“Then he released for them Barabbas, & having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, & they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him & put a scarlet robe on him, & twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head & put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ & they spit on him & took the reed & struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe & put his own clothes on him & led him away to crucify him. As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross” (Matthew 27:26-32).
Today is the first day of what is typically called Holy Week. My aim is not to recount the events leading up to our Lord’s arrest, but to portray his suffering that culminated on the cross. I hope you’ll return each day to consider the remarkable sacrifice Jesus made for hell-deserving sinners like you & me.
Here in we find a brief, but vivid, portrayal of the brutalization of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. In these few verses are found 7 terse, but poignant, statements that describe his treatment at the hands of his accusers.
Anyone who saw Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, will inevitably read the following portrayal of our Lord’s suffering in a new light. It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid visualizing what he endured. Some objected to Gibson’s film precisely on those grounds, arguing that we should be content with the verbal description that has come to us by inspiration. Each person must decide.
The first of the seven shocking sins is seen in the scourging of Jesus (v. 26).
William Lane’s description of what happened confirms in large measure the portrayal rendered in Gibson’s film:
A Roman scourging was a terrifying punishment. The delinquent was stripped, bound to a post or a pillar, or sometimes simply thrown to [the] ground, & was beaten by a number of guards until his flesh hung in bleeding shreds. The instrument indicated by the Marcan text [Mark’s gospel], the dreaded flagellum, was a scourge consisting of leather thongs plaited with several pieces of bone or lead so as to form a chain. No maximum number of strokes was prescribed by Roman law [unlike Jewish law that kept it to 39], & men condemned to flagellation frequently collapsed & died from the flogging. Josephus records that he himself had some of his opponents in Galilee scourged until their entrails were visible . . . while the procurator Albinus had the prophet Jesus bar Hanan scourged until his bones lay visible.”
Some have suggested that Pilate’s decision to scourge Jesus was an act of mercy. Perhaps he hoped the Jews would take note of the severity of the scourge & consider it sufficient, making it possible for Jesus to avoid death by crucifixion. Or perhaps Pilate hoped Jesus would die from the scourging & thus be spared the horror of crucifixion. Far more likely, however, is that this was an act of calloused cruelty by a sadistic & heartless ruler.
The second shocking sin occurred when they put a scarlet robe on him (vv. 27-28).
This was obviously in mock imitation of the robe which was the insignia of the vassal kings of the day. Whereas some have suggested it was the short red cloak worn by Roman soldiers, it was more likely some shabby rug or faded cloak. Why “scarlet”? Perhaps the answer comes from Isaiah 1:18 – “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Thus, as the soldiers clothed Jesus in a scarlet robe, Jesus clothed himself in the scarlet sins of the world.
This particular sin consists in more than merely “putting” a robe on our Lord. The verb used here (endidusko) occurs elsewhere only in Luke 16:19 & suggests the act of grandly dressing up, thereby heightening the mockery of Jesus. The Roman military was intentionally putting on a show in order to magnify their disdain & contempt for our Lord.
Third, they put a crown of thorns on his head (v. 29).
In the ancient world the crown was a sign of life and fruitfulness. The Roman victor’s crown was a bent twig or perhaps two twigs tied together. Often a single wreath of grass or often one made of gentle flowers & leaves was used that it might caress the brow of the one whom it honored. Those who held national office wore crowns as a sign of their dignity & respect. Thus the action of the soldiers was another way in which they reviled him. It was a mocking, scornful imitation of the royal crown worn by the rulers of Rome. Worse still, it was designed to intensify his pain. It was an act of both scorn & sadism.
James Stalker says this of the crown of thorns:
When Adam & Eve were driven from the garden into the bleak &toilsome world, their doom was that the ground should bring forth to them thorns &thistles. Thorns were the sign of the curse; that is, of their banishment from God’s presence & of all the sad & painful consequences following therefrom. . . . In a word, it [the crown of thorns] symbolizes the curse; & as he lifted it on his own head, he took it off the world. He bore our sins & carried our sorrows.
Although it may seem rather innocuous, the fourth of these seven shocking sins occurred when they placed a reed for a scepter in his hand (v. 29).
The reed was again an instrument of mockery, for the monarch’s scepter was a symbol of his authority & power. Thus, the point of the robe, the crown, & the reed was to portray Jesus as a caricature of the kings with which they were familiar. After all, had not Jesus claimed to be a king? Knowing this, they scornfully & sarcastically decked him out as the king he claimed to be, & made him an object of ridicule. Clearly, then, the soldiers treated Jesus this way because he did not live up to their expectations of what a king should be.
Only Matthew tells us that they actually put the reed in his hand, again mocking his claim to be a king who rules with a rod of authority. They undoubtedly beat him on the head in order that with each blow the thorns might dig deeper & more painfully into his scalp.
