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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:King of the Jews, and King of the World
Text:John 19:19-20 (View)
Occasion:Easter (Good Friday)
Topic:Christ's Kingship

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 93:1,2,3,4                                                                                 

Hy 1

Reading – John 19:1-30

Ps 118:1,6,7

Sermon – John 19:19-20

Hy 41:1,2,3

Hy 44:1,2,3,4,5

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, I’m sure that at some point in our life we’ve all been insulted by someone. Think of school yard taunts, or the things that siblings sometimes say to each other. When you are insulted, you know there can be truth in what a person says. Sure, sometimes mockery is off-base—someone throws an insult at you that just doesn’t stick. But when there’s an element of truth to it, that makes it really hurt. Hits close to home!

Mocking and insults are things that sinners do well. It’s not a happy topic with which to begin this sermon, but I do so because of what we see in our text. When our Saviour was killed, the air was thick with ridicule and scorn. At first glance, some of it almost seems light-hearted, like when those Roman soldiers dress Jesus up like a king. But there’s a deep humiliation here. In his last hours on earth, Jesus was subjected to the very worst of mankind, including the verbal abuse that sinners specialize in.

And like some of those insults that get thrown at us, there was truth to what the Romans were saying, and the bystanders, and the Jews. They were onto something in what they yelled at him. This was part of our Saviour’s suffering, because it meant that these people were close to the true gospel, yet so far away.

All this too was at God’s directing, and He wanted John to record it for us. Because even on that dark day, the truth of who Christ is shines bright! Let’s then focus our attention on the mocking charge that Pontius Pilate made. For he “wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (v 19). I preach the gospel on this theme,

Jesus is condemned on the cross as the King of the Jews:

  1. the mocking charge
  2. the powerful reality
  3. the universal announcement


1. the mocking charge of the sign: When we take a closer look at that little sign affixed to the cross of our Lord, we see that it didn’t come out of nowhere. This wasn’t some random insult, grabbed out of a hat. No, that little sign was a culmination of sorts, a finale to many moments of both praise and shame for Jesus.

Let’s back up about one week, and seven chapters, to John 12. There John tells about the events of Palm Sunday when great crowds greet Jesus as He rides on a donkey into Jerusalem. From what Jesus had been saying and doing, from the word circulating on the street, there was the sense that now He’ll take his throne in David’s city. And so with the branches of palm trees they welcome him to Jerusalem—crying out with the words of Psalm 118, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” And then it comes. Listen to the final cry: a Hosanna to “the King of Israel!” (12:13).

Were the people right? Was this man really Israel’s king? John confirms it, because he quotes from Zechariah. He points out that this event is another fulfillment of Scripture; as Zechariah said, “Behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt” (12:15).

He’s a king indeed—but of a highly unusual type. Because right after his entry into the city, He doesn’t storm the Roman garrison as you might expect. Instead, he pauses and prays. He admits He’s troubled about his coming death. Then a few days later, this so-called king takes off his robes like a common servant, kneels at his disciples’ feet, and washes them. And a few hours after that, we see him surrendering to his captors in the garden. If this was a king, He was far from the strong and courageous leader we’d all hope for.

Even so, the label stuck. Because when it’s finally time to appear before Pilate and to get a hearing, listen to his opening question: “[Pilate] called Jesus, and said to him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ (18:33). The Jewish leaders had primed him for this. Luke tells us how they had tattled on Jesus, “We find this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He himself is Christ, a King” (23:2).

So what could Jesus say? Was He the king of the Jews? Not in the way expected by the Palm Sunday crowds, nor in the way that He was accused of by the Jewish leaders. His answer to Pilate then, is both “yes” and “no.” For Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (18:36). “Yes, I am a king. But how I am is something you can’t understand.” Yes and no—that’s the kind of answer that annoys people, but Pilate still had no reason to do anything with him.

