Hail, King of the Jews!
‘Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole garrison around Him’ (Matt. 27:27).
Word quickly gets round that ‘the prisoner’ is here, and no ordinary prisoner – this one’s the king of the Jews. Can we see the scene? Jesus is completely alone and yet surrounded by the whole Roman garrison, literally a ‘cohort’ of 600 men. We have witnessed it in the playground, the one child bullied by the many. We have seen it on the screen, an angry mob attacking the police. But these men are neither children nor the mob. These are the most powerful and disciplined soldiers of the ancient world, the Roman Army. Their very presence would intimidate us. They are disciplined and yet out of control and so begins an hour of terrifying entertainment. The odds are 600-1 and as they close around Jesus, no one is coming to rescue Him. He is utterly alone and vulnerable.
The Romans were an occupying force. They had nothing but contempt for the Jews and now here in their keeping is the ‘King of the Jews’. So if He’s a king, He must be clothed in scarlet; ‘they stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him’. If He’s a king then He must have a symbol of His authority, so they put a reed in His hand. If He’s a king then they will pledge their loyalty; ‘they bowed the knee before Him and mocked Him saying “Hail, King of the Jews!”’. The king receives no kiss of devotion and surrender, on the contrary ‘they spat on Him and took the reed and struck Him on the head’. And if He’s a king He must wear a crown; ‘and when they had twisted a crown of thorns, they put it on His head’ (see Matt. 27:28-30).
Can we see Him?
It is all very theatrical. They strip Him of His own clothes and dress Him up as the ‘carnival king’, the royal fool. And having transformed Jesus into a clown they blend their laughter with spitting and violence. The reed which Jesus holds is not some feathery grass from an ornamental pond. It is a thick stemmed woody reed, not unlike a garden cane, and with it they cane Jesus around the head. We witness fallen human nature in the raw. The presence of Jesus brings a whole new dimension to their cruelty and sin. The brightness of His holiness casts a light into their hearts and ours. If this is what sinners are capable of, it is what we are capable of. All of us have stood in that circle scorning the Lord’s Christ, and but for God’s grace we would still be there.
That face which once was bright as morn is now bruised and bleeding and dripping with spittle. Isaiah tells us that His face ‘was marred more than any man’ (Is. 52:14). Jesus’ agonies are unique. They are in a class of their own. So extreme have Jesus’ sufferings been, His appearance so disfigured, that upon seeing Him people are shocked and astonished. The question upon their lips is not ‘is this Jesus?’ but ‘is this a man?’. He is no longer recognisable as a human being. The face of the Son of God tells a story of unspeakable suffering and we have yet to come to the place of crucifixion.
Jesus is not just surrounded by the garrison, but by a sea of sorrows and huge waves of grief cast their salty spray into His face. Soon these mighty waves and billows will roll over Him and engulf Him altogether. ‘And when they had mocked Him, they took the robe off Him, put His own clothes on Him, and led Him away to be crucified’ (Matt. 27:30).
Crowned with thorns
Genesis 3:18 reminds us that thorns are a symbol of God’s curse. So Jesus’ head is wreathed with the symbol of the curse. The symbolism is stunning. If human hands place upon His head an emblem of the curse it is because an invisible hand, the hand of the Father, places upon His Son the actual curse. God’s sentence of destruction upon the sinner now falls on Jesus’ head.
Isn’t that why He stands alone and shamed, the object of contempt? Isn’t that why He no longer looks human? Soon He will be taken outside the Holy City to be crucified, fit only for the rubbish heap where He will burn under God’s infinite wrath. After all, isn’t that what you do with thorns – burn them? Jesus has now become the focus of God’s curse and in His body and soul the curse will be exhausted.
The sight of Jesus crowned with thorns is at once both horrific and wonderful. Jesus is the King. As Frederick Leahy comments:
In the crown of His deity alone, Christ could only say to a dying thief, ‘be thou accursed’; but in the crown of thorns He can say, ‘This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise’. In the crown of His deity alone, He can only say to a Magdalene or a tax collector, ‘Depart from me’; but in the crown of thorns He can say ‘Go in peace, your sins are forgiven you.
It is in wearing the crown of thorns that He redeems us from the curse and crowns us with loving-kindness and tender mercies. His sorrows win for us everlasting joy. Truly His name is wonderful.
So what shall we say to all this?
Andrew Bonar wrote – ‘The cross was the breaking of God’s alabaster box, the fragrance of which has filled heaven and earth’. Christian friends, let us draw ever nearer and let the perfume of His love fill our hearts and lives. We so often complicate the Christian life. In its simplicity, it is loving Christ above all others and pleasing Him above all others. This is authentic Christianity. We would not find it half so hard nor mind the sharpness of bearing our cross behind Him, if we spent more time dwelling on what He has done for us. ‘Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us’ (Gal. 3:13). Is it asking so very much to put ourselves out for Him?
Thou, Lord, hast borne for me,
more than my tongue can tell
of bitterest agony,
to rescue me from hell:
Thou suffer’dst all for me;
What have I borne for Thee?
Gerard Hemmings is the minister of Amyand Park Chapel, Twickenham.