Fifth, they knelt before him & mocked him (v. 29)
This was yet another illustration of human depravity as they pretend to recognize his regal claim. The cry, “Hail, King of the Jews!” corresponds formally to the Roman acclamation, “Hail, Caesar!” while the bending of the knee & paying homage parodied what was required of all in the presence of a ruler of Rome.
Their derisive mocking of this expression of submission to him, calls to mind what Paul says will quite literally occur on the day of final judgment (see Philippians 2:9-11). All will bend the knee & bow down & declare him truly to be Lord. Some will do so joyfully & with deep delight. Others will be forced to their knees and compelled to acknowledge what they, during this life, denied.
That Jesus was blindfolded, hit, & asked to identify his attacker (Matt. 26:67-68) was based on a Jewish test by which the Messiah was to be revealed (see Isaiah 11:2-4). Since it was believed that the Messiah will use neither eyes nor ears, he must judge by the sense of smell. Thus, this treatment of Jesus is but another taunt based on his claim to be the Messiah: “If you are truly who you claim to be, you should be able to identify your attacker without seeing him!”
And to all this he willingly yielded, out of love for his own!
If there were a way to avoid talking of this sixth shocking sin, I would seize the opportunity to remain silent. I find it painfully difficult even to write these next words: they spit on him (v. 30).
Spitting on someone & the inflicting of blows were conventional gestures of rejection & humiliation (cf. Job 30:10; Num. 12:14; Deut. 25:9; Isa. 50:6). Throughout Jewish history, people would go to Absalom’s tomb in the Kedron valley outside Jerusalem & repeatedly spit on it as an expression of their disdain for Absalom’s treatment & betrayal of his father King David.
“Be astonished, O heavens, and be horribly afraid,” said Spurgeon. “His face is the light of the universe, his person is the glory of heaven, and they ‘began to spit on him!’ Alas, my God, that man should be so base!”
One almost hesitates to comment at all on such an inconceivable & despicable act as spitting in the face of the Son of Man. William Hendriksen explains:
“The face which these underlings — with the wholehearted permission & co-operation of their utterly selfish, sadistic, & envious superiors — now covered with their spittle was the one that had smiled upon large throngs of people whom he instructed to love even their enemies. It was the face which used to break into a smile at the approach of a child. It had been in the habit of beaming graciously upon publicans who became penitents. It could glow with righteous indignation when the Father’s house was being desecrated, or when the widow’s rights were violated, her needs ignored. In days gone by, it had become overspread with gladness when something good could be said about a friend. Above all, it was the face that mirrored the heart of the heavenly Father in all his holiness, displeasure with sin, & — last but not least — love & tenderness. It was into this face that these men were spitting! Surely, unless by the miracle of God’s grace they should still repent, they would, on this day of the ultimate fulfillment of the prophecy (26:64) of him who was now a prisoner, be saying to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us & hide us from the face of the One who sits on the throne & from the wrath of the Lamb” (Rev. 6:16; emphasis mine).
It is inconceivable that it could have happened once, but from Matthew 26:67 we know that it happened twice! Literally, it says “they kept spitting [repeatedly] on him.” This may be a parody on the kiss of homage which was customary in the ancient world. They may have said to themselves, “This so-called king of the Jews isn’t deserving of the kiss of homage & respect, but only fit to be the target of vile spitting!” (See Psalm 2:12).
Spurgeon’s comments strike deeply:
“I do not know how you feel in listening to me, but while I am speaking I feel as language ought scarcely to touch such a theme as this: it is too feeble for its task. I want you to get beyond my words if you can, & for yourselves meditate upon the fact that he who covers the heavens with blackness, yet did not cover his own face, & he who binds up the universe with the girdle which holds it in one, yet was bound & blindfolded by the men he had himself made; he whose face is as the brightness of the sun that shineth in its strength was once spit upon. Surely we shall need faith in heaven to believe this wondrous fact. Can it have been true, that the glorious Son of God was jeered & jested at?
I have often heard that there is no faith lacking in heaven, but I rather judge that we shall need as much faith to believe that these things were ever done as the partriarchs had to believe that they would be done. How shall I sit down & gaze upon Him & think that his dear face was once profaned with spittle? When all heaven shall lie prostrate at his feet in awful silence of adoration will it seem possible that once he was mocked? When angels, & principalities, & powers shall all be roused to rapture of harmonious music in his praise, will it seem possible that once the most abject of men plucked out the hair? Will it not appear incredible that those sacred hands, which are ‘as gold rings set with the beryl,’ were once nailed to a gibbet, & that those cheeks which are ‘as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers,’ should have been battered & bruised? We shall be quite certain of the fact, & yet we shall never cease to wonder, that his side was gashed, & his face was spit upon?
