"Pilate also had an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, 'Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.' Many of the Jews read this inscription, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek. Then the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, 'Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’' Pilate answered, 'What I have written I have written.' " - John 19:19-22
This scripture says that Pilate set up a sign for Jesus. It leads me to think about the signs that surround us in this world. They are seemingly everywhere: traffic signs, designed to keep us from getting into accidents; billboards, designed to attract our interest and ultimately to get us to spend money. There are business signs with a similar intent. And there are church signs as well. Sometimes they’ll show the name of church, sometimes they’ll show the times for worship and Sunday school, and sometimes they’ll carry some kind of Christian message designed to make you think.
We once had two signs on our church property in Paradise. There was a smaller sign with our denominational logo on it from the NACCC (with the Pilgrim ship and the three C’s featured). It had the full name of our church: Craig Memorial Congregational Church, along with our worship and Sunday school times. And then there was the larger sign over by Todd house which had the shorter version of our name: Craig Congregational Church. It was useful for putting out Christian messages for the community to see, and for publicizing church events.
There’s another kind of sign that we may not think about as much: an epitaph. Recently I finished reading the book Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. It’s a popular collection of poetic epitaphs written in musings over the semi-fictitious life of a rural, small-town community in Illinois. The collection takes you through both a variety of scandals and a variety of takes on life: from despair to joy, from yearning to shame, from thoughtfulness to anger and rage.
This leads to a question: What kind of epitaph would you like you like on your tombstone? And, who would you give the power to write it to? Several years ago I read one that really stuck with me. It was in a little collection of thoughts written by the famous Congregational minister and author Charles M. Sheldon. It said this: “This was a soul who had many faults, but he was always trying to correct them.”
In the case of Jesus the power of writing His epitaph was given to the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, and he put a sign on to the cross of Jesus. In previous chapters of John’s gospel his motives were revealed: He was influenced both by his appetites and by his scorn of others, and by the danger he was in. History records that a man named Sejanus, the high-ranking Roman official responsible for Pilate’s appointment, suffered a great downfall in the year A.D. 31. He had at one time been the acting Caesar of the Roman Empire. But there came a time when he fell out of favor with the Emperor and he was executed. It reminds me a bit of what happened in North Korea almost six years ago: Kim Jong Un suddenly arrested and executed his older uncle, Jang Song-thaek. And then some of his family members were killed. Well, it was that way with the execution of Sejanus in 31 A.D. – and Pontius Pilate may have been in some peril since he was associated with Sejanus and he didn’t want to appear disloyal to Caesar. So to some degree he was operating out of fear when he made his choices.
And yet he also had a scornful disposition towards the Jews he was governing. He taunted them. That’s why we have this inscription being brought out with Jesus being presented as a mock-king – labelled derisively as the king of the Jews. He and his soldiers had some fun at Jesus’ expense, and with some intended derogation towards the Jewish people.
This gives us something to think about: What kinds of “signs” do we put up in relationship to other people? To some degree, each of us is in stewardship with the memory and the legacy and the reputation of other people. So how do we use this power? How am I defining other people? Am I prone to mis-characterize them? Am I prone to be derisive towards others? Am I being properly sensitive to other people groups? What I say is of consequence, even if I don’t think it’s important.
These are some items for probing, and yet we can also ask this question: How much was Pilate in charge here? God can use even stubborn and resistant people to accomplish His will; and when He does it’s often in ironic ways. And so with Pontius Pilate: In many ways his own vanity and insensitivity were just instruments for God’s proclamation: Jesus is really the king. The truth was proclaimed. And it came from the voice of Rome itself. Expect the unexpected, my friends, because God’s in the business of doing these kinds of things.
And lots of people were taking note from the sign. It was placed near the city. It was written in multiple languages. And by this it was rooted in the general spread of the gospel. This is why John’s Palm Sunday narrative shows a turning point when Greeks made inquiry about Jesus (John 12:20). Jesus then said that His hour had come. There were previous times where it was clear His hour had not come (e.g. John 2:4, 7:6, 30). But now it was evident that the shape of the future church was taking future form. The Jewish boundaries that seemed a permanent feature of the faith were starting to get challenged.
Think of what this means for us today. Christianity has always been an international religion. God is not a respecter of persons; He doesn’t care what your ethnic history is. Sure, we can celebrate the Scots, or African-Americans, or the Chinese, or whatever. But Christ is savior of the world. He lived and died for us all. And today things are changing. It used to be that America was a missionary-sending nation. It used to be that American churches sponsored and sent missionaries to all parts of the world. That’s still true to some degree, but the global center of the faith is shifting. The places in the world where the gospel is spreading are places like Africa and South America. And the United States is becoming a mission field.
God has His ways of getting the message out and to the people. In the book of Acts it was on Pentecost Sunday, where everyone understood the words of God in their own language. And here it was with an inscription made by a temporary and malevolent political figure. Sometimes you just have to see the irony in what God is doing.
Jesus said when the Gentile interest came that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified – pointing the way to the cross. This was not the enthroning moment of Palm Sunday. This was not a great triumphant parade. Instead, it was brutal agony, Christ being lifted up on the cross. And yet there was multiplied irony in Pilate’s repeated presentations of Jesus to the crowd: Behold the Man! (John 19:5) Behold the King! (19:14) It was probably impossible for Pilate to see the truth in his own words. But rest assured: he was declaring the ultimate truth for all time. Jesus is the Son of Man! He is the new man, the new Adam! Jesus is the King of kings and Lord of lords! He who has ears to hear, let him hear what God is doing!
This shifts the sense of resolves. I talked about sensitivity towards other people; that’s not really the heart of the matter. Here’s a better set of resolves: I resolve to be intentional about looking for signs God is sending my way. I resolve to not close my mind to the irony. If something repulses me, that doesn’t mean it’s not from God. Maybe I can sense something that God is saying and doing. After all, this is how the salvation message was originally proclaimed.
How we respond to the things God is doing is all-important. We can keep this in mind as we ponder the reaction of the chief priests. They responded with a political act, lobbying Pontius Pilate. In the news there are lots of different political pushes from religious groups. Some of them are good; but some are over things that just don’t matter: symbolic things, things that have little to do with the real issues of human suffering. People will get worked up into a frenzy over these things. Well, this is what happened with these priests. They were dealing with the execution of the Messiah, but they were lobbying for a tweak on the sign. This is a perfect example of missing the point – of straining a gnat but swallowing a camel (to use Jesus’ words from Matthew 23:24) – of tending to a detail instead of the heart of the matter.
In my experience it’s very hard to get people in positions of power to admit they’re wrong. Sometime they see it as a compromise of their strength. Here Pilate refused to change the sign. He said, “What I wrote I wrote.” But to use a line from the book of Daniel, the writing was on the wall. The proclamation was in place. Behold the son of Man! Behold the king! Jesus, the King of the Jews! Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Jesus, who was persecuted with the most cruel kind of violence; Jesus, who was glorified in being lifted up on the cross. Jesus, whose cross today is the most visible symbol of the Christian faith. Often, in parts of America, it’s the tallest thing in any given town – other than the grain elevators and the radio towers. And I guess there’s some irony in that too: we might call it a “sign of the times”.
I am a husband, a Congregational pastor, and a native Kansan currently living in Thermalito, California. In the past I have also been a prison chaplain and a youth pastor. Interests include reading, railroads, prog rock, KU, and the KC Royals.