Jesus is referred to as the King of the Jews two times in His earthly life: at His birth by the wise men (Matthew 2:2) and at His trial and subsequent crucifixion (Mark 15:2). All four gospels record the words “King of the Jews” as part of Pilate’s instructions to the angry mob (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:9; Luke 23:38; John 19:3) and Pilate’s direct address to Jesus (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; John 18:33). It is interesting that only non-Jews used this specific title to describe Jesus, underscoring the truth of John 1:11, which says, “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
The title King of the Jews had both messianic and political implications. Kings in Israel were anointed with oil as a sign of God’s choosing (see 1 Kings 1:39), and the meaning of Messiah is “Anointed One.” As the Son of David, the Messiah was chosen by God to fulfill the Davidic Covenant and rule on the throne in Jerusalem. When the magi came to Jerusalem seeking the King of the Jews, they most likely had in mind a future political leader, much to King Herod’s chagrin. But the Jews in Jerusalem, hearing the magi’s question, would have thought of the long-awaited Messiah.
In Mark 15:32 some mockingly call Jesus the “King of Israel” and associate the title with “Christ” (“Messiah”). What they meant as jeering scorn—what kind of king would be hanging on a cross?—was, ironically, the exact truth. Jesus was the King of Israel, and He was on the cross to save them from their sins.
The sign that Pilate posted over Jesus on the cross identified the “criminal” in three languages: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (John 19:19). The Jewish leaders objected to the application of a Messianic title to Jesus: “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews” (verse 21). For reasons he kept to himself, Pilate refused to alter the sign (verse 22), which was another ironic statement of truth.
During the trial of Jesus, Pilate had asked Him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Mark 15:2). Jesus answered, “It is as you say” (NASB). Later, Jesus expanded on the idea of His being a king: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36). The King of the Jews was rejected by Israel, but there is a broader spiritual kingdom that He still ruled.
After the conversation about Jesus’ kingship, Pilate turns to the crowd and asks, “Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” (John 18:39). In no uncertain terms, the crowd shouts their answer: “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” (verse 40). Pilate then allows the soldiers to give Jesus a beating, during which they clothe Jesus as a king, mock Him with cries of “Hail, king of the Jews!” and repeatedly slap Him in the face (John 19:3). After the mockery, Pilate again presents Jesus to the crowd as the King of the Jews: “Here is your king,” he says (verse 14). In response they shout, “‘Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!’ ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Pilate asked. ‘We have no king but Caesar,’ the chief priests answered” (verse 15). Their choice had been made, and Jesus, their true king, was led away to be crucified (verse 16).
Some people during Jesus’ ministry recognized Jesus as the King of the Jews. As Jesus neared Jerusalem the final time, the crowd with Him “thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear at once” (Luke 19:11). In other words, they believed Jesus was the King of the Jews, and they were ready to help Him set up the earthly kingdom. Jesus told a parable indicating that the kingdom would be delayed (verses 12–27), but the crowd’s enthusiasm did not wane. As He entered Jerusalem, Jesus was greeted with shouts of welcome for the King of the Jews: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (verse 38).
God’s people had been expecting a deliverer since God first promised one in Genesis 3:15. God Himself unified the Hebrews under Moses and told them that, as long as they followed and obeyed Him, He would bless and guide them (Deuteronomy 11:8–9; 27:9–10). But the children of Israel rejected the Lord as their leader and demanded an earthly king (1 Samuel 8:7, 19). God gave them what they wanted and appointed Saul as the first king over Israel (1 Samuel 9:17). When Saul disobeyed the Lord, he was then rejected by God, and his sons were not allowed to succeed him on the throne (1 Samuel 15:9–11, 23, 28). Instead, God chose David to be the next king of the Jews (1 Samuel 16:1). God promised David that his name would be forever associated with the throne of Israel (2 Samuel 7:12–16). Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, David penned the prophetic Psalm 22, which gave Israel hints about what their future Messiah and Deliverer would endure. But, in their desperation for an earthly king and an earthly kingdom, most of the Jews disregarded those prophetic words as well as the ones in Isaiah 53. When Jesus came, He fulfilled those prophecies. Importantly, He was from the royal line of David (Matthew 1:1; John 7:42) and could rightly take the title King of the Jews, but because Jesus was not what they wanted, “his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11, ESV).
A king is a supreme ruler. When the Jews clamored for a king in Samuel’s day, they were rejecting God as their Supreme Ruler (1 Samuel 8:7). Because of their hard hearts, He allowed them temporary kings. But this led to bondage and their destruction as a nation, highlighting the reality that what they wanted was not what they needed. The kingdom was divided after King Solomon’s rule, and both parts of the divided kingdom eventually fell to foreign enemies. Jerusalem was destroyed at least twice, once by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:8–10) and again by the Romans under Titus in AD 70. The Jews who rejected their true King were scattered among the nations for centuries until 1948.
Isaiah 11 announced that one day a “shoot from the stem of Jesse” (verse 1) would come and set the world to rights. The Jews have long interpreted such prophecies as foretelling an earthly king for Israel. We understand Jesus to be that King; however, God had bigger plans than just an earthly kingdom. He never resigned Himself to Israel’s rejection of His kingship, but rather used their rejection of Him as an opportunity to demonstrate His love for the whole world (John 3:16). The Son of God took on human flesh, came in the form of a servant, and showed His people what a real Deliverer was like (Philippians 2:5–11; Mark 10:44).
Because this King of the Jews did not fit the ideas they had cherished for thousands of years, the Jews again rejected the One they needed. Many Jews are still waiting for the wrong kind of king. Revelation 19:16 describes the day when Jesus will return to rule over the earth. At that time, the ancient prophecies of an earthly kingdom of God will be fulfilled, and no one will doubt that Jesus is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Every nation, tribe, and tongue will bow to the King of the Jews (1 Timothy 6:14–16; Romans 14:11; Philippians 2:10; Revelation 5:9).