It’s not until the crowds choose Barabbas over Jesus that Pilate has a clear avenue to dispose of him. They want the violent criminal released, instead of the one who’d never committed an offense. But he’d rather try please the Jews than see justice done. “So then,” John says, “Pilate took Jesus and scourged him” (19:1). A scourging involved a good amount of blood spatter, so Pilate would’ve asked his soldiers to take care of it.

Those soldiers, of course, have heard that this Jew is reputed to be a king. So they enjoy some barracks-room humor: Jesus claims to be a king, let’s treat him like one! Give him the full regalia of a monarch! What does a king need, but a crown? So “The soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on his head” (19:2). What should He wear, but royal vestments? They dig out a purple robe, and put it on him. Matthew tells us they also put a reed in his hand, as a mock sceptre. And what should a king receive, but praise from his subjects? So “they said, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (19:3).

A crown, a robe, a sceptre, shouts of adoration—but there’s nothing sincere about it. They’re playing a rowdy game of charades with the so-called “King.” And maybe it’s what you expect from Gentiles. What did they know? They were just having fun. They were trying to liven up an otherwise boring duty at the palace.

Of course it was hurtful. But isn’t the pain of an insult far worse when it comes from someone who knows you? Knows you, yet turns against you? And it’s Jesus’ own countrymen who give him up to death. When Pilate wavers, they challenge him, “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (19:12). The leaders know the governor’s soft spot, the dread of being known as less than loyal to Caesar.

Pilate has been pushed into a corner, so all he can do is ask: “Shall I crucify your King?” (19:15). And the Jews’ response is almost blasphemy, “We have no king but Caesar!” (19:15). In more reflective moments, without the adrenaline rush of these frantic hours, they’d surely acknowledge that God was their King. That was their theology: Israel bowed to the LORD alone. But this was serious—they need to convince Pilate that they had no attachment whatsoever to this man. Not our king!

So then, He’ll be executed. Then comes that little sign; verse 19, “Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” This was customary practice—in the first place, killing a non-Roman criminal by crucifixion. Hanging people on a cross happened in many places around the empire.

It was also customary to attach a message to a cross. There’d be a sign that stated the name of the criminal, and the offense he was being killed for. That sign would usually be carried ahead of the condemned man while walking to the place of execution. And then once the criminal was on the cross, the sign might be hung around his neck on a rope, or the sign would be nailed to one of the beams.

Why do this? It was all about shame and deterrence. Everyone could see what a person had done wrong and how he was suffering for it—so hopefully you’d think twice about doing it yourself! In this connection, there was a news story from the U.S. a couple years ago. A man had pled guilty to charges of harassment, and his punishment was very unusual. The judge ordered him to sit at a busy intersection, where he had to hold a cardboard sign: “I am a bully. I pick on children that are disabled.” His offense was made very public, and of course he received a lot of scorn. Whether it’s right or wrong, a public shaming makes people think about consequences.

When Jesus was killed, the public charge He carried was this: “King of the Jews.” In a way, it’s a strange accusation—sounds harmless to us. But the Romans had crucified many self-proclaimed kings, for there were always people ready to rise up against Caesar’s rule. In terms of Roman law, this charge was worthy of death.

But Pilate is also thumbing his nose at the Jews. The Jews had rejected Jesus as king, but Pilate will mock them anyway. It’s like he was saying, “This pathetic nation can’t produce a better king than this. Look at this loser. Here’s what comes of the Jewish hopes and dreams. Here’s their king.”

And in Pilate’s sarcasm, there is a deep shaming of Christ. In his last hours on earth, He’s being made into a cruel joke. After all He’d said and done, He’s not been understood—certainly not by Gentiles, but not by his own people either. Who did they think He was? Some thought He’d come only to chase out the Romans. Others thought He was a great teacher. And others still said He was nothing at all. So they will mock him and reject him.

And who do we think that Jesus is? Beloved, that’s always the question when we hear his Word. This morning too, that’s the question. What do you think of the man who was on the cross? Not just when you’re in church and our Bibles are open, but how do you think of him throughout the week? Pilate and the Jews put a label on Jesus, but we put labels on him too.

