The Brutalization of Jesus
Following the description of Judas' suicide (Mt. 27:1-10) and the trial before Pilate (Mt. 27:11-25), we find a brief, but vivid, portrayal of the brutalization of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. In these few verses are found 8 terse, but poignant, statements descriptive of 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 for himself/herself.
1.He was scourged (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, and was beaten by a number of guards until his flesh hung in bleeding shreds. The instrument indicated by the Marcan text, 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], and men condemned to flagellation frequently collapsed and 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 and consider it sufficient, making it possible for Jesus to avoid death by crucifixion. Or perhaps Pilate hoped Jesus would die from the scourging and thus be spared the horror of crucifixion. Far more likely, however, is that this was an act of calloused cruelty by a sadistic and heartless ruler.
2.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"? See Isa. 1:18. As the soldiers clothed Jesus in a scarlet robe, Jesus clothed himself in the scarlet sins of the world.
3.They put a crown of thorns on his head (v. 29)
The significance of the crown of thorns is seen when we note the symbolic importance of the "crown" 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 and leaves was used that it might caress the brow of him whom it honored. Holders of national office wore crowns as signs of their dignity and respect. Thus the action of the soldiers 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 and sadism.
James Stalker says this of the crown of thorns:
"When Adam and Eve were driven from the garden into the bleak and toilsome world, their doom was that the ground should bring forth to them thorns and thistles. Thorns were the sign of the curse; that is, of their banishment from God's presence and of all the sad and painful consequences following therefrom. And does not the thorn, staring from the naked bough of winter in threatening ugliness, lurking beneath the leaves of flowers of summer to wound the approaching hand, tearing the clothes or the flesh of the traveler who tries to make his way through the thicket, burning in the flesh where it has sunk, fitly stand for that side of life which we associate with sin -- the side of care, fret, pain, disappointment, disease and death? In a word, it symbolizes the curse; and as he lifted it on his own head, he took it off the world. He bore our sins and carried our sorrows.
Why is it that, when we think of the crown of thorns now, it is not only with horror and pity, but with an exultation which cannot be repressed? Because, cruel as was the soldiers' jest, there was a divine fitness in their act; and wisdom was, even through their sin, fulfilling her own intention. There are some persons with faces so handsome that the meanest dress which would excite laughter or disgust if worn by others, looks well on them, and the merest shreds of ornament, stuck on them anyhow, are more attractive than the most elaborate dress of persons less favored by nature. And so about Christ there was something which converted into ornaments even the things flung at him as insults. When they called him the friend of publicans and sinners, though they did it in derision, they were giving him a title for which a hundred generations have loved him; and so, when they put on his head the crown of thorns, they were unconsciously bestowing the noblest wreath that man could weave him. Down through the ages Jesus passes, still wearing the crown of thorns; and his followers and lovers desire for him no other diadem."
4.They placed a reed for a sceptre in his hand (v. 29)
The reed was again an instrument of mockery, for the monarch's sceptre was a symbol of his authority and power. Thus, the point of the robe, the crown, and 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 and sarcastically decked him out as the king he claimed to be, and 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.
5.They kneeled before him and 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 and paying homage parodied what was required of all in the presence of a ruler of Rome.
6.They spat on him (v. 30)
It is inconceivable that it could have happened once, but here in v. 30 we see that it happens yet again: they spit upon him! 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 and respect, but only fit to be the target of vile spitting!" Cf. Ps. 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, and for yourselves meditate upon the fact that he who covers the heavens with blackness, yet did not cover his own face, and he who binds up the universe with the girdle which holds it in one, yet was bound and 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 and 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 and gaze upon Him and 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, and principalities, and 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, and that those cheeks which are 'as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers,' should have been battered and bruised? We shall be quite certain of the fact, and yet we shall never cease to wonder, that his side was gashed, and 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."
7.They beat him on the head with a reed (v. 30)
In mock gesture of his "authority", they took the very reed from his hand and brutally beat him on the head. Why on the head? Undoubtedly in order that with each blow the thorns might dig deeper and more painfully into his scalp.
8.Finally, they re-clothed him and led him away to be crucified (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 would surely 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 betrayal by Judas, the agonies of Gethsemane, 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 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).
"The soldiers also spit upon that face,
Which angels did desire to have the grace,
And prophets once to see, but found no place,
Was ever grief like Thine?"
"They bow their knees to Me, and cry, Hail king;
Whatever scoffs and scornfulness can bring,
I am the floor, the sink, where they'd fling,
Was ever grief like Mine?"
But 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!
"Who defeats my fiercest foes?
Who consoles my saddest woes?
Who revives my fainting heart,
Healing all its hidden smart?
Jesus, crowned with thorns."
We must be careful that we do not commit a similar offense against him. How? By hypocritical professions of love and loyalty. 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."
What shall be our response? I suggest that we weave him yet another crown with our praises, our love, our devotion, our hearts.