Judica, The Fifth Sunday in Lent March 21, 1999


A Sign Above His Head

John 19:19-22

And Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was, JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS. This title then read many of the Jews: for the place where Jesus was crucified was nigh to the city: and it was written in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin. Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written. Here ends our text.

In the Name of Jesus Christ, our Prophet, High Priest—and KING, Dear Fellow-Redeemed,

“You can’t tell a book by its cover”—or at least that’s how the old saying goes. And it’s very often true. A very interesting novel is often found hidden behind a bland and uninteresting title. A house that looks ordinary on the outside may conceal a unique and brilliant interior design. And it’s sometimes true for people, too—I’m thinking of one acquaintance of mine who, if you looked at her, you’d say she was the epitome of a mild-mannered office worker—which she is, most of the time. What you’d never guess is that she’s also an accomplished world traveler. She’s visited many areas of the world. Just last summer she hiked—all alone—across vast stretches of rural China and Tibet. Which just goes to show you—you can never tell a book by it’s cover.

—Or almost never. There are exceptions. There are times when a book’s title reveals a lot about its contents. And there are times when a person’s title can tell us a lot about who and what that person is. This morning’s text is one example. The Person in question is the Son of God, and the title they gave Him was “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Join me in considering the significance of this special memento of our Savior’s passion:


  1. To the Jews, it was the sign of a blasphemer.
  2. To Pilate, it was the sign of an innocent man.
  3. To us, it is the sing of our King!

You may have noticed the letters “I-N-R-I” that sometimes adorn pulpits and altars in our churches. Did you ever wonder what those letters stand for? They stand for the Latin words, “Iesus Nazaretum Rex Iudeorum,” or, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” This was the superscription that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, gave to Jesus. It was written in three languages—Latin, Greek and Aramaic—and posted on top of Jesus’ cross, in full view of the public.

This was a very common practice, by the way. In those days, a criminal unlucky enough to be condemned to die by crucifixion would be forced to carry his own cross to the place of execution. Normally, he’d be accompanied enroute by a large procession of soldiers and onlookers. At the head of the procession marched a herald, who carried the criminal’s “title”—a sign, proclaiming the crime for which he was being executed. The sign might say, “THIEF,” or “MURDERER,” or “REVOLUTIONARY.” When they reached the place of execution, the sign would be affixed to the cross. That way, passersby could learn a lesson about what happens to such people. Today there’s a lesson for us to learn, too. Because the sign that Pilate put over our Savior’s head was, “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”

There was one group of people who were very angry when they read that sign, and that was the chief priests and Pharisees. To the Jews, it was the sign of a blasphemer. Remember, these men were Bible scholars. They knew very well that the Old Testament foretold the coming of Messiah, the eternal King of the Jews. They were quite familiar, e.g., with the prophesy of Jeremiah: “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely; now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.’—Jer 23:5-6. But for Jesus to identify Himself as this promised King—to them, this was the worst kind of blasphemy. Not for one minute would they accept Jesus as their King.

That’s why the Jews were so surprised and angry when they read the sign above Jesus’ head. This was a mistake! Something had to be done about this! So they immediately rushed back to Pilate and said, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews.

The reply of the Roman governor is interesting. Pilate answered, What I have written I have written! Pilate was sick and tired of being pushed around by these Jewish religious people. Over and over again, he had tried to release Jesus. And over and over again, the Jews had cried, ‘King, king!’ They said, “If you let this man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. For whoever makes himself a KING speaks against Caesar!” Very well, then! If the only crime Jesus was guilty of was claiming to be a king, then that’s what would stand written on the title above His head—whether the chief priests liked it or not! “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS.” You see, to Pilate, it was the sign of an innocent man.