Who is He to you? Is Jesus some mystical being, a person from ancient history that you can’t relate to? Is He a mysterious stranger with a beard? Is He a superhero, able to walk on water, but one who’s basically unapproachable? Or—and maybe this is more likely—is Jesus merely an idea, a piece of doctrine that you once learned in Catechism? Is He just a name on the page? Is He just a word in your prayers?

When we know things about Jesus, we can be very close to the truth—we get everything right. We have him on the cross. We have him risen from the grave. We have him, ascended as king. So close to the truth, yet a person can still be so far away. Because maybe we don’t submit to Jesus’ commandments. Maybe we don’t trust in Jesus to save us. We know what the sign says, but is it true for us? Is Jesus the Lord? Is He the Saviour? Is He the King?


2. the powerful reality of the sign: The message on Jesus’ cross that day was truer than almost everyone knew. Sure, there was the obvious statement that He was from Nazareth. That was the town in Galilee where He came from. This Jesus, the Son of God himself, hailed from a humble village and region of Israel.

And that other part? It was also true: Jesus is the King of the Jews! That’s how the crowds had received him earlier in the week, as “King of Israel.” Even when He was born, the angels announced it, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).

This Jesus was the King of the Jews, just like prophecies had always foretold. He was the great son of David spoken of in 2 Samuel 7, where God told him that he’d always have a descendant on the throne. Isaiah too, pointed to the one who’d be called the “Prince of Peace” (9:6). Now at last He’s come. And when He began his public ministry, Jesus spoke a lot about the kingdom. He explained to his followers what the kingdom was like, and who the kingdom was for, and when the kingdom would come in all its glory.

Jesus’ words about the kingdom didn’t sit well with the Jewish leaders. So the sign bothers them. They ask Pilate for an amendment; that it read not, “The King of the Jews,” but that, “He said, ‘I am the King of the Jews’” (19:21). What didn’t they like about it? They’re probably not so bothered by how Pilate is making fun of them. Instead, they’re more uncomfortable with what that title said. Even with him dying and dead, they can’t shut him up. They can’t escape his claims: that He is the King, the Promised One, the Messiah. When a person’s heart is hardened against the gospel, even hearing the truth can be very painful. They just want it to go away.

In answer to the Jews, Pilate won’t be moved. The sign will stay. The truth will go out. With the result that in God’s perfect providence, Jesus dies on the cross, proclaimed as King by a Roman governor! Pilate broadcasts something that was far more accurate, and far more beautiful, than he realized. Even if few acknowledged what was happening, the King of the universe was dying that day.

And it’s exactly because of his death that Jesus is King. He is where He needed to be. The cross is his throne! He came for this, not to be served by underlings and catered to by slaves. This King came to serve sinners, and to give his life as a ransom for many. This is very unlike the way that we expect kings and rulers and presidents to exercise their authority. They often do so with pomp and splendor, maybe with a sense of entitlement, and with one eye on the opinion polls. All the attention is given to the Donald Trumps of this world. But Christ is a king without showmanship and pride. He’s willing to lay down his life for those He rules.

That’s the powerful reality of the sign and the cross: the man who is mocked as king, is the king. The man who is condemned to death, accepts this death. The man who is misunderstood and who is disbelieved by so many—sometimes by us too—He is willing to give his life for our redemption.

And for those who believe in him, who know him truly, what a majestic King He is! Back in the day, kings wouldn’t stay cooped up in their palaces. They wouldn’t restrict their activities to sight-seeing trips and wine-tasting tours. No, kings would put on armour, take up the sword, and go and fight for the safety and well-being of their people. And when a king rode out to war, the people knew that he might not come back alive.

That’s the kind of king Christ is. So devoted to his own people! This King owns you, body and soul, because He gave his precious blood. This King preserves you, because you’re always under his gracious rule. He governs all things in this universe for your benefit, in order to ensure your salvation.

