A Crown Fit For A King?
In Jerusalem today, they call it “Skull Hill.”
Some say it is the spot where Jesus was crucified, others say not. It doesn’t matter. For if it is not the actual spot where Jesus was put to death, it is very near the spot and it looks alot like what the Bible describes as “Golgotha.” I climbed up that hill one day, past the sunken caverns in the face of the hill which, from a distance, makes it look like a skull, up to the top which overlooks the walls of the old city of Jerusalem. There is nothing beautiful about it. No flowers. No trees. It is a desolate place marked by a handful of Muslem graves, and the acrid smell of exhaust fumes rising from the Jerusalem bus station just below, and a few small, scrubby bushes, hugging close to the ground. As I walked across the hilltop, I chanced to brush up against one of those bushes. I felt an instant stab of pain in my leg, followed by a tiny trickle of blood. When I then looked more closely at the bush, I discovered that its branches were covered with long, pointed, hostile thorns. And I wondered if perhaps it was from bushes like those that the soldiers plucked the branches and plaited them into what we now call “the crown of thorns.”
When we think of the articles which were a part of the crucifixion of Christ, we think of the six inch Roman spikes used to fasten His hands and feet. We think of the sponge soaked in vinegar placed upon His parched lips. We think of the beam, that heavy piece of lumber, which He was made to carry along the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Pain and Sorrow. But the article which is the most frequently overlooked, yet which is the most profoundly significant is the crown of thorns. Today, I’d like for us to focus our attention upon that crown. I’d like for us to look at its mockery, its misery, and its majesty.
First, consider the mockery of the crown of thorns.
Usually, when we think of a crown, we think of that which is to be a symbol of beauty and honor. It is intended to inspire awe and pride. I remember seeing the display of the Crown Jewels of England at the Tower of London. The centerpiece, of course, is the crown of Queen Elizabeth II. It is inlaid with 2,783 diamonds, 277 pearls, 18 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and 5 rubies, and ringed about with the white, shimmering fur of ermine. It is gorgeous. How jarring is the contrast then to consider the crown that Jesus wore—a crown made not of items of beauty, but of instruments of pain. Not only that, but the crown of Jesus was meant to inspire not awe but ridicule.
You see, when Jesus was given the crown of thorns, He was given it to the sound of raucous laughter. To the soldiers it was a great joke. It was all a part of the Roman practice of crucifixion. Today we give a condemned man a hearty meal and we are as kind to him as we can be before we kill him. Not so the Romans. In those days, the persecution of the one to be slain began long before the hour of death.
Once Jesus had been sentenced, He was then hauled off to stand before a battalion of battle-hardened soldiers in what is called “The Praetorium.” He was stripped and whipped until His back was in shreds. Then He became the object of a cruel game played by the soldiers. It was called “Basileia” which means “The King.” It was designed to be a sick and cruel joke. They draped a scarlet robe over His shoulders, stuck a wooden rod in His hands as a mock scepter, and then jammed the crown of thorns upon His brow—all to make Him look like the caricature of a king. Then they pushed Him onto a large game board carved into the stone floor of the Praetorium. You can see it there to this day. It looks rather like a child’s hopscotch game. They would place their bets, throw the dice and move Jesus about the board like a pawn in a chess game. The winner got the money and got the privilege of administering a fearsome beating to the prisoner. The soldiers roared with laughter as they ridiculed Jesus with His blood-red crown.
Of course, people still ridicule Jesus and make a mockery of Him. Movies like “The Last Temptation Of Christ” and “The Life Of Brian” turn the most perfect life ever lived into an object of scorn—and some dare to call it “art.” Talk show hosts like Phil Donohue and Geraldo Rivera openly laugh at Christian concern about the sexual mores of our time. Recent books published describe Jesus as, among other things, a homosexual, a man who was married to a woman of the streets, or a megalomaniac. And I have yet to mention the so-called humor of Andrew Dice Clay and Sam Kinnison who are so profound in their profanity, so obsessed with their obscenity, that one is staggered by what they say. All ridiculing Jesus.
At the end of World War I, the leaders of the Allied powers met to determine how they could deal with the defeated Germans. Our President, Woodrow Wilson (who, by the way, was a Presbyterian elder), pleaded for as much mercy and forgiveness for the German people as possible. The others derided that approach. At one point, the French leader, Clemenceau, sneered at Wilson and said: “You talk like Jesus Christ!” Everyone at the table laughed. Wilson’s ideas were ignored and harsh terms were drawn. Most historians today feel that that meeting sowed the seeds for the Second World War which came a few years later and in which some 46 million people died.
Jesus is still mocked and ridiculed. Jesus still wears His crown of thorns.
Next, consider the misery of the crown of thorns.
Over the years we have softened the cross and all of its horrors. We make it out of marshmallow and cover it with chocolate. We hang it from the rearview mirrors of automobiles. We fashion it from shiny metal and drape it about the necks of little girls. As a result, we have tended to forget the misery of that moment.
