Can’t You Read the Sign? (John 19:17–27)

Read John 19:17–27.

In our house, we call strawberries lodilo. For the uninitiated, that’s pronounced lōw-dē-lōw. That’s because, when our oldest, Jonah, was first learning to speak, he called the strawberries we would pick “lodilo.” Reading the word doesn’t do it justice, though; you really have to hear it uttered in baby-voice tones.

We have no idea why he labeled strawberries the way he did, but it was so cute, we never corrected him. Years later, his brothers learned that the sweet red fruit with the little seeds was called lodilo, so the name continued on in our family. Occasionally, the term strawberry creeps in from the outside world, so our kids have figured out that lodilo is just what we call them, something special in our family, our label of choice.

Sometimes, the right label can bring fun to something ordinary. Other times, a label can be used as a weapon. Such is the case with the sign Pilate has fastened to Jesus’ cross. It reads simply, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). For full effect, the message is written in Aramaic, the common language of the Jewish people; Latin, the official language of the Roman Empire; and Greek, the trade language throughout the West. This is done to ensure that anyone entering or leaving the city can read the note. Its purpose? To irritate the Jewish leaders.

Caiaphas and his crew had handed Jesus over to Pilate to be executed on the charge that He had committed treason against Rome by claiming to be a king. The governor examined Jesus and found He was not guilty of any crime. And yet, the Jewish leaders forced Pilate’s hand, threatening to inform Rome of his unwillingness to condemn a would-be usurper if he let Jesus live. Pilate doesn’t appreciate being manipulated, so he loudly proclaims the very thing that had so offended the priests and scribes: the truth that Jesus of Nazareth is the true King of their people.

Of course, Pilate doesn’t exactly know it’s the truth. There’s no indication that he recognizes Jesus’ divinity or His right to rule on David’s throne. (He was spooked when Jesus’ accusers told him He had claimed to be the Son of God [vv. 7–8], but he has not become a believer.) The sign affixed to Jesus’ cross is an insult to the people he begrudgingly rules over. With it, he is saying to every Jew who sees it, “Your king is weak and broken, beaten and bloody, exposed and powerless—just like you!”

The Jewish leaders, in turn, want the message reversed. They want it to say merely that Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews. It would then serve as a warning to any would-be Messiahs in their midst who might cause trouble while also refuting anyone who still esteems Jesus as a man sent from God. Labels matter.

Pilate will not budge. “What I have written, I have written,” he says (v. 22). But there is another message that shouts louder than any sign. It was there to read in bright red letters for any faithful Jew who knew the Scriptures. Anyone watching the events of the crucifixion carefully would see prophecy being fulfilled before their eyes.

Psalm 22:18 reads, “They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” That’s precisely what the soldiers attending to Jesus’ execution do: “They took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining…. ‘Let’s not tear it,’ they said to one another. ‘Let’s decide by lot who will get it’” (John 19:23–24).

John includes this seemingly administrative detail about clothing redistribution to point us back to Psalm 22, to remind us that Jesus’ crucifixion is neither a surprise nor an unplanned detour in the story of redemption. It had been planned from long ago, and though it is now coming through the scheming of wicked men, it is ordained by God for the good of the world. As proof, the Holy Spirit, through His servant David, wrote about the event centuries earlier.

Jesus is the one whose feet and hands are pierced (Psalm 22:16), and thanks to the brutal beating He received from Pilate’s soldiers, His “bones are on display” (v. 17). He is the one at whom the people “hurl insults, shaking their heads” (v. 7). And He is the one who will cry out (though John does not record it), “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 1; see also Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). But because Jesus’ cruel death at the hands of evil men is part of God’s plan to bring salvation to the world, He is also the one of whom it will be said, “He has done it!” (Psalm 22:31).

The labels we use can shift perception. Pilate’s label was designed to ridicule and induce fear, but it did nothing to change the ancient promise God was fulfilling in Christ. Regardless of what he or the Jewish leaders may have wanted from Jesus’ death, their spin was little more than calling strawberries lodilo. What matters in redemption history—and in your life and mine—are the words God uses. His labels always reveal the truth.

What’s this all about?

2 thoughts on “Can’t You Read the Sign? (John 19:17–27)

  1. David Swainbank June 14, 2022 — 10:01 pm

    I just finished your book 21 Jesus
    Will leave a 5 solid star review.

    Thank you.


    1. Thank you! That’s very kind!


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