And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.…
Pilate knew that "Jesus" was thought to be a most despicable name; and that "Nazareth" with the Jews was a proverb of condensed contempt. But "God held his hand while he did write." All unconscious, he was used as an instrument for publishing words of deep and mystic potency. First things are significant things, especially in the history of a dispensation. The first voice we hear speaking of Christ after His crucifixion is the voice of an angel, and the first title given to Him is Jesus of Nazareth. The first time that the Saviour was preached by man was under this title. Peter fell its infamy when "one of the maids of the high priest" said to him, "Thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth." But soon as the Spirit was poured out, Peter rang out the name "Jesus of Nazareth." The first time that Jesus Himself, after His enthronement, spoke, He made Himself known under these words (Acts 22:8). Taking these things into consideration, we find that what was done by man only in contempt, has been turned by God into the most effectual means of exalting the Saviour and preaching the gospel.
I. "THE CROSS," on which the writing was placed, first arrests our attention.
1. Was it like the thing sometimes looked at before the glass, put on admiringly, then taken off, then dropped among the tinkling trinkets? Like the thing that sparkles in the crown, or blows in the banner, or flames on the spire? We need have no superstitious fancy about this artistic device; only let us be careful not to allow the sight of it to deaden the sense of what Christ's cross really was. It was a shame! And when it was lifted up, I should have thought that any man would look another way. Any dying man is a sacred being, any dying scene a sacred place; but Jesus was nailed upright in a crowd to die. And then it was that Pilate hammered over the dying head the mocking proclamation.
2. I would not make the physical cross a theme for merely descriptive or declamatory wards; nor do I make a venture into the sea of God's deep thoughts about the atonement; but I know that Jesus on that cross, dying for sinners, did in some way suffer what is instead of His people dying. We may enter this scene, but not as artists, sculptors, poets, musicians, talkers with a hard, ready rattle of syllables, but as priests, with stilled hearts and reverential steps; we may pause, but with prayer; we may look, but through tears. Pilate was the instrument of the fulfilment of Christ's words — "I, if I be lifted up from the earth," &c.
II. THE NAME "JESUS." "Joshua," to which "Jesus" corresponds, means "the Lord's salvation," or, "the Lord of salvation."
1. By the time of our Lord's advent, the Jews had got to place the lowest possible construction on the predictions of a Saviour. They thought only of a political salvation; and every leader of an insurrection was tempted to call himself the Jesus of prophecy. There is some ground for the opinion that Barabbas played the part of a false Christ, taking the name of Jesus. The Roman governor of Judaea would know that the Jews looked upon the name Jesus as belonging to "the coming man," who should save them from the Romans. This to his mind would make it a name of scorn. At this hour the Jews were also ashamed of it.
2. Never was greater mistake about a name than this. Its true interpretation had been given by the angel, "For He shall save His people from their sins;" and if the same angel was the one who announced His resurrection, it is no wonder that the first word of announcement was "Jesus." He would triumph in that name. We share in this triumph. Some persons mainly think of Christ as a Saviour from penalty. We know indeed that by the cross the Saviour removes legal impediments in the way of pardon; but is that all? Is He simply like one who clears off old scores for us; wipes out the past as a child wipes off a false sum from his slate; who says, "Let bygones be bygones;" who holds the paper with the dreadful writing on it in the flame until it burns right away and says, "There, I have nothing against you!" Is that all? Not so. He will says me by setting me right, and not merely by setting right my relation to His law. "The blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin."
III. THE APPELLATIVE "OF NAZARETH." The Jews had objected to part of Pilate's superscription, but not to this, for it expressed exactly what they were determined to affirm. According to His own account, He was "Jesus of heaven" (John 8:23, 42). Just see what this implies.
1. A contradiction of Christ's claims to be the Heavenly Witness. Yet it was overruled so as to be the means of their glorious vindication. Keep in mind the distinction between a teacher and a witness. A teacher is one who imparts knowledge; a witness is one who gives evidence. We expect him to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from what has passed in his own personal presence. This is what Christ claimed to be. When Nicodemus said, "We know that Thou art a Teacher sent from God," His answer meant, "More than that, I am a Witness." "We speak that we do," &c. So at last with Pilate, He claimed to be the Heavenly Witness. "To this end was I born," &c. Of course no mere mortal could give evidence about anything that happened before He was born. God might say to any one of us (Job 38:4-7); but Christ, being the Witness giving the gospel revelation, had from the nature of the case to give evidence as to facts that belong to a place far above this world, and to a period far before it. Of course this claim includes the claim to be the Son of God. If a real Witness, it is plain that His birth was not the point of emergence from the blank of non-entity; but the arrival of a Traveller who said, "I am crone forth from the Father, and am come into the world." Of course it is a mystery — the doctrine that Eternity should clothe itself in the garment of Time. But Mystery is the sign of the Infinite; and that which is not mysterious is not Divine. The animus of the inscription on the cross is endorsed by the Jews. "He is only Jesus of Nazareth." But this most public contempt of Christ's claims only led to their most public and irresistible vindication. The cross, which called attention to the one, calls attention to the other. The death on the cross led to the stupendous miracle of the Resurrection, by which He has been "declared to be the Son of God with power."
