Pilate and the Jewish Leaders Fight over the Title (19:19-22)
It was common practice to have those sentenced to crucifixion carry signs indicating the cause of their punishment or to have others carry the signs for the accused (Brown 1994:2:963). The title Pilate has written, JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS (v. 19), continues to goad the Jewish leaders, as their reaction demonstrates (v. 21). They insist that he change it, but for the first time he stands firm against them. Now that their threat against him has passed he can afford to be strong (cf. Westcott 1908:2:310), which only serves to portray his pathetic weakness all the more clearly. His famous line—What I have written, I have written (v. 22)—sounds, in the context, merely petulant and childish.
Pilate earlier announced Jesus as "the man" (v. 5) and as "your king" (v. 14), and now he combines these themes in the title for Jesus' cross. Designating Jesus as being from Nazareth focuses on his humble humanity, while giving him the title of king speaks of his grandeur (see comment on 18:5-6). It was written in the three major languages of the region and read by many of the Jews since it was near the city (v. 20). The Romans did what they could to make crucifixions gruesome and public for the purpose of deterrence. But John seems to suggest this title over the cross was itself a form of witness to Israel and the world. Pilate unwittingly made such a proclamation, of course, as was the case with his having chosen the title itself. Such features fit with John's theme that all is working out according to God's will, even despite some of the participants. Indeed, "the two men who were most responsible for the death of Jesus became the unwitting prophets of the death of Jesus: the one declaring it as the means of redemption for Israel and the nations (11:49-50) the other proclaiming it the occasion of his exaltation to be King of Israel and Lord of all" (Beasley-Murray 1987:346).
So here we have another irony: the man who does not have a clue about the truth (18:38) proclaims, unwittingly, the truth about Jesus. And we have the tragedy of the representatives of the one true God, who should have recognized the truth, continuing to reject it.
IVP New Testament Commentaries are made available by the generosity of InterVarsity Press.