews indeed.
Thus, Jesus did not try to escape the accursed death of the cross. Just the opposite, He “set his face to go to Jerusalem” submitting Himself to the will of God (Luke 9:51). Knowing the death that awaited Him, the King presented Himself in order to suffer on the cross. He knew that this was the way He would come into His kingdom. If the King had come down from the cross, there would be no kingdom. But Jesus remained on the cross, being obedient unto death as the King of the Jews. He suffered the torments of hell in the place of “the Jews,” that is, all His chosen subjects, the elect of every age.
The superscription affixed to the cross shows that Jesus had committed no crime whatsoever because no crime was recorded upon it. Perfectly innocent Jesus was not suffering for Himself; He was suffering as King representing “the Jews.” As the King He was representing His people who live for God’s praise. The superscription proclaims to us the gospel of Christ’s substitutionary atonement: Jesus our King suffered the curse that we ourselves deserved.
Praise be to God, Christ’s ransom payment was not in vain! The King was crucified and buried; He rose again; He ascended into heaven; and now He sits enthroned at the right hand of God. From heaven “the King of the Jews” rules to gather, defend, and preserve all His elect so that we might live to the praise of His name.
What a glorious gospel proclaimed by the superscription!