"Writing It in Black" - John 19:16-22 - Doug Rehberg
Yuri Smolenski was a Jewish engineer in the former Soviet Union. Though he had been allowed to live and work in Leningrad for years, one day the order came that he was being transferred to Siberia. His parents were in tears as they watched him pack. “I’ll write every day,” said Yuri. His mother wailed “But the censors, they’ll watch your every word.” “I’ve got an idea,” said his father. “Anything you write in black, we’ll know is true. But anything you put in red ink, we’ll know is nonsense.”
A month passed; then a letter came from Siberia – all in black. “Dear Mama and Papa, I can’t tell you how happy I am here. It’s a worker’s paradise! We are treated like kings. I live in a fine apartment – and the local butcher has meat every single day! There are many concerts and theater plays – all free. And there is not one tiny bit of anti-Semitism! Love, Your son, Yuri. P.S. There’s only one thing I can’t find here: red ink.”
According to the Roman statesman and orator, Cicero, it was a crime for a Roman citizen to be bound. It was a worse crime for him to be beaten. The thought of putting one to death on a cross was unthinkable. That’s why the Romans never allowed crucifixion in their homeland. The Romans had learned the practice of crucifixion from the Carthaginians. But unlike the people of Carthage, the Romans only practiced it in the provinces, and then, only to slaves and criminals.
Barclay tells us that the routine was always the same. When the case had been heard and the criminal condemned, the judge would say, “You will go to the cross,” and instantly the verdict was carried out. The condemned man was placed in the center of four Roman soldiers, his own cross was placed on his shoulders, and he was pushed and prodded along the road. In front of him would walk an officer with a sign detailing the crime for which he was to be crucified. The purpose was two-fold: first, as a warning that crime does not pay; and second, so that if anyone along the way who might know of his innocence could come forward and testify.
No one testified for Jesus that day. When John tells us that Pilate finally handed Him over to be crucified, no one comes forward. In fact, Matthew, Mark, and Luke go out of their way to record the details of the pain inflicted upon Jesus all the way to the cross.
It’s as though every one of them was wishing that he were writing in red ink, except John. In every one of their presentations, there’s an abundance of pathos, except in John. John makes no mention of the soldiers mocking Jesus. He makes no mention of the taunting crowd. In John there are no shouts of, “You saved others, can’t you save yourself?” There are no acts of sympathy. Why? Because John has a different perspective.
Have you ever heard the story of a young Chinese boy who wanted to learn about jade, so he went to an old, sagacious teacher? “Teach me of jade,” the boy said. And with that, the elderly man walked away, picked up the stone, and placed into the boy’s hand. He said to him, “Hold it tightly.” Then the old man began to talk about philosophy. He talked about men and women, the sun, the moon, and the stars. After an hour he took the stone back and sent the boy home. He repeated the same procedure every day for several weeks. Finally, the boy grew frustrated. When would this old man teach of jade? But the boy was too polite to interrupt his venerable teacher. Then one day the old man put an ordinary stone into the boy’s hand and began to teach about life. Suddenly the boy interrupted him, “This is not jade!” The old man smiled, and instantly the boy knew that he had learned all about jade. He knew the feel of it. He knew the truth of it. He knew it in a way he would not otherwise have known.
The same is true of John and the cross. You see, John writes his Gospel years after the other writers. Unlike the others, John has held the truth of the Gospel in his hands for decades. Whereas the others are caught up in the human trauma of these events, John has a different perspective. Rather than desiring to write in red, John is ecstatic about writing it in black, for he sees in these events not the pain of the Savior, but the power of God. Let’s look at it.
First, John tells us in verse 16(b). “…they led Him away…bearing His cross.” You say, “But my Bible doesn’t translate it that way. Mine says, ‘So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.’” That’s a mistranslation. The Greek word is apago, meaning “to lead away”. It’s the same word used after Jesus’ baptism when the Holy Spirit leads Him into the wilderness. Now, notice, He’s not driven there. He’s not dragged there. He’s led there. There’s no resistance, no coercion. Jesus walks were He intends to walk.
John says, “The soldiers led Jesus away…bearing His cross.” Not only does He require no coercion, He carries His own means of death. Every other Gospel writer includes the story of Simon of Cyrene who helps Jesus with the cross, but not John. For John, not only does Jesus walk where He intends to walk, He walks carrying the cross. No one else is needed. He has the power to walk all the way to the cross without any assistance.
Spurgeon once said, “It’s easier to get a sinner out of his sin that a self-righteous man out of his self-righteousness.” John knew that. That’s why he shows us so little pathos and so much power. What John is saying is, “Make no mistake about it, Jesus Christ is doing this on His own. He alone is able to go to the cross. He alone is able to walk there. He alone is able to carry His cross there. He needs no help.”
When Robert Morrison, the first missionary to go to China, disembarked from his ship in a Chinese port, the captain sneeringly said, “So you think you are going to make an impression on China?” Morrison quietly replied, “No, sir, but I believe Christ will.” And you know something? He did.
That’s John’s perspective. For John there’s no desire to write in red – black will do just fine. For the issue here is not pathos, but power. Jesus needs no prodding and no help, for our salvation is the work of Christ and Christ alone.