2. To insinuate the charge of sin; but it has been overruled to call attention to His spotless holiness. Nazareth was looked upon as the very sink of Galilee. There have been such Nazareths in old England. London had one in a place called Alsatia; many a nest of wreckers by the seaside was a social Nazareth. There are Nazareths now, to be in which implies loss of character; places that are like hells on earth; but Jesus lived thirty years in Nazareth of Palestine. Even the candid Nathanael said, "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth? "But the critics of Christ can find no spot in Christ even there. Christ's pure life in polluted Nazareth was a great fact in the great gospel apparatus. It provided for the most searching chemistry of character; and after living so long under the action of such a test, He was found perfect. Such a human diamond found in filth, yet drinking in and flashing out again the pure light of God, could owe nothing to the filth in which it was discovered. Such holiness in Nazareth must be that before which all angels cry aloud, Holy, Holy, Holy!
3. This appellative pleased those who scorned Christ as the "son of a carpenter," for as such He was well known at Nazareth; but it reminds us of the honour due to Him as the Friend of poor and working people. It was as much as to say, "a carpenter is not a king;" but, besides that, it was meant to suggest, "Who would belong to a religion that has for its sacred central personage a carpenter?" The same spell would work in the same way now, and thousands who now profess Christianity would not do so, if doing so would make them look so low, socially, as did the first followers of the Carpenter. Let us call to mind the significance of the fact that the man Christ Jesus was a carpenter, and trace afresh the reasons why we should glory in it. It helps to make Him very real and homely; to make us feel that our religion is not a thing that belongs to some mysterious world of its own; but a thing for use, for the work-day world, for the majority. It helps to make us feel that He belongs to us all. Human princes take territorial names for their own distinction; Jesus takes a territorial name. And what is it? "Jesus of Paradise?" "Jesus of Glory?" "Jesus of Jerusalem the Golden?" No! but "Jesus of Nazareth," the place where He was only known as "the Carpenter." He was insulted by that name in His last hour on earth, but, now, it is one of the names by which He is known in the heraldry of heaven.
IV. THE TITLE, "The King of the Jews." In writing this, Pilate intended to express the most extreme contempt. Not contempt for the religion of Jesus. In matters of religion he had no bias one way or the other; in his opinion, one religion was as good as another. He was not conscious of any active contempt for the person of Jesus; but he thought to use Him as an instrument to mortify the Jews. It was as much as to say, "There, you vile Jews! Your King is that! then what are you? Your own grand monarch is now nailed on His throne. Know yourselves!" They would have made no objection if Pilate had written, "He said, I am King of the Jews!" At the time when Jesus was born, men were eagerly asking, "Where is He that is born King of the Jews?" No one, however, thought for a moment of looking for Him at Nazareth. As was shrewdly said in a London yard by one of its native evangelists, "If the Prince of Wales had lived thirty years in Raymond's Yard, folks would not have believed that he was the Prince of Wales. I expect that Nazareth was a poor sort of place, like this; yet there He was. If you find a sovereign in the mud, you think it only a farthing till you come to change it; and so, because they found Jesus at Nazareth, they never thought that He could be a King!" Even so. At the same time, it was not altogether the thought of Nazareth that made the Jews refuse to bend the knee. There was a time when that was no insuperable difficulty. The cause was in their own worldly nature, which He, by disappointing, had infuriated. They were mad because they thought He could break the Roman yoke for them, but would not. The priests thought they had got their revenge on Jesus for refusing to trample down the Romans. But when the cross was lifted, to their amazement, the truths they had tried to kill stood written over it, and the Crucified One was proclaimed their King! The wretched Pilate little knew that he had thus written one of the grandest truths. Appearances did seem to be against such a fact; yet, for God to be manifest in one place is no greater stoop of condescension than to be manifest in the other; and only our vulgar ideas of the majestic make us feel it to be a greater mystery there than anywhere else. The mystery was that He should appear as man anywhere.