The sin of man in this instance will always amaze us. How could you commit this crime? Oh, ye sons of men, how could ye treat such a one with cruel scorn? O thou brazen thing called sin. Thou hast, indeed, as the prophet saith, ‘A whore’s forehead’; thou hast a demon’s heart, hell burns within thee. Why couldst thou not spit upon earthly splendours? Why must heaven be thy scorn? Or if heaven, why not spit on angels: was there no place for thy base deed but the well-beloved’s face? Was there no place for thy spittle but his face? His face! Woe is me! His face! Should such loveliness receive such shame as this? I could wish that man had never been created, or that, being created, he had been swept into nothingness rather than have lived to commit such horror” (emphasis mine).
The seventh and final shocking sin is, of course, the crucifixion itself (vv. 31-32).
Normally the victim was forced to walk naked to the place of crucifixion and was scourged along the way. But since Jesus had already been scourged this custom was abandoned. If it had been repeated, Jesus may well have died before reaching Calvary.
Custom also required that the victim carry the cross-beam on which he would be nailed. It weighed between 30 and 40 pounds. But it was physically impossible for Jesus to do so. Following the emotionally tense atmosphere in the upper room, the agonies of Gethsemane, the betrayal by Judas, the denial by Peter, the trial and torture by the Sanhedrin, several hours in a filthy dungeon, another trial by Pilate and Herod, the ordeal of being scourged, and the abuse from the soldiers, it comes as no surprise that Jesus was incapable of carrying the beam.
Simon was probably a Jewish pilgrim who had journeyed to Jerusalem for Passover. He was from Cyrene, the equivalent of modern Libya. There is an important lesson for us in his role.
In seeing Simon carrying the cross of Jesus to Calvary we ought to see ourselves carrying the cross we justly deserved to our own Calvary. It is we who escorted Jesus to Calvary and nailed him to our cross. Might we not imagine ourselves in Simon’s place, bearing that heavy load to Calvary, not knowing if the soldiers might decide to impale our bodies to it as well, only then to hear the voice of Jesus say: “Give it here friend; it is for me to suffer thereon, not you.”
Let us never forget who this is that suffers such brutal treatment from the hands of men like you and me. Let us never forget the intrinsic excellency of his person and the brightness of God’s glory which he embodied. Jesus is the express image of the invisible God, sovereign over all, the eternal Word by whom all things were created and through whom all things are continually sustained. He is the heir of all things, the prince and king of all princes and kings. He is pre-existent glory, worshipped and adored by cherubim and seraphim. “Yet here He sits, treated worse than a felon, made the center of a comedy before He became the victim of a tragedy” (Spurgeon).
We must never forget that “at the very time when they were thus mocking Him, He was still the Lord of all, and could have summoned twelve legions of angels to His rescue. There was majesty in His misery . . . . [and] had he willed it, one glance of those eyes would have withered up the Roman cohorts; one word from those silent lips would have shaken Pilate’s palace from roof to foundation” (Spurgeon). But he said nothing. He did nothing. Why? Because of his love for you and me!
We must be careful that we do not commit a similar offense against him by our hypocritical professions of love and loyalty. We are guilty of this when we “pretend” to be his disciples and loudly proclaim our allegiance, yet care for him no more than did the soldiers. Says Spurgeon,
“Oh, if your hearts are not right within you, you have only crowned him with thorns; if you have not given him your very soul, you have in awful mockery thrust a sceptre of reed into his hand. Your very religion mocks him. Your lying professions mock him. . . . You insult him on your knees! How can you say you love him, when your hearts are not with him? If you have never believed in him, and repented of sin, and yielded obedience to his command, if you do not own him in your daily life to be both Lord and King, I charge you [to] lay down the profession which is so dishonouring to him. If he be God, serve him; if he be King, obey him; if he be neither, then do not profess to be Christians. Be honest and bring no crown if you do not accept him as King.”
But the mocking and reviling did not stop with that. It continued as they nailed him to the cross.
We have finally arrived at Golgotha where our Lord is nailed to a cross. There “they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it” (Matthew 27:33-34). This has been interpreted in two different ways.
The traditional view is that it was customary for Jewish women to provide a narcotic drink to those condemned in order to deaden their sensitivity to the pain of crucifixion (see Prov. 31:6-7). If so, then Jesus’ unwillingness to drink reflects his determination to endure with complete consciousness the agonies of the cross and the Father’s wrath.
Others argue that this was not an act of compassion on the part of the women but an act of cruelty and torment on the part of the soldiers (“they” refers to the soldiers). The mixture was designed to make the wine undrinkable and extremely bitter. Thus the soldiers teased Jesus under the pretense of giving him good wine. Their real purpose was to aggravate his agony and humiliation.
One would think that Jesus had been subjected to enough public humiliation, yet we read in vv. 39-40 that “those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, ‘You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross’” (see Psalm 22:6-8).
