Crown of thorns for the King of Kings
Crown of thorns for the King of Kings
It's almost Easter, but do you remember Christmas? We heard the joyous story that starts on the first page of the New Testament. Matthew 1:21: "Mary will give birth to a son, and … give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." Because he will save his people from their sins..
Sin is a terrible thing. We tend to think of sin as breaking rules about lying, stealing, killing, or committing adultery. Some of us are burdened by sins we have committed. Others laugh off sin as an old-fashioned notion that takes the fun out of life. But look at what sin can do: sin destroys marriages, cripples babies, triggers wars, and causes horrible pain. It is the moral decay that ultimately causes everything from cancer to corruption. It is the ultimate cause behind rape, incest, torture, bankruptcy, pollution, greed, and every other horrible experience in our world. While we have our good days and experiences, we also face heartache and pain. Read the newspaper reports. Watch a child suffer a painful death. Study the ravages of mental illness. It's all because we live in a sinful world.
The birth of Jesus was to save us all from sin. What a deal that would be. That would be the best gift God could give. But eliminating sin wouldn't be easy. Sin is powerful and hard to kill. It would require a supernatural war with high cost. It would take infinite suffering to fight and win against sin.
How this battle would work was predicted by Isaiah eight centuries before the first Christmas. It was not the pretty picture of a newborn in a manager. It was a vivid description of a Savior suffering for sin. The suffering would be so severe that it would appear subhuman: There were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness (Isaiah 52:14). Isaiah 53:5-6 reads, "He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all." This is old poetry—almost 3,000 years old—but it is extraordinary. It is the ancient prediction of what would happen to Jesus. It is the prophecy of Jesus suffering to save his people from their sins.
I can't fully explain how it all works. Somehow our human sin was placed on Jesus, and he suffered so that we could be saved. It's difficult for us to understand, but it's what God did for us. The anniversary of the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy is this month; it all came true on the day Christ died.
It happened like this: Jewish leaders envied Jesus and conspired to get him killed. They put political pressure on the Roman governor Pilate to order his crucifixion. Pilate didn't want to crucify Jesus, so he ordered a torturous beating instead.
Imagine yourself as one of the Roman soldiers. A Jewish prisoner is turned over to you. You strip off all his clothes in public so that he stands there completely naked. You stare at the naked 33-year-old preacher from Nazareth. Two of your colleagues shackle his hands to a post in the ground so that his back is bent over and rounded for an easy target. You pick up your favorite whip—it has a handle and long leather strips with pieces of metal imbedded every few inches. It is stained red with dried blood from the last time you beat a man. You reach back so you can strike hard and lash the whip on the victim's back as he jumps and cries in pain. You take a quick look to see how your first strike brought welts and cuts across his back. Then you change your angle so that the whip doesn't lash around to his abdomen but rips across his back like razors shredding a piece of meat. This time you've really done some damage, and your fellow soldiers give you a cheer for a good strike. Your adrenaline is flowing so you hit him again and again. His back is so covered with blood that you can no longer see where you've struck. You move to his legs. When his legs are shredded and bloodied, your colleagues turn him over to whip the front of the naked man.
Such beatings sometimes killed a man because he bled to death, though the soldiers wanted their victims to live to experience all of the pain. There were some victims whose minds snapped during the process, and they became instantly insane. Do you think you could torture a man in this way? I find it hard to imagine that I could.
With that background we come to this part of the story of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ: Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged.
Crowd against the Christ
Pilate's order to flog Jesus was given in the outdoor courtroom in front of the governor's residence. As strange as it sounds, I think the order may have been motivated by compassion. Pilate knew what flogging did to a man—he knew Jesus would be beaten raw. He planned to humiliate and mutilate Jesus and then bring Jesus back to the courtroom for display. He figured that when the crowd saw the pathetic prisoner, their thirst for blood would be satisfied and they would call off the crucifixion. The flogging could potentially save Jesus' life.
The soldiers weren't into nuanced politics or subtleties. They were given orders to beat some Jewish prisoner they had probably never heard of, and they were eager to carry out the command. The guards took Jesus inside to the Praetorium, the part of the governor's palace where the soldiers were headquartered. A military company could be as many as 600 men, but certainly not less than 200. It was a military crowd of every soldier available to watch the show. While it was all Jews shouting against Jesus outside the palace, it was all non-Jews torturing Jesus inside. Jews were the only men in the Roman Empire exempted by law from military service.
