The initialism is an abbreviation of the Latin inscription Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, INRI meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”
Jesus Christ descended from His heavenly throne to become a humble servant on earth because of His unfathomable love for us. He became human for our sake. He loved us so much that He was willing to die a criminal’s death to pay the price for our sins.
The story of His crucifixion has become well-known throughout the centuries. Even artists use that story to become the highlight of their artworks. Many paintings, sculptures, and other artworks are inspired by the crucifixion of Jesus. If you’ve noticed, there would be a placard over the head of Jesus on the cross that says INRI.
Have you ever pondered about what INRI meant? Why was it hanging above Jesus’ head? What did it signify?
Meaning of INRI on the Cross
INRI is an abbreviation from the Latin words “IESVS NAZARENVS REX IVDÆORVM” (Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum), which translates “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” in English. (Latin uses “I” and “V” instead of the English “J” and “U”)
It was the charge Pontius Pilate placed upon Jesus. Pilate wrote it as a sign over his head on the cross.
The INRI inscription on the cross was written in three languages: Latin, Hebrew, and Greek. (John 19:20)
Latin was the Roman Empire’s official language. However, Hebrew and Greek were also common at that time. Jesus’ accuser intended to make his crime known to many people by writing it in three languages.
Origin of INRI
The initialism INRI were the charges against Jesus when he was crucified on the cross. It originated as an accusation. Later on, it became a definitive statement for the Lord Jesus. It played a significant role in making God’s redemptive story become a reality.
It’s also important to take note that the word INRI wasn’t exactly on the cross. It’s specifically said in John 19:20 that it read as “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” and written in 3 languages.
But, how did it become well-known as INRI?
Artists who prepared a crucifix thought it was a hassle to write the full inscription on the cross. It would be difficult for artists to write it in 3 languages as well. Viewers would likely lose their interest having to see such a long inscription.
So, they made an effort to adopt the first letters of each word of the Latin inscription as a Christian symbol. It’s more convenient to use INRI, and it’s a creative solution as well. It’s widely used in paintings or sculptures depicting the crucifixion of Jesus.
There is also an alternate form of INRI, which is INBI. The acronym INBI is the Greek Version of INRI, which reads Ἰησοῦς ὁ Ναζωραῖος ὁ βασιλεύς τῶν Ἰουδαίων.
In Eastern Christianity, the Eastern Orthodox Church uses mostly the Greek version INBI.
Biblical Reference of INRI
The Birth of Jesus
In the Gospel of Matthew, three wise men went to King Herod in Jerusalem to inquire and seek the newborn Jesus. These Biblical Magi referred to Jesus as the King of the Jews, which tremendously infuriated King Herod.
You can tell how disturbed and threatened King Herod felt. Even at the birth of Jesus, the title King of the Jews has already caused a great disturbance that resulted in the dramatic massacre of babies ordered by King Herod. (Matthew 2)
The Passion of Jesus
The usage of the title King of the Jews is also in the accounts of the Passion of Jesus.
Jesus confirmed his identity to Pilate as the King of the Jews in Mark 15:2. In John 18:33-37, Jesus elaborated the notion of his identity as King. He said that “my kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus was talking about his spiritual kingdom.
Significance of INRI
The Charge Against Jesus
The Romans enforced capital punishment on criminals through crucifixion. It was a custom to place a sign above the criminals’ heads with their crimes and names. It was a gruesome and appalling method to penalize criminals.
The charge Pontius Pilate put against Jesus was his claim as the King of the Jews. It wasn’t even a crime worth sacrificing a life, yet it was necessary for Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus had to go through it for God’s perfect plan to be fulfilled.
The title King of the Jews might not be life-threatening to some, but Pilate was a Governor of the Roman Province. Looking at it from Pilate’s point of view, he might have thought that the title “King of the Jews” could insinuate possible rebellion against the Roman Empire. But, we’ll talk more about Pontius Pilate later on in this article.
When they had decided on the charge against Jesus, they proceeded to make him suffer even more. Pilate prepared a sign to display over Jesus’ head on the cross. He gave Jesus the title “King of the Jews” and wrote it in three languages. (John 19:19-20)
However, the chief priests of the Jews did not accept Jesus as their King. They strongly protested to Pilate saying not to write “The King of the Jews” but that Jesus only claimed to be one. Nevertheless, Pilate was adamant about changing it and said, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:21-22)
Many people had long ago conspired against Jesus’ death. They were jealous of the growing popularity of the Messiah and planned to kill him several times. However, they had a hard time looking for a way to corner Jesus and find his Achilles heel.
The charge against Jesus might sound ridiculous to some, but it was the only crime they could surmise. Jesus was innocent and had no fault, but it was a significant build-up to reach a life-altering climax.
A lot of people at that time used the accusation against Jesus as a way to mock him. But now, he is genuinely worshiped throughout the world as the King of kings.
The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus
Crucifixion was a method used by Roman to punish criminals. It’s a process of nailing criminals on a wooden cross and hanging them until they die. It was the method they used to punish Jesus for being the “King of the Jews.” It’s an atrocious punishment that the innocent Jesus didn’t even deserve.
The Jewish leaders couldn’t find any fault in Jesus, so they attacked the teachings of Jesus instead. They considered it blasphemy and tried to put Jesus to death. The title King of the Jews was the charge Pontius Pilate gave to Jesus that resulted in his crucifixion and death.