Crucifixion was purposely public in order to deter others and especially to add to the humiliation of the victim by exposing him to the taunts of passersby. With expressions of malicious glee, they sadistically mock him and take delight in his pain.
The second taunt (“if you are the Son of God”) not only reminds us of his trial (Matt. 26:63), but for readers of Matthew’s gospel it recalls a striking parallel when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness:
“And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (Matt. 4:3). And again, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down [from the pinnacle of the temple], for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matt. 4:6).
As D. A. Carson has noted, “through the passersby Satan was still trying to get Jesus to evade the Father’s will and avoid further suffering” (576).
“So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, “I am the Son of God”’” (Matt. 27:41-43).
Evidently they did not address Jesus directly but spoke among themselves in the sort of whisper that one intends to be overheard by the object of one’s scorn.
“He saved others” is probably a reference to his healing ministry. There is a double meaning here. In the sense in which the Jewish leaders meant it, they were obviously wrong. He who healed others and raised the dead could certainly have saved himself. And yet, on the other hand, if he is to accomplish that redemptive work for which he went to the cross, he cannot save himself. He must yield himself up to crucifixion.
Do we not all, at times, measure God’s power by what we see? We think that what God does not do, he cannot do. But here we see that he does not save himself, not because he cannot, but simply in order that by not saving himself he might save us.
The challenge to come down from the cross has several levels of meaning: (1) It is yet one more malicious mockery of Jesus’ apparent helplessness. (2) It is as if these hypocrites are suggesting that their failure to believe in Jesus is Jesus’ fault! “It’s your fault; if we don’t believe, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself. Come on down and we will bow before you!” (3) Finally, whereas the taunt implies that Jesus could gain a following by coming down from the cross, in reality he can secure a people for himself only by staying on it! Someone once said, “These men would have believed him if he had come down from the cross. We believe in him precisely because he remained there!”
Not knowing that their taunt (v. 43a) was a fulfillment of Psalm 22:8, these men hurl their final blasphemy. Based on their belief that God must honor and deliver his Messiah, they conclude that Jesus’ helplessness is proof that his claims were false and his death was deserved. Of course, God did vindicate and deliver him, but this was not the hour. That glorious confirmation of Christ’s deity and messianic identity awaited the resurrection.
And what was his consistent response? He “continued entrusting himself” to God (1 Peter 2:23). The word “himself” is not in the Greek text. Thus, Peter’s point is that “he handed over to God the whole situation including himself and those abusing him and the hurt done and all the factors that made it a horrendous outrage of injustice that the most innocent man who ever lived should suffer so much. He trusted it all into God’s hands as the one who would settle the matter justly someday” (Piper).
But what exceeded the abuse and mockery and reviling and suffering at the hands of cruel sinners was the enduring of the Father’s wrath against sin on our behalf! As Peter put it, “he bore our sins in his body on the tree,” which is to say he bore the wrath of God that was required because of our sins and he did it by being nailed to a tree, a cross, where he satisfied the demands of divine justice and endured the eternal penalty that our sin merited. Anything less than this, anything other than the clear biblical concept of penal substitutionary atonement, and we forfeit the gospel.
As we bring this series of studies to a close, I encourage you to think deeply on who it was who endured such shocking indignities at the hands of sinful men.
He who is the eternal and infinitely righteous Judge of all mankind is himself brought before the transient and corrupt judgment of men. . . . “And they all condemned him as deserving death” (Mark 14:64).
He who is the very embodiment of Truth itself, the one by whom alone truth is known to be true, is here declared to be a liar. . . . “For many bore false witness against him” (Mark 14:56).
He whose creative design was for men to use their God-given hands in the service of purity and love is now the object and target of their brutal fists and angry blows. . . . “And some began . . . to strike him. . . . And the guards received him with blows” (Mark 14:65).
He who grants breath and speech to all men is now himself the focus of their slander and mockery. . . . “Prophesy!” (Mark 14:65).
He who graciously gives saliva to our mouths must now experience the humiliation of having it spit back in his face in derision and shame. . . . “And some began to spit on him” (Mark 14:65).
He whose knowledge and discernment are perfect and infinite is here taunted and challenged in a child’s game to identify his assailants. . . . “And some began . . . to cover his face . . . saying to him, ‘Prophesy’!” (Mark 14:65).
Jesus once said, “A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). We, then, should not expect any better treatment from the world than our Lord received.
You must make a choice. There is no third way. There is no other alternative. There is no middle ground. Either you believe him and trust him and embrace him as Lord and Savior, or you join with those who mistreat him and mock him, spit in his face, and eventually crucify him.
Finally, why would Jesus submit to this indignity? Why would he allow himself to be so horribly slandered and mistreated and mocked by hell-deserving sinners? The answer is simple: he was motivated by his love for the glory of his Father and by his love for you and me!