Unexpected King. Unexpected Salvation.

By Mark D. Roberts

March 30, 2021

Scripture – Luke 23:32-38 (NRSV)

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.”


As Jesus was being crucified, a sign placed above his head proclaimed, “The King of the Jews.” The nearby leaders and soldiers mocked Jesus, saying “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” They did not realize that Jesus was exercising his royal duty by giving up his life for others. They did not understand that, by not saving himself, Jesus was becoming the Savior of the world. He was a most unexpected King who would offer a most unexpected salvation.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.


All four of the biblical gospels report that a sign was placed above Jesus on the cross. It identified him as “the King of the Jews” (23:38). It had been put there by soldiers following the specific orders of Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. But we mustn’t read this as Pilate’s statement of faith in Jesus. Rather, the prefect was seeking to mock Jesus and, indeed, all of the Jewish people. The terrible power of Rome, seen horrendously in the act of crucifixion, was what came down on any who proclaimed a kingdom other than that of Caesar. Pilate was saying, in effect, “You mess with our kingdom, this is what you get. Here, you trouble-making Jews, is your king, dying horribly on a Roman cross. Deal with it!” (In art, Pilate’s sign is often represented by the letters “INRI,” which represent the Latin words meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”)

Of course Pilate didn’t grasp the irony of the sign he had placed above Jesus. He did not believe that Jesus was in any way a true king. John’s Gospel records a snippet of conversation between Pilate and Jesus, in which Pilate asked Jesus if he was the king of the Jews (John 18:33). Jesus responded that his kingdom was “not from this world” (John 18:36). That seemed to satisfy Pilate, who changed the subject by asking “What is truth?” (John 18:38). He saw that Jesus was nothing like a real king, one with earthly power and authority. Jesus wouldn’t be sitting on a royal throne. He’d soon be hanging on a Roman cross, which is about as far from real kingship as one could be, from Pilate’s point of view.

The irony of Pilate’s sign is that it was true, but not in the way Pilate understood it. Jesus had indeed proclaimed the kingdom of God. He had acted in ways that revealed his own kingly authority. Yet he was not the king in any ordinary sense. He looked nothing like a true king from the Roman point of view. And he did not fulfill the kingly role that the Jewish people expected of the true messiah. In particular, Jesus did not save his people from Roman political domination. That’s what the messianic king was supposed to do, according to Jewish speculation. But Jesus didn’t exercise that kind of power, nor did he aspire to it.

Moreover, though he had been known as a miracle worker, Jesus’s saving power appeared to have deserted him on the cross. The Jewish leaders watching the crucifixion said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” (Luke 23:35). The Roman soldiers chimed in with their mockery, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (23:37). Yet, what neither the leaders nor the soldiers understood was that Jesus, as God’s messianic King, had no intention of saving himself. He had come to save others. In fact, he had come to save others through his death. If Jesus had accessed divine power to save himself from the cross, then he would not have become the Savior of the world.

Jesus was a most unexpected King. No true king, from the Jewish and Roman perspectives, would die on a cross. No true king would sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

Jesus was a most unexpected Savior. Nobody other than Jesus himself, not even his closest followers, understood that the salvation of Jesus would come through his dying on the cross. What appeared to be the ultimate defeat of Jesus and his mission was, in fact, the victory of God over sin and death.

Jesus is not just the King of the Jews, however. He is the true king over all things. He is the king on whose robe is inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Revelation 19:16). Everything on earth and in heaven belongs ultimately to King Jesus. One day his sovereignty will be recognized as every knee bows before him (Philippians 2:10). In the meanwhile, we who follow Jesus have the chance to acknowledge his kingly authority both in our words and in our lives. We proclaim King Jesus through living each moment under his sovereignty by seeking his justice, sharing his grace, and showing his love.

In this final week of Lent, as we reflect on the death of Jesus, may we affirm his kingship over all creation, including our own lives. May we offer ourselves to Jesus as his subjects, eager to live for his purposes and glory.


What expectations do you have for Jesus?

Have you ever been disappointed when Jesus didn’t live up to your expectations for him?

What does it mean for you to live with Jesus as your King and your Savior?


Take some time to reflect on the last question. Is Jesus your King in a way that makes a difference in how you live each day? What might it be like for you to be more intentional about recognizing Jesus’s royal authority over your life?


Lord Jesus, in a sadly ironic way Pilate got it right. You were the King of the Jews, but not in the way anyone expected. Today, you are still King, though not only of the Jews. You are King of kings and Lord of lords. You are sovereign over all things in heaven and on earth. I praise you today as the King.

And I recognize you as my King. You are the rightful authority over my life. You have every right to teach, guide, lead, and govern me as you wish. I offer myself today as your subject, your servant. May I live in your ways and for your purposes each day, in all that I do. Amen.

P.S. from Mark

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Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Jesus Before Pilate

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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