Matthew’s Messiah: His Humiliation
It is a rare thing for a preacher to spend much time describing the pains and the privations which Jesus was made to endure in the last hours before His crucifixion. I think this is true for two reasons. The first reason is that the Bible itself spends very little time talking about the physical sufferings of Jesus. It spares us most of the grisly details. But I think it’s also true for a second reason. A preacher knows that a congregation moved emotionally is not necessarily a congregation moved spiritually. There is a vast difference between feeling sorry for someone and committing your life forever to that Someone. So, most preachers do not describe in accurate detail the suffering sacrifice of the Messiah.
But I wonder about that. I’m not arguing about it. I’m just wondering about it. You see, when I stand here in this pulpit, I stand here sworn by the most solemn of vows to speak “the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth, so help me God.” But am I doing that when I do not tell it like it really was? Besides, this is a time when it might do us good to understand what true sacrifice involves. This is a time when we take the cross and make it out of marshmallow and cover it with chocolate and sell it at the convenience store. This is a time when we put a few cents or a few dollars into an offering plate for world hunger and dare to call that sacrificial giving. This is a time when we usher or sing in the choir or teach Sunday school, spending four, five, maybe six hours out of a one-hundred sixty-eight hour week, preparing for and performing those responsibilities and we are moved to think of that as sacrificial service. However, Jesus, in the barracks of the Roman soldiers, gives us a picture of sacrifice that is almost beyond our imagining, and therefore, it just might do us good to look at what true sacrifice really means.
Still, I just cannot bring myself to do it. And so today, I want us to take just a brief glimpse, just to draw back the curtain for a moment or two, trusting that what little we do see will be sufficient, by the power of God, to convict our hearts and to claim our souls. Remember please, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, but He also declared that He would be the Messiah in unexpected ways, and He would save His people through unexpected means. Nowhere do we see that more clearly than in the hours just before the crucifixion. So let’s take a look at what Matthew tells us about the Messiah and His humiliation.
Matthew tells us that the Roman soldiers beat Jesus.
In the account, we are told that Pontius Pilate turned Jesus over to the soldiers. That was standard operating procedure. The Romans had a name for what they did to a man before he was crucified. They called it “preparatio ad crucem”— “the preparation for the cross”. This “preparation” was administered by the soldiers. Normally, it consisted of limited amounts of both ridicule and physical abuse. However, from what we learn in the Gospel stories, what happened to Jesus was much more involved. Matthew tells us that the whole cohort gathered to see what was to be done to Jesus. A cohort in those days numbered 600 men, so it was quite a crowd. Also, the Bible tells us quite specifically, in John’s Gospel, that Jesus was scourged. That was not standard operating procedure. That was much more than limited physical abuse. Jesus’ back was bared. He was chained with both arms around a stone post, leaving Him unable to move, with His back exposed. He was then beaten with a whip which was called “the scorpion”. It had nine lashes, and set into each lash were pellets of lead, jagged pieces of bone, and even shards of glass. Roman scourging meant thirty-nine lashes with “the scorpion”.
You can imagine the result, or can you? It was unspeakably cruel. Many died while being scourged; many others went insane. It was so terrible, in fact, that it was called “half-way death”. No one was ever sentenced to be both scourged and crucified, because so few people ever survived the scourging with body, mind and spirit intact. Jesus was one of the few. That is testimony to His physical strength. Remember please, that Jesus was a carpenter and in those days carpenters were always physically strong—they had to be. They not only worked with large pieces of wood, but also with great blocks of stone. Jesus was used to carrying extremely heavy burdens. It was His great physical strength which enabled Him to survive the scourging, and yet, the scourging was so terrible that just a short while later, He was unable to carry the fifty pound crossbeam which normally He could have hefted quite easily. Yes, it is clear that Jesus was beaten with all of the severity those soldiers could muster. And yet, through it all, the Gospel tells us that Jesus uttered not a single word.
As a minister, I am treated almost every day, to people who want to wave the banner of their sacrifice. They say: “Look at what I am doing for the Kingdom of God.” Or, “You have no idea of the burdens I carry in the name of the Lord.” Or, “I’m so busy with significant activities in my life that I couldn’t possibly squeeze anything else in.” Or, “The problems I’m having at work are a terrible cross to bear.” I hear that kind of thing all the time. But Jesus, the Messiah, in the midst of the most profound sacrifice the world has ever seen, chained to a stone post, under thirty-nine lashes from “the scorpion”, Jesus was silent. Here we are living in a time of superficial sacrifice; a time when people want to be thanked profusely for a sacrifice which has cost them virtually nothing. True, costly sacrifice, however, seeks no reward and no response. I think that that’s why Jesus, that day when the Roman whip lashed against His back, and He took the blows for us, I think that’s why He never uttered a word. True, costly, saving sacrifice! That’s the way of the Messiah.