I mean, have you ever seen anyone beaten to the point of being unrecognizable? I have. It is a memory which will never leave me. I was in the 7th grade. Leaving school one afternoon with two other boys, we saw an older boy, a 9th grader, jump on another boy, knocking him to the ground. All I remember is seeing that ninth-grader’s fists slam again and again into the face of the boy who had been knocked down. The three of us tried to pull him off. We finally managed to stop him, but not until…well, when I looked at the face of the boy on the ground—his name was Patrick McLarty—I could not even recognize who he was. His face was totally disfigured. It says in the Gospels that the soldiers hit Jesus and there was no one to pull them off. There was no one to grab hold of them and say: “Stop it!” It was as Isaiah, chapter 52, prophesied it would be: “Many people were shocked when they saw Him; He was so disfigured that He hardly looked human.” When people saw Jesus after the soldiers got through with Him, their stomachs turned. He was disfigured beyond recognition. Such misery.
And have you ever been spat upon? I was spit upon only once, but I’ll never forget the feeling of it. Nothing hurts worse than a ball of spit. I would rather be beaten with a fist than to have someone spit on me. And here in the Gospels it says that the soldiers “spat upon Him.” It was the ultimate hurt—my guess is that it hurt a lot worse than the terrible beating.
And have you fully grasped the shame associated with crucifixion? You see, it was designed not just for physical torture, but also for mental and emotional torture. It was intended to be not just a method of terrible punishment, but also an experience of total humiliation. That’s why in Hebrews we read: “Jesus endured the cross, despising the…” What?…”the shame.” That kind of death was reserved only for the most desperate of criminals and the most vile of traitors. It was the most despicable form of dying. It was the basement of human debasement. There is no way to overstate the misery of the moment.
To think that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son even to this obscene horror; so loved the world that in some ultimately indescribable way and at some ultimately immeasurable cost, He gave His Son to that terrible death as an act of love that is both indescribable and immeasurable. The crown of thorns is the symbol of that love.
Now, consider the majesty of the crown of thorns.
There’s more to that crown than just a bunch of thorns designed to create mockery and misery. You see, to those who are Biblically literate, the thorn is the symbol for sin. In the Genesis story, Adam and Eve, after their fall into sin, were driven out of the garden and into a place where they had to deal with thorns. That was the cost of their sin, their rebellion against God. The thorn, that little thing which hides beneath rich foliage or conceals itself beneath beautiful blossoms, and which waits to suddenly sink into flesh with stinging pain, is the Christian symbol for sin. So when Jesus took upon His brow the crown of thorns, He was taking upon Himself all of human evil. The thorn-wearer becomes the sin-bearer.
Matthias Grunewald is regarded as one of history’s greatest painters on the strength of one painting. It is his masterpiece entitled “The Crucifixion.” You will recall that during the Middle Ages, Europe was swept by a succession of plagues. Those plagues sometimes wiped out entire towns and hundreds upon hundreds of people died. Now whenever a person would contract the plague in those days, that person would go immediately to the monasteries and convents of the church.
(By the way, the people who came to the church carrying the plague were called “the infirm”, and the place where they were cared for in the monastery or convent was called “the infirmary”. There they received the simple medications which were available in those days. So the next time you go into a hospital, pause long enough to remember that hospital is the direct descendant of the ministry of the church in the name of Jesus Christ.)
In any case, the plague which devastated Europe in the 16th century was called “the burning sickness”, because it began with boils covering the body, becoming abscessed and gangrenous, leading to a terribly painful death. Now there was a man in the city of Isenheim, Germany who, together with his family, managed to escape the plague. As an act of gratitude to God, he commissioned Matthias Grunewald to paint an altarpiece for his church. Grunewald proceeded to paint what many considered to be the most magnificent and meaningful representation of the crucifixion ever done. As you look at the painting, you discover two things in it which are unique. The first is that the cross is twisted and bent. It is twisted and bent, not because of the weight of the person upon it, but because of the pain of the person upon it. The pain of the Christ contorts the cross. And the second thing you notice is that when you look at the figure of Jesus, He has the plague. He is covered with all of those gangrenous sores. Beneath the crucifix are the words from Isaiah: “Surely He has borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows…” Grunewald is trying to remind us that when the perfect God took upon Himself the fiery pain of a crown of thorns and the convulsing agony of a cross, He took upon Himself all the hurt of a whole world’s sin and suffering.
I am told that mountain climbers have a special kind of rope with which they climb—only one kind of rope is used to secure a climber to the slope and to the other climbers. They differentiate this high quality of robe from any other kind by a scarlet thread which runs through the rope. No one will dare to climb unless they have the rope with the scarlet thread running through it, for to do so would be to court disaster.
There is a scarlet thread running through the Gospel story. That scarlet thread is the blood of Jesus Christ. The message of the Gospel is that you cannot tie yourself to anything else and be secure. Everything else will break. Paul puts it this way: “For our sake, He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” That’s what the crown of thorns really means.
They ridiculed Him—and some ridicule Him still. And they rejected Him—and some reject Him still. Yet he redeemed them—and He redeems still. Today, He moves through the world, thorn-crowned, which is a symbol of our hope for earth and for heaven. And when we see Him, we say:
“March on, King Jesus, with your diadem of thorns. We wish for you no other crown…”