The first gospel tract
The dictionary defines a tract as ‘a short treatise or pamphlet, especially on a religious subject’. Over the years I have both given and received many Christian tracts.
Did you know that the first Christian tract was written by a non-Christian? The first Christian tract was written by Pontius Pilate, the infamous governor of Judea at the time of Christ’s crucifixion.
When the Lord Jesus was nailed to the cross, John 19:19 tells us that ‘Pilate … wrote a title and put it on the cross. It read JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS’. John tells us further that this ‘was written in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek’.
Hebrew was the sacred language of Scripture and the synagogue, Latin the language of the Romans who had the rule over Israel, and Greek the universal, everyday language of the Graeco-Roman Empire of that time.
The trilingual tract was thus universally understandable. Pilate drew attention — albeit inadvertently — to the Saviour of the universe. Some years later, John wrote: ‘We have seen and testify that the Father has sent his son as the Saviour of the world’ (1 John 4:14).
One of the thieves crucified with the Lord Jesus read Pilate’s tract and was saved. A king implies a kingdom. Turning to King Jesus, he begged him for mercy, that he would receive him into his kingdom. And Jesus did so.
Later that day, that crucified criminal was actually with the Saviour in paradise. His journey from the gallows to the glory is inexplicable if salvation is not solely by the grace of God, through Christ.
All four Gospel writers mention Pilate’s ‘first gospel tract’. If we put the references all together, we see that in full it read: ‘THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS’ (Matthew 27:37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). From these words we notice the following.
‘THIS IS JESUS’. At the heart of the Christian faith lies a person — a historical person, yet a person who transcends history.
We refer to the person of Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who ‘for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate’ (Nicene creed).
The name ‘Jesus’ means ‘Saviour’, so we see that the person and work of Christ are intimately and inextricably bound. ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21).
And it was on the cross, under this first gospel tract, that Jesus actually procured the salvation of his people: for as Peter explains: ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24).
Pilate’s tract enunciates ‘THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH’. Nazareth is a town in northern Israel. This reminds us of the historicity of the gospel. Nazareth can be found on the map and visited to this day. The gospel is concerned with real events in time and space.
Nazareth was the place of Jesus’ conception and upbringing. Yet Nazareth was a despised place. A popular proverb went: ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:46).
Jesus too was ‘despised and rejected by men’ (Isaiah 53:3). This rejection culminated in his crucifixion, when he was rejected and forsaken by God the Father, as he bore his people’s sin and condemnation.
Yet his rejection wrought the believer’s reconciliation; his death wrought our eternal life; his divine condemnation wrought the believer’s divine justification.
The tract which Pilate penned calls Jesus ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS’. Pilate’s knowledge of Scripture is uncertain, but, on the authority of the Bible, we can state that Jesus’ kingship is a facet of his being the Messiah.
As the Messiah he combines the threefold office of prophet, priest and king in his one person. Paradoxically then, here we have a crucified King — one who conquered by seemingly being conquered.
Fulfill’d is now what David
In true prophetic song of
How God the heathen’s
King should be
For God is reigning from the
Upon its arms, like balance
He weigh’d the price for
The price which none but he
And spoil’d the spoiler of
J. M. Neale
The weakness and poverty of Calvary is, paradoxically, the power of God for salvation, which bestows on the believer the eternal riches of divine redemption. Jesus is indeed ‘THE KING OF THE JEWS’.
More so, the Bible describes him as the ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ (Revelation 19:16), to whom one day every knee shall bow.
So Pilate, without realising it, gave the world the first of many gospel tracts. He drew attention to Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, crucified and crowned.
All true gospel tracts and true gospel preaching seek to do the same. ‘We preach Christ crucified … the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).
There is life for a look at the
There is life at this moment
Then look, sinner, look unto
him and be saved,
Unto him who was nailed on