Then Matthew tells us that the Roman soldiers ridiculed Jesus.
They played a terrible game with Him. That also was standard operating procedure. The Roman soldiers always did this. The game was called “Basileia”, which means “the king”. It was a terrible game, but then, as the poet puts it: “Those were crude and cruel days when human flesh was cheap.” The game was the ancient Roman version of the game we call today “Russian roulette”. In other words, the winner of the game was the loser. Here’s how it was played. Carved into the stone floor of the Roman barracks, were game boards. You can still see the lines carved into the stone floor in Jerusalem even today. They look rather like a child’s hopscotch game. The soldiers would throw dice and move pieces about the board in order to select the winner from among the condemned prisoners. The winner would then be declared “King for a day”. He would be dressed up in royal robes and the soldiers would pay him mock homage for a while. And then the winner, “the king”, would be beaten before being dragged off to the hideous death by crucifixion. “Basileia” was a cruel, savage and inhuman game, and yet we know, without doubt, from these verses in Matthew 27 that this was the game the soldiers played with the Messiah. It was the ultimate form of ridicule. It was meant to be totally dehumanizing.
In the midst of this sadistic game, one of the soldiers had a novel idea. He went over to where there was a pile of dried thorn bushes- in those days they used dried thorn bushes for kindling. The soldier broke off some of the branches, and then carefully, very carefully, because the thorns were long and sharp, he proceeded to plait a crown. And then, in what doctors tell us would have been one of the most excruciatingly painful moments Jesus had to undergo, the soldier took his home-made crown and jammed it down on the Messiah’s head. Basileia—hail to the king! The soldiers laughed their cruel laugh. They had Jesus at their mercy, but they themselves had no mercy.
Have you ever stopped to wonder why it is that of all the things that happened to Jesus in the Roman barracks that day, the thing we remember most often is the crown of thorns? I think I know why this is so. You remember when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, a part of the curse for their sin was the fact that thorns would henceforth infest the ground. From that day until this, the thom has been the stark symbol of the world’s sin. You see it in winter exposed on a bare branch and you turn quickly away. You reach out for some lovely blossom in the summertime, and, concealed by a leaf, the thorn stabs you. It is an appropriate symbol for the sins of the world and Jesus, at this particular moment, was bearing the world’s sin in His life. Do you remember what Isaiah said? “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned, everyone to his own way. And the Lord laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Does it not seem somehow appropriate then that He should be crowned with thorns? I cannot look at that crown of thorns without remembering how much Jesus loves me. In light of that, I ask for my Messiah no other diadem.
Once the Archbishop of Paris was preaching to a great congregation in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. In the course of his sermon, he began to tell the story of three godless teenage boys who one day wandered into the cathedral. Two of the young men made a bet with the third, wagering with him that he would not go to the confessional booth and make a false confession to the priest there. This young high school boy, laughing, accepted the wager. He went to the booth, and fighting to stifle his own laughter, he proceeded to pour out a lurid, bogus confession. Before long the wise old priest began to realize what was happening, so when the young man finished his fun, the priest said to him: “My son, to every confession, there must be an act of penance. Do you see the great crucifix over there? Go to it, kneel down before it, look up into the thorn-crowned face of the One crucified, and then three times I want you to repeat these words: ‘All this You did for me and I don’t care a damn.’” The young man walked out of the confessional booth laughingly telling his friends what had happened, then demanding that they pay off on the bet. The other two said: “No. You have to complete the whole process like the priest said, then we’ll pay off.” So the young man walked over, knelt down, and looked up into the face of suffering, sacrificial love. And then he began: “All this You did for me, and I…” He got no further. Tears flooded his eyes. His heart was torn in half in repentance. Right there, right then, his old life ended and his new life began. Then finishing the sermon, the Archbishop of Paris said: “I was that young man.”
Sometime before this day is out, sometime, maybe even just before you go to sleep tonight, sometime, take time enough to think back across the years to the scene in the Roman barracks. There, see in your mind’s eye, Jesus the Messiah wearing a crown of thorns. And there, hear in your mind’s ear, the sound of the whip called “the scorpion” as it cracks across His back. Seeing Him in your mind’s eye and hearing that in your mind’s ear, then say from your heart, “Jesus, my Messiah, all this You did for me.”