Salvation of Mankind
Unfortunately, riches, fame, intelligence, beauty can’t save us from hell. Even our good deeds can’t save us. Isaiah 64:6 defines our righteous acts as “filthy rags.” It means our good works are not tickets to salvation! So, how can we escape eternal condemnation?
According to Ephesians 2:8, God’s unmerited favor towards us is the reason for our salvation. We cannot earn it because it is a gift from God. It’s not a result of our good works. We receive salvation when we receive God’s gift, which is Jesus Christ.
INRI played an integral part in the salvation of mankind. It might be an irrational charge against Jesus, but it was necessary for his death. It wasn’t Jesus’ crimes that were nailed on the cross, but ours. Jesus canceled our debt and nailed our sins on the cross. (Colossians 2:14)
Why Should You Know the Meaning of INRI?
Only a few Christians know the meaning of the initialism INRI. Not many people find it beneficial to understand its true meaning and backstory.
However, as believers of Christ, we should endeavor to know more about our Lord. We shouldn’t take things lightly and strive to search for things concerning him.
There might be some who have paintings in their homes about the crucifixion of Jesus. Some may have it as necklaces, sculptures, or other forms of art. Usually, you can find INRI on artworks like these. But, most people don’t know what they mean.
INRI isn’t just an inscription but a story that would significantly impact the world. It was the charge against Jesus that led him to his crucifixion. Jesus’ death ultimately resulted in the salvation of mankind.
Knowing the meaning of INRI means knowing the story behind Jesus’ death. Jesus was completely innocent, yet they needed a reason to crucify Him to make redemption possible. He was labeled as a criminal even when he did nothing wrong. He died for our sake when we were the ones who deserved it. We should be aware that Jesus suffered injustice, jeering scorns from the crowd, and died a horrible death all for our sake.
INRI and Pontius Pilate
Emperor Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate to be the Governor of the Roman Province of Judaea. Pontius Pilate was the man who wrote the INRI inscription over Jesus’ head on the cross (John 19:19). He was the man responsible for the decree to crucify Jesus.
Not many people understand why Pilate gave the order to crucify Jesus. But, there’s a lot of factors that influenced his decision.
Pontius Pilate did not have any qualms with Jesus at all. It was the Jewish leaders that pressured him into carrying out the order to execute Jesus.
According to the Bible, the Sanhedrin arrested Jesus and dragged him before Pilate. They accused Jesus of blasphemy for his teachings and claim as the King of the Jews. The jealous Sanhedrin knew their Jewish law would not allow them to sentence Jesus to die (John 18:31). So, these cunning chief priests dragged Jesus to Pilate instead.
However, it wasn’t as easy as the Sanhedrin thought. Pontius Pilate was diligent enough to do his duty and questioned Jesus. Pilate asked him if he was the King of the Jews and what he’s done to anger the Jewish leaders. He was decent enough to give Jesus a chance to explain himself. Jesus, on the other hand, explained that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36).
Pontius Pilate found no fault in Jesus, so he sent him to Herod. King Herod had jurisdiction in Jerusalem. However, even with Herod as the judge for Jesus’ crimes, he couldn’t find anything wrong with Jesus as well. (Luke 23:8-11)
Pilate had the power to free or crucify Jesus (John 19:10). But, he had to control the crowd and avoid a riot from happening. Jesus understood that Pilate was merely carrying out his duties. Pilate tried to release Jesus a couple of times but failed. There was a Jewish custom that allowed to set a prisoner free during Passover (John 18:39). Pontius Pilate used this opportunity to release Jesus. So, he asked the crowd who they want to set free, is it Jesus the King of the Jews or Barabbas the murderer?
Shockingly, the crowd wanted to release Barabbas instead of Jesus (John 18:40). People in their right mind might think it was unreasonable and ridiculous to choose Barabbas instead. Barabbas was the worst of the worst compared to Jesus who was completely innocent.
Pilate gave the order to crucify Jesus when he realized he couldn’t win against the crowd. However, he washed his hands with water saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
He did not want Jesus to die, but it was what the people wanted. (Matthew 27:24)
Pontius Pilate was the one who wrote the sign “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” over Jesus’ head on the cross. Even at this time, the Jewish leaders rejected the Messianic title given to Jesus. They highly opposed Pilate saying, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be King of the Jews.” But, Pilate did not change it. Ironically, the accusation against Jesus was the exact truth of who he is. (John 19:21-22)
INRI as a Christian Symbol
I’d like to reiterate that INRI was not the exact letters Pilate wrote on Jesus’ head. INRI is an abbreviation of the Latin inscription of what Pilate wrote.
Artists found a creative solution to shorten the inscription. They used the first letters of each word to create the acronym INRI. It’s more convenient to use in their artwork and more pleasing to the viewers. Imagine writing the whole inscription on a painting about the crucifixion of Jesus! Not only that, you need to write it in 3 languages. Nowadays, not everyone would understand Latin, Hebrew, and Greek.
INRI is a symbol associated with Christianity and typically displayed as a Christogram. It’s a monogram that forms an abbreviation for Jesus Christ.
There’s a significant backstory of INRI that tells us more about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It unravels some of the mysteries in the Bible and can be quite an eye-opener. INRI has a significant impact on Jesus and us. It was a necessary build-up for God’s thrilling redemption climax to happen.
It’s not merely an inscription that displays the accusations against Jesus, but it’s the truth about his identity. Jesus’ mockers used the title King of the Jews to scorn him. But, they were entirely unaware that it was a fulfillment of a divine prophecy.