Everyone came to watch Jesus' beating—to stare at the naked bleeding man. For them it was a game.
Game of torture
There is an ancient building along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem where the "Game of the King" is etched on the floor. The prisoner was dressed up by the soldiers who rolled dice and moved the beaten man one space at a time like a piece on a Monopoly board. It was not so much physical torture as mockery and psychological humiliation—sick entertainment for sadistic Roman soldiers.
They put a scarlet robe over Jesus to look like the purple robe worn by royalty; it was probably a red robe from a Roman soldier's uniform. I know this is a small and comparatively insignificant detail, but I imagine the additional pain of a rough cloth on open wounds. When I've been sunburned on my shoulders, it is painful to wear a t-shirt—how much worse to be whipped and then covered with a tunic.
A soldier twisted a makeshift crown out of a vine with thorns. Artists have usually depicted the thorns pointed inward and pressed into Jesus skin, although it may well have been the other way around. Ancient royal crowns were made with metal rays like sunbeams pointed upward and outward; they may or may not have pierced his brow. Another soldier placed a wood staff in Jesus' right hand as if it were the royal scepter held by a king.
The game reached its peak when the soldiers pressed around Jesus to taunt him. Big, brave soldiers knelt and mockingly said, "Hail, king of the Jews!" Then they stood up to spit in his face. They grabbed the wood pole and slammed it hard on the top and sides of Jesus' head, like hitting a tree with a baseball bat. The crowd of hundreds of soldiers had a good time mocking Jesus for the fun of it.
Cruelty to crucifixion
Men were usually crucified completely naked, adding to the humiliation. The Jews, however, were offended by public nudity, so the soldiers put Jesus' own clothes back on his body.
The soldiers returned Jesus to Pilate who showed Jesus to the crowd and insisted he was innocent. The crowd was unimpressed by the torture inflicted and again shouted for crucifixion. Pilate eventually signed off, and the soldiers dragged Jesus to the usual crucifixion site outside the city wall.
Jesus had predicted his death by crucifixion for a long time. He knew it was coming. He went voluntarily. God had planned this from the beginning. How do we condemn those who tortured Jesus while insisting that it was God's plan in the first place? Have you ever had someone mistreat you and then found how God used it for good? Maybe someone fired you, but the experience led you to an even better job. Maybe a fiancé broke up with you, and that opened you to be married to someone a thousand times better for you. God used the sin and cruelty of Jesus' enemies to have Jesus die on the cross and atone for human sin. It does not excuse anyone's sinful motives or behavior; the soldiers were wrong for doing what they did! But God used their wrong for our good. It was the plan from before Jesus was born: "Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
Remember when I asked if you could torture a man the way they tortured Jesus? I told you that I don't think I could do it. The truth is I already did. It was my sin that did all this to Jesus—and yours. We did this to him. And he did this for us.
In his book Everybody's Normal Till You Get to Know Them, John Ortberg tells the story of a boy named John Gilbert who was diagnosed with Duchenne's Muscular Dystrophy when he was five years old. As his disease progressed, his disabilities multiplied—he couldn't run and then he couldn't walk and then he couldn't even speak. He died when he was 25. But there were good times in John Gilbert's short life as well. Once when he was invited to a fundraising auction. At the beginning he was attracted to a basketball signed by all the players on the Sacramento Kings. He really wanted that ball. When bidding began he raised his hand offering more money than he ever could have paid. His mother grabbed his hand and pulled it down. That was only the start. The bids skyrocketed higher and higher, way out of proportion to the other items up for sale. Finally, one bidder offered a price so outrageously high that everyone else just let him have it. The high bidder walked up front and claimed his very expensive basketball. Instead of returning to his seat, he went across the room and placed the ball into the hands of a young man who would never play the game. He gave it to John. Later, John Gilbert reflected on that moment: "It took me a moment to realize what the man had done. I remember hearing gasps all around the room, then thunderous applause and weeping eyes. To this day I'm amazed."
How about you? Have you ever received a gift you could never afford? Has anyone ever sacrificed outrageously just to give to you without any strings attached? Jesus did. Jesus suffered the whip and the cross to give us sinners salvation and eternal life.
Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.