Here is your king (part 3)

It’s a sobering historical fact: human regimes come and go, sometimes violently. Emperors and presidents get assassinated; rulers are deposed. That’s not, of course, the “plan.” Rulers don’t take office with the express intention of dying. They plan to accomplish their mission through the way they wield power; governance is a show of strength, not weakness.

So it should be axiomatic: kings don’t come to power by dying on crosses, and crowns aren’t supposed to be made of thorns.

As noted in previous posts, the gospel writers don’t trouble their readers with lurid descriptions of the violence of crucifixion. Presumably, that particular horror was already known all too well. Some may even have become insensitive to it, unless the victim was someone they loved. Crucifixion, even mass crucifixion, had become a common way for the empire to declare its dominance in graphic terms: Don’t even think of messing with us, or this could be you.

Pilate had lost the chess match. He gave in to the chief priests’ demands and handed Jesus over to the soldiers. Jesus was subjected to public ridicule, crucified as a common criminal.

Or, perhaps, not so common. It would not have been unusual for the governor to post a sign announcing to passersby (and during the festival, there would have been a lot of them) the crime for which some poor soul was being executed. But this placard was unique: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews (John 19:19). Who else could be crucified for the crime of being “King of the Jews”? John, moreover, takes special note that the sign was written in Aramaic (the popular tongue), Latin (the official language of the empire), and Greek (the language used throughout the empire). Nobody was to be left in the dark. The people of all the known world would know: this man, Jesus of Nazareth, was being officially declared the King of the Jews.

It was Pilate’s way of getting the last word in the argument. The chief priests, of course, complained. “No, no, no — don’t write that! Don’t say he was the king, say that he claimed to be the king.” But Pilate had no reason to give in to this final, fussy demand. He had done what they had asked and protected his own selfish interests in the process. He would not give up the opportunity to get in one last dig. “What I’ve written, I’ve written” (vs. 22), he replied. I imagine he said it with some self-satisfaction: Hey, you’re the ones who brought him to me, remember? Deal with it.

But John doesn’t want us to see Jesus as the victim of political intrigue. He is the king, even on the cross. He submits willingly to his fate, because this is the Father’s will. He’s known all along what was coming. Even the sign Pilate ordered, as an insult to the Jews, fulfilled God’s purposes. As Jesus had said earlier, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:32, NRSV).

As one final indignity before the crucifixion itself, the condemned were forced to carry the crossbeam to which they would soon be nailed. And indeed, John tells us that Jesus did so (19:17). But the other gospels all tell us that a man named Simon of Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross to Golgotha. The accounts are easy to harmonize: Jesus began by carrying the crossbeam, but was so weakened by his treatment at the hands of the Romans that someone else had to be pressed into service.

John’s point, however, may be this: the King exercised his dominion by doing what he came to do. His life was not taken from him; he offered it of his own accord. The cross was not forced on him; he took it up. In doing so, he fulfilled the ancient prophecies that his opponents seemed to have forgotten: God’s Servant would suffer.

That was the plan.

But no one would remember that until after Easter.