Pilate, the Roman Governor of Judea, the authority over the province, the mouth and hands of Caesar, allowed himself to be manipulated by the local authorities, the Jewish religious leaders, and crucified an innocent man. He had determined Jesus was innocent of any crime deserving death. After interviewing Jesus, during the “trial” he may have concluded Jesus was insane for the condemned man admitted being a king. This was one of the blasphemous statements Jesus was accused of by the religious leaders. They declared Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews and the absolute authority of God over His people. Jesus never denied this accusation but declared his kingdom was of another place. I can see Pilate rolling his eyes as he hears Jesus, a ragged, beaten, abused man rebuke him and his authority by declaring himself a higher authority.
Pilate crucified Jesus between two criminals, suggesting he was the leader of a band of outlaws. Over Jesus’ head Pilate posted a sign, the charges against Jesus which led to his execution. This is normal. Over the heads of the criminals may have hung a sign which said “murderer” or “thief” or “rebel.” Over Jesus’ head hung the sign “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” [John 19:19 ESV; see Matthew 27:37, Mark 15:26, Luke 23:38]. This galled the Jewish religious leaders. This inscription was written in three languages, Aramaic, Latin and Greek. Everyone who walked by, for the place of execution was near the city with people constantly traveling the road. “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” [John 19:20 ESV]. Hanging on a cross, swelling from the beatings and bruising Jesus may have been close to unrecognizable. For Pilate to hang this inscription over Jesus, the condemned and almost dead man, was an act of mockery. Pilate mocked the Jewish religious leaders and the man himself, thinking they were worthless and Jesus a lunatic. Pilate was finished being manipulated by them and rebuked by him. Their complaint “do not write, ‘The King of the Jews,’ but rather, ‘This man said, I am King of the Jews'” [John 19:21 ESV] fell on uncaring ears. Pilate’s answer “what I have written I have written” [John 19:22 ESV] put an end to their argument. They would have to be content with knowing Jesus would be dead soon.
After they finished attaching Jesus to the cross, raised it into place, and crucified the other two beside him Jesus whispered a request but not to them. His statement is consistent with his personality as heard in his words and seen in his actions. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34 ESV]. To whom was Jesus referring? Was he referring to the Roman guard, his executioners? They were just following orders. But, they were cruel in the execution of these tasks having grown callused and unfeeling to those they were ordered to kill. These were the same who mocked him before and after the scourging. Was he referring to Pilate? He was the one who conducted Jesus’ trial, determined he was innocent and had him crucified anyway. He gave the orders to the Roman guard who fulfilled the task given. They all knew they were executing an innocent man.
Perhaps Jesus was referring to the Jewish religious leaders. They were the ones who determined months earlier Jesus would have to die. They were the ones who understood the law, were experts in the law, yet threw the law aside when it interfered with their judgment against Jesus. They knew they were having Pilate murder and innocent man. Perhaps Jesus was referring to all those who heaped abuse upon him while he hung on the cross. Perhaps Jesus was referring to any who reject him.
For now, we will assume Jesus was referring to the immediate circumstance. He was speaking of those who actually crucified him. It would seem his words had no effect upon them. They still divided his clothes and stayed to make sure he died. Nothing he could say to them would compel them to bring him down from the cross and he knew this. His executioners were simply tools who did not want the same thing to happen to them.
Jesus’ words assume several facts. First, there is a God and he listens to Jesus. Second, there is a law which God upholds and against which all are held accountable, including Jesus. According to the Jewish leaders Jesus deserved death because he was deceiving the people claiming to be a king, the ultimate authority over the Jews. According to Pilate, Jesus was insane because he claimed to be a king whose geography included spiritual places unencumbered by physical boundaries. Being a lunatic is not against the Roman law and he was innocent of any crime deserving death. Jesus had done nothing deserving being nailed to a cross. He had done nothing deserving death. He, powerless and abandoned, had the audacity to ask forgiveness for those who ignorantly put him to death “for they know not what they do” [Luke 23:34 ESV]. Are these the words of someone truly deluded? Or are they the words of a man who knows what is happening and what the ultimate outcome will be? All of the evidence says he will die. All of the evidence says he will live again. There is more to his death, and his resurrection, than meets the eye.