V. THE NOTICE placed over the head of Jesus "was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin." In the East, in the old time, when a government issued a notice intended to be read by the different nations of a large empire, it was the custom to write it on a tablet in the different languages of that empire, so that if men speaking these different languages would be able to read the inscription. Like the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, showing one inscription in three dialects; like the inscribed rocks at Behistan, recording the fame of Darius Hystaspes in three forms of arrow-headed writing, so as to be understood by Assyrian, Median, and Persian readers — the inscription on the cross was written in three languages, and these were the three keys to unlock all the languages living in the world. So, without knowing what he was doing, Pilate thus began the publication of Christ to all the world; and all that evangelists at home and abroad have to do is to do by the Holy Ghost, and do thoroughly, what he began to do. Let the real meaning of what he wrote in these everlasting letters be brought out; and let all people in all languages read it or hear it, and Christ's missionary law will be fulfilled.
(C. Stanford, D. D.)
In Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. —
I. THESE LANGUAGES REPRESENT IN THEIR STRUCTURE THREE ENTIRELY UNLIKE TYPES OF CHARACTER.
1. The Hebrew has grandeur, but no grace.
2. The Greek is spoken beauty, yet fit more for nymphs than angels.
3. The Latin is the language of command, resolute purpose and decisive action, whose very study is a tonic. These three tongues were all familiar to the Jewish ear in the time of Christ; the Hebrew as still the language of worship, the Greek as the language of educated men, the Latin as the official language of the Roman Government.
II. THESE LANGUAGES CORRESPOND TO THE FORMS OF CULTURE which were grouped together in every land; for the Hebrews had long been a migratory people; the Greeks were the preceptors of the world; while Roman soldiers and officials swarmed in all parts of the empire.
1. The Hebrews were pre-eminently a religious people. Even their idolatry was in sad earnest, and from the time of the Captivity their zeal for God and the law has no parallel. Their first temple, long anterior to Greek art, was the most magnificent edifice in the world, and their apparatus of worship the most organized and majestic that the world has known. Nor was Judaism in its earlier days a mere ritual — witness the psalms and prophets. But in the time of Christ it had lapsed into a punctilious formalism.
2. The Greek culture was distinguished by the sovereignty of beauty. It gave transcendent grace and charm to daily life. But it lacked the religious element; and the reverence of the worshipper who gave credence to the myths embodied in its art could only minister to his degradation. This culture eventually lapsed into a feeble sensualism, and Greek adventurers carried into every land with their art and philosophy, luxury, effeminacy, and the vices that follow in their train.
3. The Roman culture was that of unbending law, rigid discipline, and hardy self-control; in their better days their religion was sincere, and their standard of purity high. But their advancing knowledge soon outgrew their faith, and their religion became a nonentity to the enlightened, and a mere police force to the populace. Rude and averse to refining influences, they at first resisted the influence of Greeks, but eventually succumbed. At the Christian era moral corruption had replaced the robust virtues of the early Romans.
4. These were the effete forms of culture, whose signature was written over the cross. Each was ready to perish for lack of the others.
(1) Religion may exist alone in the individual soul; but as an element of social and national life it needs all the humanities, and can only live as a working force.
(2) Art needs religion for its purity, grandeur and influence as an educational agency, and requires the element of law to blend vigour with grace.
(3) Law demands a higher sanction than its own, and requires that its sternness be relieved by the humanizing influence of art.
III. JESUS COMBINES IN HIS PERSON THESE THREE FORMS OF CULTURE.
1. He is emphatically King of the Jews; for the intensity of the religious life is betrayed in His every utterance.
2. He is more than Grecian in the grace, amenity, and sweetness of His Spirit.
3. He is more than Roman in the perfectness with which He is the incarnate law of God, and alone finishes the work God gave Him to do.
IV. THESE ELEMENTS ARE BLENDED IN THE CHRISTIAN CHARACTER WORTHY OF THE NAME.
1. It has the fervent religiousness of the Hebrew psalmists and Jews, only with less of the Sinai than of the Zion type.
2. However destitute of the wonted means of culture, it takers in a culture of its own, so that the grace of God assumes forms which man can recognize as graceful.
3. It is also a law-abiding Spirit, submitting not as to a hard yoke, but as to a loving service.
V. WE HAVE IN THE THREEFOLD CAPTION OF THE CROSS OUR OWN DIRECTORY OF DUTY.
1. Religion, the inmost consecration of the soul to God, is the main element.
2. But religion is a power which should diffuse itself; and this it can only do by alliance with whatever adorns, sweetens and elevates the life of man. There has been a religiousness destitute of grace, and even repulsive; but if those who seek to be Christians would only prize and cultivate the beauty of holiness, they would be much more efficiently missionaries for the faith.
3. We need equally the Roman element of law to make us Christians indeed. A thoroughly obedient life, pervaded by the spirit of service, is the result of nurture in the school of Christ.
(A. P. Peabody, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS.