John 19:19-24b
King And High Priest
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall

John 19:19a (Holman) Pilate also had a sign lettered and put on the cross.

The “sign” was usually a white board inscribed with black letters. It let everyone know the victim’s crime. On the way to execution, the placard was sometimes suspended around the prisoner’s neck, or carried before him.

John 19:19b The inscription was: Jesus the Nazarene the King of the Jews.

Pilate could not resist poking one last jab at the chief priests. He delivered a scornful blow of revenge to his antagonists. Hailing a carpenter from Nazareth as King of the Jews would infuriate the snobbish leaders of Jerusalem. All of Galilee was contemptuous in the eyes of the Judean religious leaders. Nathanael had expressed the true feelings of many when he scornfully asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Pilate, who had been convinced to violate his own conscience, wanted to aggravate the men who instigated his crime. Pilate did not know his jest was truth. “Providence guided the pen of Pilate. God saw to it that the message He wanted to have proclaimed was written on the cross itself, for all to see” (Calvin).

The Bible writers never let us forget Jesus truly was a king. At His birth, wise men came from the East to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:2). At His death, the message of His royalty was proclaimed from a placard nailed above His head.

John 19:20a Many of the Jews read this sign, because the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city . . .

Many Jews, from all over the Roman world, would have been in Jerusalem for the Passover. Executions were popular public functions in those days. Crowds were fond of crucifixions. Many came to observe them.

The mob’s curiosity was facilitated by the execution site’s location, near the city. Rome performed executions in public places, where large numbers of people could see the spectacle. This was believed to be a deterrent to crime.

John 19:20b . . . and it was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek.

Official notices in Jerusalem were often written in these three languages. Each was commonly used there. For instance, the Temple inscription which forbade Gentiles to enter (under threat of death) was written in these three tongues.

Hebrew was the native tongue of the Jews. Greek was used by the people in the market places. It was the nearest thing they had to a universal language. Latin, the native tongue of Rome, was the official language of the Empire.

One can hardly resist the temptation to say our author saw in the use of these three languages an eloquent symbol of Jesus’ universal appeal. Jesus came to be a Savior to all people, to Greeks and Romans as well as to Jews. His name has now been broadcast throughout the whole earth, in almost every known tongue.

John 19:21 So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Don’t write ‘the King of the Jews’; but that He said, ‘I am the King of the Jews’.”

Pilate’s arrow hit its mark. The chief priests were outraged. They reveled in the heritage of kings like David, and were appalled to see a crucified criminal declared their King. They heard Pilate’s message loud and clear. The Procurator was saying this criminal nailed to his throne was the kind of king Israel deserved.

The chief priests had already rejected Jesus as their King. They preferred Caesar (19:15) and now reinforced the sentiment. Jesus was not their King, they said; He rather only claimed to be such. The title, as written by Pilate, put disgrace on the Jews. The leaders wanted all the scorn placed on Jesus Himself. They wanted to crucify His reputation as well as His body.

John 19:22 Pilate replied, “What I have written, I have written.”

Pilate’s terse response reveals his own feeling of irritation. By digging his heels in at this moment, Pilate may have found a salve for a sore conscience. Maybe courage now helped him forget his cowardice from a few hours ago.

Pilate had vacillated with regard to condemning Jesus, but the Procurator could not be persuaded to change the inscription. Unfortunately, what “he had written” on the page of his life earlier that day also could not be erased.

What a paradox! Pilate refused to change words he wrote in jest, but compromised himself into being an accomplice for murder. We easily confuse our priorities. We can be quite stubborn in what really does not matter, and at the same time give in to what really is important.

Pilate stood firm here; but because he yielded to blackmail in the most important matter, his name is ever associated with shame and infamy. Pilate bucked his antagonists too late. The worst damage had already been done.

The enemies of Christ could not alter what had been written. It is also an unalterable fact that Jesus truly is the King of the Jews; yea, even King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. His Kingdom cannot be shaken by its opponents.

John 19:23a (Holman) When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took His clothes and divided them into four parts, a part for each soldier.

Soldiers who served as the executioners received the clothes of the criminal as compensation for their effort. It is probably good Jesus’ garments were given to pagans. Had a garment been retained by one of Christ’s followers, it would have become an icon and worshipped as a holy relic. This truth is illustrated by the adoration given to the artwork known as the Shroud of Turin.

These garments were all Christ possessed of this world’s goods. He gave them up for us. The fact the soldiers had his clothing meant Jesus had nothing on. The mocking crowd gazed upon God’s Son, who was clothed only in total humiliation. God help us to clothe Him with the love of our hearts.

His naked body was insulted that we might someday stand fearless, clothed in the glory of God. He wore our shame. Shame from nakedness was one of the curses that came in with sin. Jesus, therefore, when He was made sin for us, bore even that shame to roll away our reproach (Henry).

He allowed Himself to be undressed that we might someday be dressed with white raiment (Revelation 3:18). Jesus was stripped of His garments that we might be clothed with His righteousness.

John 19:23b They also took the tunic, which was seamless, woven in one piece from the top.

Instead of being made of separate cloths sewn together, Jesus’ robe was woven in one piece, without seam. The Old Testament specified the High Priest’s robe had to be of “woven work” (Exodus 28:31-32; 39:22-23). Josephus, the historian, described the High Priest’s robe in the exact same manner presented in our text. John wanted us to see Jesus is our High Priest, the One who offered His own self as a perfect sacrifice in our behalf.

John 19:24a So they said to one another, “Let’s not tear it, but toss for it, to see who gets it.”

The intricate weaving involved in making the robe caused it to be of some value. Cutting the robe in pieces would have rendered it useless. Hence, the four soldiers gambled to determine which would receive it.

By making this decision to keep the garment in one piece, the soldiers unknowingly pointed to another “High Priest” symbol. The High Priest’s robe was not to be torn (Leviticus 21:10). Caiaphas had earlier disregarded this precept, and ripped his garment (Matthew 26:65), thereby unwittingly symbolizing the end of the Aaronic priesthood. Clothes are torn only when there is no more use for them. Jesus, the one with His robe in one piece, is now our High Priest.

John 19:24b . . . They did this to fulfill the Scripture that says: “They divided My clothes among themselves, and they cast lots for My clothing.”

These soldiers knew nothing of the Jewish Bible, but were fulfilling an Old Testament prediction. Since they were pagan, no one could accuse them of collusion or “stacking the deck” in order to fulfill a Biblical forecast.
They were instruments God used to implement His providence. He was overseeing all that happened at Calvary. Nothing surprised our Heavenly Father. God’s will, not ours, was accomplished there.
The soldiers fulfilled a personal lament made by David (Psalm 22:18). It arose from a situation in his life when his enemies were so sure of his death that they had already decided how they were going to divide his belongings. With similar contempt, the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes as if He were already dead.