If you look at a crucifix, you will notice the words INRI inscribed above the crucified statue of Jesus. Most Christians understand crucifixion because it was through the death of Jesus on the cross that the church was born. Jesus, who is described as the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, had to be crucified on the cross in order to take the sins of the world. As clear as the picture of the crucifixion may be, the inscription INRI may be confusing.
So what does inri mean?
INRI is an acronym for the Latin phrase “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum,” which loosely translates to “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” this phrase was actually written on the real cross of Jesus and pinned above his head as recorded in the gospels. According to the Gospel of John, this inscription was written in three languages – Latin, Aramaic, and Greek
By the time the early church formed, they adopted Latin as their main liturgical language. This was for two reasons. First, Latin was the official language of the roman empire and secondly, Greek and Aramaic were only spoken by the Jewish people. Thanks to the ministry of Paul, the gospel spread to the Gentiles was the best way to avoid communication barriers. Even today, some liturgical books are still in their original Latin language.
INRI meaning in the Bible
Before we look at the implications of INRI in the Bible, let’s first take a look at the specific scriptures where it was mentioned. As you may have guessed, INRI can be found in the gospels. It is worth noting that the four gospels all narrate the story of Jesus but from different perspectives. As such, there are some stories and parables which are not recorded by all gospels. A great example is the story of Jesus walking on water which is recorded in Matthew, Luke, and John but is not recorded in Luke. Another example is the miracle of the multiplication of bread and fish. All four gospels document the first miracle of multiplication of bread while only Matthew and Luke document the second instance. With this in mind, it is interesting to note that INRI appears in all four gospels. This can only mean that all four apostles considered it significant in their account of the crucifixion
Above his head they placed the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. Mathew 27:37
“The written notice of the charge against him read: the king of the Jews. Mark 15:26
“There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the Jews. Luke 23:38
“Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek.” John 19:19-20
As we can see, only the account of John gives the complete inscription. He also goes ahead to explain that the inscription was translated into three languages. So what does the inscription INRI mean? There are three possibilities
Crucifixion was standard practice in the Roman Empire. It was reserved for the worst of offenders e.g. murderers. The offender was crucified publicly as a deterrent for the rest of the people. In addition, it was standard practice to pin the crime for which they were crucified on the cross. When Pilate was hearing the case leveled against Jesus, it was clear that he was an innocent man who was not worthy of death. But because the crowds were demanding it, Pilate gave in. Since none of the charges brought against Jesus had stuck, the accusation that he claimed to be the King of Jews was picked. Leading an insurrection against the king was a capital offense so it fit nicely.
INRI can also be seen as the final act of ridicule against Jesus by his accusers. They had spat on him (Mark 14:65), blindfolded and roughed him up while mocking him to prophesy who had hit him (Luke 22:63), and dressed him in purple (a color of royalty) to mock his kingship. Now that they believed they had finally subdued him on the cross, they finally wrote the words ”Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” It can be seen as a mockery because kings were typically not crucified. The INRI statement was therefore a way of mocking his assertion of kingship.
Proclamation of divinity
Even though the centurion servants looked at the INRI inscription as a mockery, they were unknowingly proclaiming the divinity of Christ. By calling him the king of Jews, they were confirming his role as the Messiah that the prophets had spoken about. Israelites had been waiting for the promised Messiah but they had thought the messiah would be a political leader. This is because traditionally, God had used political leaders to deliver them. So, even though they thought it was an action of mockery, they were actually unknowingly proclaiming him as the Messiah.
Unbeknownst to the Jewish leaders, they were confirming what had been spoken by the prophets. For instance, the prophet Micah prophesied that the Messiah would come from the city of David (Bethlehem) and that this Messiah would not only be the ruler (king) of the Jews but his ancestor would be from the old days (Micah 5:2). INRI can, therefore, be said to be the fulfillment of this and many such prophecies from the Old Testament.
To sum it up, adding INRI on the cross was an important event in Christian theology. INRI tells the story of the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross and it was also a way of identifying him as the long-awaited Messiah. This acronym can continue to preach the message of the cross to the present and future generations.