Then second, John shows us God’s power not only on the way to the cross; he also shows it at the place of the cross. Look at verse 17, “Carrying his own cross, He went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha).”
Now notice, this is the second time in the space of four verses that John identifies a location by its Aramaic or Hebrew name. He says in verse 13 that Pilate goes to the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement or in Aramaic, Gabbatha.
Then here in verse 17 he’s at it again – “the place of the Skull, or Golgotha.” Now, some make the point that by giving both the Aramaic and the Greek names for these locations, John is reinforcing the culpability of both the Jews and Gentiles. But there’s another point here, a point that’s far too important to miss. There’s only one other place in this Gospel where the words “in Aramaic” or “in Hebrew” are used and that is John 5:2. John says, “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethseda.” Do you remember what happens at Bethseda? Jesus heals a man who’s been paralyzed for thirty-eight years. Out of all the throngs of invalids gathered around that pool, Jesus heals a man who’s been afflicted thirty-eight years. It’s one of the greatest demonstrations of divine mercy in the whole Bible. Jesus seeks him out. He asks, “Do you want to be healed?” He even puts up with his self-righteous excuses, and He heals him.
And yet, did you know that John is the only one to record this incident? Not only does he record it, he adds the Aramaic, just as he does in chapter 19. Why? Because he wants everyone to see that whether it’s at a pool in Jerusalem, or at a judge’s seat in Jerusalem, or on a hill outside of Jerusalem, the power and mercy of God are on full display.
The story is told of a politician who, after receiving the proofs of his portrait, was incensed with the photographer. He stormed back to the photographer and said, “This picture doesn’t do me justice.” The photographer turned and said “Sir, with a face like yours, you don’t need justice, you need mercy.” That not only goes for faces, ladies and gentlemen, that goes for lives.
You see, for John there’s no pathos for Jesus at Golgotha, there’s no sympathy. Because John knows that it is not He who needs it, but we who need it. John knows exactly what Jesus delivers to Jews, to Greeks, to you and me.
Then third, John shows us the power of God not only on the way to the cross, and at the place of the cross; but he shows it to us on the cross. Look at verse 18: “Here they crucified him, and with him two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle.”
Now unlike the other Gospel writers, John doesn’t describe these other men. There’s no mention of their crime. There’s no mention of their dialogue. There’s no mention of Jesus’ promise to one of them. John includes none of it, though he knows that the criminals who hang there with Jesus are the fulfillment of two distinct Old Testament prophecies. “He was numbered with the transgressors,” and “He was placed with the wicked at his death.” Now, John knows that; but he doesn’t include it. Why? Because he’s too possessed with Christ. He wants no distractions from Christ. That’s why he says, “…two others – one on each side and Jesus in the middle.” For John, Jesus is always in the middle, for He is always the focal point.
Augustine said it: “Christ is not valued at all unless He is valued above all.” For John, the criminals are immaterial. The only value in mentioning them is so that the position of Christ can be highlighted. He’s in the center.
Then fourth and finally, John shows us the power of God not only on the way to the cross, at the cross, and on the cross; he shows us the power of God above the cross.
Look at verse 19: “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross.” Luke tells us the sign was placed above Jesus’ head. Now, there’s been a lot of debate over the centuries as to what was really written on that sign, because each Gospel offers a different message. Matthew says the notice reads, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” Mark is briefer, he says the notice reads, “The King of the Jews.” Luke says, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Only John tells us that Pilate wrote it, and only John tells us that he wrote: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” You say, “Why the difference?” Well, John tells us in the very next verse, “The sign was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek.” He’s the only one to say that the sign was trilingual. And that’s the reason for the differences in wording. In Hebrew it read, “This is Jesus, King of the Jews.” In Latin, “King of the Jews.” Now, Hebrew or Aramaic was the language of religion. Latin was the language of law. And Greek was the language of science. And what John is reminding us by telling us that the sign was written in three languages is that Jesus is King over all. Not only is He King over all human beings, He’s King over all human enterprises. That’s the message on the cross.
And interestingly, it’s communicated not by the lips of Jesus, but by the markings of a pagan ruler.
Do you see the power of that? While Pilate’s reason for writing it may be to tweak the Jews, God’s reason is to pronounce to the whole world who this man is. He is “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Not only does he pick a powerful pagan to write it, he picks one who suddenly shows courage. John tells us that Pilate withstands the harshest attacks. They say, “Don’t write, ’The King of the Jews’...” Pilate says, “Forget it! What I’ve written, I have written.” You see, regardless of Pilate’s motive, God gets His way. The glorious truth of Jesus’ identity is plastered above the very instrument that the world used to defeat Him.
Back in the 40s, Senator Kefauver thought that hydrogen bombs could blow the earth off its axis by 16 degrees, and therefore the United States should abandon all production. He was on the Arms Services committee, and he had lots of power. He even drafted legislation to abolish Defense Department funding. He was ready to pass it to committee until a panel of scientists testified. They said a moderate size earthquake involves as much energy as a million hydrogen bombs detonated simultaneously, and yet with no effect on the earth’s rotation. Such effects, they said, rest with God.