Beloved, this means that the sign on the cross is also an invitation. It’s a call to us, a written command: this great King wants your worship. This great King commands your adoration. He expects your trust. He says to you, “I’m your King. I’ve freed you from the dominion of darkness, and brought you into the kingdom of light. And now that you’re part of my kingdom, I want your whole life lived for me. I want you in my army, and under my flag, and in my service.” You know what He’s done, so He calls you to love him with all your heart.


3. the universal announcement of the sign: We live in a multicultural country, so you get used to seeing things in translation. For example, packages of food might have more than one language on it: English of course, but also French, or Arabic, or Mandarin Chinese. First century Palestine had its share of languages too. We see that in how Pilate had the sign written up “in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin” (19:20). These were the major languages of that time. Greek was considered the language of science and philosophy, what people of a civilized culture would speak. Latin was the language of law and government, the language used by the emperor and his officials. And then Hebrew (or Aramaic) was particular to Israel; it was the language of those who were in Jerusalem at that time for the Passover, also those Jews who’d come from far and wide.

Pontius Pilate had the charge done up like this, of course, because he wanted as many as possible to read it. He wanted the mockery totally evident to everyone, so they could all see just how pathetic the Jews were.

And let’s not forget who was standing behind that Roman governor—the same one who always resists God’s plans and purpose. Behind Pontius Pilate is the devil himself, seeing to it that the scorn is just piled on. With this sign, he says: “Let the whole world see the shame of the so-called Christ. There He is: bloody, naked, cursed, totally subject to his enemies, dead. Don’t even bother look to this king for your help! Let this embarrassment go viral, let it spread to every corner of the earth!” Whether you spoke Hebrew, Greek or Latin, the message was clear: this so-called king is finished!

But there’s more, isn’t there? There’s a rich irony. We already saw that the message on the cross was truer than Pilate knew. And having it in the languages of the world was more fitting than anyone would’ve dreamed.

For this King of the Jews is in fact King over all! He’s Lord of the universe. He’s king over all those soldiers, and king over those Jewish leaders. He’s even king over this Roman governor. Earlier in the chapter, Pilate had questioned him, “Do you not know that I have power to crucify you, and power to release you?” (19:10). And Jesus put him in his place: “You could have no power at all against me unless it had been given you from above” (19:11). Even this powerful man was under Christ’s full dominion—like all things today are under his rule. Right now He is King, over the terrorists and the persecutors, over the generals and prime ministers, and over the coming and going of our small lives: Christ is King over all!

That sign in three languages means Jesus is much bigger than just an Israelite king. He said it himself in chapter 12, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all peoples to myself” (12:32). Being lifted up on the cross was his shame, but it was also his glory. Because by his death, He would draw to himself so many.

And now many knew it! Many could read it. Here is Jesus of Nazareth, dying for the world—Jesus of Nazareth, Saviour of sinners. Written in the language of Jerusalem, of Athens, and of Rome, it was a universal announcement of God’s grace. In a way, we can see that little sign as a pointer to the day of Pentecost. Then, on that day of many tongues, the crucified and risen Christ was indeed proclaimed to peoples from all over.

But already at the cross, God turns Satan’s scheming into a chance for everyone to learn: Jesus is Lord and King! Because in the end, only God’s writing matters—only God’s message matters. And God has written on the cross that this is the Saviour, faithful and true. This is the King, just and good. He is glorious for all who will believe in his name!

To the end, there’ll always be those in this world who resist the King. There will always be those who laugh and mock the King. Yet even these will finally submit. The Scripture says of Christ, “God has highly exalted him and given him the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Phil 2:9). One day, when Christ the King returns, everyone will see, and everyone will have to confess the glory of the Lord.

Let’s not wait ‘till then. Let’s get started now. Today, rejoice in the Lord as King! Today, submit to the King! Today, celebrate Jesus, the King of kings, Lord of lords—who is our King, and our Lord.  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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