St John’s Gospel is the only one out of the four which tells us that there was controversy over the wording of the inscription which Pontius Pilate attached to our Lord’s Cross. All four Gospels tell us that there was an inscription to the effect that the crucified man was Jesus, the King of Jews, but John’s Gospel is the only one that tells us that the chief priests objected and wanted the sign changed from ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ to ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews’. But Pilate refused to give way – ‘what I have written I have written’ (John 19v22 – RSV).
There is a double irony here. First of all, against his better judgement Pilate had given into to the demands of the Passover crowd in Jerusalem to have Jesus killed. He knew Jesus was innocent – ‘I find no crime in him,’ he said to the crowd in front of the Praetorium – yet he rolled over to the pressure of public opinion. But here he is standing firm on the inscription.
Secondly, Pilate was a man who was very uncertain about truth. ‘What is truth?’ he said to Jesus when Jesus told him that ‘everyone who is of the truth hears my voice’. Extraordinary claim. Here is this vulnerable, beaten, bleeding man standing before the Roman Governor with all his pomp and power and he has just told him in effect: ‘Actually, I could get out of this hole, despite your military muscle.’
Jesus said to Pilate (John 18v36): ‘My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world.’ Pilate said to him: ‘So you are a king?’ to which Jesus replied: ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’ (v37).
In effect, ‘I am the one who both embodies and reveals the truth of the one true God.’ ‘What is truth?’ is Pilate’s response.
Like many people in his own day and like many people in ours, he was deeply uncertain about the truth, about whether there are universal, God-given principles to guide us in our beliefs and actions as men and women. ‘What is truth?’ and his uncertainty led him to give into the pressure to crucify the Lord of glory. But here he is sticking with what he has written, which happens to be the truth.
Jesus is indeed the King of the Jews. He is the rescuing King of Old Testament promise and expectation. Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the Christ, the Messiah God had promised to send to save not only his chosen people, the Jews, but people from any and from every nation who come faithfully and humbly to God for salvation and forgiveness. Pilate could have been included but for his proud refusal to face the truth. It is indeed ironic that here Pilate, unknowingly it seems, tells the truth – Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.
So, John is the only evangelist who uncovers the irony of this whole argument about Jesus’s inscription. The point John is bringing home with brilliant clarity is that the broken man on the Cross is still God’s King. He is still in charge because he is doing the work his Father God gave him to do. He is bringing glory to his Father God by finishing the work of salvation God the Father sent him into the world to accomplish. ‘It is finished’ was Jesus’s final word from the Cross (John 19v30).
So, as we look with the eyes of faith at the King on the Cross, we are saved. We need to look with the eyes of faith, not with the eyes of uncertainty. Uncertainty is the blurred vision of Pilate with his ‘what is truth?’ and it is the blurred vision of many people today who do not believe that there is Truth. There may be my truth, there may be your truth, little t, but there is no ‘capital T’ truth for everyone everywhere.
The Christian Gospel says different. The Gospel says there is Truth and it is the King hanging on the Cross who reveals that Truth, the Truth that you and I need saving from our sins and the devastating consequences of them. The Christ reveals that Truth as he hangs on the Cross absorbing the wrath of God in himself.
And the Christ hanging on the Cross reveals the Truth that it is he and he alone who saves – Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Hanging alone on the Cross he achieves our salvation, not we ourselves. Our response is to look with the eyes of faith, not with uncertainty, and to give him all the glory. That is the way of salvation.