As I said before, it was common for the condemned man to have a sign above his head. But the sign above Jesus’ head was very uncommon—because in His case, absolutely no crime was mentioned. And rightly so. Jesus was completely innocent. As Pilate himself admitted, he had committed no crime worthy of death. In fact, He had committed no crime at all. And though Pilate was too much of a coward to actually let Jesus go, he couldn’t resist sticking his knife into these stubborn Jews one last time. “What I have written, I have written,” he said. He let the superscription stand. To Pilate, it was the sign of an innocent man.

You know, there aren’t a lot of “chief priests” in our day and age—but I think there are plenty of “Pontius Pilates.” Isn’t it true? -Not many people in our society will openly and viciously attack Jesus Christ as an impostor and a blasphemer, but there are multitudes of people who are content to call Him “an innocent man.” Like Pilate, they’re content to say that Jesus was a good man, who was unjustly put to death. They admit that He was a fine moral teacher, who didn’t deserve to die.

But that’s not enough! We can’t be neutral about Jesus Christ. And we can’t simply indulge ourselves in sentimentality over the suffering and death of an innocent man. You may recall that that’s what the women of Jerusalem did as Jesus passed by, carrying His cross. They wept great tears over the injustice of it! And what did Jesus say to them? He said, “Weep not for Me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children!” The truth is that just feeling sorry for Jesus—simply recognizing His innocence—will never save a single person from hell! For that, we need to do something that neither the Jews nor Pilate was willing to do. We need to accept that sign above Jesus’ head as the literal truth. “JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING!” To the Jews, it was the sign of a blasphemer; to Pilate, the sign of an innocent man. But to us, it truly is the sign of our King!

Jesus really was—and is—a King. But not only a King—God’s Word tells us that He is THE King. He is the King of all creation, and the eternal Lord of our lives. We believe what Pilate refused to believe. He asked Jesus pointblank, “Are You a king then?” Jesus answered, “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.—John 18:37. You see, for us, that sign above Jesus’ head means exactly what it says. Through faith, we believe and confess the same thing Nathaniel did when he said, “Teacher, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!—John 1:49. Most importantly of all, we not only believe that the Man on that cross is our King—we place our trust in what our King accomplished for us on that cross!

There’s a legend about an ancient king in the country of Persia. A wise and just ruler, he established a code of laws for his people to follow. One day the king’s own mother was discovered to have broken one of the laws, and was brought before the king for punishment. The penalty was twenty lashes of the whip. The king was in a quandary: how could he remain just and still fulfill the demands of his love for his mother? After agonizing over the matter, he finally came to a decision. The king substituted himself for his mother, and took the lashes on his own back. Justice was satisfied, while the king’s love for his mother was displayed in its fullest measure.

My Christian friends, that is exactly what our King has done for us. Rather than have us suffer the eternal punishment for our sins, Jesus satisfied God’s justice by taking that punishment upon Himself. Our King substituted Himself for us. His back—not ours—bore the strokes of the Roman whip. His hands—not ours—were pierced with nails. His soul—not ours—was forsaken by God and endured the torments of hell on the cross. As Isaiah said, “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed.—Isa 53:5.

So you see, the sign above Jesus’ head wasn’t a mistake, and it wasn’t just a statement of innocence. It’s the truth. Jesus of Nazareth IS your King! By substituting Himself for you, He has atoned for all your sins, and has brought you into His kingdom of grace. By putting faith in your heart to trust Him as your only Savior from sin, the Holy Ghost has turned you from a lost sinners into an heir of eternal life. And one Day—praise be to God!—you will hear the voice of your beloved King say to you, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world!—Mat 25:34.

“JESUS OF NAZARETH—THE KING!”—It was indeed a fitting superscription that was placed above the head of our Savior. And now I’ll ask a question of you. If you were to have a sign, a title attached to your life—what would it be? I think you’ll agree with me that we could hardly do better than the title that the Apostle Paul chose for himself: “This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.—1 Tim 1:15. Or, in the words of our closing hymn this morning, “This the superscription be: JESUS—crucified for ME!” AMEN.

—Pastor Paul Naumann

Sermon Preached March 29, 1998
Ascension Lutheran Church, DuPont WA

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