Biblical Meaning of INRI on the Cross of Jesus Christ

All four Gospel accounts record an inscription placed on the cross above the head of Jesus Christ on Good Friday. What is the meaning of INRI? The Gospel of John tells us: 

Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, “Do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” Pilate answered, “What I have written I have written” (John 19:19-22).

Pontius Pilate ordered “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” be inscribed above Jesus’ head as He hung on the cross. But what is the meaning of INRI?

What Does INRI Mean?

Latin and Greek were the dominant languages of the Roman Empire. Consequently, Latin was used by the Roman government for administrative purposes wherever they ruled. 

The letters “INRI” come from the first letter of each word in Latin: “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum.” The English translation and meaning of INRI is “Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.” Naturally, the abbreviation INRI was a shorter inscription for the title of the cross.

Scripture is silent as to Pilate’s reasoning for choosing that phrase. Perhaps Pilate was fed up with the Jewish priests. They complicated Pilate’s duties with their elaborate religious rituals and laws. In this instance alone, Scripture eludes to the difficult relationship between Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders:

  • They made Pilate come out to them in the courtyard because entering his house would defile them.
  • They riled up the crowd to coerce Pilate to free Barabbas and execute Jesus after he had acquitted Him. 
  • Then they complained about the sign Pilate put at the top of Jesus’ cross. 

Frustration seems to ooze from Pilate’s actions. That being said, the Jews never asked to be governed by the Romans in the first place.

Related post: Top 10 Longest and Hardest Names in the Bible

Via Dolorosa

Who Was Pontius Pilate?

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Pilate was a Roman governor assigned in Judea in 26–36 AD. He served under the emperor Tiberius Caesar Augustus. Pontius Pilate presided at the final trial of Jesus and gave the order for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Pilate incurred the enmity of Jews by insulting their religious sensibilities. Pilate hung worship images of the emperor throughout Jerusalem and minted coins bearing Roman religious symbols. So he ordered the famous sign (knowing the meaning of INRI) to be placed over Jesus’ head. Talk about the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

Pilate was appointed prefect of Judaea through the intervention of Sejanus, a favorite of Tiberius. After Sejanus’s fall in 31 AD, Pilate was exposed to sharper criticism from certain Jews, who may have capitalized on his vulnerability to obtain a legal death sentence for Jesus.

Related post: What Does the Bible Teach About Having a Pure Heart?

philipi, greece

Why Were Jewish Leaders Upset by the Title?

The New Testament tells us that Pilate instructed that the word “INRI” be inscribed on a sign above the Lord Jesus. It was customary during the time of Jesus that the criminal’s name and an inscription of the charge be placed at the top of the cross. 

So Pilate ordered that Roman soldiers inscribe “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” above Jesus’ head in Hebrew (likely Aramaic), Greek, and Latin. Three languages so that Pilate got his point across.

The meaning of INRI was highly offensive to the Jewish leaders. They believed calling Jesus “King of the Jews” defiled the sacred name YHWH (the holiest name of the Lord God) by giving it to a mere mortal.

But Roman rule reigned, so that sign was placed above the crown of thorns over Jesus’ head. Little did Pilate know at the time that he got the name of the Sufferer exactly right.

Related post: The Lineage of Jacob and His Family in the Bible

The Lineage of Jacob

Did Jesus Ever Call Himself King?

Jesus never outright called Himself a king. The closest He came to it appears in John’s Gospel:

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:36-37).

That being said, Jesus did call Himself: Christ, Lord, Master, Son of God, Son of man, Son of David, Son of Joseph, the Word (logos), Lamb of God, Shepherd, and so many more. And He is all of them!

Related post: What is the Biblical Meaning of Restore and Renew?


Bottom Line

Regardless of what Pilate put on Jesus’ cross, Jesus is our Lord and Savior. He came to seek and save the lost. And that is ALL of us. 

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).

Before time began, when the heavens and earth were created, in the Garden of Eden, in the burning bush, throughout history, and into eternity, Jesus is our King of kings, Lord of lords, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father, Mighty God, and Wonderful Counselor (Isaiah 9:6). 

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About the Author

Donna is a sought-after speaker, multi-published author, and Bible teacher. Her path from unchurched to becoming passionate about sharing Jesus was difficult. Read about her God-breathed journey: “From Unchurched to Becoming a Multi-Published Author and Sought-After Speaker.” If you want to send Donna a quick message, visit her here.

donna snow

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Thursday Tidbit: Festival of Lights

My Nativity from Bethlehem carved from a single piece of olive wood.

Growing up in a traditional Jewish family, Jesus participated in the traditional Jewish festivals. One of those festivals was Hanukkah or the Festival of Lights.

Isn’t it fitting that the Light of the world celebrated the Festival of Lights?

We are drawn to light – we cannot help it. Light offers a point of reference when darkness threatens to swallow us whole. We gravitate toward light for illumination and warmth. As Christians, light represents hope and rescue us from eternal darkness.

Hanukkah is happening as we speak (November 28-December 6, 2021). Since Hanukkah means dedication, it is also called the Festival of Dedication. It commemorates the Jewish victory by the Maccabees in 165 B.C. over the Syrians to regain political and religious freedom.

Hanukkah is also referred to as the Festival of Lights because the sacred temple lamp is said to have burned eight days on one day’s supply of sacred oil, all that was left. The menorah, a special nine-branch candleholder, is lit today on each of the eight days of celebration.

The menorah is also described in Exodus 25:31-40 as the lampstand made of pure gold set up by Moses in the tabernacle in the wilderness, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Lutheran Church in Tel Aviv contains a stunning menorah in its stained glass.

There is no reference in the Old Testament to Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication, or the Festival of Lights. It happened during the 400 years of God’s silence between the Old and New Testaments.

However, in the New Testament: “Then came the Feast of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade” (John 10:22-23).

The Light of the world strolling near the temple during the Festival of Lights paints a beautiful, meaningful portrait. Seven centuries before Jesus walked along that colonnade, Isaiah foretold: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shown” (Isaiah 9:2).

Just think of how many people strolled past the Light of the world clueless about His true identity.

Just as the lights of Hanukkah, Advent, and Christmas overcome darkness, so the darkness of this world is overcome by our Messiah, Jesus Christ, who said, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Jesus honored the Jewish feast of Hanukkah as a tradition that showcased God’s faithfulness in preserving His people. Jesus knew that celebrations matter. Remember the wedding in Cana? And even though Hanukkah, Advent, Christmas, nor Easter are celebrations commanded by Scripture, they invite us to pause our crazy days. To remember God’s grace. To spend meaningful time with each other.

Regardless of any darkness you and I face in our world today, inner peace prevails because of the Light of the world. So, whether you light a menorah, an Advent wreath, or a Christmas tree, remember the reason for the celebration:

For to us a child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).

*A special thanks to Rev. Kevin Parviz whose material provided the facts for this post.