Story 191: The Crucified King

Matthew 27:33-38; Mark 15:22-26; Luke 23:33, 38; John 19:16-22

Holy Week

The judgment had come against Christ. Though Pilate and Herod found nothing against Him, the rage and manipulations of the Jewish leadership prevailed. Jesus was to be crucified.

The Roman soldiers led Jesus on an exhausting journey through the crowds of Jerusalem to a hill outside of Jerusalem called Golgotha, which is Hebrew for “The Place of the Skull.” Two criminals were being led there with crosses as well. When they arrived, two soldiers offered Jesus a drink of wine mixed with gall. It would have been very bitter, and perhaps poisonous. It was another form of mockery. When Jesus tasted it, He refused to drink more.

The Roman soldiers laid the cross on the ground and stripped Christ of His clothes. Christ submitted with utter meekness as they stretched His body across the wooden planks. Yet He was not yielding to the authority of the soldiers, the religious leaders, or Pontius Pilate.  He was submitting to the will of His Father.  The love of God for you and I is so great that God the Father willed this for His Son.  The love of the Son for His Father was so great that He was willing to do it.

The soldiers drove nails into His wrists and ankles, fixing His body to the cross. What a horror.

Imagine the pain of those nails for Jesus.  Imagine the religious leaders as they looked on.  How could they continue to allow it?  Imagine the torture for Mary as she watched her Son in agony.  What it was like for John to watch his hero so shamed and degraded?  What pain tore through Mary Magdalene as she heard the hammer’s blow again and again?  What shock and dread filled the city of Jerusalem when the thousands upon thousands who had hoped that Jesus was the Messiah…who had travelled hundreds of miles to see Him…who had been healed by Him…realized that He was going to die at the hands of their own leaders.

The soldiers hoisted the cross up so that Jesus’ body would hang on the nails. For every breath He took, the Lord would have to push down on the nails in His ankles and raise His body so that air could fill His lungs. His bleeding, raw back would scrape against the splintered wood of the cross. Moment after moment brought excruciating physical pain. But that was nothing to the unseen agony that Christ was bearing through those terrible hours. For you see, in the spiritual realms, the pure and holy One, this Jesus, had taken on sin itself. He had chosen to become the wretched embodiment of sin before Almighty God. With every breath He was paying the price for the sins of us all.

Jesus did not need to have His arms nailed open wide to receive the onslaught of God’s fierce and driving wrath against the despicable fact of humanity’s rebellion. He had already determined to honor of the will of His Father in the Garden of Gethsemane. The fires of God’s rage against evil came upon Him in wave after wave of judgment as Jesus paid the punishment for every last sinful, selfish thought, word, or deed that mankind has ever done. Every murder, every rape, every genocide…all of the dark things of humanity that cause such suffering and devastation. Jesus was bearing the sins of the world and paying the ransom so that we could be set free. What a magnificent Savior!

The two criminals were crucified as well, one on each side of Jesus.   Meanwhile, the soldiers at Jesus’ feet were occupied with their own morbid business. What was to be done with Christ’s clothes? They had already torn His outer tunic into four parts at the seams so that each soldier received a section. But Jesus’ inner tunic was unique. It was woven as one piece of fabric. It was specially made so there were no seams. The soldiers didn’t want to tear it, so they decided to cast lots for it instead. The Apostle John pointed out that this was a fulfillment of Scripture. Psalm 22:18 says, “‘They divide my outer garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.’” When they were done, the soldiers sat down and kept watch over Jesus. By the time He had been crucified, it was about nine in the morning.

Meanwhile, Pilate was not finished with what he had to say about Jesus. He made a sign with the same words written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. He sent it to be nailed over Christ on the cross. It said:

“‘JESUS, THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’”

Jesus was crucified near the city, so many of the Jews would read it. But Pilate’s proclamation was also written in the languages that dominated the western world. Latin was the language of the Roman Empire.  The Romans had imposed their military power to dominate the western world for hundreds of years. Greek was the language of the philosophers and great thinkers of old. It was the rich, precise language that the Roman elites chose to speak and teach their children. It dominated the world of ideas. And if course, Hebrew was the language through which the eternal Word of God had come to humanity. How befitting that all three proclaimed the Kingship of Christ on the day of His great sacrifice.

Little did Pilate know that in the years to come, the Gospel would be proclaimed in Latin and Greek throughout the Roman Empire. One day, this Man that he sent to the cross would be worshipped as the eternal King throughout the world! Within a few hundred years, the emperors of Rome would bow their knees to the Lord Jesus Christ.

But that was all far ahead in the future. In the meantime, the religious leaders were unhappy about the sign over Jesus’ head. It was a declaration that Christ was King by a governor of Rome. They went to Pilate and said he should change it. They wanted the sign to read: “‘He said, “I am the king of the Jews.”’” This would make the sign another form of ridicule. Pilate would have none of it.

Imagine the thoughts of Pilate as he sent Jesus away to be crucified by the vicious, petty members of the Sanhedrin. In the years Pilate had spent ruling the Jews, what had he already witnessed in terms of their spiritual corruption, their power struggles, their deceit? Was there anything in their society that gave him reason to believe the Jewish people were more virtuous and honorable than any of the other nations in the world? The notion that they might be God’s holy people must have seemed laughable, which would make the arrogance of the Jewish leaders even more deplorable. If there was any high and eternal destiny for these people, it certainly could not be seen in the lives of the men who ran the Temple of their God.

But in Jesus, Pilate saw something altogether different. Pilate was an educated man, according to the most sophisticated wisdom and knowledge the worldly systems could provide. He had no doubt travelled the Empire and witnessed vastly different religions and cultures. He was a man with power to wield. He moved in circles with other rulers who debated and brought their own solutions to bear on the most complex realities of the human race. War and famine and education, societal breakdown, cultural clashes, and the rising and falling of nations throughout history were common themes and concerns for these men who ruled the Roman Empire.

Yet when Pilate was faced with the great crisis, all he had to offer was a question: “‘What is truth?’” The great solutions of the philosophers of Greece and Rome, the solutions found in the power of the Roman Army and the peace they imposed by force, the crying out to the idols and gods of their myths…all bearing some small portion of distorted truth without ever being True. When the calloused, cynical, disappointed heart of Pilate beheld the meekness and purity and absolute assurance of the Lord Jesus, he knew that he had encountered something True.

There was something magnificent and unspeakably powerful about the silent, bloodied Man who claimed to be the King of an unseen world. Either He was insane, or He was right. If He was right, then all the chaotic frenzy of the world around them was the real insanity. Pilate had been around long enough to know that all the posturing of image and position and power was a farce, from the lowest school bully all the way to the emperor of Rome. But Jesus blew all of His categories.

If there is an eternal King, this was what it would be like when He entered a selfish, broken world. Out of their pathetic envy, the religious leaders of Jerusalem wanted to kill a Man whose soul was worth infinitely more than all of theirs put together.

We don’t know the exact thoughts that were going through Pilate’s mind as he sat in his palace. But we know that they led him to declare that Jesus was the King of the Jews. And against the protests of the Jewish leaders, he simply said, “‘What I have written, I have written.’”

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